From COP21 to the oil summit in Pau (France) : launching a strategy of non-violent and determined action for the climate

>>>> Photo album Oil Summit in Pau<<<<

Jon Palais (Bizi !, ANV-COP21, Alternatiba activist) – English translation by Max Rademacher, Nicky Scordellis & Angus Joseph

11th of April 2016

The MCEDD summit on offshore oil, organised in Total’s historical fief Pau (South-West of France), has been blocked and disturbed by climate activists during three consecutive days, from April 5 to April 7. Several waves of non-violent and determined actions made it possible that the biggest oil compagnies such as Total, Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, as well as offshore operators, were compelled to hold their meeting in highly disruptive conditions. This shows that in the aftermath of COP21, things will not be the same any longer. A new sequence of climate mobilisations has begun.

DSC_0326From the first day of the MCEDD summit, several groups of activists managed to cross
the security wall, allowing 300 activists to access and occupy the esplanade of the building all day long

Blocking the offshore oil summit in order to kickstart the “after COP21”

It was the movement Action Non-Violente COP21 (COP21 Non-Violent Action), created just some months before COP21 [The call “Let’s stand up and save the climate”, signed by thousands of citizens, launches the movement ANV-COP21 on 26th of  Septembrer 2015], who launched the call to block the MCEDD summit. Although the call has only been launched by 26th of February 2016 “Let’s block the offshore oil summit”, just six weeks later 500 climate activists gathered at “Camp Sirène”, a climate camp set up at the Emmaüs Lescar-Pau Village for 7 successive days. This allowed to organise massive and determined non-violent actions during the three days of the summit.

This mobilisation is a logical continuation of the mobilisations during COP21. The objective was not just to block this summit, but also to kickstart a new period of “post-COP21” actions, based on the idea that we have to make the commitments to contain global warming below +1,5°C or +2°C maximum – taken by all the countries of the world in the Paris Agreement – become reality!

Non-violent and determined actions

The actions to block MCEDD were all done with faces uncovered, in a strictly non-violent way and with great determination. Some actions have entailed confrontation, namely the penetration into the site of the Palais Beaumont, where MCEDD was held, and which was permanently protected by police forces and 2 meters high security fences. Groups of tens of activists, forming a dense cluster, ran towards Palais Beaumont, removed the security fences and broke through the police lines in order to reach the accesses of the congress center, yielding a highly spectacular scenery for the observer [Technique of breaking through inspired by rugby and activist movements like Tutti Bianchi in Italy, the Demos in Basque Country, or Ende Gelände’s action which took place some months earlier in August 2015].

02 Franchissement de ligne de police DSC_0481 - recadréBreaking through the fences and police wall on the first day of action.
The frontline activists were equipped with foam shields and straw padding.
Other activists moved forwards by pouring paint allover their own bodies in order to destabilise the police.

Nonetheless, never the activists resorted to violence against the policemen or congress participants. During the three days, every time the police employed batons and teargas, the activists did not respond by verbal or physical violence and made ceaseless efforts to maintain the dialogue with the security forces. Activists responded to police violence by singing “Police go easy! We do it for your children!” or by singing the hook of HK (renown French activist musicians) “Without hate, without weapons, without violence“.

Other physical interventions took place, such as blocking the entry of the 5 star hotel, in order to prevent the high ranking responsibles of companies participating at MCEDD to go to the summit. Another action consisted in blocking a logistics van of the summit.

03 Blocage camion DX4_idyr - recadréTwo activists immobilize a logistics van at the entry of MCEDD by blocking their arms below the van.

Some activists even managed to cross all three security levels and managed to infiltrate the inside of the congress center, handcuffing themselves to the stage just before the opening speech on the first day. They   made a 10 minutes speech in front of the congress participants, causing the program as it was initially planned to change significantly! Later several participants told us they appreciated this speech very much and felt sensitive towards the expressed messages as well as towards the non-violent action method.

