Today has been an adventure, much more than I bargained for. First I got seven glorious hours of sleep which really helped after two days of travel. I woke up with hopes my luggage had arrived overnight, but no such luck. No clothing shops would open before 10 a.m. when the Sierra Club’s orientation for all members at COP21 was set to take place. So either I had to miss the orientation hope a shop would be open and have my my size, or wear the same old sweats to the orientation. I elected to do the latter thinking I could sit in the back. I was glad I did because the information shared there was crucial to understanding the negotiations. I’ll post a series of “State of Play” updates by Fred Heutte, lead volunteer with the Sierra Club Federal and Climate Campaign, to cover this.
Orientation got out about noon, so several people headed over to Place de Republique to see if we could find the shoes exhibit. Earlier in the day, Sierra Club volunteers and others had put out thousands of pairs of shoes to symbolize those who could not march. However by the time we got there, we couldn’t find them and figured they had been removed, as they were only going to be on display for a few hours. Lots of people were in the plaza, and they would have stumbled all over a large exhibit.
We looked for a few minutes at the huge memorial to the terrorist victims – two large rows of flowers, cards, and items left all around the huge bronze statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French republic holding an olive branch in her right hand and resting her left on a tablet engraved with the Rights of Man. Then we went to lunch. See video of the memorial to the Paris terrorism victims
After lunch, the others headed to Musee D’Orsay, but I decided to go back to the hostel to check on my luggage. My metro train changed at Place de Republique, so I decided to go up to see if I could get photos of the terrorism memorial and look again for the shoes. There were again a lot of people, some groups doing “mini marches” around the plaza, and other people just hanging out. I decided to also get pics of some of the activists, their activities and signs. I also found a small shoe exhibit, which people were just then adding to.
While I was doing that, the police arrived and stood in phalanxes along the streets leading into the square. They stood on the sides of the square for a long time. I asked people if the police would come into the square and make arrests. People who I talked to said no, they didn’t think so. But that was wrong. They started with tear gas around the edge of the plaza and not near me, but it pushed people my direction. Then was a series of loud booms. I wasn’t affected because it was all across the plaza, but I could smell it. If you’ve ever lit those old firework snakes on July 4, it smells like that.
As this was going on, I found an AP van and talked to their staff member. She was inside the van watching video their camera people were getting from above and sending them instructions over a walker talkie as to what to close in on. I wasn’t sure if things would escalate, but the AP person told me the police would not bother them, so stood near their van in hopes of looking like media just in case. I also pinpointed where the metro entrance was so I could get out quickly if needed.
Then the police started to move in. That’s when I decided it was time to leave. I started down the stairs to the metro only to find the police had closed the metro stops. Another nearby metro stop was also gated shut, with police behind the gate. So I could not leave. Then police started to cordon off the streets. Fortunately some well-dressed people with luggage showed up to get into the Crowne Plaza, whose doors were also closed. But the bellhop opened the doors for them and I took advantage. See video of police moving in on protesters
From the hotel window I watched dozens of police vans move in, presumably to start arrests. There was a crowd demonstrating a few hundred feet down from the hotel, so that’s probably where the police were going to start. I have no desire to get arrested, so I hung out in the hotel bar for a couple of hours with a soup and tea. Finally by 5:45 I was ready to leave, but the metro stop was still closed and the police were still making arrests. The hotel staff pointed me to the next metro stop down away from the arrests, and I found a train and got back to the hostel. It was eerie riding through the Place de Republique stop, which is normally extremely busy but tonight was totally empty.
So what are my feelings about all this? On the one hand, I did not see anything different in Paris as at the countless demonstrations in the US. People were simply expressing themselves and their feelings of urgency about the climate, which I understand and share. On the other hand, Paris has just suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks since 9/11, which took place not far from today’s events. The government is understandably concerned about another attack, and it would be easy for bad people to hide in the crowd. So while I wish the government hadn’t felt the need to cancel the climate march, I can see why they did, and I wanted to respect that.
Then there’s a third hand, which is that with a previous career as a journalist, I also wanted to document events, and here I had a front row seat. I could have left the moment police showed up, but I wasn’t sure they were going to make arrests. I thought maybe they were just trying to contain the crowds in one area or making sure it didn’t get above a certain size. So I decided to see what happened. Part of why I’m here is to witness history, and this was the history of a cancelled climate march.
One more thing happened just as I was walking toward the metro stop to leave. A group of men all in black pants and jackets came running toward me. As I took a picture, one of them slapped down my arm and yelled at me “No photo!” I was afraid he would take my phone, so I just said “Okay” and tried to look harmless. They moved on, and I was left wondering who they were. They could have been civil demonstrators, anarchists, rabble rousers, or genuine terrorists, but clearly they didn’t want their picture taken, and you couldn’t see their faces anyway because they were covered in black too. So while I feel like the police did not need to crack down on civil demonstrators as harshly as they did, I am also not convinced that everyone in the crowd was a climate activist. Some may have very well not had good intentions.
P.S. My luggage finally arrived! 11:30 pm after three more calls to the airline.
Here are some more pictures from the day’s events: