National Sections of the L5I:

COP15: Massive protests meet massive repression

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Gunnar Westin reports on the huge protests at the Copenhagen climate summit

A new, powerful movement emerges
The protests against the UN climate summit in Copenhagen are proof that the debate on global warming and its consequences is here to stay. A movement that has gathered to protest imperialist summits and wars over the last ten years came together with the environmentalist movement in Copenhagen in what became the biggest climate demonstration ever. The streets were packed as the Saturday demonstration gathered by Christiansborg’s Slotsplads to march towards Bella Center, the site of the summit. People were continuously pouring in from side streets as over 100,000 protesters gathered on both sides of the bridges and by the big square in front of the former city hall.

According to the highest estimates, 135,000 participated in the demonstration in a line that measured two kilometres as it marched the six kilometres to Bella Center. Organisers say 438 different organisations and activists from 67 countries participated. And it sure was a big crowd – before we started moving it was so cramped that it was difficult to move around.

Larger environmentalist organisations made up one part of the demonstration. NGO’s such as WWF and Greenpeace were there, as were the Friends of the Earth, the World Council of Churches and others. The Danish social democrats and their youth group were there, as well as the left-reformist Socialist Peoples’ Party. Trade union flags from several different countries could also be seen.

An anti-capitalist pole in the climate movement
Anti-capitalists marched in another part of the demonstration. A large number of left groups lined up behind a banner saying “Change the system – not the climate”. One of the biggest contingents was that of Enhedslisten, a Danish electoral coalition of several socialist and anti-capitalist groups. Socialist Youth League, the youth group affiliated to Enhedslisten, marched in a large bloc, too. Other parties of the European left were also present: the French Communist party (PCF), Die Linke from Germany as well as the Swedish Left party. The autonomous groups gathered at the end of the procession. Of the groups influenced by Trotskyism, sections affiliated to the Fourth International stood out in the demonstration. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) marched in a bloc of their own, while the International Socialist Tendency kept a low profile, although their Danish activists did sell their paper at the start of the demonstration.

Comrades of the League for the Fifth International marched in the 100 strong bloc organised by the French New Anti-Capitalist Party, NPA. Our French comrades are organised there, as well. Joined by older as well as younger activists of different ethnic backgrounds, the bloc was marked by radicalism. The “red postman”, Olivier Besancenot, one of the most popular profiles on the French left, participated as well. NPA activists kept a great sound volume during the whole march, with varied slogans and high discipline.

Reformism prevailing on the platform
The strength of the anti-capitalist groups was not, however, reflected in the selection of speakers. Many speeches were rather tame. The message of the day was for the leaders to “listen” to the movement and “face the serious situation”. This is a strategy that won’t further the struggle against destructive climate changes.

It’s not that the political leaders at the UN summit do not realise how serious the issue is – the problem lies in the very system that holds them down, stopping them from really grappling the problem. Under capitalism, multi-national corporations compete with each other in a constant fight for higher profits, and states struggle over the influence over natural resources and the world’s labour force. Under such a system, our environment will never be treated as anything but a secondary issue.

Capitalism unable to solve the climate crisis
What really matters is always the capitalists’ own profits. During the Copenhagen summit, this is seen in the struggle between the so-called G 77 group, China and on the other side the United States. The former, made up chiefly of poorer, semi-colonial countries and headed by the Sudanese leader Lumumba, have pushed for the US to sign the Kyoto treaty, and for them to unilaterally lower their levels of emission. Not an unreasonable demand, as the US is the biggest culprit when it comes to pollution. The super power did however not give in, and refuses to sign any binding agreements.

Obviously, the CO2 levels need to be lowered if global warming is to be stopped. It’s a matter of life or death for the global ecological system. Scholars agree that temperature increases need to be kept under two degrees Celsius to avoid a domino effect of destruction of the ecological systems. To achieve this, CO2 emissions need to be lowered by 40% until 2020, starting from 1990 levels. In 2007, the UN climate panel stated that the emissions need to be lowered by 90% until the year 2050 if the temperature should stay below the two degrees.

Unheeding this, the US informed the summit of its unwillingness to meet the demands, despite being one of the biggest polluters. A couple of weeks before the meeting, President Obama said that the US can accept a 17 per cent lowering of emissions as compared to 2005. When compared to the 1990 levels, this is a lowering of 3-4 per cent. Often posing as the most progressive player on climate change issues, the European Union said they are prepared to lower emissions by 20 per cent until 2020, and even lower emissions by another ten per cent should other developed countries make “comparable undertakings” and developing countries “meaningful undertakings”.