Changing the balance of power and creating awareness

Several actions allowed to physically block the summit temporarily, preventing tens of participants waiting outside from accessing the premises, and dissuading others from trying to enter. While the summit could nevertheless take place during the three days, it happened under completely disruptive conditions because of the permanent presence of police forces, ceaseless disturbancies, police repression towards activists and  media spotlights turned on the Palais Beaumont during the entire duration of the summit.

While fearless non-violent actions triggered police repression and moments of high tension, the non-violent attitude and the constant search for dialogue with the police and the congress participants led to numerous exchanges, even at very unlikely moments such as the blockings and forceful removals of activists. We believe in the force of persuasion. The non-violent actions not only had a troublesome effect on police fences, but also on certain attitudes and mindsets. From the start until the end of the congress, when the congress partipants left the building, we constantly offered to discuss with them, and the majority of them accepted. These exchanges bit by bit made them change their attitude towards us. We felt that our message reached them, that we broke though certain psychological boundaries – it was sometimes as spectacular as when we tore down the security fences. Convinced that we need to shift the lines on the level of conscience, the activists demonstrated an impressive capacity to convince, and not only to block. One of us, impressingly self-confident, said to a policeman: “soon you will join us, you know why? Because your very own families will be facing you“.

04 Entrée principale attitude MCEDD DSC_0342 - recadré

A determined attitude, be it while blocking, or be it while engaging in dialogue, reflects the urgent character of the climate issue and enhances the legitimacy of actions to stop climate change in the eyes of the press and in the eyes of the population. We received considerable support by the press but also by the local population, who acted in solidarity with us by bringing food, accomodating activists, helping with transport and by financing parts of the cost of this campaign via crowdfunding. Some people shared useful information helping us to pursue our struggle against climate-adverse companies. This help also is proof of a change in awareness.

05 Enfant chaîne humaine - original facebookDuring the humain chain,
gathering 600 persons in the parc around Palais Beaumont

Media impact and political impact

It is very important to highlight that Total, MCEDD’s host, is a major and respected economical player in the region, employing thousands of people and subsidising countless local activities. The different actions carried out to disturb the summit provoked a debate in the Pau region, namely thanks to local press, which covered the mobilisations on a daily basis and disseminated our demands. Two local political personalities duelled each other in the form of press boxes: a deputy of the department David Habib and the mayor of the city Billère, Jean-Yves Lalanne (both members of the PS, the French socialist party). The former qualified the activists as “extremists” and “lunatics“, while the latter reacted by welcoming the “human intelligence, the humour and the creativity” of the organisers and their “useful and necessary” actions. [La République des Pyrénées]

06 Clash Capture d’écran 2016-04-11 à 21.57.22Article in the newspaper La République des Pyrénées

Just after the actions ended, the next day, Friday 8th of April, the Environmental Minister Ségolène Royal announced, on the occasion of the second national conference on oceans, an “immediate moratorium on the search for fossil fuels in the Mediterranean” and declared she would cease to deliver “any exploitation licence, neither in territorial waters, nor on the continental shelf“. For the daily newspaper Le Monde of Sunday 10th of April, this announce “sounds like a response to the claims (…) made by eco-activists, which did everything to disturb the gathering of big oil and gas companies in Pau, on the occasion of the Marine, Construction and Engineering summit on offshore oil and deepwater drilling, from 5th to 7th of April” [Read it].

07 Die-in DSC_0397 - recadréDie-in gathering 500 persons, on the last day

We made important efforts to reach out to media: we invited several journalists to follow activists, so that they could have direct images of the actions. In addition, many activists participated at the operations as media activists, so that we could have our own images. We had enough media activists to cover nearly all actions by photo and video, even though actions happened simultaneously at several different places. All this allowed us to communicate very quickly on the operations. Some activists even livestreamed their actions, so that hundreds of persons could follow the actions day per day on their laptops! Livestream videos have been accompanied by live tweets adding complementary information, photos and short videos.

“Classic” photographers and video makers also worked quickly, as photo albums had been published at the end of each day, whilst video makers cut all night to release finished videos early in the morning of the following day. The fact that these tools enhance the impact of mobilisations is illustrated by the success of the video showing the first day of actions: 270 000 views in only 24 hours ! [Video of activists blocking the offshore oil summit on Facebook] During the operations, these tools play a protective role for the activists, as camaras and smartphones dissuade certain security agents from employing excessive violence.

