“I’ve been to jail a couple of times, and it’s not great fun, but it’s not the end of the world. The end of the world is the end of the world." Bill McKibben
I’m not sure how the news gets to us, but at some point we learn the mine has been completely shut down. A cheer echoes up from the pit. We’ve done it. We’ve just put a halt to one of Europe’s biggest sources of CO2 emissions. The machines which normally carve brown coal from the earth 24 hours a day have gone silent and RWE, the EU’s most carbon intensive energy conglomerate, is loosing phenomenal amounts of money. For a brief moment in history, there is peace in the enormous hole of Garzweiler.
The rush of victory fades into the passing hours of the day and as we pop up umbrellas against the sun, we realise it’s going to be a long one. Nearly 1,000 of us have made it into the mine and one finger has managed to occupy a digger, so now it’s just a question of how long it will take the police to remove this many kettled, non-cooperative people. That we’ve become a total logistical nightmare is a very cheering thought, but there are some difficult decisions we now need to make.
Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Before the action there had been much debate about whether we would to identify ourselves when arrested. If we do, we will likely be set free and face court and a several thousand Euro fine. If we withhold our identity, though, the police can fingerprint and photograph us, then detain us for up to 12 hours while they try and work out who we are.
We are in effect faced with a form of prisoners’ dilemma: if the majority identify, staying anonymous becomes risky. But if the police are faced with 1,000 people recalcitrant people… well, there’s a good chance they will release us without identification, and without charge.
Making decisions on this scale isn’t easy, and what I see in the mine is eye opening. It’s something like the lost dream of democracy. In our kettle, a central council is convened of representatives from each of the small ‘affinity groups’ that have comprised the finger. The issue of identification is discussed in council, then the spokespeople take the discussion back to their affinity group for consideration. Then, once every voice is heard, council is reconvened to decide on the collective action. It’s effective and democratic and goes back and forth as many times is needed, but what surprises me most is the dynamic of conversation. No-one interrupts, everyone listens, and everyone’s opinion is respected.
Through council I learn that most of the people in our kettle are planning to remain anonymous, but my affinity group and I have all brought passports into the mine and are planning to identify. Although this reduces the efficacy of the anonymous collective, I detect no ill will or adverse judgement. Repeatedly, it’s made clear that everyone has come into this mine on their own terms, and everyone’s decision is respected. I feel infinitely humbled.
My reasons for identifying are myriad, but there are two main ones. The first is startling in its banality, but I’m looking after my daughter on Tuesday and I can’t afford time in custody. “Sorry darling, but Daddy’s not here because he’s in prison” is not something I want to try explain to my three year old. But it’s the second reason that I’ve really struggled with.
Last night, sleepless in my tent beneath the stars, I spent a long time wondering what I was doing at Ende Gelände. What was the point? Was it rash and foolish, putting my family time and coffers on the line? What did I hope to achieve? The answer, seen through the odd acuity that can sometimes attend hyper-exhaustion, was that I was curious about how far I was prepared to act from my conscience. As a concerned but ultimately selfish product of my society, how much could I break free of my comfortable western mould?
It turns out that the answer is: this far, and further. Far enough to be sporting one helluva truncheon bruise, and further, on to court. Because I believe that barging into a lignite mine to raise awareness about climate change is an entirely worthwhile way to spend a weekend, and I want to own my part in that. And if there’s any chance that the prosecution of a normally normal chap will help take the story further, then that’s worth taking a punt on too.
Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
As the hours pass and the sun reignites our pepper burns, the police bring a photographer to the pit and begin to process us. Those willing to identify get seen first and are transferred to a separate, smaller kettle some way off. I watch my affinity group head over, one by one, and feel desperately torn. I’ve already planned to identify, but now I stand here with the anonymous and feel a deep pull towards the consensus. I want to be a part of this protest for as long as I can.
Stood there deliberating, I talk with a German guy who has brought his ID into the mine and who, like me, is now considering trying to stay anonymous. “Either way,” he says, “I don’t think it will be a problem if we identify. I don’t think RWE will press charges because they’ve had so much bad press in Germany recently and their share price is plummeting partly because people are divesting from coal. They would be mindful of the bad publicity if they took us to court.”
Shortly after, the police confirm they will release the identified protesters and suggest again that we should cooperate. When no-one comes forward, they take someone else for processing, then another. My German friend is taken and I watch as they search his bag for the ID I know he’s carrying. And then a policeman asks our kettle again: “Any more with their passport? Does anyone have their passport?” And I’m standing there as he approaches and looks at me: “You. Do you have your passport?” and I say yes, because I do. All of a sudden the deliberation is over. My decision is made.
