Activism is not a Crime

Junge Menschen überall auf der Welt kommen auf die Straßen um für konstruktive Klimapolitik zu kämpfen. Foto: Markus Spiske/pexels.
In Australia, Mexico, Germany – climate activists are criminalised around the world. When they’re taken into custody by the police during demonstrations or direct actions, they risk disproportionate repression. And they’re fighting for all of us: For the people in the global south, who are losing their livelihoods today, for the future generations and for an inhabitable planet. Our author Tabea is sure: Climate activism is not a crime! There was a big commotion at the University of Guadalajara (UdeG), Mexico, earlier this year. Three students were sentenced by the court to preventive jail time after they were arrested by police in August on the orders of the state president ruling in Jalisco, Enrique Alfaro. Their crime: they were protesting in a park against the imminent development by a large real estate company. Parque Huentitán is a public national park in Guadalajara, the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco. Nevertheless, in 2008, the state government of Jalisco sold more than 13.5 hectares to a foreign real estate company that wants to build luxury apartments there. In the meantime, there were always new contracts and until today nothing has been built on the sold land. In 2021, therefore, residents and students of UdeG began to rebuild the park. They occupied the area under the name “Parque de Resistencia Huentitán” (“Park of Resistance Huentitán”), planted trees and organized activities for children. In March 2022, they were joined by Francisco Javier Armenta, Iván Cisneros and José Alexis Rojas – the three convicted students. From the University of Guadalajara as well as from the resistance collective there was a big protest and appeals to the governing president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. According to the protest collective, the park area has not been officially paid for to date and therefore belongs to the citizens. The protest also spread online under the hashtag #SonEstudiantesNoCriminales. In addition to students, supporters included professors, the university’s board of directors, and many journalists. On January 10, the three students were temporarily released after 6 days in detention. However, the trial is still ongoing.

Climate activists are risking their lives

14,000 kilometers away in Australia, climate activist Deanna ‘Violet’ Coco was recently sentenced to 15 months in prison for glueing herself to a road. At least a dozen other climate activists still have their court date ahead of them. According to the taz, civil rights movements are reporting an “explosion in the passing of laws that specifically criminalize peaceful protests for more and immediate climate protection.” Although Coco was also provisionally released after two weeks, her trial is also ongoing; an appeal in March will make the final decision on her sentence. And just two weeks ago, a protest in Atlanta, USA ended fatally for an environmental activist. For over a year, 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán had been protesting in the South River Forest, southeast of Atlanta, against the impending clearing and construction of a training area for police and firefighters, as well as a film studio (“Cop City”). On January 18, a shootout with police occurred, leaving Paez Terán critically injured. This incident shook not only his friends and family, but the entire environmental and social justice movement in the United States.

Repression against activists – also in Germany

You might think that this is all far away. But let’s take a look at Germany. Here, too, people are criminalized and face prison sentences for protesting for the environment, or more broadly, for climate justice. Last November in Bavaria, several young activists from the environmental movement “Uprising of the Last Generation” were placed in preventive detention – a controversial measure that allows suspects to be detained for up to three months without a criminal trial. This punishment is actually meant to lock away potential threats – people suspected of murder or terrorism. Under the hashtag #KlimaschutzistkeinVerbrechen (English: climate protection is not a crime), more than 2,000 allies from the arts and culture scene showed solidarity with the young environmentalists. Nevertheless, the actions of the “Last Generation” repeatedly caused a great stir in Germany last year. In the name of climate protection, they regularly stuck themselves to roads, highways and, most recently, runways at airports. Calls for tougher penalties increased in particular after a young female cyclist died in Berlin in the course of a traffic jam caused by a “Last Generation” strike. She was run over by a concrete mixer and the recovery vehicle, called to lift the concrete mixer, could not get through to her in time because of the traffic jam. Here, however, it is disputed to what degree the person causing the traffic jam was at fault for her death. According to the emergency physician who was on the scene, the traffic jam did not affect the rescue of the woman. The rescue vehicle was not even necessary, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Rather, this case is an opportunity to discuss the (un)safety of cyclists in traffic. In addition, the activists placed in preventive detention were not involved in this blockade in Berlin.
„Criminalisation of a climate-minded civil society“ Luisa Neubauer
But climate activists are also criminalized during protests – most of which are peaceful – that are directed against a single corporation. At the beginning of January, for example, a bus belonging to Fridays for Future Hamburg was detained and searched by the police for hours, the passengers filmed and their personal details taken. The bus was on its way with young and old people to a vigil in the village of Lützerath, which is soon to be demolished by the energy giant RWE (Kopfzeile reported). Due to this action, which was sharply criticized from many sides, they did not make it to Lützerath in time and missed the vigil. Germany’s probably best-known climate activist Luisa Neubauer, who was also on the bus, later called the raid a “criminalisation of a climate-minded civil society.”

