Denmark: Police brutalise climate protesters

January 23, 2010

The December United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen ended without achieving any binding agreement to cut carbon emissions. Extreme actions were taken by Denmark to ensure that protests were stifled and voices not heard.

Despite the intimidation, about 100,000 people marched in the Danish capital, a city that normally has only 1.2 million people.
The cost of security for the conference was US$122 million, with Germany and Sweden contributing specialised anti-riot vehicles. There were about 6500 police. Many YouTube clips show police officers repeatedly using batons and pepper spray on people sitting on the ground.
Similar to laws passed for special events in NSW, such as the APEC conference or the visit of the pope, special laws allowed police officers to arrest anyone at anytime and without reason, and to detain that person for up to 12 hours. "Obstructing" such an officer could lead to 40 days in prison.
At two events there was aggressive police action, even by European standards. On December 12, 968 people were arrested, with the main group of arrestees handcuffed and forced to sit on Copenhagen's streets — no small matter in sub-freezing temperatures.
Those arrested included a nun and a Hare Krishna member handing out free food.
Mel Evans from Climate Justice Action told the BBC that day: "People were very scared and they were held for about four hours on the ground. They weren't allowed to have any medical attention, any water, and weren't allowed to have any toilet facilities. People were there in freezing conditions urinating on themselves and being held in lines … essentially like animals."
Copenhagen police said the arrests were carried out because there was a "black bloc" wearing masks. Wearing masks at a protest is illegal in Denmark. However, BBC footage of the hundreds of people made to sit on the ground after being arrested show that there were no such masks.
Mass arrests took place two days later. One Australian-based journalist for on location in Copenhagen wrote on December 14: "An entire 230-person strong climate change demonstration placed under arrest, although there was no sign of violent behaviour by the protesters.

"According to Danish police the protest had not been authorised; however, until the arrests, police officers had facilitated the progress of the march and told activists they would be allowed to continue."

The protests and mass arrests continued on December 16, the main day of the summit. When a march got to the Bella Centre, the site of the main meetings, at least 250 arrests were made.

The Danish police tried to intimidate as many protesters as possible.

As one protester told the media: "I'm a bit anxious too, I feel as if we could get arrested just walking down the road."

The fear was justified, with subsequent use of tear gas, police dogs, pepper spray and batons.

Delegates attacked

The police were very keen to disrupt this protest, as delegates from NGOs and some countries from inside the conference venue threatened to walk out and join the protesters outside.

The political impact that hundreds of delegates walking out of the talks and joining the protesters would have been the main media event of the day. It would have upstaged the mostly meaningless shadow-boxing taking place within the official conference.

"The spectre of unscripted dissent upstaging the official conference on Wednesday no doubt has our Danish hosts deeply freaked out", author Naomi Klein wrote.

As the protesters approached the Bella Centre, they occupied a narrow bridge. As Chris Green from the Independent, writing on location in Copenhagen wrote: "The group of protesters was hemmed in on a narrow footbridge, the end blocked by Danish riot police clad in blue protective clothes and helmets.

"As the crowd gave way under another hail of baton blows, many ran ... at the other end of the footbridge, two vans screamed to a halt and more blue-suited officers with the word 'POLITI' stencilled across their backs leapt out, cutting off the remaining protesters' means of escape.

"Those activists left were batoned mercilessly from both sides until they collapsed to the ground. One woman desperately trying to escape stumbled and fell, her face twisted in horror as she disappeared under the stampede."

As the police attacked, delegates from inside the Bella Centre were assembling to walk out and meet the protesters. Several hundred delegates made their move, including delegates from the government of Bolivia, chanting the theme of the protest, "Reclaim Power!"

The delegates were prevented from leaving and threatened with arrest, with at least one being hit with a baton.

Joshua Kahn Russell said: "I think what's useful about this to know is that it's a reflection of the silencing of civil society's voice that's happening, that the Danish government is so intense on cracking down and silencing critics of the talks that they're even resorting to pushing violence on explicitly nonviolent protesters."

In a further indication of police aggression, police later attacked the protesters who were not arrested as they moved away from the Bella Centre. Many protesters walked back to central Copenhagen to the large "alternative" settlement known as Christiania, for a party that night.

Simon Sheikh, national director of Australia's GetUp! lobby organisation, watched the street where protesters were attacked from his apartment window.

"At a pre-planned time", Sheikh told AAP on December 13, the police "ran with full riot gear straight at women, children and families". Sheikh said that the police separated out about 350 people, pushing some into shopfronts, throwing some to the ground.

Later that evening, I saw squads of riot police marching up and down the small streets of Christiania, grunting and arresting anyone on sight. Police fired tear gas into the Christiania area, saturating a mainly domestic area of homes and small gardens with tear gas. Even dogs ran away.

Police denials that tear gas was used were later easily refuted by the large number of video clips on YouTube showing the police discharging rounds of tear gas.

Attack the leadership

A tactic not often used in Australia involved the Danish police arresting protest organisers and high-profile climate action spokespeople. These included the prominent activist Tadzio Mueller as well as Tash Verco, a previously Sydney-based activist with Friends of the Earth.

Mueller, Verco and other activists were arrested away from any protest activity, before actions took place and by plain clothes police who didn't identify themselves. Both Mueller and Verco have been charged with "public order" offences.

At Verco's and Mueller's court hearing, the police disclosed they had monitored phone calls for three months, showing a high level of police surveillance on peaceful protesters. Verco was held in prison over the Christmas period. She was released on bail to return to court on March 16.

Verco told ABC News of her arrest. Consistent with the version of events given by other arrested activists, she was cycling and someone, later identified as a plain clothes police officer, "pushed me off my bike and then put me in handcuffs and took me away".

"I was going along to public protests, I participated in the big demonstration on the 12th with 100,000 other people … I participated in organising people to speak about climate change with youth delegates for the UN, all sorts of things like that, but nothing that I could have even in my wildest imagination think would end me up in that position."


Amnesty International and others have asked for the conduct of the Danish police to be investigated. Referring to the largest number of those arrested on a single day, Ida Thuesen of AI Denmark said: "We call for the government ombudsmen to begin an immediate investigation into the arrests last night.

"When nearly 1000 people are arrested and then all but 13 are released it means that many of those people were just innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Also of concern is the allegation that police pepper-sprayed protesters while handcuffed and held in special wire detention cages, housed in a former Carlsberg beer depot. Police spokesperson Henrik Suhr was quoted in the Guardian as saying that the use of pepper spray "is quite common in Denmark.

We did use it in the detention centres because the people there were trying to destroy the cages and being noisy, and we wanted to calm them down. And we succeeded."

Deborah Doane, director of World Development Movement, said that climate change "is the most crucial issue of our time and the people must be heard, not criminalised", the Guardian said on December 13.

A protest of 25 took place outside of the Danish consulate in Sydney on January 4 and received modest coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald. In a reference to the Australian origins of Princess Mary of Denmark, the protest chanted "We've given you a princess, now give us back our protester".

[Dale Mills is a Sydney-based lawyer and attended the protests in Copenhagen as a legal observer.]

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