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Fear and Loathing in Brussels

A Personal Account of No Borders Brussels

It’s raining in Brussels. It’s 2:30am and Pete and I are the only ones awake onsite. We’re sitting at the end of an old railway platform getting rained on heavily from all sides, despite having a roof, if not walls, over our heads. Our only other company, the alcoholics, went to bed half an hour ago. They think we’re crazy, sitting here with sodden blankets and chattery teeth. Perhaps we are. We’re doing the night shift on lookout for police. It’s the Brussels No Border Camp where we arrived last night to find a skeleton camp setting up and a lot of work to be done. There was no security, no communications system, no mediation or trauma group and very few toilets. At least the food is good – supplied by no less than six activist kitchens, including a French bakery and my favourite: the Dutch Kokkerellen Actionkitchen.

No police come on our shift and we change over with the next people, glad to snuggle up in bed and drift off. Tomorrow will be a busy day.

It’s Wednesday. A friend has gone with a few hundred other campers to join the legally organised trade union demonstration in the centre of town. Ten thousand people are marching against cuts and austerity measures. The trade unions have agreed for us to form an anti-capitalist block and have reportedly cleared a space for us at the end of the march. My friend is one of those unfortunate people with a tendency to trip into trouble, despite being one of the nicest, gentlest and most humble creatures I know. Hence he has my phone number written on his arm and I have my phone on and near to hand. Sure enough I get a text message before the march has even started – “Nicked! Only 50 made it to the demo. No-one hurt”.

Somehow he manages to keep his phone hidden on him somewhere, despite being strip-searched. The text reports keep coming… “Big station. Dunno where. Hundreds here. Could do radio interview…?”

I find the legal team, who are useless. Apparently in Brussels if somebody gets arrested there’s nothing whatsoever you can do for the first twelve hours. The police won’t even tell you if they’ve been arrested or not. “But I know he’s been arrested! He’s text messaging me from the police station!” “Nope, still nothing. Wait 12 hours and come back if he’s still missing”. My friend isn’t the only one – a reported 350 people have been “preventatively arrested” walking around, getting onto buses, going into shops… it seems if you look like a camper in Brussels today, you will likely be arrested.

More texts… “Hey J, been moved to a new cell on my own. Passport and bag gone. Lots of chanting and resistance in the prison. Everyone has removed and fucked off (got rid of) their plastic handcuffs. Cops are scared coz they can’t close some of the doors due to damage. No-one hurt.”

I find the media team, who’ve set up a cyber cafe in a corner of the massive derelict train station that’s housing half of the camp. One man starts typing my information onto Indymedia, but realises it’ll give the game away to the police who’re bound to be monitoring the site. They’ll surely take his phone from him and then we won’t know what’s going on anymore. A radio interview sounds good, but the equipment won’t be available for hours. This is so frustrating – there must be something useful we can do!

“They lost my passport and wallet. Then they claimed I attacked a police officer but dropped charges. They said they’ll let me out at midnight. Bastards.”

After that I lose contact. He stops replying to messages and I have to go offsite for a meeting. When I return, coachloads of people are being dropped off by police at the gate. I ask around and nobody has seen my friend, but reports say everyone has now been released and if he’s not back yet he will be soon. What to do? If I wait by the gate I won’t see him if he’s already back. If I go in and search for him he might come back without me noticing. This particular friend is very easy to lose.

I wait until 2am and decide I must have missed him. Clearly he came back on an early coach and went to bed, probably exhausted. I ‘m pretty tired myself and it’s not long ’til I’m asleep. Around 9:30am Pete and I are awakened by a light tapping at the van door. It’ my friend, just now returned on foot having been let out of custody early this morning. They said they lost his wallet, then later claimed he never had a wallet. The wallet contained 150. He thinks this is why they kept him so long. I feel terrible! I can’t believe I went to sleep without checking he was back first!

While in custody my friend noticed some posters. One of these posters was advertising a police recuitment event on Saturday. An idea is forming.

Reports are coming in of abuse in police custody. Women have been made to strip in front of male officers, at least one had clothes ripped off her when she refused. When allowed to go to the toilet, this too must be done in doorless cubicles while men stand and watch.

What shocks me more than the actions of the police is the attitude of the legal team and some of the other Belgian activists. All this is “normal”. It may not be legal, but it’s “normal”. We may as well get used to it, there’s nothing we can do. This attitude infuriates me. It seems so defeatest and I refuse to accept it – surely there must be something we can do?

It’s Saturday. My friend who was arrested before – let’s call him “Zak”, has gone with another friend, A_ and a French girl, G_ to ask some pertinent questions at the police recruitment event. Another friend, E_’s parents have a flat in the city and this they have used to wash, change clothes and make themselves look presentable. Zak has shaved his head, taken the safety pin out of his ear and is looking only very slightly strange in a black shirt and women’s fitted trousers. Unfortunately he only has sandles to wear, but that can’t be helped now. The plan is to wait for a time when they can ask questions, after which they will probably be kicked out, then come straight back to meet me so I know they’re all ok. If they don’t come back, they’ve been arrested and I can inform the camp Legal Team.

While waiting I can relax. I take a bath, do some yoga, check my emails… There’s a flaw in our plan and as the hours tick by, I realise what it is: We have no idea how long this thing is supposed to last. What if they have to sit through hours of talks and police videos before they get to ask any questions? At what point do I decide for certain they’ve been arrested and go back to camp?

Events decide for me. E_ returns and says we have to leave before her parents come home. We head back to camp. A demo happened while we were away and again there have been mass “preventative” arrests. The demo itself was arranged with police in advance and was allowed to happen, though in a tightly controlled manner.

