A COP-15 diary by Ben Lear. Originally published in January 2010.
The build up to this years UN conference on climate change, the COP-15 in Copenhagen, was huge. Both mainstream and alternative media were abuzz with predictions and discussions on the conference and the, almost obligatory, counter-mobilisation. From the Climate Camp at Blackheath to the pages of the Guardian and the Financial Times Copenhagen was billed as the spectacle to end all spectacles. Where a truly global climate justice movement would emerge or where the deal that would save the planet would be signed. Much was made of the fact that this counter-mobilisation would fall a decade after the Seattle protests. Would this be, as Naomi Klein suggested, the coming of age party of the alter-globalisation movement?
We hopped on a (full) bus put on by Climate Camp in Leeds and settled in for our day long coach journey. Everyone was excited if not a little apprehensive. Would we even make it over the border, let alone in time for the demonstration the next day? Despite being nervous about being stopped and searched we had no problems, being let through by German police without even being searched and rolling into Copenhagen with six hours to spare before the big Friends of the Earth demonstration in the centre of town.
After the standard organisational mayhem surrounding sorting out sleeping space for 250 people we made our way to the large “Flood for Climate Justice” demonstration, organised by Friends of the Earth. Attendance has been estimated at somewhere around 100,000, which is a far cry from the 300,000 in Genoa or the million in London on the eve of the Iraq war. If this was the most important event in the history of climate change politics, large amounts of people must have been very conscious of their carbon footprints. However, those in attendance spanned the entire environmental spectrum.
Sound trucks, samba bands and facepaint made for a bewildering spectacle as we tried to find the anti-authoritarian bloc. The bloc disappointingly lacked banners of any sort (with the exception of a large orange banner quoting an anarchist federation article printed in the last edition of Shift “We don’t want a bigger slice of the cake, we want the whole fucking bakery”) and was smaller than we had expected.
Once the demo had started we got our first taste of the difficulties involved with transnational organising. We encountered a group of British people dressed in suits, holding banners supporting carbon trading and chanting pro-capitalist slogans through megaphones. Some of the more eager members of the bloc went over and passionately, some even physically, confronted these people, not realising that they were acting out roles. It took the physical intervention of a few bystanders and other member of the bloc to make it clear that the suited strangers were allies and not enemies. Cultural and linguistic differences would have to be bridged over this week if we wanted to be successful.
The bloc continued, eventually being caught up with by a larger more organised bloc. It seems that in the confusion of the assembly point, two blocs had formed. Ours had left with the demonstration whilst the other, larger, bloc had only left at the insistence of the police, who argued that to remain would be to leave the legal demonstration. Later we would find out that members of this bloc had fired fireworks at the Danish foreign ministry, thrown stones and smashed several windows of a Danish bank.
The potential for this to spread and become more generalised was curtailed by a stunningly executed, if indiscriminate kettle deployed by the Danish police. Within a minute half the bloc, as well as other demonstrators and bystanders were stuck in a kettle leading to the mass arrest of over nine hundred people. Luckily for myself and my friends we managed to dive into the apartment block we were kettled against and find refuge in an apartment with an 80 year old lady. Eight of us spent the next six hours drinking tea and watching the arrests from the balcony of her apartment feeling strangely guilty. One person we were with watched his entire affinity group being restrained, placed in rows with everyone else on the dark, icy streets of Copenhagen and made to wait four hours for mass transit to the specially installed prison north of the city, modelled on the German G8 detention facilities. The preventive laws which were used to make this mass arrest had been specially instated for the Copenhagen summit and would become a recurring theme, and ever present threat, for the rest of the mobilisation.
Later that evening we made our way through streets littered with scarves and snapped placards feeling thoroughly deflated. Indeed the only victory of the day had been the personal one of escaping arrest. Whilst the majority of the radical bloc had been preventively detained, thousands had marched to encourage “our leaders” to do the right thing here in Copenhagen. It seemed evident that evening that there were differing opinions on what climate justice should look like and how we might get there.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s protest, with many still in jail, the ‘Hit Production’ demo, promising autonomous actions against the docks, promised to be the most interesting action of the day. We followed the helicopters to the meet up site only to witness the demo already being chased by a large amount of police. We tracked the demo through side streets until the already familiar sight of mass detention coaches suggested a bad result. We would later find out the demo had been kettled, with tear gas and pepper spray being used fairly indiscriminately. The organised autonomous groups that the action had relied on were noticeable by their absence and this would be true over the whole week. The preventative laws, coupled with an aggressive police force unafraid to employ mass arrest was causing problems for our demonstrations even remaining on the streets, yet alone being effective. It certainly felt that the police had the upper hand.
