London, 2017, pens on paper.
“Nonviolence declares that the American Indians could have fought off Columbus, George Washington, and all the other genocidal butchers with sit-ins; that Crazy Horse, by using violent resistance, became part of the cycle of violence, and was ‘as bad as’ Custer. Nonviolence declares that Africans could have stopped the slave trade with hunger strikes and petitions, and that those who mutinied were as bad as their captors; that mutiny, a form of violence, led to more violence, and, thus, resistance led to more enslavement. Nonviolence refuses to recognize that it can only work for privileged people, who have a status protected by violence, as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of a violent hierarchy.”
Cops with eyes like sharks and faces like the underside of a boot are waiting for us as we get off the bus from London—the state of emergency manifest as a column of cyborg gendarmerie toting an arsenal of machineguns, tasers, handcuffs and kevlar armour. They stare. We stare back—predator and prey eyeing each other before the chase commences. We slip past them unmolested, disappearing into the suffocating warmth of the Metro. I am glad to be travelling with a trio of giggly matronly types. They are three womyn from EcoDharma, attendees of the first theatre of the oppressed workshop I gave there two months before: Oak—a bright-eyed leprechaun with fiery red hair and ruddy cheeks, her chuckling demeanour masking deep sensitivity and a scarred heart; Z. a shaven-headed elfin with a smile like a new moon, currently living in an intentional community in the south of Spain; Susannah—long, viridian tresses and a crackling voice, visiting out of Bristol, and at the biggest protest she’s been to in her seventy years.
“Ha. You’re like the virgin, the crone and the mother.”
“I’m no mother.”
“I’m no virgin.”
“And who you calling a crone?”
They laugh, a harmony like a deer bursting through dry twigs to crash into a babbling brook, echoing unnatural against the tiles of the Metro. They haven’t stopped talking the whole trip over from London.
The benches of the Parisian boulevards are lined with huddled forms in sleeping bags, their possessions arranged neatly around them like genteel barricades. It’s warm down here, even peaceful once the trains stop running.
Still, I am relieved we have the promise of a roof, of a bed and shelter.
We march, and arrive at L’Annexe only to discover everyone has already moved on to a cabaret night at another squat. We troupe over there, a long walk through dark city streets.
Two bullet holes in a window with an unhappy smiley face painted below them form macabre eyes to the frown. I am reminded of Budapest, where my guide pointed them out in the walls of the buildings from the revolutionary days.
“God,” says Oak. “Is this where the shooting was?”
“One of the places,” says Z.
We cast our eyes over the layers of floral tribute laid out before La Belle Equipe. Hundreds of bouquets, handwritten messages, candles, roses, lilies, tulips, some faded and shrivelled already, others freshly dropped, laying piled on the ground, stacked before the closed doors of the restaurant.
Z. is chattering. I catch only the second half of it: “–there was also the have-nots, the economic underclass who attended no cabarets, whose labor built the Tower. There was even a gang of illegalist anarchist bankrobbers around at that time in France—the Bonnot Gang—who stole from banks calling it expropriating from the rich. They were the first people to use motorcars to getaway. The police had to chase them on foot or on bicycles. They started after the leader was fired by his boss–”
“You have to ask—would they have started robbing banks if there had been work for them?”
“God, I wonder,” asks Oak. “I wonder how many waiters, plongeurs and busboys died in the shooting?”
“Is it better that the rich die than the poor?” asks Z.
“I’m tired. Let’s go to bed,” says Susannah.
L’Annexe is impressive: a tall, four-floor warehouse complex, scrubbed clean and polished, carpeted and furnished. It reminds me of all the best social centres from London, though it will only be short-lived. A crew who thought they were about to be evicted had remained in their old home and volunteered the space to host the arts-activism programme during the COP21 Climate Conference.
I drift through the kitchen area, where hot soup and salad is being prepared by members of the Anti-Cop Kitchen Collective, through a partition of plastic sheeting, past a serious sounding meeting on food rights and conscious cafés in South America. There is bustle and business everywhere, the place a hive of activity.
“So hello, this is the legal briefing. Thanks for attending. Now as you are going to be part of the de-escalation team, you will be at high risk of violence and arrest as you will be stood directly between the police lines and the main protest. It’s important that you memorise the names of some solicitors who are sympathetic to the cause, as the police will think you intended to be arrested if you write the names or the numbers down on your body. They will not call the number on the flyer.
