Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pushing for Climate Justice

The night before last malignant forces attempted to sabotage our big action yesterday. Jason and I went over to the Rag space for the Rhythms of Resistance meeting, having fully assimilated ourselves into their group for this week and finally accepting that fate. We'd been invited to their evening meeting various times during the week, but weren't necessarily as excited to meet as we were to drum; but now, with the most critical demonstration of our entire time out here, it seemed like we couldn't resist any longer. And really, all joking aside, we wanted to be involved in the planning of what our group was going to be doing -- not only because we wanted to help co-create it, but in my case, because I needed to know what level of confrontation the sambatistas were planning to go for.

Here's my little secret, one that by admitting I will forever degrade any reputation I had of being a hardcore activist: when things get hot, I can't handle it. I'm afraid of fighting with the cops: I don't want to have my arm, or wrist, or ankle broken by a billy club. I'm afraid of being pepper sprayed: every time I've seen it happen to someone, it looks like its really terribly painful. And, I'm afraid of finding myself in some cloud of chaos that invovles tear gas and crowds of stampeding people, and falling down and being trampled. Over all, the whole energy of that kind of intensity is just too much for me.

So, now you know. I'm actually not hardcore. I'm softcore. I like to go out to these things, play a drum, chant, even yell a bit, and then go back to where its safe and warm and police free.

In the past, this has made it occasionally difficult for Jason and I to be buddies at actions, because Jason is actually hardcore. He doesn't get afraid. He is always calm, strong, and present to what's happening, just like he looks. He wants to stay in the fray when the fray happens (up to a point), not to be violent, but also not willing to back down in the face of tactics that involve pain and terror to get us to comply. The Samba band, this week, has shown a similar attitude towards their interactions with the police, which is tempered by the large surdu drums that some drummers carry that make it fairly hard to run away at the last minute.

Anyway, I was very interested to see what level of confrontation the sambatistas were planning for the Reclaim the Power Action. The action was going to be divided into several "blocs" of people, roughly categorized by the kinds of things they'd be doing during the action, which has a connection to the kind of violence from the police you might be subject to but does not directly translate as such.

The Blue Bloc was those people who were marching along the police approved route, including a large contingent of folks from the Global South at the front who were going to push through the police line, a wave of tightly pressed together folks right behind them to continue pushing, a line of various affinity groups chained together by interlocked arms around the edge of the entire thing, a truck with a sound system to issue instructions to the crowd, and, potentially, the samba band. The Green Bloc was a mobile group leaving from a nearby train station that would move down a different route towards the Bella Center, and enter it by some other means. There was a bloc of autonomous groups that were planning to attempt to tear down the fences, create distracting actions for the police, and swim across the canals. There was a Bike Bloc that would be offering support to the other blocs, going were needed. There was also a group from Chistania, which had been brutally raided by the police the night before, who were planning on going into downtown in the morning and breaking lots of crap as retribution. The Chistania group wasn't really a part of the action; they were just a bunch of angry kids trying to get back at the police, loosely affiliated with us.

After much discussion, the Sambas decided to agree to the request by the action organizers to join the Blue Bloc and help direct the energy of people there. They also agreed to stay on the police-approved route unless the cops stopped the march prematurely, at which point they were holding the option of breaking off and heading to the BC by an alternate open route.

The whole time we were at the meeting, I kept looking out the window, waiting for the police to show up. As I mentioned, the night before they had raided Chistania and held everyone inside for hours, using tear gas and dogs while residents threw glass bottles at them and barricaded the gates. Once in a while, we'd see one or two blue Politi trucks pull up, but they’d just leave again.

Eventually, Jason and I headed back to the hostel. We took Lisa with us, as some of the other more public organizers were having their homes raided or had been arrested, and she was worried they’d show up at her place and drag her away if she stayed there that night.

That’s when the malignant forces struck, taking us entirely by surprise. The first was a fellow in the bed across the room from us, who snored loudly. I keep trying to think of a way to tell you how loudly, but can’t think of anything. Loud enough that there was no way to sleep, at any rate. Possibly loud enough to be heard several rooms over. We took turns going over to him and nudging him gently, but all that did was provide a couple of minutes respite before the barrage began again. Just as I’d be falling into the drugged-feeling doze that was substituting for real sleep that night, he’d begin again. SNORE. SNORE. SNOOOOOOR-RE-RE.

The second malignant force is the doddering old man in the bed nearest ours that stayed up until after midnight packing and repacking his small duffle bag, and then who woke up again sometime around four to do it yet again, before going back to sleep. He claimed to need to be up early for a flight, but we found him at breakfast the next morning when we went down, so it obviously wasn’t all that early.

The lack of sleep was killing us. We grumbled, we groaned, we heard our frustration echoing in the tossing and turning of our other hostel-mates. Tomorrow was the biggest action of the week, and we were being subtly undone by two hapless roommates.

At some point, while Jason and I were quietly trying to convince one another that it was the other person’s turn to get up and deal with the snorer (what also didn’t help the potential for sleep was the fact that we were sharing the lower part of a twin-sized bunk bed, so Lisa could have the top bunk), he suddenly jumped out of bed, strode over to the snorer, and said loudly, “You. Have. Got. To. Stop. Snoring. NOW.”

I wanted to groan outloud. Everyone knows that snorers can’t help their snoring… that’s what makes the whole situation so terrible. All he’d done, I thought, was to further irritate our roommates.

But the snoring stopped.

Jason sank back into bed beside me. I couldn’t believe it. I laid there with my eyes open, waiting for the snoring to begin again. It did, but more quietly. And soon after it began, the snorer woke himself up and turned over. Just like that. I tell you what, that man is magic. I couldn’t believe it had worked.

We were nonetheless all very groggy the next morning when we woke up at 5:30AM to head down to Tanby station, where the Samba band was meeting the rest of the Blue Block. Tom had volunteered to be one of the Samba “Angels” or “Engines,” two equally illogical words to describe the people marching alongside the samba band with linked arms to protect the band from cops and other interloping elements.

I drank a mocha in the morning to help me with my sleepiness, and that, couple with the fact that I was still feeling quite nervous about the potential for police violence this day, made for a jumpy and antsy Riyana that had to take frequent (and growingly more and more inconvenient) trips to the little activists’s room. Jason seemed simply excited, like most of the band. We gathered together and formed our lines, and sooner than I would have thought possible, we were marching down the street with a couple hundred more folks… perhaps just under one thousand.

The police marched next to us, a line of cops and a line of trucks on the side facing the Bella Center, like a wall. We just kept going. They were clearly intent on stopping any break away marches going off in that direction. We just kept going. The sound system truck, with Lisa on it, was behind us. They were the ones who were going to direct the push when it was time. Until then, it was just drumming and chanting and cops, like usual.

We got down to the Bella Center quickly, but I couldn’t see much of it or what was going on up ahead. I knew that the Green Bloc, the more mobile of the two large blocs of activist, was supposed to be doing something somewhere near us, but I hadn’t seen one glimpse or heard anything about them the entire morning. I also knew that Via Campesina and many of the more militant European activsts were up at the front of the march preparing to head the push through the police lines into the Bella Center, and that there were hundreds of NGO and other delegates inside that were going to be pushing out to meet us, but I couldn’t see any of that. All I could see was the band around me surrounded by the police, and all I could feel was the pulsing of the samba music matching beats with the strong erratic stammering of my heart. There seemed to be no Green Bloc, and no flood of Bella Center attendees coming out to meet us.

A woman got on the mike and told us it was time for us to push for Climate Justice, and that we were going to be moving slightly to the left and forward, through the police lines. I tried to imagine this happening – both to visualize our success, and to get a sense of what she meant. I imagined people pushing through the lines of the cops and ducking under their arms as I had in the march the other day, easily, like salmon flowing through the rocks in the riverbeds as they move upstream.

Jason frowned, watching the cops, who had heard the woman and were now moving to buffer the left side of the march in response. “Why on earth are they announcing it over the loud system?” he asked. “That’s no way to get this done.”

I didn’t understand, either, unless they simply thought that getting everyone on the same page was worth a few extra cops in the way. Still, it didn’t really make sense. At these big events, our biggest assets are our unpredictability and ability to move without waiting for commands, without leaders, like swarming fish. But we weren’t doing that – we were packing in tightly, creating a wedge, and we were also announcing it to the police.

“Get ready – it’s almost time!” the woman yelled. “We’re going to push! Push! PUSH!”

I prepared myself to move forward, towards the gate – but suddenly, I wasn’t moving forward but to the left, very much to the left, propelled forward by all of the people behind me. Jason was next to me. He grabbed my shoulder so that we wouldn’t be separated with an iron grip, and we both flowed forward with the crowd, straight into the line of cops. My drum was crushed up against me in the tide of people, and there were bodies up against me, too, so much so that I knew it wouldn’t be long before breathing became more difficult. The pressure was like a birthing wave, the contraction that is also the beginning of the opening. I knew that either the dam would burst or that we’d flow back again, flow open. It wasn’t the kind of energy that could be sustained.

