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NORTH CENTRAL GERMANY -- One November, 14 years ago, the Germany’s coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens allowed the rail transport of six large railcars carrying hundreds of tons of high-level radioactive waste fuel rods from France into Germany and across the country to Gorleben, a rural town in the Elbe River Valley targeted for potential deep burial. (Today, the tons of million-year hazardous waste are still stored above-ground in sheds, the dump stalled indefinitely by lawsuits.)
For ten long days during the waste’s transport across the region of Germany known as Wendland, in what by then had become an annual public uproar, thousands of farmers and activists staged hundreds of disruptions, marches, blockades and lockdowns, attempting to halt the radiation roulette game. Over 800 were arrested making their protests, or simply trying to get to a demonstration. The federal government had authorized the arrest of anyone that the police, over 10,000 of them, saw fit to “nick” within a 50-meter zone around the transport route.
Outside the village of Laase, over 400 protesters had built a highway blockade across the road, a huddled mass of people 20 meters long and 8 meters wide, and were dug in for the November night. The radioactive waste had been shifted to trucks and was headed toward the human roadblock. This was the environmentalist’s last stand before the cancer casks reached Gorleben. A group of international human rights observers that I was a part of arrived around 1:00 a.m.
Being an amateur cornet player, I noticed a woman playing her beat-up trumpet all on her own. She was dressed in flowing rags, a thick hat and heavy scarf. Alternately walking, skipping and dancing directly in front of the battle-dressed, stone-faced police battalion, she blared nasty, off-key noise directly at the heavily shielded officers -- for two hours!
Every note she played was foul and bitter as she drenched the police with an abusive, repellent barrage. The police tried to look impervious. Her sound was so consistently sour and flat, so brutally out of tune and ferocious, that I thought the performance was studied, practiced and devilishly brilliant.
I couldn’t stop laughing at the sight and sound of the tragic, comic protest. With her fingers exposed through the cut-away tips of a pair of woven gloves, she manipulated the keys. She moved around constantly while she played her savage denunciation.
The trumpet had one very bad wound and dozens of other dents. During a break she explained that a Rumanian policeman had smashed it with his baton. This made her caustic musical theater all the more understandable and rich.
I asked if I could play it and she agreed. But blowing the thing was like trying to crawl through too tight a space. I had to work like a contortionist, squinting and hunching my shoulders. Her vicious screed was not a deliberate exercise at all but the unavoidably grim result of police battery. The pinched and tortured horn made me try over and over to get a recognizable note out of it. I finally put across a dim and harsh version of Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I played it -- barely – not to the police but the semi-captive audience of blockaders. They were jumbled together pile-on style, a human mound that completely covered the highway from side-to-side and worked together to help warm the whole. The group was politely enthusiastic in appreciation, considering its frozen and tangled discombobulation.
I handed back the beat-up horn. The player was smiling and nodding.
“Wow,” she said, “you tamed the tiger.”