"The only option was to put my body in between the diggers and the earth"
Posted by Guest Blogger on December 08, 2017 at 05:45 PM
A member of Fossil Free TCD went to the UN climate talks in Bonn last month. This is the first of two reports she wrote for us.
I am crouched behind a damp sand bank and can feel my heartbeat in my ears. People shuffle hurriedly in both directions next to me, careful not to slip into the trench behind. I am too terrified to peer over the bank, in case I come face-to-face with a riot cop, and his shield or baton comes crashing into me. I huddle down smaller. Can they see my rucksack over the edge? Someone grabs by elbow violently and I almost shout out - but it is ok. My affinity group is planning our next move. We turn to the hundreds lining the cusp of the pit above, as high up as House 6 from the base: “Which way?” we whisper-scream up at them. “Go left!”, “Left!”, “No cops left!” they shout back, and we are off. Last chance to go back, but we’re up and over and gone. Police far to the right but they’ll never reach us in time. I am running before I know it, and look back for my “buddy” Emma, who has asthma. Her, Tony, and Frodo are close behind. Of course, as it turned out, none of these were their real names.
I am at Ende Gelände. There are 4,500 of us occupying this coal mine in Buir, Germany. This particular Sunday, there were far more participants than expected, it being winter. But it’s not too cold. We reach the coal conveyor belt, which has been shut off - it is about twice as tall as me. I could climb it, but that would take too long. We drop to the floor and crawl under the massive contraption. My bag gets temporarily snagged and I struggle loose sideways, like an upturned woodlouse. On the other side my affinity group is waiting for me. We rejoin the Green Finger and march on.
Ende Gelände is a German organization that arrange non-violent direct actions (NVDAs) against fossil fuel extraction. The aim is to get in the way of the extraction - no violence, but put yourself in the way of the machinery so it has to be turned off. We have been training all weekend for this. We are organized into “Fingers” - a red, gold, green, blue, and “legal” finger. These are huge subgroups that split and enter the pit at different sites. On the night before the demonstration, we counted 750 people in our “Green Finger”, which also contained the queer and feminist bloc. We have been well prepared for this. We have specific handsigns for movements, affinity groups, a buddy system within that, face masks and suits to hide our identities, decision-making structures for non-hierarchical organization. My phone and ID are at home. I have been prepped by the legal team for dealing with the police. My fingertips have been covered with superglue, to cover my prints. Some people were using razor blades on the train to remove theirs. I am terrified.
Now we have surpassed the first barrier I breathe a little more easily. The chants start up again: “ Anti-anti-anti-capitalistaaaa”, “We are unstoppable, Another world is possible”, “ Power to the people, The people have the power.” The queer bloc behind us sing “We’re here, We’re queer, The end of coal is near!”. My group hug as we walk and do a “temperature check” - everyone is ok and no one is hurt. We have a moment of celebration until we see more police arriving. How to describe this scene? Unreal. It was like being on Mars. The size of these coal diggers was incredible - bigger than the front square of my university (Trinity College, Dublin), bigger than a warship, maybe the size of an oil rig. How many times taller than Trinity’s campanile I wonder? Ten? How long? Longer than O’Connell’s bridge? Just fucking huge. And all around, a blockade of police jeeps lined up end-to-end. Fences in front - then another line of riot cops. The news comes down the line through the loudhailer and then through our “mic” system (chanting out messages). The police are going to kettle us - we see dogs and horses, and more vans around us. We are instructed to spread out, to complicate confinement.
One of our team members Frodo approached the lip of the next level down. It’s the height of a four-storey building. He has done this before, and wants to split from the main group. We have a huddle together to plan our next move. Some of us want to stay, to see what happens at the main site. But the majority vote to leave - no one vetoes the decision, so we move down. Later this proves to be the right decision. The main group is kettled, pepper sprayed, brutally beaten, and one woman is seriously injured in the face by a police horse. About 70 other people have made the same decision, including a large group from the queer bloc, carrying the rainbow flag. At first we say nothing, but keep together and walk quickly and directly away from the main site. Then we call for a plenary meeting, and each group sends a delegate or representative to participate. We decide to walk to the next digger about 2 kilometres away - one woman has a radio, another has a phone, and many of us have maps of the site.
We hit our first snag soon however. One small group want to take a cross-country shortcut across a gorge with a small river at the bottom. They are nervous as we are currently on a gravel track, exposed. The police will be looking for us soon, and there is always at least one helicopter in sight above. The rest of the group ahead call for a group consensus decision, and this does not go down well. The smaller group were Austrian, or from the Netherlands - I can’t remember. They snap that “The Germans can talk about it - we will do it!”. Communication breaks down, and we all continue down the road, with bitter muttering at the back. Private jeeps dot the landscape with their headlights on full blast. There is no way they don’t see us.