I’m led away from my kettled companions just as the rest of my affinity group is led out of the mine to their freedom. At least I’ll be out of here soon, I reason. But inside, I’m all torn up. My indecision has first separated me from my affinity group, and now I walk away from the protective companionship of my anonymous friends. Alone and under arrest, I can feel quite how crucial the collective is.
The identification unit has been set up in the back of an RWE pickup and I’m made to stand alongside it for photographing. A policewoman takes my passport and fills in a form with its details. Meanwhile, I’m trying to connect with the human being in the black uniform who’s searching my bag. “What’s that smell?” he asks, pulling out a sweaty plastic bag and holding it at arms length. “Last night’s dinner,” I say. I’d brought some leftovers along which, after a day in the sun, stink. “You’re welcome to it, if you’re hungry.” I say. “You guys haven’t eaten all day.” He looks at me and laughs and says something uncomplimentary about dogs before putting the dinner on the pickup. “Any weapons? Anything dangerous in here?” It’s my turn to laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding. This is a non-violent protest.” “What’s this then?” he says, holding out my penknife.
What the hell is that doing there? Suddenly I realise that in an exhausted haze I changed bags this morning to carry extra water, and I completely missed the penknife in the lid pocket. Such a stupid, idiotic mistake. An absurd image comes to mind – me, stood before a line of riot police, waving my not-very-fearsome two inch blade – but I doubt German courts are known for their humour. They’ll see that I took a weapon to a direct action, and I doubt they’ll believe it was a mistake.
The policeman doesn’t make too big a deal of it though, so I’m quickly processed, my arms are cuffed behind my back with thick, industrial clip ties and I’m made to sit on my own in the sand. I have a single, severe looking police woman guarding me. My first thought is that the cuffs aren’t too bad, but after a few minutes of trying to get comfortable in the dirt, I realise how quickly they become painful. And most people here have had them on for hours.
Photo: Ende Geleande, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Eventually, lying prostrate with this stern woman standing over me, I make an effort at connection and ask her if she’s local. Negative. She answers formally and then turns her gaze away. The silence of the pit takes over. A police helicopter clatters above. I see a small fly in the sand – the only sign of life here except for us. Time passes. The cuffs cut into my wrists. The sun comes out again. But since nothing is normal about today, and since I’ve nothing to loose by talking, I try again: “What do you think about what we’re doing here?” I ask, because I’m curious. She looks down and sees my question is genuine. And then, perhaps because the day is long and because she too is feeling the weight of so much idle time and coal and sand and the sheer, lonely lifelessness of this place, she begins to talk.
“I know what you are doing here, but it’s pointless and wrong. It’s not going to make any difference. You know that tomorrow the mine will be working as normal?” I tell her I do. “Then what is the point? Why did you have to come into the mine like this? Do you know how expensive it is, all these police and helicopters? You have cost the government lots of money that could be spent on better things. For what? To make a point?” She shifts her feet in the sand and looks at me directly. “It is wrong.”
I explain that I feel powerless in the face of business as usual and climate change. I tell her how I feel watching round after round of high level negotiations that do nothing but pay lip service to change. “What should I do?” I ask her. “I feel like I’m one of millions who aren’t being listened to. I don’t know what I have to do these days to get myself heard.”
“You should do what is allowed within the law. You live in a democracy and you could write to your MP, or you could join a political party that represents your views. I pay more for my electricity so that it comes from renewables – that is one way. Or you could have joined the legal protest.
“I love nature too, you know. I love mountains and going walking in the forests with my family. Nature is very important. It is… how do you say in English… we rely on it, we are part of it. We need the environment to be healthy, and the air clean. But you do not protect nature by breaking the law. It is not the right way.”
I tell her that most of the time I am a regular, law abiding citizen. I do all the conventional things – I sign petitions, I write to my MP, I buy green electricity. But it doesn’t feel like enough any more. It doesn’t feel commensurate with the size of the problem.
“I have friends in Asia who are subsistence farmers,” I tell her. “They and go hungry when their crops fail, and that’s happening more regularly with extreme weather. I have a very dear friend in the Himalayas who keeps asking me why the glaciers are melting? I know people who have lost their entire families to flash floods, their children to landslides. I see climate change killing people and displacing populations and I guess I feel that in the face of that, shutting down a lignite mine for a day is nothing. What would you do if you saw your friends were suffering?”
She looks at me severely, but at least she’s taking me seriously. “Even if you are right, you are still breaking the law, and when you live in society it is very important to respect the law. A society creates rules and we must obey the rules, even if we don’t agree with them, because the rules keep everything working. If we don’t obey the rules society breaks down. There’s a social contract and you have broken that and that is wrong.”
