The Risks of Being Heard at COP21: How I Ended Up In a Parisian Jail Cell

At international summits like COP21, diplomats and dignitaries dominate the dialogue. To see how voices outside the negotiations are heard, our reporter joined a peaceful protest at the Louvre Museum.
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Protesters demonstrate against Big Oil’s influence on the arts at the Louvre during COP21 in Paris. Photo by Kate Aronoff.

This Parisian jail cell reeks of urine. It’s a Monday afternoon, and nine protesters and myself have been transferred via paddy wagon from the Louvre’s palatial main atrium to three small rooms in a tiny, overworked precinct. We’ve been told it’s likely that we’ll stay the night, maybe more. No one is making guarantees that this will go smoothly.

The state of emergency in Paris has thrown just about everyone for a loop.

Unsuccessfully trying to make out officers’ French in the hallway, I remember something I was told the night before about the difference between artists and activists: “Activists want to know exactly what the thing will look like from the outset, whereas artists are process-led and trust the process.” Seven years removed from my last art class, I'm doing my best to trust the process. But if my time at COP21 has taught me anything, it’s to place more faith in the people who landed me here than the ones holed up in Le Bourget.

The state of emergency in Paris has thrown just about everyone for a loop. Organizers outside are quick to recap which squats have been raided and how plans for upcoming mobilizations are evolving on an hourly basis. Keeping current with the flow of updates from grassroots groups and COP’s more raucous delegates is a task nearly as exhaustive as understanding the proceedings themselves.

Along with the Climate Games and Attac, one outfit that kept popping up in my conversations over the preceding days was a loose cadre of Europeans and Americans, dubbed Fossil Free Culture, concerned with getting big oil out of the arts. Thirty-six hours before being put in this cell, I met one of its organizers at a bar.

Over beers, Kevin Smith, an affable, high-energy Londoner and longtime organizer now with the group Global Justice Now UK, referred me to an action that he was helping to plan. He focused on the higher-risk portion in particular. The plan: While people demonstrate in front of the Louvre’s iconic crystal pyramid to “Keep Big Oil Out of the Arts,” inside—unbeknownst to all but a few core organizers—another, smaller group would take part in a performance with the same message, expecting arrests. I bit on his offer to tag along as a journalist.

The next night I spoke with Mel Evans and Gavin Grindon, two disarmingly friendly co-founders of the creative direct action outlet Liberate Tate. Evans is the author of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts. Grindon is an art historian at the University of Essex who consulted on Banksy’s recent Dismaland installation.

Tate’s ties with BP run deep, they explained over the remnants of some pastry. Tate board chair John Browne served as chief executive of BP for 12 years until 2007, and the oil company has sponsored the institution for more than 20 years.

Like similar sponsorships, the sums BP awards to museums are generally small. A lawsuit filed by activists revealed that, on average, the company gives Tate just £224,000 per year—a small fraction of the museum’s £221.5 million income in 2014.

We scribbled an allied lawyer’s name on our hands. Just in case.

Organizers with Liberate Tate and other fossil-free culture groups see themselves as protecting, not defaming, the institutions they target. “Public spaces are places where people can reflect on what the future will look like and the answers to different big social questions,” Evans said, grounding the plan’s action in the context of the climate talks. “If you have an oil sponsor at the doorway, you’re not being allowed an open public space to have those important conversations.” BP plastering its name onto galleries and exhibitions, she tells me, means that whatever future museumgoers imagine is still one brought to them by oil giants.

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010, Evans, Grindon, and the rest of Liberate Tate decided to take their first action. They splashed 5 gallons of molasses—meant to resemble oil—outside the entrance of a ritzy private summer party being hosted by BP in Tate Britain, topping off the discharge with feathers and glitter.

“Seeing that it was political figures in the U.K. that were propping up BP in that time of crisis, we wanted to find a way to question and challenge that support for a company that is largely owned by U.S. banks, and that has acted irresponsibly, horrendously,” Evans added.

Since its inception, Liberate Tate has brought together a mix of cultural workers, museum staff, and seasoned activists, yielding a series of elaborate and stark demonstrations involving funeral veils, chunks of Arctic ice and—of course—mock oil. As members of the art world, Grindon explained, they go to great lengths to make their performances slow and deliberate so as not to alarm visitors and curatorial staff or harm the art. Just last week Liberate Tate—which counts more than 500 activists among its ranks in London—installed itself in the gallery and gave out personalized tattoos noting the level of carbon in the atmosphere in each recipient’s year of birth. They brought the same tattoo gun to Paris.

