Calais

On Tuesday 23rd April I set off with some friends in a minibus filled with cooking equipment to the No Borders Activist Camp in Calais. Held in a field bordered by a motorway on one side and a residential area on the other, it was a less than idyllic setting for a few hundred activists from France, Belgium, England, Germany, Spain, Austria and Slovakia – possibly more, but these were the places I heard mentioned – to gather together for a week of workshops and meetings, planning towards a big demo on the Saturday.

I had decided to just come to the camp and cook, stay out of trouble and maybe go to the odd workshop. On coming to Calais I had little idea about the situation there. I knew there were migrants living in slums known as ‘The Jungle’, that their situation was not good and that most of them were trying desperately to reach England. What I did not know was the scale of the problem. There are actually more than two thousand people living in Jungles. There are different jungles for different nationalities, some of which have better facilities than others. I have heard of one jungle that has shops and a mosque, while the ones we visited had shack-type dwellings made mostly out of wooden pallets and bits of tarp. They did not look unlike many of the protest sites I have visited – minus the tree-houses, the brew crew, and of course the fact that these people are not really living this way out of choice. There was no water supply in the Jungles we visited and we heard that somebody had recently died trying to wash in the canal.

Helping ‘sans papiers’ migrants in any way is a criminal offence in France. Despite this, there are two humanitarian organisations that have been feeding people in Calais for free for several years. The food distribution points are fixed and it seems there is a begrudging acceptance of it from the police. The local authorities are supportive inasmuch as they allow the food to be distributed and they allowed the camp to happen. I was initially surprised that we had the support of the local government (although not the mayor apparently), but then realised the council probably don’t want thousands of starving people on their doorstep either and would be more than happy for Britain to open it’s border – the only closed internal E.U. border, making it in theory legal to apply for asylum here, but giving no legal means to actually get here.

La Belle Etoile have been feeding migrants in Calais for free at 2pm every weekday for the past fifteen years. They said a few of us could come with them on the Friday and help to see how they do things. On hearing that there was no lunchtime food distro at the weekends, a few of us had decided to see if we could take some food down there ourselves, given that there were three kitchens onsite and we had more than enough food for the people there. So we went to help. As well as the food, they give out these little plastic bags filled with a few slices of bread, a bit of patisserie, an apple, a plastic spoon and a toiletry item. We set up an assembly line. I put a toiletry item into each of the bags handed to me. There were mini and full-sized tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes, sample sachets of face cream, body lotion, small bars of soap, plastic razors… I had images of people getting their daily plastic bag and peering inside with dismay to find the 5th tube of toothpaste that week, when all they needed was a bar of soap. I wondered if people swapped with each other, or if most of it ended up in the bin.

When all of the 500 bags were full we walked down to the food distribution point as there was not enough room in the van. We could easily see why it was in the best interest of the police for them to let it happen there: a large open car park right next door to the Gendarmerie. A few almost-undercover cops stood around the edge or sat in cars staring at us. The food given out was not the most appetising I have ever seen: basically stock-based soup with butter and rice in. Not very filling, and some people travel miles by foot to get there from the furthest Jungles. La Belle Etoile get a bit of funding from local government and some donations, but it hardly seems enough for them to feed so many people. The whole thing felt a bit like a soup-kitchen. I have been on both sides of a soup kitchen so this was something I could relate to. The whole thing is a bit demeaning, with people being basically herded into lines.

Of the migrants I spoke to on site, most were Afghan, Kurdish, Iraqi or Iranian. We also met some Eritrean guys living in a large squatted house near the food distribution point and also about six women, who came along late and went straight to the front of the queue along with any injured men. These are the only migrant women I saw for the entire duration of the camp.