I report the arrests to Legal, who are understaffed and irritated. This has the effect of really pissing me off and I won’t listen when they say again there’s nothing we can do. I’m adamant – there must be something and I won’t rest until we do it! Finally a man finds a lawyer for me who’s also a camper. She’s more sympathetic and makes a call to the police station right away. The police lie and say they don’t have my friends, but I still feel calmer for being listened to.

Finally A_ appears like a beautiful mirage, storming down the platform with a can of beer in one hand and a fist raised with the other. “I’m so fucking angry!” Her glasses are slightly askew, as though knocked to one side by her rage. Now we get the full story at last: Our three heroes entered the building and after a brief, dull talk, had an opportunity to ask some questions. G_ asked if it was common practice for male officers to strip-search women and to arrest people without charge. Deadly silence. The man behind the desk looked embarrassed. G_ turned to his superior and repeated the question. After having the question brushed aside by him, G_ turned to address the whole room, who by now had begun to pay attention. “Is this a job that you want to do? What are you going to do when asked by your superiors to strip-search women? To arrest demonstrators without charge? To round up gypsies, travelers and undesireables, take their finger prints and deport them?” Two policemen stepped forward and excorted her away. Zak continued asking questions and was dragged out, his shirt ripped. A_ followed. They were all held and questioned for some hours. A_ and G_ were released after signing a declaration, which they later regretted. Zak refused to sign and is still being held. On release, A_ demanded the release of Zak and refused to leave until he was set free. She was then literally chased from the building and down the road by a policeman.

So Zak  is still inside. They say they’ll let him out at midnight, typical as that’s when the metro shuts down. Fortunately it’s not that late when I get this: “Hey J, just got out. Only got one shoe! Have A_ and G_ been released yet? ACAB x” Pete and I drive out to get him.

A man and a woman out walking are picked up by police. They tell the woman they are going to rape her and bundle her into a van. There are five of them. They drive her to the other side of camp and release her. It’s a while before the two find one another again and both are deeply upset and traumatised by the experience. This is the kind of fucked up shit we are dealing with here.

Meanwhile, the man who owns Tour and Taxi’s has hired out half the train station for one night to a “Brazilian dance party”, which sounds great but turns out to be a bad disco with a 50-100 door fee. Half the indoor space is cordoned off with Heras fences and shit music booms through camp til the early hours.

Around 5am a stabbing in the disco prompts a police response, who use this golden opportunity to enter our half of camp in riot gear with dogs and raised batons. It’s Saturday night and 90% of the awake people are drunk. Men in balaclavas run past me shouting “cops with guns! Cops with guns!” which is not only untrue, but deeply uhelpful and has the effect of causing a lot of panic and confusion. Fortunately one of the police liason people is awake, sober and intelligent enough to calm the situation down. The police are persuaded to leave without incident, partly by Tour and Taxi’s own security, who don’t want their space destroyed.

It’s Monday. I leave camp in search of a quiet place to sit, write and digest the past ten days. Both the cafes I know are closed so I head toward the squats that were hosting events throughout the week. I walk for an hour across the city. A helicopter is still flying overhead and I feel certain it can see me with my backpack and my tent: I look like a camper. Nobody knows where I am. The police could take me now and nobody would know. As I reach the city, police cars with sirens blare past. I reach the 123 Squat: shut. I am now a bag of nerves. I get to the Gesu, the big squatted monastery and ask a couple of punks nearby how to get in. Fortunately somebody is at the side door about to enter and I go in with them. A girl asks if I’m ok. I’m not – I burst into tears as soon as I start talking.

How is it I can hitch across Europe alone from Bulgaria to Brighton and feel perfectly safe, but I can’t walk down the road in Brussels without having a panic attack?

After camp is ended reports continue coming in of violence, sexual abuse and torture in police custody. One particularly prominent account is that of the former Red Pepper worker Marianne Maeckelbergh, but there are many others. Four people remain in custody today.

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  1. m
    November 11, 2010 at 5:40 pm | #1

    God was it a tough week, and sunday was the worst. That concert was just deafening. I don’t know that anyone could enjoy this. To be honest, I was so sleep-deprived that night that I felt like attacking and disrupting it. My fault for not moving out. Thought I could take it. I also broke down and cried in my tent. And though fatigue played a part in that, I think it mostly was because it dawned on me that I’d lost a friend by bitching one time too many about how little attention she paid me. I ended up swearing to myself that I’d do anything at all to get it back, and I told her so, and felt more confident about things from then on. But soon after that, the reply came, more swiftly than ever, and it confirmed my worst fears. I’d gone too far. But she also left a door opened, and so I took that last chance, being at the time so happy that she’d still consider talking to me on a relatively normal basis. Although she denied that we could be friends, I’m still trying my best to be as helpful as I can. I’m at this awkward stage where I want to do good, but I fucked up so many times that it’s going to take a long time to gain her trust again…

  2. Toast-Junkie
    July 28, 2011 at 2:55 am | #2

    The story about the man and woman who were separated cause the police took the woman in the van threatening her with rape, sounds exactly like the story of my partner, when he told me about what happened to him at the camp. I want to go to the camp this year, but I’m really worried as I don’t know anyone and since it’s in Bulgaria, I’m terrible with the heat…so I’m really re-thinking it.

    • agirlandherthumb
      July 28, 2011 at 1:51 pm | #3

      Don’t let them put you off – come! I have sent you an email.

  1. May 22, 2011 at 7:52 pm | #1

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