By Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project
Dedicated to Judi Bari, Emma Goldman, my mother and all of the other strong women who inspire me
An action loses all of its teeth when it is orchestrated with the approval of the authorities. It becomes strictly theater for the benefit of the media. With no intent or ability to truly challenge power.
I hate actions like that.
And so it happened that I wound up getting ejected from one such action after challenging its top-down, male domination. I helped stage an unsanctioned ‘sit-in’ at the action with a dozen or so others who were tired of being told what to do by the authoritarian male leadership of the “big green’ action organizers–Greenpeace and 350.org.
I had no intention of being arrested that day. I came to the action at the UN Climate Convention center in Durban, South Africa on a whim, hearing about it from one of GJEP’s youth delegates who sent a text saying to show up outside of the Sweet Thorne room at 2:45.
So GJEP co-Director Orin Langelle and I went there together, cameras at the ready.
We arrived to a room filled with cameras. Still cameras, television cameras, flip cameras–whatever was planned had been well publicized. That was my first clue as to the action’s true nature. Real direct actions designed to break the rules and challenge power are generally not broadly announced. It’s hard to pull off a surprise action with dozens of reporters and photographers milling around.
After ten or so minutes, a powerful young voice yelled “mic check!” and the action began. A young man from 350.org was giving a call and response “mic check” message and initiating chants like “we stand with Africa,” “We want a real deal,” and “Listen to the people, not the polluters.” Many of the youth participants wore “I [heart] KP” t-shirts–following the messaging strategy of the ‘big greens,’ who were bound and determined to salvage something of the Kyoto Protocol global warming agreement, regardless of whether or not it would help stop climate catastrophe.
The messaging and choreography of the action were tightly controlled for the first hour or so by the male leadership. The growing mass of youth activists and media moved slowly down the cramped corridor toward the main plenary room and straight into a phalanx of UN security who stood as a human blockade, hands tightly gripped into the belts of the officers on either side. I found myself wedged between the group and the guards.
Pink badges (parties) and orange badges (media) were allowed through the barricade, but yellow badges (NGOs) were strictly forbidden–unless one happened to be one of the ‘big green’ male leadership. They miraculously found themselves at various times on either side of the barricade. The Greenpeace banners, I might add, were also displayed on the non-blockaded side of security, providing a perfect visual image for the media: Greenpeace banners in front of the UN Security, who were in front of the mass of youth. This was another indication that the “action” was not what it appeared to be. No, the rising up of impassioned youth taking over the hallway of the climate convention to demand just and effective action on climate change was just a carefully calculated ‘big green’ photo op.
There was wild applause when Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace (at that moment on the protester side of the security barricade) introduced the Party delegate from The Maldives–one of the small island nations threatened with drowning under rising sea levels. He addressed the crowd with an impassioned plea for help. Later, the official delegate from Egypt was introduced and, with a great big grin, gave his own mic check about the power youth in his country had had in making great change. He was clearly thrilled to be there in that throbbing mass of youthful exuberance.
But as with many actions that bring together such a diversity of people (youth being a very politically broad constituency), at a certain point the action diverged from the script. The tightly controlled messaging of the pre-arranged mic checks, began to metamorphose as youth began to embody the spirit of the occupy movement, from which the “mic check” had been borrowed. New people began calling mic check and giving their own messages. Unsanctioned messages such as “World Bank out of climate finance,” “no REDD,” “no carbon markets” and “occupy the COP” began to emerge as repeated themes. At first, the action’s youth leaders tried to counter-mic check and smother these unauthorized messages, but eventually they were overwhelmed.
After a few hours of this, with no sign of the energy waning, the “big green” male leadership huddled with security to figure out what to do with this anarchistic mass. Kumi, or it might have been Will Bates from 350.org, explained to the group that they had talked it over with UN security and arranged for the group to be allowed to leave the building and continue the protest just outside, where people could yell and protest as long as they wished.
This is a typical de-escalation tactic. A group is led out of the space where it is effectively disrupting business as usual to a space where it can easily be ignored in exchange for not being arrested. In my experience, this is a disempowering scenario where energy rapidly fizzles, and people leave feeling deflated.
