Far-right thugs attacked journalists and police officers at an anti-lockdown rally in Vienna Sunday, as 10,000 marchers turned out despite a police ban.
While Austria has previously seen rallies against coronavirus lockdowns, this was the first to be officially organised by a far-right group, the Freedom Party. Police had banned the protest due to the risk of virus transmission, but thousands of protesters – including neo-Nazis, football hooligans and Identitarians – still turned up for an unofficial “walk” in the centre of the Austrian capital on Sunday afternoon.
The mood swiftly became aggressive, resulting in a number of attacks on police and journalists. Freelance journalist Michael Bonvalot told VICE World News he knew of five journalists who came under attack, while police said four officers were injured and ten marchers were arrested.
“This mission was anything but a walk in the park for the police,” said Interior Minister Karl Nehammer.
Bonvalot, a Vienna-based freelance journalist, was chased by a group of about ten right-wing extremists in balaclavas, who ran at him with their fists up before throwing a colleague to the ground. He believes he only narrowly avoided being assaulted himself when his pursuers noticed his camera pointed at them, and a group of left-wing activists came to his aid.
“The way in which journalists were attacked at this demonstration was unlike anything that’s been seen before in Austria,” he said, adding that a number of his colleagues were pepper sprayed by far-right marchers.
“This is really a new level of danger going on.”
Barbara Teiber, chairwoman of the GPA union – which represents journalists – denounced the attacks, which also saw reporters spat at and camera equipment damaged, and called for greater protection from police.
“The free press must be able to go about its work at all times,” she said in a statement Monday. “If riots against journalists are to be expected during demonstrations, then the police need a protection strategy.”
The march – which mirrored the unruly, far-right infused anti-lockdown protest movement that has roiled neighbouring Germany – sparked outrage in Austria.
Bonvalot said the scale, aggression and brazenness of the far-right mobilisation was unprecedented, and that the marchers were clearly emboldened by the fact police allowed the protest to proceed despite the ban.
The protesters ran the gamut of the Austrian far-right scene, with Freedom Party politicians present, along with known neo-Nazis, Identitarians, football hooligans and conspiracy theorists, he said.
“It’s totally new and unique. We’ve never seen a mobilisation in those numbers, especially for a march forbidden by police,” he said. “We can say this is the official fusion of right-wing extremism and corona in Austria.”
Karl Mahrer, security spokesman for the ruling Austrian People’s Party, called on three Freedom Party MPs to resign over their support for the rally.
He said the trio of Christan Hafenecker, Dagmar Belakowitsch and Petra Steger, who had posed for a group photo at the rally without masks or observing social distancing, were coronavirus deniers who were enabling the right-wing extremist scene. “Your resignation is the only logical consequence,” he said.
The unrest in Vienna took place as other European capitals were rocked by large anti-lockdown demonstrations Sunday. In Brussels, nearly 500 people were arrested as police broke up unauthorised anti-lockdown protests, with groups of the anti-establishment Yellow Vest movement and large groups of football supporters in attendance.
In Budapest, police broke up a demonstration led by Hungary’s ailing hospitality sector, calling for restaurants to open up in a civil disobedience campaign against lockdown restrictions.
In the Netherlands, police arrested dozens of people in Amsterdam, just days after successive nights of rioting over a newly introduced 9PM to 4:30AM curfew. Police have described the recent unrest, which has spread to cities and towns across the Netherlands, as the worst in the country in four decades.