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From Seattle to Copenhagen


December 15, 2009 / Open Democracy

Seattle was a turning point for the developing nations, an exemplar of how major concessions can be won.
 But to bring the spirit of Seattle to Copenhagen, polar bear ice sculptures alone won’t cut it.

What we are seeing inside the Bella Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the COP15 UN summit on climate change looks less like an unprecedented concerted global effort to prevent climate chaos, and more like the first resource war over the atmospheric commons.

The rhetoric is noble, but the devil is in the detail. While governments and many corporations have finally acknowledged that climate change poses a serious threat, there is a world of difference between saying ‘something ought to be done’ and making the required concessions. 

The week started badly. The notorious leaked draft text, brokered in secret by the supposedly neutral Danish government and the US and UK was egregious, so much so that Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator of the G77 developing nations block silently wept before the stunned African delegation briefing meeting. “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact,” he said.

the first resource war over the atmospheric commons

The UN is supposed to be a democratic forum. Yet what’s happening at the moment – from arm-twisting to exclusion from meetings – is very reminiscent of the behind the scenes bullying tactics used by developed countries at the World Trade Organisation. 
It is a little over ten years ago since an emergent global protest movement helped to disrupt the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle, and there is much talk on the streets of Copenhagen of creating ‘another Seattle’. 

The decade since, from Cancun to the G20, has seen a resurgence of the global south in terms of political muscle at international summits. They may still be bullied, but they are more united in their response and less likely to take it lying down.

“We have been asked to sign a suicide pact”

History shows us that every successful major struggle – from women’s right to vote to the abolition of slavery – has required a massive social movement, willing to be confrontational and raise the political pressure. Reportedly 100,000 people marched through Copenhagen on Saturday 12 December: this looks like the beginnings of such a mass movement.

Yet this is only part of the ‘Seattle’ mix. When I refer to the need to be confrontational, I don’t mean riots: I mean concerted non-violent direct action (NVDA). 
For me what made the crucial difference in Seattle, though it has received far less attention than it deserved, was the group of less than a thousand people, trained over months in non-violent direct action techniques, who in the cold of early morning locked themselves to one another using arm tubes, sat down in star formation at every major intersection surrounding the summit centre, and refused to move. 
I saw the first round of rubber bullets fired at them. Moments later they disappeared as the crowd was enveloped by the toxic blooms of tear gas. During the course of the day, those protesters remained where they were; even when pepper spray was directly applied to their eyes, they still refused to move or respond with violence.

As a direct result of their physical bravery, the opening meeting of the WTO was cancelled and suddenly this obscure trade body was front-page news around the world. The presence of massive labour marches, made up of men and women most of whom had never stepped foot inside the activist ghetto, gave the relatively small number of direct action protesters legitimacy. 
Most importantly of all, the disarray created political space for groups inside the WTO process, and groups such as the African trade delegates began to resist the bullying. They booed the US Trade Representative, and along with other developing countries, refused to sign an agreement. Begun in disarray, the WTO talks collapsed three days later and the organisation has never recovered its momentum.

As a direct result of their physical bravery, the opening meeting of the WTO was cancelled

It was a landmark moment in the narrative of corporate globalisation, which up till that point had gone unquestioned. The disruption of those for whom the world normally clicks seamlessly into place, between boardroom and hotel, hotel and conference centre, was profoundly powerful. It was not just an intellectual argument they could dismiss: this direct action was a visible dislocation of their reality. As the LA Times reported just after the meeting: “On the tear-gas shrouded streets of Seattle, the unruly forces of democracy collided with the elite world of trade policy. And when the meeting ended in failure… the elitists had lost and [the] debate was changed forever.” It is not that one can endlessly repeat Seattle. But each of these elements either is or could be part of the Copenhagen story. Disproportionate attention was paid in Seattle to the ‘riots’ (really 60 people breaking windows of corporate stores) when the most powerful and effective action was the NVDA street blockades: this would also be an important lesson to learn for Copenhagen.

a landmark moment in the narrative of corporate globalisation

For example, on the 16th, the network Climate Justice Action will be making a “confrontational but non-violent” attempt to push through and into the car park of the Bella Centre. By the way, that means pushing against fences but not hurting people. Their aim is to hold a People’s Assembly that, “in opposition to the false solutions being negotiated at the Climate Summits, will highlight alternatives that provide real and just solutions: leaving fossil fuels in the ground; reasserting peoples’ and community control over resources; relocalising food production; massively reducing over-consumption, particularly in the North; recognising the ecological and climate debt owed to the peoples of the South and making reparations; and respecting indigenous and forest peoples’ rights.”
NGOs have avoided supporting these types of actions (it is impossible to control completely who turns up or how they will behave): WWF has condemned them. Ironically the experience of the global justice movement shows that exactly this type of pincer strategy, between audacious and troublesome action on the street that go beyond simple marches from A to B, ‘respectable’ civil society pressure, and a walk-out from delegates inside the summit – for example those from small island states threatened with inundation, from African nations that wouldn’t survive the two degree warming currently on offer – works.

A bit of disruption now might save us all.

There will be those who feel – especially after Wednesday – that direct action is obstructing the important process of getting a climate deal. But a deal isn’t the goal: the goal is to get a deal worth the paper it’s written on, a just, fair, effective and binding one. And a Seattle-style pincer movement would actually be one of the most powerful and effective ways to create the required pressure. 

A bit of disruption now, in other words, might save us all.