Glitzer im Kohlestaub: Glitter in the Coal Dust
Dispatches from Vienna (normally!) or in this case Western Germany.
It’s hard to put into words what I just experienced in Germany, as climate activists were forcibly removed from a town called Lüzerath, where they had been squatting in an old village in an attempt to stop the expansion of a Lignite coal mine. Brown coal is among the dirtiest energy sources, but it still makes up Germany’s largest source of power. (Download the app Electricity map! So fascinating.)
Brown coal, or lignite, is sedimentary rock that is less compressed than typical bituminous coal. Lignite is softer, closer to peat in carbon’s geological arc. It’s also even dirtier to burn than bituminous coal, and emits even more carbon.
Because lignite sits closer to the surface than bituminous coal, workers don’t need to dig deep shafts and tunnels. Instead, they use the open-cast method, excavating the clay and sand that lie above the lignite seam. It requires removing everything that stands in the way, and in densely settled Central Europe that means demolishing villages—Braunkohle mining has led to the destruction of hundreds of communities
The town of “Lützi” sits on the edge of a 12 mile long one pit mine, said to be the 10th largest in the world, and because of the energy crisis (due to the war in Ukraine) Germany has said they needed to expand for more coal. Many of the activists I met who had been living in treehouses and self made shacks from recycled pallet wood believe that when Lützi is taken, so too is the 1.5 degree limit. With my degree being in Anthropology I was very interested in the organization and structure of these camps. This is what I learned.
Names: Most activists I met go by different names, most of the time they name themselves after their favorite woodland creature, place, or even food. Maple, Tofu, Squirrel, Cheese, are some of the friends I made in my time there. When I first arrived in early December there were probably around 100 activists living there full-time. Some had been coming and going for two years, and some had even changed their legal address to the village. I met many activists who had been moving from one occupation to the next, for the last five years. And on the other side of the spectrum there are tech CEO’s, doctors, and lawyers who have taken a name and joined the fight, but it’s faux pas to ask too many questions.
Affinity and Awareness Groups: People are organized into “affinity groups” and “awareness groups.” Awareness groups meet once a week to discuss issues people may have had with others, and issues having to due with racism, sexism, or anything else. You can bring the issue up with your awareness group leader and then they meet with the other leaders to then open an “awareness case” where they then decide how to proceed given the severity of the issue. “Affinity groups” are people you look to for emotional and financial support when you have left “the occupation” or when you get out of jail/Geza. Finances are shared to continue climate activism in other occupations around Germany and beyond between you and your group.
Seven Days of Geza: Geza is a shortened version of long word in German that means the time you spend in a holding cell waiting to know if they will press charges or if you will be released. In each state in Germany there are different time periods one must wait, and last year, because of all the climate activism that is happening around the Rheinland (the area where a lot of the coal mines are) they changed it from 48 hrs, to seven days.
Glitter and Finger mutilation: In Germany, they don’t have a great system of computerized identification between different states. So most activists will use a safety pin, to scratch out their fingerprints, then a few layers of superglue, and then very fine glitter to make sure that in the seven days of sitting and waiting in Geza, the police are not able to identify them. They do not have cell phones or ID’s at the time of arrest or action.
Village Life: I had read about European Climate activism and knew that the climate camps had been successful in years past. I came in December to know more. The organization, the structure, the “decentralized leadership” was amazing to see in action. Some of the “Planeries” or daily/weekly meetings, lasted over six hours. There are climbing workshops, carpentry workshops, electrical workshops, cooking, and environmental justice workshops. There was an infopoint, where someone with a walkie talkie was always accessible for questions. There was a medic building, press building, gallery space, kitchen, library, free space, snack building, and more. All of which is gone now.
Manwach: There are five different words for different types of protest in German. There is one that never leaves its location, a legal place that is registered with the county, there is a moving protest, and many others.
Eviction: I bought my flight back for early January knowing that is when the eviction would take place. Some activists had been through an occupation eviction in the past and were organizing emotional workshops for those who hadn’t. From police violence, to preparing your glitter fingers, to making sure each treehouse and structure had a toilet, rain barrels, food for two weeks of eviction, extra harnesses, and a fat stack of power banks for cell phone charging, the activists were prepared, yet no one knew how fast it would happen.
I decided to embed with the folks in the treehouses, knowing that I felt very comfortable photographing from a harness, and wanting to try and document treehouse life during the eviction. When the police finally broke through the barricades, it was tense and scary. They were jumping up and down, starting beating people on the “frontline” and yelling to ‘get in line’. I ran for my treehouse and used a series of knots to scale a fixed line, and was with Canter and Pax, my treehouse roomies, for three days. Eating, sleeping , using the same scary toilet on the edge of the treehouse right over the police stationed to our tree, with only a tarp to cover you.
All said and done I wasn’t able to place the story anywhere (yet!). But at the exact same time all my photojournalist friends in California were getting at least two weeks of flood coverage work from national outlets who only seem to be interested in climate catastrophe imagery. Imagery that inspires climate defeat. On the last day of the eviction, there were around 15-30,000 people who came from around Germany to support Lützerath, which was mind blowing to see. The police were 1,000 or more strong. They had dogs, water canons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. They were kettling people every which way in very deep mud. Greta Thunberg made an appearance and was even apprehended yesterday.
I am back safe and sound to Vienna and I have successfully removed all the mud from my clothes and I’m letting my cameras take a little rain break indoors. I hope to continue working on climate and environmental stories but I am also trying to pivot and work in the outdoor space more, partnering with brands for their storytelling needs. I so appreciate all the love and support I received while working on this story. I hope you learned a bit and are inspired to learn more!
Thanks for following along and here’s my lil edit on my website so far.
Some additional reading if you’re interested!
If you can read German! (Glitzer im Kohlestaub: Glitter in the Coal Dust)
How to Blow up a Pipeline: Great book that came out in 2021 where I learned about what was going on over here.
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Been following along on ig. Thanks for doing this work. You're a hero.