Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Brussels on Sunday to march against vaccines and coronavirus restrictions as Europe remains gripped by a resurgence of COVID-19 infections and national authorities fear demonstrators are becoming more radical.
Police said some 8,000 took part, a sharp decline from the 35,000 estimated at in a similar protest two weeks ago.
Groups of protesters clashed with police as the cortege reached its destination in the Cinquantenaire Park, near the neighborhood housing European Union institutions. Police officers used water cannons against projectile-throwing protesters.
“A group sought confrontation with a police roadblock … tear gas and water cannons were used,” police spokesperson Ilse Van de Keere said. Officers called on the crowds to disperse at that point, she added.
Police also announced on Twitter that they would start arresting “troublemakers.”
Belgium’s government last Friday tightened sanitary measures against the pandemic, in a bid to contain the surge in cases overwhelming the country’s hospitals once again and landing Belgium among the worst-hit countries in the EU. The latest measures include making mask-wearing mandatory for children over the age of 6, and closing kindergartens and primary schools from December 20.
Several protesters, including some accompanied by children, carried placards with slogans such as “our children will not be your guinea pigs.”
Violence also flared at the November 21 protest, which had likewise followed the announcement of stricter measures. After that event, Belgium’s counter-terrorism agency (OCAD) reportedly warned of radicalization as different movements joined forces for the first time to oppose the government’s anti-pandemic measures in a “heated up and polarized” climate.
“Hate speech towards policymakers, the media and virologists seems to be becoming more and more socially acceptable,” the agency cautioned, according to the daily De Standaard.
Largely organized via social media, Sunday’s demonstration was billed as the second “nationwide march for freedom.”
Demonstrators held placards reading “vaccines don’t make you free,” and “stop the dictatorship.” They chanted “freedom” and “COVID Safety Pass, no thanks!” referring to the government’s digital certificate needed for entry into restaurants and pubs or large events.
Many denounced the “corrupt media” and called for the government of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to resign, with some targeting Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke in particular.
“I can no longer recognize the society that we are living in,” said one participant, who declined to identify herself. “I have never seen the government track down healthy people.”
Demonstrators also signaled wider distrust of authorities, with signs linking the sanitary measures and use of digital tools such as QR codes to a weakening of civil liberties.
Similar protests were held this weekend in other European cities. Over 40,000 protesters were reported marching in the Austrian capital of Vienna, while thousands more protested in the Dutch city of Utrecht.