New 3S PhD researcher Cat Acheson shares her perspective on the role and policing of publics at COP26.
COP26 has been widely portrayed as a make-or-break moment for global efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change. During the first week of the conference, I joined protests on the ground in Glasgow, with a diverse coalition of environmental and social justice groups from across the world. The actions I took part in centred around messages which are conspicuously absent from COP26 itself: the impossibility of preventing climate and ecological collapse without total system change; the hypocrisy of governments and corporations advocating light-touch climate “solutions” while doing nothing to change their destructive practices; and the necessity of challenging the entrenched ideologies of capitalism, colonialism, and racism, in order to tackle climate change at its root. This movement of movements aimed to put pressure on COP26 delegates to make decisive and ambitious commitments rather than empty promises, and to hold governments to account for their consistent failure to take the level of action needed.
In many respects, this is public participation in politics in its most direct form. However, during my time in Glasgow I saw how activists are consistently othered from the public by state forces and media. Furthermore, the idea of “the public” is weaponised by police, to justify repression and violence against protestors. This raises important questions about how the idea of the public is leveraged to include or exclude certain groups, and who benefits from the strategic use of “the public” in this way. As 3S researchers Chilvers, Hargreaves, and Pallett have noted in their research, institutional framings of “the public” in relation to sustainability transitions are typically constraining. The public is viewed as an aggregate of static populations, whose role in relation to system change is limited to that of users and recipients of new technologies and policies. Public participation is managed through top-down and centralised processes such as consultations, and more dynamic and diverse forms of public participation are erased. During high-stakes political moments like COP26, the exclusion of dissenting voices from the category of “the public” has troubling implications for climate justice, and for the possibility of fair outcomes for the people and places most affected by the climate crisis.
“The public” vs. “public disturbance”
The police tactic of kettling protestors (also known as containment) was used on a number occasions during COP26. On the 3rd November, I experienced this directly. The day started with an organised rally and march in Glasgow city centre, to protest against the rampant greenwashing on display at the Conference. After police stopped the march from progressing more than a couple of hundred metres beyond the start point, we attempted to create our own spontaneous route. In the hours that followed, we were caught in a game of cat-and-mouse with the police regiments deployed to repress the protest. Each time we turned down a different road, police officers sprinted along the pavements to head us off, forcing us to double-back or cut down alleyways to keep the march going. This culminated in around 150 of us being surrounded by police on St Vincent Street. Police officers formed walls two or three rows thick, trapping us inside. We were held inside the police kettle for over two hours. We had no access to water or toilet facilities, it had gotten dark, and many of the protestors – including a large number of senior citizens – simply wanted to go home. However, no-one was allowed to leave the kettle, including people who were unwell. A police liaison officer told us to ask one of the senior officers for a medic, but when we did so, we were ignored.
Kettling protestors is legalised on the basis of preventing a “public disturbance”. Those of us trapped inside the police kettle had been transferred from the category of the public, and into a dehumanised, oppositional category: a disturbance. But if the people taking part in the protest no longer counted as the public, then who did? Where was this phantom public, conjured up by the police to justify the use of this intimidating and aggressive tactic against non-violent protestors?
The irony of situation was stark – the only citizens being impacted in any way by the actions of the police were those of us being held inside the police kettle. The police were not, in fact, protecting the public, but its literal opposite: the private. Specifically, banks including JP Morgan and the Bank of Scotland, as well as the city headquarters of the energy company SSE, had been the focus of non-violent protests throughout the week. Police action to contain and control protesters was primarily about preventing any disruption to the daily business of these institutions. Private profit and property, not public welfare, were the priority. As policing strategies play out on the ground, not only do private interests masquerade as the public interest, but ordinary people, exercising their right to protest, are actively harmed. In this way, law enforcement and businesses act together to co-opt the idea of the public, and weaponise it against the people. Media coverage of these fraught encounters, where it exists, further contributes to and legitimises the othering of activists from the category of the public.
White privilege and the elasticity of “the public”
It’s important to point out that during an incident like the one described above, the dehumanisation and othering of protestors from the category of the public is only partial, not total. This is in large part due to the white privilege of the majority-white group of protestors, and the fact that many of the police officers who participated in the incident were evidently unable to view us as completely distinct from the imaginary public they were mobilised to protect. Had the protestors been majority People of Colour, it’s likely that the police would have been more aggressive, and the incident would have been more likely to end in mass arrest. There is a marked contrast between how the police dealt with protests during COP26, and how Black Lives Matter protests were policed in 2020. Kettling was used on both occasions, but during the BLM protests officers used greater levels of physical force, held protestors for longer, and insisted that protestors provide their names and have their photographs taken before being released. This demonstrates how the idea of the public – whilst it remains a rigid category in principle – is more flexible in practice. Under white supremacist power structures, one’s perceived personhood, tied to racialisation, plays a role in determining the extent to which one is included or excluded in the category of the public, irrespective of the disruption one is causing.