“Even when that contract is distorted by pressure groups and lobbyists?”
“Even then. You can work to change the law, but you have to keep the social contract. What you are all doing here is not acceptable.”
Here in the otherworldly landscape of the mine we stand opposed on the scales of justice, but it’s clear that we’re united in our respect for life. The conversation is over, but we’re thinking now, both engaged in the uncomfortable process of growth that comes from incorporating another’s view.
But in our conversation I see the reflection of something far wider, and it raises a question I think history will judge us on, which is this: As the planet toasted and species after species went extinct, did we bring together vast numbers of people to act effectively from a deeper level of agreement? Or did we splinter with our surface differences into ineffective, niche concerns?
And this is why what she says disturbs me, because in her I see an example of how direct action can be divisive. Radical action, particularly if it’s illegal, risks marginalising the cause. For that risk to be worth taking there has to be the chance of sparking a wider conversation, a creative conversation that is sensitive and respectful and seeks the common ground from which great numbers can act. Because while there’s no question that shutting down a mine is an extreme act, it’s hardly the only response to climate change. There are millions of concerned people out there, and a million different ways to act for change. Everyone is invited. We do need something more ambitious than a mass switch to green electricity, but change has to start somewhere… and then progress.
Photo: Ende Geleande, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Eventually, as more anonymous people are processed into a new kettle, I am relieved of my solitude and re-join the new group. It turns out that because of the knife, I’m going to be detained and processed with the others.
The police woman has kindly removed my cuffs and I am again able to help when it begins to rain, putting coats on those still bound, rolling cigarettes, passing food around. The hours roll on, the rain comes and goes and to counter the growing sense of boredom, people look for diversion. There’s great creativity here. Someone juggles rocks, someone starts hands-bound-behind-back yoga, some read, others invent revolutionary quizzes. But best is when a ball appears and a game of volleyball starts between us and another kettle with a line of police as the net. Predictably, they’re not impressed and soon confiscate the ball, but a game of charades breaks out. Made funnier for most people having their hands bound, the police are faced with a contorting, gesticulating mass acting out obscure books and radical plays to the cheering crowd standing behind them. The atmosphere is peacefully resistant, and brilliant. I feel surrounded by amazing, inspiring people.
News begins to trickle in from the outside world, too. We receive updates on the other fingers who have been processed and released, but there’s no clear pattern offering clues as to our own likely fate. And then we find the action making mainstream German news, on the internet and in the papers. There’s a five minute piece on Germany’s major TV news channel with dramatic footage of the yellow finger being blasted by helicopter down-draft. We see people sat on a digger. The sudden injection of context into our restricted world is heady and liberating, and it’s looking like the answer to the big question I still dare not think about – is this worth it? – might be positive after all.
Eventually, a series of prison vans make their way through the sand and begin to move us in small groups of five or ten. The police just aren’t equipped for such a mass arrest, which explains why it’s taken all day to get around to shifting us from the pit. Collectively, we’ve been an incredible headache for the police today.
I’d never expected to feel such a sense of relief on being locked up in a prison van, but to finally be on our way to jail feels great. It’s the change from stationary incarceration, and we peer through the meatwagon’s tiny, reinforced glass windows at the awesome size of the diggers and the mine. And then we are on tarmac again, curling up out of the earth, back into a world of power stations and wind turbines, back into the land of the living with trees and bushes and birds. And there, parked at the conventional entrance to the mine, is a line of municipal buses full of other fingers. We are transferred to join the hundreds locked up in public transport, chatting, sharing stories, inspiration, motivations, our collective exhaustion cut through with moments of connection that will stay with many of us for life. It’s an incredibly bonding experience, mass arrest.
Eventually, after a an interminable hour or more, we pull away and become a motorway cavalcade of red buses and blue flashing lights. It’s started raining and dusk has descended, and we haven’t a clue where we’re being taken.
Our destination turns out to be a large police station 50 kilometres away in the city of Aachen. We pull in, the engine’s switched off and we are once again set to waiting without knowing. Most of us are shattered and I see the first sense of antagonism from our side of the entire protest, mainly because we’ve now been kept more than the legal 12 hour limit and our rights to toilets, food and water haven’t been met. We point out the police are now breaking the law only to be told that our arrest happened later than it actually did. According to them, our 12 hours aren’t yet up. That we have tweets to prove it is entirely inconsequential. It’s been a long day, the police are bored and pissed off with us, and this is our punishment.
