After Paris, there’s been that nagging feeling of ‘what next’? I felt excited by the possibilities, as if a whole new world had been opened up. I felt energised, excited.
After years of going on protest marches and filling in online petitions, it suddenly felt this was no longer enough – my eyes had been opened up to the possibility of taking non-violent direct action for the first time. (Actually, this isn’t quite true. As a very young child I was taken by my mum to the RAF Molesworth CND demonstrations against US nuclear weapons – but all I can remember is getting very muddy!)
But before the ‘what next’ it seemed like a good idea to take stock and think “WTF was that all about then”? When a debrief event organised by Reclaim the Power popped up in my Facebook feed I thought it would be interesting to check out, so I did. To be clear, the debrief was organised by an activist group who were also in Paris but were different both in structure and objectives to Time to Cycle, as I quickly began to understand (although there were also many parallels and connections).
The event was stationed in a newish (3 months) squat in Whetstone, north London, in a former pub, and close to the recent Sweets Way resistance. I decided to cycle there to keep the Paris ride fresh in my mind, because it’s probably as quick as public transport, it’s good exercise and because I’m lucky (privileged?) enough to be able to. I have enough money to by a bike, I was taught how to ride it, and I’m confident enough to cycle 20km across London.
With the sun shining and the wind behind me, it’s a pretty fun ride, and I only have to check a map once. But this post isn’t about cycling, for a change!
The day turns out to be incredibly interesting and an education after the “jubilation” of Paris. Here was a totally different perspective from this group of (mostly) seasoned activists. Today I realised that while, on a personal development level, cycling to Paris was a fantastic experience and achievement, great fun, and a successful demonstration of living and moving from A to B together in a communal, democratic, low-carbon way, it was no more than this. That’s not to say all this isn’t a big deal, it really is, and is definitely worth celebration.
But I also realised that while I, and many others, turned up in Paris at the right time, had a bit of fun and then went home, for many others (including, I must add, the fantastic Time To Cycle organisers) this was the culmination of months of hard work. There were also many people who had been in Paris for the last few weeks laying the groundwork, experiencing firsthand the shock and grief of the attacks and the police crackdowns that followed. By the end of it, many were emotionally exhausted and physically burnt out. I’d not really comprehended this at all.
And then there was the way the negotiations with the police were handled (NGOs accused of hijacking proceedings and making a pact with the police), the way the ‘Red Lines’ demo was conducted, and the lack of inclusion of indigenous and frontline groups in the planning or execution of actions.
Today I was also introduced to a completely new concept; de-colonialisation – i.e.: seeking to actively re-dress the balance of power between nations after the injustices of colonialism and to challenge at every opportunity the powerful colonial mindset that still exists today, and was indeed evident in Paris.
Then there was the COP21 declaration itself: not a reason to be partying under the Eiffel Tower, but a disaster for the environment and a victory for the powerful vested interests.
It’s made me re-assess what happened, our response to it as Time to Cycle and my response personally, although I do still believe that what we did was fantastic and worth celebrating, but perhaps not so publicly when other activists were clearly feeling the opposite.
In retrospect, I should have been better informed personally about the COP21 outcome, and the Red Lines demo should have been more somber or maybe angry; more like a funeral procession or protest, than a party.
One particular exercise we did today illustrated the different feelings and responses perfectly. We were asked to close our eyes and then on the count of three strike a physical ‘pose’ that illustrated how we felt after COP21. I was a tree: firmly rooted, arms outstretched, feeling like I was growing, getting stronger, spreading out new branches, pushing up towards the sun. Some in the group struck defensive poses, one woman looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights, one guy was trying to control the rudder of a small boat while battling with the sail, while others were just stood still, exhausted. Of all the poses, I think mine was the most positive and optimistic!
I think today was a reality-check and an education; the world of activism is serious and calls for dedication, as well as creativity and positivity. These are people who, in some cases, have basically devoted their life to the cause. Pretty humbling. One woman who I won’t name was preparing to go to court next Monday alongside 12 others for their direct action against Heathrow expansion with Plane Stupid.
But, and I think this is really important, there must be a sliding scale of activism, if it’s to be made as accessible and unscary as possible and therefore open to more people taking part. I think veterans maybe need to remember this: to newbies, risk of arrest or violence is worrying and intimidating (not to say it isn’t for veterans either!), while the customs and conventions of activism can seem daunting at first, especially if there’s a sense of clique and everyone already knowing everyone else.
For many thousands of people, merely being on the streets in Paris during a State of Emergency was outside of their comfort zone, and it would also likely have been the first time they’d ever protested outside of their own country. This should be recognised and commended as the ‘step up’ or ‘way in’ to activism that Paris will surely come to represent for so many.
London to Paris by bike with Time To Cycle was a fantastic, life-enriching experience but, for the climate justice movement more generally, I now realise that Paris was really hard work and the outcome was not what any of us – as nature defending itself – could possibly have wanted.
System change not climate change is still what we need and what we must fight for. What we mustn’t do is lose that energy and enthusiasm – especially of all the newbies. Instead, we must strive to make 2016 a year of effective, accessible, targeted non-violent action, channelling all that positivity, creativity and desire to make a better world into something tangible. No easy task but there is definitely a feeling of hope and optimism that we – all of us around the world – can do it.
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next, from the anti-fracking resistance in Upton, to Reclaim Love in Piccadilly Circus and beyond…
PS to the PS:
New Cross SE14 to Whetstone, N20, and back.
There: 23.36km, av. 19.7km/hr, time 1hr 11 mins
Back: 23.24km, av. 16.5km/hr, time 1hr 24 mins
Total CO2 not released into the atmosphere by cycling instead of driving: 6.95kg.