From 13. – 16. May, about 5.000 people from Europe and beyond gathered in the Lusatia region to peacefully protest against lignite mining within the frame of the international protest against fossil fuels #BreakFree2016.
The alliance Ende Gelände set up a climate camp to organise acts of civil disobedience against the Swedish energy company Vattenfall, who are planning to sell the mine to new investors. To protest against the continued use of the mines and warn off potential investors, activists occupied several diggers, blocked coal supply rails and broke into the site of the power plant “Schwarze Pumpe”.
Wasn’t that illegal? Well, yeah. It was. But not illegitimate.
All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. – Henry David Thoreau
Today’s governments’ climate policies are in fact unendurable and completely unsatisfactory. Voting isn’t enough. The game is rigged in favour of the companies who make money off a destructive industry, money they then spend on lavish banquets for the very politicians who are supposed to protect the interests of their countries, an interest of each country obviously being that its resources not run out, that its land stay fertile and habitable. That generally, the climate of this planet may remain favourable to human survival.
In 2015, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris negotiated an agreement to limit global warming to less than 2° celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. However, the contract will not become binding until 55 parties who produce over 55% of the world’s greenhouse gases have agreed to it, meaning it’ll probably never come into effect. Participating countries were asked to draft their own goals, but since there is no enforcement, that too seems like a hollow promise. In the final agreement, countries merely agreed to reduce their carbon output “as soon as possible”. Where governments fail, it falls to the people to bring about change and force politics to keep their promises.
As of 2014, Germany is the world’s biggest producer of lignite, reaching a stunning 178.2 Mt per year. The next biggest is the U.S. With 72.1 Mt . Funnily enough, lignite is the one of lowest energy density, but also one of the cheapest to produce. In this case, we can’t afford the cheapest:
The burning of coal makes up almost half of the world’s CO2 emissions . The destruction of the ozone layer and the resulting climate change are already taking effect, and especially third world countries are affected by droughts. Not many people talk about this, but climate change isn’t just polar bears jumping from ice floe to ice floe. It’s also the streams of refugees pouring into Europe.
Now, the great thing about civil disobedience is this: It’s not hurting anyone. You’re just putting your body where your mouth is. And you don’t have to do it alone.
I had long been on the lookout for a way to become more politically active ever since I’d watched Snowden sacrifice his comfortable life in the U.S. for what he believed was right, since I’d read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Aaron Swartz’s afterword on activism. I had been a hopeless cynic for the last eight years of my life, believing, like so many of my fellow students, that the world was a terrible place and that there was simply nothing I, as an individual, could do to change it. But this year, I had what you might call an epiphany. This is the epiphany:
It’s terrible to be a cynic. It’s no fun at all. I decided that ultimately, it didn’t matter if I ever actually changed anything or not. What mattered was that I didn’t want to be a cynic anymore. I didn’t want to live like that.
When I packed my tent and sleeping bag, I didn’t know how I was going to get to Proschim. I had never been in action training. I didn’t have an affinity group. I didn’t know anyone. But I knew that the journey I was embarking on would probably change my life. I arrived at the climate camp in Proschim on Thursday. An old hippie drove me and the group I’d traveled with to the camp in his VW bus that was plastered with stickers calling for nuclear phase-out. I stuck my hand out through the open window and into the spring air.
The streets were lined with posters opposing the protest. “May 2016, stop the violence,” they read. I was aware the protest might be met with mixed reactions from some of the locals: Vattenfall provides jobs for many people living in the region. Others are facing evacuation of their properties in the course of extending the opencast lignite mines. Locals who were supportive of the protest later paid their visits to the camp to bring food or blankets.
Centre of the camp was a large communal area: a circus tent to accommodate presentations and meetings, different info booths on strategy and legal advice, a trampoline for leisure and benches for mealtimes. Everywhere I looked, people who had not seen each other since the last camp flew into each others arms, laughing and sharing stories.
What do activists look like? Well, pretty much like people. There was a high concentration of dreadlocks and harem pants around, but those would later vanish underneath the white Ende Gelände dust suits.
Suddenly, there were more than 4,000 people ready to take action, and more were arriving each day. How did the organisers manage to coordinate this sheer amount of people? By planning 6 months in advance, enlisting a team of legal volunteers and medics, contacting press, police and political parties, and of course, with the contribution of each and every one who took part: there were people taking care of the biodegradable toilets, people giving talks and holding action training sessions, people cutting vegetables, people cooking, people filling straw bags and making visors to protect against batons and tear gas, people offering up spaces in their tents, people baking bread in the back of their van.
What I experienced during those three days of actions was a whole other culture: A sort of tribal, grass-roots democratic system of people working together on whatever needed to be done.