The buses are processed slowly, one by one. The hours drag endlessly into the night and although we all have our moments of frustration, I’m still staggered by how patient people are, how committed we are to the spirit of non-violence. But then all of a sudden the engines start and the bus lurches forward and the news comes that we’re being taken to the train station and set free. The police have finally had enough. They’re not even going to try and identify us. The bus erupts in ecstatic jubilation, cheering and singing; the exhaustion and fear and apprehension is banished as in a dream and replaced with heady, giddy victory. It’s hard to believe.
When the doors open we pour out onto the streets of an unsuspecting Aachen like a giant, dizzy beast. I’ve never felt anything like it: football crowds have nothing on this. We’re all whooping like mad, leaping spontaneously, punching the air, drunk on potent freedom. No-one can quite comprehend our success. We’ve won. We’ve completely, comprehensively won. We’ve succeeded in one of the biggest environmental direct actions in European history, and now here we are, all completely free.
On the platform we meet other released fingers and there are endless hugs and thrilled reunions as we jump on trains back towards the camp. Everywhere we are met with incredulous looks and people step up to ask what this is, this great rag-tag party of exhausted, exhilarated, celebrating people? And when we explain Ende Gelände, we’re greeted over and again with handshakes and congratulations.
And for me, this is what really seals it: this meeting with approval from normal passers by. For the past 24 hours I have been a vagrant from my regular life, experimenting with a role both unfamiliar and terrifying, never quite knowing if what I was doing was worthwhile, or some stupid, reckless stunt. But now, on the streets of Aachen and across the papers, TV and the internet, Ende Gelände is being met with approval and respect.
The value is not so much the personal vindication, but what the response represents: thousands of normal, everyday people who share our concerns for the planet. If every one of those people feels inspired to do something, to get active and get involved in even some small way, then I would rush back into the pepper spray and batons ten thousands times over. It would be worth it. Because what I’ve learned in this hellish hole in the earth is that amazing things are possible when we come together. And so I sit there on the midnight train surrounded by revelry, sharing a beer and an intense philosophical conversation with someone I’ve never met before, and wildly, madly, foolishly, I get to thinking that perhaps there’s some hope for this crazy species of ours yet.
Photo: Ruben Neugebauer, 350.org, cropped from original. Licensed: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Time goes weird and space gets warped inside the mine, and into my hallucinatory world I only dimly recognise the distant RWE mine jeeps as a threat. I’m still holding onto my belief that the police have left us to the mine workers, but then as the jeeps pull closer and clamour to a halt in a cloud of orange dust, as the doors open and black figures jump out, it dawns on me slowly, thickly, stupidly, that the violence is about to start all over again.
The calls go out: “TIGHTEN UP! COME CLOSE! COME TOGETHER!” And we do, forming a dense crowd, holding arms together, still walking quickly towards the police who are putting on their helmets and drawing their batons and unholstering those burning cans of pepper spray. And as their faces disappear behind visors, they loose the last vestiges of their humanity. We are marching towards a squadron of machines.
“RUN! HEAD RIGHT! HEAD RIGHT!” We begin to run as a mass and the police begin to run too, running to intercept us as we seek the freedom of a diminishing gap between them and the wall of the mine. In moments we are split and all running all over again, all running at whatever direction looks safe at whatever speed we can manage. I am still packed within the mass and catch only flashes of uniform beyond the bodies that protect me, but then the protection dissolves and I see the dark figure with a baton that’s cracking into all the legs and arms and bodies it can find.
I don’t know what happens but somehow I am still running and the policeman is behind, and I’m running and my lungs are screaming and my legs are as heavy as lead. I don’t know how much more I can run. The ground beneath our feet is treacle sand, uneven and bumpy, and I see the policeman stumble and fall and then recover, lumbering with the weight of his armour.
And then we’re through. We’ve broken through the line and the police are behind us. We are closer to the digger. I feel a wild rush of optimism and hope, but then turn around and see the police jumping back into their jeeps. They will overtake us and beat us, again and again and again.
For me, this is the end. I cannot go on. I am so desperately tired, I haven’t slept in days, my legs are shredded by the terrain and the running and the heavy rucksack, and my mind is eviscerated by the endless convulsions of hope and fear. I am too exhausted to continue. But then, to my infinite surprise, I find myself running again.
As the jeeps bear down on us from behind, the call goes out: “MAKE A LINE! MAKE A LINE!” and something remarkable happens. Self organising and intuitive, our finger spreads across the length of the terrace, arm in arm and hand in hand, and suddenly it is the police who are trapped and impotent. They cannot break through. It’s an incredible moment, and the symbolism is not lost on us. We are, literally, a long white line in the sand. Together we stand against the vested interests and distorted economics of the coal mine; living testimony to the power of what’s possible when collection and conviction combine. And as the jeeps follow, disempowered, a crazy sense of optimism begins to flow. We are suddenly, unexpectedly, in control.