There were lots of meetings. I went to one. Usually I would go to lots, but it just didn’t feel appropriate for me. It was heartening to see migrants going to meetings as well as the usual activist types, and that there were an increasing number of languages being translated. It seemed more worthwhile for me to just hang out with people. I made friends with a small group from Iran and we had a lot of conversations. Listening to people’s stories taught me more about the situation than any meeting I’ve ever been to. Dancing and hanging out taught me more about their cultures. Visiting the Jungle and sharing food felt more to me like solidarity than going on a demo. So I didn’t go on the demo. Instead we cooked up more food than the camp could possibly eat and took the excess to the Jungle. We went first to the food distro point and fed the people who live nearby. We bought a bit of fruit and chocolate and tried to make sure there was a good amount of protein in the food we cooked. Then we went to the Jungle. The first day we went to one near to the ferry port, relatively small and hidden away in the sand dunes. After serving the food it felt odd to just stand there watching, so I crammed in my second portion of food that hour. Sharing food felt more natural than just serving it.

The second day we took food to a different Jungle – a massive one. I asked how many people and was told 700. Some others from camp had been trying to build a tree-house with the idea that it would be harder for the police to evict it. It took a while for them to get across the language barrier, but it eventually seemed like a welcome idea. Every day the police come and take people – 10, 20, or 30, sometimes 100. Migrants in Calais are used to constant arrest. Sometimes they are put in detention centres, sometimes beaten or tear-gassed. The police often trash jungles and the people we spoke to had been told that this would happen there soon.

It seems the great cultural levellers are food, football, dancing and American pop stars. The day after Michael Jackson died, everyone was talking about it. We went to a Jungle where only one person spoke English, but all of the others told us ‘Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson!’ eyes wide, hands making slitting motions across throats. One of the Iranians I made friends with was into Britney Spears. He asked what ‘gimme gimme gimme’ means. I tried to explain ‘give me’. But he refused to believe. No ‘gimmmmmeeee gimmmmmeeeee…’

My two favourite moments: the Iranian disco on the second night and the traditional Pashtun dance – there must have been over one hundred people dancing: a rare glimpse of a threatened culture.

Now that I have used the word ‘migrants’ a lot, as well as referencing several nationalities, I should point out that there was a bit of controversy over wording. I’m using the words ‘migrants’ and ‘activists’ to relate to people who were at the camp for very different reasons, with different degrees of privilege, etc. I’m mentioning different nationalities as I believe it gives a more thorough picture of where people are coming from, and also because that’s the way those people labelled themselves and I think that imposing our Western anarchist ideas against nationality onto people is a bit arrogant. At one point I was basically told that it’s racist to say that there are cultural differences between different countries. From what I saw the cultural differences were very obvious to everyone.

Gender was a particularly overt issue. About halfway through the camp a feminist security team formed to respond to some of the problems that were emerging as a result of very young males getting very drunk (often for the first time) and dancing with women (often for the first time!) There were a couple of reports of men trying to get into women’s tents, although it is unclear whether these people were actually just looking for a space to sleep in. More cultural misunderstandings? It’s easy to speculate. The vast majority of people I spoke to were very respectful.

The other kind of misunderstandings were also awkward. Having to explain to people that we were only there for a week. That we would be going home to England. That we could not open the border for them. We were there to protest, but ultimately have no more power than they do – just a little square document that allows us freedom of movement and restricts theirs. I have never felt my privilege so strongly as walking to the ferry with a cardboard sign saying ‘England’ and bumping into some of the people we had shared food with. ‘Yes, we are going home now. No, you can’t come with us. Sorry. See you in England. Good luck!’

Something I keep being asked by people when I talk about this is why all these people are so desperate to reach England. I’m not completely certain I know the answer. Some have family and friends here. Some were in the Uk for years and have since been deported and made it all of the way back to Calais. Most of the people I spoke to have a very high regard for England. ‘You are from England? Very good country, yes?’ ‘Hmm… sort of’ was the only reply I could muster. It’s difficult telling people that even if they do make it across the water, their lives may not be much better. Only 30% of asylum claims are actually granted. Many people will be deported or locked up in detention centres. Many will be killed trying to cross the channel. A lot of people we spoke to had their fingerprints taken crossing the border into Greece – often the first EU country if you come by land from the Middle-East. I had to break the news to one man that as his fingerprints were now on record in Greece, he can only legally claim asylum there. He was devastated. He said he had paid 4,000euros. Undeniably there are many people traffickers around making a lot of money by misleading people.