Stop coal, not activism

One week later, on January 14, 2021, there was finally a large demonstration in Lützerath. According to the organisers, up to 35,000 people came. Among them was the founder of Fridays for Future, Greta Thunberg. They were confronted with a large contingent of more than a thousand police officers from 14 German states. While the police speak of “massive attacks” on the part of some activist groups, the protesters criticise the disproportionate police violence. But besides all the finger-pointing, it’s easy to forget one thing, which the online fact-checking magazine Volksverpetzer sums up: “Thousands of police officers on duty for a corporation. The taxpayer pays the bill, the climate bill is payed the future generations. The profits stay with RWE.” Because despite the energy crisis, coal under Lützerath is not needed to supply Germany with sufficient electricity. This was proven by a scientific study conducted by scientists from the DIW, the Technical University of Berlin and the European University of Flensburg. And while the public discussion in Germany eventually turns to angry drivers, soiled paintings, and a few activists ready to use violence, the big picture is forgotten: the reason. Why do young people occupy a long abandoned village? Why do they let themselves be insulted, spat on and threatened by angry drivers? And why do students in Mexico take on powerful corporations, knowing full well that such actions put them in mortal danger? To protect the last piece of nature from being concreted over. To show that further production of coal – by far the most climate-damaging energy source – will not allow us to stay within the limit of a global temperature increase of no more than 1.5 degrees – as agreed upon in the Paris Climate Agreement. And finally: to protect their own future and that of future generations from a climate catastrophe. The man-made climate crisis is no longer just a threat of the future. People all over the world, and especially in the Global South, are already facing climate disasters. Extreme weather events are increasing rapidly – in 2022, record temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius in the shade were measured in Pakistan and India; in Australia, the temperature dropped from 43 to minus 7 degrees Celsius within a few hours. And climate change has already arrived in the middle of Germany, too. While extreme drought and heat caused countless forest fires, the rivers Rhine and Weser dried up almost completely. Climate change is not a future phenomenon; climate change is already happening.

Why we can’t allow the criminalisation of (climate) activism

Activism, demonstrations and especially peaceful protests have already proven to be an effective measure to push through change in the past. Be it Rosa Parks, who in the 1950s sat down on a bus in a seat reserved for the white population, thus setting the civil rights movement in the USA in motion. Be it the Monday demonstrations of the 1980s and 1990s, which heralded the end of the SED regime and the GDR, or more recently the protests of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which sparked a worldwide discussion about structural racism and police violence after the murder of African American George Floyd by a police officer. So criminalising climate protests could end up putting the brakes on important changes needed to stop the climate crisis.   Politicians will not voluntarily stop climate change. Fossil industries, among others, which are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, have too much power for that. British climate scientist Oscar Berglund confirmed to the Guardian almost two years ago that it is in the interests of these industries to mute climate protection movements. He is the initiator of an open letter to governments from around the world denouncing the increasing criminalization of climate protests. “It has become abundantly clear that governments will not act on climate without pressure from civil society: Threatening and silencing activists therefore seems to be a new form of anti-democratic climate denial,” the letter explains. It was signed by 429 scientists from 32 countries. Even if some actions of climatic protectionists, in particular also of the last generation, are to be regarded in my eyes quite controversially and the question arises whether they do not provoke rather a polarization, the punishments for it are disproportionate. If a person who blocks a road in the name of climate protection has to fear the same punishment as someone who commits murder or is suspected of terrorism, then something is going very wrong. Because climate protection is not a crime, climate protection is the only way to prevent a catastrophe.