Dr. Oliver Moore (Communications Manager with ARC2020) (updated 15/12/2015 at 12.30; 21.16 GMT 17/12/2015 at 20.40 GMT)
Paris – On a personal level, COP21 was a moment in time. It may turn out to be a global turning point, at least in the first steps of aspiration and intention. That is yet to be decided. But on the ground it certainly was something. It was a planetary pulse, taken by 20,000 of the world’s most committed climate justice activists, ready willing and able to take to the streets and say – yes. We are here. We are nature defending itself.
After many months of momentum building towards Paris and COP21, people had been, very understandably, put off traveling for personal and political reasons. There was much empathy, sympathy and worry after the November 13th terrorists attacks. There were also serious restrictions on travel and gathering with the introduction of state of emergency laws. Formally these made gatherings of more than two for political purposes illegal, brought in large fines and lengthened detention for being arrested – the authorities had already placed a huge number of environmental activists under house arrest in Paris. The November 29th non-sanctioned March, from what I could gather, was very tense at times and many were in fact arrested.
Once I learned the march at the end of the COP21 wasn’t sanctioned, I felt I had to go to Paris for COP21. I was not going to be silenced. I was going to work with the activists who showed up to, peacefully, bear witness and to help generate some climate justice momentum. I was going to get on the Stop Climate Chaos bus and the boat (i was hardly going to fly now was I?!)
Meanwhile the rest of mainstream Parisian life seem to be unaffected by the restrictions – big sports fixtures were still going on, the cafes and pubs were open til late – one of the main effects of the state of emergency it seems was to prevent any significant form of environmental protest. In sweetly simple terms, people trying to save everyone from themselves, were being stopped. How bizarre is that for a self-hating species? Except, they weren’t stopped. We weren’t stopped.
This reality became very obvious on route, as the Irish bus I was on was detained, following a supposed tip off to the French police by the Irish authorities. Certainly, that’s what the French police told us on at least four occasions where they held us, just off the boat at Cherbourg ferryport. They wanted us to return on the 9.30 boat, three hours after landing. This was both a serious moment of deflation and also our first strong coming together as a group to work. We rang everyone. We rang Friends of the Earth France who were immediately in discussion with the police in Paris. We rang both embassies, many politicians, people in the COP, and after some discussion, the Irish media. We wanted to leave the diplomatic efforts to work first, in case media coverage created a situation where it would look bad for the French to be seen as backing down. It was amazing to see just how networked we were – and it was often the youngest, quieter ones in our group of 20 to 72 year olds – who had the unexpectedly useful connections.
The French police were waiting in a big group – about 10 – they were well armed, including with machine guns and a dog. They had special deportation papers for us to sign. The captain of the ship came down to talk to us – he wasn’t used to dealing with 35 potential returnees, so he wanted to get a suss on us. He wanted and of course got assurance from us that, if we did return, we’d be respectful of his space. But we also reminded him that we were doing our utmost to not return. For him, it wasn’t possible to assign a minder to each of us, as is typical with deportees. He was, in other words, under his orders too.
It was all becoming very real, and the minutes were slipping away. But we kept engaging with them, chatting with them off the bus on the tarmac. Grace O’ Sullivan asked if it was her presence on board which had stalled us. She’d been on the Rainbow Warrior – this was the Greenpeace ship protesting France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific. The French state attacked the ship in Auckland Harbour in 1985. She was on it when they attacked, killing photographer Fernando Pereira. More minutes slipped away. Some people were getting emotional – we had a few meetings and certainly decided collectively that we wouldn’t be signing anything. We were formally asked and resolutely refused, with a little laughter (see video) By now Grace was on Ireland’s main evening time radio talk show, live from the bus, telling the country about us, fielding bizarre questions about weapons and terrorism. A victim of state terrorism looking at exceptionally peaceful people in santy hats being asked live on national radio if there were weapons on board. Surreal.
Texts back from Dublin and Paris weren’t hopeful as to our chances of getting through, except, strangely, one from inside the COP. But we couldn’t rely on one ok text – so there was still more calling, more talking to all sorts of strange bedfellows as the minutes kept ticking towards 9.30.
And then, at 8.30, we got word – they got word – we’re getting through.
