Fighting the System at Ende Gelände What went down at a massive civil disobedience action against the German coal mines

As we approached the police blockade I carefully slowed down the car and rolled down the window as one of the armored policemen decisively walked our way. Oscar and I, not as decisive, were doing our best to match the professional status our improvised press passes were hopefully granting us. Thankfully we were carrying massive loads of charged camera batteries for the camera team taking the next shift. “Was machen sie hier?”, the German police were speaking German.

At that point, we were driving a white minivan as part of the disobedience_live project, which was following four activists on their journey to the coal mine action of Ende Gelände in the German Rhineland by filming them 24/7 over a period of 5 days and live streaming the whole thing on their webpage disobedience.live. We had been advised to convey our identity to the police to ensure that they would let us film, as opposed to all the activists of Ende Gelände’s precaution not to carry any identification.

Pretending not to understand, I answer that we only speak English. Passport”, he says, and I realize that I’m not carrying my passport nor my driver’s license. I rapidly decide to overemphasize the state of the passport, “The PASSPORT, I don’t have the passport with me. I left the passport in the tent.” The police officer then calls for his colleague who, in English, starts asking me for my name, where I am from – to which I decide to answer Sweden – and then, where I was born – to which I am forced to be specific and answer ZürichDespite my inconsistency, which
provokes a 
hesitant frown, she decides to move onto the case of Oscar, “Where is he from?”“Sweden”, I answer, judging from him living in Stockholm, his flawless Swedish and blonde features. “He just showed us a Dutch passport”

““Passport”, he says, and I realize that I’m not
carrying my passport nor my driver’s license. I rapidly decide to overemphasize the state of the passport.”

Ende Gelände is a civil disobedience action against coal mining that took place for the third time in late August this summer. Every year it has taken place at different locations, but always within Germany. In November 3-5 there will be a second action this year, at the same placeOn their website, one can read that they choose to be transparent to prevent clashes with the police – “We say what we do, and we do what we say”. Indeed, there were massive police efforts pulled in to block the activists from accessing the different action sites, which could consist of either entering the open-pit mine, or blocking the train tracks, or to head directly for the power plants. About a week after the action I met up with one of the activists that was actually part of the actions to talk to him about his experience at Ende Gelände – Guy Finkill.

Anna: Ende Gelände has been going on for several years. Was this the first time you were there?

Guy: Yes, and it was my first ever mass civil disobedience action. I had some experience with different protests and more small-scale actions but nothing anywhere
near this scale.

Anna: There were about 4000-5000 people that went to join these actions. In your opinion, why do you think that so many people identify with the cause of Ende Gelände?

Guy: I mean, it has been growing gradually over the last three years. There are so many different NGOs and environmental groups spread out all across Europe and all over the world which are all relating to climate change in some particular way. Ende Gelände feels like a chance of unifying all of these groups in a common cause – to combine and join forces.

Also, by getting such a large number… it can be a chance to receive widespread media
attention. For example, we are doing this interview right now whereas if I’d done a protest at a local bank for divestment with five people, it would not get into the media. It is a chance to show the wider world that there is a large scale environmental movement.

“…for a bunch of volunteers it felt crazy… like a preparation for a battle in the army.”

Anna: What struck me was how well organized it was at the base camp, from the pre-action trainings to the sanitary precautions where they made the food line by-pass the alcogel before getting served those warm vegan meals. Did you volunteer while you were there?

Guy: Yes, I felt the same as you. I was so impressed by the organization of it considering there was no hierarchical structure and it was not for profit or anything like that. They were managing to feed all the many thousand people that were there hot food three times a day. I helped out in the kitchen a little bit, cutting vegetables or washing dishes. Whenever they shouted that they needed help, people went to support.

I especially thought the organization with the legal advice was so in-depth. We went to a workshop the day before the main action where they were telling us all about our rights within Germany as citizens of the EU, and the benefits of being anonymous. It was crazy that you could give them your details and they would give you a number that you would just write on your arm. As well as a phone number to the legal team that you could call in case you would get arrested and then they would send a lawyer to come and help you out after citing the four-digit number. Which, again, for a bunch of volunteers it felt crazy… like a preparation for a battle in the army.

Anna: Can you explain how the system of the fingersaffinity groups and buddies
worked?

