Ethiopian Squat – 12th August 09

–> Read this first! <–

Last night P and I went to visit the Ethiopian Squat – two large buildings with a courtyard in-between near to the railway tracks. This is the one the police boarded up so I got first hand experience of the plank of wood and the rickety ladder.

It was dark by the time we got there, good thing I brought my head torch as this squat has no electricity. We brought them some candles as well.

A few of us sat huddled around two tealights in the courtyard, attempting to position a magazine page as a windbreak, picking it up quickly whenever it blew into the candles.

There are women at the Ethiopian Squat and the atmosphere felt to me different from some of the other Jungles, perhaps because of this. I wanted to find out more about the women and their stories, but the girl sitting with us was very shy and quiet and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable by asking too many questions. She and the man she was with had both been in Calais for fifteen days. I asked the man how long it was since he left Ethiopia. I thought he had misunderstood me, but no, his English is very good. It has taken him four years to get to Calais. He was put in prison for crossing one of the borders he passed over in order to get here. I asked if his family knows where he is, if he is in touch with them? He said no, he has not spoken to them in a long time. This is no life he is living. He does not want them to know where he is. If he gets to England, then he will contact them.

There were only four of us left around the candles and we realised this was a bad time for a visit. P has spent time there before and knows a little of how the Ethiopian community works. They are apparently one of the most organised Jungles, with a rota of who will try to cross and when. Freight train hopping is a popular choice, rather than paying Mafia to stuff them in trucks. The success and casualty rates are both quite high.

I have just read an update on wwwcalaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com that a delegation from No Borders South Wales has just delivered some 12volt car batteries, lights, LED lamps, a volt meter and a car battery charger to the Ethiopian squat. This has made me smile.

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A Sunrise Cycle-Tour of Calais Slums

–> Read this first! <–

My alarm went off at 4am. This is the earliest morning I have seen since my first retreat. Knowing that in England it was an hour earlier made me feel the cold and dark even more. Still, the spirit of adventure was with me as three of us crawled out of our tents, unlocked our bikes and peddled out into the night. We were going to check out a rumour told to us by some of the street cleaners – that the CRS gather at 5am every morning outside the train station, before moving off to the Jungles to carry out dawn raids and arrests.

We positioned ourselves opposite the station and sipped black coffee in plastic cups while keeping a bleary eye on the road opposite. Nothing. We waited until around 5:30am, moving a little into the park behind us when we realised how conspicuous we must look.

I hadn’t seen this park before. It currently has a display of aerial scenes from around the world with an environmental focus. Some of them are really stunning. This is the place activists recently fly-posted pictures of migrants, making connections between migration and environmental crises, as well as saying, “look – this is what’s going on here, in Calais, right under your noses!”

The moon was still high in the black sky and deep in the even blacker waters of the pond when we left the park and I was given a cycle-tour of Calais. I can report that even Calais is beautiful at sunrise.

We didn’t enter any of the Jungles as early morning is when people try to sleep after having spent the night attempting to stow-away or cling under trucks, jump trains, steal boats or swim…

I saw the squat by the railway that the Ethiopians live in. The police recently bricked it up, with wounded and a pregnant woman still inside. Activists came and knocked through a doorway while the cement was still wet, but police came back again. Now access is only via a wooden plank going up to a wall and a rickety wooden ladder on the other side. This means the wounded people and pregnant woman must remain inside the whole time as the route in and out is too dangerous. The only bonus of this is that the police have effectively blockaded themselves out. They tried to get in but the first was too fat and they gave up. People have been taking food and vitamins to the pregnant woman.

I have an instinctive urge to find this woman and see if I can help her situation in any way. It occurs to me that any of us could spend our time helping any one person and of course it would be worthwhile, but there are up to 2,000 migrants in Calais living like this. Everything we do seems so ineffectual, like a sticking-plaster on a gunshot.

We cycled past the Eritrean squat and the Palestinian Jungle, which had been trashed by the police a day earlier. A few tiny pallet structures covered in blankets remained or had since been rebuilt.

We made our way back to camp where we drank more coffee and I passed out for a couple of hours before the sun got too hot on the tent. D was cooking something hot and spicy for breakfast, but alas the emergency phone rang and it was abandoned as we all sped off to the Pashtun Jungle to check a report that 20-30 CRS vans were headed there. False alarm. The only action was a few Afghan men gathering water in containers from the pump out front and slooshing it over their heads. Back to camp and breakfast – finally!

www.calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com

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

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.

