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On the side of the angels

A worm’s-eye view of the ‘Red Lines’ climate action in Paris, or how I ended up at the front of a 10,000-strong illegal march

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Angels protecting the Red Line demonstration in Paris on 12 December. Photo: Yann Levy

Friday started in an airy industrial squat just outside central Paris, with two men arguing whether the type of tear gas used by the French police has ever been implicated in the deaths of protesters.

The people being trained to form a human barricade practiced linking our arms through backpack straps (see p20), locking our legs together when sitting down, ducking our heads to minimise the effects of pepper spray, and signalling agreement and disagreement for rapid decision-making.

Our job would be to protect one end of the D12 ‘Red Lines’ street occupation by the Arc de Triomphe; the other end would be protected by a bike barricade.

As expected, the UN climate negotiations (COP21) had spilled over onto Saturday 12 December, and we’d be matching the closing ceremonies with our own mass nonviolent civil disobedience.

At one point during the training, the folk from Reclaim the Power (the British climate group co-ordinating the human barricade) gave us suggestions for diverting the riot police from using violence.

‘Can-can dancing’ and ‘kissing fellow blockaders’ were two ideas offered to us.

A voice piped up asking whether there was any reason to believe that anything we did would stop the police from attacking us. ‘No’ was the answer.

Disarming the police

I immediately thought of the night before, when I’d arrived in central Paris with around 100 other climate action cyclists, who’d biked all the way from Britain. There is a law in France that forbids cyclists to travel in groups of 50 or more without police permission. This is a general law, quite apart from the state of emergency that came into effect on 14 November, which has banned public political action by more than two people at a time.

The cyclists had a big debate along the way, and we overwhelmingly decided to defy both the usual cycling laws and the state of emergency and form a mass bike bloc (a ‘bike train’) heading through central Paris on Thursday evening.

The bike train turned out to be an electrifying experience as we took over more and more of the road, cycling the length of the Avenue de la Grande Armée, circling the Arc de Triomphe and getting half-way along the Champs-Élysées before we were surrounded by dozens of riot police who ran into the road and diverted us onto the pavement.

We prepared ourselves for a long stay, surrounded or ‘kettled’ by the police, but it was only 20 minutes before someone had negotiated an agreement with the police that we could proceed with our plan, as long as we only occupied one lane.

We were later told that, in Paris, ‘critical mass’ bike actions usually end with people throwing their rusty old bikes at the police. Instead, we had held our hands above our heads as soon as we were surrounded, shouting: ‘Justice climatique!’

Not-negotiating

As the human barricade training went on, preparing us for a lot of grim possibilities in terms of police violence, I started having the odd feeling that the street occupation would be allowed.

In the evening on Friday, the final preparation session for the human blockade was informed that the talks with the police seemed to be leaning towards police co-operation with the action. There weren’t ‘negotiations’, we were told, organisers were explaining our plans to the police, and the police were explaining their plans to us. We weren’t asking for permission, we were just telling the authorities what we were planning to do, taking over one of the biggest roads in Central Paris for two hours.

By 11.30 on Saturday morning, thousands of people dressed in red had already gathered on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, half an hour before the action was due to take place. The surrounding streets had been blocked by police vans, and the vast avenue itself had been cleared for 30,000 climate activists to carry out our action in defiance of the state of emergency.

After initially being thrown off guard by the police co-operation, most of the human blockaders formed up at the end of the demonstration furthest away from the Arc de Triomphe, looking down the road towards La Défense, the area housing corporate headquarters and skyscrapers.

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Red Lines in the Avenue de la Grande Armée. Photo: Yann Levy

Led by angels

There were several layers of ‘defence’ planned for the Red Lines action (which included a ceremony held by indigenous leaders from around the world, 100-metre ‘red lines’ banners, and other happenings).

In front of the blockaders, there was a line of seven ‘angels’, women of all ages dressed in white, with feathery wings spreading out wide from their shoulders. Throughout the next few hours, the angels held themselves, and moved, with a stillness that commanded respect.

Another layer of ‘defence’ from police attack was a mobile troupe of clowns, who slinked about, mocking everything and everyone. The most visible and largest ‘defence’ (I think against tear gas canisters and other projectiles) was a wall of giant inflatable red-lined cubes (officially ‘cobblestones’). Most of the time, these cubes were being tossed around the demonstration, they only formed solidly into a wall behind us a few times.

There was also meant to be a line of people with red umbrellas behind the human barricade, again to bounce off tear gas canisters and other projectiles, to protect the blockaders.

In the event, none of these defences were needed. The police didn’t attack us. When, suddenly, at 1.30pm, the angels began leading the people out of the police cordon and onto the street, no police tried to stop us.

Suddenly, the angels and our human blockade line were the head of a 10,000-strong illegal march through the streets of Paris, on the way join to another (authorised) demonstration at the Eiffel Tower.

To begin with, it was chaotic and there was a very charged atmosphere. It felt as though many of the hundreds of chanting ‘anti-capitalistas’ around us were up for a fight as if one tiny incident could turn the whole angel-led procession into a riot. It seemed like pure luck that there wasn’t a spark to set things off. As time passed, and the streets broadened out, the energy died down to a steady determination.

Véronique, my host in the banlieue of St Denis, said later that the Red Lines action had been the best moment of her militant life. The energy, the creativity and the defiance had been a stark contrast to the 29 November climate action in Paris, which she had found dull (though the police did attack an offshoot illegal march, using pepper spray and tear gas, and arresting 200).

The Red Lines were meant to symbolise the environmental red lines, the social justice red lines, the legal red lines, that the world’s leaders were crossing in their frantic negotiations and their no-commitment final text. The Red Lines are the minimal necessities for a just and liveable planet.

From the front of the illegal march, from the middle of the bike train, from the side of the angels, it felt as if the power of mass nonviolent direct action was making another kind of Red Line, forcing a repressive government to bend, to stand back, to give space for a people’s alternative.

Milan Rai is the editor of PN. He was part of the human blockade with Gabriel Carlyle, PN promotions worker.