“At the refugee march people attended and were then later identified and arrested by the police at other events. This is because of the state of emergency; 58 people were arrested, yet only two received warnings for attending a forbidden demo. Maximum sentence for this is 1 year imprisoned.
“At the Climate march there was a mass act of civil disobedience that resulted in a kettle, tear gas and baton charges and 317 random arrests.
“You don’t have to carry your ID. You can give your name and a date of birth, and that counts as identifying yourself, but you may want to decide whether you wish to comply with the police state. If they don’t believe you, you want to prepare that someone has access to your passport. You could be asked to leave France for one year.
“If you are attending the march, you need to plan as if you will get arrested. If you are taking a gas mask, it is classed as a defensive weapon. You should be careful taking anything that could be deemed a projectile. Don’t take any drugs, knives, guns or whatever, and if you are arrested, try to hide your phone inside your pants, as the police here don’t check as thoroughly as other places. There’s already been examples of people uploading video messages from inside the jail. If you’re caught, call the number and tell them which police station you are in.”
“So what have the police said about the march?”
“It changes every day. Under the state of emergency it’s illegal for more than two people with a political message to gather, which is why people are heading to the convergence point in pairs. Any attendance at a political protest is an act of civil disobedience. They have permitted the human chain and tolerated writing ‘climate justice’ with people’s bodies. The protest with the thousands of empty pairs of shoes was beautifully done, but the red lines action is still civil disobedience. The state of emergency means more stop and search and raids on many of the squats and convergence centres across Paris. L’Annexe was raided just last week by a hundred stormtroopers and is under constant armed surveillance. We are half expecting another raid before Saturday. The legal team for the protests have been put under house arrest, but nothing more.
“If you are arrested, you need to use the buddy system. Make sure you are clear who your buddy is, and do not lose them. If they go to the toilet, you go with them. With your buddy you organise into an affinity group, making sure you are always with people who are watching, but not at risk. They should always know who is there, what happened, and where, and afterwards these are the guys who greet you outside the police station with champagne.
“Now, please can you raise your hands, wrists together. If you bend your hands down, when they put the handcuffs on you they will be looser than if you just keep your hands like this. Believe me, if you are cuffed for a long time, this will make a big difference. Remember to hide your phone in your pants and when you can, smuggle it out and text people to let them know what’s happened to you. The process at the station is that they will fingerprint you, photo you, and frisk you, but not very thoroughly. Often at this point it’s easy to ‘accidentally’ smudge the fingerprints, or mess up the photo somehow, or generally play around with them to delay a bit more. They will keep you for 4 hours to check ID, then up to 24 hours to investigate you.
“When you are to be released, you don’t have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. They may pressure you, but there are people already regretting signing something they did not really understand, and it’s making more problems for them now. Even when you receive your possessions back, you do not have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. The police may put something else in with your stuff and cause you a lot of problems. Some people we know unwittingly signed a conditional discharge, and if they had held out, they wouldn’t have had to sign anything.
“They normally tell you it’s a piece of paper describing your time in custody, but the translators there are very much on the police’s side. If they do anything illegal during your time in custody, you can appeal afterwards, but if you sign, it makes it much, much harder.
“If you have no access to a lawyer or interpreter, try to keep mental notes on what the police do, or do not do, and make physical notes immediately afterwards. If the police decide they are going to investigate a crime, they will give you access to a solicitor within 4 hours.
“Now, when being interviewed, it’s a bit different from in the UK. In France it is not ‘no comment’, but ‘I have nothing to declare’. Repeat after me.”
“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE.”
“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE.”
“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE!”
“Now let me describe my ideal arrest. I’m in for 24 hours, so I can rest, I am with my friends. I have done the handcuff trick so I am ‘comfortable’ and have my phone hidden in my pants. I’ve told them I have nothing to declare and have managed to smudge my fingerprints and ruin the photo. I sign nothing! After 24 hours I am released with my friends and greeted by champagne and chocolate and beer.
“Now, afterwards, I have to deal with trauma. Arrests can be and are often violent. I need to make sure that I have money for the Metro, a map. The police could release me somewhere far away where I’ve never been before. Have you got a safe, warm place to go back to? A major thing after release is not to pressure people, give them time. At some point they will want to speak.
“Make sure you take the time to read all the legal info, educate yourself as much as possible.
“So overall, gatherings are prohibited. You can get a maximum fine of 75,000 euros or 6 months in prison, but so far all that has been issued is a warning. They have the power to ban people from certain areas, or force certain groups to dissolve.
