The raucous rattle of a low flying helicopter shakes me awake. It must be the Police. The sun hasn’t risen yet and the sides of the tent still smell of morning dew. I doubt I am the only one in this field who didn’t sleep deeply last night. Today is our day of action. We are Ende Gelände (Here and No Further) – 1500 people who have pledged to enter RWE’s Garzweiler open cast coal mine and block the gargantuan “bagger” excavators with our bodies, to shut down Europe’s largest source of CO2 emissions.
This is direct action as it should be. It’s not just a symbolic gesture that tells a story and makes an injustice visible, but an action which targets the source of the problem and stops it in its tracks. Of course if the day is a success then its stories will work their magic, building confidence in other movements, shared around campfires and at cafés, buzzing through the social media sphere and the subject of newspaper headlines. But the actual stopping of CO2 emissions themselves, the fact that the lignite coal, the dirtiest type of coal in the world, will not be dug out and burnt is what counts. Ende Gelände is not a media stunt, it’s a collective act of resistance that for once feels proportionate to the scale of the emergency: a catastrophic climate change the size of the land, sea and sky combined. If all goes to plan, it will be one of the largest acts of disobedience in the name of climate justice ever. For many people in this lush field, today will be the first time they have broken the law for their beliefs. The first time I took direct action was 20 years ago, but the nerves never go away and the butterflies are playing havoc with my intestines.
Thousands had been preparing for this moment over the last week at the Klima Camp. Inspired by UK Climate Camps born in the shadow of the Drax Power Station protests of 2006, the Klima Camp is a temporary model, an alternative society set up in a supportive farmer’s field (a farmer who has now been evicted from his property to further mine expansion) a few kilometers from the open cast mine. The complex operation is self-managed via daily direct democracy meetings, where issues ranging from how not to overburden the field’s WiFi to organizing the emptying of compost toilets, are discussed. The organization is impressive, there are solar panel points to charge up mobile phones, an on-site cinema, an ‘emotional first aid’ tent for those going through tough times, rows and rows of identical white workshop tents and an entire circus marquee filled with toys for children.
People from 45 different countries have been running and attending courses and workshops, in everything from Transition Theatre to Islamic Degrowth Economics, Urban Food Production to the hands on building of a DIY wind turbine that now provides some of the electricity for the camp. What makes the architecture of a protest camp such a powerful form of social change is that, unlike a meeting hall, a squatted social centre or an NGO’s offices, the borders of the space are porous. Anyone can walk in, there are no closed doors to knock on, no bells to ring and no intimidating meetings to walk into. For those people who are new to activism, this kind of architecture makes it a lot easier to participate.
A decision was made to merge elements of the Climate Camp Process with strategies developed by the Degrowth Summer School. This union of grassroots anti-capitalism and academic research proved to be a particularly successful one. As the 40 page program of the camp states: “If we want to put into practice effective and equitable strategies against climate change, we need a fundamental transformation of our economy and of our way of life. (An) ‘energy transition’ that is based only on renewables and efficiency but perpetuates the growth paradigm will not succeed in preventing runaway climate change, it will not do anything about the many social injustices we face and it will not democratize society. At this joined event we would like to connect debates around climate justice and degrowth and carry them to the place of a key energy struggle.”
In the past there existed a big separation between NGOs and grassroots movements acting on climate in Germany (as in many parts of the world). Over the last year Ende Gelände has worked tirelessly to bridge this gap. 350.org, the global climate movement spanning 188 countries, called for direct participation and brought a number of international participants, including citizens of Jordan and Afghanistan. Friends of the Earth Germany signed a solidarity letter and helped to organize on the day of the direct action a legal march for families who wished to participate. If we are to build a resilient movement of disobedience for climate justice, alliances are key, not for the purpose of creating so-called “inclusive” actions, but to legitimize creative and radical forms of mass disobedience – to build a shared culture of resistance.
The strength of an ecosystem is revealed by borders, such as the interstitial space between forest and meadow, this is where the highest concentrations of biodiversity are found. Here you will find the most number of relationships between different species existing simultaneously. As a result, evolution is at its most powerful at the border – change and innovation occur rapidly. By moving towards the borders of our activist identities, our ideologies, by recognizing what is predetermined, we can effectively change our habits and begin to create spaces that invite diversity and social experimentation. This is the way forward if we wish to build a powerful and resilient movement capable of turning the juggernaut of business as usual around.