What. A. Moment. Pure joy and release.
(the video above doesn’t capture the moment of literal release – we were too busy enjoying ourselves at that moment! Also, at the start of the video, that was the only mention on their part of us having any possibility of travelling to Paris. Photos and videos were difficult to take in the situation – we’d been asked to delete any we were caught taking).
We parted on good terms with the police, to be fair. Our trip into Paris flew after that, as we watched the story grow on line in the Irish media.
In Paris, the city seemed fully on – not a state of emergency, more just typically busy.
There were a few very large indoor spaces for gatherings as outdoor protests had been banned. These were real hubs of activity and hives of activism. One of the unusual aspects to emerge from the protest ban was a real focus on creativity rather than simply marching around the place. This created spectacular art and encouraged people to work out performances. It also really brought people together to work on tasks collaboratively. COP21 was turning out to be the best activist networking event, as only the most committed had turned up. The ones who will be there – organising – next time too.
One of these spaces, artist collective and squat Le Jardin D’Alice felt incredibly alive. As we brushed past black curtains, the space opened out and we were in.
It was brimming full of an array of creatives from so many ages and places – radical, colourful, provocative activist art of love and compassion festooning the walls and ceilings, and, further on, past the vegan food and crafty bar, bigger art hanging from ropes to dry, all the while a real sense of frenetic fun in action.
Singing, smiling while painting up slogans like “Another World Is Possible” “Leave it in the Ground” “Change the System not the Climate” – in French and English – along with traditional vegan anti capitalist statements aplenty.
Instructions and directions – even these were creatively constructed – were everywhere for the massive banner making, which was ongoing. Lots of kit – from angle grinders to dozes of paint brushes, stencils and spray paint – were being put to use.
Large air pump foghorns were appearing, while Bela Ciao resonated through the air, louder by the second, as a whole new generation learned those timeless words.
Huge inflatable red line cobblestones were being made for the as yet non-sanctioned Red Lines march. These were to represent the red lines the COP21 negotiations were not to cross.
Harking back to the May 1968 use of real cobblestones in Paris itself, there was an edgy dimension to them as they were both fun to flick around, like massive beachballs, but were also constructible into barriers, or, in a sense, non-threatening barricades – they slotted together and could form a wall. This also of course reduced visibility for the police, who could, nevertheless, at any point, puncture them in an act of escalation.
All this – all this work remember – was for a gathering that wasn’t even allowed to happen in a country in State of Emergency where two people in public together for political reasons was illegal.
As the evening progressed the art started to climb the walls around us, like a time lapse. Conversation heightened – everyone we spoke with was committed and wanted to engage with you and the myriad environmental, climate change and people-centred issues the planet faces. They were warm hearted, big hearted fun people who could laugh and enjoy themselves. This was a recurring theme from the bus onwards. Sometimes little crowds would gather around people as they spoke, other times it was more rawkus regaling, and then sometimes outright shouting or chanting.
Even as we left the nearby bars were full of people frantically making art while musicians played fast and people drank without consideration for time or place.
The next morning though, was a very sobering affair. Another huge space, this was a briefing and training that focused on legal and medical issues. Very caring and organised people, mostly from 350.org had brought upwards of 1000 people to the ZAC – the Climate Action Zone – where NGOs had a hub for talks and events.
There, details medical details included how to wash tear gas out of your eyes properly – head tilted sideways, water poured into eyes but straight off the face so it doesn’t stay on clothes and re-irritate you – (see pic) – and how to hold your body if being hit by a baton repeatedly. Names and numbers of lawyers were given out, de-escalation tactics were explained – like the kissing wall, where people would come together yes to kiss en masse to defuse tense situations with the police.
The training was very empowering for all who attended, as people were strong in their desire to act – but act peacefully – the next day, whatever the status of the gatherings. It ended with the glorious elevation of the collective noise of physical clappy, clicky snappy body performance games.
Another huge – massive really – building called the Palas de Congress was a building Friends of the Earth France had use of. Again, lots and lots of banner making and meetings were being held – big and small, by groups like Confederation Payseanne, Via Campaesina and others new to me such as Islamic Relief, which seemed to have a youth wing dedicated to climate justice.
