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Here's What Happened at the Dueling Protests Over the Mass Sexual Assault in Germany

After more than 100 women were attacked on New Year's Eve in Cologne, the anti-immigrant group Pegida and counter-demonstrators held rival protests.

by Sally Hayden
Jan 9 2016, 11:15pm

Imagen por Sally Hayden/VICE News

It's been just over a week since hundreds of women were robbed, threatened, or sexually assaulted in front of Cologne's towering cathedral, by what has been described as up to 1,000 "drunk and aggressive" men of "North African or Middle Eastern" appearance.

There have been several notable consequences in the days since, including a backlash against refugees and migrants — more than 1 million of whom were welcomed to Germany last year. On Friday, Cologne's police chief was forced to resign. Germany also announced that 22 of the 32 assault suspects were asylum seekers. On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced German law would be toughened to ease the deportation of law-breaking migrants.

Two separate protests took place on Saturday afternoon. The largest was held by Pegida, a year-old German anti-Islam group, which said it was protesting the attacks on New Year's Eve and calling for tighter controls on immigration. Police estimated that 1,700 people were in attendance. A counter-protest with around 1,300 people was held around 100 meters away, including a number of groups that said they were protesting against both the New Year's Eve attacks and Pegida's anti-immigration rhetoric.

Hundreds of police skillfully and sometimes forcefully controlled and maneuvered these groups to ensure that they never met. Searches seemed more thorough on the Pegida side, with access carefully monitored. Police also checked bags and occasionally IDs.

Related: German Police Identify Suspects After Mass Sexual Assault on New Year's Eve

The majority of Pegida protesters were men, though some women and accompanying children were also present. Some held signs with slogans like "Rapeugees not welcome," and "Wir sind das Volk" — "We are the people" — a cry originally used by East Germans when calling for reunification.

Alexander, 21, from Essen, was behind the stage with his father. One of the organizers of the event, he addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker several times. He said that one of the main changes he had noticed over the past year was that people had begun to "talk about the problems with the refugees. Because of the politicians, before we were not able to talk about that." He said he had been called a Nazi and a fascist, but that wouldn't stop him. "We have much to do."

German police line up in front of an anti-fascist rally in Cologne on Saturday. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Alexander also said he was not a racist — his mother emigrated from Macedonia and still doesn't have great mastery of the German language, "[though] she has German roots," he noted.

"The states, they want to take in loads of people and forget their own people. That's criminal, and we have to stop that," he said.

Isabelle Coppt, a 29-year-old graduate student from Frankfurt, told VICE News that she came to support the victims of the New Year's Eve attacks.

"I just came here to support my country, my culture. I don't care where [the attackers] came from, I just came to support the women," she said. "I don't know a lot about Islam, I'm not against it. Everyone can have their own religion obviously, but I don't support countries where women are degraded." She added that mistreatment of women wasn't an issue in "the real German culture."

One of the speakers was Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League. He had a man beside him who translated his words into German. "It is the duty of every man to protect their women," Robinson said. He also criticized the British media for calling the Pegida protesters "far-right."

Related: German Police Chief Removed From Post After Mass Sexual Assaults in Cologne

"There is nothing far-right about supporting rape victims," Robinson said.

Some of the crowd's loudest cheers came after he declared, "This is Deutschland, not Afghanistan," adding, "Islam is the cancer and Pegida is the cure."

On the other side of the police barriers, Lisa Loer, 62, said she had found what happened on New Year's Eve "very troubling." She said the answer was "complicated," but that human rights — both those of women and asylum seekers — had to be respected. "They must learn what it is like to live here and that human rights are very important," Loer said.

"We must find out what happened that night. We don't know," her friend Angelika Hartzheim, 64, added. Many of the people VICE News spoke to expressed concerns that they still didn't have a clear idea of what occurred.

An anti-fascist protester is handcuffed on the streets of Cologne Cathedral after he ripped up another demonstrator's sign. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Jasper Von Bulowkoln, 18, in his final year of school, said, "We should welcome everybody. We've got a strong, powerful economy so we should give something back." He called Pegida "narrow-minded."

His classmate, Anton Birkenstock, 17, said that he believes "a lot can change in a really short time, and if we try hard to integrate people we can change their cultural values too in this regard." He pointed out that Germany outlawed marital rape less than 20 years ago, in 1997.

Several protesters noted that the huge police presence at the dueling rallies was much larger than was present at New Year's Eve, when a leaked internal police report showed officers were overwhelmed. One policeman told VICE News that he wasn't allowed to say how many police were on duty at the protests, but he did confirm there were many more than were in the square on the day the attacks occurred.