As it stands, the reaching of any agreement seems very unlikely. As we go to press, the second in a row of Danish summit presidents (prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen) has thrown in the towel. Any possible agreements to come out of the remaining negotiations are bound to be watered down and insufficient. In the mean time, as to limit criticism, the freedom of movement for journalists and NGO representatives in Bella Center has been limited.

The farce that is the climate summit in Copenhagen is an eloquent proof of the insufficiency of global capitalism. Another proof is the fact that the super powers already in the run-up to the meeting lowered their ambitions to a level way below what’s necessary. Radical lowering of CO2 emissions is absolutely and urgently necessary to avoid a catastrophic development, but this obviously clashes with the leaders’ inability to overstep what the capitalists and super powers think they can afford.

Different ways of protest
The impressive mass demonstration on Saturday was not the only protest taking on the summit. The days since last week have been filled with protests against different targets. Polluting companies have been targeted in actions against production that is harmful to the environment, while other protests have demanded an opening of all borders to climate refugees. Alternative environmental solutions were discussed at a number of meetings, organised on different activist camps around Copenhagen.

In a spectacular protest on Monday, hundreds of protesters cut the cords holding down a giant, blow up globe in public display in central Copenhagen. The cops, hastily dispatched to the scene, couldn’t hold back the many activists pushing the globe forward. The fight over the planet couldn’t have been visualised any clearer – on one side, the mainly young, radical demonstrators, in Copenhagen to fight for a future without capitalist destruction of the earth, and on the other side, the Danish state Robocops, desperately trying to hold back the former.

A new level of repression
The ruling classes and their state are prepared to use extensive repression as a way to pressurise the movement. This was evident in Copenhagen. Ultimately, they’ll try to break the radicals from the broader movement.

This strategy, and the cops’ violence against the movement, is not new per se. Again and again, the armed forces of the state have met the anti-capitalist and antiwar movement with heavy repression. The cops have used tear gas, water guns and even lead bullets against summit demonstrations all over the world.

What was new in Copenhagen was the level of arbitrary arrests – and the new, legal authorities making it possible. In its way, it all left a dystopian aftertaste – the flagrant outrage is proof to just how determined the propertied classes are to defend their interests, no matter if it comes to fighting progressive protest movements or climate refugees.

The “rascal pack”
As the summit turned the city into one gigantic visitation zone, democratic rights weren’t worth much. The right-wing politicians had even armed the Danish cops with the so called “rascal pack”, a set of laws giving them the authority to carry out “preventive arrests”, that is, arrests before a crime has been committed. What this meant in practice was that cops could arrest hundreds or even thousands of people without once having to justify their actions.

Indeed, the large majority of those arrested in Copenhagen did not commit a crime even in the most zealous interpretation of the law. Copenhagen was more than anything else marked by cop repression against peaceful protesters. As we go to press, a total of 1,450 people have been arrested. Of them, only 27 are under investigation at all, and only three of them have been charged with a concrete crime. In what must be the understatement of the year, the chief of police told the press that “it’s inevitable that some innocent people get arrested”.

It’s not unlikely that the many “preventive” arrests might blow up in the face of the cops. Even Amnesty International says in a statement that the “rascal pack” needs to be looked at and possibly reversed. The Danish opposition (consisting of the Social Democrats, the Socialist People’s Party and Enhedslisten) wants to repeal the laws, as do a number of other organisations, including the Bar association. Many protesters who believed the cops to have some legitimacy have reconsidered by now. The last straw came on Wednesday, as delegates from inside the summit who wanted to join the protest forming outside the conference centre were met by baton-charging cops.

Mass arrests at the Saturday demonstration
The mass arrest of 968 demonstrators during the Saturday demonstration, among them comrades from the Committee for a Workers’ International, German Greens as well as a number of unorganised activists (among them a number of Hare Krishna cultists, who couldn’t in any way be mistaken for black blockers), seems extraordinarily tactless – at least if the cops are aiming to dodge bad publicity. The decision to clamp down on an entire section of the demonstration was taken after a smaller group in the autonomous black bloc broke a couple of windows on the stock exchange building, and someone threw a single bottle towards the well-protected cops.

Torture-like conditions
Hundreds of people, many of them senior citizens, were forced to sit down on the freezing cold ground for more than two and a half hours, tightly tied with plastic handcuffs and left in an unpleasant position. Several of the bullied protesters wet themselves after being denied access to a toilet, a number of people collapsed and one had an epilepsy seizure. When several cold hours had passed, the crowd was taken by bus to the so called “climate jail” prepared by the cops – small cages with benches, quickly filled to their limits by peaceful demonstrators. Several demonstrators were told by the cops that they were being taken to “the Danish Guantánamo”.

