On “#D12” (Saturday 12/12/’15, the “overflow” day that became the last day of COP21) I headed down to the “Red Lines” rally near the Arc de Triomphe. According to 350.org and the various voices in the Coalition Climat this was meant to be a big day of civil disobedience to “have the last word” about the negotiations. So once the rally was sanctioned by the police and they cordoned off the road so we were out of sight of traffic in an approved “protester zone”, my heart sank as it appeared we had been out-maneuvered. A frustrated, fellow-minded friend described the scene as a “liberal clusterfuck” and I decided to follow him around in the hope that together we might manage to find something to salvage. I was slightly happier once we pushed past the police lines (which I think broke the “action agreement” we’d all previously agreed to) and started marching towards the Eiffel Tower.
Once we got close to the tower the inspirational Climate Angels took a “stand” by sitting down on a bridge and starting a sit-in. The police demanded the Angels move, yet they stayed and more and more people sat down. The plan was to sit there for as long as possible, but some of the NGO organizers took to the People’s Mic and tried to persuade people to abandon the sit-in and go a the pointless celebration under the Eiffel tower itself. An awkward struggle then ensued, with people on the mic sending alternating messages about whether to stay at the sit-in or whether to give up and go. Although people seemed reluctant to leave the bridge the manipulation was finally successful when someone claimed the “local French organizers” were asking us to leave the bridge, and it was sad to see an interesting action tactic get undermined by what appears to have been deception.
As people wandered down to the feel-good party I followed the Angels around the side of the tower where we were blocked by dozens of plainclothes police with their threats of violence. Being a smaller group we retreated, eventually finding another way under the Eiffel tower. I felt disappointed by how many people seemed to be celebrating the pathetic “agreement” the negotiators had failed us with (“worse than Copenhagen”). But then I heard about an unsanctioned climate justice march near the Belleville metro station and my heart lifted a little.
After racing across Paris I managed to emerge from the Metro just as the march was leaving. Around 500 people had taken to the streets and the atmosphere around this march felt more exciting—with the shop owners often cheering from their shops. These were the real grassroots local French organizers, and they were asserting the right to gather freely and march in the face of police oppression, since the French state had removed our rights with the phoney State of Emergency (the political agenda of crushing climate activism became clear when they allowed all the other mass-gatherings of people—sports, shopping, concerts—to continue).
The police didn’t take kindly to this march, yet when they tried to trap us by blocking the road in front of and behind us, we managed to find an escape through the grounds of a hospital, making our way to the canal. We made a run for a footbridge, and around 100 people made it over before the police arrived with pepper spray. I’d made it to the top of the bridge and turned around to watch as two people who were already paralyzed with agony were repeatedly pepper sprayed for about 15 more seconds—the brutality and dehumanization of the police was disgusting. I got my camera out and “click click click”:
As the police backed away I went down the bridge to help these two people—one of whom was obviously a journalist. After administering some water and helping them to the top of the bridge the police started to run up the steps towards us with a mean look in their eyes. Not wanting the same painful fate I fled, dodging some police on the other side and sprinting along the canal until I heard their pursuit fade away. I stopped to catch my breath, wash my eyes, and saw the police had surrounded around 150 people on the opposite bank. At that moment my buddy called me and so I started to tell her about my near-miss and the protesters being trapped. It was while I was on the phone that half a dozen police ran up to me and surprised me, forcing me down onto the ground and taking my phone and bag. They searched my possessions and questioned me, asking why I had run away from them. “Because the police were mercilessly pepper-spraying journalists and I didn’t want to experience needless pain,” I responded, and proceeded to ask them if they knew that the deal the governments had just signed at COP21 would lead to our extinction if people like us didn’t do anything about it. “I know,” said the policeman who was holding me captive. When I asked him why he’d grabbed me and why they were stopping us from getting this message out, he weakly dismissed my question saying “It’s just another night on the job.”
After twenty minutes or so the police picked up my bag and told me to follow. I passed several hundred cops, to whom I waved cheekily with a big grin on my face. The police gave me my bag back as they shoved me into the “kettle” of the other 150 trapped people, who gave me an applause as I joined them. The police told us we could choose to leave and be ID’d, and that the rest of us would be arrested. No one left, instead chanting “We all go together”, and after another couple of minutes the police came back and announced that they weren’t actually gonna arrest anyone and would let us go in groups of ten. It felt good to be holding the hands of my friend (from the start of the day) as we were led up the street.
In terms of how effective D12 was, I’m not actually sure that any of it did very much. Yes, the NGOs now have a new set of pretty pictures with which they can “build the movement” (I really hope some grassroots groups got to benefit from them too), and yes, the shopkeepers in the Belleville area may have gained a little hope. Yet what does the tactic of marching do? I’m not convinced it does much. Although there seems to be benefits gained when grassroots group collaborate, learn to work together, form alliances, and enact a “successful” project together, the D12 march didn’t appear to be organized by grassroots groups so I’m not convinced there was much benefit at all.
Perhaps it’s useful for activists to have a feel-good party when there’s nothing to feel good about. Perhaps it’s psychologically helpful to get out some rage and express our desire to not live in a police-state, even though we had no plan to make their oppression cost them (in the mind of the general public) and I never saw any media coverage about the Belleville march. Perhaps the D12 march and all the optimistic “we did it” lies (by the Heads of State, dutiful corporate media and NGOs) will help activists to avoid the kind of post-Copenhagen depression we saw in 2009, yet I’m also worried that the “we gained something (small)” messages that NGOs have been pushing is a dangerous form of delusion.
So what is effective? I believe there are many things, in many circumstances. Stay with me over the months ahead as I delve into some of the actions and communities in which I find hope, and find out with me what is working, why it’s working, and how we can make them spread...