13 – 22nd July, No Border Camp, Cologne
I get a lift to Cologne from Lille with three French activists. We arrive in the middle of the night and attempt to navigate our way through the city. Finally, we drive down a narrow road that follows the river and there, under a railway bridge on the bank of the Rhine, two circus tents and rows of identical white marquees come into view. A long freight train rumbles loudly across the bridge for several minutes. “Ohh, why can’t we ever camp anywhere nice for these things?”
What to write about Cologne?
Every No Border Camp I have ever been to (Gatwick, Calais, Brussels, Bulgaria), had it’s problems: at Gatwick it was noise and dogs; Calais, gender issues; Brussels, intense police violence and sexual harassment; Bulgaria, constant debates about levels of ‘spikiness’ and the Bulgarian context.
All I can say in way of explanation about Cologne is what I saw myself at the camp. I saw several pieces of paper taped to toilet doors, statements from various groups of people (“we, the migrants”, another signed by various people as “white male-ized person, white female-ized person”, etc.) Apparently this is the way we communicate with one another.
A group of people left the camp because there was no consensus on veganism. At least one person left after experiencing racism, leaving a note on a toilet door. The kitchen, bar and info tent went on strike in response to this. I tried and failed to find out what the experience was, who it was, whether or not the perpetrator was still onsite. Nobody knew.
At this camp I was pleased to see a greater diversity than I have ever seen before at a No Border Camp. At Calais there were many people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and North Africa, but they were there because “we” went to “their” space and made a camp happen. At Cologne there were people from all around the world who had come as activists, as part of the movement. Still, one of the most frequent criticisms I heard at the camp was that it was too white. Well, of course I hope we continue to grow in our diversity, however, let’s not forget that the camp was actually held in Germany, which has a large white majority.
I do not mean to silence allegations of racism within the movement. In a movement largely made up of privileged white people with little to no experience of racism, it would be absolutely a miracle if none of the patterns of behaviour they (we) have been taught our entire lives were not repeated to some extent. What matters to me is that we move forward in the right direction, learning to listen, accept mistakes and failures and learn from them. What seems counter-productive to me is the finger-pointing and trigger-happy political-correctness-policing that I personally witnessed at the camp, most of which seemed to stem from white guilt. It’s not that I don’t feel guilty for being white. I do. I’m sure everyone who has ever been to Calais feels the guilt of privilege. It’s just that I’m not under the illusion that the guilt, in itself, is productive.
Somebody dropped a banner off the side of the bridge above the camp. It read “No borders! No WHITE nation! Stop deportations!” Later, the word “WHITE” was covered over with another word, but I wasn’t able to read it.
A large board outside the Info Tent with the “we, the migrants” statement on it had “I am a migrant and I don’t agree with this” written on it in pen.
I saw one (white, male-ized, German) person speaking a lot about how the bar should not exist because people didn’t feel safe with it there. I saw many people from many different backgrounds drinking and socialising in the bar each night. I did not see anyone who was obviously drunk.
An ‘alternative plenum’ splintered off from the main site meetings and began making decisions independently. A large number of people at the camp were not aware of this, and the decisions were not published.
“Rumours” (most of which I heard from trusted sources) also began circulating that the camp itself had E.U. funding, that the organisers had negotiated and co-operated with the police to the extent that they were apparently willing to take masks off people in demonstrations, even if those people may have precarious legal status.
Despite all of this, some useful actions came out of the camp. I would like to report on three of them.
Dusseldorf Hunger Strike Solidarity
One positive thing to come out of the camp was the support of the Iranian hunger strikers outside a government building in Dusseldorf. Groups of activists went there each night, allowing the hunger strikers to sleep free from police harassment, which they have received constantly since beginning their demonstration.
Demonstration at the British Embassy
A demonstration took place outside the British Embassy in Dusseldorf in support of Tarik, an asylum seeker due to be deported from the UK. A small group of demonstrators, a samba band and a banner gathered outside the embassy for around two hours. The Ambassador came out to meet with two representatives from the group, agreed to send a message to the British Government in London and silenced a policeman who was interrupting and threatening a protester. The next day brought news that Tarik’s flight had been suspended, though this is likely due to continued campaigning from within the UK.
Demonstration at the French Consulate
The French consulate in Dusseldorf was occupied by 12 activists in solidarity with the friends and family of Noureddin Mohammed. The demand was for the French state to take his death seriously and provide a full investigation. The group inside sat in a circle, holding hands and singing until they were finally dragged out by riot police and arrested after three hours. A message had already been sent to France, but the group had decided to stay and wait for a response, which never came. A group of around thirty supporters and several hundred police were outside the building until the last arrestee had been taken, whereupon the police immediately filed out, drove all their cars and vans away and the protesters were accompanied halfway back to camp on the train with their own police escorts. All arrestees were released later that night.
A follow-up demonstration took place a few days later at the French Embassy in Berlin. There have also been demonstrations at French Embassies in London, Lille and Brussels. Demonstrations in Calais also continue.
Calais 10-13th July
My fist time in Calais in two years – three since I was there properly, for long enough to get involved. Everything is the same, only different. Gone are all of the jungles, camps and squats I knew. I doubt there are any familiar faces in the new sleeping spaces. Few come from Afghanistan these days. Now the Sudanese community seem to make up the majority, along with other North Africans and a few people from Iran. Where there were once a couple of thousand undocumented people trying their luck each night, now the number has shrunk to around a hundred and fifty. Those who are more familiar with the current situation say this is due to people preferring different routes, as well as the sinking popularity of the UK since the economic downturn. I would have to stay longer myself to give an opinion. As it is I am there three nights, long enough to attend a demonstration with friends and family of Noureddin Mohammed, the well-loved, now deceased Sudanese man whose last moments are still unclear.
As far as I can follow the story, Noureddin was found dead in the canal in the early hours of Saturday 7th July 2012. The police initially claimed he jumped into the river himself, after allegedly stealing a mobile phone from a woman and running away. Later this changed to falling in after a fight, later to being pushed. They said nobody would be arrested in connection with the death, then claimed somebody had already been arrested. The police have refused an investigation; refused to let the family see the body; refused an autopsy. Understandably, the friends and family of Noureddin are deeply distressed and have since demonstrated every day, including the demonstration I attended on Wednesday 11th July.
For more information and updates see: https://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/
11th July 2012
I’m on the boat to Calais, white froth lapping beneath the rumbling engine. It was an easy hitch from Brighton to the ferry. A Polish man took me from the garage on Preston Road to a lay-by on the A23. There were two lorries parked up and a small white van sandwiched between them. I stood in front of it with my little white ‘M25 East’ sign and a big grin. The man nodded and wound down his window. “Yep, I’ll take you.” Dave was a lovely man in his late 60s. We talked about how the weather effects people’s moods – “doesn’t bother me though”, he said chirpily, “I’ve always got a sunny disposition.” I could imagine that might be true. “You must have had a good life”, I told him. “Oh yes”, he said, nodding, “oh yes.”
My third lift was with two women I met in the coffee queue. The mother was admiring my pot – beige with brown flowers and big black fire-stained patches, strapped to my pack. It goes clink when I bump into things. I asked if they were going down the M20. They looked alarmed, then laughed – “We don’t have a clue where we’re going!” But after consulting their GPS discovered they were going my way after all and took me to Maidstone Services, where I met Tim. He wasn’t really going my way when I asked him, but he came back for me five minutes later anyway – “I got picked up by someone when the volcano ash was happening”, he said.
Tim dropped me at the ferry terminal, where I walked up and down the short row of cars parked outside. A seventeen year old with dreadlocks and his mum took me onto the boat. They’d just come from Brighton too. The guy will be moving there soon to study music. I wrote down lots of links for him while we waited a full hour for the boat.
Smooth sailing over the Channel. A calm before the potential storm of Calais, where a well-loved Sudanese man was found dead a few days earlier.