In the evening we attended the first of the Climate Justice Action (CJA) ‘Reclaim Power’ meetings in preparation for Wednesday’s attempt to gain entrance to the Bella Centre to hold a people’s conference. The meeting was well organised and positive, if not a little dominated by members of the UK climate camp. The militant, autonomous left were conspicuous by their absence. Many were still in prison from the day before whilst, we were told, many had left after Saturday’s demonstration. This was quite a worrying development - just who would be going to the rest of the weeks demonstrations?
The main event of this day was the No Border demonstration that would head through town towards the Danish Ministry of Defence. There was an interesting mix of people at the demonstration, as well as those masked up and clad in black there were also many from more environment focused groups. The demonstration had the last remaining sound truck, (the others having already been confiscated) and the music, although interspersed with increasingly manic commentary from the truck, made a nice change from the already annoying and ever present samba band. In response to the police tactics so far a greater effort was made to maintain the sides of the demonstrations by linking arms as we moved. Whether this deterred the police or not (they were already being criticised in the media), it certainly bound everyone together (almost literally!) and helped to create a more confrontational attitude. Although it was great to see such a diverse attendance at the demo, some interpretations of No Border politics were slightly worrying. From one of the sound trucks the people with the microphones were almost screaming “No Borders, First Nations” at one point, to the prominent presence of the Robin Wood banner declaring “Transportation Kills” it was clear we didn’t all hold the same positions.
After we arrived at the Danish ministry of defence, and the organised autonomous groups that were encouraged to storm the building once again failed to emerge, the sound truck parked in the square opposite and people began to dance. A nearby giant inflatable orange ball visually demonstrating a tonne of co2 was un-tethered by a large crowd and rolled away down the road with scores of police in pursuit. The ball, now punctured in several places, was eventually recovered by the police and several attempts at kettling all those present were made. These all failed due to people’s willingness to push through, combined with the evident unfamiliarity that the Danish police had with this tactic. The police seemed a far cry from the efficient force we had witnessed in the previous days. The demonstration managed to manoeuvre itself to Christiania, the semi-autonomous space in Copenhagen, to celebrate a successful demonstration and await the CJA plenary session in the evening where Naomi Klein, Michael Hardt and CJA spokesperson Tadzio Mueller would be speaking.
When the time came the space was full to bursting. Naomi Klein, the main attraction for many in the room, discussed the potential of climate reparations to the Global South helping to undermine current international power relations. Michael Hardt, co-author, with Toni Negri, of books such as Empire and Multitude, delivered a brief talk about the concept of the Common and attempted, in a slightly more complicated than necessary way, to argue that ecology and anti-capitalism, or communism as Hardt referred to it, were inherently connected. The current problematics visible in the relationship between ecology and communism were, he argued, false problems which could be theoretically bridged. Tadzio Mueller rounded up by discussing the role of the COP-15 in providing outlets for capital accumulation and also in producing political legitimacy for social elites. In the open floor discussion afterwards the topic of violence was, once again, brought up. It was encouraging to witness most in the room accepting a diversity of tactics, but one which was applied pragmatically. Most seemed to agree that militancy was acceptable, but only in specific circumstances. The Reclaim Power Action on Wednesday, where CJA would attempt to enter the conference centre and hold a peoples meeting, would insist on remaining non-violent.
We then went for a few beers in Christiania to celebrate the successful demo and toast the successful future of a climate justice movement we may just have witnessed a glimpse of. In Copenhagen, away from our familiar UK context, alliances which had seemed impossible began to look realisable. Could this potential be fulfilled? This was rudely interrupted by a confrontation outside. Burning barricades and stones weren’t enough to stop the police locking Christiania down. Taking this as our que to leave we slipped out into yet another dark, cold Danish evening and started our long journey across the city to home.