For me, this is a seminal moment. It is the first time I have seen so directly the power of connected action. They may have jeeps and batons and body armour and chemical weapons. They may have the law on their side. But against two hundred people marching from the conviction that their action is moral and their protest just, there is little at this moment they can do.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this conviction, because it’s the base from which we act. It binds us to each other and connects us with the millions of unseen supporters around the world. Born of the raw, scientific evidence now emerging around climate change, it’s a conviction we’re prepared to test by throwing our bodies in front of monstrous diggers and speeding jeeps. We are convinced that our right to life will guide the driver’s foot to the right pedal. And it does, over and over. As gaps open up and jeeps attempt to punch through, we hurl ourselves before the revving engines and spinning wheels and send police passengers lurching as the driver hammers his foot to the brake. Over and over, again and again, a last minute foot to the brake.
This is what we come here seeking: a foot to the brake.
Because today this mine has become a crucible, a place where every action is amplified, every moment symbolic. Here, state police travel in corporate pickups. Here, black uniforms beat white boilersuits. Here, songs and chants meet batons and pepper spray while diggers gouge the earth and turbines salute the sky. So a foot to the brake, please, if you will. Peacefully but persistently, we’re asking that you stop.
But for the police, for the mine workers and for RWE’s owners, our requests are not the point. That we are many and peaceful and dignified is secondary to the fact that we are breaking the law. We are obstructing a legal corporate entity from going about it’s business, and we have to be stopped. So when I see a crowd of RWE jeeps in the distance – now passing the digger, now hurtling towards us with venomous urgency – I know what’s coming next.
Photo: Tim Wagner, 350.org, cropped from original. Licensed: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“COME TOGETHER! GET CLOSE! COME TOGETHER!” We break our line and we break our magic and we huddle once again into our amorphous, protective mass. The jeeps behind join the those in front and police swell like an incoming wave. They spread across the sand and, gathering momentum, break over us in a crazy, frantic, violent melee.
Everything goes mad and there are police everywhere. There’s nowhere to run, no gaps to exploit, and they’re pushing us again against the wall of the mine. I’m running and running and now I really am close to my end. The air is full of pepper spray and everything is burning, so when I see a dark figure before me, scything white figures like grass, I am part thankful, part fearful, part relieved that it will be over soon, that I will be hit and hurt and fall. I won’t have to run any more, won’t have to dodge any more, won’t have to bear this excoriating rollercoaster of adrenaline and hope and fear.
And them I’m over, face down in the sand. People run past and over me. There’s screaming and shouting. I don’t know what’s happened. Have I been hit? I look up and see wave after wave of people flow past, all trying to escape, all trying to go on, all trying to avoid stamping on me if they can. And I cannot get up.
As I realise this, I’m washed with the most enormous sense of relief. There is nothing more but to close my eyes and huddle into a shameless, foetal ball, hoping and praying I won’t be beaten and sprayed as others have by a vindictive passing officer.
My face is burning. I try to look up and cannot open my left eye. It is on fire. My hands are on fire. Everything is burning. Pepper spray hangs suspended in the air.
As soon as I’m able, I look up through my one good eye and see people nearby crying out in pain. The police are busy wrenching arms behind backs and strapping them tight with cable ties. The capsicum has diminished, but the air is full of fear and adrenaline and fury: “SIT DOWN!” ”STAY THERE!” “DON’T MOVE!”. And so I lie there and feel the burn growing as I wait for the situation to calm.
Photo: Ruben Neugebauer, 350.org, cropped from original. Licensed: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Unfathomable time passes, or it doesn’t – I can’t tell. But then I lift my head and catch the eye of the nearest officer through his visor. There is a guy between us writhing in agony. I ask permission to help but am ordered to stay down. More time – or not – and I try again. And now I see the face of a bearded, late middle aged man beneath the helmet. He’s looking at me and nodding. So I get up and move slowly and deliberately to the guy who’s face is red and eyes and nose are streaming. I pour water to flush away the searing chemical burn. He’s been sprayed directly, and from close up. He’s in agony. Everywhere people are in similar pain, and everywhere those of us who are aren’t too injured are moving slowly, cautiously, unthreateningly, doing whatever we can to help.
Remaining unbound is a powerful privilege, and I know how lucky I am. My pepper wounds are limited, and I’m uncuffed and mobile. But this is the lesser fortune. The greater is in being able to help, being able to tend to people and replace the relentless fear and terror of the past few hours with something oh-so much warmer and nourishing. The urge to reach out is powerful and instinctive and healing, and it’s animating all of us who are capable of helping.