One of the most uncomfortable but revealing ways this became apparent was in how some police officers taking part in the kettling tried to evade responsibility, and even performed empathy with the people being contained. Each police officer we approached, to ask why we were being held and when we would be allowed to leave, gave an evasive non-answer, and deferred responsibility to someone else: “speak to the officers in the red hats.” We would then try to approach these more senior officers, only to be ignored or fobbed off again. Responsibility for providing explanations and making decisions about our rights was continually deferred. Of course, the fact that we felt relatively safe approaching officers to ask questions is a mark of privilege. But in addition to this, some of the officers were visibly uncomfortable with what they were doing, and they tried to get around this through a bizarre performance of empathy with us, the people they were actively detaining. One police liaison officer we approached, to beg to be allowed to leave to find a toilet, said, “it’s the same for me, I haven’t been able to go either.” He was implying that we were somehow in the same boat, trapped in a distressing situation that none of us had chosen to be in, and which we were all equally unable to get out of. This manipulation of reality and denial of culpability is insulting. It also reveals the ontological flimsiness of the idea of “public” when it is weaponised against protestors. Agents with power recognise, on some level, that power is being abused under a false operating logic. So, they try to distance themselves from their role as arbiters of who is and is not “the public”, by claiming to be “the public” themselves. These tactics of distancing and denial mean that power is never challenged.
The erasure of distant and Indigenous publics
Controversies over whether climate activism constitutes a public disturbance, or counts as acting in the public interest, generally erase the perspectives of publics in the Global South. The most affected people in the most affected areas, who tend to be indigenous, poor, and racialised groups, are neither treated as important stakeholders in climate negotiations, nor as valid members of the public to whom states, negotiators, and big businesses must be accountable. They are simply left out of the equation. The media plays an active role in allowing this to happen, by failing to tell the stories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. The complete erasure of BIPOC voices during COP26 has been blatant. At a Fridays For Future press conference across the river from the COP conference centre on the 1st November, numerous young activists from FFF MAPA (Most Affected People and Places) gave passionate speeches about the devastation they had witnessed in their communities as a result of climate change and the actions of the extractivist industries responsible for both the climate crisis and violence on the ground against indigenous and vulnerable groups. However, to the deep frustration and anger of the activists, the press representatives did very little to engage with them, and had no questions at all for the African representatives.
It’s sadly unsurprising that Indigenous and Global South voices are side-lined and ignored by state, business, and media actors during COP26. They carry messages about the real causes of climate breakdown that those in power are simply not willing to confront. As Helen Gualinga, a young woman from the Kichwa Sarayaku community in Ecuador, put it in a speech at the Youth Strike for Climate on 5th November: “behind every murder that happens in the Amazon […] there is a company behind that, there is a government behind that, there is a name behind that.” To fully reckon with the climate crisis and come up with real solutions, governments would have to start by confronting the business interests behind the continued abuse of vulnerable environments and communities under extractive capitalism. And yet these same business interests wield political power, to the extent that COP26 itself has become a front for securing new business opportunities and pathways to continued economic growth under a green banner.
It’s not only out of negligence that the voices of the most affected people are erased from processes like COP26 – this is a necessary condition for the continuation of the capitalist and colonialist systems which still underpin mainstream efforts to combat climate change. When protestors target the big banks, multi-national companies, and governments complicit in ongoing climate violence, they are doing so in solidarity with a far larger public than the handful of employees and passers-by who are inconvenienced by the disruption. But this is not the story that gets told by those with power. The racist erasure of publics in the Global South allows state forces and media to undermine the legitimacy of public protest in the Global North.
If anything positive has come out of COP26 for me, it’s been seeing the groundswell of solidarity and movement-building across nations, generations, and communities. Anti-capitalist and decolonial perspectives were very much at the heart of civil society action surrounding COP, even if they were missing from the formal processes of COP itself. With global warming still on track to reach at least 2.4C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century – even after the updated pledges made over the past fortnight – the outcomes of COP26 have been predictably disappointing. In the wake of continuing institutional failures to adequately respond to the climate crisis, activism and protest are needed more than ever. The road ahead is a challenging one, and it will be made even more so by the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the UK, which is set to extend police powers to quell protest. The bill very explicitly separates protestors from “the public”, and further weaponises of the idea of “the public” to create new justifications for dispersing protests and criminalising the people who take part in them. Challenging mainstream narratives about what “the public” looks like, and defending the legitimacy of protest and dissent as forms of public political participation, are vital. As an old favourite protest song goes: Power to the People – People got the Power.