“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.