Interview with C. of Ende Gelände

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The setting: a terrace in Berlin, surrounded by trees in gold and brown. It’s autumn, the end of October, 2017. Within a few days, there will be a UN Climate Change conference in Bonn. From the 6th to the 17th of November, a couple of hundred diplomats will attend the COP23 summit to talk and debate and write urgent texts about climate change and the future of our planet. But for the movement called Ende Gelände, time is up. Political action is needed, not talking. They have a good reason for it too: almost 40% of Germany’s electricity comes from coal-powered plants; nearly a quarter from brown coal. As a result, Germany is Europe’s biggest polluter, spewing out more than 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions from the European Union.

 

C. is one of the protesters. For two years now, she has been working for EG – and like all participants, she does it in her free time. But she doesn’t want her name to be published in this interview, let alone to have a photo taken for online publication. She talks passionately about the need for action, though, sipping from her large cappuccino. Climate change has been a big concern of hers for years now, she says. “I’ve been a political activist for a long time. Twenty years or something. But I noticed that the EG protest that I first participated in, in 2015, was exceptionally well organised. You don’t see that many actions of civil disobedience on that scale, even in Europe. I was impressed by how smooth the organisation was. It was clear EG had put a lot of thought in all the details of the enterprise – the things other protest actions often lack. I wanted to learn how it was organised. And, of course, I have been interested in environmental issues for a very long time. So, yes, I wanted to be part of this process.”

 

“The reason why I don’t want my name or picture in this interview – or in any other interview about EG – is my daytime job. I work for an environmental think tank and we sometimes work closely with the government. In this context, if I would get interviewed under my real name, it would just be too difficult to combine. Not so much on a content level, but a government wouldn’t want to be advised by someone who is participating in protest actions, based on civil disobedience. It would lead to a conflict, I’m afraid. But most of my colleagues in the think tank know how I use my time, after hours. I actually work part-time, so I can manage it all. I have always picked my fields well as a political activist. I want to learn things on the one hand, and on the other hand it should involve a reasonable way of working together. Meaning: it’s about the quality of the discussions, how people communicate with each other.”

 

“We all share the belief that to stop climate change we need to take action ourselves, using civil disobedience as a powerful signal for real action to put our climate before profit.”

 

On the website, you find a description of the movement called EG in short: “We are a broad alliance of people from the anti-nuclear and anti-coal movements, the Rhineland and Lausitz climate camps and the Hambacher Forest anti-coal campaign. We are from grassroots climate action groups, large environmental organisations, left political groups and many other campaigns, groups and networks. We all share the belief that to stop climate change we need to take action ourselves, using civil disobedience as a powerful signal for real action to put our climate before profit.” The history of EG is quite recent: the first protest took place in 2015 in Rhineland, on the site of a coalmine. Between 1000 and 1500 participants showed up. “Then there was a major reaction by the police,” C. recalls. A year later, in 2016, another action followed in Lausitz, more in the east of Germany. This time there were between 3500 and 4000 protesters – but the reaction from the police on this second raid was rather cool. C. says: “This was a result of the communication by the prosecutors beforehand: they had made it public that they didn’t consider the protest to be illegal or violating any law. This referred to us going into the pit. This year, in 2017, we see a stronger repression by the police.”

 

“We don’t use the term ‘non-violent’, but we always chose ways of action without the intent of harming anyone or anything.”

 

“During a protest, we mainly use our own bodies as a tool to be ‘disobedient’. We don’t use the term ‘non-violent’, but we always chose ways of action without the intent of harming anyone or anything. So, we don’t want to destroy anyone’s property for example. But we do go into the pit of a coal mining company, and therefore we can be arrested for trespassing.”

 

“We do have what we call an action consensus. This consensus we publish on our website. We promote it openly because we want every participant to stick to it.”

 

“[Skills for Action] provide[s] a standard training, about the different elements you experience when you take part in a protest action, legally but also emotionally.”

 

Participants to EG protests are invited to training sessions in advance, taking place in different cities. The training itself is done, among others, by a network called Skills for Action. C. is also part of this network, she says. “We work for all kinds of organisations. We provide a standard training, about the different elements you experience when you take part in a protest action, legally but also emotionally. What is civil disobedience? How do you feel about participating in a so-called sitting blockade and how do you behave there? How do you deal with police chains? How do you form an ‘affinity group’? And so on. Skills for Action is a network of action trainers, mainly active in the German speaking countries. We also have training sessions in Switzerland and Austria, for example.” Apparently, C. has a really intense second life, after her daytime job at the think tank. She smiles. “I work part-time. And I don’t have to take care of kids or a dog, or anything like that.”

 

“We have a lot of combined experience now. And different generations of activists.”

 

What makes a protest by EG so efficient? In what way do they make a difference? “Hm. I don’t think we have a collective analysis of that yet. I would like to see that happen, actually.” She takes another sip of her cappuccino. “EG is a network with people coming from different political organisations and social backgrounds. So, this mechanism of having an action consensus for every action is, besides really necessary, also very handy. For example: we don’t say explicitly that we are non-violent, but at the same time it’s clear that we aren’t attacking anyone. This allows people from very different backgrounds to participate. It’s fine for non-violent people and it works for activists with a more militant attitude. And it also allows us to have an open dialogue with different NGOs, who are supporting us. Some of the EG people themselves work for an NGO, so… They support us by providing a training session for the press team, for example. Or financially. Secondly, a part of the people that were involved in the anti-nuclear movement during the eighties and nineties – a protest which got better organised through the years – have moved to EG, since the anti-nuclear protest isn’t that active anymore, because the politics around this theme have changed in Germany… So basically, we have a lot of combined experience now. And different generations of activists. We are active in several cities too: not only here in Berlin, but in the whole of Germany.”

 

How many people are involved in Berlin, for example? “When we have a meeting, usually there is a group of 15 to 20 people. But a lot more people participate – every meeting you see new or other faces. When we have evaluation meeting, here in Berlin, sometimes there are like seventy or eighty people present. And of course, it’s very hard to count everyone during an action. Like I said: with an interesting mix of generations.”

 

Nevertheless, how does EG recruit new participants? C. laughs. “We call it mobilisation – not recruiting. That sounds a bit too military… But of course, we have a set of instruments. To name a few: we use online mobilisation. We go through the cities and hang out posters. We organise a number of events beforehand, like the trainings by Skills for Action… It’s all very straightforward. And I think our media group is very good in what they do. We have a nice graphic design, for example. And also: the people of EG are very committed to what they do. This is not always the case for, let’s say, all leftist political organisations. Everyone else is a volunteer.”

 

How is the funding organised? “We have a bit of budget for every action: for the mobilisation of our material, for the transport of the participants with busses, etcetera. We also do public fundraising, by organising parties for example. And we get some financial support from other organisations.”

 

“We discuss every topic […] and not everyone needs to be as involved or enthusiastic about every proposal. But everybody must be able to live with the decisions that are made.”

 

On the flyer of the protest in November, there is a list of supporting organisations. It’s an impressive list indeed, with a hundred or more partners, in Germany but also in the Netherlands, the USA, Sweden and Belgium. Which brings the conversation back to the topic of efficiency and, let’s say, leadership. Is EG a kind of pyramid structure? With a small circle of coordinators? C. frowns a bit, hearing these words. “We are a consensus-based organisation. So, we try to be as horizontal as possible. We discuss every topic, obviously, and not everyone needs to be as involved or enthusiastic about every proposal. But everybody must be able to live with the decisions that are made. We don’t vote, because then you only hear the majority speaking. How it works? There is a proposal formulated, mainly by a smaller work group. And then people can react to it. Some agree, some have light concerns, some people may have grave concerns… You can also abstain, or stand aside, for personal reasons, for example. And when someone has a veto, we must continue the discussion. This system of consensus decision-making is quite well-known in social movements in Germany. I think it works really well, as a system. IIt’s used in many grassroots organisations I know. You shouldn’t forget: we do this all in our free time, as individuals. So, people need to be convinced by what they are doing. Otherwise you will lose them after a while. That’s why a consensus is a good model. You see it also in other contexts. For example, I live in a housing project with ninety people: there too everything is decided by the consensus model.”

 

“Striving for a consensus under every decision, big or small, forces us to think hard about the best solutions. EG is based on a quite diverse network, with very different people. We often need long discussions to decide things. Especially when we go into the specific details of a project – the general ‘rough lines’ of an idea usually can be decided fast. But that’s okay.”

 

“[The NGOs] provide the context and the debate, we provide action in the field.”

 

“Speaking about diversity, it’s true that EG needs to work on that even more. Until now, most of the participants are white, for example. We did have a queer finger during the last action, though. But, in general, EG is relatively white. Like a lot of left wing groups in Germany, I’m afraid, apart from the anti-racist movement. What can I say? But we are working on that for sure.”

 

Last question. Do they organise debates and talks? To weigh on the public opinion? Or to do research? “No, we leave research mostly to the NGOs, yet we do take part in public debates. If we do research, it’s about the territory where we plan a protest action. Like how we can get into the pit of a coalmine, without interference. That’s why it is a good thing to be linked to climate camps and NGOs in general: we are complementary in what we do. They provide the context and the debate, we provide action in the field. I’ve seen it happen in 2015, when a generation of young intellectuals that attended the degrowth summer school at the climate camp. Many of them did not come for the action initially, . but they came along in the end and went with us, down in the pit, for a sitting blockade. From theory to action. That’s a great combination for raising awareness, don’t you agree?”

Interview and Photos by NTGent & Carolina Maciel de França

 

Read more

CNN article on Germany’s coal mine in Hamback Forest

 

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Interview with Ende Gelände by Flemish media outlet De Wereld Morgen (in Dutch)

Personal testimony of a climate activist in Cologne by De Wereld Morgen (in Dutch)