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On U.N. Summit’s Final Day, Protesters Defy Police, Demand Real Climate Solutions

Claire Arkin Dec 20

The Indypendent’s Claire Arkin was on hand for the Paris climate talks and counter-protests that took place during the first two weeks of December. In her previous reports, Arkin described the efforts of activists to inject a measure of hope and defiance into the grim security state that had settled over Paris since the November 13 terrorist attacks and how the omnipresent police presence was forcing activists to earlier, low-tech ways of organizing their actions. In her third and final report, she looks back on the final day of protests on December12  when thousands of climate justice activists from around the world took the streets in defiance of the French government’s ban on all public demonstrations.

After endless, somber medical and legal briefings at the Centquatre movement space in the lead-up to the “Red Lines” action to take place on December 12, many people I spoke to were a bit anxious but determined. We hastily wrote down the names of the lawyers that we would need to not only memorize the spelling of but the exact pronunciation. We practiced how to cover the sensitive sides of our heads and necks in case police stepped up their aggression, and how to wash pepper spray out of each others’ eyes with water and Maalox. We repeated in unison, “I have nothing to declare! Je n’ai rien à dèclarer!” in case we were taken into custody and questioned. And most importantly, we formed affinity groups based on how much we cared about getting arrested in a foreign country. I figured that I should first practice getting arrested in my own country before I take this step, so I ended up with a group of activists from around the world with varied experience in nonviolent civil disobedience, but all of whom agreed that if the police started arresting we would get the hell out. 

In our group there were two Parisians, a close friend of mine and an old man who lived in the area all his life but was the only one of his circle to take part in the action. Two of us were German; one from California; London; Portland, OR; Maui, HA; Melbourne, Australia; and Finland. Our ages and experiences were as varied as the places that we hailed from, but although we had just met a couple days before the action we had decided to share this moment together. Our group name was ROAR! after the RER train that Bertrand, the elderly Parisian urban developer, took to get into the city. 

Armed with baby wipes, bottled water, cheese, chocolate, and clementines, we assembled close to the action, ready for anything. It was soon after that we learned that the action would be sanctioned by the police so there was no more need for an exit strategy. The feeling of the action as a result was very different from what everyone expected. We were shepherded by police into the Champs-Élysées between La Défense (the major business district in Paris) and the Arc de Triomphe (a monument commemorating unknown casualties of war), and our bags were checked. The giant inflatable cobblestones that were meant to be used as shields against the police were bounced jovially up in the air throughout the line, as people danced to the 60-piece brass band. We then marched to the Eiffel Tower down the route that the police led us and once there we chanted and danced some more, and then most dispersed.

The overall tameness of the protest was held in sharp contrast to the more impromptu action starting at the Belleville station later that day, held to prove that protesters didn’t need police permission to exercise their right to march.  The crowd moved through narrow streets, cheered on by shopkeepers, until they came to the canal. According to Stu Basden, a volunteer with Toronto350.org, who was part of the unsanctioned march, around 300 police officers entrapped the group, pepper sprayed them repeatedly and threatened that either they present their ID’s in groups of five or be escorted to jail. The crowd began to chant, “We all go together,” until the police relented and let protesters out in groups of ten. Before being led into the area surrounded by police, Mr. Basden told a police officer, “You know the governments of the world have just signed a deal that will lead to our extinction, right? We’re here tonight marching because we don’t want to die. Do you understand that?” 

The overall consensus amongst activists in Paris is that the COP 21 agreement does not deserve the kind of back-patting congratulations that world leaders are giving themselves for making a good “first step.”  The turning point in our movement is coming because activists no longer have faith in these global institutions to save us.

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