By Alexander Kelly
COPENHAGEN — Protesters and police clashed in the streets today as business leaders met with high-level negotiators to discuss the role corporations will play in a United Nations treaty to fight climate change.
Shouting “our climate – not your business,” hundreds of demonstrators organized by a group called Climate Justice Action roamed the streets of the Danish capital. Police dogs barked and a few minor scuffles broke out between police and protesters. Observers peered out from building windows overhead as shopkeepers below closed and bolted their doors.
The march marked the first significant street protests outside the two-week-long global negotiating session that ends a week from today. Authorities estimated 68 protesters from 16 countries were arrested.
The demonstrators gathered to protest including big business in the climate talks and to highlight corporations’ role in the worsening climate crisis. Specifically, the protest was aimed at “cap and trade” policies being negotiated at the climate summit that would allow companies to buy and sell permits to emit heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide that warm the earth’s atmosphere.
Proponents of the idea point to how a similar system helped reduce acid rain in the United States. Opponents, though, say the massive worldwide system granting permission to pollute – for the right price – should not be allowed.
Finding the protest was simple. The InvestigateWest team followed a trail of cops stationed outside department stores and police vans, eventually joining a steady flow of young activists. The crowd poured through alleyways and narrow sidewalks before reaching Copenhagen’s Nytorv Square.
For all of the police muscle we saw on our way to the demonstration, the crowd was surprisingly small when we first arrived. At least a quarter of those in attendance waved press badges and video cameras upon questioning from the police. Organizers had not obtained a police permit for the demonstration.
A handout secured by InvestigateWest photographer Mark Malijan revealed that protest organizers planned to storm and disrupt fifteen business targets in the city, all near downtown. We studied the plan, trying to guess where the group would hit first.
Over the next half hour, hundreds of activists poured in from the alleyways and streets that joined with the square.
Most of the demonstrators appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s and observed a dress code of dark pants, thick boots and black-hooded sweatshirts. A group of young medics dressed similarly quietly huddled, apparently making final preparations. Not far beyond them, beside a wide stone fountain, a pack of drummers began a steady rhythm.
Between 500 and 700 protesters and journalists eventually assembled in the square. At about 10:30 a.m., the crowd began to roar as the drummers led the group toward the square’s nearest exit. Some reporters stayed with the group. Others ran ahead to get a look at the mass moving down the narrow alley.
It wasn’t long before the crowd met a line of cops. Some protesters blew bubbles in the officers’ direction.
A cop stepped out of a police van and raised a megaphone: “If you want to demonstrate, you must inform the police! Please disperse! This is not a legal demonstration!”
Eventually, the police relented, and the crowd pushed toward its first target. The Hopenhagen campaign, sponsored in part by Coca-Cola, has its headquarters in the City Hall Square. It bills itself as an interactive people’s climate campaign and runs alongside the UN climate talks. Climate Justice Actions considers it “greenwashing central” in Copenhagen.
After a few minutes, it became clear that the group wouldn’t be able to penetrate inside Hopenhagen village. The protesters slowly moved away, with the cops scrambling to contain them. Avoiding a direct confrontation with the police, the demonstration glanced away from downtown’s commercial zone, turning instead toward a wide-open boulevard. It was then that the crowd broke into a full sprint.
Journalists and activists both struggled to escape the police. The moments that followed saw police vans blocking the group at every possible access to the city’s main commercial zones, while simultaneously allowing the group through alternate paths.
Over the next two hours, hundreds of people ran through thoroughfares, housing districts and construction sites. Darting protesters toppled street signs and orange traffic-control cones, and a man in a hood spray-painted “ANTICAPITALISM” on a Garmin electronics billboard in bright red letters. The normal police uniforms we saw at the beginning of the march quickly evolved into full-on riot gear, a change that was reflected in the officers’ increasing aggressiveness towards the protesters.
Cops used their batons and their hands to keep demonstrators in check in minor confrontations. One officer shoved a teenage boy to the ground. At another point, the bark of police dogs challenged the chanting crowd while a cornered and defiant protester was beaten twice with a rubber baton.
This was the extent of the violence we saw today.
The protest ended when police trapped the crowd on a bridge. Sirens blared across the long stretch of water as a far-off road carried more police cars to the bridge’s other end.
By about 1 p.m., the police had protesters perfectly cornered. Vans, riot police and dogs held the group in place on the bridge. As officers moved in, protesters were squeezed against the bridge railing with nothing but water below.
The drummers played on as police attempted to find the leader of the crowd. I don’t know that they ever did, but after half an hour police announced that the protest was over, seemingly without the arrests of any protesters who made it to the bridge.
This was the first day of what are expected to become massive civil protests against the UN climate talks. There were a few banners, some fireworks and a whole lot of anti-capitalist chants. A few middle-aged protesters made the show, but youths made up the overwhelming majority. At least 100 members of the crowd were journalists.
Most of the police officers on duty were unwilling to speak with us. However, we did end up talking with one female cop as the protesters were leaving. She told us today was relatively easy as far as protests go.
Saturday will be the real challenge, when Climate Justice Action teams up with at least two other activist organizations. Some 40,000 protesters are expected to march from the Danish parliament to the Bella Center, where the UN talks are being held, the police officer said.