Copenhagen Climate Activists Reclaim Power

As hundreds of protesters neared the Bella Center yesterday morning, police officers fired tear gas, beat activists with batons, and arrested about 100 individuals in the largest demonstration so far of the Copenhagen climate conference.

There has been a mix of frustration over the lack of progress on a new climate deal, and Danish officials’ decision to limit the number of campaigners permitted into the talks. The decision left thousands of NGOs queued for hours outside the conference.

The frustration may also stem from the police tactic of “kettling,” penning marchers in an area and refusing to let them out. Police utilized “kettling” at the G-20 protests. Instead of engaging in oftentimes violent, bloody conflict with protesters (the stuff that looks really bad for law enforcement on the news,) police form a cordon to contain protesters within a limited area. Protesters are then prevented from leaving the area for several hours. They can be denied access to food, water and toilet facilities for a long period, which as The Guardian reports, turns the area into a “public lavatory.” As you can imagine, being forced to shit outside for signing up to protest carbon emissions may make protesters cranky.

Police have used kettling three times thus far at the Copenhagen protests. The process is incredibly disempowering for protesters because successful activism relies on the ability to disrupt the normal flow of order. Officials and international representatives must be aware of protesters’ presence. Otherwise, police are essentially engaging in soft censorship and neutering the activism process. This kind of soft censorship also inspires more radical behavior from some protesters. This small minority may feel they have no other choice but to engage in extreme (sometimes violent) behavior in order to gain leverage over the police, and the society, that has forced them into the margins.

In an effort to break past police handling today, organizers of Reclaim Power engaged in real protest and attempted to disrupt the summit and hold a people’s assembly giving voice to those calling for climate justice. While a United Nations functionary carries around an orange-and-white life preserver (a subtle, symbolic SOS,) and the conference reels from the sudden resignation of its president, protesters recognize this is a critical time — not just in Copenhagen negotiations — but in the world’s history.

Mette Hermansen, 27, studying to train teachers, and a member of the International Socialists of Denmark, told the Times, “In the Bella Center they are not discussing solutions to climate change. They are discussing how rich countries can continue emitting and how to sell that to the public. We are not preventing leaders from making solutions but encouraging them to make solutions.”

And the only way to “encourage solutions” is through meaningful protest. Though they share the planet with the rich countries and powerful leaders, protesters and NGOs have literally been shut out of all climate conversations. The only options left are acts of civil disobedience and meaningful protest — not the kettled gatherings — but actual, lively demonstrations like the ones organized by Reclaim Power.

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– Allison Kilkenny


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