Guy: Every person who gets involved in the action should have a designated buddy. It could be a friend or someone who you trust quite deeply, and you are not supposed to let go of this buddy throughout the entire action. It is kind of like a last resort you’ve always got to fall back on so that you are not completely left out in the wilderness…

Slightly larger than that you have the affinity group which is supposed to be people who are like minded in regards to how involved they want to be in the action – how extreme they want to go. Like, do they want to be on the front line, bearing the brunt of the police force? Or, do they want to hang back and not resist arrest etcetera? It is usually good to have an affinity group with the same ideals. I know that in other affinity groups there was mostly a single language being spoken, either Swedish or English or German. And they typically range from about four people to… let’s say, eight or ten.

The fingers had significantly more leadership and direction from the main organizers.
They typically had a few hundred people in one and could either split off or combine with the other fingers depending on which part of the action they wanted to target. For example, I was part of the blue finger and I think there were ten fingers in total. We teamed up with a couple of other fingers, I forget the colors now… maybe the pink and the green.

When we started to march from the camp there was 1200 of us but then when we started to near the police… First of all, we broke through the first three police blockades but when we got to the last one, near the train tracks, there was a lot heavier police presence and because the blue finger was right in the front we, I think there was about 500 of us, ended up being kettled, which is when you get held in a particular area. It took a hell of a lot police to stop us and herd us up, so that opened up the space for other fingers who were part of our march that day to get onto the tracks because we basically distracted the first line of the police. The other activists managed to block the train track for about 8 or 9 hours.

Anna: There were so many activists. How did it feel to march all together?

Guy: Yes, when you are right in the middle of it it is hard to have an impression of the scale of it, but I remember when turning a corner and you look behind you could see that the back of the line was almost one kilometer away – there was that many people!

It was nice to have that feeling of that everybody was in it for the same reason – that feeling of solidarity. Especially with a lot of people wearing the white jump-suits, almost like a uniform, which had some purpose of staying anonymous but also… it was a way of showing that everybody was there together. And obviously we had different chants and songs that had to do with climate justice or the action and that was good for building morale, and just to maintaining a positive attitude.

Anna: Didn’t you also have someone playing the trumpet?

Guy: Yes! That was pretty cool. It was that guy from New Jersey who was being filmed for the disobedience.live-thing. Yeah so, at certain points of the day he pulled out his trumpet and played a little tune. He did so at different points – when we were marching or even when we got released by the police at the end of the day. It was kind of like an elated feeling.

“…we don’t think that the governments that represent us are dealing with these issues which have an immediate impact all over the world. Their laisse faire-attitude, and business-as-usual
paradigm is not good enough.”

Anna: You are not from Germany. Why do you put yourself at risk for something that is so far away from your home?

Guy: First of all, it is the biggest source of CO2 in Europe – the combination of mines and power plants in that part of the Rhineland. Also, when addressing issues of climate change… Climate change doesn’t play any credence to borders, it simply attacks all ecosystems and people with no prior thought or designated victim. I don’t know… all the activism that I get involved in, it can be at any location in the world, it doesn’t matter if it is in the UK or not.

Anna: Is there something you would like to add?

Guy: Yes, just one thing. Our action was for a direct purpose – trying to close down the coalmines or, at least, lowering the capacity of the power stations during the days that we were there. This will obviously have a financial impact on the companies and an environmental impact on the lowering of the emissions, but for me it was so much more than that. It is almost negligible on a global scale. It was more about the symbolic value of showing that there is a call for a transition to a sustainable future. It was to remind politicians, media, and policy-makers that the general public – even though we have the opportunity to vote – we don’t think that the governments that represent us are dealing with these issues which have an immediate impact all over the world. Their laisse faire-attitude, and business-as-usual paradigm is not good enough. These incremental steps towards a greener future are positive but can almost be dangerous because the issue is not dealt with quickly enough. So, we were demanding climate justice over a more immediate time frame.

The police eventually gave up on us as two clown journalists and we could unload the charged batteries at the camp only to head straight back where we came from. As we gently started driving again, through the rural, flat landscape we sat in silence as I was trying to extract a sentence from the many thoughts fighting for my attention; “Talk about… the system falling in on itself. I mean, wasn’t this how it was thought out? Everything in society tells us to be international – to travel, work abroad, move out of our small towns, speak English – but then the police, the very symbol of our nation state societies, take our ambiguous responses to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ for lies.” Thinking back on Ende Gelände, the police force
seemed to be acting under some old idea of common sense where borders are markers of identity and care.