Fracking, Pungesti, and the Destruction of European Democracy

There’s new growth forest covering the hill, maybe fifty years old, and it’s denseness is the only theoretical escape from riot cops, its cover the only consistent break in their line of sight. Everthing else is just plowed fields. Pungesti is the first target for Chevron’s nation wide fracking attack on the Romanian water supply, and the site is just 500 meters away from the village.

Below, a road, on one side a rectangle, the building site for what will be the fracking exploitation, now neatly contained by a fence. The fence itself is also neat, absolutely the cleanest structure for miles around. Houses here, like clothes, are passed down across generations, and the newest of buildings are covered in the business of utilitarian peasant things. And utilitarian peasant things are old. On the other side of the road, maybe a hundred activists from all across Romania. Small, colorful groups scattered amidst the mass of old people from Pungesti, and a few big men from a local factory.

Earlier that day we had been received by one of the leaders of the resistance movement, a peasant family slightly better off than most, and braver for it. They’re hard working people, smart, outspoken, and it’s gotten them persecuted. Fines, arrests – the husband was pulled from his own house and arrested for no reason, while one of their children has become a bed-wetter again, at ten years of age. Nothing wrong with the kid, it’s just trauma.

pungestiThe wife tells me a story I already know very well. Young children in the village dream of going to the city, most of the adults are on unemployment benefits, and many of them are alcoholics. I know this story by heart, because I’ve been to plenty of Romanian villages where somewhere between communism and a centralized, exploitative capitalism, the basic requirements for human dignity were lost. But nature has its ways, its resilience, its near-indestructibility, and somehow these communities keep getting by, and life there isn’t all that bad. Even with alcoholism, work gets done.

What’s not clear to the locals is how an agricultural community is supposed to get work done without clean water. The capitalist narrative is neat, like the neat fence around Chevron’s site. But that fence comes down not half an hour later, a torrent of old men and women pouring down the hill and past the riot cops easily dismantling all that pretty aluminum. Neat things are often fragile, easy to tear down, easy to see through, even by old uneducated peasants, even by those that are welfare alcoholics.

“They can kill me but I won’t give up. What right do the Americans have to come here and poison our lands? I’ll protest every day if I have to. The cops might as well beat us ‘till they tire. They beat me and my boy. We got used to cops beating us. I’m 83 years, 4 months old. That’s 29234 days, counting today. All I want is for the machines to go back where came from, to America.”

pungesti-7-1The old man’s name is Gheorghe.

Locals wonder why the government is stupid. Why Chevron is stupid. That’s the word they use. They wonder how come educated officials do not understand the simple mathematics of living communities and the simple necessities of practical agriculture. These peasants understand money, corruption and greed, but they cannot understand why the greedy and the corrupt are blind to all other realities. They wonder what people are to eat if 70% of Romania’s surface is affected by the massive array of fracking sites. It’s a good, simple question, and it goes beyond the interest of the local community. They’ve become not so much the shambled and stumbling resistance protecting an old way of life, but the unlikely elderly rebels fighting for the cause of generations to come. They know this, they say it in straightforward sentences, with honest faces, almost ashamed that they have to assume this role, but they say it over and over again. And at night, when under cover of darkness the village is overrun by riot cops, they take beatings.

There’s a certain beauty to the street lights of Romanian villages. The wooden poles and the deep yellow light, the reflections of that light onto the stones that pave the roads, the depth of the sky, the number of stars. This is an image you’ll find here over and over again, every village you go to seems like the same silent, slowly winding midnight, the same pitch darkness, the same yellow lights. Tonight, there’s armored cars and armored cops streaming through, slightly faster than the darkness, the black of their hard plastic armor benefiting from the overall beauty. An old woman hunched over a cane holds the middle of the street, yelling at them, cursing them, reasoning with them with the spiteful kind of reasoning a grandmother throws at brutes. She’s five feet tall, poor as dirt, and I lose a bit of sanity as I watch the scene unfold. Then there are screams from further on down the road, then the old woman’s curses again. Screams, and the old woman, and more cops.

pungesti-7-2Twelve of us are in a room inside the family’s house. The wife comes to lock the front door, then all other doors. Their kids are probably scared, and so is everyone else. There’s girls, and a few guys, all agitated. There’s shame in being safe while hearing screams from outside, but there’s fear in knowing the safety is just an illusion, and cops could enter the house anytime, drag everyone into one of the large armored trucks that seem eerily immense parked on that country road. And off we’d be, headed for some unknown police station miles away. I don’t exactly feel fear, years of fighting have turned it into a familiar insanity, a heightened relaxation whenever violence happens. I sit down next to the front door, my shame slightly deeper because of the lack of fear.

If my willingness to protect that door is a deep red, my shame is an endless red, stretching back into every corner of every memory of my life on this land, all of it relevant to this one moment. My breath is slow and relaxed, my shame is clean and clear, the old woman outside is still yelling. I’m protecting the door. And I smell the strangely morbid smell of force multipliers being applied against old peasants.

For those of you who don’t know, that’s the name of a modern military doctrine which is particularly effective against unarmed targets, especially when they’re not allowed to defend themselves, and even more so when it’s unleashed in the middle of their homes. It’s the backbone of American imperialism, the hammer that hits hard and drives the free market nails as deep as they need to be. The nails of indifferent capital and investment strategies, aloof to the details of their intended locality. Nails driven deep into quality of life and quality of society and quality of development.

Temporarily profitable endeavors, that’s what resource extraction and resource consumption are when they are devoid of social value. Generating monetary profit for a private entity, but they they do not qualify as profitable economic endeavors, as they do not generate stable structures and growth, nor do they qualify as resource use, as there is no reliable plan in place for the use of that resource – beyond the simple consumption demands of the market. When you sacrifice local stability in the name of consumption, and you do this the world over, the result is economic destruction, not economic growth. When you use resources without generating structures and cultures, you are merely unbalancing a human system that took, at the very least, centuries to build.

And when you have to trample basic human rights and a country’s constitution in order to wage economic destruction that leads to no lasting profit, you are unbalancing not just the local human system, but the legal and cultural basis for society and international agreements that uphold the qualities necessary for peace, well-being, and the freedom to build and distribute prosperity widely.

pungestiThe army of invading riot cops, its measured black pace putting its stamp on this village – it’s just the unnecessarily aesthetic form of a mad run for resource extraction and distribution – distribution which occurs wherever the most monetary profit can be obtained at any given moment. And the places which require the most amount of resources and can afford to pay the most tend to already be over-developed and unbalanced, and cannot generate any more structural growth. Historically, these centers tend to contribute little to a global culture of prosperity. Because of allocating resources to mere “free consumption” instead of intelligent use, localities with potential for stable development remain undeveloped or fall prey to scorched-earth capitalism, while consumption centers use up their web of available energy and fertile land. This is the result of a(n unintelligently) planned economy, not a free market – when you have to break constitutions and use military force to uphold the appearance of a free market, it is not in fact a free market, but a capital-first market struggling to uphold its capital-first motives in the face of human and economic resistance, in the face of the natural forces of history, and in the face of simple logic, geographical logic, economic logic and human logic. Discussing profit over human rights is a failure of the state and of the international community, which allows this sort of economic planning to proliferate, and in entering European geography and European practice, it is uprooting a thousand years of social growth on this continent.

I have time to contemplate all this, because I sit by that door for an hour and a half knowing that meters away people are being hurt. I contemplate this because as I sit there, I can feel society being uprooted, I can feel those thousands of years taking one last old, painful breath. Right there. Not doing our job of upholding human rights locally, we’re creating a precedent, a way of life which involves extinguishing the very conditions for human life. Building a deadly mathematical cage around our democracies. But anyone who thinks that there is a mathematical model in which this results in profit, in real profit, over the short term, mid term or long term – any kind of term – they need to go back to school, or back within a working community for a while.

And no, our house did not get breached. Some of the more scared girls inside concluded that we worried for nothing, that it was all an exaggeration. This is victim mentality. An old woman was beaten and left in a ditch. Was she the one in front of our house? Most likely not, since we neither heard nor saw it happen. Houses were breached on other nights, people beaten. There is no television to tell us if it also happened tonight. None of this gets on national television, and online it is treated mostly like tall tales out of popular imagination, out of old people too poor or drunk to recount the truth, and too attached to their land to be honest.

pungesti-9-1But there’s no element of imagination here, the violence is very real. A young handicapped boy was beaten that night. Then taken to the police station, and beaten some more. An old man tried to protect him. He was beaten. These are just some of the ones with medical reports to prove it. There are countless others. Martial law, the basic Romanian equivalent of that, has been declared in Pungesti. People can’t take their cows to pasture. Two kids were beaten for trying to. People can’t even step out into their own yards, they’re told to go back inside. It’s the second time in two months that it gets this bad. If you think there’s choice involved, you’re wrong.

A German citizen who has dozens of hectares of land in another locality, far from Pungesti, had his land invaded by the Romanian company that does shale gas prospections for Chevron. They arrived unannounced, with foreign security, and started cutting down trees and digging holes on his land, barring him from accessing his own property. When he came to Pungesti to help protest this kind of abuse, he was shocked by the much deeper and more pervasive brand of violence he found here.

The night after that, we’re back in the city, and reports of more and more police violence reach us. Our trip runs on fuel and a mixed feeling of impotence and shame. We get back to Bucharest just in time for next day’s protest in the center of the capital. We’re a little early, tired, and we drink coffee in a pub. It’s relaxing, and there are hugs. I space out in this softness that has not been there in the last days.

Ten minutes later we reach the protest, and I regret my softness. A cop yells at me for the first time in a long time, and I feel insulted by it, almost hurt. This must be how it is for people coming to protests for the first time – lights up a thought – this is why so many don’t show up. Riot cops smell softness, companionship, they smell it and bark at it. I snap out of it in a second and bark back, then I contemplate this moment for a while, this window into trauma.

We’d been making fun of the indifference of most people walking Bucharest’s center, eating sausages and drinking beer, and I had pointed out that their indifference is just a facade that hides their frailty, their clinging to unessential things, and that this clinging will bite them right back later on, hard, when conditions get worse. But this clinging to normality and momentary joy is also what makes them extremely vulnerable in the present – if there is an immediate and obvious target for repression, this is it. Your good times are what gets barked at first, your gentle expectations.

Your non-violence, if that is what you want, is not truly non-violence until you give up expectations of non-violence from the state. And your strength, your violence, if that is your tool of choice, is not truly strength until you truly accept the pain of everyone around you. If you shove a riot cop at a protest, the woman next to you will get shoved back. The line between violence and non-violence is torturous to dance upon when you’re not wearing state armor, and very easy to play with when you are.

By now it’s night again, and in the center of Bucharest there’s a couple hundred people huddled together, surrounded by more riot troops than there are protesters. Arrests are made, a hand is broken, then someone’s leg is broken, and a young girl is kicked in the groin hard enough for an ambulance to come pick her up. Nobody provoked anything. The only way they can defend their abuses in Pungesti is with more abuses.

Two days later it’s Human Rights day. Tuesday. A hundred of us occupy the National Ombudsman House. The Ombudsman is the parliament appointed national constitutional people’s lawyer, a somewhat high ranking official with a good degree of independence and, if not political clout, at least social and media clout.

Within minutes television crews are outside. It’s the most daring protest action undertaken in Bucharest in the last two years, and it comes almost as a shock. There had been a protest an hour earlier in a different part of the city, and people slowly trickled out. Eventually, the riot cops left the scene, but protesters had not been going home, but re-amassing in front of the building to be occupied.

The highlight of the day becomes our inability to go to the restroom. The crowd outside grows, as does the number of cops inside the building. Slowly, they end up filling the main entrance hall. We have three rooms, two are filled to the brim and one, an office with comfy chairs, is where the statement of occupation is being redacted. Our presence here could be forcefully ended at any moment, and the statement is still a mess of opinions and awkward grammar. Someone spray paints a sign in the middle room, and the smell is surprisingly powerful. Someone else sees the cops fumbling in the hallway, two and two are put together, in an instant everyone is yelling ‘tear gas’, as we lock the doors to the room where our statement is being pieced together. A minute later we realize it was only the odor of spray paint, but the sense of immediacy has increased nonetheless. Many were not mentally ready for a police intervention, and completely froze when the smell and screams of tear gas erupted.

Phonecalls are received from a couple members of parliament – the mine law hasn’t passed yet, but legal voting procedures are being made a mockery of. Plenty of food is being brought in from the outside, and plenty of water, but the restrooms are still being blocked by cops playing deaf and mute. It’s a psychological ploy, and it’s one that occupies the mind of most of these occupiers. You can’t hold a building too long if you have nowhere to pee.

A few cops burst in from one of the unoccupied rooms and start asking for identification from people inside. Out of nowhere, Mandela’s name starts echoing loudly, everyone chanting it like a wrathful mantra. It works, as out of place as that name seems here. The globally commercialized suffering and achievements of a man from another continent vibrate into a song of false overtones, Mandela, Mandela, loud, resounding out of the mouths of young white people who never went to prison and don’t realize the violence of Mandela’s struggle, the endurance and depth of that pain. Still, the mantra works.

This name, infinitely stronger than the Romanian slogans used at protests, forces the cops to give up within a minute. It’s somehow in profound bad taste, but magical, and it brings the essence of activism into this unlikely place – the mix of endless compassion and individual power, expressed in all ways, with humanity and fierceness, and a vocal intelligence taking on all comers until your name becomes a power unto itself and your presence lingers peacefully, beautifully, usefully after death.

An hour later the mine law falls, temporarily. It reaches the majority within that session, but not a majority of the total number of seats in parliament, and being an organic law it needs the absolute majority. It will be voted on at a date that remains to be established.