08 Mains levées DSC_0205 - recadréBlocking of an access of Palais Beaumont, third day of action.

Climate emergency and the strategy of non-violent action

The peculiar nature of this type of action, 100% non-violent and determined, has two components: the first one is the awareness of the concrete reality of climate change. The second one is the strategic approach of non-violent action. Our determination is due to the fact that we have understood that humanity is provoking a global warming of 4°C or 5°C and that this warming corresponds to a change in geological era and therefore a fundamental threat to the conditions for civilised life on earth. Even a minor warming exceeding 2°C would have catastrophical consequences not only on future generations, but also on children born today. The burning of all available fossil fuels on earth would lead to a warming of 9°C, according to Michael Greenstone, professor at the University of Chicago and former chief economist at the White House [Fossiles : dix raisons de sevrer la planète, Libération]. It is the awareness of climate change being a central issue for humanity which leads us to envision civil disobedient action and non-violent, fearless action from a different perspective. With this awareness in mind, non-violent action and civile desobedience become profoundly necessary and perfectly legimitate for us.

09 MCEDD = 9°C 20160406-183230 Pau off-shore - recadréBlazing banner held by activists in front of Palais Beaumont,
where MCEDD took place, under ther permanent surveillance of police forces.

Despite this alarming situation, we chose not to resign ourselves, nor to deny the situation. We keep our hope, because we genuinely believe that we can master this challenge. First, we know that alternative solutions exist, that they not only emit radically less greenhouse gases, but that they also contribute to creating a fairer, friendlier, and more human world. We know that if these solutions are yet insufficient to solve the climate crisis, it is because they have not yet been brought to a mass scale. Second, we believe  that the strategy of non-violent action is capable to win the support of the general opinion and that the variety of forms of non-violent actions allow the population in all its diversity to act within a unified grassroots movement.

Our inspirations and references are leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, or grassroots movements such as the 15-M Spanish Indignados. We think that the strategy and the philosophy of non-violent action are well fit to the emergence of a large, radical and popular grassroots movement, capable to tackle the climate challenge: “a Martin Luther King movement for the climate”

10 Lecture de Stratégie non-violente de JM Muller DSC_0004 - recadré
First day of action, at the esplanade of Palais Beaumont: an activist reads out loud, with the megaphone, an extract of the book of reference “Strategy of non-violent action” by Jean-Marie Muller (1972)

A non-violent mass mobilisation, publicly announced beforehand

Choosing to call to block the summit beforehand had advantages and disadvantages. It allowed us to put the organisers of the summit under pressure during six weeks, creating disruptive conditions before the summit even started. It also is a way to publicly and openly announce the type of actions to come: calling publicly demonstrates that we take full responsibility for the actions and for civil disobedience. It also is a way of saying from the start that the actions will be done with faces uncovered and in a non-violent manner. It openly demonstrates how determined we are: letting our adversaries know beforehand meant we could not block the summit by surprise. With the surprise effect on our side we could have blocked the accesses with much less activists. Renouncing to this surprise effect meant the summit organisers could prepare and heavily reinforce security. The surprise effect shrinks even more as it becomes much easier for policemen to infiltrate the climate camp in order to obtain information on the operations, to register for the camp and take on the cover of an activist.

11 En bloc P1060546 - recadréOne of the activist groups approaching Palais Beaumont with firm steps and chanting “state of climate emergency” on the third day of action

Choosing to make an open public call out for mass actions beforehand makes a big difference: anybody can register, and in fact many of the people who registered were people we never met before. Due to this situation, we could not share all the information on actions with all of the participants. We had to find a balance between keeping certain information confidential to guarantee the success of the actions, and sharing information in order to inspire trust amongst the activists and inform them clearly about physical and legal risks. For this reason we shared in advance general information about the type of action to be carried out, possible risks, political objectives and the general strategy, but revealed precise tactical objectives only at the last moment. Running things this way requires that the activists trust the coordinators of the actions.

