Minority report from Copenhagen

Scene: The dark, vaguely panoptic courtyard of Vestre Faengsel, one of the ‘correction facilities’ that has been turned into an aptly named ‘climate prison’ for the duration of the ‘COP15’ United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. The ‘climate prisoners’, activists largely arrested preemptively over the course of the summit, are out for their hour-long daily walk.

Prisoner 1: So what are you in for?

Prisoner 2: Conspiracy to commit and incite rioting, property destruction and disturbing public order. My next hearing’s in two days. What about you?

Prisoner 1: Don’t know how long I’ll be in here – got arrested ‘preemptively’ on Monday evening after the riot in Christiania. They said that I was standing next to a stone I was going to be throwing. In the future!!!

What’s the story?

As the dust settles after ‘Brokenhagen‘, many stories could be told to explain what happened there. There is the story of the climate summit’s abject failure, for which some blame China, some the US, while some – few, to be sure – blame global capitalism, blame the insane pursuit of infinite growth on a finite planet. Against the story of this failure, there is the story of the emerging movement for climate justice. True, Copenhagen was scarcely the return of ‘Seattle’ that many, myself included, had hoped for. But there is no reason for defeatism either: new connections were made when environmentalists, alterglobalisation activists, indigenous and farmers’ organisations, critical NGOs and even some government delegations created new common grounds for cooperation when they worked together to create a ‘People’s Climate Justice Assembly’ right outside the conference centre. An unqualified success it was not, but the seeds for a new powerful round of global justice struggles were laid.

Who can see the future?

But given that I missed the main action that the network Climate Justice Action, which I was involved in, had spent nearly a year organising because I was arrested the day before; given that I spent four days in the delightful Vestre Fængsel; and given that I am still charged with a number of crimes, there’s a somewhat different story I want to tell about Copenhagen: that of the rise of preventive policing.

This may not be terribly exciting news in the United States, but from a European perspective, the policing of our protests in Copenhagen inaugurated a new era in the repression of protest and civil disobedience. In the last round of summit protests, when heavy riots shook cities like Prague, Gothenburg, and Genoa, around 1,000 people were arrested in each case. This time, nearly 2.000 people were arrested before anything had actually happened.Many were hand- and foot-cuffed and forced to sit on the freezing street for 4-5 hours, during which some of them wet themselves, others collapsed with cramps, and others fainted. The majority of those arrested were locked up in cages (quickly nicknamed Guantánamo junior), which the police climbed on in order to pepper spray the prisoners. But these things are not really surprising, and pale in significance when compared to the fact that 2,000 people were arrested preemptively: that is, for things they had not yet done. All this happened in the context of the lømmelpakke (hoodlum package), a package of laws passed just before the summit that significantly increased penalties for all public-order offences, expanded stop-and-search powers, and, of course, increased the police’s ability to preemptively arrest people purely on the grounds of an officer’s suspicions. Suspicions, for example, that somebody might throw a stone – at some unspecified time in the future.

As we paced the ever-more snowy yard of the prison, we wondered about this new style of policing, and recalled a movie all of us had seen at one point or another: Minority Report, in which the police rely on three mutants – the precogs, able to see into the future, and thus see crimes before they are committed – to carry out Hollywood’s version of preventive policing in a situation of ever-increasing social conflict and disorder. In this case, it doesn’t take a precog to see that Copenhagen is an image from our future: here, social conflicts have for years been escalating into an ever-more militant politics of urban contestation, where an increasingly legally and technologically empowered police face off against a many-headed hydra composed at various points of radical left networks, youth networks, and drug gangs. The – pace Agamben – entirely legal, non-exceptional expansion of repressive potential is in turn legitimised by an increasingly fearful and conservative Danish ‘citizenry’, who have continued to support the lømmelpakke in large numbers even after its illiberal effects became obvious. In many ways, this is the future that awaits us in the emerging global political economy. It will be defined by escalating conflicts over resources (energy, water, food) within and between countries, and the more and more apparent effects of the biocrisis, the multiple socio-ecological crisis tendencies (climate, biodiversity, etc.) that arise from the contradiction between capital’s need for infinite growth and the fact that we live on a finite planet.

Preventive policing is thus hardly an exclusively Danish phenomenon. When the Guardian wrote after Copenhagen that “we’re all eco-warriors now”, it was right not only in the sense that after the collapse of the summit, the responsibility for fighting for climate justice now lay squarely on the shoulders of social movements; it was also right in the sense that all of us who will fight for climate and social justice are increasingly likely to be subjected to the illiberal and degrading policing that the Danish authorities not so much pioneered as brought to perfection. In the kind of situation described above, where growing social conflicts intersect with the emergence of ever more legally and technologically empowered police forces, most governments are likely to use all the resources at their disposal to discharge their most sacred duty: making sure things stay the way they are.

“Someone had to stand up…

… so I sat down.” Thus Rosa Parks’s famous response to the question of what motivated her to disobey the rules governing the segregation of black and white in 1960’s Dixie USA. Then, as now, something had to give. Today, the failure of governments and corporations to articulate a convincing response to the climate crisis makes one thing painfully clear: if things stay the way they are, they will get worse. Much worse. In this context, we – not only those usual suspects who can be expected to sit down in front of every coal-fired or nuclear power plant and get their noses bloodied at summits from Cancun to Copenhagen, but all those whom the Guardian hailed as “eco-warriors” — have to be able to take disobedient, illegal actions.

Without collective rule-breaking, we would — quite literally — still be in the dark ages. It may sound trite, but it’s worth recalling that women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, the right for lesbians and gays to kiss in public and not be arrested or worse, that all these things most of us consider quite normal now, were won partly through individual and collective acts of disobedience, some civil (like the Civil Rights movement), some uncivil (like the Stonewall riots). If things go according to the proponents of preventive policing, this essential avenue of social change will be shut down: preventive policing aims to prevent collective rule-breaking before it has happened, before it can work any of its socially transformative magic.

In this sense, the biggest success in Copenhagen was no doubt that of the Danish police. Surveys carried out in Denmark before the summit show that people were clearly put off protesting by the possibility of spending 40 days in jail for obstructing the police, or paying a €700 fine for taking part in a non-permitted rally. Our (disobedient) actions were significantly smaller than we had hoped. This worries me.

Someone say something hopeful and encouraging now.

Someone stand up. Or sit down. Either way.


On the evening of January 20 of this year, a small group of anti-Fascist activists were out putting up posters mobilising for a non-violent blockade of a Fascist march in Dresden, Germany, scheduled to take place a few weeks later. Because the police had previously raided the offices and premises of organisations planning the action, and had declared the use of the word ‘blockade’ on the poster to constitute an incitement to illegal actions, the group was accompanied by a member of parliament for legal protection. From a press release written after what happened then: “The group, accompanied by [MP] Miss Menzner, was stopped by police on Schönhauser Allee, and four youths, all under the age of 18, were taken to the police station for identification. Two of the youths were handcuffed together. All, including Frau Menzner, stand accused of inciting illegal actions.” The non-violent blockade promises to be one of the biggest anti-Fascist actions in Germany for years.

Tadzio Mueller is a precarious political scientist, writer and translator in Berlin. He is a co-editor of the journal Turbulence: Ideas for Movement, and author of several texts on ‘green capitalism’ and a ‘Green New Deal’. He is active in the emerging global movement for climate justice.