“Let’s talk about medical preparation. Tear gas. First of all, it’s a projectile weapon. If you get hit by a canister it can seriously hurt. It can kill. Secondly, the gas burns on the skin, the eyes, but it won’t kill you. It’s like intensely concentrated onions, but it won’t kill you, so don’t panic. You can limit its effect with a scarf soaked in vinegar or lemon juice. Make sure you have baby wipes. Now if tear gas is blowing in the wind, walk upwind of it, sideways. Unless of course the police are there. There’s some great footage from the 29th if any of you are into riot porn.
“If it gets on to your skin, it can cause some problems. Don’t wear any make-up, and wear glasses, not contact lenses, as they can melt into the eye. If it’s CS gas you may not even see it, as it’s invisible. Now can I have a volunteer to pretend they’ve been tear-gassed? Ok, thank you.
“Now, if I see someone has been gassed, what do I do? Ok, calm down, calm down, it’s ok. It’s Eve here. Kneel down, turn your head on one side. And now I squirt water in from one side. Now, from the other. Good. If you do it from the top down it can burn the body. Tell them the effects won’t last more than half an hour.
“Pepper spray is a short range weapon. If it gets on the clothes, remove them. When you go home, don’t have a hot shower, wipe it off and use cold water.”
“It helps to have clean skin.”
“One day I might.”
“I once saw someone in tear gas stand with their eyes screwed shut and not move. Just before it hit, they took a huge deep breath, hyperventilated, and waited until it subsided, sipping air with their eyes closed.”
“Swimming goggles can also help. One of the hardest things is the impulse to get away. We ended up fumbling around with our buddies.
“Ok, now if the police charge, one more thing is to cover your head and neck with your hands. If you want to keep your hands up, make sure you do so in fists not fingers are the batons will smash them to pieces . . . .
“Ok, let’s review the solicitor names . . . .”
“The struggle is the tension between holding on and letting go.”
We are in the large space downstairs at l’Annexe. Word of the workshop has spread. I count sixty people lined up against one wall. An expectant, almost religious silence has descended. Even towards the other half of the space, beyond the plastic curtains I can see people tip-toeing past as they continue to prepare the next meal from the Anti-Cop Kitchen.
I swallow and breathe deep down into my stomach in short, controlled bursts.
This is a totally spontaneous, open exercise. I have never done it with so many people.
“The ritual. We are going to perform a ritual together. When I say begin, you are invited to enter into the space and perform your part of the ritual. The ritual will be over when it is over. There will be no set time-limit. When we collectively feel it has come to a close, it will be over. The world needs healing. We need healing. So this shall be a ritual of healing.”
There is a long, open moment, and for that moment my heart leaps into my throat and my stomach clenches and my mind whirls and my tongue goes dry.
At first in silence, people begin to move, entering into the space, prostrating themselves on the floor, or beginning to walk in slow circles. At first, the efforts are individual, chaotic, fragmented invitations, but then the machine mind takes over, and people begin to connect and feel what is happening around them, to move together cohesively. No one speaks. No one explains or directs or orders. People sense and feel how to work together to create this ritual space spontaneously, without pre-planning, without leaders or followers, people coming together autonomously to create something bigger than their individual selves.
A bald-head monk in saffron robes is moving in slow, serene circles around the outside, chanting low and calm. Others join him, breaking from smaller circles within to follow. A second circle, closer in, is faster and lighter, people skipping and singing in high clear voices, whirling their arms and zigzagging high and low like swallows on the evening breeze. At the centre, dead centre, a woman kneels, head to the crowd, piercing the chanting and song with a high-pitched, keening wail.
Others gather to her, and the lamentations sear through the room, high, screeching releases of treble agony, soaring above the mid-level melodies and the deep, bass chanting.
The room is electrified. I feel every nerve on my body tingle. A hallucinogenic harmony swamps the space. Time dissipates and I have visions of the entire solar system, the Spiral Arm of the galaxy, whirling in cosmic union in this room in Paris. Electron people whirl around atoms of raw emotion in human form. My head swims with the mix of chanting, wailing and shattering whoops.
And then the movement begins to slow, person by person, sections of the mandala settling to rest, contemplative and still. Frequency by frequency, silence is restored. A stillness settles over the group, part by part, until everything is frozen and there is only the deafening emptiness of sixty people breathing together.
My voice rumbles as if in a cavern.
“The ritual is now at an end. You may remain in this space if you wish, or you may leave. If you need people, reach out to those around you. Take care of yourself. Thank you.”
