Queer-Feminist Direct Action for Climate Justice.
This is the second in a series of blogs from Kevin Buckland, a Barcelona-based artivist, storyteller, facilitator and organizer who engages art as a tool for enabling change.
On August 2017, thousands of activists from across Europe and the world converged in the Rhineland of Germany for the mass action Ende Gelande to peacefully shut down the coal mines and coal-fired power stations that surround this rural, agricultural region.
Ende Gelande has become a tactical and political incubation ground for the blooming climate justice movement. Each year, the movement learns and experiments – both with the strategy of direct action as well as the culture of mass organizing.
2017 saw the emergence of the an explicity “Queer Feminist” contingent that directly connected the global climate crisis with the patriarchal and imperial ideologies it has grown from.
By leaving behind the dominant paridigms – held even inside eco-social movements, the group was challenged with the freedom of enacting and co-creating alternative organizing cultures and relationships with “power”. The result was a radical inclusivity that explicity embraced diversity as a strength and pushed across the boundries of defined genders, sexualities and roles as they rejected the laws of the nation-state they were defying. Through this process, the Queer Feminist Finger at Ende Gelande went beyond mere protest and gave a glimpse of the diverse ways in which power can be embodied and shared, even inside the rough terrain of direct resistance.
To understand more about this rising movement, I spoke with two participants from the 2017 Queer Feminist Finger (Ende Gelande organizes into self-managed “fingers”). I met with Jade, a middle-aged French journalist in Paris, where she lives, to ask about the relationship between her deep academic and philosophical understanding of queer-feminism and how that relates to the direct action she was a part of. In Brussels, I had tea with Selj – a handsome young Turkish activist and thinker, to discuss what he thinks queer-feminism is bringing to the global climate justice movement.
Read the full transcripts:
Kevin (K): Hello. Thanks so much for agreeing to meet with me. Now to get started, perhaps this might be obvious, but what do you see as the relationship between climate justice and patriarchy?
Selj (S): I suppose it is the whole dimension of gendering nature and our relation to it that we established as dominion over nature: this is a story that we have told ourselves over millennia – especially in a western culture – and it replicates our species dominating other species, some in our society dominating others, and especially men dominating over women. It all follows the same pattern… and that same approach that we tend to abuse and misuse the weaker ones – or the ones who don’t by default resist.
But then there is of course the flipside that you can tell that your dominion falls apart when those who are oppressed strike back or simply stop supporting you. The story of dominion just obscures how we are interrelated, how we depend on each other. Its tells a story that you are this autonomous being that has extra powers to take over others, while you are actually the weak one because you are entirely dependent on precisely, your mother – in this case the planet.
Jade (J): It [the relationship between climate justice and patriarchy] is not that obvious because it’s not easy to understand and I must say I’m not always clear about it. I think basically its the power structure of patriarchy and it is the way that historically power structures have been built. And if you read, for example Silvia Federici – who is an American ecofeminist historian – she explains very well how at the same time between 16th and 17th century you see capitalism being organized and when capitalism organized it actually excluded nature, women and black people from human society. That leads us to today where we have a power structure – a capitalist power structure – very much based on white privilege which is also basically a male privilege. So the idea is that if you want to fight today against the destruction of climate and ecosystem in general you need to address the general power structure. But what is difficult to understand is that it’s not obvious, it’s not put in front, it’s sort of hidden. It’s kind of a hidden logic within this structure and I think today it is very important to unveil this part of the structure. It isn’t just a philosophical idea but it is also a very empirical observation of society.
K: Thank you. Now, thinking a little bit about Ende Gelande, what do you see as the role of direct action in confronting these power structures that you just mentioned and how do you see that coming from a different place if it is constructed around eco-feminisim.
J: I think it’s very important to do direct action with these ideas because it’s all about empowerment. It’s very exciting because at Ende Gelande at the same time you fight the fossil fuel industry you fight patriarchy, if you believe in those ideas i‘ve just explained. I’ve been doing climate camps and anti-g8 and anti summits and for me it’s the first time that I’ve found this space that has allowed me to connect very intimately to the fight… and I can authorize myself to do things that I wouldn’t do in a normal summit. I’m not alone anymore.
For me what is really fascinating about the queer feminist finger from Ende Gelande this year is that from the beginning the people who worked on the finger really tried to find ways to allow you as a woman and as a queer person who doesn’t put strength as a high value, to really be able to do very difficult things.
S: We live in somewhat of a normalized crisis, it’s a diffused crisis, it doesn’t necessarily demand from us on a daily basis to act heroically. And then we create these moments when we ask each other to act accordingly – to act in response to this diffused crisis as if it is a condensed crisis – because we target these locations that we analyze as the sources, and therefore, our interventions there have impacts all over.
So there is this key thing about direct action that is to call people to go out of their comfort zones. The problem with it is that there is a certain way of glorifying and valuing some qualities – being brave, being almost reckless. And while it is a culture we celebrate and sympathize with, it is true that it is not for everyone. Especially in a culture where, ya know, “little girls need to behave and little boys can be the little rebels” and those roles kind of keep following us all our lives. These actions and these spaces tend to become more natural playgrounds for reckless boys and less so for ‘decent’ girls. And that needs to be addressed because we need everyone to address this issue and if we are already wanting to establish the ways of living that we want to achieve and aspire to within our own movements – then we would like to make sure that our actions already embody those approaches.
K: I think something very interesting you’ve touched on is this idea of comfort zones and stepping out of your comfort zones. One of the principles of ecofeminism is the politics of care and the prioritization of mutual support. I was wondering if you could say anything about that and how that perhaps represents a way in which the queer-feminist finger enacted its politics?
S: Concretely there were a few guidelines and principles that we strove to practice. We want to care for each other, listen to each other and instead of trying to dominate a discussion, debate or decision making process we try to be sort of extra inclusive and extra sensitive to divergent and not so vocal positions. Then we also extended this to the very tactics we wanted to deploy saying we would not leave anyone behind, we would go at the pace of the slowest ones among us so it doesn’t become a bloque that sort of spreads and splits once some people who are more fit and abled start running and the weaker ones are left behind. Of course these are aspirations and sometimes it doesn’t work.
J: Also, on the Thursday there was the first general meeting of the queer-feminist finger. The organizers of the action had prepared a graphic showing the organization of the finger: the finger tip (more about pushing through cops), people carrying flags, people carrying phones, people carrying megaphones; all the roles that you need in a finger of this kind… it was very inclusive, all the strategic roles were still to be taken. It was all open like “who wants to do what?” To me this was very important.
S: On the second day we were quite close to the train tracks we were aiming at. There were three fingers independently trying to reach the tracks across a wild field, and we were bracketed between two lines of cops. We were on the move but had a police line in front of us and a police line behind us. And what happened, and it was this really magical moment was that the fingertip very imperceptibly started to slow down and the rest of the finger picked that up and slowed their pace to such an unnoticeable difference that the police line in front of us didn’t actually notice. So a space opened up, first 5 meters then 10 meters, but it was enough margin to just turn the whole finger unexpectedly into the carrot field and then next to the tracks. I would argue that another finger with other expectations, values or tactical habits would just have seen the outcome as “ok we are going to confront that police line sooner or later so “be strong, be brave and brace for impact” which is what the cops were expecting I suppose so we took them by surprise. And ultimately, we were the only finger that made it to the tracks as an entire finger and I think those tactical choices played a role.
J: For me, the reason we were all able to do it was that were were all together.
K: In the debrief the next day someone asked “Could this be the new way in which the climate movement understands power – through this queer feminist lens?” I was wondering if you could say anything to this relationship to power and what that might portend for the rest of the direct action climate movement.
S: First of all, by being in a movement that has already embraced this ecological lens of valuing interrelations more than dominion, I think we are in a relatively better place than some other movements or structures that we differentiate ourselves from. But the job is not done definitely, and we can go forward and I would like to see, as I joke to organizers “Next year there won’t be a queer feminist finger because all fingers will be queer feminist by default”. Except one – a maybe very masculine oriented finger because we want to be inclusive and we want to create a space for everyone. And if they will feel more comfortable in that space, then they are welcome.
Also, it is ironic in the end that the very, sort of, “come and beat us” frontline of the more macho fingers sort of invites police aggression. If you see hard hats, you want to hit them with a baton. While the queer feminist finger had an entirely different look and so this whole staging of your perceived vulnerability is actually a position of power that makes you go through the police lines maybe much more easily.
J: We spent many hours surrounded by cops on the tracks and at some moment some people had brought some small sound system and they started playing music, and they played disco music, like 70s disco music from studio 54 – super dancing music! And it was really fantastic, everyone started to dance. So the occupation of the train tracks became like a street party and because of the adrenaline and the stress of the action people were high from the energy of the action and some other people brought makeup and glitter so you had these crazy people dancing on the tracks, throwing glitter and putting make-up on. And the cops were surrounding us and it was great because it really made the cops look ridiculous, like “What are you doing? These are just people dancing!” I think it really helped decrease the fear of being arrested.
But the cherry on the cake was that one of the camps kitchen sent us pizza. So hot warm freshly baked pizza arrived at the tracks – thanks to the help of an European MP actually – and we were dancing and eating pizza in front of the cops, and it was so absurd. To me it’s part of this queer feminist thing of don’t take yourself too seriously and you can dance to corny disco music. And people were even crowd-surfing! To me it was all part of this queer-feminist spirit.