I feared that this group of youth, many of whom were taking action for the first or second time in their lives, and on an issue that was literally about taking back control over their very future, would leave feeling disempowered. I could feel the frustration deep in my belly. We need to be building a powerful movement for climate justice, not using young people as pawns in some twisted messaging game.
There was clear dissention within the protest. People could feel the power of being in that hallway and were uneasy with the option of leaving. Finally I offered my own ‘mic check.’ “While we are inside,” I explained, “the delegates can hear us. If we go outside, we will lose our voice.”
But the ‘big green’ patriarchy refused to cede control of the action to the youth. They ratcheted up the pressure. ”If you choose to stay,” Kumi warned, “you will lose your access badge and your ability to come back into this climate COP and any future climate COPs.” Knowing this to be patently untrue, I cut him off. “That’s not true! I was de-badged last year and here I am today!” This took Kumi completely by surprise–that someone was challenging his authority (he was clearly not used to that)–and he mumbled in reply, “well, that’s what I was told by security.”
Will Bates, who was on the “safe” side of the security line, explained that UN security was giving the group “a few minutes to think about what you want to do.” While the group pondered, Will reminded the group that anyone who refused to leave would lose their badge and their access to the COP. “That’s not letting us make up our minds!” yelled a young woman.
I felt compelled to give the group some support. I mic checked again, “there is nothing to fear/ about losing your badge,” I explained, adding, “Being debadged/ is a badge of honor.”
After the question was posed about how many people planned to stay, and dozens of hands shot up, the pressure was laid on thicker. This time the ‘big green’ patriarchy warned that if we refused to leave, not only would we be debadged, UN security would escort us off the premises and we would be handed over to South African police and charged with trespass.
At that a young South African man stood up and defiantly raised his voice. “I am South African. This is my country. If you want to arrest anyone for trespass, you will start with me!” he said gesturing at his chest. Then he said, “I want to sing Shosholoza!”
Shosholoza is a traditional South African Folk song that was sung in a call and response style by migrant workers that worked in the South African mines.
The group joined the young South African man in singing Shosholoza and soon the entire hallway was resounding with the powerful South African workers’ anthem.
Once consensus was clearly established to do an occupation and anyone that did not want to lose his or her badge had left, Kumi piped up again. “Okay. I have spoken with security and this what we are going to do. Then he magically walked through UN security blockade. “We will remove our badge (he demonstrated this with a grand sweeping gesture pulling the badge and lanyard over his head) and hand it over to security as we walk out of the building. We do not want any confrontation.”
That really made me mad. The top down, male-dominated nature of the action and the coercion being employed to force the youth activists to blindly obey UN security was too much. I’d been pushed around by too many authoritarian males in my life to let this one slide, so I mic checked again. “We just decided/ that we want to stay/ to make our voices heard/ and now we are being told/ how to leave!” “I will not hand my badge to security. I am going to sit right here and security can take it.”
And I sat down cross-legged on the floor, cursing my luck for choosing to wear a skirt that day. Gradually, about a dozen other people–mostly youth–sat down with me, including Keith and Lindsey–two of our Global Justice Ecology Project youth contingent.
But still the male leadership wouldn’t let it go. I’ve never seen activists so eager to do security’s work for them. “Okay,” Kumi said, “but when security taps you on the shoulder, you have to get up and leave with them. We are going to be peaceful, we don’t want any confrontation.” Sorry, but in my experience, civil disobedience and non-compliance are peaceful acts. And I find it impossible to imagine that meaningful change will be achieved without confrontation.
At some point from the floor, I decided I should explain to the crowd who I was. I mic checked. “I come from the United States/ which has historically been/ one of the greatest obstacles/ to addressing climate change. I am sitting down/ in the great tradition/ of civil disobedience/ that gave women the right to vote/ won civil rights/ and helped stop the Vietnam War.”