We definitely walk for more than 2 kilometres, and start encountering company employees. This is a RWE mine, and we have interrupted their work day. They don’t seem to mind, but smile, and film us. I keep my mask up, but offer a flower from my hair to one man, who beams at me. It begins to rain. We pass a fence in the distance where about 100 observers seem to spot us and cheer us on. I feel as if I am walking to the gallows, or to my fate. We round the corner and the sheer size of the mine becomes apparent. It continues for as far as the eye can see in two directions. I’ve calculated it from the map - bigger than all of Dublin. With the rain setting in it looked like Mordor, or Hell maybe. I see about 7 massive diggers in the far distance working their way deeper into the ground. They have to pull back the sand to reach to coal. The vast levels looks like a staircase for an ant - I think of Dante and his seven levels, but there are more than that. Company vehicles - vans, lorries, JCBs, and jeeps - come up behind us. We hold hands and spread out across the road, 20 people wide, blocking their way. A silent and scary-looking man holds my hand in a huge glove and squeezes it gently when we let go. We sing. The second huge digger looms into view, churning away, the conveyor belt whirring deafeningly. As we approach it slows, stops, and we let out a cheer. We make a break for it and begin clambering up on the digger like ants on a cake. We release banners and take photos, but in the distance I can see about 10 police hurrying from behind the digger. One falls comically in his enthusiasm, which makes me laugh. It wasn’t funny for long. He is the first to arrive at our group and is outnumbered for a little while. He pulls people off the digger and screams. I don’t speak German, so I have no idea what he is saying. One woman who I spoke to the night before (I had a bit of a crush on her - she is gorgeous) has crouched down on the digger’s first level, her hands clasped beneath her knees. This position makes it very hard for someone to move you. The policeman grabs her by her beautiful black hair and shakes whole body up and down. She doesn’t scream but screws up her face in agony - we yell but no one can reach her. It is like she is a yoyo, and he is a redfaced spoiled kid. Has some of her hair come out in his fist? I make myself watch.
At this stage I have locked my arms around the steps of the digger, and Emma has locked on to me. Two police surprise us from behind and throw us violently to the ground. They shout at us - Emma translates - “Stay down!” All of a sudden there are about 30 police surrounding us at the base of the digger in a ring - we are definitely kettled now. We watch them struggle to pick the last of us off the digger, dragging some down with great force. The woman with the phone immediately calls the “legal” finger and shouts out numbers down the phones - no names. Mine was 2669. Eventually she is stopped and her phone is taken. I bury my face between two other people next to me. I don’t want to be pepper sprayed, and the outside of the kettle is not a good place to be. They are violently dragging people from the outsides to a separate location a little way off. I lock myself on to the others on the grounds as closely as possible.
I wonder if these police people hate us. They look at us if they do. This is a depressing thought. I do not hate the police. We all have jobs, and coming from a place of extreme privilege, I have not had many bad experiences with the law. It makes me uncomfortable to be hated. I want to scream at them that we are trying to do a good thing! I am not a criminal! This is wrong! We are trying to save the world! An important-seeming policeman arrives and tells us to cooperate or we will be hurt. I am still internally struggling with my morals - I have ever wanted to displease or upset anyone. If anything, I have unreasonable respect for authorities and institutions. I have a strange need for institutional validation. I think through every scenario in my head - every way out. There is no escape. I had no choice coming here - backed into a wall. Lobbying government and voting has not helped me. Not enough. What choice did I have? The only option was to put my body in between the diggers and the earth. This is the ultimatum we all faced. I pull more flowers from my hair and stick them in the sand below. Pretend they are growing.
There is not much more to this story. We were arrested, detained in a series of holding zones. We double checked the superglue on our fingers, sang songs. Someone passed around brownies. One of our group realized she had her passport - we stashed it in a water bottle. We were taken on huge buses to the middle of nowhere. Drew on our faces to confuse any photographs or facial recognition technology they might have. They had filmed us all. I was very thoroughly searched, photographed. They attempted to print us but no luck. Frogmarched to the exit of some base and spat out into some random German suburb in the back end of nowhere. Found a train back to Cologne, sang more, drank whiskey from water bottles. Learnt each other's real names. Went to the after-party in the city and ate. It was incredible.
I keep thinking back to the first police van they put us in, under the digger. The sun was setting over the mine and it was almost beautiful. Just to the right, over the cusp of the mine, the thin white blades of some wind turbines were visible. The others saw them too. We thought back to our chants of the day, and I think someone actually said it out loud. Another world is possible.