Trancelike and wild-eyed, people drift from the mandala, and it crumbles apart as people silently and slowly return to themselves. Ambient noise of the kitchen, the street, the world returns.
“Fooking hell,” says Oak. “That were a bit intense, want it?”
I’ve been invited to sit in with Rooty, Eve and M. who gave the legal briefing earlier in the day. We gather upstairs in one of the open workspaces. People drift through. Looking round the three womyn, it seems like they have been barely sleeping for weeks. They have all been here more than a month, organising and participating, working ceaselessly to coordinate the many different groups involved in the protest. It seems they have a job for me.
“So we’ve been tasked with this de-escalation. . . . We are now de-escalation angels. But is it even really possible?”
“We’ve been in almost constant contact with the police, and with the Secretary of State. They are terrified that tomorrow will turn into a riot. I mean, is this going to work?”
“Well, as I see it, the de-escalation crew’s role is to help create a joyous atmosphere. We’ll be public game playing, some stewarding I guess, and generally trying to help turn tense situations around and have fun. If the tear gas goes off we’ve obviously already failed.”
“So the Rebel Clown Army will be there. They will be on the front line next to the police, then you guys, and then the main march. Also, the climate angels will be coming, have you seen them? Oh they are just amazing, with these huge, feathered wings. Just beautiful. There’s a great video online of a wing smacking a cop in the face—purely by accident of course. There’s going to be foghorns announcing the beginning of the march, the moment when people lay the flowers down, and then two minutes silence.”
“At the end of the two minutes silence the brass band will kick off, and the party starts.”
“So we’re really going for a funeral ritual. A funeral for the environment, for the failure of the governments to do anything meaningful, and then a big party atmosphere.”
“I can’t wait for Saturday night when it’s all over. I am going to do some serious dancing.”
“Straight out of the cells and on to the dance floor, ha ha.”
“It’s been a long two weeks.”
“We’ve all earned it.”
“Oh, the workshops today just helped so much. So much relief, just to remember that all of this is just made up. Invented.”
“It’s so easy to get sucked into all the bullshit, but that’s really all it is.”
“We can tell you now what the route is going to be–”
“But that might all change–”
“Again. We’re on to like Plan X.”
“It’s been a constant clusterfuck. Any other changes—and there will be I’m sure—and we will inform everyone through text. Make sure people get their numbers down for the tree.”
“But as of tonight the convergence will be at the Arc de Triomphe.”
“And from there march to the Eiffel Tower.”
“So the police, the government, are all terrified of anything happening to the Arc de Triomphe. Any vandalism. As much as a bottle thrown at it. They will charge.”
“They will charge. I mean you couldn’t have a bigger symbol of nationalism, militarism, of France itself.”
“They have elections in Paris this weekend and they’re terrified of a riot. They say if there’s a riot, the Right will win in the elections.”
“It’ll ruin the Left’s reputation.”
“By the way, what do you think? Should we buy plant pots for tomorrow?”
“Yes. For the tear gas. It’s the best way to contain it apparently. You just pop a plant pot over the top.”
“Errr. . . . Better to have them and not need them I suppose.”
Suddenly Z. arrives, tears in her eyes, but laughing at the same time.
“I just found out my boyfriend slept with someone else.”
“That’s not funny. Why are you laughing?”
“Oh no, are you ok?”
“Yeah, I know. Just now. I mean, it’s annoying. It’s a shock. I mean, he was the one who didn’t want a polyamorous relationship. He said he was really drunk, and that he hadn’t been drunk like that in over a year.”
“That’s really no excuse.”
“Oh love, come here.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll look after you. It’s going to work out.”
“Thanks, guys. Sorry. Let’s get back to the meeting.”
“So the coalition has agreed that we will not cross the police lines. If we do, they will charge and shut the whole thing down. If anything is thrown, a single thing, they will charge. We’ve gotten all the different groups to agree to the non-violence policy. It’s been a massive job.”
“One of the clowns knows the black bloc crew and he’s meeting with them tonight to ask them not to attend this march.”
“Black bloc here is a bit different than from in the UK. In the UK, they tend to turn up, join in a march, get a bit rowdy, and that’s it.”
“The guy said here ‘they take it seriously.’”
“Whatever that means. Anyway, so hopefully they won’t be there. They can do their own thing, somewhere else, all power to them, but not here.”
“It’s all going to be super-fluffy.”
