The Dharma of disobedience at Ende Gelände: breaking the law to combat climate violence

Protesters march on Europe’s largest coal mine in a mass act of civil disobedience. (c) Tim Wagner, EndeGelände
Protesters march on Europe’s largest coal mine in a mass act of civil disobedience. (c) Tim Wagner, EndeGelände
At the start of September 6000 people from across Europe gathered at Ende Gelände in Germany, to shut down Europe’s largest coal mine in a mass act of civil disobedience. LINDSAY ALDERTON shares a little of what she experienced there.
As politicians and big business continue to play an increasingly psychopathic game with our future, more and more people are being forced to step up and take drastic measures

As a practicing Buddhist for the last twenty years, breaking the law is not something that I might once have considered a form of ‘spiritual practice’, and yet here I am on a sunny afternoon in late August running along a blocked-off highway towards police lines in Germany. This is the first time I have ever done anything like this, and I’m scared, of that there’s no doubt. The police in their riot gear are many more than I was anticipating, and they’re laying into people with their batons without hesitation. This is only the very beginning – we left camp just five minutes before – and I’m wondering what the hell I’ve let myself in for, but it’s too late to turn back.


With police helicopters encircling overhead, I imagine what we look like from above – this vast sea of protesters dressed in our white overalls and dust masks. There is a comfort in knowing that for many others this is also their first time. As politicians and big business continue to play an increasingly psychopathic game with our future, developing fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of all credible science, more and more people are being forced to step up and take drastic measures. Eight years ago, there were only 80 activists at the climate camp in the Rhineland. In 2015, at the first Ende Gelände – which means Here and No Further – there were 1500 people. This year numbers have swelled to close to 6,000. “It’s important that my kids know I did everything I could do,” said a young mother to me yesterday as we stood side by side in the queue for dinner. “They know they’re inheriting a mess. Children aren’t stupid.”


Engaged Buddism


Behind us the mass surges forwards, and for a moment I feel my feet come completely off the ground. I am carried along in this vast movement of the body collective, managing to just about hold onto my friend Juha’s hand. We’ve come here together from teaching an ‘Engaged Buddhism’ training at the Ecodharma Centre in Catalunya, and we’re here as part of an affinity group made up, of amongst others, our friend Kirsten and members of the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE).

As politicians and big business continue to play an increasingly psychopathic game with our future, more and more people are being forced to step up and take drastic measures


But right now, to be honest, levels of ‘engagement’ are way more than I was bargaining for. Just ahead of us we can see batons flying as the police lay into the lines of people on the first few rows. It is shocking and awful the ferocity of their attack, unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. Bracing myself I close my eyes for a second, plugging into the feeling of my breath as an anchor, some kind of stabilizer through the waves of fear.


Then suddenly I hear someone shout “Run!” and before I question what I’m doing, my legs start moving towards a gap ahead between two vans. Beyond them I can see the wide expanse of open fields. Skittering and dodging, we somehow make it through to the other side, and then we’re up and over a ditch, and back into the throngs of others who’ve made it through. Regrouping and quickly linking up, we keep running and assemble back into formation, the density of the crowd offering some sense of relief from the violence we’ve just witnessed. I glance back to see hordes of white boiler suits streaming across the field, as a song starts to ripple upwards filling the skies with a chant  – “Power to the people, the people got the power…” Though my heart is racing and there’s dirt and sweat and definite fear, I’m also smiling. The first hurdle has been crossed. How many more are there to come?


The planet is taking a battering


This is not a situation that my younger self could have imagined. This doesn’t fit into an image of what for most of my life it meant to be ‘good’ – be that a ‘good Buddhist’, a ‘good citizen’, a ‘good daughter’, a ‘good girl’. However, in the face of an increasingly erratic climate, mass extinctions and late capitalism wreaking its fury on the most vulnerable and poor, perhaps it’s time to seriously readdress what ‘good’ even means.


What is undeniably ‘not good’ is that our planet is taking a battering, and climate change is no longer a far off distant blur looming on the horizon. We can already see its impact on the poorest communities in the world, with people of colour disproportionately facing assault on their health and environment. Climate change expedites many of our social ills, and the mass displacements, floods and famines sit embedded within a system of structural racism. As fossil fuel CEOs continue to rake in record year-on-year profits, bribing politicians into a bloated state of complacency and greed, experts are predicting a staggering 50 million environmental refugees will be on the move by 2020. Civil disobedience offers a vital pathway towards the change we so drastically need to see.


We’ve been marching across the fields and dirt tracks for a while now – sticking to tractor routes wherever possible – and on the horizon we can see a lone van barreling down the track towards us. As it screeches to a halt and the back door is flung open, a group of people who have arrived from the camp start throwing out bags stuffed with straw. These makeshift shields are our only protection, and my stomach tightens to see the view in the distance of convoy upon convoy of police vehicles. And yet they are not in the direction we are heading, but rather lined up in the front of a towering blot on the landscape to our left – the RWE power plant – it’s two vast chimneys spewing smoke plumes into the sky.


80 million tons


There are three other power plants run by RWE in the region, powered by the lignite from three massive open-cast mines. Lignite is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, and the coalfields in the Rhineland are the largest source of carbon emissions in Europe -together they emit 80 million tons of CO2 per year. To see police vans lined up to protect fossil fuel capitalism at its worst, is a pertinent reminder of where the State’s priorities lie; it brings back home the stark reality faced by many communities across the world.


