Redefining Protest in Copenhagen

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


The art of protest is being redefined in Copenhagen. Yes, tens of thousands marched peacefully on Saturday, and some opted for sticks and stones. But another group, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, has embraced the bicycle as a symbol and medium for a new kind of environmental protest.

On Wednesday morning, hundreds of bikers will swoop toward the building hosting the UN negotiations over climate change. This activist cavalry aims to divert enough police from the Bella Center to enable other protesters to successfully storm the fences cocooning negotiators and launch an alternative "people's summit" on climate change.

The people of Copenhagen are said to discard 200,000 bicycles per year. One person's trash, it seems, is another's vehicle for environmental insurrection. The group's slick YouTube video encourages participants to "Put the fun between your legs." Isa, one of their lead organizers, said that "politics and protest should not just be dour and earnest, but fun and exciting."

Their headquarters suits their message. For the last week the grounds of a former candy factory housed their efforts to repair bikes collected from the streets. In the courtyard, the first prototypes of the "Double-double trouble" take shape.

These double-decker contraptions combine the bodies of four bikes in what can only be described as the bike activist equivalent to the Planeteers joining forces to form Captain Planet:

At the entrance, Isa stops someone for bringing a bike with a lock. "The idea is the recycle bicycles, not to steal them."

Inside the main building, people rush around toting wrenches, pumps and hammers. An electric saw coughs sparks as a man plays a tune from the Amélie soundtrack on an accordion. Neat piles of mudguards, tires, and handlebars line the walls.

Down the hall, a woman yells "Lunch is ready!" On the menu: water with lemon slices, whole wheat bread, Swedish cheese, shredded carrot salad with raisins and sunflower seeds, and pasta with mushrooms and potatoes tomatoes. I daresay this beats the fare available to COP-15's delegates at the Bella Center. It also comes cheap. The night before 6 volunteers landed a prodigious haul by scouring the neighborhoods dumpsters.

Graffitied on the wall, I read "Only dead fish go with the flow."

Upstairs, I join Grey Filastine, a globetrotting DJ who composed some tunes specifically for the bike protest. He plans to mount speakers on five of the double-decker bike chariots. Each speaker will contribute part of the whole song.

Grey is guardedly optimistic about Wednesday morning. "It should be exciting. We'll see how it works out, as long as the police don't clobber us right away."

Later that afternoon, I joined 75 bicycle-mounted protesters-to-be for a training session in an empty parking lot. J.J., a goateed Brit sporting a shaved head and a neon yellow jacket, led the session.

"Rule number one: make sure your bike works," J.J. said. "If you are cycling from the police and your chain falls off, you are fucked." Nervous giggles from the crowd, since the majority of their bikes were repaired from scrap within the previous few hours. (Minutes earlier, my only pedal had fallen off, landing with a clang a moment before my body followed it with a thud.)

We practiced fast starts from a crowd of bikes and navigated obstacle courses. We divided into "swarms" of ten bikes. My group had people hailing from all over Europe: Sweden, England, Belgium, Denmark Spain and France. One of them rode around on a bike donated to the UN conference participants by IKEA.

Spirits were high, especially during a simulation of the undesirable but likely confrontation with police (The group's ethos, we are told, is "non-violent but confrontational"). Half the group received rods of rolled-up newspapers in lieu of batons, while the rest mounted their bikes on the other side of the parking lot. Easing into the game, some of the newly armed growled, while others pointed their mock batons at the bikers with the air of Babe Ruth announcing an impending home run. "Remember," J.J. roared, "these police are trained to kick your ass."

The bikers started 40 yards away and pedaled furiously toward The (imaginary) Man. They slammed on their brakes after closing half the distance and dismounted. J.J. called for a police "CHAARRRGE." Like rearing horses standing on their hind legs, the bikes were pivoted on their back wheels. It turns out that a phalanx of vertical bikes and gyrating front tires are pretty good at fending off pretend police.

And then, as if on cue, the real police arrived to crush the surging confidence of the bikers. Two vans filled with beefy Danes pulled into the parking lot. J.J. calmly approached them as the bikers slinked away. The police said they wanted to ensure that everyone had their mandatory lights for night-biking on the streets. As long as the bikers remained in the parking lot, however, no laws were being broken. The police parked their vans in the corner and the bikers re-convened.

Training resumed with a game of tag, with the "it" person pretending to be a police officer. J.J. invited one of the boys in blue, who declined with amusement. Many of the officers exited their vans and started smoking cigarettes as they watched the giggling mass of activists run around in circles. The police officers returned waves as they smirked at their prospective opposition.

Later, J.J. assembled the group in a giant circle and solicited parting messages from each person in three words of less. The responses trickled in one by one, soaring and sardonic:

"Ready to herding cats...we rock...probably not going...excited but nervous...beginning of post-capitalism!"

If these bikers fail on Wednesday--and the odds are manifestly stacked against them--they will fail in style.