I was told this way of structuring is called Open Space Technology. Meetings were held in small affinity groups that chose a delegate amongst themselves to represent them to the larger plenary meetings. Delegates carried information back to their affinity groups, and their groups’ decisions and questions back to the plenary meetings. Sign language was used to express agreement, technical questions or the need for speaking louder.
People who’d come on their own just went to one of the affinity group formation meetings. Even within the group, what was most important was that everyone decided for themselves whether they wanted to take part in an action. There was ample opportunity to support the cause from within the camp or by supplying the blockades with food, blankets and emotional care, without having to go to the front lines.
I’ve rarely felt this safe in a large group of people. You could be sure that whenever you needed help, there would be someone to assist you, regardless of whether you knew them or not. You could leave your bag lying unattended in one spot and be sure that it would still be there three days later.
In action training, people learned how to flow around and through police lines that might try to prevent them from entering Vattenfall’s premises, how to erect and maintain sitting blockades and got advice on how to proceed in case they were arrested. Around 3.500 people left their ID with the legal team, refusing to give up their identity to the police: Arrested activists could only be held in custody for twelve hours, after which the police would have to let them go. Confronted with a few thousand people at once, they would not be able to take everyone’s fingerprints and pictures in time.
There was a plenary meeting at night to inform everyone about the actions for the next day, asking the groups to decide which one they’d like to participate in.
On Friday, three groups ventured out to block different parts of the coal infrastructure. Armed with dust protection suits and masks, the blue and red finger moved into the mines, while the green finger occupied the rails transporting the coal from the mines to the power plant.
The whole camp was doused in optimism and nervous energy.
“We’re far more people than the police,” Tadzio Müller, one of the organisers said, “I have no doubts we’ll get into the mine.”
The blue finger hiked through the woods for a few hours before arriving at the mine, chanting and singing. The diggers and machines had been shut off in advance and Tadzio had been right, there was hardly any police – after being completely out of their depth the year before, they knew they’d not be able to stop the activists from entering the mines. They had also declared they were not Vattenfall’s personal security.
Near the mines, the forest suddenly broke off, an image reminiscent of the Fangorn forest destroyed by Saruman in Lord of the Rings. The group had to climb one last hill of sand before the mines emerged. It was Mordor. Or a Mad-Max-esque post-apocalyptic wasteland. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but dust and coal and the jaw of the earth gaping open to reveal the diggers down in the pit.
Activists proceeded to climb the diggers to hang banners. A press drone was zooming through the air, taking photos of the people in white dust suits spilling into the valley and above it all, a police chopper circled its rounds into the evening hours. The protesters kept to the action agreement of peaceful protest, refraining from causing damage to the infrastructure of the mines, and the mines refrained from causing damage to the activists – other than getting a little wet from the rain, and burnt from the sun, everyone was fine.
While some people decided to occupy the diggers over night, the rest returned to camp to join the following actions on Saturday.
The next day, people at the camp divided to relieve the ones who’d stayed on the diggers and to join the ones already on the rails. There were activists of LAUtonomia and Robin Wood who had chained themselves to the rails, three of them in a concrete pyramid developed by the castor transport protest movement. On Sunday morning, it turned out two of them were blocking a paper factory instead of the coal plant by accident – maybe not as funny when you’re the one chained to the tracks, but they were still able to laugh about it.
A choir and orchestra had come to the rails to boost morale. Additionally, the organisational team had arranged for a legal picket to be erected just at the bottom of the bridge, making it easy to get supplies, food, transport back to the camp and even two toilets.
Then, after lunch, some more questionable things happened. There had been no police contact until that point, and it was rumoured the organisers never thought they’d actually come this far without police interference. In the distance, the funnels of the power plant now cut off from the coal supply were still smoking. People started dreaming. What if someone went in there? Would they be able to shut it all down? Reports were coming in from scouts who had been to the plant and claimed it would be easy to get into, that the police was occupied with a football game and that people had to hurry before they came back. Plenary meetings were rushed. Questions were ignored. Doubts were washed away by the euphoria of the hive mind. Suddenly, there were about 400 people gathered down in the street, ready to march into the power plant. They didn’t have a megaphone. They didn’t have a plan. But they marched.
The scouts were right – it was easy to get into the plant. Too easy, almost. People climbed over the entrance gate, others tore down the fence to the right of it and flooded onto the compound. Once inside, people hit every fire alarm they could find, in an attempt to get the plant to shut down, but were they actually making a difference? How does one shut down a power plant?
There were calls to hold a plenary meeting right there, but they got lost in the confusion of the crowd, and then the first of the police arrived. A few people tried to alert the others, to make them keep together, but their calls didn’t carry, and then, when people realised they weren’t alone any longer, it had the opposite effect – people surged back to the fence, trying to flee. The rest followed. That’s the dynamic of the herd: once the first people start running, nobody wants to be left behind. The measly number of maybe twenty policemen managed to drive them back to the fence, like a couple of dogs herding the clueless sheep that were bleating out for their affinity groups.