Can Masdeu

Can Masdeu is a squatted community and social centre on the outskirts of Barcelona. It’s home to around 25 people, including some children. I visited it on my way back from Ecodharma – a while ago now but I have been meaning to write about it.

A friend lives at Can Masdeu and it was he who said I could come. Unfortunately he neglected to tell anyone else I was coming. I arrived late one night and shouted both mine and his names up at the person in the window above to discover I had missed him by an hour. He was out for the night and nobody had heard of me. I felt a little… well, not unwelcome because people were very nice about it, but it was explained to me that there are alternative on and off months for visitors and I had inadvertantly picked an off month to appear on. Oops.

Places like Can Masdeu inspire me with hope. The building was once a lepper colony. It’s a listed building but had been left to fall down by the council. Since the squatters moved in they have been working hard to repair it. There is one workday a week on the house and one on the garden when everyone pitches in. I was there for the garden day. They have a huge community garden and people from all around Barcelona come to help out. The gardens provide most of the vegetables for the community. They buy organic grains and pulses from co-operatives and also get some ‘recycled food’ from skips and from donations from shops. It’s not just food that gets donated. A local bike shop regularly donates bike parts that people don’t want after they have upgraded. Apparently it’s quite a top quality bike shop so the donations are often really good stuff. The bike workshop space is huge and includes the old confessional booths in the lower part of the building. There is also a ‘quiet space’ for yoga and meditation, a social centre open to the public on Sundays, a free shop and internet room. The shower block is outside and uses spring water heated with solar panels and there’s a bike-powered washing machine. The toilets are composting ones outside and the classiest women’s pisser I have ever seen – a sort of bidet contraption that flushes with spring water!

Can Masdeu obviously has a lot of strong links with the local community and shops, the bike shop being one example. They also do environmental stuff with local kids and while I was there they got a van load of unsold televisions delivered from Ikea! Seven years ago, a few months after it was first squatted, the police came to evict them – but the community resisted. During the eviction attempt there was a huge amount of local support and hundreds of people came to show solidarity and to try to get food to the people resisting inside. The police were stopping supplies from going in and food and morale was low. Eventually the police left. They still haven’t been back, but the community is aware that there could still be an eviction attempt at any time.

Can Masdeu is not as vegan as most of the communities and social centres I have visited. The communal meals while I was there were all vegan but the community keeps chickens and bees and my friend hunts the local wild boar. Fortunately he managed not to kill anything while I was there – just. We found a sick blind rabbit with myxomatosis sitting on the road. It let us pick it up, which turned out not to be a good idea given that it was crawling with fleas. Fortunately the fleas much preferred soft rabbit fur to my hands. Martin suggested we kill it but I was sure there must be another way. I later found out the disease is treatable and the rabbit should have been taken to a vet. Now we’ll know for next time. We didn’t kill it but it was probably in a lot of pain. Maybe we should have?

I made oat milk with one of the guys who lives there. He has inspired me to refine my recipe: it now includes tahini, vanilla and a little sugar or honey. I have been debating about honey a lot lately. I had a few sips of mead one night which was made from the honey they collect at Can Masdeu. I asked a few questions and ascertained that they do not kill any of the bees on purpose, they do not feed them any substitutes and only take (what they consider to be) excess honey. I am starting to think that super local honey collected under these conditions is possibly slightly more ethical than sugar. The long-term aim is of course to un-develop my sweet tooth.

On the garden day I was delightfully surprised to bump into somebody familiar – a girl who knows me from Brighton and shares some of my friends. We got on really well, digging through the rotting compost, almost slicing a rat in half with my spade and discussing vegan dilemmas, Buddhism, paganism and the strange and wonderful places we have come across. It turns out she lives at Escanda, another radical community in Spain I have been meaning to visit – so now I have a contact there and renewed excitement about visiting.
Unfortunately I didn’t stay long enough to see the social centre while it was open, but I did have a look at it and donated one of my jumpers to the free shop. Can Masdeu is definitely on the itinerary for my next adventure: “The Big Trip”. I am starting to plan the trip now. It’s all very exciting. I am inviting suggestions of places for me to visit and I’m also looking for travel companions for parts of the trip. Where would you like to go? I basically want to go everywhere: the world by thumb!