Making a public call beforehand has some specific advantages. The first is that it enables us to bring new people on board, to reach beyond the circle of activists already knowing each other and hence to grow our numbers. This helps us build a mass movement. Many of the people who took part in the actions had never taken part in actions of civil disobedience or non-violent actions before. Trainings were organised during the climate camp, on attitude, techniques and strategy of non-violent action, on legal risk and on the issue of climate change.

It is important to highlight the collective spirit that governs life at the climate camp and the preparation of actions. People get a sense for each other, like-minded groups form, mutual trust emerges between activists and coordinators as well as between activists amongst themselves. Informed and aware of the security apparatus, juridical risks and physical risks linked to repression, many people engaged in civil disobedience for the first time in their life and they did it with impressive determination, withstanding baton hits and teargas. Even activists with an eye bandage came back the next morning to break through the fences and the police lines.

12 Répression gaz P1060371 - recadréOn the first day of action, baton hits and teargas sprays had been inflicted on activists
in order to push them out of the esplanade of the Palais Beaumont … in vain:
the activists sat down and stayed all day long until the congress participants left the building

These activists, some with a lot of experience and others with none, had very diverse profiles, were of all ages, although mostly young, physically mixed, some with a rugby player stature and others much more delicate. The unbelievable scene of Mathieu will stick in our memories: he walked with a rollator, completely determined and moving forward in the direction of the stunned police, triggering everybody’s admiration. This diversity, this representativity is a crucial quality for a process like ANV-COP21, aiming at building a mass grassroots movement, both radical and popular.

Mass actions have the tactical advantage of overflowing police lines. If we were fewer, we would not have been able to succeed. Imagine if we had been more (and soon we will be), we could have shut off the summit entirely. Being large in numbers gives us a stronger legitimacy in the eyes of public opinion and allows for a higher diversity of participants. More diversity in our movements means more people outside the movement will be likely to feel connected to us and it also has the advantage of making us look like “normal” people rather than specialised activists.

13 Mathieu en déambulateur DSC_0594 - recadréMathieu, with a rollator, is moving beyond the frontline towards the police line,
which is just getting prepared to push back the activists who penetrated the perimeter of Palais Beaumont

These actions are done by quite a large number of people, for example 100 or 200 activists. To facilitate the operation of these actions, a series of other teams are working at the periphery: medic teams stationed close to the places of action, a legal team and a communication team, both permanently active, teams coordinating the logistics of the actions, such as transport, and other teams ensuring the logistics of the climate camp, the activists’ base. The high level of organisation necessary to run mass actions is an advantage in that it allows certain activists to play an indispensable role for the actions’ success even if they cannot or do not want to expose themselves to physical or legal risks.


Bringing up a new generation of activists through an effective method

The STOP-MCEDD mobilisation campaign launched by ANV-COP21 quickly received support from a dozen other organisations which were involved in the initial convergence around the issue of climate and oceans: Alternatiba and Friends of the Earth-France, who – together with ANV-COP21 – did the main work of mobilising activists, Bizi which served as preparation headquarter during the month running up to the actions, the Emmaüs Lescar-Pau Village, which contributed valuable logistical help and hosted the climate camp on its premises for a week, Nation Océan, which provided expertise for the campaign, who helped communicating on the campaign and launched an online petition, les Chrétiens Unis pour la Terre (Christians United for the Earth), who fasted in front of Total’s headquarter in Paris, Attac who participated at the conferences and public speeches and produced an impactful video calling to mobilise, Surfrider Foundation Europe who helped with the advocacy and organised a public happening, Nicolas Hulot who made a video explaining why to refuse offshore drilling for fossil fuels, and Friends of the Earth International and Greenpeace which also supported the campaign in various ways.

Preparation of mobilisations and actions were coordinated by around twenty volunteer organisers, who came from the network of local Alternatiba and ANV-COP21 groups (overlapping at times with the other organisations). It is amazing to note that the majority of these organisers met less than a year ago, and that nearly all had discovered non-violent action and civil disobedience just some months ago when ANV-COP21 was launched.