We squeeze water into streaming eyes, wipe the capsicum burn from faces, give food and drink to those whose hands are locked behind their backs. All boundaries are down, all social conventions subsumed to the greater imperative of care. I blow a woman’s nose for her. I wipe sand from someone’s face. And as I gather a man’s hair in a topknot to prevent more blinding pepper in his eyes, the unexpected tenderness fractures something: the world begins to swirl and I well up and very nearly break down because when I look at my hands I’m setting my young daughter’s ponytail with an infinite, fatherly care. Injected into this crazy scene, injected into my over-stressed psyche, the thought of her is too sudden and too raw. But I realise then that one day, she might wind up some place like this. One day she might feel like the many brave young women who have come here; compelled to take her protest to a place where she is harmed.
Our finger has been broken into two groups and comprehensively stopped. The police have us kettled and stand around now like a perimeter fence. As we go about helping each other they remove their helmets, and one policeman hands me a bottle of water to help rinse someone’s eyes. They have become human again. I’m surprised by how many are women.
As the tension ebbs and the pepper burns fade, our identities change. We are no longer a defiant, running protest, and the police are no longer brutal enforcement machines. We are instead a mutually frazzled group of people in the bottom of a vast, multi-hued hole in the ground, our human scale dwarfed by the enormity of the mine. The binary symbolism that’s coloured much of the day fades a little and, as it goes, things begin to feel ever so faintly absurd.
At the end of the day, we have been beaten and stopped by people who are not so alien to our values. We discover this thanks to a calm, intelligent German guy who has taken to negotiating with the police. When we meet up to discuss our collective options, he points out that although they can’t say so, many of the men and women encircling us agree in principle with our protest. It’s a pretty odd thing to hear. Odd to realise that in spite of the brutal reality of the past hour, we are all just playing our parts in a much wider political game.
As the hours pass and the sun climbs, we begin to discuss what to do next. There are three other fingers in the mine, all trying to bring operations to a halt. But how can we help them, handcuffed and impotent in the sand? When someone points out that we are not legally obliged to assist the police with our removal from the mine, we realise we can passively resist. Going floppy, it is suggested, will make us very heavy, and very inconvenient. It will take four police to carry each and every one of us the long distance across the sand to the meat wagons, and we are still great in number.
It seems our protest isn’t over just yet…
Photo: Ende Geleande, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
A word of explanation
If you’ve got this far, thank you. It’s nice to have you along. I’m aware this is a long blog and there is more to come, but now have to ask your patience while I spend some time with my family and recover from what has been an intense and emotional experience. I will post the next instalments as soon as I can would encourage you to follow this blog if you’d like to receive notification when they go up.
Thanks again for all your support and understanding. It’s priceless.
“I’m so glad to see people drawing a firm line in the coalfields, and stopping the planet’s largest coal-digging machines. We’re driven not by ideology but by physics: there’s simply no way to burn all this lignite and keep the climate intact. These protesters are lifeguards for an endangered planet.”
Photo: Tobias Mandt
I’m running and I’m running and I’m just one, just one amongst hundreds of people running to escape the batons and the pepper spray, running to break through the police line and run on and on across the field to the mine. But as we’re running and my legs are pumping and the adrenaline’s thumping I turn and see something that makes my blood turn cold and time stand still. I see a man made massive with body armour and a helmet and a baton, and I see him throw his shoulder back and form a fist and smash the full brutal weight of his aggression into the face of an oncoming woman. She crumples but I don’t even see her hit the floor because I’m running and oh fuck me am I running and I’m thinking that this isn’t what I signed up for and I don’t want to be here and christ I’m just so scared. Because I am not an activist. This isn’t what I do. I’m a relatively normal, middle aged chap who does clicktivism when he can find the time. Direct action is not my thing. I’m not cut out to be here, running with hundreds of people across the fields of the Rhineland to try and close for one day a sodding great lignite mine.
And yet, oddly, here I am.
I am running because I don’t know what else to do. I am running because I know too much to stand still. I am running because climate change has already begun and because I’m scared of heatwaves and droughts and mass extinctions and flooding. I’m running because I need to act – we all need to act – and we need to act right now.
And so I’m acting as fast as I can, running from the police, running from my disempowerment, running from my apathy and fatalism. I’m running and dodging batons and pepper spray and I’m more primevally, viscerally terrified than I have ever, ever been.
