Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Out of the Kettle, Into the FIre...

Yesterday was the most powerful day yet for me here at Copenhagen.  Jason and Tom left early to go on a scouting mission at the Bella Center and take a peak at the fences surrounding her, while I stayed home and wrote to you, dear readers.  ;-)  I’ve started to feel like I have a responsibility to let y’all know what’s happening here, as much as I can.  There’s so much I don’t know and don’t see, because there’s simply so much happening every moment of the day.  Aside from that (and let’s be honest here) I really don’t have the kind of skills that Jason and Tom do regarding fences and the like.  If you want to take down a fence, they’re really the ones for your team. 

After a rather long, meandering walk all over downtown Copenhagen where I seemed to run into every “Politi” in city but couldn’t find a group of a couple thousand drumming, chanting, yelling, dancing people, I was finally directed where I needed to go by an kindly old reporter.  (I was getting so desperate, I almost asked the police where I could find my comrades.  I figured, out of anyone, they must know.  Luckily it didn’t come to that… I mean, please.  How embarrassing.  “Excuse me, officer.  Can you tell me where the protesters are?”).

I found Jason with the Samba band, dancing and helping to hold the line around them, who had linked arms and had formed a barrier of people around the entire march in front of the column of police officers that walked along side.  A couple of moments later, Tom arrived with Jason’s drum and soon we were drumming down the street.  The hand signals and rhythms are finally getting more familiar, and I’m starting to really enjoy playing around with how I hold the drumstick to get different sounds on the drum without dropping the thing every ten minutes.  We were behind a large sound system on a truck, so we alternated playing and pausing to allow the speakers and music to be heard.  Eventually, we made our way to a plaza near the Defense Ministry. 

Copenhagen has been all dolled up in its anti-climate change finery, some of which seems genuine by genuine environmental organizations, and some of which is greenwashing for very destructive businesses (kind of like those Chevron billboards back home that say things like, “I will unplug stuff more” while they work to convert their Richmond refinery to process the most toxic stuff on the planet).  I’m not sure what was planned for the rally point, but what was very soon happening was that an enormous orange balloon – maybe a story tall and as much around – that had been tied to the ground as a measure of how large one ton of CO2 is, courtesy of some heinous European corporation that I’m not really that familiar with, was rolling down the street.  The police and the samba band, both equally laden down, went running after the crowd of people that were playing with it.  We managed to catch up before they did, and started playing a jaunty tune as the enormous orange ball rolled off onto a major byway of cars, followed by the crowd, the band, and the cops.

After that moment, I felt the energy shift.  As usual, Jason picked up on it a moment or two before I did.  

He was already looking around for an exit route.  “We should get out of here,” he said.

“Do you want to leave?”

He didn’t answer, and that, coupled with the fact that he said “should” instead of simply, “Let’s go,” told me he didn’t.  I didn’t, either.  I knew that this was a potentially arrestable situation, but it was hard to ditch out on the band in the midst of things.  And clearly, at this point, the band was directing the energy.  Folks were crowding around us, following us wherever we went.

After awhile, the police managed to get the enormous orange balloon away from the folks and turned us back to the plaza, where we circled up and tried jamming for a bit.  But the police weren’t having it.  They kept pressing us into a tighter and tighter area, and then out of the plaza and down the street towards the bridge.

Bridges are classic places for “kettling,” which is a sweet sounding word to describe closing in on you on both ends of a march and then arresting everybody within.  Jason looked at me again, and said, “We should leave.”

“Do you want to go?” I asked again.

He frowned.  I knew that he was feeling the same way I was – we still really didn’t want to go, even though we were clearly surrounded on three sides and being pushed towards more cops at the other end of the bridge.  I knew that most likely if we left at that moment we could find away for two of us to escape – but not the whole band.  It was either ditch them to stay safe, or stay and take the risks.

that moment I realized that I felt remarkably okay about being arrested.  I’ve heard a few horror stories, as you always do, but overall the police have been remarkably chill here compared to the US cops.  At one point during one of the marches earlier in the week, a line of cop cars came screeching directly into the Samba band in an attempt to split us in two.  I kept thinking they would stop before they got to us, but they kept coming, straight into the drummers.  I tried to skedaddle out of the way, but around me, the other drummers were pushing back at the cop cars, yelling at the drivers.  A couple of police officers jumped out and pulled the drummers off of their cars, tossing them into the street with slightly annoyed expressions.  Then they got back into the cars and left.  They didn’t beat anyone, or tear gas anyone, or even arrest anyone.  They just tossed us to the side as if dislodging a vine that got stuck to your shoe and then found someone else to pester.