Parliament is trying to pass several laws. One would make all mineral resource exploitations matters of national strategic interest, fully overriding property rights and right to livelihood, and consequently the right to sustain one’s life within a social constitutional continuum without being abruptly uprooted. The law would make industrial interests trump all else – anytime, anyplace. This more than literally creates a state within a state effect, giving gas, oil and gold companies free rein to create as many independent undercover states within Romania as they please, or as many as their capital allows for, each one sovereign not only over the land, but also over the law of the land, over due process, and with fast-tracked access to parliament that cannot even be challenged. Nevermind that the balance of financial and lawyer resources already tips the scale gigantically to the side of corporations, why let the common man have a day in court when you can avoid the bother all-together and turn resource extraction corporations into super-state entities.

When you put together the phrases “national safety”, “strategic interest” and “international corporation”, and you use this threesome from hell to motivate an overriding of the constitution and a derision of human rights law, and then you legislate this into a country’s organic law, that country is no longer a sovereign nation. All that’s left for its state officials is to legislate their own position as being above the law, and the endless pillage can begin anew everyday for as long as this land has people and resources.

And that is exactly what happened on Tuesday. Romanian politicians decided they needed superimmunity. So they gave themselves exactly that, amending the penal code. With the new law, no conflict of interest is possible for public officials, and parliamentarians are no longer considered public officials, thereby being immune from offenses of corruption, abuse of function and outright theft of public funds. It is also now impossible for anti-corruption agencies to gather criminal evidence against politicians until an investigation has been made public, thereby completely neutering these institutions and rendering them useless. What has not yet passed, mostly because of public outrage, but is still up for vote at a future date, is a law that would provide amnesty for corruption, economic crime, treason, and various other white-collar crimes with sentences of up to 6 and 7 years.

And to balance out these changes comes the reinstatement of a simplistic legislation that criminalizes insult and calumny, which will make serious journalism, activism and civic presence very difficult from now on. Already, a day before the new calumny law passed, an activist-journalist was being investigated by police for the crime of having written a book – a historically accurate and intelligently argumented book about the Rosia Montana project.

All this happened overnight. On Monday night these naturally slumbering giants whose campaign trails only deviate from the champagne-caviar axis to stumble onto the theft-corruption axis, these glorious sloths who proudly bear the suit and tie of no discernment – the very people who never seem to remain consciously awake long enough to ever get anything done – actually stayed up all night fully completing the texts of three laws.

There are two obvious conclusions. One is that Romanian politicians could easily rewrite contemporary life well into the next century. We could have a hundred years of golden achievement and unmatched vision if only these men of mighty pens would mercifully decide to grind their steely, tenacious intellects against the deadly wheels of history. Legiferating gladiators never at rest across seven continents.

Slightly more relevant is the second conclusion. There had to have been deep external approval, if not firm and probably ruthless demand for this anti-social and unconstitutional political behavior. Most likely the mine law was commissioned externally (it had been commissioned a year ago, but was such a mess of totalitarian-sounding gibberish, that it got sidetracked, then external pressure was applied again and the re-wording happened overnight) – the superimmunity law was the prize received by Romanian politicians for its enactment.

Someone in the EU worked closely with someone in America in order for this to happen. Romania is the testing ground, the European Argentina. Romania is the precedent.

There is imminent rape here, abundantly lubricated by the military-industrial-riot-cop complex. You have to add riot-cop to that syntagm, otherwise it doesn’t make contemporary sense. Riot cops have become the face, hands and feet of the military industry and the industrial militaries. Anti-constitutional rape will be most unpleasant for locals in areas with any underground resources, and for activists, and then for Romanians in general once the reality of lack of rights, property, due process, and things known as “a culture” and “a society” dawns upon the citizen majority.

But keep in mind, this is merely precedent for the EU. We’re not Greeks. It pains me to say it, but we’re not. We’re good fighters, strong, tough, willful, but it ends where the television contracts end. Our fighting spirit is worth only its entertainment pay, and when it comes to being warriors, we’re not Greeks. We’re not Spaniards. And we’re not Turks and Ukrainians and Egyptians, but what we are is European Union members, so while so far we have been unable to effectively stand up for our rights as a nation, you have all empowered us to create a legal, social and economic precedent.

For all of you.

Your representatives are up in arms about Tuesday’s legal reform. Yes, but their secret motives? Who knows how those motives will unwind over the coming year. Perhaps your politicians are, right this moment, rejoicing at how this puppet democracy might just play Trojan Horse for the whole of the EU.

That makes it your fight. Right now. Yes, the locals in Pungesti are old, and brave beyond comprehension, and fully deserving of compassion and support. And help – but it goes beyond that. It’s your fight, and right now it’s being fought by old peasants and a handful of activists, some of whom are more than warriors, but still, a handful does not describe how few they are. So your fight is being lost.

Come here and win it. This is serious, it’s real, and it’s deadly. Win this fight. Get involved however you can, today.

Luca Oprea was on site for the anti-Chevron resistance in Pungesti, then protests in Bucharest and the occupation of a government building. Follow him at Read other articles by Luca.