The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police stuck in mud, Greta Thunberg detained at coal protest in Germany

A climate activist dressed up as a wizard taunted German police at a protest against coal mining operations in Lutzerath, Germany, on Jan. 14. (Video: YouTube Martin Lejeune)
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BERLIN — Police dressed in black riot gear writhe in the thick brown mud, struggling to dislodge their feet from the quagmire. As several officers crawl toward a patch of grass, a climate activist dressed in a brown shroud pushes another officer back to the ground, to a cheer from the crowd.

The scene caught on video was one of many confrontations between protesters and security forces in recent days, as authorities razed the hamlet of Lützerath, in western Germany, clearing the way to expand a gaping open-pit coal mine.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, one of hundreds of protesters who have traveled to the area to demonstrate, was detained by police Tuesday for a second time, according to Alle Dörfer Bleiben, a group fighting the demolition of villages to make way for coal mining. Photos and video showed Thunberg being carried away by police.

Police detained climate activist Greta Thunberg near Lützerath, Germany, for protesting against a coal mine expansion on Jan. 17. (Video: Jackson Barton/The Washington Post)

But as of Tuesday, there was little left of Lützerath, and the activists who had occupied its buildings had been moved out, said David Dresen, a resident of the area and an activist with the group. “There’s nothing left to save,” he said.

The village became an emblem of Germany’s fallback on fossil fuels as the war in Ukraine signaled an end to cheap natural gas supplies from Russia. Activists argue that digging up the coal under Lützerath shows Germany is not serious about its climate commitments and highlights the hypocrisy of Europe’s largest economy, even as it sets ambitious goals for renewables.

Germany is firing up old coal plants, sparking fears climate goals will go up in smoke

In the days since the village was largely cleared, activists continued their demonstrations, trying to block roads into the mine and climbing on its huge digging equipment to prevent its use.

“The message is: It’s not about Lützerath; it never was,” Dresen said. “It’s about the coal. Even if Lützerath has fallen, we are still trying to close the mine.”

The Garzweiler II mine, run by the energy giant RWE, extracts about 25 million tons of lignite a year. Tens of thousands of residents have been displaced to accommodate the digging.

“Germany is really embarrassing itself right now,” Thunberg told reporters over the weekend. “I think it is absolutely absurd that this is happening in the year 2023.”

The demolition proceeded despite Germany’s pledge to wean itself off coal by 2030, eight years earlier than planned. In a deal with the government last year, RWE was allowed to dig under Lützerath but agreed not to demolish five other villages and to stop mining early.

Some climate activists had camped out in the village for more than two years, occupying an 18th-century farmhouse and its outbuildings after the last farmer left.

But after the land legally passed to RWE and courts confirmed that the activists had to go, police began clearing the area last week, dragging protesters out of buildings and dismantling their treehouses.

Additional activists, including Thunberg, arrived over the weekend to bolster the resistance effort.

Activists accused police of using excessive force to break up their demonstrations. One video showed police with batons charging at protesters.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister, Herbert Reul, told a weekend talk show that he believed police forces had been “highly professional,” but that accusations of police use of excessive force would be investigated.

“The core of the conflict in Lützerath is not between the Minister of the Interior and activists, but one between society and fossil destruction,” tweeted Fridays for Future activist Luisa Neubauer. “Climate conflicts are not solved by police operations or the criminalization of committed citizens. They are solved by keeping climate promises quickly and fairly.”