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

Scenes From Copenhagen's Street Protests (Part II)

December 16th, COPENHAGEN-- I found the main march by following the helicopter. The protesters planned to storm the Bella Center where the UN climate change negotiations were taking place to establish a "people's assembly" and propose new solutions to climate change.

It began a peaceful march like any other, save for the conspicuously heavy police presence. The protesters at the perimeter of the advancing mass linked arms as they chanted: "What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!" Police and their vans hugged both sides of the march to contain it.

The march was coming up to the end of its proposed route near the entrance of the entrance of the Bella Center. Speakers from the police vans boomed, in Danish-accented English, "The Bella Center is closed... Please respect the police." To which the crowd responded with an obligatory "Fuck the police!"

Suddenly the protesters at the tip of the march started sprinting. At that precise moment, a group of South American women who had been hiding ahead of the march leapt directly in the path of the police vans. They wore face paint and tiger suits with orange paper cone breasts in the Madonna style.


The tiger ladies soon abandoned the game of chicken with the police vans, but they won the lead protesters the precious few moments they needed to escape the police box.

Some four thousand protesters surged toward the blockade in front of the Bella Center. They met another phalanx of police. As they advanced, they chanted "We are peaceful, what are you?" They had no weapons. But they were outraged, and the police predictably became the object of their outrage.

A protester on the front line yelled at the policeman in front of him. "Why are you all looking away? Why don't you look at us in the eye?"

The officers were not looking because they were busy putting on their riot helmets. The crowd responded: "This is not a riot! Take your helmets off!"


Soon, the pattern that would define the next 90 minutes began:

activist yelling -> mutual shoving -> police hitting

The crowd wanted a champion. It found one in a nimble protester wearing a blue rain coat who managed to scale one of the police vans behind enemy lines. The crowd roared in approval of his vertical defiance.


A lone officer soon clambered up the far end of the van and stood up. He dwarfed his opponent. But on his first step he slipped and fell to his knee. The crowd cheered. He rose and lunged to grab the protester in a bear hug. In an instant the protester was pinned on the ground below the police officer, whose baton materialized in his black-gloved hand. Then it snapped down, again and again. The crowd boo-ed.

The protester rolled limply down the hood of the van into the arms of more police. The crowd chanted "Shame on you!" and "The whole world is watching!"

This was enough to initiate another wave of confrontation. The latest shoving match found one officer in the middle of it all. His arms were pinned to his sides by the crush of humanity. The police office behind him went red in the face as he grunted and pushed the back of his fellow officer with all his might. The contorted face of the pinned officer who was being used as a battering ram told a simple story. It was the look of a man at the mercy of entropy.

Police officers sprayed pepper spray like silly string ten yards into the crowd. A few savvy protesters at the front wore swimming goggles to protect their eyes.

A persistent voice goaded on the protesters. "Stay together... Move toward the fence... Push now!" It came from speakers mounted on a large van at the edge of the protest.

The police eventually targeted the van in what can only be described as an uncanny replay of Christian Slater's heroic turn in Pump up the Volume.

"Come over toward the van, the police are coming!" the voice pleaded to the crowd. But it was too late. The police were boarding.

The last words from the speakers came in a hurried bark: "Stay together. Stay peaceful. This is a peaceful demonstration... The police are getting into the van. No way you fucking pol---."

With the command center neutralized, the police quickly gained the upper hand and the activist tide receded with a little help from tear gas and a flotilla of advancing police vans.

The whole idea behind the protest was to establish a people's assembly by uniting protesters with delegates from inside the Bella Center who were disillusioned with the formal political process. The reunion never took place. Police prevented the protesters from getting in and the delegates from getting out. For a fleeting moment, some of the protesters caught sight of the delegates. This was the day's final resounding cheer. Two fences and a wall of police separated the groups.

The final tally on the day? 250 arrests. No people's assembly. And a whole lot of headlines, but about what?

I caught up with Per Tjader, 24, of Sweden, when the protest subsided. He was one of the protesters who ended up in enemy territory behind the first line of police. His reward was a frightful beating. 3 officers rained down blows on him after pushing him to the ground. If it was not earned, it was to be expected.

"The important thing today is the climate," Tjader told me. "But the sad thing is that it becomes about police and a violent confrontation."