SCI PhD Alice Swift reports on a recent action by the German climate activist group ‘Ende Gelände’
Ende Gelände mobilised thousands in Germany in October, targeting both coal and gas and developing tactics to protect activists from coronavirus transmission.
The eighth Ende Gelände went ahead in the drizzly and cold Rhineland region of Germany in October. Over 3,000 activists pushed through police lines to shut down a number of targets associated with coal mining and fossil gas in the region for two days.
Ende Gelände has regularly mobilised thousands of activists to physically blockade coal infrastructure in Germany over the past five years. Germany still has a vast coal industry where the hugely polluting brown or ‘lignite’ coal makes up a sizeable proportion, despite the country’s green image on the international stage.
Most coal is burned within Germany’s borders but a significant amount of the electricity generated is exported to neighbouring countries that are not required to account for the CO2 emitted from its production in Germany. The German government created the ‘Coal Commission’ – including coal industry representatives along with men from Greenpeace and BUND – following pressure from campaigners. The Commission agreed to a coal phase-out of 2038.
However, Ende Gelände have argued that market forces would result in the collapse of the coal industry much sooner. Industries and government officials working towards a phase-out by 2038 are actually facilitating the prolonged continuation of the industry.
The overriding argument from Ende Gelände has been that to avert the worst effects of climate change and adhere to an increase of no more than 2 degrees, a phase-out of 2038 is simply too late.
Ende Gelände has, up until now, only targeted the coal industry, but for the first time since its inception organisers successfully blockaded fossil gas infrastructure during this last action. Two groups of activists blockaded the construction of a gas pipeline and one blocked the site of a gas power station.
Activists recognised one of the key lessons learnt from their anti-nuclear predecessors, the British struggle against coal and fracking and the European Gastivists Network: demanding the end to one ecocidal source of energy may not mean that government and industry will necessarily choose renewables.
Indeed, despite the wins of the green movements against nuclear in Germany and coal in the UK, fossil capitalism has resulted in the expansion of coal in Germany and the shift to gas and biomass in the UK. Adding gas infrastructure to the repertoire of targets for Ende Gelände has marked a significant development for the strategic orientation of the movement.
Mobilising three thousand activists for this Ende Gelände in the midst of coronavirus times was a significant decision for the organisers and not one taken lightly.
Ende Gelände has regularly organised large-scale protest camps, reaching a peak of around 7,000 attendees in June last year (2019). This time, organisers developed a corona-secure ‘Hygiene Concept’ that differentiated this mobilisation from previous years.
Instead of one large camp, a multitude of much smaller camps and urban convergence spaces were created to reduce infection risk. The affinity group model for direct action organising took on an even greater significance as participants were allowed to mix with their affinity group but kept distant from others and spent as little time in confined spaces as possible.
Along with one-way systems and regular hand washing, organisers even developed their own anonymous Corona tracking system to trace infections if there was a break-out.
There was a significant reduction in international activists compared to recent years, as people from particular areas of Europe like France and Brussels were banned from participating. The Hygiene Concept was non-negotiable for all activists.
This Hygiene Concept was also central to the actions themselves. Ende Gelände uses a ‘finger’ model where hundreds or even thousands of people march together to push through police lines and occupy the targets. This time there were significantly more ‘fingers’ to reduce the Corona risk.
Fourteen fingers in total went into action. As well as gas infrastructure, fingers blockaded coal mines, train tracks that transport the coal and shut down the running of a coal power station itself.
Among these fingers, there were ‘queer-feminist’ fingers to critique masculine notions of climate heroism, an accessible finger designed for activists with physical access needs and an anti-colonial, anti-racist finger co-organised with migrant solidarity and Black Lives Matter activists and designed to connect the intersections of climate, ecology and race.
Ende Gelände has used a climate justice approach to organise in an overtly anti-capitalist and intersectional way, in theory and in practice, consistently mobilising many thousands.
Ende Gelände uses the large numbers of people mobilised to create a level of ‘safety in numbers’ when facing police. It also reduces the legal consequences of such an act of civil disobedience by deliberately trying to avoid arrest and legal repression. Indeed this mode of action has meant that not a single conviction has resulted from an Ende Gelände mass mobilisation in the past five years. However, with smaller ‘fingers’ this year, many experienced a higher level of police brutality.
In keeping with last year, a significant number of young people participated in the actions, including teenagers and people in their early twenties activated through Fridays for Future and marching with the ‘Anti-Coal Kids’ finger.
Many of these young people were on the receiving end of horse charges, baton beatings, pepper spray and other violence from police as they fought for a just and liveable future for their own and future generations.
Alice Swift is a PhD student in the School of Social Sciences/Sustainable Consumption Institute at The University of Manchester.
This article first appeared in The Ecologist, October 2020.