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Are we serious? the shambles in Copenhagen

dariush | 23.12.2009 23:25 | COP15 Climate Summit 2009 | Ecology | Birmingham | World

A personal account of the failure of the protests in Copenhagen. It's all too easy to blame that nasty "police repression" for the lack of fizz of the demos in Denmark -- but were the protests ever serious?

I'm neither a summit-hopper nor a pacifist, yet the plan for mass non-violent action at the COP 15 Climate summit in Copenhagen caught my imagination. "Using only the force of our bodies", went the call-out by the Climate Justice Action network, "we will overcome any physical barriers that stand in our way" to "push into the conference area and enter the building, disrupt the sessions" and hold a "horizontal" assembly.

Images of the raid on the Dharasana salt works, May 21 1930, thousands of Gandhian satyagrahis advancing into lines of barbed wire and police clubs. "Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins."1 Still they kept advancing, naked body and naked will against the physical barriers, pain barriers, fear barriers of the state. As the philosopher Spinoza said -- we just don't know what a body can do.2

My comrade and travelling companion Leo and I discussed -- could we do a Dharasana? Maybe I should note that we're a pair of sexual perverts who like torturing each other for fun, so perhaps anarcho-masochism has some kinky charge for us. All the same, we decided we might not have it in us. Yes we would be in the front line on December 16th, we would keep moving forward, we wouldn't attack the police -- but we couldn't promise in advance not to defend ourselves.

Apart from the night before, I attended none of the planning meetings for the December 16th action. So I can't say how the decisions were originally made on the non-violence position, on the route, where and how to try and broach the fence, on dividing the action up into separate blocs, etc. We were more involved with the No Borders demonstration of Monday 14th. The Danish parliament had rushed through emergency legislation allowing summary "preventive arrest" of demonstrators without grounds, threatening 40 day sentences for failure to disperse on police orders. On the 12th and 13th the police wiped the floor with the demonstrators, smashing through lines to surround and mass arrest hundreds at a time, who were taken off to special detention "cages".

My South American comrade proposed a new tactic for the monday action -- following the example of the Argentinian piqueteros we would move as a tight collective body surrounded by defensive lines at the front, rear and sides. In Argentina the piqueteros cordon off the sides with a line of guards clasping sticks. There was no way we could get sticks to the demo so, yes, we would use our bodies alone, arms linked in chains along the sides. The No Borders demo would have borders.

It worked beautifully. Maybe the police were just a bit weary after the weekend, but we stayed tight and protected each other. Every time they tried to pick off someone we massed together an impenetrable wall. It's true the named target, the ministry of defence, remained untouched, but that didn't stop the day being a big morale boost as we romped through Copenhagen, running in packs, playing ball with a giant globe in parliament square, watching protecting supporting each other all the time as we advanced, retreated, moved again.

At the end the demo made it all safe into the squatter town of Christiania,where the police turned and left looking bemused and backfooted. A Danish journalist asked me -- "is the score now one-all?" However the police retaliated with a punitive raid that night -- they attacked Christiania with teargas and took away 200 hostages. Chased from the barricades, we watched from a frosted attic window as they took the streets gestapo-fashion and went door to door. We were sheltered, then pushed out, by a gang of drunken eskimos -- but that's another story.

On Wednesday morning we joined the blue block, the big wedge of the big demo, in the front line group. It started well as we followed Monday's tactics, all linked arm in arm with double protective chains along the sides. When the police tried to block or grab we surged en masse and filled the space. We made it to Bella centre in high spirits shouting "A -- Anti -- Anticapitalista".

Now the lines were drawn. On our left a moat or canal separated us from the Bella centre. On the other side of the canal a thin wire fence, and police on the bank. The road ahead, with police vans about 100 metres away. And one bridge across the moat, maybe 20 metres wide, blocked by police vans, then a wire fence behind it, then more police, then the final fence, then our destination. Our line rushed towards the bridge and pushed up tight against the first line of police. Others human-chained off the road ahead to stop a charge from in front.

In hindsight I'm quite clear what we needed to do. We had the momentum, we should have pushed straight across the bridge, over the vans, pushed down the fences and rushed in the front door. We heavily outnumbered the police. We were knitted tight together in solidarity, and ready to advance.

Then the first fuck-up -- at the very front of the demo with the banners was a group of "delegates" from the Klimaforum, the alternative "peoples summit". These were the ones who were going to open the "peoples' assembly" we would hold once inside with a round of speeches (something we hadn't been properly informed of at the meeting the night before, where the peoples' assembly was promised to be fully "horizontal"). They were honchos from Latin American and Pacific indigenous movements, from the peasant movement Via Campesina, so-called spokespeople of the "global south", with their NGO-worker followers many from the Northern end of the Americas.

