Climate movement labelled as extremism

PHOTO: Majda Slamova

In 2015, the government of the Czech Republic decided to break the limits on coal mining in the northern part of the country, which were set right after the Velvet Revolution. The limits were aimed at the protection of villages endangered by the brown coal mining which peaked during the Communist era and buried several villages in the region. The mining limits also meant a small promise to orient environmental governance in the Czech Republic more towards renewable sources of energy and away from fossil fuels, which is a crucial step in the world strategy to prevent global climate change. However, so far the economic reasons mentioned in the decision from 2015, which broke the limits at the Bilina mine and prolonged the period of fossil fuel use, have won out over the environmental arguments. In the meantime, one of the strongest social movements in the Czech Republic calling for environmental justice appeared on lists of extremist organizations released by the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic in 2017, and its members are facing serious acts of repression.

The informal non-hierarchical organization Limity jsme my (We are the Limits!) came into being in Brno in 2015 as a response to the re-opening of the debate on breaking the limits on coal mining in the North Bohemian brown coal region. The people who joined were members or volunteers of the Czech NGO Hnuti Duha, the Czech branch of Greenpeace, and students of ecology and several other fields, mainly at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Masaryk University in Brno. It was the beginning of a new ecological movement, which is organized from the bottom up, mainly by students and young people, and open to everybody.

The question of the burning of fossil fuels became a key focal point of the movement. The aim formulated in the manifesto is to achieve the termination of the mining and burning of coal and other fossil fuels. The other goals mentioned are climate justice and a fair transition to a carbon-free economy. Significant emphasis is placed on the social aspect of climate change and worldwide environmental problems. The movement puts the emphasis on solidarity with the people most affected by such problems, which – in the words of the movement – replicates the distribution of power in society and deepens inequality on many levels. Therefore, even the decision making adopted by its members is non-hierarchical, open, and inclusive. The movement stresses non-violence when achieving its goals, but as a condition mentions the use of direct action, as in the past it proved to be a useful tool that achieved the rights for women to vote, eight-hour shifts, and the abolition of racial segregation and slavery. Climate justice and the right to a healthy environment are also one such basic human right which has been adopted widely, not only in the discourse of ecological activism, but also in the worldwide political debate.

Breaking mining limits lights the fire of resistance

Even before the final decision of the Czech government about breaking the limits on mining on the Bilina mine, the members of We are the Limits! started an information campaign on coal mining in the Czech Republic and the global consequences of the use of fossil fuels. With the gradual activization of people, the movement was able to organize several demonstrations against the breaking of the mining limits in different cities in 2015. It also adopted a creative approach to activism, e.g. when holding a symbolic vigil for villages destroyed by mining. In 2016, the members organized a big trip from the Czech Republic to one of the biggest direct action events against fossil fuels in Europe, Ende Gelände in Germany. About 4000 activists attended a week-long camp full of lectures and workshops. The final event of the camp was a mass blockade of one of Europe’s biggest opencast lignite mines. Members of We are the Limits! mention this experience as one of their biggest influences – after coming back to the Czech Republic, they started to organize the first Czech climate camp, directly in the heart of the brown coal mining region in Horni Jiretin.

The “Klimakemp” took place in June 2017 with its peak in direct action at the Bilina mine, where the limits of mining have been broken. About 150 activists entered the mine and blocked one of the excavators until the police intervened. But the climate camp didn’t focus only on one act of civil disobedience – the aim was broader, to connect people with similar interests, connect local communities, and educate the participants about various topics connected to climate change and environmental justice. The event resulted from long-term preparations connected with various support events, such as benefit concerts or seminars, and the systematic activization of people who may be interested.

Beginning of repression – state report on extremism

In the spring of 2017, the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic released a report on extremism which also mentioned the preparations for the first Czech climate camp. With just one document, ecology suddenly became a threat. The release of the report brought quite a broad response from environmental NGOs, academics, and public personalities, who asked for the removal of the event from the list. Even the political science argument that there is no equivalent to the term “extremism” in Czech law and the definition of extremism is mainly about movements whose activities are against the Czech constitution (which cannot be said about We are the Limits!) didn’t work. The members of We are the Limits! reported attempts to infiltrate their organizational meetings; the head of the movement’s media group, Radek Kubala, received a call from the chief of the regional police, asking for detailed information about the event. The police knew his private email address and there is plenty more evidence of a bigger police investigation of the movement’s members. Eventually, the activists decided to cooperate with the police – at a meeting they were promised that the climate camp would take place without any dramatic police measures against its participants.

Massive police manoeuvres during the Klimakemp

However, from the beginning of the camp, the participants faced serious police interventions and bullying. One member of the movement, Jana Pravdová, was arrested even before the start of the event when filming a coal mine from a public road. She reported that the police received considerable support and accommodation facilities directly from the mining company. Basically, all the participants coming to the camp were stopped by the police and checked. Two buses carrying activists were stopped for several hours, with the reason being given that the police were searching for illegal immigrants. The police confiscated materials for the work on the construction of the camp, and many attendees reported they were stalked by police cars or even a police helicopter on their way to the camp or back.

After the direct action at the Bilina mine itself, the police held 144 activists and sorted them according to their citizenship. The non-Czech citizens were the last ones to be taken away by bus. They remained without any water in the hot sun and with their hands tied for the longest time, up to 10 hours. The last non-Czech citizen was released after 48 hours. In the buses in which the non-Czech citizens were transported, police reportedly used bullying, offensive language, threats, and humiliation.  These activists weren’t allowed to communicate with each other, and they weren’t provided with any translation or even allowed to communicate with a lawyer. These activists reportedly also experienced humiliation at the police station where they ended up at around 4 a.m. Silvia Pezzato, an activist with Italian citizenship, reported that she had to do squats naked in front of the officers.

Problematic steps on the part of the police were reported even during the intervention. One of the activists, Vojtěch Boháč, was kicked in the kidneys and because of that he urinated blood for several days. Other activists reported that the police grabbed their testicles during the intervention and shouted at them using rude and offensive language.

Despite all the police failures, the “Klimakemp” was one of the most successful environmental events in decades. As the movement is gathering to organize the next such event in 2018, the police are continuing with their repressive steps. In the report on extremism for the second quarter of 2017, the Klimakemp was considered the biggest extremist event in the Czech Republic.    

Further reading:

CZ 18/09/2017 How the police uses the budget of state

CZ 23/06/2017 The police as private security of the owner of the pit

CZ 24/06/2017 We are the limits! Activists break into the pit

ENG July/2017 The first climate camp is a success

CZ 03/09/2017 The attack of eco-terrorists