Climate Games challenge Paris protest ban with peer-to-peer disobedience

An activist makes moss graffiti in Paris with the slogan of the Climate Games. (Twitter/@JEBA_JE)

An activist makes moss graffiti in Bordeaux with the slogan of the Climate Games. (Twitter/@JEBA_JE)

The 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21, has taken place under unusual circumstances, which is saying a lot given the history of international climate negotiations. Following the attacks on Paris on November 13, French President Francois Hollande declared a nationwide state of emergency that the French legislature then extended to three months. Relevant to COP21, that includes a wholesale ban on protests and “outside events.” Tomorrow, thousands in Paris are planning to defy it.

At D12 — “D” standing for both December and disobedience — activists plan to form a massive “red line” with their bodies, symbolizing how they and others around the world will hold governments accountable to the climate commitments negotiators will theoretically agree to tomorrow.

Plans to mobilize around this year’s talks had been brewing for months before November’s attacks, if not since the last landmark climate talks collapsed in Copenhagen in 2009. When the Global Climate March, planned for November 29, was canceled, an umbrella coalition of NGOs, unions and social movement representatives called Coalition Climat 21 went into deep negotiations to figure out their next steps. Long beforehand, however, a small group of European climate activists had been planning a series of demonstrations called the Climate Games, which seemed ready-made to defy the government’s protest ban prohibiting public gatherings of more than two people. Their plan was for creative, decentralized direct actions organized in small groups with no discernible nexus beyond shared messaging: “We Are Nature Defending Itself.”

Over 100 Climate Games actions have rolled within and without France for the last two weeks, and its originators are part of the network of seasoned organizers determining next steps on an hour-by-hour basis. With the penultimate public briefing on tomorrow’s action happening yards behind us, I spoke with Climate Games co-organizer Selj Balamir to hear more about the state of emergency, the strategy behind the games and what organizers plan to do next.

How did the Climate Games come together?

The Climate Games started in Amsterdam to target the coal plant and harbor there. The Netherlands, as you might known, is home to two of Europe’s major coal ports. After some disappointing actions that nobody showed up to, we reconsidered our mode of action. From that came the idea of games: Something that brings together different tactics and people with different levels of experience, presenting different styles of actions rather than imposing one type that we choose as organizers.

Games are universal, and so is disobedience. The shift worked fantastically: On the one hand, we had experienced, Earth First!-style direct action groups doing blockades. Next to them were flashmobs by new divestment groups. All of that being together in the same space at the same time showed the physical presence of the larger array of movements acting together. That presence is proof that we are a rich and diverse convergence of movements that support one another, not just people saying “we are a big climate movement.”

What was the plan for mobilizations in Paris before the attacks on November 13?

There is a big coalition (Coalition Climat 21) containing more than 150 organizations — an unprecedented feat — that came together to figure out the choreography of the two weeks of COP. To a certain extent, it also exists to support disobedient action at the end of the talks. Some elements that took charge of the disobedient acts had agreed on having a broad, accessible mass civil disobedience which would be many people’s entry point to those types of actions.

We were very inspired by the Ende Gelande action last summer, when 1,000 people entered the Lignite mines in Germany and stopped digging for a day. Eight hundred people were arrested, all of them released and most of them first timers. We were also inspired by the history of so many rights not being granted, but earned through disobedient acts. At that point, the Games were still planning to overlap with this massive action.

What happened after November 13?

We started from scratch. From my understanding, what happened was that a recombination of actors within Coalition Climat 21 repositioned themselves in the state of emergency, not stepping back at all. In fact, in moments where everything is forbidden everyone is disobedient, so actually it becomes much easier to organize a disobedient act. And yet — given the general mood and changing sensibilities — it seemed unwise to go for La Bourget and a traditional mass action.

It was a moment with a lot of creative thinking: How, in a very short period of time, do you reimagine what was promised to be the largest-ever civil disobedience around climate? And here we are now, one day before D12, having the redlines briefed and revealed as a complete plan right behind us. I think the emphasis on those strong, creative visual elements have taken center stage as a way to inspire, empower and communicate some of the elements of the action that have been present the whole time.

Ultimately, the movements’s goal in Paris was not to influence the COP. It wasn’t to stop the COP, or force negotiators to do something. It was supposed to be a moment for the movements to come together to reinforce and consummate their efforts, and to launch — most importantly — the escalation of their actions in the spring. In that sense, nothing has changed. It will be an attempt — a successful one — to steal the spotlight from leaders shaking hands and pretending to save a world in a state of emergency at an airport. We’ll make it clear that that’s not where the solutions are. The solutions will be in those mass actions next year.

What has the state of emergency been like for you?

For organizers in Paris, the situation was tense. Knowing history, those kinds of crises are never missed as an opportunity for states and the powerful to act against people. The state of emergency was absolutely deployed as a shock doctrine against climate mobilizations in Paris.

The attacks gave the government the legitimacy, legal grounds and power to target the organizers of the climate movement, to place them under house arrest and to raid squats as an intimidation tactic. And, of course, to attack the unauthorized march in Place de la République before the first day of the COP.

