Workers Climate Action activists at the Copenhagen climate summit (7-18 December) marched in to the entrance hall of the 18th-century Odd Fellow palace, where the multinational wind turbine manufacturer Vestas was holding a drinks party, with banners and a megaphone. We remained there for around half an hour, chanting slogans and handing out leaflets to partygoers.
Eventually Danish police arrived, without any of the event organisers confronting us first, and the protest was forced outside. We continued to use the megaphone to voice our opposition to Vestas’ appalling record on workers rights and demand the re-instatement of workers who occupied the Vestas wind turbine blade factory in the Isle of Wight in July-August to try to stop the bosses shutting it down. Speakers included Ian Terry, one of the occupiers from the Isle of Wight.
Vestas had tried to make the most of the summit to get publicity for themselves, with posters, billboards, and even a turbine outside the conference Centre advertising their brand.
But mostly protest in Copenhagen was severely hemmed in by the police.
Empowered by a new ‘anti-hooligan’ law, Danish police were able to make mass pre-emptive arrests, declare marches to be illegal at any point (a march against police brutality was banned), and take violent action to break up large gatherings of people.
The police made mass arrests on demonstrations, holding activists in steel cages and, some claim, attacking them with pepper spray. The Candy Factory, a privately owned space in which activists were working on bikes which were to be used on a demonstration, was raided without a warrant and one individual was arrested for having a multi-tool which incorporated a knife.
Still, the organisers of the Wednesday 16 December "Reclaim the Power" demonstration seemed unwilling to recognise that a confrontation with the police was necessary. Organisers argued that it was important to remain peaceful so as not to detract from giving a voice to the global south. A "flood of humanity" was advocated, a force willing to take down and climb over fences, but never inflict harm on others.
Activists were advised to look for "the gaps between the police". On the day, of course, there were no gaps between the police.
The march was split into four blocks: the main march (blue block); a more radical section that would split off at some point (green block); a group on bicycles who would distract the police (bike block); and those who carried out their own actions alongside the demonstration (autonomous block).
The green block was arrested en masse at their meeting point; the bike block had had most of their equipment confiscated the previous night. Police searches early in the morning meant that most activists had little protection against tear gas and batons.
Yet when I shouted at the police, one activist - who herself had quite obviously been beaten and pepper sprayed - confronted me. She told me that the police were just doing their job. It was the way they fed their families. We had to calm the situation down.
Shortly afterwards, the police stormed the sound truck and arrested all those on it who had been stewarding the march. The last I heard, they were facing charges of incitement to cause a riot.
Of course I don't advocate violence against the police for its own sake; Yes, a great many police officers are working-class people doing an exceptionally horrible job without the right to form a union. But ideas are carried by people. A clash of starkly -opposed ideas results in a clash of people. And the people that we clash first are often the police.
The "Reclaim the Power" demonstration was unprepared for the clash. The aim was to break in to the conference Centre and hold a separate forum there, but activists were not prepared for the unavoidable confrontation with the police.
Most of the mobilisation for Copenhagen from England was from the Climate Camp. That meant imagination, energy, and courage, but also, I think, some political problems.
An action on 13 December called by Climate Justice Action, an international network to which Climate Camp is affiliated, aimed to shut down Copenhagen harbour for a day - but independent of any co-operation with the workers there.
CJA centred a lot of attention on what I thought was, at times, a "class-blind" sympathy for the global south (poorer countries). Yes, we want to bring campaigning groups, social movements and community and workers’ organisations from the global south in to the movement against climate change. However, CJA takes little note of the class distinctions in those countries, sometimes championing their leaders as much as the oppressed peoples.
On Wednesday 16 December, the day activists attempted to break in to the conference centre, part of the plan was to have delegates walk out of the conference centre to meet us. In a meeting before the action we were told that delegates from two South American nations would walk out in order to take part, but for security reasons their identities could not be revealed.
What if these people had been representatives of Hugo Chavez’s Bonapartist Venezuelan regime? There was little effort by CJA to pick apart class distinctions or to understand the global south as anything more than a homogeneous bloc by CJA. This can only lead to an underdeveloped engagement with independent movements in the global south, and, in effect, a patronizing attitude towards those movements.
CJA states its goals as:
- To promote and strengthen the rights and voices of Indigenous and affected peoples (including workers) in confronting the climate
- To highlight the critical role of biodiversity in weathering the climate crisis, and to defend the existence of all species.
- To expose the roles of false and market-based climate “solutions” as well as corporate domination of climate negotiations in worsening the climate crisis.
- To advance alternatives that can provide real and just solutions to the climate crisis.
- To both sharpen our understanding of, and to address, the root social, ecological, political and economic causes of the climate crisis toward a total systemic transformation of our society.
- Our network is committed to working with respect, trust and unity towards these goals.
The inclusion of "workers" in the first point illustrates the positive role class-conscious activists have played in this movement through groups like Workers Climate Action. The clause about "exposing the roles of false and market-based climate 'solutions'" also demonstrates some understanding of the root cause of climate change being capitalism.
A "total systemic transformation of our society"? Good. But I could experience a total systemic change of my breakfast from cooked to cold, and it would still be breakfast. A "total systemic transformation" of capitalism could mean just more centralised government control over energy production - still be capitalism, only this time state-owned. Or "total systemic transformation" could mean worse - like "primitivism", a programme of returning humanity to pre-industrial technologies.
CJA does not call on any specific force or agency to carry out its demands beyond itself, and the governments it puts pressure on. For example, the call for "alternatives that can provide real and just solutions" could be made in a way which accentuates workers’ agency and points to a new society. It could mean workers taking control of their workplaces to carry out changes which make them socially useful and ecologically sustainable.
Equally, it could mean a very top down process in which government research creates new technologies that are implemented without the involvement or consent of those working with these new technologies.
The emancipation of the working class, even its emancipation from the destruction of its land, homes, and lives by capitalist-created climate change, must be the act of the working class itself. Our task as socialists remains to push this idea in the ecological movement through groups like Workers Climate Action.
Though the politics of the ecological movement are still broad, and in some cases contradictory, there is a lot of good to be taken away from Copenhagen.
The declarations of the "people’s assembly" held outside the conference centre, though quickly put together and a hodgepodge, raised solidarity as a guiding principle. A representative from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers gave an impassioned and well received speech to the assembly, calling for more union banners on the march and setting this as a challenge to activists.
The kind of conference-hopping activism that inevitably comes to the fore at these events is important to be involved in. It is a good thing when wherever the leaders of capitalist governments meet on such a scale they are met with mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. Activists can return home with new international links, new ideas and new tactics.
However it is in the day-to-day political work we do that we can begin to mount an effective attack on climate change and the capitalist system that causes it. This fight is engaged in through things like solidarity with Heathrow airport workers, through agitation around workplaces like Vestas and through our continued involvement in and arguments with the ecological movement.