On the Theft of Power
Power is a funny concept. We refer to those “in power” as though it is something to be reviled and held in contempt. But what was confirmed for me in Paris is that power is held within all of us, and it is up to us to step into it or to give it away — and this is a choice we make daily. I have long understood this as a theory, but it was Paris that forced me to recognise it within myself.
When I stand in front of a line of cops, resolutely nonviolent and refusing to move, I stand in my power. I stand against destruction — of civil liberties, of the environment, of human lives. It is partly this refusal to capitulate to those who hold sanctioned power that cements my own.
Usually, when I am in this situation, the right course of action seems obvious. I am standing with friends and comrades in opposition to the state or a corporation, which is abusing its power to benefit the wealthy few at the expense of the people and planet. What happened in Paris was not so clear-cut at the time, and we are still coming to grips with exactly what happened and how.
I was in Paris for three weeks during the COP21 climate negotiations, with the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance and the Climate Guardian Angels. Despite the stringent State of Emergency laws in place following the Paris attacks, clearly being taken advantage of to shut down and scare off protesters, we made our presence known in no uncertain way. We helped to shut down the false “Solutions” expo, housing some of the most culpable greenwashing corporations. With some American friends, we shut down Engie (formerly GDF Suez) for an afternoon, calling for accountability for the deaths of 11 people in the Latrobe Valley as a result of the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire, for which they were responsible due to seriously irresponsible cost-cutting measures. We met activists from around the world, and laid some serious groundwork for the battle to come.
The final day of the negotiations was Saturday the 12th December — or D12. The revamped plan for D12, following lengthy negotiations with local police, was a rally on the Avenue de la Grande Armee, near the Arc de Triomphe. I was a Climate Guardian Angel on the day, and we were stationed at the far end of the blockade, facing away from the Arc de Triomphe. A snap decision led the whole crowd of 15,000 or so to begin to march down the road, toward the Eiffel Tower. With no sign of marshals or event organisers, the Climate Guardians led the way through police lines, onto the road, and to the Pont d’Iena, the bridge leading across the Seine directly in front of the Eiffel Tower. Thanks to some quick thinking and miraculous organising, and with people still filing down the stairs from the Jardins du Trocadero, hundreds if not thousands of people sat down and occupied that bridge. Up to this point, there had apparently been no leaders, and decisions were made according to the moment, where we were, and what felt strategic.
Having effectively started an autonomous sit-in, it remained to communicate with those further back in the crowd what was happening and why. Fairly soon after we arrived, we received news that an agreement had been signed at the negotiations — in the words of George Monbiot, “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” Those sitting on the bridge were disgusted with the weak agreement, and the decision was made that we wanted to stay there.
The accepted method of communication in large groups like this is the human mic, as exemplified by the Occupy movement. This not only ensures that everyone involved has access to the information, it further provides an opportunity for those relaying the message to withdraw their consent at any moment by ceasing to speak it. It is conditional on those holding the potential for greater power consenting to this shared responsibility.
This process was unashamedly destroyed when a small group of organisers decided to override the process of consent and bring in a conventional microphone. Suddenly there were people standing in front of the crowd telling them they had to get up, and doing so in an authoritarian manner that allowed no discussion or consent.
Pressure was coming from outside the space we had created communally for the Climate Guardians to stand up and move off the bridge — ironically, the lack of leadership so far had elevated us, as the physical leaders of the march, to a position of perceived leadership within that space. It fast became apparent that, whilst we as Climate Guardians said that we would not leave until the crowd did, the reality was that the crowd would follow us.
When dressed as an angel, facing a crowd of thousands, it is nigh on impossible to communicate with those around you. I didn’t know why we were being commanded to end the sit-in, and I found out afterwards that there had been some heated discussions and negotiations “backstage” leading to this hugely detrimental decision. Activists from around the world were looking to us, asking whether we wanted to stay or go. Without knowing any more than they did, but in this strange position of authority, we said “stay”. In the end, we folded to a combination of extreme pressure from the hitherto invisible organisers, and a complete lack of information regarding the reason for the “request”. What happened next left a small group of us wandering, dangerously exposed to police, and unable to join the group we had been directed towards.
What we experienced on D12 was hundreds of people claiming their power, sitting in, then being totally and completely undermined. When a conventional microphone replaced the human mic, the consensus decision-making process was demolished. The capacity of the people to be actively involved, and to actively withdraw their consent, was taken away from us. Active participants were instantly turned into soldiers. What was an enormously strong statement, hundreds if not thousands of people sitting in on the bridge in response to the woefully inadequate agreement reached by delegates inside COP21, was almost instantly destroyed by those on the left who decided that their opinion was more important than that of the collective and who, through manipulative and underhanded means, forced the end of the sit-in.
This not only physically shattered the space, but it destroyed spirits and left many feeling powerless in the face of those who were supposed to be allies. To me, my feeling of power relies on my autonomy, consent, and voice. Once these were taken away from me — or I gave them away due to insecurity that stemmed from a lack of access to the relevant information — my power was stripped. I was no longer a strong, autonomous being connected in power with the thousands around me. I was a soldier, a pawn, a prop, being used to sabotage the collective. And once my power, all of our power, was taken from us, the power of us as a collective was diffused. What remained was a lot of individuals, confused, angry, alone in a crowded place.
The learnings from this experience are already profound, and we have not even begun to fully deconstruct what happened. Whilst we laugh and say “as if we’ll ever be in that position again, accidentally leading thousands of people to a surprise sit-in”, I have no doubt that the lessons learnt in Paris will influence how we operate during any action from now on.