Sit down and plan it
School students and young women have been in the forefront. Tam Dean Burn reports from the Glasgow marches and meetings
“Sit down, all you money men. No more blah blah blah!”
That was one of the lead chants from our contingent on the Fridays For Future school strike march in Glasgow on November 5. It is, of course, always tricky to gauge numbers on a big march, with official police figures notorious for underestimating, but even the BBC was quoting 30,000 as the figure for participants. There was an official estimate of 100,000 for the main Cop26 march along much of the same route the next day - the biggest demo seen in Scotland in decades, if not ever.
But that was on a Saturday and appeared to lack the energy and enthusiasm of the day before. The atrocious morning weather certainly dampened it, but there was something missing and, as a leading figure from Ocean Rebellion expressed to me later, it just seemed to lack any real purpose and would have been much better if those numbers had been organised to actually do something, like join hands while surrounding a suitable target, which would expose the rank hypocrisy of the greenwashing corporations taking part in the official Cop26 proceedings.
As it was, the police closed in on any attempts at disruption along the Saturday route with the most ridiculous an enormous three-hour kettling of about 20 members of Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism who they must have had ‘intelligence’ on, because it was a pre-emptive strike on the police part.
Kettling was used fairly extensively in the first week of Cop26, with the novel addition of having them moving, instead of the previous static ones. The police would contain contingents, but keep them moving around the same controlled routes.
Attempts at civil disobedience have actually been few in Glasgow, certainly in comparison with previous Extinction Rebellion stunts in London, but the police presence has been enormous with forces drafted in from many parts of the country. The real disruption happened when the political leaders gathered at Kelvingrove Gallery for a banquet at the end of their conference session - local people were not allowed into their homes for hours or had to take three-mile detours! The most disgraceful report was that police insisted that female nursing staff, who had just finished their shift at the local hospital, had to make their way home alone through unlit public parks late at night, whilst the leaders banqueted.
The Kelvingrove photograph of those leaders - almost all men in dark suits - starkly contrasts with the grassroots movement organised elsewhere in the city. As Greta Thunberg said, it has been shown that it is in the main young female activists leading the fight for measures to keep warming down to 1.5°C. This basic necessity is something that the world’s politicians have been proving hopeless at attempting, for all their new pledges, piled up in the first days of Cop, when it is clear that previous pledges have not been met and oil and gas extraction continues to spiral upwards.
It was this young female energy that was apparent to me on the school strike march too. I was back on a megaphone for the first time since the heady days of Hands Off Ireland marches up the Holloway Road, the Unemployed Workers Charter march from Manchester to the TUC gathering in Blackpool or the Workers Theatre Movement agitprop street sketches.1
At the insistence of the contingent of 11-year-old girls from Dunard Primary School in Maryhill, I had to keep the call-and-response chants going for pretty much the whole four hours of the march. As well as the one quoted at the top, we had this cracker: “They are few, we are many. Save the planet, pay the Clenny!” ‘The Clenny’ is the common Glasgow abbreviation for the Cleansing Department, whose workers took strike action last week during Cop26 after years of frustration at pay cuts and increasingly draconian conditions imposed by Glasgow council, and the chant was an attempt to make the link between the environmental struggle and workers on strike. It was remarkable how much support was shown on GMB picket lines by activists, whilst leading Scottish politicians and Scottish National Party-led council officials and members condemned the strike action and tried to portray it as a Labour-supporting stunt. Nicola Sturgeon even ludicrously criticised the Scottish Labour leadership support for the workers (a welcome change from their attitude when leading the council for decades) as “talking down the great city of Glasgow”.
The cuts agenda of the SNP council under leader Susan Aitken has been apparent for months now, with many libraries and community venues, often in the poorest areas of the city, not reopening since lockdown. There is a strong and determined fight against these cuts developing, the backing of Roz Foyer, general secretary of the Scottish TUC, drawing workers and communities together. Aitken has been more interested in hobnobbing with the elite Cop gatherings than dealing with the local issues, but her presence at the latest talks with the GMB have failed to resolve things and strike action will take place again before Christmas if there is not a better offer on the table.
Meanwhile, the long-running strike action by railworkers was brought to a swift conclusion just before Cop, when the RMT in particular threatened to up the ante and cause chaos to travel plans during the conference. Scotrail and the Scottish government caved in to union demands after overwhelming support by RMT members to reject the gun-to-the-head deadline threats and to take strike action. The dispute will resurface soon, as negotiations get underway for next year’s settlement with the union, which is in a strong, confident position after this victory.
Whilst the bourgeois media attempted to put a positive spin on the official proceedings, the activists present in Glasgow have by and large concentrated on gathering for meetings and events rather than marches and protests. The People’s Summit organised by the Cop26 Coalition has had over 150 meetings and it is some of these that I have found most inspiring, along with the school strike march.
Until the morning of its meeting I had never heard of the Glasgow Agreement and presumed it was a new initiative aiming to be some sort of legacy of this fortnight. But, no, it was launched a year ago, when the planned conference did not take place because of Covid and now has some 200 organisations in over 50 countries committed to its aims.2 These are committed to measures necessary to achieve a minimum 50% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, using national emissions inventories made by a powerful climate justice movement - in other words, not relying on or pleading with governments or corporations. It is about exposing them and defying their inaction by any means necessary.
The meeting itself had a panel of predominantly young women from Brazil, Colombia, Portugal and Ireland. What has already been achieved in Brazil, even under the Bolsonaro regime is incredible, with many proposed coal mining and gas extraction projects halted, often following lawsuits.3
To have such a symbol as the grassroots Glasgow Agreement already developed on such an international scale - one resolutely committed to democratic planning for a new form of society - bodes well, though comrades may question the exclusion of political parties, possibly pointing towards an anarchistic outlook.
The workshop I attended - ‘How apartheid Israel and the climate crisis are intertwined’ - was very illuminating and once more inspiring, with young women (two live on Zoom from Palestine) making up the whole panel of five speakers. The event was organised by another international grassroots organisation, ‘Gastivists’,4 and was especially interesting on its exposure of the planned EastMed pipeline to pump gas from Israel to Europe via Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.
This project is yet to start being built, but is now on the EU Projects of Common Interest (PCI) list. This PCI status means that public funds can be utilised for it. Clearly designed to draw Israel and Europe strategically closer and to reduce reliance on the controversial Russian gas pipeline, it does increase the potential for conflict in the region, thanks to the many conflicting territorial claims by the countries it aims to pass through. In 2019 a United States bill supporting the pipeline was passed, along with increased military aid for Turkey and Cyprus. All the young female gastivists are determined that this pipeline project must be stopped.
My own personal contribution to the Cop26 grassroots rebellion comes in the shape of a music video I directed, which can be seen on YouTube under its title, ‘The Sit Down’, featuring the community band ‘Brass, Aye?’5 I play baritone horn with the band and the video also features young film students and the same youngsters on the march who are all part of the Children’s Wood community - a Glasgow green space saved from building developers.6
The song’s message is that young people are asking us to “sit down and plan it”, not just protest, and that is surely the big, urgent message from Cop26 - where there was a grassroots international coming together of the young and all of us allies to plan how to break the grip of capital and take control for people, not profit.
Documented recently by Lawrence Parker at: communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com/2021/08/11/wtm-redux-tam-dean-burn.↩︎
These are laid out very thoroughly at: glasgowagreement.net.↩︎
Details of these struggles can be found at: arayara.org.↩︎
Its story can be found at: thechildrenswood.co.uk.↩︎