Liberate Tate has inspired analogous efforts around London and abroad. Art Not Oil, an umbrella network, now contains seven groups trying to gut fossil fuel sponsorship from the city’s museums. Similar outfits have cropped up in the United States (The Natural History Museum) and Norway (Stopp Oljesponsing av Norsk Kulturliv), with upstart efforts in Brazil and elsewhere. This week in Paris was the first time they had come together, holding a three-day retreat that created grounds for further collaboration. It also spawned the idea for today’s action, targeting what Evans calls “two companies that should not be benefiting from the rosy glow of France’s most prestigious art gallery.” Oil corporations Total and Eni each sponsor the Louvre.

At that point in the conversation, forgetting all the talks seasoned organizers had given me on staying mum about high-risk actions, I remembered my talk with Smith and blurted out, “Isn’t there something happening inside as well?” Evans and Grindon looked at one another, and then around the room before lowering their voices. Sheepish and turning bright red, I turned off the audio recorder I’d been using. Minutes later I had my directive, still more than a little taken aback by the trust of near-strangers.

An American organizer was turned away at the door after police found a letter to the Louvre’s curatorial staff stowed in his bag.

Having arrived at the Metro stop rendezvous in the morning uncharacteristically early, I fumbled around on my phone like a teenager waiting for her date’s mom to drop him off at a movie theater. Eventually, I met up with Evans and Clara Paillard, president of the Public and Commercial Services Union’s Culture Sector in Britain. The PCS Union passed a motion at their annual meeting last spring calling on Tate and the British Museum to cut their sponsorship deals with BP. Paillard, a French citizen who’s lived in Britain for more than a decade, had been working in the museum sector for several years before getting involved with Liberate Tate.

Art Not Oil-style performances tend to be on the messier side, and the group makes a point of being in touch early with the museum staff, particularly the people who’ll be charged with cleaning up their installations. The cadre putting on today’s demonstration had already contacted Louvre workers and their union, and Paillard met with its president the following day. As we rode the Metro, Evans practiced with Paillard the words each would use in their role as liaisons for the afternoon’s performance to explain to staff what was happening .

We got to the Louvre around 11 a.m., bought coffee and tried connecting to Wi-Fi after scoping out the central atrium directly under the iconic glass pyramid. We scribbled an allied lawyer’s name on our hands. Just in case.

More teams of two and three sat down near us, avoiding eye contact with one another that might raise suspicion from museum guards. Evans learned from a text that an American organizer was turned away at the door after police found a letter to the Louvre’s curatorial staff stowed in his bag. Three others couldn’t make it in either. Sheila (who asked that her last name not be used), another Art Not Oil veteran, found replacements without missing a beat.

At 12:20 our group scattered throughout the lobby. I wandered around playing my best tourist, though nerves made it harder than it should have been during my first visit to the Louvre. Minutes later, a small huddle gathered directly under the pyramid’s tip to begin the performance in earnest. Two activists unleashed a puddle of molasses into the center of the floor and ran off.

Seven others took off their shoes, stepped into the mess and began strutting in a tight circle on the spill’s perimeter, releasing black umbrellas they’d brought with them into the air. All begin to sing:

“Oil money out of the Louvre / Move, move, move
Total, Eni au revoir / Allez, allez, allez

As the crowd of tourists swelled, I started to film. After a few stanzas (and no interruption by guards), the singers—still barefoot—made their way to the elevator with several officers, along with Evans, Paillard, Sheila, and I, trailing behind. There were 16 police to our 10. Half of them wore full riot gear, complete with armadillo shoulder and knee pads. All were built like tanks, and all carried weapons.

“Je suis journalist,” I croaked in a kind of shock at the very real possibility of detainment. No dice. My lack of bravado and marginally official-looking accreditation didn’t make things easier. With some curt directions in French, I was patted down brusquely, told to open my bag and hand over my passport. For several minutes we stood around in limbo. Our passports confiscated, we gathered in clumps and speculated about what might happen next, trying to catch a glimpse of the larger Fossil Free Culture demonstration unfolding in the museum’s central courtyard.

