Protesters intent on getting to Lüzterath face off with police at the edge of Garzweiler II coal mine in Germany. ⒸGabriella Gonçalves Pretelli
An Experience of Direct Action: Opposing the Destruction of Lützerath
From the Biden administration’s recent approval of the Willow Project, one of the largest oil development projects in the United States and Arctic, to the expansion of the Garzweiler II coal mine in Germany, fossil fuel development projects in Europe and the US continue to march on. In light of increasingly dire climactic events and the paralysis many feel in the face of unrelenting fossil fuel development, our Curriculum and Training Coordinator Bennett Collins sat down with Community Outreach Coordinator Annabelle von Moltke to talk about her recent experience protesting the expansion of a coal mine – a mine which has already claimed over 300 villages in 30 years – and share with us her experience of non-violent direct action.
So, Annabelle, a couple of months ago you were at the protest camp in Lützerath, can you tell me a little bit about it?
Well first of all, I should explain that I wasn’t in the village of Luetzerath itself. By the time I joined the scene in mid January, the police had sealed off the entire village and were in the process of demolishing the buildings and extracting the remaining protestors, who were holding out in tree houses and underground tunnels. Those of us who joined later, as well as those who chose to leave Luezterath when the demolition began, set up camp on the outskirts of the nearby village Keyenberg, from where further resistance was launched. I arrived the day before a huge protest march, which was organised with the support of dozens of environmental NGO’s and other protest movements, and left the day after.
That’s really interesting because I feel like the news didn’t reflect how big the actual protest was. Some outlets made it appear somewhat small from the pictures and videos they released.
Annabelle (far right) with friends shortly before the protest, in front of the Church in Keyenberg. Taken by, unknown.
Can you maybe talk about what the camp was like that the news didn’t show?
The experience of the camp itself left a strong impression on me. The UAC – Unser Aller Camp – was located in a field, nestled in a patch of woodland, hidden from view from the main road. I was impressed by how well it was organised, by the infrastructure they had and by the work that had been put in to make it an inclusive space – especially as it had only been set up a few weeks prior, when the activists got the dates of the demolition of Luetzerath. They had tents for legal advice and medical care, tents to store donations, boil vast quantities of water, fix bicycles… I’m not sure what surprised me more, the menstrual cup washing station or the pizza oven! There were also ‘safer spaces’ – tents designated for neurodiverse, BIPOC and FLINTA* – women, lesbian, intersex, non-binary, trans and agender – people.
The rest tent of the Unser Aller Camp. The banner reads ‘Our dreams cannot be demolished’. Ⓒ Annabelle von Moltke
Then there was also the Info Tent. Perhaps the most important tent, it contained large boards filled with logistical information, like the workshop and meeting schedule, and the cooking, cleaning and waste disposal shifts. A sticky-note stuck to the board read ‘white men – pull your weight’. It was emphasised that ‘reproductive work’ – a term borrowed, I believe, from feminist Marxism – was as important as blocking a road, or joining a march. This self-organisation and collective work meant that the ‘Küfa’ – Kitchen for All – could produce three hot, vegan meals a day, for hundreds if not thousands of people. The fact that those systems didn’t completely collapse with the influx of thousands of people over the course of 48hrs, deeply impressed me.
That sounds very similar to my own experience at Standing Rock in 2016, where ‘reproductive work’ as you say, was really prioritised to maintaining the camp itself. I think it’s somewhat buried that maintaining spaces for care, rest, and nourishment is just as important as the ‘direct action’ work.
Can you talk, though, about what the direct action side of the camp was like? Were the protests you were a part of similar to previous ones in other cities?
Garzweiler II coal mine. On the right, part of a machine used to mine coal is visible. On the left in the back, a row of people standing at the edge.
My biggest takeaway on that front was how fundamentally different a protest march at a coalmine feels to an anti-climate change march in a city. In the city you have lots of visibility, lots of crowds watching, and the reality of fossil fuel extraction feels quite abstract, just like the action you are calling for can feel quite abstract… Police violence at those kinds of, often largely white, middle-class, protests, even those involving civil disobedience, is, in my experience, fairly rare or light. At Luetzerath it was the opposite. Our 35,000-strong march started out in Keyenberg, which seemed to be close to a ghost town. We then emerged onto open, agricultural land with the mine to our left and with what remained of Luetzerath right at the mine’s edge. The main demonstration headed towards a stage further down the road, but many of the protesters changed direction, trying to get into Luezterath if they could, to slow down the demolition process.
And what did that feel like? Was there a securitised response?
Being confronted with one of Europe’s largest open-pit coal mines as well as lines upon lines of riot gear clad police in vans, on foot, and on horseback, whose main purpose is to stop you getting where you want to go, gives you a very concrete sense of what it is we are fighting against and the violence that struggle involves. The police at Luezti were very violent, routinely and illegally bludgeoning people on the head, to the extent where at least one protester was airlifted to hospital. It made me think that if this is what it’s like in Germany, a country which prides itself on being a ‘Rechtsstaat’ – or ‘ruled by the law’ – how much more violence must environmental defenders face, in countries where the police operate with complete impunity, armed with live rounds, and where the world turns a blind eye to their struggles.
For anyone looking to join a similar protest or movement, what is one key piece of advice you would give them?
Two things, really: firstly, prepare in advance for direct action. Know your rights and try, as much as possible, to know the risks. It can be very hard to judge how high the risk of being arrested is, especially in a mass action like the one I was at, but be prepared for it to happen, even if you don’t intend to get yourself in that situation. Being familiar with the process of arrest, and what you could be charged with, will also help you identify when the police are overstepping their boundaries to intimidate you. Attend the legal information calls which are often held in advance of such actions and form a group with fellow protesters who have a similar ‘action level’ (i.e., risk threshold), so that you can check in on each other’s emotional wellbeing and keep tabs on what happens to each other during the protest.
And the second thing is don’t forget that there are so many ways to be part of a protest and all of them are important – except perhaps clicktivism, which I am developing increasingly strong feelings against. But seriously, whatever your skills and whatever your time capacity, the protest – the protest camp – needs them. So, get involved!
Luetzi! Luetzi! Luezti!
Bleibt! Bleibt! Bleibt!
Luetzi! Luetzi! Luezti!
Stays! Stays! Stays!