In the main community tent at Klima Camp we heard from many speakers. Stories of fighting against coal mines and nuclear power in India, oil extraction in the Amazon, First Nations communities resisting the toxic disaster of the Alberta tar sands and eco-anarchists living in tree-houses to stop the expansion of the nearby Hambach lignite mines. The 15-M movement spoke about radical democracy and anti-austerity tactics in Spain, Greek anarchists described the self-managed health, food and production systems in place since the economic collapse, a Kurdish representative outlined their experiments in libertarian municipalism and the challenges of building a nation without a State in northern Syria, a nation founded on principles of feminism, ecology and radical autonomy. Each of the talks were simultaneously translated by volunteers into at least 3 languages, via micro-pirate FM radio transmitters. Like some kind of ticking human clock, at the centre of the camp sits a huge round trampoline on which gaggles of excited children bounce all day long, a salutary reminder of a fragile and uncertain future.
The art of Affinity
The last few days here were focused on disobedience training. The first thing we learned was the “Action Consensus”, which sets the tone of the action. All participants agree to stick to it. Action Consensus cleverly avoids opening up the “violence and non-violence” can of worms by never using loaded and moralizing terms. It states: “We will be calm and considered. Escalation will not be provoked by us. We will not put people in danger.” It also says there will be no damage to the machinery. This is not for moral reasons, but to enable the safety of all participants. As soon as things start to get damaged, the police inevitably turn violent towards us and charges for occupying a mine are much lighter than for property damage. If people want to sabotage things there are two other open cast mines in the area.
When I first got involved in direct action I thought that we could bring down the fossil fuel industry and industrial civilization by using openly announced acts of civil disobedience, to make the system unworkable. But over the years I’ve realized that no matter the size of a movement, without enough bodies willing to risk arrest and a drawn out judicial process the movement will not succeed. Ask yourself – do we have enough bodies to shut down every open-pit coal mine in the world, every oil refinery, fracking site and arctic rig, to bring the Mordorian tar sands in Alberta to a halt, to block all the chimneys of all the power stations in China? Of course we don’t, not even for one day, which we know would not be enough anyway.
The tactical success of the 90s UK anti-roads movements, which managed to force the government to cancel 700 road schemes, was achieved through a multi-front direct action. People lived in tree houses and tunnels on the sites, blocking the destruction. In addition there were big days where openly called for disobedience consisted of people digger diving together. While people slept through the night, a group we came to know as the pixies would put the wrecking machines to sleep with a gentle mix of wrenches and sugar. Our movements are going to need these big open days of disobedience, the long months of Blockadia, site occupations and the night time secrets if we are to succeed.
The slogan ‘Keep It in the Ground!’ easily slips off the tongue. But to actually stop the burning of 80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves, which we need to do if we are to avoid the catastrophe of runaway climate change, is going to require every tactic we think is just, strategic and most importantly, effective. Historically, when resistors win it is because they fought harder than they thought possible and deployed a wide and indeterminate number of possible tactics. One such tactic practiced by the German movements is known as “the finger.”
The funnest part of training was the role-playing exercises we undertook to learn the finger, which is a tactic consisting of long thin columns of bodies that can flow through police lines. Armed with nothing but a bag of straw to protect ourselves, we try to imagine our line of sandal wearing friends in t-shirts who face us as police armed with batons and clad in body armor. After we try out the technique, which involves a dance like side-step combined with a shoulders first push, Frida, one of our colleagues notes, “That was easy.” The reply, “But we all know it won’t be like that on the day,” receives a bout of nervous laughter all around.
How to build an affinity group, an organizational approach at the heart of effective direct action, is one of the most important aspects of the training. An affinity group is a cluster of between 5 and 15 people who decide to work together – staying together during the action, looking out for each other, building trust and emotional support to enable and empower participants. Remaining autonomous, not relying on a top down command structure and making their own decisions about what to do (and not to do), affinity groups are much more fluid and responsive than larger masses of people. But most of all they are fertile seedbeds that enable new participants to step out of their comfort zone.
Decentralized and non-hierarchical by nature, the affinity group form was first invented by anarchists active in Spain during the late 19th century. Circles of friends met in cafés, often at first to share cultural and artistic ideas (like a literary salon), but later on to talk politics and plan collective actions. Decades later, during the Vietnam anti-war protests, the form was resurrected by the infamous American post-DADA activist art collective: Black Mask. Some of the most successful mass acts of disobedience, from the huge, sometimes 30,000 strong anti-nuclear blockades of the 70s, to the 1999 Battle in Seattle, used affinity groups as the principal assemblage of direct action.
