LEIPZIG, East Germany -- East Germans expressed anger, shame and anguish Sunday over brutal police repression of popular, peaceful demonstrations in the Communist state's major cities over the weekend.
Citizens interviewed in East Berlin, Dresden and here in Leipzig vowed they will continue to call for reforms--despite the police truncheons, attack dogs, water cannons and prods used to break up the nonviolent protests during the government's celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany.
In East Berlin late Sunday night, thousands of police cordoned off an area many blocks square around the Gethsemane Church, where East Germans had met at 6 p.m. to conduct the nightly candlelight remembrance of five protesters sentenced to prison terms for demonstrating in Leipzig.
Candles in the Windows
And many residents of the area lit candles in their windows as a sign of solidarity. But the police nevertheless sent reinforcements to the scene and appeared ready to disperse with force the hundreds of young people gathered there.
Some observers even suggested that the police and paramilitary units were waiting to move against the Gethsemane protesters until after midnight--the hour at which the visas expire for the foreign journalists allowed into the country for the anniversary celebration and meetings between East German leader Erich Honecker and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The events of the past few days presaged a calculated police crackdown on dissenters, observers said, no matter how peacefully the protests may have been conducted.
An observer from West Berlin, who traveled through East Germany, put it this way Sunday: "These are protests from people who have been quiet for years and decided to say something in public--because they couldn't take it any longer.
"Ironically, the police are beating up the citizens who want to stay," the observer added, "not those who want to leave" their country for the West, as tens of thousands of their fellow citizens have done in recent weeks.
Other commentators expressed concern that a China-style repression might be in the offing--a reference to events in June when pro-democracy demonstrations were put down in Beijing with the loss of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of lives. Still others compared the East German protest movement to that in Poland in 1980, which led to the formation of the Solidarity independent trade union in that country.
Here in Leipzig, East Germany's second city, the scene outside the Protestant Nikolai Church on Sunday afternoon seemed to crystallize national resentment against the tactics of the police and local militia forces.
Bouquets of flowers were placed under the stain-glass windows and lighted candles served as a vigil of remembrance around the Baroque old church, which has served as a focal point for peaceful protests here.
Witnesses here said Sunday that as many as 20,000 marchers formed on Saturday, before the demonstrations were broken up by stick-wielding security forces accompanied by Alsatian dogs.
Outside the church, waiting for it to open for 5 p.m. services, dozens of Leipzigers gathered, muttering and grumbling about the outcome of Saturday's demonstration, which was designed to be peaceful but ended with police violence.
People here say that at least 2,000 police were involved and that dozens of people were injured and hundreds were apprehended by the police--although most were later released.
As two American reporters questioned people in the church square, others chimed in with a variety of observations and complaints.
"People are scared to go out on the streets," said one man about 30, showing a bandaged hand, where he had been struck by a police club.
'I Had to Run for My Life'
A 17-year-old said that he happened upon the Saturday demonstration and just walked over to see what was going on when he was set upon by police. He said he was beaten, and "I had to run for my life."
During the march toward the central railroad station, people whistled the Communist anthem "Internationale," some people called out "Help us, Gorby," a reference to the Soviet president, and others simply chanted "New Forum," the name of a new organization that has gathered 10,000 signatures of support in just a few weeks after its circulated a manifesto calling for more dialogue between the government and the people of East Germany.
One woman, wearing a Gorbachev button, said, "The East German government is getting like South Africa."
And a young man who had watched the demonstration said he heard a senior police officer expressly order: "Use your knuppel, " the German word for truncheon, and "Drive them out of the square."
A heavy-set man, about 35, said that both his brother and brother-in-law were members of the militia.
'Ashamed for My Family'
"I cried when I saw what they did last night. I am ashamed for my family."
As the people spoke out to the reporters, one pointed to some windows on the side of the square and said: "Look! There are cameras there. The Stasi (secret security police) are filming us."
A blonde woman said she was present with her 9-year-old child in the area of the demonstration.
"They used tear gas and water cannons," she said, "and they were hitting women and children."
And another insisted: "The hard part to accept is that all of us are peaceful. We are the ones who want to stay in the country. Yet they are beating us."
An older man in the crowd said: "Lots of people are leaving the (Communist) party and the youth organizations because of the behavior of the government in cracking down on these peaceful gatherings."
Members Left Orchestra
And someone else said that Communist Party members who play in the famous Leipzig Orchestra have left the party as a gesture of protest.
One person said that the local cabaret in Leipzig has been banned--in Germany, even on the Communist side, the cabaret is the safety valve through which political comment can be expressed, satirically, in nightclubs.
Most people said that cameras were taken away from those who had them, and one young man said his watch was stripped off when he was beaten.
"We are all angry and sad," a young woman said. But when she was asked if she was surprised, she said: "No."
A mother in the square said that her child was told at school not to go into the center of Leipzig on Monday, and someone else said that the same instructions were issued to factory workers.
March to Railroad Station
Monday evening has been a traditional time when the peaceful protesters have gathered at the Nikolai Church, and, after services, marched across a mall to the main railroad station.
It was here three weeks ago that five people, members of New Forum, were arrested and sentenced to terms of four to six months in jail for anti-state activity.
On Sunday in Dresden, the beautiful, Baroque city that was bombed into ruins during World War II and still carries most of the scars, a scientist who is the local coordinator for New Forum said that 10,000 to 15,000 people had marched from the main railroad station to the Town Hall and along various streets on Saturday.
But he said that the pattern in other cities had been followed in Dresden: Police breaking up large formations of people, using clubs and breaking them up into smaller groups, then driving them along side streets.
In his apartment in East Dresden, the scientist said that the people were chanting slogans such as "We're staying here" and "We want reforms."
Different from Earlier Rioting
Officials of the New Forum in Dresden took pains to explain that the weekend protests there were different from the rioting that occurred around the railroad station Tuesday and Wednesday.
The earlier demonstrators had been trying to get aboard trains passing through Dresden, bound either for Prague or returning through Dresden with East German emigrants bound for the west.
"Those others who caused the trouble wanted to get out," a Dresden woman said Sunday. "But we wanted to stay."
The New Forum members said they were seeking to have the government "decriminalize" their organization "so we can operate openly," as one man put it. "Otherwise anything we say can be considered anti-government."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times