Let me just tell you, if we’d tried anything even close to that in Pittsburgh, it would have become PepperSprayBurgh.  You just can’t do that kind of thing with American cops without them going apeshit on you.  And, in fact, they might go apeshit on you even if you don’t do anything like that (although, in my experience, San Francisco police tend to be more mellow).

At another march, the samba band moved off of the approved route into traffic on the other side of the street, and a line of cops filed in to the middle to stop those of us who hadn’t yet made it into the street from following.  As they filed in, drummers pushed past them –literally pushing them out of the way – to stay with the rest of the band.  Jason got through, and then Kiki, this really sweet sambatista from Italy who’s been very friendly with us for the last couple of days.  As I tried to follow, more cops came, blocking the way.  I stopped, but on the other side of the street, Jason waved to me to come with.  Without thinking, I ducked under the cop’s arm and then through, wondering if at any second I’d feel his arms pulling me back.  But I didn’t.  Suddenly, there were more sambatistas following me through, and then we were all together again, weaving among the cars drumming and chanting.  Again, no one was attacked.

So, as we were getting kettled in and my arrest seemed inevitable, I found a strange calm came over me and decided to just keep drumming and enjoying the music making for as long as it happened.  Alright, I was probably going to be arrested, and it was probably going to be cold for the eight or twelve hours or whatever they were detaining people.  But, there are much worse things.  I don’t mind getting arrested, as long as I don’t get chemicaled and beaten, too. 

We kept marching, out of the downtown area.  At one point, Jason came up next to me and expressed some concern – we were headed right towards Christania, and he was afraid that the peaceful behavior of both cops and activists might end if they came onto that already contested little piece of land.  Still, that’s where one of our major homebases is, and I’m sure that the warm lunch that would be waiting for us there if we did manage to make it held some appeal.  Aside from which, we were only half of the decision making power, at most.  The cops continued to block off many of the streets, allowing us some measure of choice, but not much. 

And then, suddenly, they were gone.  They just turned around and left.

We were at the gates of Christania, at least two hundred of us, samba band and dancers and people carrying signs and probably many of those who had unleashed the giant orange balloon and sent it floating off into the streets, and the cops opened up the kettle and disappeared.  A huge cheer went up among the crowd, and the band flowed into a circle and began jamming right there in the intersection of the street, much to the chagrin of the drivers of the cars around us, I’m sure.  People were dancing like mad and cheering and laughing, celebrating their freedom.  Relief, exultation, joy, and victory permeated the crowd. 

Later that night, Naomi Klein and two other speakers came to Christania to talk about the next day’s action, “Reclaim the Power.”  This is the big one, the one where we try to disrupt the conference for a time.  It seems like at every major action we try to do this, ever since Seattle.  It’s a tradition that no mass mobilization is complete without it, kind of like turkey at Thanksgiving.  And yet, I felt conflicted.  The whole reason that I came here is that I want the Copenhagen Climate Talks to be a success, to bring about a world-changing powerful treaty.  Disrupting the talks seemed antithetical to that goal. 

Listening to Naomi and Tadzio (an activist from London that I found very inspiring) reframed the issues for me, though. The gist of it is this: right now, the industrialized nations and
corporations are really pushing for market-based solutions at their worst are unlikely to do anything at all to help our planet survive, and at best would slightly help reduce CO2 pollution but at the expense of those nations most likely to be harmed by climate change and that have already felt the brunt of our economic policies. There are countries out there that are in danger of literally being underwater soon, or having their food supplies completely destroyed by climate change issues, and these nations have been repeatedly ignored, lied to, and condescended to during the last several weeks while those with money and power try to find ways to maximize their profits with carbon markets and carbon sinks. The idea of the People’s Assembly tomorrow is to bring together the people in the streets with the delegates, heads of states, and NGOs from the Bella Center that desire a very powerful treaty to truly address the issue of climate change without the influence of those with wealth who hold a deep desire to retain that wealth at all cost.
The meeting with Naomi and Tadzio and Michael Hart, which Lisa facilitated, was completely packed.  There were hundreds of people in the large tent at Christania, sitting on each other’s laps, on the floor, standing, on the rails of the bleachers, on the other side of the partitions.  And everyone seemed to hold their breath as suddenly, someone in the crowd, called out, “What about the police?  They’ll attack us if we try this.  Why should we let them?”

After a moment, murmurs all around.  Then, another voice called out, “No!  We have to stay calm.  We can’t do that!”

Oh great, I thought.  I can’t wait until the undercovers bring this back to their bosses.

Now, lots of murmuring, mixed with boos and cheers and a variety of guttural, indecipherable to the non-European ear responses.  Lisa grabbed the mike.  “Alright, alright!  Hold on just a second, everyone.  Let’s just hold on a sec.”

