“Kaua e mate wheke mate ururoa”
"Don’t die like an octopus, die like a white shark."
Two days before flying to Paris, I had the first portion of my tā moko tattoo done. Sitting on my back, the central part of the design is the mangōpare (hammerhead shark), spreading to the swirl of my tribe’s identity and finishing in the protective embrace of the manaia (guardian spirit) around my shoulders.
The mangōpare represents determination and resilience. My people have immense respect and admiration for the shark. When warriors entered battle, on their minds was the energy and fight of the shark, and to be compared to the shark was a great honour.
This spirit of grit was on my mind as I rode the metro to Place de la République, a square in central Paris, with the rest of the delegation from the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute. Given the attacks that happened on November 13, the French government had banned public protest actions until stated otherwise. Determined to still be part of the global climate change protest wave that was happening around the world on the eve of the Conference of the Parties and the completion of the climate change agreement, the organisations in charge of coordinating the People’s Climate March in Paris looked to alternative displays of protest.
Would-be march attendees brought their shoes and lined them up across République to represent the march that would have happened. This solemn event, starting in the dark of early morning, had a multi-national presence. The likes of Ban-ki Moon and Pope Francis had sent shoes in solidarity. The ground was covered with all different sizes and shapes, evoking the range of ages and backgrounds of those who would have taken a stand for their communities in person.
The steadfast nature of the people’s climate movement flowed into the human chain, a line of people following the path the march would have taken from République down Boulevard Voltaire. Having lost my phone the day before, I could only walk down the line with my fellow delegation members, watching and observing. Unable to tweet or photograph as a way to process what I was seeing, it was an emotional reminder of the vast spread of people who are touched by the fear of the effects of climate change coupled with the passion and hope to take decision makers to task on their inaction. From a father cradling his fleece wrapped baby and members of Mothers Clean Air Force to the Climate Angels and fellow New Zealanders, the protesters sung, clapped and chanted on my left. Police and vans lined the street on my right, tenuously condoning this protest.
Heading back to the square, a column of cyclists carrying banners rode past, piquing the attention of the police. As we moved closer to République bands of police were forming at the entrance to the square holding riot shields with their vans completing the blockade behind.
Standing in the square, the atmosphere was still positive. There were musicians playing and people dancing. Most of the people had gathered around Lady Liberté, the large statue of a woman holding an olive branch standing proud atop a carved stone plinth. Lady Liberté was built to commemorate the French Revolution, an event which pivoted the world into modernity, radically changing what it means to be human and interact with one another. Although that revolution had been a long, violent and bloody event it was the same spirit and desire for a better world that could be seen in République on that day. This site, steeped in historic symbolism, has remained an embodiment of hope and change. The heartfelt messages, flowers and candles in memorial of those who had been killed in the November 13 attacks still sat at the base of Lady Liberté, emphasising the wishes of the public for something new, something better, something safe.
In the square I climbed a lamp post to get a better view of République. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. At all seven street entrances into the square were the police blockades. The blue lights were constantly flashing in my peripheral vision, reminding me to be careful.
A march began on the far side of the square, passing around Lady Liberté and down Avenue de la République. The police blockade prevented them from going far from the square and the march pressed back in frustration. Various reports have differed about what kind of force the police used, with some mentioning pepper spray, but I did not see what forced the marchers back up the square. This pent up protest stewed in République as further groups continued to arrive. Smaller protests from Alternative Libertaire and Free Palestine were adding their cries to the demands already present.
It was clear now that it was only a matter of time before something happened. I was tense, constantly looking around the square from my perch and watching for the next action. This watching and waiting seemed to last for ages. Were we safe? Were the impending clashes between civilians and police no longer a possibility? With a lot of work to do before CoP21 and the first ADP session started, many had gone home. Only Florence and I remained by this point, still bearing witness from the lamp post.
Lady Liberté watched on as the crowd gathered at the entrance to Rue du Temple. I could not see much of what was happening between that group and the police at the blockade but it was not long before everyone across the square was aware of the friction. Two canisters were fired into the crowd, gas spewing in tight arcs into the front lines. White clouds floated across in my direction but I only felt the slightest tingles from the tear gas. The gas dissipated before it affected many of those in the square but the threat still hung in the air.
All those who stayed on moved slowly but tensely, like spooked cats. Scarves were wrapped around mouths and eyes as we paused nervously. I had the nearest metro entrance in my sight, ready to make a quick exit when the friction became too dangerous.
This was another waiting game and I naively thought that the previous tear gassing was the peak of the conflict. This was thrown from my mind as I saw more canisters fired into the thickest sections of the crowd at the entrance to Rue du Temple. There was a moment of hesitation, breath held, as I watched with anticipation. From the corner of my eye I saw canisters land nearby. Thick vapour rolled towards me as I leapt down from the lamp post and sprinted for the metro. Florence and I held on to each other in the throng of people running with us as we moved down the stairs. We did not stop until we came to the lowest level of the underground, coughing.
The peaceful and haunting demonstrations of the morning were far from my mind as we caught the next train and rode out from under Place du la République but, as I sit here contemplating the day, it is those actions in the morning that remain in my mind. I am still unsure about what caused the clashes later on in the day. There have been differing accounts that have not been reconciled. The police had stated that the people in République had thrown bottles at them, and others say that those bottles were thrown in retaliation to the pepper spray and tear gas.
What I saw was this: a movement that had creatively and persistently worked around the obstacles presented, shouting of a vision for an alternate world where climate change is taken seriously and our governing bodies act fiercely to adapt and mitigate, with common care for our global brothers and sisters. Those who placed their shoes, who held hands, who sang and danced down Boulevard Voltaire are the ones who I will remember. In the spirit of the mangōpare they were not aggressive or violent, but determined. They went out to battle that day and the shark was with them.