It is a week before the COP 21 climate talks in Paris. I am told by everyone that protest there has been stamped out, incriminated and put under house arrest; that protest had been delegitimized, made impossible and unsafe. After the ISIS shootings, demonstrations are outlawed, but
Christmas markets and football games continue as usual. Activists everywhere are furious at the French Government’s cynical attempt to sanitise the streets of those not rich enough to be at the table. From Berlin, I email one of the key organisers in Paris and tell him that a coachload of activists from Berlin are thinking to pull out. ‘History is not made by people who ask permission’ was his reply.
I arrive to find I am not alone. Tens of thousands of people have converged on the city. They come out of hope, out of belief, out of fear, out of necessity, and into termite social centres and writing warehouses, filled with banners, puppets, secret meetings and mischievous ideas. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. The week is about to take me into a load of activist convergence centres, out on to the streets, and into a museum, a cell, and several dance floors.
Protest in a Police State
The State of Emergency has forced activism to up its game. How can you protest when human rights have been suspended. The French police are tricky to say the least.. My host in Paris told how after the election of President Sarkozi in 2007, plain clothed officers were seem leaving police vans, going into the centre of a demo and then attacking people with batons. We know that agent provocateurs are part of the landscape of modern protest. How can we defy the suppression of protest, avoid getting battered, and not give the police and the sensationalist newscasters the riot they want?
We have to get creative. The big day of action. December 12 arrives. Tensions are high. Arriving protesters are getting searched by undercover
police and armadillo riot cops. Somebody is walking around informing people that there are police dressed as black bloc armed with tear gas and pepper spray.
One group has come armed with platters of fruit and sandwiches. They walk between lines of police and protesters serving smiles and delectations. Another group is dressed as angels with impressive wing spans. There is also a Clown Army brigade and an improvised theatre troupe. Swinging batons at these protesters would be a PR nightmare for the police.
Earlier that week I met a Colombian who told me that student protest in her country had been transformed in the eyes of the public, from “rioting terrorists” to “freedom fighters” by the ‘Besaton’ block (translated as “mass kiss”). The tactic is simple. When it looked like the police were about to start swinging, someone would shout “besaton!” and a line of people would start snogging at the front line of demonstrators. The baton wielding police were left impudent with bafflement. The idea was discussed but there was no French kissing from the European protesters. If you ask me, that needs to change.
“But what about barricades!” I hear you shout, shaking your first in the air. Paris is, after all, the birthplace of barricades. 1588 is celebrated as the Year of the Barricade. Since then, they have been the fine line between success and failure for revolutions against tyranny and oppression the world over. Quite simply, barricades are part of the foundation of modern democracy. This year, the proud tradition was kept alive in the form of
giant inflatable cobblestones. The shape is significant. Cobblestone, dug out of the streets to create missiles against police and military, have protected European citizens from armed police and military for centuries. London had them replaced for this reason. Our cobblestones can be stacked on top of each other to make a great line of defence against police advance. They are also highly mobile, before and after inflation. As an added bonus, police cannot confiscate ‘social sculpture’ or ‘art’. For this reason the undercover police who searched us before the march, and found our kit, had to let us go.
The French president was cynical enough to claim that the protest was a celebration of the treaty signed inside the summit. But we have all long since stopped listening. Has radical change ever come about by political leaders waving a piece of paper in the air? The minute we start celebrating that is the minute we have lost. Our business is that of knitting together a movement. Because the only response to false corporate and technological solutions are social ones. Lidy Nacpil of The Global Campaign for Climate Justice, comes from the Phillipines. She rejects the ‘narrative that is being perpetrated by the rich governments and the corporations who are not interested in transforming the system profoundly’. The movement, she argues, is ‘not yet strong enough to dismantle the power of the corporations, so one of the urgent things that we need to do is to build our power so we can change the system.’
Inside the summit, indigenous representatives struggle to get their rights further than a pre-amble of the agreement. Their work is vital but only
partial. Outside the unacknowledged march hand in hand with their comprehnderos, refusing to be footnoted by their unelected legislators. They are the Do-ists and Now-ists, stepping forward in embodied dialogues of action.
When civil society is not invited to the table, it breaks in and jumps on top of it. The COP 21 Climate Solutions is on at a high class exhibition centre. It is recognised by NGOs and civil society groups everywhere as a giant corporate exercise in greenwash and technofix- a panoply of false solutions to the climate crisis – bought to you by the people who created it. Among the stall holders (who have paid hundreds of thousands to be there) are COP21 sponsors who actively lobby against renewables while promoting fossil fuels and water privatisation. Thankfully, the immense apparatus of security and secret police were unable to hold back the invading tide of activists who climbed all over it with guerrilla speeches, chants, stickers, posters and banners.
Lenin once said that ‘revolution is a carnival of the oppressed’. This is the spirit of carnival, revelry and revolt that has pulsed through every progressive movement in history. It is alive and well in Paris. The streets spill on to dance floors and dance floors spill onto the streets. There are flag waving, banner draped pits, moshing to marching brash bands. There are raucous, vaudeville cabarets, hosted by cross dressing eccentrics. Performers and audiences fling themselves in. Goblins shake their fists from the rafters. These is not a side shows, they are central to the social mechanics of change.
