How History's Biggest Climate Change March Almost Got Lost in the Media Smog

If you weren't in Copenhagen yesterday, you might be excused for thinking the big climate march was all about violence and protest. That was the message blasted out in headlines across the internet, all variations on the same theme of destruction and danger. "Hundreds of Protesters Arrested at Climate Talks," read the New York Times front page, just above the headline "Protesters Compared to 'Hitler Youth."

But if you were here, you might have known that the biggest rally against climate change in history was, like much of the rest of the sideline activity in this cozy city, mainly about hope, play and compassionate concern. By the time the march ended -- with a civil candlelight vigil outside the Bella Center -- the greatest violence was registered only in a few broken windows at the foreign ministry.That didn't matter to the mass media, which jumped at the chance to cast the march in tones borrowed from Seattle or Quebec City. That chance came when hundreds of police in full riot gear surrounded hundreds of demonstrators in a pre-emptive strike that resulted in nearly 1,000 arrests of mainly innocent people, only 4 charges, and an untold number of eye-grabbing photos.

Keeping the Peace
The police were cited by some activist groups for alleged human rights violations, and their force will no doubt be the basis for further antagonization between the police and activists, a history-laden battle that is anything but productive.

But the police may also deserve thanks: without their intervention, the march, to say nothing of the summit, could have been marred by violence.

More instrumental perhaps were diplomatic efforts behind the scenes to coordinate the rally. Oxfam reportedly met with all groups involved, including the so-called extremist "black bloc," in an effort to ensure that if they were going to act -- as they were resolved to do -- their actions be kept separate and to a minimum.

Those efforts may have prevented Copenhagen from becoming shorthand for a range of anarchic and radical interests, a la Seattle. But the message -- that climate change is anything but a radical interest, that so many people from around the world care about what happens in Copenhagen -- risked getting lost in the noise.

NGOs: Wethinks the Anarchists Doth Protest Too Much
Word was that some of the NGOs involved in the rally, including Oxfam, Greenpeace, and Avaaz, reserved blame for the small group of protesters that tried to incite violence -- people who, as Jonathan Hiskes writes, stand more for overthrowing government than for holding it accountable.

Then again, extreme actions have a way of getting people to sit up and listen. One senior NGO coordinator told me he had no sympathy for what the violent activists were doing. But he recognized that their tactics managed to get the rally on front pages around the world.

"Maybe it's not the worst thing," he mused. "What do people want to read about? Sex, drugs and violence. And if you actually read the stories, they were quite good. But if you were lazy, then you may have missed the point."

The point being, the rally wasn't about anger or violence or madness. Just as fighting climate change isn't about belief or conspiracies or deception. It's about common sense, and care for ourselves and for our only home.

Hopefully the world leaders converging on Copenhagen this last and crucial week have been reading more than just headlines.

Follow more of TreeHugger's Copenhagen coverage.

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