The day before the Global Climate March was set to be held, a blustery and cold Saturday in Paris, I took the metro to Place de la République. I was heading to one of 20 shoe collection points organized by the campaigning community known as Avaaz. Because of the protest ban in effect in Paris and the surrounding region in the wake of the terrorist attacks two weeks ago, Avaaz came up with a plan B. They would collect thousands of pairs of shoes and display them in a big public place—a sort of ghost march showing the steps that the demonstrators would have taken.
The collection point was less than 100 meters from the statue of Marianne that presides over the square, where, at any given moment in the last two weeks, dozens of tourists and locals could be seen reading the messages left for the victims of the November 13 attacks. Candles were lit and re-lit and the flowers that decorate the pedestal of the statue were constantly replenished. Television channels have been camped out at the site around the clock, their satellite antennae blending with the bare branches of the trees on the square.
A dozen volunteers in pink T-shirts were there to receive the donated shoes. They lined up a few hundred, organized by the colors of the rainbow, and gave most prominence to those shoes with messages attached. By Saturday afternoon they had collected four tons of shoe while trying not to block foot traffic in this busy part of central Paris. They hoped to collect at least 1,500 pairs by the end of the day at this site alone.
Shoes that remained in good condition after the day of marches would then be donated to local organizations. As Marie Yared, the head of campaigning for Avaaz France, told me: "It's a climate conference. We're not going to just go and throw them in the Canal Saint-Martin." The pope sent a pair inscribed with "Laudato Si'," the name of the Papal Encyclical he wrote about protecting the planet. Laurence Tubiana, France's main negotiator at the climate conference, donated a pair of Converse.
These talks are being held in a city still tense with mourning, and because of emergency measures instituted by the security services, the location of the installation had to be kept secret; otherwise, Avaaz worried, too many people would gather to see the shoes and thereby violate the ban on protests. Many who dropped off their footwear were eager to know where they could see all four tons, and were disappointed when volunteers said they couldn't divulge the location.
Dinged-up boots carried messages for world peace, and ballet shoes sported the Eiffel tower peace sign. "If we have to choose a battle, it should be for the climate," read a sign stuck in a pair of black leather shoes with blue laces. "To all those who remain, live and take advantage of life, let us stay united against human deviation and think of our future together. Love must triumph," Charlotte O. wrote on a piece of paper she tucked into a new-looking pair of saddle shoes.
A mother with her young daughter arrived with a bag overflowing. "Each member of the family dug up a pair for the occasion," she told me. While she had planned to attend the march with her family, she was happy to be able to show her support even despite the cancellation. "I think [donating these shoes] sends a three-fold message: Be responsible for the climate, say no to terror in a peaceful way, and donate shoes that are still in good condition. It's also something one can do with the kids. There are other things that are more tense. This is easier to share with them." Her daughter kneeled to doodle an Eiffel tower peace sign on the toe of a donated shoe.
Another man was less at ease with the confluence of the causes: "There is a kind of mix of ecology, the fight against terrorism, or rather solidarity victims. I think it's a shame to confuse the two. It's better to keep them separated."
Women with shopping caddies stopped and asked whether the shoes were for sale. When they were told the shoes were for the climate, they frowned and moved along. A couple of Roma boys stood staring at the display for a long moment and seemed to find it entertaining. An older man wheeled his cart, selling Moroccan mint tea from a silver teapot to passersby, along with miniature French flags. His beanie read "Paris" and was colored blue, white, and red.
One of the organizers noted that a number of homeless people had asked if they could take a pair. "It's very hard to explain to them, and it breaks our hearts when they ask if they can have the shoes. We try to comfort them by telling them that the shoes will be given to local organizations on Sunday."
"It's hard," she continued. "All we can do is understand their situation and try to limit the donations made on the fly, otherwise is will get out of hand."
PROTESTING THE PROTEST BAN
From 6 a.m. until noon on Sunday, the four tons of shoes covered a good part of the center of the Place de la République. By noon, they had been tucked away. A human chain began to form—another stand-in for the Paris climate march, where the gendarmes had projected at least 200,000 demonstrators to attend (the police notoriously low-ball the participation in these gatherings). However, the chain lasted only about half an hour before being re-absorbed into the pedestrians on the Boulevard Voltaire.
Around 1 p.m., all major boulevards leading to the Place de la République were blocked to cars and foot traffic in expectation that some would disobey the ban and try to go through with a march. Strangely, the République metro station was left open, public transportation being free all day Sunday and Monday to encourage people to keep off the roads while diplomats arrive for the opening of the conference.
A mix of people milled about the square. Some had come to see the shoes, some had taken part in the human chain, and some were visiting the memorial or merely passing through on a Sunday walk. A group of protesters had formed at the northeastern corner; demonstrators climbed the scaffolding on neighboring buildings to hang banners that read: "It's the climate that is in a state of emergency." The group attempted to march through the police barrier but were forced to turn around.
In the beginning, there were three rings. Activists from the far left of the political spectrum and anti-capitalist movements began an improvised march around the square chanting, "State of emergency, police state, you won't take away our right to protest." Observers and supporters were camped out just above the demonstration, on the steps leading to the center of the square, watching and sometimes joining in the chants. Several dozen members of the anarchist Black Bloc group stood nearby, looking aimless. One of them began beating an LED screen that ran advertisements. He didn't manage to break it. An older woman from the crowd on the steps yelled at them to take off their masks. In the third and innermost ring, there were drum circles for the rights of indigenous peoples, plus red-nosed clowns dressed in fatigues miming a soldier's march and holding a sign that read, “Make love, not war.” Some people passed through the square, wondering what the whole ruckus was about. A Turkish woman squinted to read an anti-capitalist banner—“Capitalism is a has been”—and looked confused.
Around 2:30 p.m. came the first whiff of tear gas. Helicopters whirred overhead and shots rang out. It was unclear whether these were noise bombs or firecrackers. There was a mass movement toward the metro entrance. Clashes between the riot police and a section of the protesters, who reportedly used shoes and candles from the memorial to the November 13 attacks as projectiles, prompted the closure of the metro. The police responded with pepper spray, and moved in to occupy the memorial.
It would be hours before those in the square were allowed to leave. Stuck in limbo, the largely peaceful protesters found different ways to entertain themselves. Some tried to engage with the police. A protester held out a red rose to the line of riot police, and asked, "If we can't have a voice, how are we to make ourselves heard?" Some tried convincing the police to switch sides, calling out, "Policeman, come join us!" Others joked around, beginning a rhyming chant, "Tear gas isn't green!" ("Les gaz lacrymo, c'est pas ecolo!"). A young woman sat quietly, cross-legged, at the foot of the heavily armed police, gazing at a candle lit in front of her.
Shortly after 4 p.m., the police moved in and began to arrest select protesters. "You're monsters!" a woman cried as they dragged a man to a van. "It's the terrorists that are the enemy, not the people who are protesting so they can eat organic food!" The police continued to move forward, corralling the protesters closer together in a corner of the square. The protesters replied by bleating like sheep; police would reportedly arrest over 300 of them. As night fell, only a small group remained, including the founder of the New Anti-Capitalist Party and the party's spokesperson, who joked: "We're in outdoor detention. Apparently they're out of vans. We've been waiting here for an hour and a half."
Meanwhile, at the center of the square, flower vases had been righted and people once again knelt to light candles and pay their respects.
“Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change” is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.