The day after the big march, in a squat in St Denis, Paris, the second ever Climate Games Award Ceremony is taking place. Climate Games is a competition to inspire and celebrate creative disobedience. It is an idea, not an organisation, a cleverly un-arrestable platform for the collective
imagination of anonymous insurrectionary acts. Hundreds of competitors have taken part the world over. One nominee for the ‘Piss Yourself Award’ has smuggled hundreds of toilet rolls into the COP 21 Conference Centre with the International Panel on Climate Change Report written
on them. The winners of the ‘New Forms of Innovative Insurrection Award’ have engulfed Volks Wagen garages with smoke bombs and banners that read ‘You pollute us, we pollute you’. One of my favourites is a 30 foot banner drop at the Arc du Triomphe; done by the Family Action Network – a group of activists aged 1- 13.
I am proud to find that an action I took part in has been nominated. On Weds 9 December, we went to the Louvre to help expose the oil money dripping down Frances most cherished cultural institution. We smuggled fake oil in and emptied it onto the atrium of the museum. With our bare feet, we stamped an artwork of sticky defiance on the floor and threw songs about Total oil company into the air while fist pumping black umbrellas. We were joined by over a hundred other activists, doing a similar action outside. That day, #FossilFreeCulture, a global movement to end oil sponsorship of the arts sprang into the media. Curiously they felt the need to arrest us and hold us for 4 hours. When they learned that the embarrassing patch of molasses and treacle did not constitute criminal damage, we were released without charge.
We are beaten to first place, however, by a worthy opponent. Brandalism, a collection of culture jamming, subvertising urban guerrilla artists hijacked over 600 outdoor advertising sites with radical critiques of corporate and political inaction and greenwash. They did it all in broad daylight, dressed in fake J C Décor uniforms. Class.
Reasons to be Cheerful
This is of course part of a long history of civil disobedience. If people didn’t misbehave, women would still be banned from wearing trousers and we would still be getting arrested for not attending church on Sunday. Its time to stop justifying direct action and start celebrating it. All over the world people are reinventing insurrection to keep the oil in the ground. In the words of Arundhati Roy ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing’. The new world breathed heavily this week in Paris.
When I arrived there I didnt find protest sitting down, but making plans, friends and history. I found it shaking hands, shaking fists and walking to the streets laughing and singing. The tens of thousands who turned up to Paris to defy the ban on protest are poets of deeds, rewriting history with their hands, their feet and their fists. They walk with their heads held high, red flags flying from their mouths, a crimson tide of tongues.
The battle they fight is of words ideas and feelings. That is all and that is all. When we change the discussion, even for one day, we win a battle. When we redefine what action means, even in one young heart, we win a battle. Through these small victories a movement grows. Outbreaks of talking become outbreaks of doing. Outbreaks blossom into epidemics.
I believe that the greatest threat we face is not a political and business elite, grappling forever vainly to resuscitate a dying system, but apathy and despair; the belief that there is no alternative, the belief that we are powerless. The antidote to this is hope, or what my Occupy friend, Mark
Weaver coined ‘Revolutionary Optimism’. Let us wipe away the dust of post-modernist scepticism and look our brave futures in the eye. Lets be prepared to throw our ideals high.
Let us also be prepared to use our bodies and not just our ballot papers and our Facebook accounts. Mass civil disobedience has to be just that. It cannot be left to a minority. Tomorrow’s world will be decided by our actions. We are living through mass extinction and biospheric collapse. Politics as we know it must end. The era of ‘post politics’ must begin. It is our responsibility to make it happen, all of us, to act with meaning and poetry. If not here, where? If not now, when?
The last word goes to Rowan, a Ploughshares veteran, who I met on the bus back to England. “When I take action it feels like poetry, like ripples spreading outwards, almost like a prayer going out into the world. If we really are going down, let’s go down being the best that we can be.”
The Truth Behind the Paris Climate DealThe western media has reported the Paris climate deal as a great success. So why did thousands take to the streets yesterday to denounce it?For an in-depth exposé of the deal: http://nin.tl/1OZaxEt
Posted by New Internationalist Magazine on Sunday, December 13, 2015
Activists arrested in the Louvre secretly sent this message fr…Ten performers were arrested today at the Louvre for challenging its sponsorship by oil companies Total and Eni. But they managed to smuggle a phone into their cell to get this message out.Performance by End oil-sponsorship of the arts, BP or not BP?, G.U.L.F. Liberate Tate, Not An Alternative Occupy Museums, Platform London, Science Unstained, Shell Out Sounds, No Tar Sands, Stopp oljesponsing av norsk kulturliv, The Natural History Museum alongside other artists and activists from around the world. Film supported by 350.org and Real Media.
Posted by New Internationalist Magazine on Wednesday, December 9, 2015