The Making and Unmaking of Legality

Legal Reflections

Stopping Coal Infrastructure: Police-Countered Crime

This year in August the Klimacamp (climate camp) took place in the Rhineland, only a bit more than one hour from the city where I grew up. One group of climate activists had proclaimed that – besides many legal actions – some of them would enter the open-cast brown coal mines to stop excavators and conveyor belts. They never grew tired of stressing that they would not use violence, not harm any people and not damage any property. Entering the RWE territory is trespassing and therefore illegal. The police counters these petty crimes committed in the name of climate activism.

Damaging Environment and Climate: Police-Defended Legality

RWE now privately owns the area which – for millennia – belonged to the people who lived and farmed there. After controversial political compromises the locals were legally dispossessed by the state to cater to corporate interests. They had to leave their houses with small financial compensations. Houses, churches and castles, some of the hundreds of years old, were and still are razed to the ground before. Then the excavators came to dig hundreds of meters into the earth, devouring villages and fields.

Dispossessions are legal if they cater to the well-being of the general public. However, brown coal is the #1 climate-damaging fossil fuel with the highest amount of CO2 emissions. Clearly that does not cater to the well-being of the general public. Yet the police defend the decisions that have been made before.

The Making and Un-Making of Legality

Because of the Klimacamp I thorougly reflected on our ideas of legality. I realized: Laws don’t really exist. They are – in the first place – phrases, books full of sentences. These phrases become laws because we, as a national collective body, agree to see them as laws that define our culture. Laws are powerful – as long as we believe in them. If we as a collective society or culture don’t believe in the validity of a law, it has no power at all.

Just think about history: It was illegal for women to vote in Germany until the national elections of 1919. Hitler took office in line with the law at the time. The Nuremberg Laws, legally established by the Nazi regime in 1935, legally manifested racism. For example they declared it illegal for a couple of a Jew and a non-Jew to marry or even to have sex.

Slavery in America was possible, because African tribes lawfully sold people as slaves in the 1400s. Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865. However, even long after that, Blacks were legally discriminated against. For example they still had to stand up and leave their bus seats to Whites.

Times Change. Laws Change.

Today we look back at these circumstances. We shiver and shake our heads by the thought that this was once not only legal but seen as completely normal by the majority of the people in those days. What happened in the years in between that made former normalcy so incredible to us today? In the United States a civil rights movement used civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. With an increasing civil rights movement the Supreme Court revoked the so called Jim Crow laws in 1965. All it took was a brave woman who refused to stand up for a white person and many, many people who backed her.

From one day to the next racism and segregation switched from legal to illegal acts.

I am sure: one day our grand-children shake their heads about the way we treated our planet in full compliance with the laws as much as we do today when we look back in history to women being denied the right to vote or blacks having to clear bus seats for whites.

What is lawful at a time is not always “right” when seen from a perspective of love for others human beings or the rest of nature. It is up to us to choose the path of love and life.


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More about the Klimacamp:

Climate Activism & Police Violence


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