I see in my mind’s eye the image of the protectors at Standing Rock defending their water from the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the grandmothers taking on Cuadrilla at the anti-fracking camps in Lancashire. ‘Fossil fuel sacrifice zones dot the globe’ writes Naomi Klein, and the local communities here in the Rhineland have not been exempt. Throughout the region there are several abandoned villages, eerie ghost-towns emptied of the generations of families who once called them home. But today at least there is a felt sense of power inhabiting this landscape of resistance, knowing that each of these struggles across the globe are connected in the fight for a saner world. We are many – they are few; we are growing ever more determined year on year.


This year’s strategy for Ende Gelände was more decentralized and diverse, and although there’s close to 6000 people in total, there are several independent blocks – called ‘fingers’ – coming across this area from a variety of different locations. Each one of these fingers is made up of hundreds of people, and to the back of our block now, the red finger has split off in another direction. Across the fields at another point, the pink finger are waving a fuchsia ‘Queer We Go’ banner. This strategy is clearly working as there is obvious confusion with the cops, and we’ve managed to get past several blockades now with a similar ‘cat and mouse’ approach. It also worked well during the previous day’s action where countless groups struck out on solo missions, including blockades of the train tracks and blocked road access to the power plant, along with occupations of the excavator at the open-cast mine in Inden and a human chain of 3000 people drawing a ‘Red Line’ against lignite mining at the edge of the Hambach forest. Regardless of whatever comes of today the protest has already been a massive success, significantly disrupting business as usual and striking Big Coal where it hurts.


When a cheer suddenly goes up ahead we start running again; the mystery of our final destination at last in plain view. The path to the train tracks is now clear and tantalisingly close, although we can already see vast dust clouds arising as police vans barrel towards us. The formation breaks apart as people start to make a dash for it, and within minutes it’s pandemonium and the air is filled with the sound of shouting and the sharp tang of pepper spray. I’m running and my arms are burning and I’ve lost Juha and Kirsten, and what I’m seeing all around me is police brutality, violence unrestrained. But through the mist I also see one of our affinity group scrabbling up and over the bank to the tracks and feel a whoosh of exhilaration in my body, as I see others braving the batons and getting through to the other side. 


Within minutes it’s all over and approximately 500 of us are encircled and surrounded by police lines. For the following five hours we are kept there, but the atmosphere, once it settles, is both jubilant and defiant, especially once we’ve heard that close to 300 people are blocking the train tracks which supply the power plant. For the remainder of the day no coal shuttles will pass. Overall there will be a reduction in mine operations to 37 per cent, with RWE forced to reduce the capacities of the power plant for 20 hours.


Seeing eye-to-eye


The hours drag on, but within our enclosed circle there continues to be an impressively coherent process, with people partaking in meetings and delegates from each affinity group going to and fro seeking consensus and providing feedback. Songs are shared, superglue is passed around, as people paint up their fingerprints to remain anonymous.  At some point a pizza delivery arrives from a support crew from the camp, and as the sun bears down the police start to relax more and remove their helmets.


For a short while there is an opportunity for us to be humans eye-to-eye again. Glances are occasionally exchanged, and sometimes perhaps even the shadow of a smile. But I know that within an instant if I tried to step across the line a command of violence would come down upon me hard. This is demonstrated when it’s time to load us onto buses and some activists are dragged away in unnecessarily aggressive ways, by their chins, necks and hair.


When I’m eventually taken to the police bus, gripped by a gloved hand on each side, it is a horrible moment, where I feel most acutely what I’m supposed to feel – the weight of my powerlessness. And yet this powerlessness is still relative. I know somewhere else in the word that a similar situation would incur a far more horrific outcome, with environmental defenders around the world facing violent deaths, on behalf of state and corporations, at the rate of about four a week. With my privilege comes a moral imperative to act.


A place annihilated by greed


We’ll be temporarily detained at the police station for the following few hours, and on the journey there we pass by the vast crater of the mine, and a hushed silence falls over the bus. At over 20km wide it is more enormous than anything I could have imagined. It is a place of no life –  a desert moonscape, immense and uninhabitable – like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, or a scene from The Road. I think of the words of the poet Wendell Berry: ‘There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places’ and imagine what this landscape might once have looked like when it was thriving with life.


My mind flickers back to the blog post by Ben Winston I read this morning, another first-time activist who took part in the original Ende Gelände protests in 2015. Ben wrote a powerful essay about his experience as a father taking action, shortly before his untimely death in the same year. Even though I never met him, his words had a profound impact, and as I sat and meditated on them at daybreak, I let my fingers sink into the moss of the wildlife sanctuary which bordered the camp. This is a place of life, I noted, with all its worms and soft crevasses and dirt and greens. This is why I’m here, to align with what thrives. The mine and what it represents is the antithesis of that. It is a cavernous wound, a place annihilated by greed.  What will be asked of us in the next few years is to step forward and show our allegiance. The invitation is there; hope to see you in 2018.


This Author


Lindsay Alderton is an activist and writer who works for the Ulex Project a non-profit involved in the design and delivery of residential trainings since 2008. Lindsay tweets at @lindsayalderton