“We hope. After the 29th the last thing we need is another load of arrests and tear gas.”
“The police are going to do everything they can to avoid that.”
“Maybe tomorrow we could schedule sometime for you to talk directly to the de-escalation bloc. A few of them were a bit shocked by the legal briefing. I think it all got a bit real for them, talking about tear gas and smashed hands and jail.”
“It’s all really unlikely, but of course, everyone should be as prepared as possible for what could happen.”
“One woman has permanently affixed contact lenses. She’s terrified they are going to melt into her eyes! But tomorrow, yes, we’ll organise the group more directly and get everyone to assess where they are comfortable being on the day.”
“God, I’m just so tired. . . .”
“Don’t worry, we are nearly there now.”
We set about our plan, preparing to hit the streets the next day as a human buffer, part of a layer cake of defense between 20,000 protesters, the Rebel Clown Army, and the delightful French riot police.
We speed-date people in pairs to find their buddy. They circle through a number of potential dates, discussing their willingness to be near The Front, as it is known. They discuss fears, hopes, expectations, before swirling on.
I partner with a smiling young bearded Worcestershire boy named Jake—another volunteer from EcoDharma.
“Every buddy pair, get with the buddy pair next to you, so you are a four. This is your brick. Stay close to your brick as much as possible. You are two pairs of buddies, looking after each other. If one half gets arrested, the other can report it. Get their numbers now.”
I sidle over to Oak as the group begins to disperse. She is smiling excitedly, and has buddied with Z., who also grins expectantly. My buddy Jake gathers too. This is our brick. We do a group hug, linking our arms around one another.
“So,” I say. “Ready for a riot?”
An iceberg from Greenland has been dragged to Paris by boat, where it now sits outside the Pantheon in more than a dozen gleaming shards of diamond, decaying infinitesimally and inexorably before our eyes. We walk, humbled, mesmerised, touching each one solemnly, the icy water chilling our fingertips, anointing our foreheads with it. I wonder how many thousands of years these droplets of water had been trapped in the ice, how many lives had passed between now and the last time it existed as a liquid, how many moments had been strung in between. The scale of it is overwhelming. At the head of our procession, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes with a gentle American English accent provides some reassurance in his quiet confidence, a timely reminder of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena, allowing some philosophical perspective on the tragedy of ecocide.
I have already linked up with Jake; the other buddies and bricks arrive in discreet pairs, having been told to spread out to avoid arousing suspicion. There is Rooty and her wife Loupe, Susannah and the monk, Eve, Z. and Oak. Everywhere are the bright flashes of red we have been asked to wear as part of the red-lines protest.
“Freedom, freedom, freedom. . . . Freedom on my mind.”
The song spreads, voices raised in the simple refrain, voices harmonising, male and female and other, high and low.
It feels faintly ridiculous, all this hippie trash, but it helps people relax.
Eventually, in that strange group-mind telepathy, silence descends, broken by the ululating cries of a wedding taking place in the church opposite. We return the cry joyously, releasing more tension, more stress, up into the clear Parisian sky.
A tall man in a dog-collar and white suit, his hair a silvery bouffant crown of steel wool, steps from the circle to address us in a strong, mercurial tone.
“Brothers and sisters can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”
“Amen, brothers and sisters. My name is the Reverend Billy, of the Church of Stop Shopping. I’m from New York City, and for many years now, myself and members of the congregation of the Choir of Stop Shopping have been travelling around, meeting with like-minded individuals, and preaching the Gospel of Stop Shopping. We are wild, anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth-loving urban activists who have worked with communities all over the world defending community, life and imagination.
“It’s an honour to be here in Paris, and to have attended the workshop yesterday and seen such powerful moments of healing, of people coming together, to nurture each other, to heal one another. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”
“This week we’ve seen some dancing in the streets. In particular, the dance with police is heart-breaking and revealing. It is a gift to all of us out here who will carry on the Earth’s work, the job of tornado-ing in the plazas. The mind-leap that the politicians and police make—that any gathering in public space resembles the Other and must be called Extreme—this doesn’t seem like France, but I am naive.
“My lazy thinking has it that I myself would never be this way, but we all fall back into fear, don’t we? We are the predator species, and we forget that we are made of the Earth. We are mammals made of soil and ocean-water, a column of water up on our hind legs.
