“Can an umbrella be seen as a weapon?” asks a man to a microphone, and its clear that this is going to be one of the more unusual question-and-answer sessions I have been to. “If you get arrested for carrying an umbrella it’s a good story” comes the reply, and I am aware that I am after a good story but I don’t fancy that much. “But seriously, we have ordered five hundred special non-violent umbrellas without spikes on the top.” I start to whoop and clap, because I like this, and the vibe is getting to me. I have been sat on the floor now for an hour or so with three thousand other people listening to briefings for the Red Lines demonstration and all the incredibly cool men with jaunty hats and trendy facial hair who say things like ‘comrades’ and tell us which lawyers to call if we are arrested are causing my usually cautious internal monologue has taken on a whole new tone: I hear it say things like ‘wow, shit just got serious man’.
The next question comes from a lady who does not want to leave her pram and come to the microphone, but then decides that her pram will be safe with the nice beardy gentlemen nearby for a moment. “Is a baby a person for the purpose of this, can they be part of a political protest?” . I clap again, because I’m loving it now. I know that she is asking because, as we have been repeatedly reminded, France is in a state of emergency, and that means no more than two people can gather together with a political message. For this reason we have been told to descend on a top secret location in pairs, with our non-spikey umbrellas and red flowers. “That’s very interesting” comes the reply, ” can a baby be a political entity? Perhaps in times like this children are more political than ever”.
Nonetheless, the lady is told to take her baby only to the later demonstration at the Eifel Tower which has been approved by the police. Again, inner monologue says ‘shit just got real’. We are told that while at this stage the red line protest was still considered illegal, but the organisers had committed to disband and de-escalate if thre was any trouble. A lady told us about a de-escalation technique which involved forming lines of cuddling and kissing. I mused as to whether in a conflict situation I would be prepared to take on e for the team and snog some hot French men, and decided that in the interest of climate justice and world peace I might just. “If it all goes tits up we’ll know where to find Sal then”, said one of my colleagues.
I had not expected to be quite as involved as all this, to be honest. I opted to come to Paris several weeks ago, certainly long before November the 13th. A group of us all wanted to come from two environmental charities in Leith: Leith Community Crops in Pots and the Himalayan centre for Arts and Culture. I thought I would be wandering round with some pictures of bumble bees and then sitting in a quiet corner somewhere drinking pastis and writing blogs. When the tragic events of a month ago unfolded I watched in horror like everyone else, and also found myself anxious, thinking I would definitely be keeping more to the pastis-and-laptop end of the activity spectrum if I came out here. But two nights ago I sat on the floor with another three thousand people and something else changed. We listened to Naomi Klein and a whole host of other amazing speakers and I found myself moved to tears at times, and ready for a different kind of action.
The first moving talk came from Nick Dearden of Attac Uk, who was reporting to us on the progress of the COP21 talks so far. He spoke of how there were diplomatic games at play whereby rich polluting nations are labelling themselves ‘ambitious’ in meeting climate targets and blaming rising emissions levels on BRIC countries. He also explained that in order for those countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change ( and the ones who aren’t causing it) to even have their demands brought to the table they must agree to never seek compensation from richer polluting nations for the damage they will suffer due to environmental disasters caused by climate change in the coming years. All this spoke to me of not simply injustice, but bullying and abuse, and we were later reminded by another speaker that climate change is all about power and control.
This thought was also emphasised in Naomi Klein’s speech. She explained that the climate talks of the COP21 had already failed before they begun because the US has stated that they could not be legally binding: whatever the outcome there is no chance that polluting nations can actually be held accountable. Klein also spoke to us of an unfortunate moment, an incident of bad timing, when the first climate talks began at the same time as the first trade agreements. She explained the toxic relationship between these two movements, that the latter secures the certain failure of the former because it entrenches the idea the trade will always trump climate. She pointed out that this was also the time when Fukayama stated that history was over: this was 1989.
I was seven in 1989, many of the people sitting around me on the floor of the Climate Challenge zone presumably weren’t even born. We are a people who have, according to Fukayama, grown up outside of history. This had a certain resonance for me, struck by how I had come to believe in the inevitability of things being as they simply because that is how they always have been. Here in this room, when we were told ‘we are going to do some civil disobedience’, suddenly it seemed that it may not be so. Perhaps we were dazzled by foghorns and red umbrellas and super-cool blokes with jaunty red hats calling us ‘comrades’, but there is a sense that we may be opting back in to history. And at a very necessary time. At the Friends of hanger on the east of the city I was struck by a message from the Outer Hebrides pinned to a notice board which read “the people of the future will judge this generation by its response to climate change, nothing else will matter.” I feel ready to risk a bit of tear gas.
Civil disobedience is all about the body, we are told. This interests me, because I tend to think everything is all about the body. At the community croft from which me and my co-protesters have travelled, I have learned that I can use my body to dig, to grow food and harvest it, to provide nourishment for my children in the same way I did with my body when they were babies and before they were born. I have come to value my own agency through the work of my own hands and a connection to something other than computer screens or my depleted bank balance, and steadily believe I might have a voice, however small. I could place my body in a protest, and I could remove it (hopefully) when I didn’t want to be there anymore: I could make a statement with my very personhood. And so, this morning I found myself and my small disobedient body with red tights, red lipstick and a red umbrella on the rue de la grande armee, with fifteen thousand other people, observing a two minute silence to all those unknown lost and unknown who-will-be-lost in “the war on poverty that is climate change”. I don’t know if we were making history, or reclaiming it, but we were having a go.