Even leaving aside the political disaster here -- opposing the representative claims of Obama et al. inside with just another dose of representative politics (who speaks for the "global south"? who speaks for anyone?) -- these people posed a directly practical threat to the action. They simply weren't signed up to civil disobedience. When we started pushing against the police line on the bridge, to put it bluntly, they fled to the back.

Meanwhile my own beloved comrade from the global south received a blast of pepper spray straight in the eyes and we had to get her away from the front line. After a few minutes she could see again and was ready to get back to the action. But now the second fuck-up -- a young English activist, who had told us the night before that his affinity group was working on a cunning plan to get through the fences, asked us to help secure a space where they could assemble their secret weapon. This turned out to be a kind of wobbly lilo raft that didn't even make it all the way across the moat. A few precarious individuals stumbled to the end of it to get pepper-eyed and yapped at by Alsations.

But it was clear the spirit of resistance had gone fully limp when we heard announcements that the "peoples' assembly" was now in session sat down on the road behind us. That is, the NGO-ists had, within less than 30 minutes, abandoned the assault on the Bella centre altogether. The rest of us were to be left doing security duty around them. After cursing the delegates in shouted Spanish for a few minutes we decided to leave them to it, go home to get drunk and fuck and cry. The police happily pointed us in the way of the nearest train station.

This was my first, and quite possibly last, international summit protest. I was not in Seattle, Genova, etc. I don't know if there was ever any real thing called a global anti-capitalist movement born in Seattle -- but if there was, maybe Copenhagen was its last gasp. In fact the signs were there as early as monday night when as the police attacked Christiania "activists" who had been to a Naomi Klein talk went on dancing at the after-party. "Is it really serious?" asked a party organiser when told the police were gassing and hounding us just outside.

We can ask the same question about the action in Copenhagen. My first reactions on Wednesday were disgust and indignation at the sheer cowardice of many of the demonstrators. But on reflection, the charge of cowardice maybe assumes that others had indeed committed to civil disobedience "using only the force of our bodies". More likely the "delegates" and their hangers-on had never even read the call-out with its Gandhian pretensions. Their agenda was just different -- to hold another token meeting in a road somewhere.

But then it was an organisational cock-up to try and include the "delegates" in the demo, let alone put them at the front. If you want to hold a meeting in a road, hold it somewhere visible and accessible in the centre of town and involve the people of the city. If you want to do mass civil disobedience, do it with commitment and full clarity, united in taking the risks and beatings. We did neither, just a messed up hodgepodge. Far from serious.

The point is that you can't cobble together satyagraha in a few days. Reading the history of the Gandhian movement in India, or, say, the civil rights movement in the US, what can impress even more than the achievements was the process -- dedication, preparation, psychological and organisational training -- involved. Gandhi talked of the satyagrahis as a well-disciplined "army". Even when practised on a small scale, non-violent direct action that puts bodies at stake calls for serious discipline -- cf. the intense training of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) before the freedom rides and lunch counter actions. As for successful civil disobedience on a mass scale, it's as rare as unicorns -- indeed many of Gandhi's attempts collapsed or broke down into plain old fashioned riots.

Gandhi once said that when true nonviolence is unachievable, "where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence."3 Here is a Gandhian "truth" second rate hippy-pacifists won't face up to. Non-violent mass action is not something you can improvise on the fly. Indeed, to try and impose a non-violent party line on thousands of protestors is an authoritarian pretence.

What a gathering of a few thousand random protestors can do is form a mob, in which each, when face to face with truncheon and pepper spay, follows the calling of her own body, and sets free her own movement and force, hard or soft as it may be. What we did on Wednesday was to hobble the creative force of our mob with systematic (if surely unintentional) effect via a number of key organisational decisions.

But still, I'm not sure that fully explains why Wednesday was such a total wash-out. After the NGO-istas fled why didn't we just jump on those police vans anyway, as much smaller demos manage all the time? Because it was a crowd of mainly complacent middle class students with nothing serious to win or lose? Was that any different in Genova or Seattle?

Lots more questions. One false answer which shouldn't lead us astray: we can't put our failure down to that horrid "police repression". For one thing, pepper spray and truncheons, as any activist from the "global south" can tell you, is not even the beginning of serious repression. Second, despite said "repression", we did get there in our thousands to the Bella centre. It's not the police we have to blame for the failure of our resistance. We don't know what a body, individual or collective, can do -- and on Wednesday we were very far from finding out.


1Eyewitness journalist Webb Miller in "I Found no Peace".
2Ethics III prop II note
3Non-Violence in Peace & War. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1942.