S: There was this joke running during the action that, very typically, the queer finger was having a disco party while the red finger was writing a manifesto. So there is this undeniable attraction and almost jealousy towards the queer feminist finger of how much we had fun and still achieved our goals – I’m sure it is representing some sort of blueprint for further organizing.
K: So with your more academic ecofeminist hat on, how would you talk about that party?
J: I think it was really about letting your sensibilities and feelings be expressed. For me, and perhaps I haven’t said this yet, to me, ecofeminism is a lot about reconnecting yourself to the natural elements: water, earth, fire, air. In order to do that you need to forget your brain and you need to forget your intelligence and you need to let your physical feelings and your emotions express themselves and it’s a way you can try to reconnect to other forms of life. To me, that’s how it connects, it’s the part of actions where you stop thinking strategically and you stop thinking “oh my god I’m so afraid and I’m going to be arrested.” You just forget and because you forget your fear decreases and you become more free, so that is the connection: its the emotions.
K: So my next question is a bit different: Why do you think ecofeminism and ecofeminist organizing is strategic. And what do you see as the importance of queering the climate movement?
J: I think its strategic because, first, it can allow people who don’t feel comfortable in direct action movements to be more comfortable: queer people, intersex people, women. For many reasons, there are not so many people ready to join direct action for climate. It’s very sad but I’m just observing that not so many people are ready to go on coal train tracks to stop them. It’s very important that, as a climate justice movement, to observe this, and if we want to attract more people we need to be about what they need and what they want. So it’s not only about how we see climate change and capitalism, maybe for some people queer activism is more important for them, and if we can create a sexy activist space where queer people feel ok and feminists feel really excited to come, I think that is really strategic as maybe we can gather more people!
S: The most immediate thing I’ve experienced since Ende Gelande is that [queer-feminist organizing] makes me tell the story much more easily to a broader audience – which is slightly counter intuitive. You might think that not only is this radical climate activists but they are also queer-feminists so they are the exception to the exception, the margins of a marginal group. But actually, it creates the opposite: it means that “Well this climate movement isn’t this heroic manly reckless thing”, but we are especially aware of creating comfortable spaces for everyone.
It is important to note that not everyone in the queer feminist finger were either queer or feminist by definition. But it was, by definition, a space where everyone would feel comfortable and that makes even the mobilization effort so much easier and broad that I am confident that next time round it will be possible to get many many queers onboard joining Ende Gelände because they know that it is not the kind of space they were expecting.
J: Also, its a more intimate way of creating empowerment. When we start to work around activist groups that are not about climate, you see there is a lot of energy for social change that – for some people – is before climate. Before climate they want to tackle racism, and before climate they want to tackle patriarchy because that is what they endure in their daily life. … the fact that we are so many white people and so few people of color is really a problem. To me it tells something and the point is not that “oh we have to find a way to seduce people of color”; we have to find a way that we make more sense to people who are the most victims of the capitalist system that destroys climate. Thats why its so important, the techniques of struggle can maybe help us to broaden our perspective of understanding what the system destroying climate is about.
If you separate capitalism from racism and patriarchy, in a way some people still remain invisible. That is why diversity is so important, it isn’t just about being politically correct, its a fundamental thing.
If you asked me what I’ve learned: well, I learned this: you can be effective, efficient in action without being too strong. I don’t have a strong body, but if we are many and careful to each other well then you don’t need a strong body to climb a hill and to pass through a blockade of cops and get to railroad tracks. And to me that is a very important lesson. It gives me power and it gives me confidence in myself and also it gave me friends. The connections between us are strong now. And that is beautiful.
K: So my last question: What did you learn from this experience and what do you see as the hope or direction for the future of ecofeminist queer direct action organizing in the future.
J: I don’t know how it will turn out, but I can see that there is a buzz on ecofeminism, each time we post something on Facebook it is being liked a lot. There is something exciting about it for younger people, I hope that we can use this energy to create something more.
S: I think this is not a first step but a process. I guess our success as the queer feminist finger already also indicates some sort of blueprint of how we can gather around themes and concerns and struggles that are already intersecting the climate struggle. If we can create spaces of visibility for our intersected struggles within our movement, we create this almost fractal movement where at each scale you reproduce the multiplicity, diversity and therefore the strength of our movement.
J: And if you asked me what I’ve learned: well, I learned this: you can be effective, efficient in action without being too strong. I don’t have a strong body, but if we are many and careful to each other well then you don’t need a strong body to climb a hill and to pass through a blockade of cops and get to railroad tracks. And to me that is a very important lesson. It gives me power and it gives me confidence in myself and also it gave me friends. The connections between us are strong now. And that is beautiful.
K: Is there anything else you would like to add?
S: Yes, I’d like to end with one of our slogans. It started out as “We are here, we are queer, the end of coal is near.” But throughout the action it transformed into: “We are here, we are near, the end of coal is queer!”
We are here, we are near, the end of coal is queer!