‘Next Door Radicals’ is a new series by Sul Nowroz – individual stories about ordinary people taking extraordinary action to resist injustice and oppression. While corporate and state media often portray activists as ‘other’, defining them by their actions, Sul gives us their personal stories and journeys, revealing nothing more radical than compassion and public-spiritedness.
The first time I met EN I was drawn to a photograph neatly hanging on the wall behind her. In a plain olive-green wooden frame, there is the lightly faded photo. The Eiffel Tower is in the centre, to the right is a row of manicured trees, and in the foreground, sitting on a grass verge is a lone child, perhaps eight or nine years old. She is staring at the camera. She isn’t smiling but there is a look of resolve, a brave but uncomfortable steeliness. It’s an adult’s expression on a child’s face. I sense there is something more revealing about the picture, but I don’t know what it is.
The photo is of EN: “I was travelling with my parents, and friends of my parents, whose children were my best friends when I was young. I always remember that trip with happy memories. The picture reminds me of my childhood.”
I ask EN about other trips she took as a child.
“Every summer we went to the town my parents are from. It’s in the south of Spain. And small, maybe 6,000 residents. There are hills there, and a mountain that is over 1,500 meters high. We used to climb that mountain every summer.”
But the mountain wasn’t high enough for EN and her father. Together they would stare up at the night sky with wonder. The canopy miles above the small town, absent of light pollution, served as a living theatre with stars and constellations sparkling across the black horizon.
EN’s father is an accomplished geologist and took on the role of tour guide. Using nothing more sophisticated than his index finger he would point to the dark sky and identify patterns of distant lights hanging high above their heads. Star gazing became the family’s nightly entertainment, and he whisked them from one spot to another; thousands of miles travelled in the wave of an arm. This was entertainment at its best, better than television, better than the movies. It was mesmerising and energising and humbling all at once.
With each summer EN’s grasp of the solar system expanded, but her increased understanding also led to more questions. Soon EN and her father spent evenings talking about distant moons and far-flung stars and remote galaxies, about the speed of light, and the relativity and dilation of time. It wasn’t your typical father-daughter conversation, but it was exhilarating for both.
“I knew I needed to understand more, so I started watching documentaries and reading a lot,” said EN.
It was little surprise EN’s informal study of space soon became part of her formal education. On completing secondary school, she opted to study physics as an undergraduate. While busying herself with the structure of matter and how the fundamental elements of the universe interact, she also became interested in how some aspects of our planet were beginning to function erratically due to human interference, manipulation and exploitation. Climate change, she realised, was essentially a climate emergency, and presented a very real existential threat.
EN is of a generation unwittingly born into circumstances not of their making, and yet they are systematically coerced into perpetuating the single biggest human blunder: Sabotaging the very conditions that allow life on earth.
I sense this period was a struggle for EN, a kind of hurried coming-of-age. It was a realisation that life had thrown her a curved ball and revealed a secret she couldn’t ignore: Earth’s systems were changing so rapidly and so dramatically it was destabilising the very life systems we depend on.
Unsure of what to do EN escaped to her favourite place: Space. On completing her physics degree, she signed up for a Masters in Astrophysics, which included studying at the prestigious Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). The institution has a long history dating back to 1856, is recognized by the Spanish government as a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence, and operates two of the best international observatories in the world. It was a far cry from her childhood star gazing with her father. EN would go on to complete her PhD in 2022. It was during this time she also became involved with the Spanish chapter of Scientist Rebellion, a community of scientists and academics who are exposing the ‘reality and severity of the climate and ecological emergency by engaging in non-violent civil disobedience.’ This informed community were bringing much needed energy and urgency to the climate debate.
EN summed up the period: “The final year of my PhD was tough. Sometimes I just couldn’t see the point of all the studying, the qualifications.” EN was feeling a growing sense of duty, and perhaps due to her professional training, a sense of obligation or responsibility to do more, to share and explain more about the climate emergency.
Taking seven years to construct and formally opened in 1850 by Queen Isabel II of Spain, the Palacio de las Cortes in Madrid is a proud building made of granite and limestone. Twelve steps, guarded by a single bronze lion on either side, rise to meet a wide portico on which six columns stand tall. Above the columns rests a triangular frontispiece which carries images representing commerce, agriculture, navigation, courage, abundance, fortitude, justice, peace, and science. The building is Spain’s parliament and the country’s political nerve centre; on the 6th of April 2022 it also became a place of resistance for EN.
It was an overcast Wednesday morning and people in Madrid were going about their everyday routines. Had they been more alert, they would have noticed small groups, in their fours and fives, scattered on the various roads leading to the Palacio de las Cortes.