And then there was a cry, and a surge, and a person was staggering backwards while other people called all around, “Make way! Make way!” Seconds later, more people were staggering back against the crowd, closing their eyes or covering them. A fine mist rose up from the front ranks where we intersected with them. The cops were using pepper spray.

My heartrate went up again. I hate pepper spray, have hated it ever since I first saw someone rolling around on the ground who’d been hit in St. Paul.

The crowd surged forward again, threatening to pull Jason and I apart, but he continued to grasp my jacket sleeve tightly. “Don’t fall!” he said. “Watch your feet! I’ve got you.”

Still the crowd pushed in on all sides, and the rim of my drum cut into my leg. I raised it higher so that it would help create some space around me, taking tiny little steps in order to keep my balance in the tumultuous surge of people. The cops were still holding firm, and as we got closer, I could see that they were pressed up against the trucks that had been behind them, and that behind that, there was a fence. A line of cops, a line of police trucks, and a fence. How on earth were we going to do this?

In fact, I realized, I couldn’t do it. It simply was too much.

I leaned over to Jason and told him that this wasn’t the place for me. He nodded, “This is where we are, though, so this is where I’m staying,” he said.

It used to be that I absolutely couldn’t leave Jason during these heated moments. After the RNC, the idea of leaving him and having something happen to him was too terrible. But just before coming here to Copenhagen, I had a dream where an ancient grandmother came to me and told me that Jason and I had important, yet separate, work to do here. Since then, I’ve been much more able to do what I need and let him have whatever experience he needs.

So, he let me go. Another pepper spray victim was weaving through the crowd, and I took him by the shoulder and started yelling, “Make way!” to help him through, following him out as I did so.

I met up with some more sambatistas at the edge of the crowd, and from this perspective, could see what was happening much better: those people at the front, who had wanted to be in confrontational positions with the cops, were coming up from the right to try and get in to the wedge, while the bulk of the march continued to press in from the left. It was like two rivers streaming into one dammed reservoir, filling it up with people. Still no Green Bloc people, and no one from the inside, though cheers from that direction told me that there were definitely people there trying to get out.

In the end, the police line held. The cops had locked the Bella Center gates and refused to let the delegates walk out, at first threatening them with arrest and then beating them when they still tried to get to us. The Green Bloc people hadn’t even gotten past the train station doors before getting arrested. It was left to only us Blue Block people, and it simply didn’t happen.

The energy was quite intense still, and I had to fall back again, this time wetly crossing one of the canals as the police kettled in the bulk of the crowd. I couldn’t leave Jason, though. We had set up an emergency meeting point nearby, but even that seemed too far away. Instead, I simply waited at the bank of the canal, moving from here to there any time the cops insisted that I do so, but keeping my eye on what was going on the entire time.

After awhile it seemed safe enough to go join up again with the samba group and Jason and Tom, who had never left. The People’s Assembly – a meeting of people from every continent – began, to discuss the issues of global warming and the solutions that we desire. Slowly, the people from inside the Bella Center who had wanted to come out started to join us, having taken a long journey to a train station blocks away and walked over.

Because my feet had gotten wet in the canal crossing, however, I couldn’t stay long. I felt disheartened and disappointed, anyway: disheartened because yet again I found that I wasn’t able to stick it out when the going got tough and disappointed because I had really, really wanted us to be able to get through the gates and meet the people from inside. It felt like it could have been a Rosa Parks kinda moment, one with that kind of historical power. I wasn’t able to see, in that moment, that had we actually gotten into the Bella Center, things might have been much worse. The police never would have let us stay there, and their determination to get us out might have made things much more violent. At the very least, there would have been no People’s Assembly. Only a very significant, yet purely symbolic, act.

I went back to the hostel and took a "nap" that turned into an all-nighter. I was exhausted, and I didn’t know what to think anymore. All over the news, the reports were claiming that the entire Copenhagen Climate Summit was falling apart: not only the massive protests in and out, but also that the head of the summit was resigning and more and more countries were walking out and such. As sleep claimed me, my last thoughts were, “Why on earth did I come here again?”


  1. Re >>All over the news, the reports were claiming that the entire Copenhagen Climate Summit was falling apart: not only the massive protests in and out, but also that the head of the summit was resigning and more and more countries were walking out and such.<<

    Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but somehow it feels like the very fact that the summit was such a conspicuous, high-profile failure is what will make it a historic turning point. Our so-called "leaders" don't lead, and I hope they've gotten the message that nobody expects them to. We KNOW who they represent, and it's not us. So now the only options they have are to follow or get out of the way.

    What form that will take is anybody's guess, though.

  2. Riyana-
    I've been following your updates from Copenhagen. Thank you for sharing your experiences, your writings are so thoughtful and engaging.