12/17/2009 05:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The View From Copenhagen's Tear-Gassed Streets

Copenhagen -- Thousands of people disillusioned with the United Nations climate change conference here engaged in mass civil disobedience on Wednesday, attempting to break into the conference to hold a "People's Assembly" that was to present a more ambitious set of goals for cutting carbon emissions, and emphasize the disproportionate impact of climate change on developing nations.

Ardent young men and women from every corner of the globe mobilized for the "Reclaim Power" action, and descended before noon upon the Bella Center, which was heavily barricaded and guarded by batallions of Danish police dressed for the occasion in riot gear. Simultaneously inside the center, hundreds of dissenting summit delegates from developing nations and NGOs marched through the halls and walked out to join the protestors outside.

The agenda to break into the conference was planned fairly covertly in radical dens across the city in advance of the protest. The actions were coordinated by Climate Justice Action, a sprawling coalition of global climate justice groups that finds the major emissions reductions plans on the table wholly inadequate for mitigating the pace of global warming, and likely to ossify the divide between wealthy and impoverished states.

The climate justice advocates split into tactical wings -- a "blue bloc," which marched along a route approved by the city; a "green bloc," which was to mount the walls of the summit from an alternative route; and a "bike bloc," a "swarm" of bikes which held lines against police from yet another side of the center -- that doggedly tried to overwhelm or outwit police throughout the morning and early afternoon.

The biggest group, the blue bloc, assembled outside the northeast corner of the Bella Center, and participated in a demonstration at once both confrontational and nonviolent. Led by a band of drummers and a truck mounted with massive speakers blaring words of motivation, the protestors formed a phalanx by linking arms in horizontal chains, and using their collective weight to push up against the entrance of the Bella Center.

When police officers tried venturing into the crowd to dilute its density, they were ensnared by the free-forming chains, and reprimanded by chants such as "We are peaceful, what are you?" Every now and then, a particularly bold demonstrator jumped onto one of the police trucks guarding the entrance, and was invariably pushed off or beaten by an officer, which only fed the crowd more energy. As tension mounted, police began to use batons, pepper spray, and tear gas liberally to fend off the front lines of the human chains. The crowd fell back.

At one point a group of particularly imaginative activists rapidly constructed a bridge made out of inflatable mattresses and crossed the moat between the facilities and the road occupied by the demonstration. After a few of them were pepper sprayed and arrested, that route was abandoned as well.

When the delegates who walked out of the UN conference attempted to join the sea of protestors organized by CJA, Danish police initially agreed to it, but then at the last minute decided to forbid it. Another pushing skirmish broke out here, and a number of conference attendees were clubbed.

According to the police, the day resulted in 230 arrests. Many arrests were preemptive -- it is likely that the police were tipped off about the green bloc, which was detained before it even embarked upon its tightly organized action. That brought the total detained since the meeting began on December 7 to 1,800. Under a newly passed law, Danish police have been allowed to search, question, arrest and detain anybody for 12 hours without charge on the grounds that they might break the law in the near future.

There have been multiple eyewitness accounts of police aggression at the site of the protest. Rasmus Berlin, a Danish student, said he saw the driver of a truck in the demonstration being beaten by over five police officers. There are videos of policemen clubbing protestors who don't appear to be posing a threat to the officers or the security of the Bella Center. So far 10 have been treated for head injuries from baton blows.

What could be worth all this trouble? "I'm sick of market-based solutions that move too slowly and ensure the rich stay rich and the poor become poorer," said Alex Schmitt, 27, a shopkeeper from Germany.

The activists mobilized by Climate Justice Action, scores of whom I interviewed personally, do not conform to the arechetype of the anticapitalist European rioter. Most notably, their arguments are premised on statistics and scientific projections rather than utopian theory. They speak of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, how many parts per million of carbon dioxide the atmosphere can absorb safely, studies by Climate Analytics, and the naivete of voluntary contracts on an issue that has relatively weak economic incentives.

The attempt to appropriate space at the Bella Center mirrored the demonstators' agenda to force populist climate change solutions into mainstream discourse. "I think people are generally aware that we shouldn't consume as much, but what can we do about controlling corporations? I really came to the action because people need to reclaim power, the climate, and how we use our resources -- before the planet is ultimately privatized," said Emanuel Chevrot, 38, a civil servant from Paris.

Naomi Klein, a writer and activist idolized by much of this crowd, has argued that the roaring dissent at Copenhagen is an evolved version of the anti-globalization movement that shut down the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999. Before, they may have been considered Luddites or rebels without solutions, but now "the movement converging on Copenhagen, in contrast, is about a single issue--climate change--but it weaves a coherent narrative about its cause, and its cures, that incorporates virtually every issue on the planet."

Indeed, the protests since last week (one of which had over forty thousand participants) leading up to the Reclaim Power action on Wednesday have linked the urgent need for sustainability from everything to indigeous people's rights to refugee policies to the labor movement. The action obviously brought together European climate activists, but indigenous peoples and representatives of countries suffering from natural disasters attributable to global warming sat front and center during the People's Assembly.

The assembly was finally held less than a hundred yards outside the Bella Center's walls in the blistering cold that afternoon. Most the activists who had not left due to injury or fatigue congregated around it and listened to impassioned pleas for a more progressive climate change agenda. The sky was overcast, and the police and demonstrators were no longer snarling at one another. There was an atmosphere of genuine calm, and it seemed as if the conception of success for the day had been redefined.

By then the cameras had already left.