The Pont d’Iéna Bridge, decked with imperial eagles, spans the river Seine in Paris, linking the Eiffel Tower on its Left Bank to the district of Trocadero on its Right Bank. On 12 December 2015, we descended the steps of the Palais de Chaillot with some 40,000 protestors behind us. Earlier that morning, we had converged before the Arc de Triomphe in the wan winter light surrounded by clowns and a throng of red-clad climate activists. Under our feet were long runners of red banners, representing the biosphere’s redline that cannot be crossed if we are to sustain human and other life on this planet. The announcement of the COP21 would be handed down that day, and we already knew it would deliver ‘false hope’ instead of the drastic cuts to emissions needed to avoid runaway climate change. With over 50 ‘triggers’ already crossed, including methane plumes from the ocean floor, our planet would cross the redline regardless of this gimcrack show of international cooperation.
I had come to Paris with the Climate Guardian Angels, a theatre troupe I had set up with author and climate activist Deborah Hart in January 2013, inspired by the unforgettable eco-installation of Allana Beltran’s 2007 forest-blockade, the Weld Angel. A crew of Angels (there were by then over 100 Angels on our callout list) and activists from WACA (Whistleblowers Activists and Citizens Alliance) for two weeks appeared throughout the city reading letters a group of dedicated Angels had collected from hundreds of Australian kids, expressing their fears for their future and their anger and despair at Government inaction. It remains a unique archive, none other like it for our times in the world.
We had been asked to led the 12 December march after our appearance at the 29 November banned gathering at the Place de la République. Following the terrorist attacks on 13 November (129 dead, 350 wounded), Paris was under a State of Emergency and activists (some under house arrest) defied the ban by forming a human chain. Our ‘visitation’ at the Marching Shoes Installation organiSed by Avaaz featured in online Le Monde, so as we shouldered our organza wings through the streets, weaving between towering solders cradling semi-automatics, Parisians stood back to applaud us. One woman in the metro clasped us to her breast, saying through tears Paris needed our ‘uplift’.
We had not intended to have this impact. When the Bataclan Theatre was sprayed with bullets, we debated whether to take the Angels to a city that was burying its dead. The evocations of Angels as carriers of souls to the ‘next world’ could well subsume our intention to evoke an image of messengers of unheeded dangers and protectors of future generations. When deploying spectacle in activism, the circumstances in which you project your image can be more determining of its meaning than the hours of careful deliberation over its visual content.
In the Place de la République, I felt acutely out-of-place as we circled its statue, where Parisians had lain thousands of flowers and lit hundreds of candles. We were climate activists paying our respects at this elaborated site of grief and we found ourselves stepping into another realm of evocation, of meeting death with some suggestion of knowing its end, one none of us believed in as committed atheists, and one which possibly offended Parisians whose faith imagined Angels very differently.
So too when we followed the human chain down the Boulevard Voltaire unwittingly past the Bataclan itself, and the other sites where the dead were commemorated with piles of flowers lying wilt in the frost. Here the photos of those killed were pinned in plastic sleeves to the barriers with handwritten dedications. It was as acutely desperately riven a site I have ever stood in. We were a procession of Angels through a traumascape. A man caught my eye as though looking for a reification or maybe a depository of his horror. He shook his head slightly, in incomprehension at what surrounded us and I nodded back weakly. We neither could take it in. I was so at a loss I kept swinging around and bashing Deb in the face with the aluminium frame supporting our wings. Something utterly inarticulate and illegible sundered and the Angels stood in a plot they did not belong.
When we returned to the Place de Republique, only a few blocks away, it had transformed. We saw the dark lines of police, still in their soft wedge caps, but with their riot helmets hooked to their belts, sweeping up the streets like a baleful surge. Anarchists were marching around the square under black banners in open defiance of the ban and the police were ‘kettling’ them, closing the exits, closing in on the resistance. We knelt in front of the police, facing the wrong way, holding our climate signs aloft. The very air pulsed almost audibly. It thrummed against our eardrums like an electric bombinate. Some of the Angels had been beaten in protests before and started the helpless skitter into panic. We made our way to the head of Rue de Turbigo which leads to Marais, barred by police, now in their helmets, beating their shields with their batons, stomping their heavy boots, their shoulders and thighs flexing under the mantle of their cantilevered armour. These guys were spoiling for a fight. We found a way through a gap at the start of Boulevard Beaumarchais, just as the robocops interlocked across its width.
Comparatively the 12DEC march was joyous, coursing with the brio of resistance. The clowns were as much police-liaision strategy as the Angels. They gestured disarmingly to fridge-faced cops trying to winkle or whimsy their enmity. The Angels draped our wings in red fabric mantles and smeared furiosa makeup up our foreheads. At first, we assumed our customary mute presence, but as the march broached the police line and started up the pavement, Sam Castro of WACA and Dom O’Dwyer of Quit Coal eyed each other – Take the Street! They led us out into the traffic and like a tide of red the march followed and streamed towards Trocadero. We were carrying the energy of the rally and joined in the clamour and ruckus. Deeply honoured to have been asked to lead the largest climate protest in history, and as the COP21 agreement was handed down, the Angels began to agitate and roar for climate justice.
On the Pont d’Iéna Bridge we joined another impromptu ‘acceleration’. We sat on our heels and faced the crowd. Using a human mic (the speaker calls a sentence and the crowd calls it back), we debated whether to join the people assembled beyond the Eiffel Tower waiting to hear Naomi Klien, or blockade the bridge. The police demanded Sam move the Angels. If the Angels move, the crowd moves, he shouted. Once the organisers had brought their own mike and amp, they persuaded the crowd to move off, and we were dispersed through temporary steel lanes. The crowd was disbanded.
In retrospect, we should have argued the case to blockade the bridge more forcefully. Every city has an indispensable often iconic bridge that carries its flows, measures its pace, links its financial district to its arrondissements, its old quarters to its new. Before the international groundswell for climate justice was dissipated by the fudgel targets of the COP21, a unified global outcry was needed, demanding cuts in emissions with the exigency and scale needed, not to mention decry the omission of a legally binding measure to protect Indigenous rights.
How to coordinate such a political assemblage? By creating an international media event, by blockading and occupying the bridge in the coming days, and enjoining protestors in other cities through a hashtag like #TakeTheBridge or #LikeHellCOP21. It is the shared urban infrastructure of arterial bridges, multinational mining offices (we blockaded the Paris towers of Engie, operators of Hazlewood), or coal conveyors or rail-lines, that chart out the locales of globally coordinated lockons, blockades and occupations. And it is the polynodal transfer of social media, its instant incant, that connects these far-flung direct actions into one collective resistance. When the redline is crossed, it is time to put our bodies on the line. The more spectacular and gussied up those bodies, the more galvanising their rallying call.