I’m neither a summit-hopper nor a pacifist, yet the plan for mass nonviolent action at the COP15 Climate summit in Copenhagen caught my imagination.
“Using only the force of our bodies”, went the call-out by the Climate Justice Action network, “we will overcome any physical barriers that stand in our way” to “push into the conference area and enter the building, disrupt the sessions” and hold a “horizontal” assembly.
Images of the raid on the Dharasana salt works, 21 May 1930, thousands of Gandhian satyagrahis advancing into lines of barbed wire and police clubs. “Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins.” Still they kept advancing, naked body and naked will against the physical barriers, pain barriers, fear barriers of the state. As the philosopher Spinoza said: “We just don’t know what a body can do”.
My comrade and travelling companion Leo and I discussed: “Could we do a Dharasana?” We decided we might not have it in us. Yes, we would be in the front line on 16 December, we would keep moving forward, we wouldn’t attack the police – but we couldn’t promise in advance not to defend ourselves.
On 12 and 13 December, the police wiped the floor with the demonstrators, smashing through lines to surround and mass arrest hundreds at a time, who were taken off to special detention “cages”.
My South American comrade proposed a new tactic for the Monday “No Borders” action – following the example of the Argentinean piqueteros we would move as a tight collective body surrounded by defensive lines, arms linked in chains at the front, rear and sides. The No Borders demo would have borders. It worked beautifully. Every time the police tried to pick off someone, we massed together an impenetrable wall.
It’s true the named target, the ministry of defence, remained untouched, but that didn’t stop the day being a big morale boost as we romped through Copenhagen. The police retaliated with a punitive raid that night attacking Christiania with teargas and taking away 200 hostages.
Wednesday morning started well as we followed Monday’s tactics, all linking arm in arm with double protective chains along the sides. When the police tried to block or grab we surged en masse and filled the space. We made it to the Bella Centre in high spirits shouting: “A - anti - anticapitalista”.
A moat separated us from the centre. There was one bridge across the canal, maybe 20m wide, blocked by police vans, then a wire fence behind it, then more police, then the final fence, then our destination. Our line rushed towards the bridge and pushed up tight against the first line of police.
In hindsight I’m quite clear what we needed to do. We had the momentum; we should have pushed straight across the bridge, over the vans, pushed down the fences and rushed in the front door. We heavily outnumbered the police. We were knitted tight together in solidarity, and ready to advance.
Then the first screw-up. At the very front of the demo with the banners was a group of “delegates” from the Klimaforum, the alternative “people’s summit”. These “spokespersons of the global south” were going to open the “people’s assembly” we would hold once inside the Bella Centre. (Something we hadn’t been properly informed of at the meeting the night before, where the peoples’ assembly was promised to be fully “horizontal”).
Even leaving aside the political disaster of yet more representative politics, these people posed a practical problem. They weren’t signed up for civil disobedience. When we started pushing against the police line on the bridge, they fled to the back.
It was clear the spirit of resistance had gone fully limp when we heard announcements that the “people’s assembly” was now in session on the road behind us. That is, the NGO-ists had, within less than 30 minutes, abandoned the assault on the Bella centre altogether. The rest of us were to be left doing security duty around them. After cursing the delegates in shouted Spanish for a few minutes we decided to leave them to it, go home to get drunk and screw and cry.
This was my first, and quite possibly last, international summit protest. My first reactions on Wednesday were disgust and indignation at the sheer cowardice of many of the demonstrators.
But on reflection, the agenda of the “delegates” and their hangers-on was probably always just to hold another token meeting in a road somewhere.
The point is that you can’t cobble together satyagraha in a few days. Reading the history of the Gandhian movement in India, or, say, the civil rights movement in the US, what can impress even more than the achievements was the process – dedication, preparation, psychological and organisational training – involved.
Gandhi talked of the satyagrahis as a well-disciplined “army”. Even when practised on a small scale, nonviolent direct action that puts bodies at stake calls for serious discipline – see the intense training of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) before the freedom rides and lunch counter actions.
We can’t put our failure down to that horrid “police repression”. For one thing, pepper spray and truncheons, as any activist from the “global south” can tell you, is not even the beginning of serious repression. Second, despite said “repression”, we did get there in our thousands to the Bella centre.
It’s not the police we have to blame for the failure of our resistance. We don’t know what a body, individual or collective, can do – and on Wednesday we were very far from finding out.