Today I was in Place de la République when riot police arrested protesters for breaking the ban on civil society mobilization during COP21, due to security threats. I’ll tell the story of what I saw, but here’s the coles notes if you only have time for a quick visit.
Many arrests were made today (update: about 160). In my opinion, plans for organized marches should have been adapted to limit security threats and gone forward, because this, today, was the alternative. Directionless crowds are far more likely to see incident than those with a plan to say their piece and leave. People will come together in moments like these, regardless of instruction. Without organization there’s no finally rallying cry or symbolic closing gesture – it either ends in a slow fizzle or a bang. Neither is particularly empowering, but in this case it was the later with flare guns and tear gas. Today focused peoples’ attention on the dynamics between state police and civil society, rather than the matter at hand – the need for action on climate change at COP21.
When I arrived in the early afternoon there were a couple hundred people in the square. Since the November 13th attacks the central monument has become a memorial lapped by a sea of flowers and signs. Naturally it is a place where many people continue to gather, and also a busy pedestrian crossing. Some organized groups clearly intended to ignore restrictions on protest – a small indigenous drumming circle, a large puppet of a woman, and anti-capitalists with flags and a megaphone were just a few, and others looked for creative ways not to march – a bike brigade around the area’s streets with colourful flags in tow, and the demonstration organized by Avaaz of empty shoes representing those who wished to be marching today. But many more people appeared aimless, myself likely included, drawn to this space and waiting to see what would happen next.
Around 1:30 some protestors began to march in a loose line around the square, and with that the riot police arrived. About eight streets converge with the Place de la République, and every few minutes sirens signalled police making stay at each intersection. I had crossed to an outer sidewalk by this time and had a better vantage point of the police preparation on my corner than the actual protest.
Crowds began to chant and sing, and it appeared as though they attempted to march away from the square but were blocked by police lines, which had closed off at least a block of surrounding streets to traffic. It took a long time before things became confrontational, and even then it escalated fairly slowly. I couldn’t see the inciting incident, but tear gas was fired at the far side in attempts to thin the crowd. Observers were noticeably concerned when infrequent sets of deep bangs echoed, but with no immediate reaction from protesters or police everyone stayed calm – they were flares, eventually fired at each intersection.
At one point a woman performed a dance in front of the police blocking my street – I’ll look for the video and share it if possible.
Occasional surges of cheer would erupt, but after about an hour in this tension additional forces streamed across the square to parcel protestors and shut it down. Riot police pressed their lines, at one point in a running charge, until groups of activists were cornered. They were held for a long time, arrests were made (some with resistance- though I didn’t see that), and driven away on large police buses.
It’s an interesting dynamic when you step back. The police hold a crowd of protestors against a building side with a 20 foot buffer to the pedestrian crowd, who gather with cameras in hand to watch the arrests and occasionally chant or cheer. This side, now larger than the group of protesters, has many people wearing signals of solidarity with the climate march and suggests that tact and luck are as important as personal decision making when it comes to being arrested in civil disobedience.
This was not the tone many activist groups aimed to set for COP21. The initial march was planned to inspire heads of states and negotiators to work hard to build an effective agreement. Of course the same plans for energizing actions could not have gone forth in the context of state security and mourning, but instead we now see a greater focus on the (in this case tumultuous) relationship between civil society and state authority. On the eve of COP21, we need hope, inspiration, and compassion the most.
About Emilia Belliveau
Emilia Belliveau is master’s student at the University of Victoria in the School of Environmental Studies and an individual member of BCCIC. In December 2015, she will be travelling to Paris, France to take part in the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. BCCIC as an organization holds observer status to this conference and will be sending Emilia as well as a BCCIC staff member to the negotiations.
Through the COP21 lead up, and during the conference itself, Emilia will be making regular blogposts which will be available both here at bccic.ca as well as on her personal blog space : https://emibelliveau.wordpress.com/
In her own words, Emilia introduces herself below:
Thank you for taking an interest in climate change and international negotiations.
If we have yet to have the pleasure of meeting, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Emilia Belliveau and I’m currently a master’s student at the University of Victoria in the School of Environmental Studies. I’m interested in social justice, feminism, environmentalism, and politics – so I make an all around great party guest! I recently moved to the west coast from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and am enjoying getting to know this side of the continent.
I’ll be using this platform to share my experiences as I attend the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations in Paris. I have been nominated by the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) as an ‘observer’ delegate, which simply means I’ll be let in to watch the action unfold. This blog will report on both negotiation developments and my personal observations about the conference. I’m grateful for the nomination of BCCIC that has granted me access to this flashpoint in political ecology. It’s important to clarify that the views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the position of BCCIC or its affiliates.
If curiosity has brought you here – please check in often! I’ll be posting in the lead up to COP21 more about these negotiations (including background info, definitions and resources), their role in addressing climate change, the importance of a ‘treaty year’, the work of BCCIC, and other groups shedding light on Canada’s international action.
I’ll also be sharing the full story of my journey to COP21 and why attending these negotiations is so important to me.