“I was very nervous because it was a very big action,” remembers EN. “I wasn’t sure how the police would react. The previous day I told my sister I was engaging in a public protest and if I didn’t answer my phone not to worry.”
Planning for April’s action began in the January. A small number of activists from the Spanish chapter of Scientist Rebellion began discussing possible actions to bring attention to the climate emergency. These were people who understood the environmental and ecological changes better than most, and they were seriously worried by the consequences. Chatter continued in the coming weeks and various options were considered. Glue-ons, lock-ons and chaining to key government locations were all dismissed as too impractical for the small window of time they had before police would arrive on the scene. Defacing Spain’s main political symbol, the Palacio de las Cortes, soon became the favoured option, especially if the defacing could carry a universal message.
“Only that plan was good enough. We are running out of time, and we didn’t know what to do to raise the [climate emergency] alarm. That building. It had to be that building,” says EN.
It was agreed the exterior of the building would be stormed and spattered in red paint to symbolise the loss of life caused by the climate emergency. Scouts were sent to map out the building and plans were finalised. Only a small number of people were aware of the exact location and nature of the action. Approximately eighty participants were put into small groups, each to be led by a ‘shepherd.’ The date and time were decided, and the countdown began.
On the evening of Tuesday April 5th, the reality of the next day’s planned action sank in for EN. She was a scientist by training; she had spent almost a decade studying a subject that she fell in love with as a child, that carried special meaning for her and became her prized vocation, and that had taken her to the prestigious Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias – and yet here she was, on the precipice of undoing it all.
As EN relives the night before the Palacio de las Cortes action, I reflect on the photograph of her in front of the Eiffel Tower. I realise in addition to her look of determination there was a sense of vulnerability, a sense of individual exposure. It’s an expression I have seen on others when they are presented with a no-win predicament. These people have a rare trait: They remain brave in the face of fear; they endure despite being beset by threats, danger, and harm. I wonder what role fate has played in EN’s passage from the photograph to this moment, and whether her expression in that photo hints a type of destiny. Do injustices, like those triggered by the climate emergency, speak to people like EN in an innate and intuitive way?
The action on the Wednesday morning unfolds. The signal is given, small crowds rush the building. Washable red paint is hurled through the air landing on steps and columns and limestone walls. Some lands on the white coats donned by the scientists. There is noise – shouting, screaming, and chanting. The press, who were notified at the last minute, are busy documenting and recording.
“The red paint represents the blood of all those who have died because of the climate crisis, the blood of all those who will die,” yells one scientist.
“It’s not the future that’s at stake, it’s the present” adds a forty-something bearded man.
As predicted the police, who are almost without exception men, arrive in large numbers. They encircle the band of scientists, researchers, and academics, who make no attempt to escape, instead sitting, now quiet, on the steps. The police clumsily draw their favoured weapon – intimidation. For those watching it’s an awkward image – care and compassion being stared down by oppression and coercion, while walls and steps drip blood red paint. On that morning there was a brief opening, a pause for us to consider why such an act was necessary. Worryingly, not all arrive at the same conclusion.
The scientists are kept for just over two hours, their personal details are taken, and they are released pending further investigation. EN borrows a phone and calls her parents, telling them what happened and that she is okay. They are concerned but supportive. They ask her to come home.
The next two months are difficult for EN. While she waits to hear if she will be charged, she struggles with the fact the climate emergency continues unimpeded, and she is regularly patronised by ‘older-wiser’ authority figures who tell her she is being unreasonable, but they offer no meaningful alternative.
In the summer of 2022 EN was charged with criminal damage to a historical building, and she anticipates her case will be heard in early 2024. The prosecution is seeking a four-year prison sentence if EN is found guilty.
I ask how she feels.
Her response is thoughtful, with frequent pauses.
She begins “day to day life was …. more … relaxed; now I’m …. more anxious.”
Anxious about what I ask.
“I have things in my life that I don’t want to lose. I am worried I may lose them if I go to jail. I have never been to jail; I never imagined it’s a place I would go.”
I ask how she currently spends her days.
“I have abandoned my science career. I now do data analysis related to climate change as a freelancer. It’s been difficult; I have used all my savings.”
I ask EN how she feels about Paris and the photograph.
“It’s like it was a different world. Another universe.”
I am left wondering how our life paths unfold, how we balance obligation and service with social and personal comfort, and why we so often allow ‘doing right’ to be recast as ‘doing wrong’. But mostly I wonder how we abandoned an individual to carry the burden of raising the climate emergency alarm unsupported and on occasion frightened.
©2023 Sul Nowroz EN is a pseudonym.