About that time, a young woman named Karuna Rana, from the small island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, sat down in front of me and spoke up. “I am the only young person here from Mauritius. These climate COPs have been going for seventeen years! And what have they accomplished? Nothing! My island is literally drowning and so I am sitting down to take action–for my people and for my island. Something must be done.” Her voice, from such a small person, was powerful indeed. An hour or two later, while standing in the chilly rain at the Speakers’ Corner across the street after we’d been ejected from the COP, she told me that it was my action that had inspired her to sit down. “You inspired me by standing up to the people that wanted us to leave.” I told her that her bravery had similarly inspired me.
Kumi led a group of protesters down the hall, handing his badge to UN security. Those of us who remained sitting on the floor were next approached by security. One by one, people were tapped on the shoulder and stood up to walk out and be debadged. Keith, who was sitting next to me said, “Are you going to walk out?” “No.”
Security tapped us and said, “C’mon, you have to leave.” “No.” Keith and I linked arms.
Then the security forcibly removed all of the media that remained. I watched Orin, who was taking photos of the event, as well as Amy Goodman and the crew of Democracy Now! be forced up the stairs and out of view. As they were removed, Amy yelled, “What’s your name?!” “Anne Petermann. I am the Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project.”
I was familiar with the unpleasant behavior of UN security from previous experiences, and so I was somewhat unnerved when security removed the media. Earlier in the week a UN security officer had shoved Orin’s big Nikon into his face when he was photographing the officer ejecting one of the speakers from our GJEP press conference who was dressed as a clown. Silly wigs are grounds for arrest at the UN.
One of the reasons that media have become targets of police and military violence all over the world is because they document the behavior of the authorities, and sometimes, depending on their intentions, the authorities don’t want their behavior documented. Not knowing what UN security had in store for us, I decided I should let the remaining people in the hall–who could no longer see Keith and I since we were sitting and completely surrounded by security–know what was happening. I explained at the top of my voice that that the media had been forced to leave, and encouraged anyone with a camera to come and take photos. The photos on this blog post by Ben Powless of Indigenous Environmental Network are some of the only ones I know of that document our arrests.
They took Keith first, hauling him away with officers grabbing him by his legs and under his arms and rushing him into the plenary hall–which, we found out, had been earlier emptied of all of the UN delegates so the racket outside would not disturb them. I was then loaded into a wheelchair by two female security guards. A male guard grabbed my badge and roughly yanked it, tearing it free from the lanyard, “I’ll take that,” he sneered. I was then unceremoniously wheeled through the empty plenary, past the security fence and into the blocked off street, where I was handed over to South African police.
“They’re all yours,” said the UN security who then left. The South African police discussed what to do with us. “What did they do?” asked one. “They sat down.” “Sat down?” “Yes, sat down. They are environmentalists or something.” “Let’s just take them out of here.” So I was loaded into the police van, where Keith sat waiting, and we were driven around the corner, past the conference center and to the “Speakers’ Corner” across the street, where the outside “Occupy COP 17” activists had been having daily general assemblies during the two weeks of the climate conference. “Hey, that’s cool,” said Keith. “We got a free ride to the Speakers’ Corner.”
I was told later that Kumi was the first arrested and had been led out of the building in plastic handcuffs, offering a beautiful Greenpeace photo op for the media. I rolled my eyes. “You’ve GOT to be kidding me. They used HANDcuffs??? Gimme a break.” More theater. Greenpeace is nothing if not good at working the media with theatrical drama such as pre-orchestrated arrests. Kumi may not have wanted to lose his badge, but he made the most of it. At the Speakers’ Corner following our arrests, the media flocked to him while I stood on the sidelines. The articles about the protest in many of the papers the next day featured Kumi speaking at the protest, Greenpeace banners prominent. The fact that it was a COP 17 occupation that he had repeatedly attempted to squelch somehow did not make it into the news.
I lost a lot of respect for Greenpeace that day.
But many of the youth also saw how it went down. I was thanked by several participants in the protest for standing up to the ‘big green’ male leadership and defending the right to occupy the space. I, myself was deeply grateful for the opportunity to do something that felt actually meaningful in that lifeless convention center where the most powerful countries of the world played deadly games with the future.