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'No Coal - the 'Ende Gelände' action, 15th August 2015. Photo: Ruben Neugebauer / 350.org via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
'No Coal - the 'Ende Gelände' action, 15th August 2015. Photo: Ruben Neugebauer / 350.org via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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Into the heart of the beast - occupying Germany's open cast coal nightmare

Toni Belly

21st August 2015

Last weekend Toni Belly was occupying Germany's biggest open cast coal mine in the once lovely Rhineland area, one of thousands of protestors from 350.org and other groups determined to shut the operation down. Nursing his bruises and eyes still sore from pepper spray, he set down his account of an unforgettable day of action.

This is where the battle began. The nail of the finger pushed through the police line, some using sacks of straw as shields to protect themselves. The police tried to stand firm but couldn't hold back our momentum.

Last weekend I along with around one thousand other people took part in mass direct action against one of the largest open cast lignite mines in Europe, owned by RWE, which along with surrounding mines and coal powers stations is the largest source of greenhouse gases in Europe.

I took part because fossil fuel capitalism is destroying our Earth. Waiting for companies and governments to do the right things is not working and is not going to work so people must stand up and force them to.

Earlier this year, the German government caved in to the lobbying might of RWE, backtracking on plans to put a levy on the most polluting power plants, which would have led to a phase out of lignite. Last weekend, people stood up in protest to say ‘Ende Gelände', here and no further.

This is my experience of the day. It was a long, exhausting and confused day, and what I experienced will not be the same thing that others in different parts of the action experienced. But I hope this can help anyone reading understand what happened.

The assault

"Guten Morgen, Ende Gelände!" Those were the words I woke up to at 5:45 am in my tent. An early start for a momentous day, I rushed to scramble my stuff together, go to the loo and then hastily join up with my affinity group.

We were in the 'Green Finger' one of the four groups with approximately 250 people in them, that would be laying siege to the mine.

When the whole finger was formed up with everyone in their agreed place, my affinity group was in the middle. The first kilometre or so passed calmly enough. I could even hear someone play 'The Diggers Song' on a pipe, as we searched for a way across the motorway between us and the mine.

In the end, we came upon a tunnel with only about four lines of cops blocking it. It was at this point that many people there had their first experience of police violence, in some ways I was lucky I knew what to expect from previous actions.

This is where the battle began. The nail of the finger pushed through the police line, some using sacks of straw as shields to protect themselves. The police tried to stand firm but couldn't hold back our momentum.

So they resorted to filling the air with a mist of pepper spray and beating everyone they could reach with their clubs, in the hope of separating them from the group. Everyone around me bunched up like rugby players in a scrum so the police couldn't drag any of us away.

After this came a mad dash across the fields going through two more police lines. Even when they weren't in front of us, the police followed behind us on foot and in vans trying to beat and pick off any stragglers. One person in my affinity group got pepper spray in their face, so we had to guide him by hand as we ran through a break in the police line.

I'm humbled by the trust he showed in us to make sure he wasn't beaten to a pulp. The way everyone rallied to help those around them who had been beaten or pepper sprayed was one the most beautiful displays of practical solidarity I had ever seen.

Into the mine

After we successfully got across the fields, we walked along a dirt track by the edge of the mine that was in line with some water sprinklers used to stop dust escaping. Before this point I hadn't really grasped the scale of the place. It looked large enough to fit at least two good sized towns in. It went from sand coloured at the top down to pitch black at the bottom.

We descended down the mine on a sandy ramp wide enough to drive a van down. At a bend near the bottom there was an attempt to block the path, but we evaded the police by travelling out the bank and bypassing them instead.

We then moved as fast as we could along the top tier of the mine, shadowed by a group of riot cops on the cliff top. When we reached one of the corners of the top tier, where conveyor belts over a kilometre long ended, we met a small group of security, which most of us were able to get past without much trouble. As we moved along the side of the conveyor belt towards one of the massive Baggers the police raced after us in borrowed 4x4s.

The police tried to form a line to block us off, but there were too few of them to do anything, so we were able to bust through the line with ease. My legs were burning from running in the sand with a heavy bag full of water. My right arm felt like it was on fire from the pepper spray.

After this we formed a line in order to stop any more police being able to join those in front of us. They tried again to block our path, but we held our line together by linking arms. We successfully stood our ground and they were forced to retreat. Seeing the police retreat was a wonderful sight.

Eventually we came to a point that was too wide for us to fully block and even more police managed to get past us. They had a much stronger line in front of us, which was thickest next to the conveyor belt where I was walking. On the very far side from me people managed to break through their line next to some smaller diggers.

The members of the affinity group I was with tried to run over to flow through the police, but by the time we got there they had closed it. I saw one police officer grab someone by their front and beat them across their back, while others lashed wildly in every direction, and others pepper-sprayed around them hoping to burn someone.

Detention

After two hours, roughly seven kilometres, and numerous police lines, we were kettled at 9 am. Even then we were still winning, as just by being there we stopped the mine from running and the police guarding us couldn't work to keep others out.

We could see the Baggers lying still while in the distance wind turbines moved. A couple of hours in, they started to pull us out one by one, taking our photos and trying to get our names. Almost no one told them.

After this, they tied our hands with zip ties behind our backs. Through all this we supported each other, and worked to keep our spirits up by playing games and chatting (small talk when you can't say your name, or say too much about yourself is strange).

After five to seven hours we were moved onto buses and taken to a police station. We sat for several more hours chatting, singing and sharing food (our hands had been freed by then). Eventually, they gave up on trying to process several hundred people that refused to give their names and resisted having their fingerprints taken.

Around 11 pm we were dumped outside a railway station and made our way back to camp, tired but triumphant. For the train ride back, some of us brought a couple of crates of beer, we celebrated the day and talked about what we'd been through on the train back. By around 1 am I was back in my tent exhausted, sore, emotionally drained, but also felt great about what we'd done together and achieved.

We had stopped the diggers for a day but it was also about more than just that. In economic terms it will have also damaged RWE's position on the market (their share price just hit a new low) and made them seem less trustworthy to investors.

In addition to this many there had never taken part in direct action before but now know that by working together and taking matters into our own hands we can achieve more than waiting for salvation from those above us in society could ever do.

Many people both there and watching the events from afar will also have seen the role of the police, not as keeping of the peace but as guard dogs of social and economic order which is killing us and our planet. Last weekend, we fought and we won.

 


 

Background to the action: 'Power struggle: after Germany's renewables surge, can it keep its coal in the ground?' by Melanie Mattauch.

Toni Belly is a student at the University of Birmingham and a member of Plan C. He is also active in various student political and campaigning groups fighting on both environmental and economic issues. He's critical of solutions to economic, social and environmental issues that rely on benevolent action on the part of those at the top of our current social economic order. Instead being of the view that real change can only come through struggle enacted from below.

 

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