Maximum Impact Extinction Rebellion Takes Aim at Berlin
The climate activists from Extinction Rebellion are tired of compromise and are hoping to use civil disobedience to force politicians to take action on global warming. Next week, they aim to shut down Berlin.
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."
- Part 1: Extinction Rebellion Takes Aim at Berlin
- Part 2: 'The House Is on Fire'