There were 16 police to our 10. Half of them wore full riot gear.

This was not the state of emergency horror story protesters faced last Sunday before COP21 began, when riot cops fired tear gas and arrested more than 200 demonstrators after chasing them through Place de la République. Nor did it compare to the daily reality France’s communities of color face, living every day under threat of attack. With 2,000 homes throughout France already raided, 24 activists placed under house arrest and others detained at random on the street, our encounter with police was more measured and respectful than most.

The influence of the state of emergency has been felt more in the quantity than the quality of policing in Paris: random checks, getting tailed home at night, even having police board the UN-sponsored shuttles between La Bourget and the nearest Metro station. While our treatment on Wednesday wasn’t especially rough, that 10 people were arrested at all is a window into the anxious, defensive mindset from which authorities are now operating.

Inside the van, we had access to our belongings, and Evans and Sheila were able to get in touch with the legal team about our situation. Those who had thought ahead passed around fruit and nuts they’d packed. Others joked about what parties they’d miss tonight. I staggered through emails to my editors, a hasty tweet and a more carefully crafted text to my sister explaining why she should neither tell our mother nor be away from her phone for extended periods of time.

After what felt like hours, officers shuttled us in twos and threes to the lower floor, and told us to remove our shoelaces and place our bags in crates before being led to our cells. I shared mine with three others, and the adjacent room held the remaining four women in our group. Down the hall were the only two men among us.

French police are legally required to move you through the system in a language you understand, so we were sitting ducks until they could find an interpreter. At some point, it was unclear whether we or the police were trying harder to kill time. One particularly hip cop in well-fitting khakis and horn-rimmed glasses took us out of our cells individually to snap our mug shots on a point-and-shoot.

Through the day, officers in the precinct seemed to realize the absurdity of what was on their hands. Their three rooms could barely hold the 10 of us, and the paperwork and translation required to process our four different passports through their outdated IT systems seemed unnerving. Warnings of 10 years in prison—the maximum sentence for the charge of degradation of cultural objects we could have faced—were quickly downgraded after police determined that the potentially-toxic goop spread in the atrium that afternoon was only molasses.

“They feel much better regarding the substance,” one officer explained in broken English.

The mood shifted rapidly as the sun set. We were suddenly released from our cells, and our good-natured, protest-friendly French lawyer assured us that we were more or less in the clear. We were called upstairs individually for exit interviews, though a prosecutor still needed to make the final call on our case.

After we were released, Cassy, a Canadian (who asked me not to use her last name), told me that her translator had thought it was actually delightful that we were singing and dancing. “She thought that this sort of message does need to get across to people.”

Six hours after our arrest, we were all released, cleared of charges, “reminded of the law,” and told to think carefully about taking similar action within the next three years in France. My adrenaline kicked back in with the cold air. Fossil Free Culture comrades, eager to hear details, met us with chocolate, hugs, and a few bottles of champagne at a nearby cafe.

There is strength in numbers, both in a police van and in press coverage. Small and highly targeted actions like today’s play a crucial role in the ecosystem of a larger movement. As convoluted and reliably disappointing as COP gatherings can be, they provide a rare moment when the eyes and ears of the world are open and focused.

Through the day, officers in the precinct seemed to realize the absurdity of what was on their hands.

If a particular action’s success is judged by negotiators’ decisions, it is easy to feel disempowered. But seeing the talks as a launching pad, meeting place, and opportunity for spectacle—as Fossil Free Culture has these last few weeks—can hack the COP and energize ongoing campaigns in Paris and beyond. Civil disobedience should not be taken lightly, but it should be taken—especially as Hollande’s state of emergency threatens to create a new normal of canned dissent around gatherings of the rich and powerful.

Taking my audio recorder back out waiting for the rest of the troupe’s release, I asked my fellow former-inmate Rob Abrams, of London, what advice he’d give to people thinking of defying l'état d'urgence this weekend. His response? “Do it,” going on, off the cuff, that, “The attack that’s taken place on civil liberties here in Paris is letting the people who want to strike us with violence and fear win. The best way to really exercise our rights and show that we’re free and not scared is to go out in a protest and defy this ban.”