CIVICUS speaks with Zoe Ruge of Last Generation about climate activism and its criminalisation in Germany.
Last Generation is an international network of climate activists using civil disobedience to urge governments to address the climate emergency, enabling citizen participation and financially supporting the global south as a primary victim of climate change that it hasn’t caused.
What forms of protest has Last Generation deployed in Germany?
Last Generation has come to dominate the climate movement in Germany, so its tactics have become the prevailing tactics. The most common form of climate protest in Germany is currently street blockades, and blockades of public infrastructure more generally, because they are efficient at creating a certain level of disruption. A small number of people protesting peacefully is all it takes to generate a wide public reach. Additionally, street blockades are a platform to have talks with politicians and citizens about the climate crisis, do media work and underline our demands.
Alongside disrupting everyday traffic, we draw attention to the major responsibility of the richest one- to-10 per cent of the population. To target them specifically, we block airports, spray-paint private jets, disrupt big events and bring protests into museums and other public spaces.
Our street blockades hurt society the least and put no one’s life in danger. We take adequate security measures, for instance to make sure no emergency vehicle gets stuck in traffic. In case of an emergency, we are ready to open the blockade and clear the street.
We know the kind of civil disobedience tactics we use face criticism, and we constantly reflect on our practices and take all feedback into consideration. We have aimed to choose a protest form that effectively rises awareness and is the least disruptive for people, and we think the street blockade is one such form. It may cause people to get to work half an hour late one day, but it provides a much-needed opportunity to stop people’s everyday routine and encourage them reflect on what we’re doing and where it’s leading us.
What have been your biggest achievements?
More people are realising the seriousness of the crisis we’re facing. Street blockades allow us to talk to people who would normally not get involved but are forced to listen and ask questions about our reasons to be there and our demands. Through disruption, we’ve been able to bring a lot of climate-related topics into public discourse, not only through media coverage but also thanks to local, face-to-face conversations. We are seeing rising awareness, which is necessary to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis.
In terms of policies, one of our demands during the first protest wave was a law similar to the one France has, to save food from going to waste in supermarkets. One third of all food is lost in the production chain, which equates to a lot of preventable CO2 emissions. Such a law is currently being discussed in several federal states.
In terms of public awareness, when street blockades began about a year ago they attracted 25 to 30 people, and now they bring thousands to the streets in Berlin. Churches are standing behind us and civil society groups are also voicing demands for climate action.
Overall, we are receiving increasing support from the whole society. We get invitations to discuss the climate crisis with politicians, artists, at schools and with other parts of civil society. In response to the criminalisation we are facing, which has included the freezing of some of our assets, we have also seen a rise in donations from the public.
What are your demands to the German government?
What Last Generation demands are pretty simple things that must be done to tackle the consequences of the climate crisis and prevent it escalating. We demand a speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour in Germany, which would bring a reduction of more than 6.7 million tons of CO2 emissions a year, and a permanent €9 (US$9.90) monthly ticket to make public transportation affordable. This was tested last year and was a huge success, as many people shifted from using cars to using public transport – but now it’s quite expensive again.
Our third demand is the establishment of a citizen assembly as a long-term mechanism for us to deal with the climate crisis as a society and end the use of fossil fuels in a socially just manner by 2030. Since our politicians are not even able or willing to implement a speed limit, we need citizens to be able to help tackle the climate crisis through more direct democratic tools.
As part of a global movement, Last Generation works in close cooperation with Debt For Climate, a grassroots global south-driven initiative connecting social justice and climate justice struggles with the aim of freeing impoverished countries from a debt burden that is often used as a tool for further natural resource extraction. We support their demand for financial support because they are the primary victims of climate change that they haven’t caused. German politicians tend to argue that the climate catastrophe isn’t happening in Germany, although it is indeed taking place, maybe to a lesser extent. But in other parts of the world people are already dying because of it while more developed countries continue benefiting from their resources.
How have German authorities reacted to your demands?
Reactions have varied at different government levels. We’ve had very productive talks with local politicians who have shown openness and understanding. But at the federal level we’ve faced a harsh and criminalising public discourse. Last Generation is being called a criminal group and increasingly treated as such.
We face accusations that we are hurting the cause of climate protection because our tactics are scaring people away. But it’s not true. The government is just trying to shift the focus from the substance of our demands to the form of our actions and avoiding our questions of why we still don’t have a speed limit and why we still don’t have proper affordable public transportation even though we have the resources for it.
The fact that our government isn’t willing to act as the climate emergency demands and is instead turning against us is the main challenge that we as climate activists currently face.
How is the government criminalising climate activism?
There are between 3,000 and 4,000 cases coming to court soon, mainly connected to street blockades. In Germany, this kind of spontaneous demonstration is protected by law, but once the police intervene and tell you to leave, it’s not so clear whether the assembly continues to be legally protected. There are also accusations of vandalism on the basis that people have damaged walls by spray-painting them.
A serious accusation being used against climate activists is that of being part of a criminal group. Based on section 129A of the German Criminal Code, when the police start an investigation on these grounds they can listen to your phone calls, read your messages and search your homes. This is weird because Last Generation is so transparent that anything the government would like to know about us – our structures, our funding, our planned protests – is publicly accessible. We have nothing to hide.
This June, some of us experienced searches of our homes, our website was taken down, our bank accounts were frozen and we had work materials confiscated. Activists are struggling because it’s scary to feel that the police could force their way in, search your entire home and take away whatever they want.
A friend of mine, Simon Lachner, was recently taken from his home to the police station and kept there for the entire day, just because he had publicly announced a protest scheduled for that afternoon. In Bavaria, people have been repeatedly taken into preventive custody for long periods of time to keep them from protesting. This form of preventing protests is becoming more common.
What kind of support are you receiving, and what further support would you need to continue your work?
The criminalisation of peaceful protests organised by people who aren’t trying to hurt anyone but who want to protect lives elicits instant solidarity. Thousands of people have joined Last Generation’s protest marches. Frozen funds have been almost fully replaced by donations pouring in. People contact us to ask how they can play their part in climate activism.
We’re also part of the A22 international network of climate movements that use civil disobedience tactics, and this also supports us, especially in the face of criminalisation. Other organisations from all around the world are reaching out to us and offering help such as legal support.
What we need is for everybody to consider their potential role in building a more resilient society. One of the most efficient ways to fulfil our collective responsibility is by exercising our right to protest within a democratic system.
Civic space in Germany is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.