Photo: Ende Gelände
“REGROUP! REGROUP! REGROUP!” Through the chaos the call goes out and we begin to pull back together after breaking through the police line. People nursing baton injuries are helped by those who escaped the beatings, and those of us who can see lead those blinded by pepper spray. We keep walking, quickly re-coalescing back into the protective mass that two hundred determined people can be, but I’m feeling very, very shaken. This is so unlike anything I’ve experienced. The violence and brutality are horrible, and I wish I hadn’t come. I wonder how I could have been so naïve? I mean, what was I expecting when I signed up to gatecrash Europe’s biggest source of CO2 emissions? A welcoming beer and a hug?
And right now, walking through the fields with 200 other people all dressed, like me, in white paper boilersuits, I’m well out of my depth. This is not my scene. I’m a family man, too old for this kind of thing. Yes, climate change is important and there’s a role for me in the movement, but this isn’t it. I want out. I want to escape. I want to leave this stupid situation and go back to camp and help make tofu burgers, or something.
But then I realise that beyond the fearful chatter of my thinking, I’m committed. We all are. Others will be feeling all of this, but we’re here together and that means containing my fear and keeping on walking towards the mine. We have nothing but our resolve and our numbers and in honour of that I have a responsibility to keep my fear contained. I want no part in eroding what is our only strength.
And now, incredibly, it looks as if we might actually make it. The masts of the great pit diggers poke out of the earth just a field or two away and with no more police or opposition, we soon make it to the edge of the mine. The scale is barely comprehensible. It stretches a full 20km into the distance. It’s 12 long kilometres wide. And it’s so resonant with meaning: a great gaping hole in the earth from which billions of tons of coal have been dug, crushed and burned. It’s dramatic and terrifying testimony to what our species can do when it puts it’s mind to it, and a potent symbol for the challenge we face with climate change. And as I look out across the pit I find it hard to believe that we, as a collection of small, frail human beings, can really shut down a problem of this scale.
Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org
In truth, we don’t yet know if we can. We don’t know if we can descend into this beautiful hell and bring this beast to a halt. But we’re going to try. Eight hundred individuals from 45 countries are marching in four groups towards the mine; four fingers of resistance snaking across the Rhineland. We must look incredible from the air. The police helicopters must look down on these responsive white masses spreading and contracting in response to their colleagues’ attacks. But what they won’t see from those helicopters is one of the most significant aspects of this action: they won’t see how many of us are doing something like this for the first time.
One of the defining aspects of the action we call Ende Gelände (This far, and no further) is the number of newcomers to direct action. People like me who have never experienced police brutality or the terrifying experience of breaking through police lines. And why are there so many of us here? What is it that compels us normal, law abiding citizens to put our liberty and safety at risk? What brings us to leave our husbands and wives and children and engage in such radical and, frankly, out of character behaviour?
I think the answer lies in the urgency of the climate challenge and the feeling that action of some kind has become a moral imperative. We feel we are not acting simply for ourselves, but for our planet and our children. We feel a responsibility to those who are not yet born. And we feel the anger, sadness and incomprehension of those future generations who will look back at us with incredulity. “What a beautiful world”, they will think. “What kind of madness made our parents trash it?”
And if I have hope – which I do – then it is that we are entering a period which will be remembered as a time when normal people got together and did extraordinary things. Because when people begin to recognise the limitations of a system of individualism and self interest and begin, collectively, to seek change, remarkable things can happen.
Photo: Ruben Neugebauer, 350.org
Which, of course, is exactly what is happening here. I am just one in a finger of 200, in an action of 1,000… but we are in reality a movement of millions. And this action for me is proof of how inconceivably powerful we become when we begin to act from our collective self. Nothing today would have happened without the collaboration of countless individuals, from those who help finance organisations like 350.org and Ende Gelände, to those who organise logistics, cook, translate and provide free legal representation at the climate camp. But perhaps most numerous are those many who – like my friends – send precious messages of support that say we do not act alone.
So together we flow over the top of the mine and down towards the diggers. We are chanting and singing and buzzing with a mixture of disbelief and hope, and we spill down towards two men beside an RWE mine vehicle. We must be a terrifying sight, this tsunami of white boiler suits, but we are non-violent and unstoppable. We’re singing and celebrating, giddy with elation and adrenaline, mindful of the jeeps in the distance but thrilled for now with success. I begin thinking that perhaps the police are behind us, perhaps they’ll leave the action to the mine staff. And for the first time since breaking through the lines, the fear begins to recede.
And as it diminishes, so my attention widens to appreciate this incredible place. To our right an endless cliff winds around the rim, an artwork of sandy pigments gouged with the striations of digger teeth. To the left the mine drops down into to the distance in a series of terraces, each leading deeper into the earth that gets darker and darker, then turns to black. And across this pit roam the diggers, unimaginable beasts with bucket teeth and vast steel throats, gouging and disgorging the coal onto conveyor belts 16km long. The pit is beyond comprehension: a raw mix of extreme beauty, and utter devastation. And we must descend into it in our search for change.