Despite their little experience, the organisers managed to coordinate a communication and mobilisation campaign within 6 weeks, prepared the climate camp, its logistics, its conferences and trainings program, found the food and accommodation necessary for the 500 activists who registered for 7 days, prepared and coordinated three days of public gatherings and civil disobedience actions, and carried out a crowdfunding campaign in order to self-finance the project. Different teams were set up: medical, logistics, kitchen, communication, legal … everything in very basic conditions: the activists slept under big collective tents or in individual tents, without heating; the pace of work was fast and the nights short.

14 Équipe médicale DSC_0259 - recadré, retouchéOne of the medic teams, set up in front of the security fences of Palais Beaumont
during the blocking of the third day.

The fact that “junior” coordinators managed to yield such successful results is due to a certain work method, which comes from Alternatiba and Bizi. The organisers were trained on-the-job over the last few months by preparing Villages of Alternatives and by participating in the Alternatiba Tour or at the Alternatiba headquarters during COP21. Organisation is rigorous, discipline is required, punctuality is expected, practice comes before theory (practice creates conscience) and learning comes by doing (we learn to walk by walking). Since Alternatiba Bayonne in 2013, each moment of mobilisation has been an opportunity to increase the number of coordinators. What we have seen is that this method has a quick learning and empowerment effect. Mobilisation after mobilisation, the coordinators delegate tasks to new activists, who then become coordinators themselves, who then delegate to new activists, and so forth.

This rigorous method makes organisation effective, but we also observe a sociable and friendly atmosphere, collective meals on big tables, people singing chants and slogans all day long, and everyone acting benevolently towards each other. As days pass by, emotions become stronger, and the fact that people live very powerful experiences and actions together unites them and builds a feeling of fraternity and solidarity. One of our video makers took the floor on the evening of the third day of actions, confessing to everybody that watching us suffering and withstanding the burning teargas through the lens made him cry, as he was so moved by the collective determination. Each person finds courage and feeds on the collective strength to enhance his or her own capacity to resist. This collective strength raises big hopes and reinforces the meaning of our actions.

15 Génération DSC_0221 - OriginalThe determination of activists was even stronger on the last day of action!

It has just begun!

On Friday 8th of April, just after the end of the actions, 150 people participated in the general debrief. Hands were raised as a sign of approval as the speeches followed on from each other, and the activists formulated their conclusions of this week: organisation, method, non-violence, climate emergency, determination, alternatives and resistance, learning, transmission, sharing, solidarity, trust, collective spirit.

Although coming from very different backgrounds, the participants now seem to share a vision, but also a concrete way of doing things. One can feel that a certain kind of non-violence is emerging, that a collective spirit is being born. People have a strong desire to bring their experience from Pau to their homes, to share it and increase the momentum. One can feel the inspiration, the energy, the will, the momentum and all this feels like a founding moment, such as the one we already witnessed the day when the first Alternatiba took place, in Bayonne on 6th of October 2013, the starting point of a dynamic re-mobilisation of citizens around climate issues in France. Some even speak about creating a local ANV-COP21 as soon as they get home.

16 Débriefing DSC_0464 - OriginalGeneral debrief on the day after the actions, with the Alternatiba soundbike.

These positive signs seem to indicate that we have perhaps managed, during the last two years of mobilisations around COP21, to build a movement which is capable of persisting beyond the Paris Summit and which continues to grow. Several upcoming gatherings will be the occasion to reinforce this movement in the coming months: the international oil summit on 21st of April in Paris, the Breakfree week from May 4 to 5, Ende Gelände from May 13 to 16 in Germany, or the antinuke mobilisation in October.

Before leaving, the activists made a human corridor to thank the comrades of Emmaüs Lescar-Pau who hosted them during a week in their village, and then they chanted all together the chant HK performed at the end of the gathering at Champ-de-Mars on 12th of December, at the end of COP21: “it’s not over, it’s not over, it’s just begun!”

17 Arrivée DSC_0292 - recadré

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