The camp ended on a sad note. All of the activists were packing up to go home and people with the wrong coloured skin and wrong coloured bits of paper in their pockets were becoming less and less. Some stayed to help prepare food and to tat anything not needed from the structures being dismantled. Unfortunately a lot of other stuff went missing too, including several mobile phones, mp3 players and a couple of wallets. Also the donations tin from one of the kitchens. A boy of about twelve years old was seen coming out of my tent. A friend and I made a vague attempt at confronting him about it with the aid of two translators. What followed was bizarre and I can’t say I understood it completely, but we were made to wait while the men went off and spoke together with the boy, one or other coming back every now and then to ask a question. There was much apologising and this seemed to put even more of a downer on the mood as word spread around the camp. We saw the thefts as the actions two or three people, but the men seemed to feel shame on behalf of their whole community. More cultural differences!

The camp at Calais deeply affected me. I felt a strong emotional connection to the people I was there with – some of the activists who I am now closer to, and some of the migrants I made friends with. That we had to just leave them there seemed ridiculous and selfish. I am still processing my emotions about all of this but I am committed to going back there soon to do something else. What can I do? I don’t know.

There is another personal account from the camp –>here<–

Further reading: http://london.noborders.org.uk/node/177

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Boiling Point

“How are you?” a passing friend asks as I stand on the corner of Threadneedle Street on Thursday afternoon.
“Angry!” I reply.

Actually, anger was one of several thousand emotions battling for attention in my body at that moment. I had just been moved on by the police for the second time that day in a manner both aggressive and patronizing (‘cycle carefully now’ as we were released from an arbitrary cordon). We, the couple of hundred bystanders on the pavement near the demo at Bank, in solidarity with the man who died the previous day while stuck inside a police kettle, had been surrounded by police and given a choice: leave the area completely or join the protest inside the police cordon by the statues outside the Bank of England. After the previous day, people were unsurprisingly wary of going inside a police kettle and so were declining that offer and moving around to the next bit of pavement where the exercise was repeated. Today’s demo had started off with a memorial, flowers and messages of well-wishing, but the police had quickly stopped that and were treating it as though it were “Just more of the same as yesterday”, as a cop was overheard saying to a man in a suit who had inquired as to what was going on. No mention of the death, or of the memorial.

Beside me an American man in a tweed suit telling lies to a camera crew is heckled by a protester and ends up revising his story. We laugh for what feels like the first time in years. Tweed Suit turns on us, blaming us for the death of the man. “What were you doing at 7pm last night? You should have been looking after him!”

Rewind to Wednesday. Unless you have been shut off from the world completely, you will no doubt have heard all about the police predictions of the ‘Summer of Rage’ and it’s opening events for the G20 summit. You have probably also heard lots of reports from the day itself. For once, a lot of the media has actually shown some of what really happened. This, this, this and this article from George Monbiot seemed to me particularly accurate.

However, none of the mainstream media that I have seen have mentioned the really shocking violence at the two London squats on Thursday. I spoke to a girl who was there and had been eating breakfast when riot police with tazer guns broke down the door, threatened and beat people (one guy had his face bashed repeatably into the floor), then arrested them, left them all sitting on the pavement in handcuffs for an hour before de-arresting and releasing them due to a lack of evidence against anyone there. They then said that they hadn’t come to evict the building, but since everyone had left they might as well board it up. My friend had one cop snarl into her face that this was what she got ‘for smashing up our city’. What a charmer.

I’m still finding it hard to process the emotions that have come up both during and after the G20 protests. I had already had an emotionally turbulent couple of weeks before I got to London and found myself completely unprepared for what was going on. There was so much I could see that needed to be done – emotional support, legal support, making food and drinks, keeping people calm and helping make decisions – but I found myself paralyzed with a mixture of adrenaline, fear, exhaustion and frustration that I’m still trying to process now.