“That is what we are on both sides of the conflict. But one side has a club and no face. The other, you, you bring your vulnerable body as close to the action as you dare. You show your flesh to the public air and receive the bruise. You show a smile, you are hopping in place, and then running back to slow down a friend’s arrest. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”
“When we protest we make a storm in the street that the Earth’s horizon watches with interest. The Earth is our leader and our teacher. We know that the Earth will win. She will heat up but she will survive the extinction that sweeps across her eco-systems. We know that the men in body-armor will join us ultimately as we fall to the ground like leaves in the autumn. At some point the cops too will feel the Earth in their bodies—that is what will persuade them not to work for nationalism descended from old wars.
“The Earth fills us up and sends us into the fight with instructions in its singing molecules. She gives us power beyond policies, ego or courage.
“When we watch you on the streets we feel a strange kind of gratitude—your bodies are like letters arranging in words against the page of the ground. You give us our new instructions!
“Now I don’t have my choir here with me, but two sisters here have volunteered to lead us in a song, Sisters, if you could?”
Two of the sisters step forward.
“This is a song we heard at the conference a lot, a lot of the young activists were singing it during some of the actions, like the Louvre oil action, and I think it’s great that we pick up the voices of others. It goes like this. . . :
“People gonna rise like the water, gonna turn this crisis round.
Hear the voice of my great-grand-daughter, singing Climate Justice Now.”
We sing between the icebergs and below the Pantheon, and I remember that this is completely illegal, no more than two people are allowed to gather for a ‘political purpose’ under the State of Emergency. As our merry troupe of fluffy rainbow-hippies sings I can’t help but think what utter nonsense that is. I imagine clouds of tear gas pop-pop-popping as canisters fly. I imagine us all crushed and fleeing beneath a charge of black-clad robocops.
I am sat on a bridge overlooking the lazy snake of the Seine as it swirls below me, the free curry and rice given away by garishly dressed hippies from huge steel pots sitting like foam on the water of a sewage outlet in my stomach. My mouth is dry, parched, and all around me herds of strange animals drift and wander: people carrying signs that read ‘system change not climate change’, a pod of merpeople, their hair sea-green with plastic seaweed, a knot of chic students wearing keffiyahs and aviators, a single clown with white face and a red nose holding a balloon in the shape of a heart.
Below me, the brass band is lounging, a mob of twenty people in pink shirts and scarves, lounging in the baking sun, their brass instruments sparkling next to them like the weapons of ornamental soldiers. They have been parping and blasting for the last few hours, the strains of Bella Ciao still ringing in my ears from the assembly in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
Ahead, the Eiffel Tower rises, a monumental spear of iron matrices shooting into a cerulean sky. The walkways around it are a sea of waving flags and banners, people choking every spot of land with colour and movement, swirling in and around each other. Currently on the bridge, a number of people have chosen to sit down and symbolically block the path, urged on by a manic young man with a megaphone. For now, the police are observing casually, seemingly counting under their breath before intervening. I have no energy left, and drift off towards the Tower to find the others.
Jake falls in beside me, a gentle, calming presence, passing me a bottle of water.
“So. What do you think?”
I cast my mind back as we walk. The police had been waiting for us at the Arc de Triomphe. I had been searched by a cop with a face like dogshit. He had found nothing, though he made me remove my leather gloves with studs on them that I had worn against the chill.
Once out of the Metro, we had seen that we were walking into a kettle designed to collect us. At the far end of the boulevard, still a hundred metres before the Arc, a row of grey battle-buses with lines of armoured cops like legionnaires in front of them, blocking our way. At the opposite end, before the roundabout, a second line had drawn up to prevent us leaving. The side roads were still open, left for us to try to disperse, but it was like walking into a cage.
And thousands of people did walk in. We had assembled, orderly and polite, a sea of red and flags of all nations, colours, banners, people blowing whistles and chanting and cheering: “We are nature defending itself!” The sounds of indigenous pan-pipes interwove with the stamping chants of woad-painted earth-defenders clutching home-made shields emblazoned with sigils of trees, hawks and turtles, a pod of people dressed as deep-sea divers, swimming down the street in slow-motion.
At the police line, the dozen or so rebel clowns were already in position, mocking the stance of the cops with their own military pomp. We had lined up behind them, becoming the second buffer line. Whereas the clowns faced the cops, we faced inwards to the sea of people.
The foghorns blasted, and for two minutes, the thousands of people had fallen silent.
I thought about the lake of dead fish I had seen in India where the water had become too acidic from pesticides. I thought about those thousands of glassy eyed fish washing up on to the shore, and the peoples from the village gathering to stare incredulously and hopelessly at them.
