By Jonathan Langley
An estimated 40,000 people (all of whom had been asked to wear blue clothing and paint their hands blue) gathered at noon on Dec. 5 in Grosvenor Square, in the heart London, for what had been billed as the largest climate-change protest ever on British soil. The Wave, the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition‘s big march, was a color-coded affair, with flair.
The event — timed to precede the big United Nations climate-change summit taking place the following week in Copenhagen, Denmark — featured blue wigs, blue face-paint (helpfully provided by volunteers at the entrance to the square), blue T-shirts, banners, posters and body suits. The color coordination added to the effect which, if not the “human wave” intended by the organizers, at least gave the demonstration a unified and intentional feel.
The event had been branded, by some members of the coalition, as “a family-friendly demonstration” rather than a “protest,” probably in order to comfort and reassure those nervous of the violence or the police reaction often associated with anti-globalization protests. But they needn’t have worried. Generally speaking, this protest was more about dancing than throwing bricks through Starbucks windows, and the extent of demonstrators’ contact with the police seemed to be limited to elderly marchers asking directions and police helpfully pointing them to the nearest toilet/coffee shop/subway station.
Just as at the 2005 Make Poverty History rally, political agitators of various shades of red; anarchists; a few hippies; and hordes of nice, polite, middle-class people who love Jesus got along just splendidly with each other as they all worked (and walked) for a common cause.
On paper, it could all seem terribly strange and unlikely. But in reality, the placards handed out by mainstream British Christian groups like Christian Aid, Tearfund and Cafod commingled easily with those of the Socialist Workers Party and the Green Party. Placards with messages like “Power to the poor” (Christian Aid), “Climate justice now” (Tearfund) and “Our climate in our hands” (Cafod) were carried by groups of people also carrying more political messages, like “Capitalism means crisis and climate chaos” (Socialist Workers Party) and “Carbon cuts, not welfare cuts” (Green Party).
Home-made signs and banners were also in evidence, from the cute: “Cuddles not carbon” (on a heart-shaped green placard), to the simply profound: “People over profits” and the frankly sarcastic: “Carbon trader = eco-crusader.”
The anti-carbon-trading placards were carried by a group of students, dressed in pinstriped suites, all sporting stick-on moustaches (yes, including the women) handing out deeply ironic pamphlets titled, “Carbon Trading: the Final Solution” while megaphoning slogans like, “Trust me, I’m a banker!” and: “We took care of your mortgages, we can take care of pollution!” at the crowd. And that satirical attack on the wisdom of carbon trading was not alone in the weirdness stakes. People in full polar-bear costume, a splendid tiger, someone in a cow suit with a sign carrying the dubious message, “You can’t eat meat and be an environmentalist,” people with blue hair, blue faces, blue beards and blue moustaches marched alongside very ordinary-looking people of every age and economic background.
Dedicated protesters from the Climate Camp movement made anarchism look perfectly orchestrated as they drummed their way along the route of the march, providing festive spirit and recycled, organic beats of fantastic energy and complexity for fellow marchers. Other music providers carried battery-powered sound-systems in wheelbarrows, playing Paul Simon, or pedal-powered amplifiers belting out other kinds of music. Children sporting labels saying, “I’m praying for the planet” had the message of socialist revolution patiently explained to them by an activist newspaper-vendor, and trade-union banners fluttered above cassocked Franciscan monks in woolly jumpers.
Everywhere, people who would ordinarily not talk to each other were united for a few hours in a common cause. It felt a bit like one imagines heaven, only with more rain and blistered feet. The question to be answered over the next week of meetings in Copenhagen will be whether this demonstration (of so much more than political will to save the planet) achieves anything.