“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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…
Thanks again for all your support and understanding. It’s priceless.