People climbed back over the fence. Two people lay on the ground, bleeding, attended to by the medics. The police just watched people climb, and for a moment it seemed like that was it, that they’d let everyone leave the same way they had come. That’s until the reinforcements came in.
There were far more than twenty policemen and women now, quickly forming a line to prevent the protesters from leaving. They were trying to form a kettle. “Use the gap! Use the gap!” people were shouting and starting to run, wrestling with the police left and right. Everybody was calling out different names. Most of them made it out.
“We can’t just fucking leave them in there!” someone raged. There were still people in the kettle.
“This isn’t solidarity!”
The 300 people who got out kept moving on, more and more police cars arrived. They started chasing the protesters. A police car sped into a girl running on the street. The chopper was up in the air again, observing as people fought through the fields of corn stalks and back to the railway bridge. More people trickled back to the bridge.
Retrospectively, it seems obvious that the only sane course of action would have been to sit down inside the plant, to erect a blockade of 400 people, rendering the police completely powerless. Nobody would have been left behind. If people had just sat down, maybe nobody would have been hurt. But they hadn’t had a plan, and you’re always smarter in retrospect.
Night fell. Some people wanted to return to the camp and their tents. I don’t know if you’ve ever camped out on a railway bridge, but they’re not exactly sheltered places, so it wasn’t just getting cold. It was getting really cold. Polar bear jumping from ice floe to ice floe cold. There were supposed to be shuttle buses to the camp, but they couldn’t get through. The reason? A group of counter-demonstrants and Nazis were gathering at the bottom of the bridge, attacking the picket and blocking camp logistics. A car of the taz newspaper was pushed off the street. An activist’s van was assaulted with stones and baseball bats. Someone who knew the driver told me that the attackers, upon seeing him through the window, had shouted: “Fucking immigrants. Go take care of your own climate.”
The police kindly asked the group to stay clear of the area around the bridge, but they refused, threw fireworks and chanted insults. The mood on the bridge was tense. People were worried for the lock-ons sitting ducks on the other side of the tracks, completely defenceless and unable to move, but they seemed to stay hidden.
A woman from the legal team later told me that they’d called the police to inform them of the lock-ons and asked them for protection, to which the chief of police replied it was not his duty to protect criminals.
It was hard, at times, to remind myself of the fact that the police are a heterogeneous group of people. Someone had said that the year before, as he got arrested, he’d been able to explain to them that it wasn’t personal, that he was just doing his job as an activist and they were doing theirs. But were they doing their job? And were they doing their job well?
What does it feel like as a policeman or woman to have a horde of 400 people running at you? What does it feel like to watch colleagues you’ve spent years with, you’ve joked with and had lunch with, pull out their batons and hit someone in the face? What goes through someone’s head when they decide the executive and legislative are basically the same thing, that some people are worthy of protection and others aren’t?
Why did most people, from the organisers to delegates refer to the cops as “Die Bullen” instead of simply “the police”? Didn’t that already paint them as “the enemy” in the run up to the actions?
Mistakes were made on both sides. Still, it was the police’s duty to help, whether they liked it or not. All the activists could do was to keep out of sight of the Nazis. It was some time after two before they left. All that remained was the cold, the silence and the occasional beeping of a walkie-talkie of the people keeping watch.
The blockade of the rails was cleared by the police at three in the afternoon on Sunday. The people who’d been occupying the diggers and those who’d been arrested and kept in custody in Cottbus trickled back to the camp, where one last plenary was held. I cried. People were okay. People were celebrating.
There had been negatives, there’d been incidents of people gravelling on the train tracks – violating the action agreement – and causing a coal train to derail two days later. One lock-on activist had been sentenced to a month in investigative custody. There had been the chaos in the power plant. There had been assaults by Nazis on the fringes of the camp. But there had also been hope, and solidarity, and understanding. More often than not, I talked to people who were able to view the actions in a critical light, who organised a debriefing to figure out what had gone wrong at the plant, who empathised with the police, who understood the worries of the miners.
Ultimately, Ende Gelände managed to block coal infrastructure in six locations for more than 48 hours, got the plant to run only 20% of its usual power, and showed the industry that there is one more investment risk to reckon with: the people fighting against climate change. There are no jobs on a dead planet, and however different our political situations may be, the issue of climate change is globally relevant. It should bring us together.
Seeing how it did? It gave a cynic hope.
“Hope is why you tread water if your ship sinks in the open sea: Not because you have any real chance of being picked up, but because everyone who was picked up kicked until the rescue came.”
– Cory Doctorow
Charlotte was listening to Helden by Moop Mama