Today was quiet day spent preparing for tomorrow. Everybody was very nervous. Once again in the evening the meeting was dominated by native English speakers, the majority of which were from the Climate Camp. Once again the radical, autonomous left were conspicuous by their absence. Rumours had it that the Italian group “Ya Basta”, famous for their use of padded suits in Genoa, would be making an appearance. We would later find out that the bike bloc had had their machine confiscated by the police. As we settled into our sleeping bags that evening no-one was quite sure what would happen the next day.
We woke at six in the morning to find the police waiting at both front and back doors. Staying at a city council provided crash space comes with its own downside. After a session of Jedi mind tricks for beginners, ‘no, we’re not the protestors your looking for’, we were on a bus and on the way to the demonstration. All the major bridges had police stationed on them and we were all taken off the bus once or twice each and searched.
When we arrived at the meet up spot it was clear that the demo wasn’t as big as we thought it would be. We would later find out that an autonomous group had been preventatively detained at what they had been told would be a legal assembly point. This deprived the action of some of its most experienced members. We arrived at the gate and people tried to force through, being stopped only by the liberal use of batons and pepper spray. A bridge made of inflatable mattresses emerged from various backpacks and the demo moved to support this.
During this time part of the bike bloc managed to break police lines and, using their bikes, form a screen in front of us. One person even managed to use their bike to disable a police truck. After losing a truck and being faced with determined lines of people and a sea of media camera’s the police decided to allow us the road, happy to arrest those that managed to cross the inflatable bridge into the waiting arms of the police. The peoples’ assembly was held on the road outside the Bella centre. We would later hear that delegates and NGO representatives from inside the conference were beaten and refused the right to join the conference. This action had been the centre piece for many over the week yet we had failed to get into the grounds. During the walk back into town undercover police managed to snatch a prominent German AntiFa member and after he was rapidly driven away we decided to slip through the police lines and make our way to find some food. We would later see the demonstration, lined with police, walk past what the Copenhagen council (and Coca-Cola adverts) had labelled Hopenhagen, a square full of stalls selling “green” motorbikes and eco-holidays. The image seemed strangely resonant. Wandering the centre looking for somewhere to eat we met several groups of people who mentioned, in code, that “something” might be happening tonight. Needless to say that something never happened.
Thursday was a much needed rest day. In the evening we headed over to the CJA debrief. Opinion seemed divided over whether the day was a success or not. Differences were still emerging. As the meeting was winding to a close and preparations were being made for it to reconvene the next day, someone made the case for us to stay on and keep talking due to the fact that this room represented a geographical diversity that would be hard to replicate. When it was mentioned that people would be flying back to Latin America the next day a tut and mumbled criticism was heard from one British person. It seems that no circumstances are acceptable to avoid the aviation embargo placed upon those with a moral conscious by the UK anti-aviation movement. Most of the people in the room looked very confused at this comment and the conversation moved swiftly on.
The CJA debrief continued the next day but I was unable to attend. As far as I can tell nothing concrete was proposed. A cynic might suggest that the counter-mobilisation mirrored that in the Bella centre, a disappointing turn-out where little beyond principles was agreed to. Hopefully this will be proved wrong and hopefully it will not take until November in Mexico for this to be demonstrated.
Tired and suffering from (mild) cabin fever, we set off back home. Trying to unravel the personal experiences from a rational analysis of the political outcomes of the counter summit was proving difficult. Returning home and diving into the media frenzy for eulogising the summit it became clear that the counter-mobilisation was a lot smaller than had been expected by many of us. In a broader context, COP-15 ended a year of radical politics dominated by counter-summits. Broadly speaking, none of these, with perhaps the exception of Strasbourg, could be described as total successes. The G20, the G8 in Italy and Copenhagen were all underwhelming in terms of numbers that attended and the political success we achieved at the G20 and G8 were certainly limited. Whilst it remains to be seen whether the networks and relationships produced in Copenhagen will yield positive results it is clear that there are big differences between the political traditions involved in the climate justice movement. The lack of the European radical left, the strange portrayal of indigenous struggles and the ways in which voices from the South are incorporated will all need to be discussed in the coming months if we wish to strengthen the foundations which were clearly laid in Copenhagen. In conclusion it is impossible to present even a minor percentage of the stories which we heard or experienced whilst in Copenhagen that could convey the complex, contradictory, yet somehow still strangely inspiring nature of the event.
Ben Lear lives in Manchester and is still deeply perplexed about his Copenhagen experience. Topics he has written on include environmental politics, student movements and post-politics.