By: Andrea Brock
The eviction of Lützerath, the last village to be destroyed by coal mine operator RWE to get to the thick layer of lignite coal underneath, is officially over – all protesters evicted, trees houses torn down. Pinky and Brain, the two tunnellers who blockaded a tunnel underneath the village, left voluntarily, after spending several days underground.
But while the village might have been lost, the fight continues. The last week has seen protesters block coal train tracks, occupy excavators and electricity infrastructures, burn down police vehicles, shut down offices and roads, and sabotage machinery. Solidarity action with Lützerath prisoners included the burning of Amazon cars in Berlin, the blockade of the German embassy in Poland, and ‘subvertising’ (fake advertising) actions across Germany. On Saturday, protesters locked themselves onto RWE’s entrance gate in Essen, and hundreds walked through neighbouring villages. As police continue to protect fossil capital, facilitating RWE’s operations and enforcing ecological destruction, people continue to fight back.
The eviction started on 10 January, ‘Day X’. Brought in from 14 German states, almost 4000 police officers evicted people from occupied tree houses and ropeways, monopods and tripods, farm houses and other structures. Several hundred people were resisting the eviction by climbing up trees and barricading themselves in occupied buildings, locking on and gluing on. They hung on ropeways in wind and rain, as safety ropes were cut and trees were felled, falling over just meters away. At least one protester dropped several meters, I am told, left hanging upside down following actions by the police height intervention team and had to be transported away by paramedics. Elsewhere, people fought back, through sabotage and arson attacks on RWE coal trains.
On Saturday the 14th of January, 35,000 people joined a demonstration near the village, many making their way through the mud fields to get to Lützerath and the edge of the mine. Countless protesters broke through police lines and forced police to retreat, some entered the opencast mine.
The eviction was shaped by police brutality and violence. When they realised that they were unable to stop thousands of protesters during the mass demonstration, police beat up people with batons and pepper spray, kicking and pushing them to the ground. In small gangs, they charged into groups of protesters. Police dogs attacked activists, just meters away from the steep edge of the Garweiler II opencast coal mine, and used water cannons and horses. They dragged people by their hair, and used pressure points to cause pain and intimidation.
Between 100 and 200 protesters were injured – exact numbers are difficult to get, because reporting injuries would require identification and thus risk further police repression. Dozens of people had head injuries, many had broken bones and one person had to be transported away by helicopter. “I’ve seen every bone in the human body broken today”, an action medic tweets afterwards.
Since 2017, police officers in North Rhine Westphalia are no longer required to wear identification numbers, one of the first official acts of the current minister of the Interior, Reul, and his party.
So even if the political will to hold officers accountable existed, it would be unlikely it would yield results.
Reul is known for his support of RWE and repressive policing, having previously caught lying about meeting with RWE bosses, and being responsible for the illegal eviction of the neighbouring Hambacher forest occupation (see below).
Despite numerous videos of police violence, Reul maintains that police conduct was ‘professional’, framing protesters as radicals, extremists, and violent criminals. Major media reproduce this narrative to delegitimize resistance.
Resisting divide-and-conquer attempts
For years, RWE, police, and politicians have tried to divide-and-conquer the Rhinish anti-coal movement, asking groups to distance themselves from more ‘radical’ elements of the resistance, but this time, it was unsuccessful. Despite its diversity – eco-anarchists and liberal environmentalists, Fridays-for-future kids and church groups, students and grandparents – and despite political pressure, there has been no “distancing” from actions and forms of protest over the past week, as so often occurs. No condemnation, no appeals for ‘nonviolence’ or ‘peaceful protest’. People have embraced a diversity of tactics, not letting the state and RWE divide and rule.
The resistance in and around Lützerath is the product of many years of organising. For two and a half years people had prepared for ‘Day X’ – built camps, barricades, tree houses, and tripods, and occupied houses to stop the destruction of the village. They rebuilt community in an area that had long been politically neglected, inhabitants intimidated and paid off, slowly cut off from infrastructures.
The Lützerath camp became a space to share and live together, lough and enjoy, mourn and cry. To take action against RWE, from digger occupations to sabotage. A space that tries to exist outside of capitalism and state structures, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchy, organised non-hierarchically and fostering solidarity and mutual aid.
A history of combative resistance
The Rhinish coal mines have been resisted for many decades. Local groups were fighting back against RWE as early as the seventies. For over 10 years, the Hambacher Forest occupation resisted (and eventually stopped) the destruction of the ancient forest and the expansion of the neighbouring Hambach coal mine – building tree houses, tunnels, walkways, and blockades, occupying diggers, burning police cars and electrical infrastructures, and sabotaging machinery.
Forest defenders have always had to defend themselves from violence of police and security services that regularly attack them – cutting safety ropes, pepper spaying toilet seats, beating up protesters.
Following a meeting between RWE and NRW Interior Minister Reul, the forest occupation was last evicted in 2018, in an intervention that took weeks and thousands of police officers from across Germany, and was stopped by the courts and later declared illegal. The official justification? Fire safety – the lack of fire escapes and access roads for emergency vehicles. A flimsy excuse that was made up to have a reason to evict and facilitate RWE’ cutting operations , as secret recordings of North Rhine Westphalian minister president Laschet have shown.
The 12,000 year old forest is now safe – thanks to years of resistance by forest defenders and citizen groups, numerous evictions and re-occupations, legal challenges and creative actions, arson and sabotage. However, as RWE continues to lower groundwater levels – the mine is up to 450m deep – and dig away soil at the edges of the forest, exacerbated climate change, the forest is slowly drying out.
The forest occupation, just like Lützerath, has always been not just about stopping a coal mine, but about alternative ways of living and organising together, about solidarity and mutual aid, about anarchist values and practices – a world without coal, police, prisons, and borders, a fight against colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and the state.
It inspired forest occupations all across Germany and beyond, from #Dannibleibt, the occupation to protect the Dannenröder Forest from road building, to #Fecherlebt, a forest occupation near Frankfurt that was evicted just days ago. But Hambacher Forest defenders have actively supported other struggles too – including the Pont Valley campaign in the North of England in 2018. When plans for a new opencast coal mine led to the growth of the resistance movement, Hambi defenders helped set up a camp to occupy the land, living in tents through months of snow and ice. Solidarity is part and parcel of combative resistance.
Lützerath is the latest of dozens of villages that have been evicted for lignite coal in the German Rhineland, tens of thousands of inhabitants have been expelled and dispossessed over the past century. Old Nazi legislation elevated the extraction of lignite coal for electricity generation to ‘strategic military status’ in 1935, to strengthen wartime capabilities and enable the eviction of entire communities for coal excavation. Today, German police continue to facilitate these evictions.
Some say that the struggle has become a symbolic fight, a fight about the power of the anti-coal movement, and the green credentials of the government. But according to environmental defenders and researchers, it’s more than that. To keep the German pledge to a 1.5 degree target, this coal cannot be burnt, a study by the DIW Berlin has shown.
The coal is not actually necessary for Germany’s energy supply, according to studies, even in case of a gas shortage, as the DIW states. It is part of a deal between RWE and the Green-Conservative coalition government which brings forward the end date of lignite coal mining in Germany from 2038 to 2030, allegedly “saving” five remaining villages that were meant to be evicted under earlier coal mine expansion plans, but sacrificing Lützerath. But modelling by Aurora Energy Research showed that by reconnecting two generating units and increasing annual extraction, the amount of total coal burnt is hardly reduced at all.
By agreeing to this deal, the German Greens have ‘sold out’, according to many protesters. Some believe that this was always RWE’s goal – to split the climate movement from the Green party. For many, it was a wake-up call – they have realised that no governing party will stand up to RWE or take meaningful climate action. It’s people power, they argue, that will make the difference.
RWE in the Rhineland – power and politics
‘Unrivalled and barely manageable, RWE is ruling over one of the largest monopolies of the Western world’ (Spiegel, 1979)
RWE’s interests have always been closely entangled with the state’s interests in the Rhineland, indirectly subsidised and politically supported. Few corporations in Germany are as powerful as RWE.
Politicians from all parties – from mayors to parliamentarians and Members of the European Parliament – have been on RWE’s payroll. Revolving door relationships have lubricated the political manoeuvring to defend coal at all costs. Just recently, the office manager of Germany’s minister for foreign affairs and leader of the Green Party has become an RWE lobbyist. In 2015, it emerged that the district administrator responsible for policing anti-coal protest at the time was himself a paid member of RWE’s board of directors.
RWE’s PR and CSR work, including the nature restoration work, and the support by regional media led to the image as good neighbour and ‘responsible corporate citizen’ among parts of the public. Police have long collaborated with RWE on the ground, retweeting RWE press messages, using their vehicles to transport protesters, and communicating closely.
Paying out communities in shares, not taxes, decades ago has meant that many communities and cities are financially dependent on RWE’s financial wellbeing. 25% of RWE’s shares are owned by communities and cities. That means local authorities are shareholders, licensers, clients, constituencies, employees, and tax collectors at the same time. Through payments for attending advisory councils and supervisory boards, politicians have lucrative side incomes.
RWE representatives can be found everywhere – in church choirs and town councils, school board and universities. The company has financed police barbeques and fire trucks, sponsored football clubs and festivals, concerts and exhibitions, viewing platforms and historic castles. They put up baking carts and public book shelfs, have paid for school buildings, organised volunteering activities and tours through the mine. They have gone into school and hand out lunch boxes to first graders, offering school trips into power stations, zoo schools, and environmental education initiatives.
Their teaching materials, role-playing games, and girls’ days in their training centres all reinforce narratives of the inalienability of coal for German energy security, painting picture of blackout and doom, and emphasising RWE’s research into alleged solutions, including carbon capture and storage, that have yet to materialise.
Decades of lobbying, misinformation campaigns, and repression of scientific studies have facilitated the continued expansion of coal mining in Germany. As late as in 2006, the company continued to deny a causal link between the burning of coal and climate change in a court case.
To understand and manage resistance, RWE has conducted large-scale acceptance studies, organised roundtables, and collaborated with researchers, conservation organisations, and environmental volunteers. In RWE’s regular conservation conferences, volunteers and researchers are given a platform to present their findings and RWE celebrate their nature restoration work. In return, they don’t mention the company’s role in causing climate catastrophe.
All of these are classic counterinsurgency strategies to repress, pacify, and co-opt dissent – a combination of psychological operations, intimidation, and surveillance – including rape threats and sexual abuse – combined with physical violence and beatings.
Pressure on the press
The violence inherent in coal mining, climate catastrophe, and RWE’s repression of dissent is covered up by a well-oiled propaganda machine that consists of PR agencies, RWE departments, police forces, and other state structures.
Intimidation and violence against the press help to reduce negative coverage, with threats of withdrawal of advertising and cancellation of subscriptions, campaigners have reported. In time for the Lützerath eviction, RWE published guidelines that restricted media coverage by journalists, requiring additional police accreditation and limiting access to certain areas, to day-time, and only when accompanied by RWE representatives. Much of the eviction – and police violence – took place at night and in other areas, however. When no journalists were present, protesters report, police were not only physically violent but used psychological violence, verbal abuse, and intimidation.
Power in the courts
A few days ago, RWE announced that they will be suing for compensation payments from the resistance movement for additional costs during the Lützerath eviction.
But soon, the company will itself be in court – RWE is being tried by Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian farmer supported by the German NGO Germanwatch, to pay for adaptation measures to protect his land from melting glaciers. RWE is responsible for 0.47 percent of global climate change, so he is asking for 0.47 percent of adaptation costs. The hearing will take place in front of the Higher Regional Court Hamm. If successful, this could be ground-breaking.
At the same time, RWE has announced that it will be suing for compensation payments of 1.4 million Euro from two protesters who had blockaded RWE’s Neurath power station during the COP 26 negotiations in 2021. The action had forced RWE to reduce its operations by 32% and saved 8000 tons of CO2, according to activists.
While they were on trial, another group blockaded the same power station, showing RWE: we will not be intimidated.
The struggle continues.