The Bigger Picture
Published on January 28th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
When I closed last week’s column about my experiences at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen by saying I “still couldn’t avoid having to pass through a gauntlet of demonstrators” when I arrived at the Bella Center each morning, I hope I didn’t leave you with the wrong impression. Contrary to the notion some people may have gotten from televised news reports, the vast majority of the climate change activists and demonstrators that I saw were peaceful and very well behaved.
To be sure there were some trouble-makers present as well, but most of them were not affiliated with any legitimate environmental group. For the most part the demonstrators who were causing the most problems and attempting to incite others to join in, were actually members of anarchist groups like the Anarchist Black Cross groups from the UK and the Black Blocs. They were easy to spot though, since they were dressed from head to toe in black with many of them wearing masks to cover their faces. They would throw cobblestones and bottles at the police to try to provoke a violent reaction, but once they left the area things always turned peaceful again.
While I also witnessed some members of Greenpeace, Climate Justice Action and Friends of the Earth arrested, it was for trying to block entry to the conference rather than for acts of violence. I thought the Danish police were fairly restrained in dealing with demonstrators but they were also a very no-nonsense bunch. No matter how peaceful you were, if you didn’t move when they told you to, you were going to be arrested and taken to jail. Still I suspect the cold wind and snow that blew into Copenhagen during the middle of the week probably did more to put a damper on further demonstrations than the hefty police presence in and around the Bella Center.
I actually had a rather surprising run-in with some members of Danish law enforcement when I first arrived in the city while I was walking to my hotel. While the confrontation was very disconcerting at the time, after reflecting on it a bit later I came to the conclusion that it was probably a good thing it happened.
The confrontation happened after I was accosted by a young man who asked me if I spoke English while I was walking to my hotel from the Central Train station, pulling my wheeled luggage behind me. When I said yes, he asked me to follow him down a side street and translate what the sign on a building there said. I walked a few paces down the street, looked at it, and then told him the name of the restaurant that was under the sign. Then he asked me to go closer to it and read the menu for him.
I refused this time but as I turned to go back to the main thoroughfare, two Danish police officers grabbed me and demanded to see my passport and then to see how much money was in my wallet. They were so brusque and demanding that it sent me into a state of shock. So I rather sheepishly showed them my passport and before I even realized what was happening, I had also allowed one of them to rifle through the different types of currency I was carrying in my wallet. After the policeman put the money back in my wallet and returned it, he told me to go immediately to my hotel.
Well needless to say, I didn’t need to be told again. So I quickly hot-footed it back to the main thoroughfare called Vesterbrogade Street, where my hotel was, while the police continued to question the guy who had initially asked me to help him. It wasn’t until I got to my hotel a few minutes later that what had just happened to me began to sink in. I quickly recounted my cash while I was checking in and then breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that the policeman hadn’t pocketed any of it.
I guess I’ll never know for sure, but I now suspect that those policeman might have spared me from having my pocket picked, or maybe something worse, by the guy who had asked me for help and or one of his cohorts lurking nearby. And while I hope that I am never again confronted so rudely by the police in the manner I was that night in Copenhagen, I must still confess that if it makes the streets safer for me, so be it!
It wasn’t until my last night in Copenhagen that I found myself in need of the Danish police and I must say they did not disappoint me. It was freezing cold while I was leaving the Bella Center that evening when I suddenly slipped in the snow and my college class ring slipped off my finger. As I rummaged on my knees in the snow drift where I thought the ring had landed, a policeman came over and offered his assistance and that of one of the German shepherd dogs manning the entry gate. Then after 20 minutes of fruitless searching, when I had all but given up, he came over and placed it in my hand. I was and still am ever so grateful to that policeman.
So despite my rather rough welcome to Copenhagen by the Danish authorities, I shudder to think what might have happened had they not been there. And regardless of what you may have heard or read about the way the Danish police and security forces handled those who were demonstrating outside the Climate Change Conference, this journalist has nothing but praise for how these men and women conducted themselves under often trying circumstances. In fact, I plan to return to Copenhagen, when the weather is a bit warmer, to sample some of the sights, like the Tivoli Gardens, that I only got a glimpse of while I was there.