But this is the superficial level of what the state of emergency means. What the attacks have revealed — or rather reinforced — is our commitment to climate justice being about deepening conversations about security, about safety, about freedom and about emergencies.

This is supposed to be a civil society-driven two week summit, not a NATO meeting where cities get locked down and become a playground for the military. The sheer disjuncture between the social movements’ calling, “It takes everyone to change everything,” and the state of emergency declaring that you can’t convene more than two people is absurd.

How do you think the design of the Climate Games lends itself to doing confrontational action within a state of emergency, where these big demonstrations that police are trained to look for are officially prohibited?

It’s ambiguous. On the one hand, since the state of emergency bans any mass public gatherings, it means that there is more space for affinity group-led decentralized actions. The space for Climate Games-type actions has been increased. But at the same time, of course, surprise acts made by little groups carry connotations that are closer to terrorist attacks. We encouraged teams to revise their plans in light of recent events.

We also realized that big organizations tend to break down when they are hit by a shock. As a small affinity group, you can revise your plans over a bottle of wine in the evening. In terms of plasticity and response to situations, we find that small groups are much more resilient because you don’t need to reinvent everything in a short amount of time. Something we observed in these two weeks is that there is even more interest and reason to pursue those types of actions. If this is the shadow of a future that we want to avoid, but that is creeping, nonetheless, we can reinvent our modes of actions and our tactics while maintaining elements of broad support.

What kinds of instruction do potential Climate Games participants need to have before they can go out and plan and participate in an action?

The first step is becoming an affinity group and starting to make decisions, deciding what kind of actions you want to do and what kind of team you are. The second is to consult a map, and the points of interest of all the “manifestations of the mesh,” as we call it — capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism — and all the manifestations of fossil fuel industries: lobbyists, false solutions, greenwashers and so on. After picking your targets, you are encouraged to design and realize your own adventure.

The beauty of it is that we have no idea who is planning actions, what kinds of actions they are planning and when they are going to happen. You can’t just stop us and stop the Games from happening. It is truly distributed through network-based politics — it’s peer-to-peer disobedience. Our job as organizers is ultimately to channel and amplify those messages, and create the understanding that these are not isolated acts happening in little bubbles, but global blockadia happening everywhere and taking so many different forms.

What have the Climate Games looked like so far?

We have seen three main typologies of action. The first are blockades of concrete sites of emissions or extraction, the most significant of those being in Germany. The second type would be softer and very creative disruptions; exposures of false solutions like those happening in Belgium. The third I would call “poetic resistance”: All the culture jamming, banner drops, anything that has messaging content applied in a public space. The major one of these was from Brandalism, taking over 600 billboards across Paris.

What have the conversations been like among different organization in figuring out how to plan actions in the state of emergency?

My impression is that because of the influence of big NGOs, the mission the coalition set for itself from the beginning was to build up numbers: to have the largest march in history with 500,000 people marching in Paris. That made the coalition a bit too large for my taste, with pro-nuclear unions, and NGOs that collaborate with corporations. But as a construction effort the coalition is definitely admirable.

We have seen that this strategy — of only going for numbers — meant that after the first shock (the state of emergency) it fell apart. The reason it fell apart was because the unions didn’t want to do security for the march. Therefore, there wasn’t enough counter-power in the hands of the coalition to go forward with their plans. That gave the authorities the legitimate grounds to ban it. From there, it already seemed like there would be a splinter into three actions on November 29: a very clicktivist shoes photo-op; an interesting but limited human chain; and a clear, bold call-out for disobeying the ban with a rally, which was still overwhelmed by the police and gave them the grounds to point to good protesters and bad protesters.

It was an indication that if you don’t bring groups together with a deeper agenda and political common ground, you can’t adapt to situations that will be thrown at you. And if we are talking about the climate we should be prepared for all kinds of instabilities, political or environmental. As the slogan goes, “it takes roots to weather the storm.” And the coalition wasn’t really strengthening those roots, from my understanding.

Still, there wasn’t a total breakdown of the coalition, which is very admirable and respectable. We’ll see how that process will go in the long-term. We will see which actors we have been able to trust in this process and build upon those relationships in the next year. It doesn’t have to be under the coalition. I’ve been following the groups organizing disobedient RedLines actions around D12 more closely, and I can say that, there, links have been strengthened. It has been a remarkably constructive and respectful process.

Why do you think it’s important for people to defy the ban tomorrow?

I like the twisted version of the People’s Climate March slogan: “To change everything, we have to step out of line.” True progress has only been achieved by disobedient acts. There is no better moment than moments of emergency to declare counter-emergencies. In other words, it’s not only up to states to declare states of emergency. It’s really up to people. You cannot really declare a people’s emergency — a climate emergency — simply with marching and petitions.

We are more committed to empowering movements to take those steps, not only in symbolic and temporary spaces or events like the COP, but — most importantly — where the problems lie and where the solutions lie: at the grassroots and on the frontlines, and all the sites of global blockadia. This is only a moment of coming together, where we reinforce each other, share our experience and take a common stance as the eyes of the world are on Paris. Any deal they produce cannot go unchallenged, and we will achieve the deal we need with peaceful yet determined means.