Outside the cathedral — and away from the protests — Tongo, a Frenchman from the Champagne region, said proudly that he had traveled alone from France. "Tomorrow this will happen to my wife and to my daughter and to my mother, that's why I come. It's preventative."

'Tomorrow this will happen to my wife and to my daughter and to my mother, that's why I come.'

Holding his rosary beads aloft, Tongo said he believes Muslims have declared war on Europe. "If you declare war I kill you," he said emphatically. "I'm a man who doesn't like rapists."

Later in the day, an altercation occurred close to where Tongo had been standing. An anti-fascist protester attacked another man holding a sign that said he'd had enough of multi-culturalism. The counter-protester ripped the card into several pieces before he was pushed to the ground by police, handcuffed, and taken away. The remnants of poster were left behind on the steps.

"Everybody has free speech," Johann, 62, said, after watching the scene disapprovingly. A small man wearing a green anorak, he argued there are enough refugees in Germany now. "Close the borders, stop them coming," he said. "We have to integrate now." 

Anti-fascist protest from Cologne central station. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

A 61-year-old protester named Brigid held a sign that read "Violence of men against women is worldwide," and listed cities including Berlin, New Delhi, and New York. "I'm furious that this could happen and nobody was there to protect the women," she said, "but I think it's important to say that sexism is all over the world and not especially here. All women experience this all over the world and enough is enough, that's my statement."

While she spoke, a man approached and began to shout at her. "Sie sind so dumb," he said angrily. "You are so dumb."

Brigid shouted back at him: "We are the women, not you."

She said she feels the question of whether to let refugees continue to come to Germany is non-negotiable. "We haven't helped them in their own countries and now they're desperate, otherwise why would they be coming here?"

Related: Germany Is Turning Away Syrian Refugees Once Again

Beside her was Almut, from Cologne, who said she has been working with victims of sexual violence for 20 years, and that she wasn't surprised when she heard about the attacks. She said — through her work as a counselor — she has heard of this happening at Cologne's Karnival, at big concerts, and at most other large events where masses of people meet. On top of this, domestic violence is a massive issue.

"Most of the violence is happening in private, and that's a problem," Almut said. "I think it's a problem generally and not in one place and a special group of men."

She said the latest attacks were being utilized by anti-immigration groups and far right groups, but that she was mainly angry about the media's portrayal of what happened and how reports have focused on the origins of the perpetrators.

A handcuffed Pegida protester is led away by police. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

By 3.30pm local time, Pegida had gone on the move from their original designated place, leaving behind an area littered with cigarette butts, coffee cups, and the occasional empty beer can.

Several people began throwing items at the police and breaking glass bottles. In turn, the police turned water cannons on the crowd in an attempt to disperse them, something one Pegida member said was an "expected provocation."

As darkness fell, the anti-fascist protesters set off on a march away from the cathedral and the main protest sites, while Pegida members were being separated and slowly herded through Cologne's central station by the police. As they passed by, some shop assistants closed their doors.

Throughout the hours of shouting and speeches, one set of voices was missing: Newly arrived migrants and refugees. They weren't hard to find. 

Two girls walk in the square between Cologne Cathedral and central station where the assaults occurred on New Year's Eve. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

A Somali man named Youssef was sitting in the no-man's land between the two rowdy protest groups. He said he's been in Germany for four months after fleeing the brutal war in his homeland. He was drinking his second bottle of beer of the day, alone on the ground with his back against a pillar, ignored by policemen and protesters alike. Several almost stepped on him. He was wearing a lime green t-shirt and leather jacket. He had also just been robbed.

"250 euros," he said, bemoaning a loss that's equal to about $275. That money was supposed to feed him for the next 26 days, until he gets his next payment from the German government. He was now uncertain what to do.

Related: In Photos: What Happens After a Syrian Refugee Makes It to Germany

He asked VICE News why the demonstrators were there, surrounding him, and whether either side was supportive of refugees in Germany. To his right, about 10 meters away, the pro-refugee camp was gathered behind a line of policemen. The cops stood in a row with their feet firmly apart, arms by their sides, batons ready to be brandished at any minute.

"I listen, but I don't understand," he said. He hadn't heard much about the New Year's Eve attacks, but said he didn't think it could be "the Africans" who were responsible. He claimed he's still not allowed to attend school in Germany, before swigging again from his beer bottle. At one stage he pointed to his head, saying he was still having trouble with understanding the local language and with comprehending the behavior of his new countrymen.

"Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here," the crowd bellowed in front of him.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd