They don't have all that much in common, this group of people gathered in the kitchen of a flat in a prewar Hamburg apartment building. It is fear that has brought them together, fear of species extinction, of droughts and floods. Fear of storms and famines. Above all, though, fear of political torpor. They, like a majority of Germans, are afraid of the consequences of global warming.
It is a rainy Monday evening in late September, two hours after Greta Thunberg held her combative speech in front of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The group gathered in the kitchen is sitting on folding chairs and coming up with ideas for how they might be able to bring Berlin to a standstill.
An eclectic group has gathered in the warm glow of the pendant lamp as darkness falls outside. There is 67-year-old Anke, a grandmother of two who enjoys gardening and has two artificial hips. Jan, 34, is a web developer and graphic designer who has never before been politically active -- but is now considering whether diapers might be necessary for the days spent manning street barricades.
Nils is a 23-year-old childcare worker who has to get up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning for his early shift. He offers to take the nightshift in Berlin, saying he can deal well with the cold thanks to his experience in the boy scouts. And then there's Jonas, a 28-year-old single father who says he intends to bring his 4-year-old daughter along to the insurrection. He has just given her a cheese sandwich and he's putting her to bed in the room next door, which is why everyone is speaking quietly. "Should we get started?" Jan asks, opening his laptop.
Their goal is to come up with a joint plan for their contribution to the fight against climate change. They are unified in their belief that simply signing online petitions isn't enough, or holding up signs and waiting for the Greta effect to take hold -- even if the Fridays for Future demonstrations started by Greta Thunberg are now drawing millions of people into the streets.
Active in 50 Countries
Instead, they have joined the Extinction Rebellion, also referred to simply as XR. It is a rapidly growing international protest movement whose actions around the globe have captured the attention of the police, politicians and media.
In Britain, where the movement was founded, Extinction Rebellion grew to some 100,000 members in just its first year of existence. Now, there are groups in 50 countries around the world, including places like India, Ghana and Qatar. The movement has found some success in Germany as well, with more and more people beginning to wonder what life in the future will look like and how we can survive in that future. At the same time, they believe that governments aren't doing enough to prepare for and shape what is coming. In Germany, the Extinction Rebellion already has more than 100 local chapters in towns and cities around the country.
Block a Road, What You'll Need: A banner long enough for the width of the road; Rebels to hold it; literature to explain your action (and XR's values); a Rebel timekeeper (seven minutes blocking, three minutes off the road, and repeat); cakes for pissed-off drivers (and Rebels to talk to them); flags, badges, stickers and placards; music (it's hard for drivers to go ballistic if you're having a disco); well-being and legal-observer Rebels. (From: "This Is Not a Drill," the Extinction Rebellion handbook)
Jan opens a new document and begins taking minutes. That's how they always run their meetings: One moderates the discussion, another takes minutes and a third keeps track of time. It is important to be efficient because all of them, aside from retiree Anke, have jobs. But also because there are only two weeks left until October 7, the day the "international rebellion" is set to begin in cities across the globe, including London, Paris and Berlin. The group from Hamburg intends to travel to the German capital and several thousand people in other parts of the country are planning to attend as well. Together, they hope to paralyze traffic and everyday life at key sites in Berlin -- and wake up the government. That, at least, is the plan. It may very well be the first protest movement that is just as tightly organized as the system they are criticizing.
"I would be in favor of just doing what we have done before and are good at: sit-ins," says Chrissy, a young doctor sitting on the windowsill.
"I have realized that we still don't have enough flags," says Jan, who has bought some broomsticks and still has a bit of fabric lying around: "enough for a couple of good-sized banners."
Together, Anke, Jan and the others make up a so-called Affinity Group, the smallest unit in Extinction Rebellion's decentralized organizational structure, which also includes neighborhood groups, city chapters and working groups. They call themselves Octopus, a name perhaps chosen because it is a bit reminiscent of the secret service. The affinity groups are supposed to be the foundation of all protest actions. They are made up of between four and 12 people who jointly implement their protest ideas and take care of each other during operations.
Important Political Signals
Operations such as the one that took place in London in April, when 6,000 people blocked key transportation hubs with sit-ins, tents and a yacht to which the self-proclaimed rebels attached themselves with adhesives. They paralyzed entire city quarters -- peaceful yet radical -- for 11 days. Police ultimately detained more than 1,000 people. A short time later, the House of Commons declared a climate change emergency. It wasn't enough to require the government to take action, but it certainly sent an important political signal.
In Zurich, the group dyed the Limmat River fluorescent green with uranine and some activists floated on the water in XR T-shirts as if they were dead. In Berlin, activists chained themselves to the fence around the Chancellery in June. At the Frankfurt Motor Show, they joined other climate activists to block the entrances. They did the same in Hamburg in mid-September, disrupting the city's Cruise Days festivities, the large cruise industry event.
You can watch a video of the Hamburg action on YouTube, showing what looks like a funeral march approaching the harbor, complete with violinists, drummers and horns. Nils, the childcare worker, is part of a group of coffin bearers carrying a child's casket stamped with the XR logo and an hourglass, symbolizing the need to act quickly. Once they reach the promenade, Jan steps forward with other black-clad protesters and dumps artificial blood onto the harbor steps, as French fries-eating tourists look on. The blood is intended to symbolize "the blood of our children," and the pool of red liquid surrounds the small white coffin.
The images from Hamburg were widely shared, and when he saw the nationwide reporting on the action the next day, Jan says, he thought to himself: "Fuck. It really works!" Non-violent, civil disobedience that disrupts public order in a targeted manner to generate the most possible attention.
The group has three demands: First, the government should declare a climate change emergency and disclose the truth about the ecological crisis, whatever that might mean. Second, emissions of greenhouse gases should be reduced to zero by 2025. And third, the group is calling on the government to establish a "Citizens' Assembly" to decide on measures that should be taken to combat climate change.
It all sounds a bit utopic, but the message is the most important element: namely that the Earth can't be saved with compromises. Extinction Rebellion hasn't yet agreed in detail how the Citizens' Assembly should be established. But it's a start, the rest can come later.
The group has also sent an open letter to the German government, in which signatories, including a number of well-known personalities in Germany, indicated their support for XR's demands and the upcoming protests.
If you are arrested or if you are identified during an action, say nothing that might incriminate yourself or others. It is best to say nothing before you have a legal representative.
The rebels gathered in the kitchen in Hamburg are discussing how they should travel from Hamburg to Berlin for the protests: bus, train or carpool. Chrissy says she's planning to bring along a four-person tent, with Jan adding that it could be used as their base of operations in the protest camp. Anke, the retiree, says that, at her age, she no longer has any interest in sleeping in a tent and is planning to spend the night at a friend's place.
Listening to them talk, a number of questions arise. How was this relatively new movement able to mobilize so many young people in such a short amount of time, even though their actions come so close to crossing the line into illegality? How did Extinction Rebellion become socially acceptable? How far should or must protesters go given that all signs are pointing to a global climate crisis?
And: How does one become a rebel in 2019?
Mobilization: 20 Days Until the Protest
The introduction to disobedience can be quite gentle -- drinking soda after work, for example, in a small gallery space with high ceilings, hardwood floors and quiet music. The room slowly fills up with university students, white-collar workers and freelancers, ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-50s. Jan Volkert-Ulrich, the 34-year-old web developer from the Octopus group, is a bit late, and has come straight from work. "After this, I have to get right back to work," he says. But he immediately starts recruiting people. "It's great that you're here," he says, shaking hands and going from one chat to the next. "You should all come to Berlin." He distributes starter packs, recruiting materials stapled together under a green cover.
Inside, it states that "it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making." The document introduces simple initial actions taken by the group in Britain, including the blocking of bridges over the Thames and the planting of trees in the heart of the city. The starter pack also lists the group's 10 principles that all participants should adhere to. "4. We openly challenge ourselves and this toxic system. 7. We actively mitigate for power -- breaking down hierarchies of power for more equitable participation. 9. We are a non-violent network."
"Everyone can join us," says Jan, "even an SUV driver, even someone who eats steak for breakfast -- as long as he or she adheres to the principles."
'The House Is on Fire'
Jan joined back in February, making him something of a veteran in an organization that has only existed in Germany since the beginning of the year. A polite man wearing clothes suitable for the office and a well-kempt beard, he doesn't seem particularly rebellious. Yet you can sense a kind of internal tension, with urgency behind everything he says. He has begun devoting his evenings and weekends to Extinction Rebellion and his relationship is suffering as a result, he says. Still, he's convinced he has no choice.
Summer 2018 changed him, he says. When no rain fell for the second month in a row, the asphalt melting and the forests burning, a conviction arose within him that something was wrong, he recalls. He started reading what scientists are writing about climate change: about changes to the jet stream and the slowing Gulf Stream. He came to the conclusion that "we are marching headlong into a terrible world."
That realization, he says, plunged him into depression. "I grew panicky. I could hardly sleep for two weeks, and then I tried to suppress it." But an acquaintance of his, who had already become involved in XR, took him along to a Fridays for Future demonstration on the icy winter streets. He found himself standing in front of Hamburg's City Hall holding up an XR sign together with thousands of students. "YOUR PLANET IS DYING," the sign read. "It felt incredibly good," he says.
Not long later, he began designing signs for XR, joined street blockades and poured out artificial blood on the streets, made from beet juice thickened with starch. "We are the fire alarm blaring in the night. Get out! The house is on fire!" he says.
"Have you already filled out your participation sheets," Jan asks two young women, handing them a form where they are asked to create their own rebel profile.
Can you imagine taking part in direct, non-violent actions organized by Extinction Rebellion? Yes / No / Maybe. Optional: Would the risk of being taken into custody as part of XR actions be acceptable to you? Yes / No / Maybe.
Motivation: 19 Days Until the Protest
Not long before the large action planned for Berlin on October 7, the movement increased mobilization efforts. XR is active on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter and also sends out newsletters, records podcasts and makes all kinds of material available for download on the internet, such as posters, stickers and flyers. It's also possible to register for the October protests online. The rebels sign their emails with "Love & Rage."
Members meet every evening, sometimes at several locations at the same time. They hold talks with titles like "Rise Up or Die Out," events that are among the group's most important recruitment tools. Those who have gone to such talks say that after hearing them, you almost have to join up. The idea is for the talks to act as a kind of match to light your inner rebellion.
On this particular evening, an engineer from just north of Hamburg is at the microphone. Around 20 people have showed up to listen, with the youngest in their early 20s and the oldest over 70. It begins with a series of images and facts, the PowerPoint showing dying reefs, monoculture agricultural practices and the famous photo of an orangutan in front of a backhoe in a burned-up rainforest. "From 1970 to 2014, the number of vertebrates living in the wild has declined by 60 percent," the engineer and his companion say.
'A Eureka Moment'
Then comes the second part, with the title: "It's Time to Act."
From the packing list for Berlin: "Towel, soap, charcoal tablets (good for stomach problems and diarrhea, helpful for long actions where no toilet is nearby), personal hygiene articles, sanitary pads (avoid tampons -- should you get arrested, there may be no opportunity to change them)."
The next day, Jonas Dieckmann, the young father from the Octopus group, explains while sitting in his living room that the talk he went to ended up being a turning point for him. Until then, he had seen the climate as one of many important issues, such as refugees and human rights. "But then it became clear to me that all of these things are ultimately dependent on the climate," he says. That people flee their homes because of droughts, poor harvests and natural disasters. And that many social problems also have their roots in climate change. "It was a real eureka moment," he says.
A large man with a firm handshake, Jonas studied to become a teacher and now works part time and takes care of his daughter. "What could be bigger than your concern about your own daughter's future?" he asks. "We won't die out millions of years from now if things keep going as they are. It will be much, much sooner."
Then he adds: "I can live as sustainably as I want. But what I do as an individual is no longer enough."
Training and "Onboarding": 18 Days Until the Protest
The term "onboarding" comes from personnel management and refers to the hiring and integration of new employees. And jarringly, the grassroots movement Extinction Rebellion also seems to work a bit like a corporation. There are working groups focused on presentations and training, on finances, on action planning, on logistics, on legal issues and on IT.
It seems fitting, then, that the woman who is leading the event this evening is a personnel developer. She keeps the group on task with the help of a stopwatch and a number of thought exercises. "Ahead of the October craziness in Berlin, it is important to get people prepared," she says. Some, she says, are still rather wary of joining sit-ins. She has held five such "onboarding" events in the last four weeks, she says, adding that "because of the enormous growth, there is no other way to do it."
At this evening's training session, some 40 people are sitting inside a daycare center learning that being taken into custody isn't the same as getting arrested. And that remaining seated in the middle of a street is an infraction on par with a parking violation. "But if I strike a policeman while being carried away, that is a punishable offense," the trainer says.
She also says that the police are not XR's opponents. "They are just as affected by the crisis as we are."
Only take along items that you really need during the action. Everything else can be used against you. Pay particular attention that you don't accidentally have a pocket knife or a pair of scissors with you.
Then they discuss the appropriate means of civil disobedience. How to spray graffiti on a bank building, but using water-soluble spray chalk; or how to stop traffic in the form of a sit-in, while at the same time apologizing to the motorists and handing out goodies. After the action where they poured out fake blood at the Hamburg Cruise Days, the rebels made sure to wash the stairs afterward. And that's also part of their plan: the maximum possible impact while generating the minimum possible anger.
There is a number that the rebels are fond of repeating in their presentations and discussions: 3.5 percent. It's a figure that American political scientist Erica Chenoweth came up with after studying 300 political movements of the 20th century for her book "Why Civil Resistance Works." Chenoweth arrived at two conclusions that now form the basis of XR's actions: One is that the chances for success of peaceful, non-violent movements are twice as high as for violent ones, in part because they succeed in mobilizing significantly more people. The second is that the critical mass needed to set political change in motion is 3.5 percent. The reference is to the share of the population that actively participates in protests. In Germany, that would mean 2.9 million people.