Here, we had another group meeting of our own Stop Climate Chaos posse. At this people were buddied up into pairs – to have support and someone looking out for you. It was a happy coincidence that technically two people were actually allowed to be together for political purposes, even on the street, under State of Emergency. We also formed into affinity groups of between 5 and 8. So we all shared numbers, and these were written onto our arms, along with the legal numbers and names. We began to hear about the main gathering being officially allowed (or sanctioned) but had no confirmation – uncertainty was a recurring theme of these days.
And then the first outdoor event, or manifestation I attended. This was all along the road leading up to the Arc de Triomphe – which we were reminded was a war memorial, being as it was along the Avenue de la Grande Armee. In fact, were were slap bang in between the financial district and a tower to colonialism – how apt eh?
People wore red for red lines, red flowers and ribbons had been distributed, and as we approached the positive vibes – fused with some trepidation – abounded. We had heard at the last minute that the gathering was now officially sanctioned, which helped, but, nevertheless the heartbeat was raised on route.
And then we got there. Beautiful. Moving. Noisy. Very full of energy. So many messages from around the globe, so much movement for a thing that wasn’t supposed to move – this was a gathering not a march after all – marches were still illegal.
Clowns abounded all around, people with dance routines and intricate songs, others bellowing chants that ebbed and flowed up and down the boulevard.
And then out came the inflatables to more cheers. Who got the power? We got the power!
Angel-like women in white with single red lines running across them, face to face with the Robocop police line of blackness at the end of the Avenue de la Grande Armee. Behind the angels the barrier of inflatables.
And then we moved. Now was the action – this bit wasn’t sanctioned at all – we were supposed to go in a maximum of two person groups to the next location via public transport. But we didn’t. We marched. We made a route through the force of good will and the best of heart-song intentions. First on the footpath and then onto the road, in and around the cars, all the while chanting and more and more energised. We fully took the road now.
We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!
And then I heard a countdown, in French, from a group, again mostly women, called Climate Express. Dix, neuf. They were sitting down on the road, and a gap was forming between them and the rest. Huit, sept. Was this a sit down protest? Would they be kettled? Six, cinq. Why were they counting down anyway!? Quatre, trios! And then it clicked. They were going to run. They were going to catch up with the rest of the march and create an actual movement – a moment of momentum. So I started to run, as their voices got louder in this final countdown. Deux! un!! You need to be moving to keep up with movers – like a relay runner, otherwise you could get knocked over. This was a very very exhilarating experience. When you move with dozens of people at once in a loud, vibrant unsanctioned spontaneous march – yes you get a surge.
Stepping onto the road was very empowering. Terra Firma. And, with the greatest of respect, a ground zero. We had reclaimed the streets from the state of emergency, for the planetary emergency. Multi-linguistic chanting, samba bands, horn sections, all getting louder and louder. Like a football march with real purpose, a carnival of intent.
People started to block roads with human chains, as the police closed in. Women in red – so many of us were women – offering red flowers to the police who gave smiles of mild bemusement.
We are nature! Defending itself!
And on we went, towards the Eiffel Tower, with all the inflatables and the huge long-Keep-It-In-The-Ground banner, which was a couple of hundred meters long, red and white, the colours of the day.
It appeared – that big growing-as-we-approached iron tower – and we converged and submerged down towards it. More colour, more life, more manifestations.
(NEW! Video below really worth watching of #REDlines #D12 protest)
Human beatboxes with loop machines, inflatables down the steps, and that banner unfurled fully, snaking its way down towards its place beneath the tower. A whispered sit down protest with those inflatables forming another barricade, while being brushed past by undercover police with tell tale backpacks and walkie talkies.
And then, generating such a respectful and serious silence all around them, an indigenous group with wind catching tubular flags, all in unison, walking slowly and solemnly, soundtracked by a single wind instrument leading them. We all stopped. Everything. We took in the entire moment – the vista, the event, the effect climate change is having, already, on so many communities who couldn’t Be Here Now. As the wave of silence rippled out I got my first real surge of spontaneous tears.
Moments of fierce beauty were everywhere. We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!
Oliver Moore traveled with Stop Climate Chaos to Paris for COP21