As fifteen and even twenty people were forced into the small cages, it soon got very cramped, sparking anger and frustration amongst the internees. As they protested by chanting, rattling the bars of the cages and attempting to open the doors, they were met with pepper spray attacks.

The violence and repression has continued. On Sunday, 239 people were arrested in an unprovoked attack by the cops. They were participants in a demonstration attempting to peacefully picket the Copenhagen harbour under the slogan “Hit the production”. On Monday, another 200 were arrested as cops assaulted the liberated area of Christiania, an important meeting point for activists during the past week.

Attacks on the media
But the cops haven’t settled for just attacking activists. Photographers and journalists trying to follow the events and talk to the arrested were stopped as well. This was common practice during the entire summit, not only at the largest mass arrest, where the press was denied entry completely. Journalists and photographers from four major Danish newspapers have made a common statement against the police’s attempts to suppress their documentation, and on the whole against the attempts to obstruct media reports on the cops’ actions.

Furthermore, several journalists and photographers have been the victims of violence themselves. At least one photographer got her equipment smashed, and on Sunday’s “Hit the production” demonstration, a photographer from the major Danish newspaper Politiken was hit on the throat by the cops. One of her colleagues had a knee put to his crotch. Commenting on the violence and the suppression of the press, Mads Nissen, a photographer for the Berlingske Tidene newspaper, said that “twisted as it sounds, it’s almost as some of them enjoy hitting us”. Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard, head of the Danish Union of Journalists, have demanded a meeting with the chief of police, and says in a statement that he’s never seen so much criticism of the police at the same time.

Fight the “rascal pack”!
As noted, this isn’t the first time demonstrators are met with violence. But Copenhagen has meant that this is evident also to a new generation of activists. The most urgent task in relation to the police violence is to create a massive pressure forcing a withdrawal of the rascal pack. No more authorities for the cops! We have enough problems with the ones they’ve got already. Fighting such increased authorities means fighting the tools used to limit the democratic rights of the demonstrators. If not repealed, such authorities will seriously hamper the movement ahead.

Organise collective self-defence!
If we want to organise militant actions to confront the representatives of the capitalist world order that is destructing the planet, we need to organise collective self-defence. The reformists, always seeking to compromise with the ruling classes, have little to offer here. In addition to vague speeches, their inability was evident also in their unwillingness to defend the demonstration against police attacks. One way to defend the freedom of assembly when cops arrested 968 demonstrators would have been to refuse to continue the march until everyone was released. That could have forced the cops to retreat. And despite the massive repression during the days leading up to the main demonstration, no attempts were made to set up any collective self-defence.

While the reformist leaders bear the brunt of responsibility for the movement’s inability to defend itself, the more militant parts of the movement failed to defend themselves, too. This isn’t new. When the autonomous groups were met by the cops on Amagerbrogade, their self-defence was inefficient and highly spontaneous. There were no co-ordination, and when met with a centralised enemy there were no possibility of efficient resistance.

The lack of organisation also meant that a smaller group could break the agreement that had been made with the reformist wing of the movement, about refraining from any actions that could provoke the cops during the march. The attacks on the stock exchange building and the bottle-throwing gave the cops a pretext to attack. Even if the cops bear the responsibility and need to be condemned for their violent practice, the breaking of discipline was a major error. During tightly guarded demonstrations with little preparedness for defence, such actions are irresponsible to say the least.

The class struggle must be joined with the climate struggle!
All forces wanting to further the positions of the anti-capitalist movement, politically as well as practically (including on the streets), must now strengthen their co-operation in order to create a common, collective organisation of self-defence, in order to fight back the cops as well as carry through more confrontational actions.

Last but not least, the tasks of the climate movements are political: Massive demonstrations to put pressure on capitalist leaders are important, but won’t by themselves be sufficient, just as the massive demonstrations against the US war on Iraq didn’t stop the war. To reach more radical results, the workers’ movement needs to mobilise the working class in collective actions to create the pressure needed for real and lasting steps ahead.

Mass strikes, and a paralysation of the economy, would unite the social weight of the climate movement with an economical weight. Such methods of mass struggle would also help develop the movement, and could set higher targets than just protesting single summits. It could strengthen a fighting workers’ movement that would unite class struggle with the struggle for a sustainable development. It could give the working class power to take on the capitalist system itself, the system we need to confront to save our planet – the only one we have.