Then the brass band had fired up, and a great, ragged cheer gone up from the crowds. The march had begun.
Except the cops had blocked both ways, and there had been no real way for the march to go. They had left open one exit, leading to the left out of the boulevard, and we stood between the clowns and the crowd as thousands of people marched towards us, and as cheerfully as possible we directed them to the left, to squeeze in twos and threes through this narrow gap and continue on their way towards the Eiffel Tower.
It had not felt great, but we stuck to our plan and stayed happy and felt the tension disperse as more and more people fed through the gap. The banners had to be folded up to pass. The Climate Angels, tall, exquisite creatures painted in silver and gold, with huge, ornate, feathery wings of pearl and lapis lazuli, had to edge carefully between the last cop and the wall of the building to get through.
“That boulevard,” I was saying to Jake as we walked back down the bridge towards the Tower. “It was chosen so that nobody would see anything.”
We gather up Oak and Z., looking elated but exhausted.
“Well, at least no broken bones, no tear gas!” says Oak. We smile.
Soon we are through the crowds, and directly under the Eiffel Tower, looking upwards at its skeletal innards like tiny teenagers looking up some massive madam’s metal skirts. It is dizzying, and we sit down on some benches, feeling deflated.
A woman half-hidden in a scarf, but with cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, drifts lazily past me and hands me a piece of paper. On it is typed:
We are all angry now. As destroyers of the death-reality, we must act. The time for peaceful subjugated protest and failed A to B marches is over. They have made criminals of us all. We call on all those who are willing to gather and express their rage in defence of the Earth. Let us take back the streets and defy the State of Emergency.
Meet at Belleville Metro 1900hrs.
“Now this looks more like it.”
We get out of the Metro one stop early, wary of walking into a trap, and stroll down to Belleville in high spirits. Our brick swaps beers and rolls cigarettes, skipping through the crowds out shopping or leaving work, approaching Belleville with watchful eyes.
We lean on the bars of the Metro, watching and waiting. A sparkling tingle of anticipation hangs in the air, not a gendarme in sight for the first time in a long time. The streets hum with the quiet business of a winter’s evening in the banlieue, Chinese supermarkets bustling next door to Turkish shops, well-heeled Parisians shuffling between them smoking Gauloise, old men with chic moustaches and young ladies their hair covered with headscarves.
We wait and watch.
Then, we hear them.
Coming up from the underground, the boom-boom-clack of bass and snare, followed by the sharp rattle and a blast of whistle, growing louder and stronger, emerging from the Metro entrance out into the streets to be greeted with ragged cheers and an appreciative laugh of release. It is the samba band from Rhythms of Resistance, thirty-plus strong, decked in pinks and floral tributes, emerging into the evening air.
Boom boom clak! Ba-boom-ba-boom clak-clak!
Bodies crowd around them, maybe two hundred strong, faces from the march and strangers too, some already masked and punching the air, the cries of “Anti-capitalista!” stronger and fiercer than ever, ringing through the streets in time to the band. Soon they have taken the road, and traffic must wait, backing up bemused and patient behind them. Our brick nods to each other, and we step into the road, becoming part of the mass, and them becomes us.
Boom-clack ba-boom-ba-boom clak!
We turn, as one, down a side-street, following the samba band and whoever might be at the head of this march. On the pavements we see older persons, shopkeepers, people with bags of cheese and baguettes, clutching a child’s hand whilst raising a supportive fist to salute us. People are smiling, happy to see the wild and the free marching in defiance of fear and oppression. All the while the cries ring from the buildings, my throat hoarse: “Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista!”
The moment is long, the energy increases, so do the number of masks, the feeling of imminent explosion. I am reminded of the Fuck Parades in London, of the Long Week in Rigaerstrasse, the anti-ISA protests in Kuala Lumpur, the liminal moments when parties evolve into riots. The lessons of the legal warning occasionally ring in my memory, but more than anything, I savour this sensation of wild liberation.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Clak-clak-clak!
Blue lights strobe the darkening sky with ultramarine. The urgency of the march picks up, confused commands and bursts of running down the streets. Blue lights ahead, and blue lights behind—the kettle is closing in. We find an alleyway to the right, and soon two hundred people are streaming down it, people dragging their drums along and dumping over bins and trollies into the streets behind them. Someone falls, tripping another over them as they crash to the ground, others stopping to pull them up and encourage them onwards. Energy is bordering on panic now.
