Amid concerns about the slow pace of negotiations in Le Bourget, events are getting slightly more hectic and eventful on the ground here in Paris. More and more activists are arriving for the second week of the climate negotiations, and the boundaries for what is tolerated during a state of emergency are being pushed and tested.
Yesterday (Friday) was the grand opening of the Solutions COP21 – a 7-day exhibit of “solutions” to climate change. When I first heard about it, I was rather intrigued, as it’s always encouraging to see people focusing on solutions as well as problems. Then I realised that the location for the event is the Grand Palais. Its pompous exterior doesn’t really convey a message of the necessity to live a life in simplicity and reduce consumption. My cynicism was added to when I learnt that corporations such as Engie (formerly GDF Suez), Renault-Nissan and Avril-Sofiproteol, amongst others, were participating in Solutions COP21. Greenwashing is the word that comes to mind. I never managed to get inside, but later heard that the “solutions” included electric Formula one racing cars and Coca Cola claiming to be part of fighting climate change because they produce most of their health hazards masked as drinks in France. Rob gives a more detailed account of it all here.
Many activists decided to go to the Grand Palais anyway, in order to ask some pertinent questions and give alternative guided tours inside, telling some inconvenient truths that were perhaps overlooked in all the greenwash. As it happened, most of us weren’t even allowed in. When I arrived there was an immense queue of hundreds if not thousands of people, moving very slowly.There were probably as many police on site, observing this queue where activists, tourists, and business-people all mingling together, videotaping anyone who looked suspicious. At the entrance, visitors were subjected to thorough scrutiny. At the moment in Paris you can’t enter any remotely official building, popular shop, or any area that is hosting a large amount of people without being searched and having the contents of your bag prodded. On top of that, Solutions COP21 and the police had apparently decided that these solutions are not for everybody, and anyone who looked slightly alternative, with too long hair, too colourful clothing, or just looking like they would ask uncomfortable questions would be refused entrance altogether.
The police got edgy when somebody climbed a lamppost and led chants about caring for the earth and caring for our children – not something you should do under a state of emergency. Whilst cheering him on, people were still queuing in an orderly fashion all around the lamppost and there was very little the police could do.
At one point ten police vans screeched to a halt just where we were standing, their doors opening simultaneously and a hoards of civilian police charged out, fingering their radios and looking like they’d punch you in the face if you got in their way, much to the surprise of the people who were just leaving the Grand Palais. They then began a snatching mission of literally picking up and carrying out anyone inside who didn’t belong.
On the ground people encircled the lamppost to prevent the newly arrived special police climbing squad to access the dissident. They were however soon shoved away by the black mass of police in riot gear armed with pepper spray.
Eventually our guy in the lamppost was plucked out of his seat. There was a quick impromptu press conference called by the organisers of the action. As they were encircled by journalists a banner was revealed.
But this was too much, during chants about freedom of expression, police forcibly took the banner and continued their snatch arresting. There was a call that this was an illegal demonstration and as police lines started coming in from every direction I decided it was about time to leave.
Here is a more detailed account (in French).
I had fortunately bumped into Corinne, from a Parisian Transition group, and Rob, who had just done a talk inside. They invited me home for soup – the perfect antidote for all the nervous energy that large amounts of police and weapons inevitably generate. Nothing like debriefing experiences of severely limited rights of expression and a police state over a comforting bowl of kale, barley, and turnips from a local CSA.
I went there with rather a heavy heart and still a bit jumpy after the events of the afternoon. It is a bitter pill to realise first hand how easily and quickly good causes can be criminalised in the name of security, and that police are not actually there to protect after all.
When you represent your ideas and your moral values in the form of your body, putting it in the path of police dressed in gear fit for bull-dozers, it is so easy to feel like those ideas are trampled all over, forced to one side as if they don’t matter at all. It takes a lot of energy to come back from that, and I thought to myself that I’d rather spend that energy creating something beautiful and lasting. The actions named False Solutions COP21 were important and managed to severely disrupt and close the entrance to the exhibition for everyone, highlighting how false these solutions are. But it is not something I would do every day.
I had managed to get a ticket to Pathway to Paris in the evening, a concert and series of talks organised by 350.org. The programme was peppered with names of influential artists, writers and activists – Patti Smith, Thom Yorke, Flea, Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, amongst others. The concert venue was packed, itself an act of defiance. Tenzin Choegyal sang a prayer for the earth – extremely powerful, heartfelt, full of joy and sorrow, despair and hope. At one point we joined Patti Smith in singing Imagine, and there was probably not a single eye dry in the room.
During the concert, whether it was Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, or Vandana Shiva saying their carefully chosen words to the cheering and receptive crowd, the message was very clear. There can be no solution to climate change without climate justice. And climate justice doesn’t mean that Exxon (who knew) switch from selling us fossil fuels to solar panels. It means leaving an exploitative economic system behind completely. Something that each and every one of us has to be a part of.
It ended with everyone together on stage singing that it is in fact the people who have the power.