"Letzte Generation" (Last Generation) activists block a road under the slogan "Let's stop the fossil madness!" for an end to fossil fuels and against oil drilling in the North Sea, in Berlin, Germany, July 6, 2022. REUTERS/Christian Mang

1858 is considered the year of the “Great Stink”, when London, the largest city in the world at the time, smelled so terribly that politicians decided: A sewage system was needed. The Thames had become a sewer. What the fossil fuel-fired road traffic is causing in today’s megacities can also be considered a big stench, yes, a lot of dirt. The difference: people don’t stink. At least not enough. Why it deserves sympathy when climate protectors of the “last generation” sit on the road. Automobility, the progress fetish of the past decades, is increasingly becoming a bad habit under the current conditions.

Nevertheless, this protest cannot be justified. The district court in Tiergarten has now sentenced a young man from the “last generation” to 60 hours of free time work. The relevant offense is Section 240 of the Criminal Code, coercion. It is forbidden to use force to force people to do something they do not want. In this case: having to stop in traffic.

In the face of protest blockades, this fact was fought for a long time in the demo republic of Germany. Can sitting be a criminal sin? No, said the Federal Constitutional Court, because simply blocking seats is psychological coercion, but not violence. Yes, said the Federal Court of Justice, because in any case the seat protest in road traffic forces people to stop and the cars that stop become a physical blockade that the seat blocker has at their disposal. So violence.

The Constitutional Court expressly accepted this so-called second-tier case law. With good reason, because what is going on looks like coercion, has the effects of coercion, and is intended to be coercion. Only successful coercion – traffic jams plus police operations plus media reports – produces what the “last generation” wants: attention.

Nevertheless, the basic rights apply. Above all, Article 8 of the Basic Law, freedom of assembly. You are also protected if a protest has not been registered or is even illegal, as is the case here. The fundamental right requires that the relationship between the content of the protest and its external form be related. A busy highway is not the wrong place to call for attention to man-made climate change. The courts must weigh up the point at which a legitimate sit-in protest turns into a criminal blockade.

The boundaries are as fluid as superglue when it comes out of the tube. But then it gets harder and harder. And that is the problem of self-fixation, it also fixes the criminal assessment. Acquittals should therefore be rather rare. The convicts should accept this bravely. If you stick, you stick – also a strong symbol.