I managed to escape the kettle (police cordon) at the bank (amazing what you can do when you need a pee that badly!) and decided that if I was going to be in a kettle, I would much rather it was a Climate Camp kettle. I had an inkling they would be a spot more organised than the Bank protest, and how right I was – a colourful array of around 30 tents, a toilet tent with compost loos and private wee areas, a farmers market and a people’s kitchen, three workshop spaces and a meditation area greeted me in an area of Bishopsgate that had been decorated with bunting, banners and had chalk messages swirling over the pavements. Ah, how I love these fluffy campers! Here there was a golden dancing block, a samba band, poetry, vegan cake and uh… riot police in balaclavas. Well, who can blame them – hippy students with glitter and bits of chalk can be very threatening after all. That’s why they needed to use such force to evict the camp with batons and shields just after midnight. I had already left but heard all the gory details from friends who were there, plus this footage on youtube shows the eviction.

Obviously I don’t think that legality and morality are particularly synonymous, but if the police tactics used on Wednesday and Thursday were legal, then things are already a lot worse than I thought.

The Guardian report that there will be an inquiry by the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) after witnesses have come forward saying they saw Ian Tomlinson assaulted by the police. But who are the IPCC anyway? And how independent exactly are they? Isn’t this a little bit like the police investigating themselves?

If you want to hear what happened to Ian Tomlinson, the man who died in the kettle at Bank, I suggest listening to the two eye-witnesses on this video link.

Climate Capers

I have recently returned from the police state that was this year’s Climate Camp. Somehow, despite being stopped and searched six times, sitting on gates staring at police for hours each day and being pushed around by riot cops, I managed to enjoy it immensely. Something amazing happens when hundreds of people stand together and resist the violent oppressive force of the state. That feeling of solidarity has given me a new faith in the power of people.

“We’re people too”, said one policeman to me.
“Yes, of course you are. But you’re not here representing yourself as a human being. You’re here representing the state, and our experience of the state is not a positive one. Take off your uniform and you will be most welcome.”

My inroduction to the camp this year was awakening at 5am, only three hours after arriving from a long day of hitchhiking, to the sounds of people shouting – “police on site! Everyone get up! If you want to have a climate camp then you’re going to have to defend it!” I dragged myself from my slumber and trudged in the direction I could see people running in. At the gate a scuffle was ensuing between protestors and a line of police in full riot gear trying to barge their way onto site. A red van had it’s windows smashed and tires let down by the police, who claimed it was an abandoned vehicle. Apart from the fact that somebody had been sleeping in the van at the time, there were now people on top of the van, inside the van, beneath the van and a couple of hundred people surrounding the van, all chanting in unison – “This is not an abandoned vehicle! This is not an abandoned vehicle!”
One man shouts down at the police from on top of the van – “This is the least abandoned vehical in England!” to laughter and applause.

The police know it’s not abandoned. What they want is unfettered vehicle access to the field. A few days previously, police vehicle rampaged around site, seizing dangerous items such as plumming equipment, wood for the toilets, childrens crayons and board games. This red van and a couple of cars are now blocking the most obvious access route.

A few hours on the gate may be tiresome, especially after only three hours sleep, but it really makes you realise how compassionate and organised the movement can be. After a couple of hours, more people arrived with trays and carts full of hot tea, coffee, porridge, fruit, cake and all sorts of other goodies. Large bottles of water, suncream and rescue remedy were passed around the crowd and cries of “anyone up the front there not had cake yet?” could be heard. Things like that give me a warm feeling inside.

One thing I loved about the camp this year was the amount of local support. Walking through a nearby town on our way there we were stopped by plenty of locals.
“Hey, you going to that camp? Yeah? Nice one! Wouldn’t mind getting down there myself – I hate that fucking power station!”
One guy actually worked there.
“Listen, you guys do anything to my car and I’ll fucking ‘ave you, but smash that place up man coz I fucking hate it!” He then offered to sell me his pass for £50. I only had a tenner and politely declined.
A fair few locals joined us onsite, some taking part in meetings, helping with the running of the camp, even getting pepper-sprayed by the cops on the frontline and giving media interviews. Going for a walk near the end of the camp, I was stopped by an elderly lady who congratulated me and said how pleased she was that we were doing something. “It’s up to the younger generation now”, she said.