"That's why it's so important that we are acceptible to the wider population," the trainer says -- meaning people like Anke Rossberg, the retiree with the Octopus affinity group.
'We Know What's Happening'
Two days later, on a sunny afternoon, Rossberg is sitting on a bench in her allotment garden, a woman with chin-length gray hair and a broad smile. Behind the pergola, the Brussels sprouts are ripe, kale is growing and her husband can be seen tinkering with a winter tarp for his sailboat. "I was involved in the anti-nuclear movement in Germany," she says, including protests against nuclear power plants and shipments of atomic waste. Rossberg says she has always demonstrated peacefully and non-violently. "Anything else wouldn't suit me," she says.
Rossberg used to be a teacher, working most recently in special education in a socio-economically challenged area. She spent most of the hot summer of 2018 in her garden, and for her, too, that summer seemed to be a turning point. "The plants just stopped growing," she says. Afterward, she recalls, not a single bird came to nest. "We've never experienced that in 25 years."
"We know what's happening, but we aren't doing enough," she says. "All we have to do is listen to the scientists." Rossberg took part in the "talk" twice, "because I also want to make sure that my arguments are strong," she says. She completed her protest training in July at an onboarding session. Rossberg realized when she had to sit down on the floor to practice getting carried away by police that it probably wasn't the right kind of protest activity for a person with artificial hips. Since then, she's instead been painting banners and singing songs from behind the barricades.
From the packing list for Berlin: What definitely needs to stay at home: Weapons, knives or other problematic objects, drugs, alcohol, glass bottles and anything else that forms sharp edges when broken. Masks and clothing that can be used to mask a person.
Action Climate Demo: 17 Days Until the Protest
Shortly after Chancellor Angela Merkel steps in front of the cameras to present the German government's package of climate change bills in Berlin, the Octopus affinity group, together with a few other rebels, decides to occupy an important Hamburg transport hub.
They had just demonstrated together with 70,000 students, children, adults and activists from other alliances for a new climate policy, and now they feel it's time for some civil disobedience. Nils, the young educator, is here, as is Chrissy the doctor and retiree Rossberg, who is carrying a self-painted sign in her hands, with a butterfly, a bee and the words: "What a shame, it was great being with you."
"This is going to be a cool protest," Nils says, as they sit on a curb in front of Bulgari and Cartier boutiques and run through their strategy. "Does anyone need to go to the bathroom?"
A half-hour later, as the pedestrian traffic lights on the Kennedy Bridge turn green on a four-lane street, the protestors run onto the bridge and sit down on the asphalt, completely blocking traffic in one direction. The traffic starts to back up just as soon as the light turns red. It doesn't take long for dozens of police to arrive and stand in front of them. The first announcement is made over the loudspeaker: "This is the Hamburg police -- clear the street." But the protesters don't move.
"Hey you assholes, I've got to work," one truck driver shouts. A funeral director says he has an emergency to tend to. And then: "You're all such heroes here." Rossberg tries to reassure the drivers, who try to get around the protesters by driving on the pedestrian island. "It'll be over in a minute," she shouts. "It'll be over in a minute."
Broad Mobilizing Potential
Sabrina Zajak of the Institute for Social Movement Studies in Berlin has observed how Extinction Rebellion has succeeded in making civil disobedience societally acceptable, even though it represents disruption. The fact that Extinction Rebellion espouses nonviolence, the creativity of the events it holds and that anyone is welcome to participate are also contributing factors.
It is a middle class and uniquely well-educated rebellion that wants to create better understanding and not destruction. It also happens to be a protest movement that has the advantage of not really having to convince anyone of the issue at hand. Zajak describes it as having a "special momentum," one that has enormous potential for mobilizing society.
Then comes the second announcement: "The police are also willing to use force to evacuate the premises. This could also include the deployment of water cannons. That's the end of the second announcement. It's now 5:35 p.m." The water cannon has already arrived.
Most of the protesters get up, as they had previously agreed to do. They also view this action as training for the protest in Berlin. If 25 people can manage to shut down a major traffic artery and require the deployment of dozens of police, what could that mean for Berlin, where many thousands of protesters have been announced?
The group gathers in the grass at the side of the road. "Yes folks," Nils says to his fellow protesters, "I'd say our technique is working. Shall we continue?" "That was pretty dangerous," Rossberg says in response.
One feels the excitement at this moment, but also something like the fortune of being on the right side of history, of feeling power at a time when we're at a crossroads rather than just sitting powerlessly in front of a TV set watching the news.
The demonstrators start walking again -- across the Kennedy Bridge to the other side of Hamburg's Lake Alster, with the police following closely behind them. They walk to the next traffic light. When the signal turns green, they once again sit down in the middle of the road.