The power and conviction in her voice seemed to work, at least for the moment.  People did quiet down.  Naomi Klein spoke next, her voice passionate.  “I know you’re angry,” she said. “We all have every right to be angry.  People are being hurt, and that’s enough to make anyone angry.  But in this moment, we have to talk about what our intention really is here.  We have an opportunity here, a historic opportunity, to bring together delegates from the climate conference with the people.  And they won’t come if it’s not safe.  They won’t be able to.”

There was a round of applause, but beneath that, still plenty of angry murmuring.  Most people, it seemed, agreed with her.  But there were still those that wanted to break windows, break cops, break all barriers. 

Lisa told us later that its partly the denial of the role that violent forms of protest have played in revolutionary movements that makes people who want to engage in these forms of protest so obstinate when we have these sorts of “tactical” conversations.  The non-violent among us deny that the other forms ever have merit, and that’s frustrating to them.  At the same time, in this case more than ever, it was clear that we could not have a riot on our hands if we stood any chance of success.  We couldn’t even have a window-breaking kind of day, because there was no way that delegates and heads of states would allow themselves to be affiliated with that kind of thing.  We needed everyone on the same page.
In this moment, what she said was, “Tomorrow, we need to do what’s smart.  We need to find creative ways to protest.  This isn’t about diversity of tactics, though there is a time and a place for that kind of model.   We’re not trying to say that one way is right and another way is wrong.  We’re just trying to find a way that we can make this really happen.”

Tadzio stood up now.  “Listen, we have a codex,” he said.  “It’s not a concensus, I know, that everyone has agreed to.  It’s a codex that says how we will and how we won’t do things here in Copenhagen, and now is the time to understand what that means.”

The murmurs slowly died away.  It was clear to me that most people there wanted to stick to strictly creative, non-violent forms of action, but that some simply didn’t agree.  And I found it hard to believe that some sort of “code of honor” would keep them in check.

Which made me wonder, at this potentially amazing moment in history, are we going to screw it all up simply because we don’t have our own shit together?  Because we are still using ego-driven, violent modes of thinking?

Lisa, however, didn’t seem daunted by my worries.  “Historically, the black bloc honors these kinds of agreements,” she told us later.  “If there’s a codex, that’s what they’ll do.”

I hadn’t been always impressed by the black bloc in Pittsburgh, and found myself skeptical.  But she went on to say that in Europe, the radical Left is different.  There are those that break things and those that don’t, and they all have legitimacy here (unlike in the States, where people who engage in property destruction and / or fight back against the cops tend to be seen as total wackos that do nothing but put us back twenty years).  Some of that legitimacy, however, comes from the fact that they do honor their agreements.  “Just look at the actions over the last couple of days.  There have been plenty of chances to get into rumbles with the cops and destroy all kinds of things.  There may have been a couple of broken windows on one day, but no riots.”

As Jason, Tom and I headed off to dinner, just across the street from Christania at a little gyro place, I mulled over her words.  As we ate, I’m not sure who – either Jason or the Indian fellows sitting at the table next to us – noticed a couple of blue Politi trucks pull up and turn down the road towards Christania.  Then a few more.

I was a little worried about Lisa, who was still there, but the others told me not to be.  After all, Christania is a huge compound of not only activists but also many radical residents, who would not take kindly to the police coming uninvited onto their property.  Certainly they weren’t going to try to raid the place with three or four trucks of cops.

But then we saw another truck go by, a much larger one.  It was the water cannon.

We jumped up and went to the door.  Soon truck after blue-sirened truck of cops was turning down the road, lining the one we were on, everywhere.  Cops with dogs, cops on bikes, cops in riot gear.  They closed off the street that led towards Christania, but a side street still remained open, and after a while of standing around watching the tear gas rise from several blocks away, Jason, Bird and I decided to move closer in to see what was happening.  We ended up right up at the front gates with the press, which actually, the cops didn’t mind at all.  They had ceased to lob cannisters of tear gas inside and were now bringing in the dogs (dogs and gas don’t mix, its either one or the other).  The rumor was that there had been some people -- whether the residents or activists, no one seemed to know – who had begun to lob glass bottles at the cops as soon as the raid began.  The rest of the activists, many of whom had soon been in the tent dancing to a DJ, stayed where they were – many of them just kept dancing, refusing to let the police ruin their night. 

We waited around for a couple of hours until Lisa was released, then went off to bed.  It had been a long day, and tomorrow didn’t seem like it would be any more relaxed.  We really were out of the kettle and into the fire.

1 comment:

  1. Listening to Democracy Now yesterday told me that things were getting complicated there, both in terms of arrests/ejecting of key environmental organization leaders and in terms of reaching a meaningful agreement.
    Thank you and others for being there and pushing onwards, trying to find a nonviolent way or raising awareness. Especially in these times.