Germany will not be the same again. The week of protest against the climate crisis in the coal-mining region on the Rhein
Hauke Benner is a former journalist and currently a political activist against climate change.
Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE
“System change instead of climate change” was the motto last Fridays in Aachen’s city centre as 40,000 students, including thousands of parents and grandparents, walked through the venerable German city that lies in the centre of a triangle near the Belgian and Dutch borders. Thousands had traveled from afar to demonstrate against the inactivity of German politicians and the ignorance of the coal industry in the nearby Rhenish lignite mining district. “This is the largest source of CO2 in Europe and the place where our future is being destroyed,” explained Carla Reemtsma of Fridays For Future (FFF) laconically.
On Saturday, various activities were planned on the edge of the Garzweiler lignite mining area in the Rhein region. The initiative “All Villages Will Remain” demonstrated against the pending destrcution of their villages and homes at the northern edge of the Garzweiler open-cast mine. Britta Kox from the village of Berverath, which is about to be demolished, said: “I was born here and have been fighting against the open-cast mine at Garzweiler and the energy multi-national RWE for a long time. For me it means a lot to be joined this weekend by thousands of people for the preservation of our villages, forests, and fields, as well as for climate justice. Coal is a thing of the past, it threatens the climate and the livelihoods of our children. That must be stopped”.
At the same time, activists from the grassroots anti-coal movement “Ende Gelände” wanted to occupy the opencast mine and block the important coal railway to Europe’s largest lignite-fired power plant, the 3000 MW Neurath power plant. This happened on Fridays evening. Several hundred, later over a thousand demonstrators in their white overalls occupied and blocked the railway line in a 48-hour protest, so that individual coal trains had to reverse their journeys so as not to block other rail traffic.
The police had tried in advance to initiate a split among the coal opponents between peaceful groups (FFF) and “violent” groups” (Ende Gelände) with provocative harassment and aggressive reporting by corporate media. The police themselves later had to admit that the intrusion into the opencast mine was only a minor administrative offense. The police employed many unlawful obstructions by the police, by encircling railway stations and not permitting protesters to enter to catch their trains, or blocking vehicles transporting porters on the way to a registered demonstration. Still clearly more participants came than expected. About 8,000 people took part in the march along the opencast mine from Jüchen-Hochneukirch to Keyenberg, a village threatened by dredging, including several thousand from “FFF” and “Ende Gelände”.
“Ende Gelände” then divided its anti-violence members into six “fingers”, groups which were driven via various routes from their base camp near Viersen by buses to the coal railway, the demonstration, and the opencast mine. Despite sharp protests and legal complaints, the police had closed Viersen station and surrounded hundreds of people, in effect arresting them, for over 13 hours. “Fundamental rights must also apply to civil disobedience”, said one lawyer representing the members of “Ende Gelände” in a press release concerning police aggression. Other fingers had to hand over their straw sacks and protective goggles to the police before boarding their buses because of “passive armament”.
The golden finger of “Ende Gelände” also took part in the demonstration to Keyenberg. The small road passes a place very close to the opencast mine, so that the people can see the huge excavators very close in front of them, separated only by a wheat field. The police accompanied the 8000 protesters with a police personnel lorry and mounted police. Suddenly, the golden finger broke out of the demonstration and spread out in wide rows through the wheat field to the edge of the open-cast mine. There, policemen with batons and pepper spray were able initially to prevent the intrusion, but were then hopelessly outflanked by the non-violent protesters. Within a few hours, some 2000 white overalls occupied the 250-metre deep pit and only stopped in front of the excavator protected by RWE employees and policemen. In the course of the night an excavator was occupied and at a height of 70 metres numerous activists waved down to the bewildered private guards of RWE and the police.
Contrary to what had been agreed with the police, including a voluntary evacuation of the excavator and the opencast mine by 10 a.m. on Sunday, hundreds of women were held for hours by the police, filmed, and not even supplied with food and water.
The 48-hour blockade of the coal railway was much more relaxed. Even hundreds of pizzas were distributed to the occupiers camping on the tracks on Saturday evening. Accompanied by a samba band and cheerful but clear songs against the coal industry, the occupation was ended in the course of Sunday. RWE did not find the whole thing so amusing, however, and has already filed claims for damages against the those participating in the blockade. It is completely unclear whether the Neurath power station had to run on reserve due to the interruption of the coal railway; or whether it was shut down in one way or another due to the sunny days thanks to electricity generation from renewable energy.
In the end, many climate change protesters spoke of a “historical” or “super” weekend in the fight for climate justice in the Rhenish brown coal region. Despite massive obstructions, baton beatings, and violations of the right of assembly by the police, thousands succeeded in effectively blocking other opencast mines in Garzweiler and Hambach, where a few dozen coal excavators were still occupied on Monday morning. Well over 50,000 activists participated in the demonstrations, vigils, blockades and occupations of the coal railway and the opencast mines, without one group distancing itself from the actions of the others – that is the real success of the past weekend.
The termination of the use of lignite as fuel in Germany is simply too urgent. Decisions by the government with effective, drastic measures to tackle the climate crisis in all areas of society have been overdue for years. “Fridays for Future” at the Aachen demonstration and “Ende Gelände” in Garzweiler have made it clear that this is no longer just about the climate crisis. Their demands for an end to economic growth, for an end to the model of affluence that is destroying the planet, and for the corresponding lifestyles (especially those practiced in their families) are aimed at questioning the capitalist economic and social model behind this system.
Thanks to “Fridays for Future”, the system question has suddenly been moved from the frowned upon left-wing radical corner into the bourgeois living room. For everyone knows that simply making a few minor adjustments in energy policy or in the mobility sector is not enough. The simple question about the future of the planet, about the future of today’s generation of students and their children leads to a fundamental questioning, for example: “System Change not Climate Change”.
The climate crisis leads to the systemic crisis. Capitalism, even “green capitalism”, is and has no solution. The system question has returned to the centre of German society after this weekend in the Rhenish district, after decades of denigrating such demands as ‘idealism or Utopian’.