Global Day of Action

Saturday, December 3

Today was the Global Day of Action against the UN COP17. Here in Durban, a large and very spirited crowd wound through the city towards the site of COP17 negotiations. Here are photos of the day, all of them mine except the first two, which are by Maxim Combes.

I hope that these photos convey the jubilant atmosphere of the march. What made it particularly special for me was the animation introduced by South African resistance traditions. As the photos show, large groups of young people danced the famous anti-apartheid toyi-toyi dance and sang a capella resistance songs as we marched towards the Durban convention center.

The jubilant air of resistance I felt throughout the march needs to be reality checked, however, by the rather hopeless occasion for the march. At the end of the march, Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, emerged to address the crowd. She had virtually nothing significant to say. Vague promises that the messages of civil society will be taken back to delegates (along with a mention of the business community as another stakeholder) are an implicit refusal to commit to taking any kind of concrete action.

It also needs to be added that, as far as I’m aware, no militantly disruptive protest – including nonviolent direction action – was taken during the march. Business as usual prevailed. This might be alright if we had more time and could see this march as part of a process of gradually building a movement that will sway larger and larger segments of public opinion and eventually force global elites to shift humanity away from its current path towards collective suicide. But we simply don’t have that kind of time.

I’m really concerned that global elites have learned how to isolate themselves skillfully inside their barricaded conference rooms. They’re making absolutely sure that no shut-down along the lines of the WTO protests in Seattle ever happens again. So even in a country with amazing traditions of political resistance such as South Africa, protest can be made into nothing more than a species of carnival, colorful but harmless.

It’ll be interesting to hear other people’s assessments of the day of action tomorrow.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.