Our white finger marches around the corner past a huge, stationary belt and the terrace opens out. Several miles away we see the closest digger cleaving sandy overburden from the rim. It’s not Bagger 288 as we’d hoped, but it’s still big beyond reason. The distant jeeps are getting closer, but we are thrilled that our target is in sight…
Photo: Ende Gelände
Thanks again for all your support and understanding. It’s priceless.
It’s 2.30 in the morning and I know there’s not going to be much sleep for me tonight. I’m lying in a field of stubbled wheat somewhere in the Rhineland. On my leg I’ve etched a number in permanent marker – the hotline to the legal team for when I get arrested. You get two phone calls in custody. The second will be to my wife and daughter.
We arrived here as the early evening sun made beauty of the Rhineland, bathing gold the power stations and wind turbines which stand side by side. The future standing against a present which needs to be past. But now it is long since dark. I look out from my tent and see the red lights of nearby cooling towers blink a repetitive warning. A police van cruises quietly by. Above, the night sky is dramatically clear, and stray meteors fall with abandon. I imagine there are many of us who have made wishes on them tonight.
It’s been a long evening of meetings to discuss tactics as we try to second guess what the army of police and security personnel are going to do. The broader picture of the action, none of our team know. We may be around 1,000 in number, but the mine has 800 private guards, and the police outnumber us two to one.
As you’d expect, there’s a degree of apprehension. I’m not even excited any more – just tired and raw. But my emotional landscape has simplified, probably due to my adrenal gland giving up with exhaustion. Yet still there’s no sleep. Just a long, ponderous night to lie through, waiting and waiting and waiting for dawn.
This week, I’m doing something I’ve never done before. I’m going to (quite possibly) get arrested for something I believe in. I’ve been arrested before, and I’ve believed in things before, but I’ve never been taken into custody as a result of my principles.
I may not come to that, of course, and I hope that it doesn’t. But the prospect of some time in a German police cell is something I’m considering. Why? Because after too many years of a comfortable and very contemporary apathy, I’m finally stepping off the fence. I’m becoming a climate activist. On Saturday, along with thousands of other normally law-abiding citizens, I’m going to enter a great big hole in the earth and put a temporary halt to one of the largest machines on the planet.
Bagger 288 is a 13,500 ton strip mining monster, part testimony to human ingenuity and part symbol of our dysfunctional relationship to the earth. Every day it excavates 240,000 tonnes of lignite for the power stations of the Rhineland – enough to fill 2,400 train wagons. That’s a very, very long train. So long, it’s kind of hard to imagine.
But if it’s hard to imagine the scale of the extractions taking place in northern Germany, it’s harder still to justify them in the face of climate change. Lignite, or brown coal, is the dirtiest and least efficient form of coal, an already notoriously dirty fuel. Because of it, the Rhineland coal fields are Europe’s largest single source of CO2 emissions.
But Bagger 288 is not really draws me to Germany. Putting a temporary halt to the excavations won’t make a dent in European emissions or the coal industry’s profits. It won’t usher in a new era of clean energy, make mining CEO’s suspend operations and reinvest in wind farms and hopeful fields of biodynamic spirulina. Realistically, in and of itself, it won’t change a thing. But for me, that’s not the point. The point is that this protest is part of something much larger.
If you’re alert, you might have noticed it in the wind and solar farms now common across the continents. You might have noticed it in movements like localism, organic farming and slow food. And although it’s absent in the vast majority of mainstream culture, you may find it in concepts like fair trade and the creative commons, or political movements like Podemos and Syriza. What’s it is, is change.
Inexorably, millions of people across the world are demanding a new conversation. They’re asking if we can’t evolve a more creative and compassionate system, a system which elevates the wellbeing of people and planet above profit as our collective organising principle. And because the conventional means of expression are too often muffled by the smog of vested interests, people are getting more creative in their bid to be heard. Our problems have gone global. Our response needs to go global too.
And that’s why I’m going to gatecrash the strip mines of the Rhineland. I’m joining with thousands of people across the world to voice my frustration at the disempowerment of materialism and the dangerous dogma of perpetual growth. We are a phenomenal species. Collectively, we can do better than this.
So for me, the Rhineland represents my desire to be part of something bigger, more hopeful, more interesting, more inspiring. Whether or not I go into the pit, chain myself to the top of Bagger 228 or spend time in German custody isn’t the question. The question – when my daughter is old enough to ask it – is at what point I stopped being a closet environmentalist, got off my arse and cared.
Posted on August 13, 2015