The climate circus

If the world is a stage, then all the actors were in Copenhagen last month to play out a pre-scripted apocalyptic drama. Our reporter paid an unofficial visit to the front lines of the UN climate change conference.

Protesters at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, December 2009.
Photo by Sam Williams

If the world is a stage, then all the actors were in Copenhagen last month to play out a pre-scripted apocalyptic drama. Our reporter paid an unofficial visit to the front lines of the UN climate change conference.

Copenhagen is a city of squares. During the conference, the squares were full of globes. This geometrical clash was geopolitically symbolic: the fate of the world lay in Copenhagen. One giant globe, prominently sponsored by Siemens, projected news updates from the Bella Centre, where the summit was held. In Nytorv Square, an art exhibition of “colourful globes” promised creative solutions to climate change problems. On the first day of the second week, Indymedia reported: “Anarchists liberate a deflating world”. Protestors made off with a giant orange globe from the square outside the Danish parliament and stole the show.

The battle lines were drawn early. The UN would be quartered six kilometres out- side of the city. The summit compound stood behind four-metre-high fences. Steel in steel-reinforced concrete. The roof was covered with snipers and the building guarded by an inner cohort of UN blue berets. Walls of Danish cops covered the south and north with fence trucks behind them.

In Freetown Christiania, a 1970s-throwback commune built of wooden houses, Climate Bottom was organized. The name, a Danish joke, is intended as the opposite of “summit”. Inside a giant circus tent, a man with a braided beard and painted dungarees was twisting balloons into strange shapes while a megaphone invited the assembled to an afternoon funeral. The deceased was “straight lines” – roughly translated to “linear thinking”.

The Climate Caravan activist delegation from “the global south” travelled in two buses from the World Trade Organization in Geneva to the UN summit. An angry Maori woman with a tattooed chin told of her escape: “The whole thing’s run by patronizing western activists. The Australasian Pacific Islands are sinking and no one gives a shit. It’s a culture of genocide. My people live off the land, and that land is being taken away. People are moving to New Zealand, but they die. In the west, without money, you’re dead.”

The NGOs held an alternative “people’s summit”, the Klima Forum. The activists wanted one of their own – a different people’s summit, planned to “Reclaim Power!”. It would breach the UN compound and take place inside on the second Wednesday of the conference, as deals moved to a close. Why were they here? Mika, a wildlife activist who travelled all the way from Berlin-Treptow to participate, is nervous about getting arrested: “I want to be able to make the most difference I can, so I need to stay off the radar.” But he’s cynical about the motives of others: “Most of them are here for a holiday. Or they’re here to show their face – because that’s all some people have got.”

The plan for Reclaim Power! was that different “blocs” would swarm the Bella Cen- tre, break down the barriers and enter the compound. Along with a fast-moving Bike Bloc, there would be autonomous “affinity” groups: this would be the “mobile” green bloc. The blue bloc, following a police-approved route, would carry a “peo- ple’s assembly” made up of various speakers: indigenous persons and representa- tives from the southern countries and Danish radical groups. They were charged with strategic implementation.

The police’s weapon of choice was the vehicle. Mini fleets of two different types of police van hunkered down in Copenhagen’s side-streets, while riot police tooled up and donned body armour outside. One activist reported that boats moored on Copenhagen’s various waterways hid police from the protestors’ “action scouts” – those who went out at night to get the lay of the land for the next day’s demos (and, in particular, “actions”, carried out by activists to get media attention or cause disruption). There were also riot vans, fence trucks, helicopters and motorcycles. Police on horses guarded the heavily fogged marshland around the Bella Centre.

The activists were less technologically sophisticated. At night, the Bike Bloc col- lected abandoned bikes and bits of bikes. In daily workshops, they welded these together into mutant constructions, ready to rally at the Bella Centre on December 16. This mass scrounge significantly disrupted the local bike economy: a city-wide shortage of abandoned bikes legitimised theft, so that one bike might pass through four pairs of hands per day. No one expected to ride the same bike home as they rode out on in the morning.

Within a few days, all the buildings in the disused social centre and makeshift doss house in Ragnhild Street had been tagged up, and imposed with the confusion born of an order that cannot be read. There are anarchist symbols, socialist symbols and slogans all over. “Don’t fear the black bloc”, a drape reads outside the Volkü (short for “Volksküche”). “They’re just here to march like everyone else.” Meeting rooms across town are decorated green, blue, orange or purple, and labeled according to size as “houses” or “rooms”.

The camps were organized by various global and local activist-cum-anarchist networks operating under the umbrella of Climate Justice Action, whose mantra was “system change not climate change”. Among the main factions are the clown army, a pan-European samba corps toting broken drums; a sullen anarchist contingent; and the Italians, whose numbers grew and grew despite depletion through daily arrests. The rump of the Italian corps staged solidarity protests outside the makeshift prisons – vast halls filled with cages – installed across town to deal with the numbers.

The Germans were cooking. And the food was vegan. The Volksküche dispatched armies of cooks bearing enormous cauldrons. Their mission was to feed the armies of activists, but there was a funding crisis. The €50,000 ploughed into mung beans, chickpeas and soybean “butter” had not been recouped. The teapot for donations was being strictly policed by martial Brits. No donation, no food.

In Copenhagen’s main square, huge placards announced “Hopenhagen”, a main- stream-friendly programme of live events sponsored by Carlsberg, Coca-Cola and the Roskilde Festival. But the world is here for the end-of-days party. By Monday morning of the second week, after 1,200 arrests in two days, everyone was calling it “Cop-enhagen”.

By Monday evening, Christiania was in flames and no one quite knew why. There was a party for activists: anti-globalization activist Naomi Klein was going to speak. But people who turned up for a drink found themselves in the middle of a siege. Mika was there: “It was like a scene from a movie. At the back, black bloc activists were standing behind burning barricades in the streets, some of them throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. Cars were on fire and the riot police were in front, masked up. The whole place was full of tear gas.”

The Danish police had another weapon: the law. The controversial “lout package” rushed through parliament in the run-up to the conference allowed police to make “preventative arrests” of up to 12 hours – no need to charge the prisoner with any particular offence. Police merely “kettled” everyone in an area and “detained” them, stopping the protest cold. Cuffed with cable ties, detainees were seated on the ground in long, neat rows with legs astride the person in front of them, then driven off to detention centres in blue police coaches.

The 4,000-strong Reclaim Power! march expanded the spectacle. NGO members who walked out of the Bella Centre in support of the people’s assembly were beaten back with batons. Indian delegates set fire to UN badges. Outside the compound, the attempt to get in was valiant. The blue bloc was tethered to air mattresses, which it dragged through gorse hedges to bridge the canal that separates the street from the Bella Centre. Police and dogs watched from the bank. After half an hour, one of the protestors reached them. His face was filled with pepper spray; he was wrestled to the ground by six police.

After 260 more arrests – bringing the total to about 1800 – the alternative people’s assembly took place, penned in by riot van blockades and dense walls of police. The assembly arranged itself into impromptu groups organized around banners. Some groups held hands and meditated together. A man in a pink dress discussed climate change with the riot police. Another man asked a riot cop who had beaten him earlier why he had done what he did, then they posed together for a photo. Finally, one of the older organizers proclaimed victory and asked people to give themselves a round of applause. The march dispersed, decamping to the beats of the samba band. “Why are we leaving?” A man in a clown suit cried. He sounded desperate. “The summit is still going on. We should go back and try again! Why are we leaving?”