We emerge breathless on the far side, next to the canal. Dozens of people are still filtering through behind us and it seems that we have evaded capture—for the moment.
We spot the blue lights assembling at the road bridge, two hundred metres up from us. People are calling to hurry—“Allez! Allez!”—and we move instinctively away from the lights.
Ahead, there is a narrow footbridge over the canal, and beyond that yet more police cars. The noose is closing.
People begin to run, seeing the opportunity to escape slipping away. The bridge rattles and clatters as people pound over it. In the rush, I lose the others. I stop on the far side of the canal looking for them. People race past.
The sting of pepper spray on the wind hits me, searing my nostrils and eyes. The police have trapped perhaps fifty people on the opposite side of the canal—just where we were. Even from twenty meters away it is a raw and spicy wind. I am already moving, heart pounding in my chest, attempting innocence and anonymity, suddenly alone and vulnerable, unsure of who or what is awaiting on this side, or what will happen to those trapped behind.
I begin walking, pulling my mask off, heading up the canal where there seems to be space between the police. People sit eating baguettes and drinking wine on benches, watching the spectacle of a mass of black-clad people trapped between two lines of stormtroopers. I am calling my brick, hearing garbled messages from them. They have got across.
Later that evening, we are outside la Generale—the huge warehouse space the local squatters keep on lock-and-key for when they need a performance space. Inside is rammed to the rafters with smiling, laughing, leaping, euphoric crowds of people, leaping and stomping as the famous brass band from the march hammers through a borderline violent version of Bella Ciao. Every song they have played, every refrain, for the last hour, and even in the pauses between, the cry can be heard like a war chant:
“Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist a-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist!”
We are drunk and exhausted, our eyes still stinging from the pepper spray, greeting survivors from the kettle on the canal as they drift back, grinning with giddy relief.
“They kept us there maybe an hour. I had a backpack full of equipment. I had to throw it into the canal. But still, after one hour, they let us all go. No arrests.”
“I guess they know it’s over.”
We are drinking cans of Maximator—11% strength beer that sizzles like gasoline in our stomachs and fires up our exhilarated chatter.
“So we did it. Somehow we did it. 60 people on the streets ready to stand between the cops and 20,000 protesters like some kind of weird human condom.”
“It could have been so different. I’m bloody relieved that nothing happened,” Oak is saying. “That talk they gave us about raising our hands up with our fingers bent so the truncheons didn’t break them. I was, like, God, what have we gotten into?”
“Yeah. I guess it was all fine. But was it enough? I mean, I have friends at home who would be horrified to know I was part of a ‘de-escalation team’. They are the guys who believe that non-violence protects the state, and that if we really wanted change, we have to fight for it on the streets.”
“But if you have a riot, you won’t have all these families and this creative atmosphere.”
“Maybe it would have been different, but also they would have just demonised the whole thing as being about ‘leftwing extremists hijacking the peaceful march’. The same old narrative. My biggest worry is how complicit we have become in working with the cops, the politicians, the whole status quo.”
“It’ll all ripple out, George. It’ll all ripple out somehow.”
We smile, then laugh a little more as the brass band chunters inside and the anti-capitalists a-ha! away. Through the windows, I can see faces beaming with delirious exhaustion, dancing away with stomping feet and fists pumping the air, and I am relieved it isn’t all broken heads and handcuffs and eyes red raw from tear gas. I suck at the Maximator, retch at how flat it is, and suddenly feel my legs wobble.
We round up our little crew for la Petite Maison and head off into the Parisian night. Flashing blue lights illuminate the boulevards, casting sapphire shadows against the tall trees and art deco facades of the buildings.
As we pass the orange-and-yellow frontage of a McDonald’s, Oak suddenly squeals and runs ahead, laughing but flustered.
“There was a guy! There was a guy wanking in the McDonald’s!”
I can’t help but look, and there indeed sat at the little shelf-bar in the window are two kettle-faced men, leering at us as we pass. One has his tracksuit pants open, and is pulling with frenzied focus at an unimpressive lump of meat under the tabletop. He is staring straight out, and for a moment I wonder if he is looking at us, or his own reflection.
I smile at him, hawk a huge ball of phlegm out of my throat, and spit it at the window. It splatters satisfyingly right at his eye level and slides down, a green nugget of sap and gristle. He pauses, looking shocked, and I flip him a rigid middle finger, before darting off down the street after the others.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the lackeys of capitalism,” I sneer. “They’re all fucking perverts.”