At COP26, the only person arrested and charged was a Communist.

Amid the deepening climate crisis, it has become increasingly clear that capitalism is not only the root of the problem, but it also offers no viable solutions. Police cracked down on those that bore the clarion call “socialism or extinction”

November 15, 2021 by Zoe Alexandra, Vijay Prashad
The Young Communist League carried a "socialism or extinction" banner during the march held in Glasgow during the COP26 meetings on Saturday November 6. Photo: YCL

Nathan Hennebry, like 150,000 other people, huddled from the rain as he marched behind a large banner which read, “Socialism or Extinction.” He was at the people’s march during COP26, the climate jamboree of UN member states that promised much but delivered little. The march wound through the streets of Glasgow (Scotland), far from the convention center where the official delegates hobnobbed with representatives of the large corporations. None of the ordinary people who marched in the streets against the climate catastrophe felt heard by the official delegates. Between the streets and the convention center was a wall of police.

The night before the march, police came to the office of the Young Communist League (YCL). They said that they were responding to a burglary, although the YCL members – including Hennebry – had not heard about any robbery in their building. Below the YCL office is The Admiral, a bar, where the police went to ask about the YCL and the landlord of the building. Early on the morning of the march, the police visited the landlord, Keith Stoddart, chair of the Communist Party of Scotland told us. “The landlord said that the communists pay their rent,” Stoddart said. The police did not file a report on the burglary. These visits illustrate a pattern of police harassment, which predated the march itself.

When the YCL gathered to march, the police showed unusual interest in them. “The police came and moved us from where we had planned to assemble,” Hennebry told us. Slowly, the more and more police began to surround the YCL group. The leaders of the YCL hastened to move their comrades closer to the trade unions, notably the representatives from the GMB (the UK’s largest union, which represents over 600,000 workers) to form a “red block” of radicals. That same morning the YCL had joined a picket of bin workers – members of GMB.

Once the march began, the police cordoned off the YCL from others. They began to slowly “kettle” the YCL. Kettling is a widely-used strategy by police departments around the world. The police essentially surround those whom they wish to detain, then they tighten the trap around the detainees and move them away – turtle-like – to a different location where they can be either arrested or released. Eyewitnesses told us that the police had effectively kettled the YCL from the start of the march to the confrontation at Holland Street and St. Vincent Street.

Hennebry was at the heart of the kettle. He saw a young family caught inside, a young kid get punched by the police, and someone faint and be taken out. Despite this, the sense of calm inside the tight circle was evident, with morale uplifted when chants of “let them go” came from those outside the police dragnet.

By the time the police began to tighten the kettle, we were right outside and watching the activity. A rumor circulated that someone in the kettle had assaulted a bystander, but this was debunked by legal observers who had surveilled the kettle throughout the entirety of the march.

When we spoke to Hennebry the next day, he told us that he had come to the COP26 to protest against the destructive impact of capitalism on nature. “Capitalism is the source of almost all our environmental problems,” he said in his characteristically gentle voice.

Nathan Hennebry is only twenty. He is calm, with a quiet sense of humor. We meet him twice, both times at pubs in Glasgow. Hennebry was one of the handful of people that the police arrested during the historic march, but he was the only one charged. The police booked him with culpable and reckless conduct, saying that he used a pyrotechnic during the march. The charge is vague and is often used against protestors. Hennebry was taken to one police station, charged, and then – in an unmarked car – taken to a second police station, where he spent the reminder of the night. “During the whole night of transfer between the two stations and then being brought to the court room,” Hennebry told us, “I was never fearful.”

The next day, Hennebry had to wait to meet his solicitor, since there is also a solicitors strike in Glasgow. The judge gave him bail.

The government wants to make an example of me to show that they’re dealing with the problem,” Hennebry told us. “They attempt to show that the communist movement is dangerous to ordinary working-class people, when in fact it is dangerous to the elites who oppress the working class.”

The official delegates at the COP26 will never know the name Nathan Hennebry or care about what happened to him during the march. They likely will not even know that a march took place. No real progress was made by these delegates to address the perils of the climate catastrophe. Nathan Hennebry believes that these delegates will never be able to find a solution because they are far too committed to the very processes that produce the greenhouse gases. “Capitalism is destructive and doesn’t work for the masses,” he tells us.

A few days before COP26 opened, the YCL welcomed the Cuban delegation to Scotland and heard them talk about how they had built processes to minimize carbon and methane emissions. Just as the United States has kettled Cuba in an embargo to suffocate its socialist example, so too was Hennebry kettled by the UK police. Socialism or Extinction said the YCL banner, the former – Hennebry said – important to build in order to prevent the latter.