Climate activists find a way to get Germany’s attention: Stop Traffic

Radical climate activists have attempted hunger strikes. They stuck to famous paintings. They tried to disrupt a classical concert. They clashed with lawmakers trying to enter parliament. They even desecrated an official Christmas tree of the city of Berlin.

It took them donning neon vests, walking through rush hour traffic and sticking to the streets of Berlin and Munich, causing mile-long rollbacks and driving drivers into a murderous rage, to make their protest impossible to ignore .

With their actions, carried out with increasing frequency as 2022 drew to a close, they attracted enormous attention in a country where cars reign supreme, home to BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen and the Autobahn. But they also united nearly everyone in politics in Berlin, and much of the public, against them.

They have become a target for the Tories and an embarrassment for the ruling Green Party, which has long worked within the political system towards the same goals. And their tactics have sparked debate even within the broader environmental movement about what is too much in pursuit of climate goals.

The response from the protesters, who are the German chapter of an environmental group called Last Generation, is that the climate crisis warrants drastic action. Founded in 2021 when a small number of activists went on a week-long hunger strike outside the parliament building in Berlin, the group is now well funded and has since grown to include a few hundred active members, including the actions earned, among other things, a reference in the president’s Christmas speech last week – a sign that their protests have struck a chord.

Their immediate demands – things like ending food waste, imposing strict speed limits to reduce emissions and subsidizing train travel – may seem mild, but their ultimate message is urgent: the world is in a climate emergency and the status quo is not an option.

“They mix demands that are very easy to implement, majority-winning political demands — things that are quite accessible to a majority of the population — with a critique of the system,” said Daniel Saldivia Gonzatti, who studies the protests at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. “It’s effective.”

And enraged. Friedrich Merz, the leader of the conservative opposition, has called Last Generation a criminal organization and wants authorities to test whether it can be declared illegal. Another politician, Alexander Dobrindt, the parliamentary leader of the Bavarian Conservative Party, compared the group to the Red Army Faction, a notorious group of left-wing terrorists who robbed, murdered and kidnapped in the 1970s.

But for Last Generation members, extreme action is the answer to government inaction.

“The government has ignored over a million people on the streets in Germany alone and the government is ignoring scientists,” said Carla Rochel, a 20-year-old student who was an early member of Last Generation. , referring to Fridays for Future. , a series of peaceful protests that peaked before the pandemic. “That’s why we decided to take to the streets and not leave anymore.”

The mainstream daily Bild called the protesters “climate hacks” and published unflattering portraits of individual participants. In some states, the justice system has shifted into high gear: Bavaria preemptively locked up more than a dozen members of the last generation for days, and elsewhere prosecutors raided activists’ homes and confiscated electronic devices while investigating whether the group constituted a “criminal gang”.

For the band members, who in addition to being committed are also often well-spoken and photogenic, the negative attention has worked in their favor to some extent, giving them pride of place in German news media, including included in televised debates alongside powerful politicians.

“From being called a terrorist to sitting with the Minister of Justice on a talk show in the space of a week is a good measure of success,” said Saldivia Gonzatti, the academic who studies events.

The group has drawn criticism even in environmental circles about whether its most extreme actions, which are also used by climate activists in countries like Britain, can backfire and become a distracting distraction. the people of the climate cause.

Luisa Neubauer, a prominent member of the Fridays for Future climate movement, said while the group’s reason for blocking traffic was legitimate, she feared the public had become so focused on activists that the issue of climate change had become less visible.

In many German public debates, she said: “The question has become, ‘How do you stand on the last generation? not ‘How do you stand on the climate crisis?’

On a recent extremely cold and wet weekday morning, six Last Generation protesters entered a pedestrian crossing on a busy road leading to the famous Potsdamer Platz, one of the most traffic jam-prone places in the center -city of Berlin, and unfurled banners, then little rubber seat mats.

After a second of pausing, they sat down in unison and with a seemingly choreographed move, each began to stick one of their hands on the wet sidewalk.

Within seconds, drivers started honking and trying to drive around the protesters on the median. Within minutes, the police arrived and attempted to drive the protesters away. Because the pavement was wet, officers managed to pull four of the activists onto the pavement – two others were unable to move and a special unit had to be sent in to dissolve the glue using oil and solvents .

“One of the scariest times is when the cars start driving towards you, weaving through people like they have no intention of stopping,” said Irma Trommer, 26, who participated in similar human roadblocks dozens of times.

Not everyone thinks their form of activism is productive.

“It annoys me, maybe it’s embarrassing,” said Renate Künast, a Green Party stalwart and former federal minister, who spent nearly two decades in federal politics. Democracy is a process, she said, and even in her position she cannot ensure that the climate dominates the conversation in parliament.

Activists reached a new level of infamy in November when a cyclist in Berlin died after being pinned down by a cement mixer during one of the group’s traffic jams.

Initial reports suggested the woman might have survived if a specialist emergency vehicle had been able to get through the backup. The reaction was swift, with many condemning the activist group. It later transpired that a doctor on site had already decided on a different course of action that did not require the emergency vehicle to be in circulation.

“Now, at the latest, we should say goodbye to the fairy tale of harmless protest,” the president of a powerful police union said at the time.

Polls taken just after the crash found that 80% of Germans were critical of the group’s action and 86% believed the actions ended up hurting the cause of tackling climate change.

Notoriety has only galvanized the group, whose numbers have grown from a few dozen this summer to hundreds of activists and supporters. In December, the group blocked traffic in Berlin three to four mornings a week, sometimes in several places.

“The future I’m personally heading towards, if climate policy doesn’t change, is so much more uncertain than anything I’m undertaking here,” Ms Trommer said, referring not only to the very real possibility of violence at she faces from frustrated drivers. , but a permanent criminal record that she could walk away with.

“I hope that by showing that I am willing to take the risk of doing these actions, how dangerous the world situation is for people my age,” she said, rubbing her hand, which was pulled from the sidewalk by a policeman before the glue had set.


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