December 21, 2023, 4:07 Dec

Reflections on being punched in the face

Gratitude is all the rage these days, so I would like to thank the Antwerp police for providing me with my snazziest blog post title to date. At the last Code Rouge action against the aviation industry, I was part of a group whose mission was to occupy Deurne airport for about 6 hours. We failed thanks to the police repression that we faced. I had the luxury of being pepper sprayed (expected), hit with (somewhat flimsy) police batons (also expected, flimsiness welcomed) and, as the title suggests, punched on my left cheek while pinned to the ground (rather unexpected). Sarcasm aside, the whole experience triggered quite a few thoughts which I would like to share.

First of all, as long as I don't have any lasting injuries, I think I prefer police repression to fines, court cases and extended jail time. To be clear, I'm choosing between the pest and cholera here. Ideally blocking fossil fuel infrastructure to demand climate action from Belgian governments who have been found criminally negligent on this matter would be as easy as cancelling a gym membership - unnecessarily cumbersome but doable. However, since the powers that be don't like this idea, I prefer the short, sharp shock of police brutality to the long and arduous process of being prosecuted for a crime (e.g. in this case entering an airport). Communal fines ("sanctions administratives communales") are the worst in my opinion, since they a) deter you from taking actions for fear of having to pay for them (and we're not made of money) and b) it's harder to exploit your contesting them for media purposes.

While the police is not "the enemy", their violence towards non-violent activists has the benefit of crystallising an environmental justice struggle that, for me, often feels rather nebuluous. Again, to be clear, I do not want police violence. It should also be clear that it was a political decision to call in police from all over Flanders (I saw police combis from Gent among others) to prevent us from occupying Deurne for a measly 6 hours. For example, in the Netherlands the police let the activists occupy Schiphol airport. See also this video on the action, the section on arrests.

However, being beaten and pepper sprayed by people who would easily be confused for hooligans save for their orange armband and who evidently did not get enough hugs from their mothers (I can't blame them) clarifies that we are, in a very real sense, at war. We are at war with politicians, company executives, shareholders, etc who I'm convinced will mobilise ever more excessive force to protect their privileges and those of people like them. I think this confrontation is useful for a struggle that ultimately needs to overthrow a capitalist, patriarchal and colonial system that, as the name suggests, is rather hard to pin down. Hard to pin down until that is you get punched in the face by Wim (yes, I've decided to give the fucker a name) and for a brief moment you can see the battle lines and which side you're on.

There are surely other, less violent ways of making the environmental justice struggle feel more concrete and I don't believe it's as simple as 1312. I am much more inclined to understand how we are each in our own way trapped and constrained to act the way we do. Politicians who have to play a game they didn't invent, constantly under scrutiny from a media that given half a chance would also do things differently but everyone is in a race to the bottom. When in this mindset, I am forgiving towards others for their (in)actions, possibly in the hope that my own actions and behaviour (which are far from saintly) will be forgiven in turn.

I don't know how helpful that attitude is though, since the forgiveness I offer is one that deprives people of their autonomy as well as responsibility for their actions. I do not offer myself this same forgiveness because I refuse to believe that I don't have a choice. If I feel powerless, especially as an exceptionally privileged person, it's due to my own choices and refusal to recognise the power I have. Because realising that power means sacrificing those privileges.

Sometimes I go further, and tell myself (of the "enemy"): "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." Even if this were true, a story in Milan Kundera's "L'insupportable légereté de l'être" recently changed my mind about this point of view. One of the main characters, Tomas, writes an article contrasting communist political leaders to Oedipus. Oedipus killed his mother and married his father. Actually it's the other way round, but I thought I'd make it more progressive for fun. When he found out, he blinded himself even though he didn't conscientiously commit these crimes (well, he knew he killed, but he didn't know it was patricide). Similarly, Czech communist leaders may have been forgiven for making mistakes because deep down in their hearts they thought they were doing good. However, after 20 years, when it should have become clear that they were fucking up, they didn't blind themselves, when they bloody should have (figuratively at least).

The same applies to all people in power now, especially (but not only) regarding the climate crisis. You cannot hide behind not knowing, however hard you try to hide behind misplaced techno-optimism. Especially in Belgium where the governments have been found guilty (twice!) of violating the (Belgian?) right to a family life due to their pathetic climate action.

I'll end with this video summarising the police violence at the action. Every time I watch it or similar my heart starts racing. I wonder when that will stop.

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