Well, whether we shut down the power station or not depends on which media you read. Some interesting ones to look at would be Indymedia, Schnews and also check out some of the stuff on Youtube, VisionOnTV, and of course the camp’s own website.

Critical Mass

I ride the BMX I’m still borrowing from a friend down to The Level at 5:30pm and wait. I’m very early but after about half an hour I notice more bikes arriving and conglomerating near the centre of the park. I ride over to join them. Three guys sitting together drinking beer have never done the Brighton Critical Mass before, although one has done one in Manchester. Two of them have BMXs, one is just like the one I’m riding and I tell them the story of how the day before I was walking out of my flat with it when a woman who lives below me said “oh, I have a bike just like that. Would you like it?”, which everyone agreed was very fortunate but also rather odd, especially as she then said she actually had two bikes and I could take both of them. They are not in working condition though…yet!

A friend has been doing Brighton Critical Mass for a very long time now. He seems a little bitter. Apparently numbers have been falling steadily, especially since the police stopped providing an escort. Last month there were only 18 people, bit shit considering how nice the weather is, but maybe people are away? I do a head count and by the time we get moving there are 26 of us – bit better than last month then.

Everybody seems reluctant to take the lead, so we start slowly with a circuit around the park before a man up front indicates he is going left towards the seafront. We all follow suit. It’s nice riding with so many other cyclists and seems a lot safer most of the time, especially since we have enough bikes to effectively block the road and stop people coming past us. But as we continue around town and back down to the seafront drivers become increasingly aggressive, first honking loudly, then overtaking us at risky positions and shouting abuse from their windows. Where are they all going in such a hurry?

One man yells at me from his front seat – “Why are you all blocking the traffic? What’s wrong with you?”
I tell him “We’re not blocking traffic – we are traffic!”

I hear the bigger Critical Masses, like the ones in London, are really amazing. You can effectively end up with a huge car-free space on the road and feel supported by one another. I got small tastes of what that could be like but it did seem that a large part of what we were doing was pissing off motorists. Well, they piss me off a lot of the time too, but I don’t really understand why they are so angry with us. The police stopped us at one point too to ask us to go single file (!?!), although the police car did say Crawley on the side. Maybe Crawley police have too much time on their hands?

Freedom to Protest?

Something about protests makes me want to drink. I went to a march and demonstration yesterday about the freedom to protest and erosion of civil liberties. This is something that left unchecked will eventually affect all of us, so why do so few people care? The encroaching authoritarianism of Britain goes largely unnoticed. Oppressive laws are so accepted that people often think things are illegal even when they’re not, like squatting and hitch-hiking. People talk about “criminals” as though they are this certain breed of people, not like “us”, who need locking up.

Two people at the protest got arrested, one for indecent exposure (mooning a cop), pretty silly maybe but does he deserve to go on the sex offenders register for it? I’m pretty well behaved at stuff like this. I tend to do mostly what the police say, but I do feel like a coward a lot of the time. Blindly obeying authority is what’s getting us into this mess.

At Climate Camp last year people were getting arrested for really trivial stuff, like walking on the road, carrying a bicycle repair kit which contained super-glue and for refusing to give police their details. You don’t have to give police your details unless there are very specific conditions, like if you’re arrested. He was released straight afterwards. Police were also taking people’s phones and writing down the numbers. Crossing the field behind the camp on mass we were confronted by a hoard of riot police, some on horse-back. Several people were injured. Many of the police had removed their identifying numbers, masked up with balaclavas and were just swinging their batons at the crowd. Mango is currently suing the police for sexual assault after one of them put his finger in his anus through his clothes during a stop and search. Why was he stopped and searched? He was changing his shoes.

It may be true that we’re not living in a completely authoritarian dictatorship, but this is not the free, democratic society that a lot of people think it is.

After the protest I wanted a drink. First time this month I’ve been tempted but I’m sorry to report that I caved in. I didn’t just fall off the wagon though, it was more like a swan-dive. My body is currently wreaking revenge.