Sometimes affinity groups stay together for years, others organize around a particular action. For Ende Gelände some members of our affinity group were already good friends, others had never met before and for a handful, this was their first act of disobedience. We’re a sundry bunch ranging from 21 to 50 years of age. Among us include a Turkish designer, a French journalist (there to act and not report), a Czech student, a Danish NGO campaigner, a Spanish environmentalist, a Belgian engineer and a British researcher. In the tradition of non-cooperation with authorities, we decided to refuse to give our names if arrested. This decision was made because we’re proud to be shutting down Europe’s biggest carbon bomb yet wish to stay within the tradition of Civil Disobedience theorized and practiced by Thoreau, the Militant Suffragettes, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi et al. and believe that noncooperation with what is wrong is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with what is good.
On top of that, if we can avoid feeding a society of hyper-surveillance that controls, checks, measures, films, files, tracks and captures every move, then it is a win-win situation. To facilitate our anonymity, our legal team has invented an ingenious system: we give our ID documents to them and they give us each a number. If arrested, we use our phone-call from the police station to provide them with our number. Our law team are then able to see who has been detained and deploy the appropriate support, without any personal information being provided.
We pair into ‘buddies’, a two person team who, even in chaotic moments where the larger affinity group might get split up, stay together come hell or high water. My lover Isa and I pair up, the last time we buddied up on an action I ran through a line of riot police without any warning and left her isolated on the other side, which is exactly what NOT to do with your buddy. This time I’ll be more aware and sensible.
Philosopher Frederic Jameson wrote that the “ central problem of all political philosophy (and later of political science) is the constitution of the group.” How should we treat each other? How should we make decisions in ways that reflect our desired world without entering into hierarchy and domination? How do we listen deeply, debate, disagree, decide together? How can we live together as if we are already free? The affinity group form is a beautiful testing ground for many of these questions. In German and in English the words ‘friend’ and ‘free’ both come from the same Indo-European root, which conveys a “shared power that grows.” This is a far cry from the atomized and individualistic freedom of neoliberalism, which so often pollutes even the most radical of minds: “I’m an anarchist! I’ll do what I want!” As the Invisible Committee explains in To Our Friends: “Being free and having ties was one and the same thing. I am free because I have ties, because I am linked to a greater reality than me.” If nothing else, an affinity group is an amazing accelerator of friendship. When it is fueled by the risk of collective disobedience, it becomes a love machine like no other – an ecology of freedom.
Running for life
“Gooooood morning everyone … time to wake up!” a voice pipes through a megaphone. “We leave in 45 minutes… Ende Gelände!” A semi-comatose cheer rises from the tents. The start time of the action has been kept secret up until now. We plan on taking the authorities by surprise. Bleary eyed but energized by the rising adrenaline, our affinity group meets up, distributes sandwiches and water, each of us writes down the phone number of the legal support team with indelible ink on our legs. We put on our white paper boiler suits and adjust the dust masks that will protect us from the coal particles. As we will be near the front of the finger and some of the first to flow through police lines, we also wear eye protection made from overhead projector film, we hope it will shield us from the pepper spray. “WHERE ARE THE UMBRELLAS?” I shout above the drums of the samba band. “Someone took them already” replies Martin. “Not enough umbrellas for Mary Poppins!” he laughs. All affinity groups a have name, ours is Mary Poppins. The four fingers are lining up, 1500 people all in white, waiting, excited eyes peeping above dust masks, each ready to disobey. The megaphone screeches “Ende Gelände” and we’re off.
Our 280 person strong finger is first to leave. We move fast through the country lanes. We sing songs to calm the collective tension. Flags with painted slogans, CLIMATE INTIFADA, GLOBAL BLOCKADIA, STOP CO2LONIALISM, flutter in the dawn light. To get to the mine we have to cross under a motorway via a narrow concrete tunnel. It’s blocked by two vans and three rows of riot police. We know what we have to do. Many of us have trained for this moment. No one runs, we take a deep collective breath. “KEEP TOGETHER! KEEP TIGHT!” I think of my friends in the first line made up mostly of an all women affinity group. Last night they told Isa that they wanted to “challenge themselves.” Right now that sounds like an understatement.
Here goes! I put my head down. Body, mind – thought, action – time and space – all fuses in that micro-moment. Nothing matters anymore. It’s like meditation – but on steroids. The finger flows like a restless river straight into the police line. The whole column driving from behind – 280 bodies pushing and pushing. We feel the hulks of armor, the hardened helmets, the black padded punching gloves against our soft bodies. Weapons designed to hurt us flail against our flimsy bags of straw. In the corner of my eye I see a truncheon heading for my legs, it hits me hard but the adrenaline cuts off the pain. A jet of pepper spray heads directly at my eyes but is stopped by the makeshift visor. Some people fall … a pile of bodies … screams … I trip. Isa pulls me up out of the scrum. We run. Faster than I thought possible…
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John Jordan is an artist and an activist
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