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/
Following the tradition of international No Border Camps, which over past years have popped up in (among others), London, Calais, Brussels and the Greek island of Lesbos; I find myself in a field in Bulgaria, screwing pallets together with an electric screwdriver to make toilets.
After nine months travelling I am once again “home” – not in a geographical sense, but culturally. I am with my own people – activists from around the globe whose belief in freedom and solidarity has brought them here, from as far afield as the North of England, Sweden and the U.S.A. Many faces are new to me, many are familiar.
During daylight hours it’s so hot in the open field that few can stand to work between 11-5pm. Mostly these hours are spent under tree-shaded tables outside the village’s only bar. As well as beer and coffee, the pub sells “salad”, which consists of tomatoes chopped up on a plate with a bit of cheese or onion scattered on top. The salad costs 50 stotinki – around 20p. The beer is around 50p. There is one place that could be called a shop. I found it by accident when I first went looking for the bar. I took entirely the wrong direction and met a small old man on a moped, who beckoned when I asked for water – “Magazin! Magazin!” I followed and he took me through a plastic curtain into the front room of his house. I wasn’t sure if it was a café, shop or just his house, but I asked for a coffee, which his wife made for me. I bought three bottles of water and the man gave me a big bag of tomatoes and showed me where he grows them in a greenhouse at the back of the house. I was pleased to remember him later when the camp supply team went looking for local food producers, and he and a neighbour supplied us with a lot of vegetables.
I tell you this to give you an idea of the kind of juxtaposition which has occured in this small village in Bulgaria. This man’s two sons, like many people in the village, make thier money from the border regime. There is not one family in this whole region without this kind of connection. So what happens when two hundred international activists turn up on their doorsteps to protest against the border? Well, not a lot actually. They are very congenial, very happy to sell us vegetables of course, and some even come to the camp to meet us and hear what we have to say. These people are not necessarily in political agreement with the border here, but it’s business: their livelihood.
The Media Collective arrived before the camp started and began a film screening programme in various small villages – including Siva Reka, Shtit (the closest village to the border) and Lyubimets, where the detention centre has been built. After each film screening was a discussion. I attended the first and the one in Lyubimets and heard locals speak about various clandestine people they have seen coming through their villages at night. A woman spoke of a pregnant lady, another of a man who knocked on their door and asked for water. They are not without sypmathy for these people, but they believe the state is helping them. They have all seen the shiny images of the Lyubimets detention centre on television and talk about how the men inside eat chicken for dinner and watch TV in their rooms. The reality, of course, is somewhat different.
The No Border Camp has officially begun. Day one sees three workshops, all with an interpersonal theme: a discussion about Safer Spaces – what are they and why are they here? A queer space and POC (People of Colour) Space onsite have already been the topic of some debate and controversy – but we’re No Borders! Surely we can’t be… racist? Well yes, unfortunately anarchists are not fully-enlightened beings and among the camp are many sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic ideas – albeit largely subconscious. There’s also a workshop on “looking after ourselves and each other” – about building debriefing and emotional support into our actions, and a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop. It’s my feeling that these three workshops on the first day of camp laid the foundation for a camp with a far higher level of awareness about these issues than is usual.
Another hot debate is the apparently unsolvable dichotomy between wanting to do “spikey” actions and respecting the “local context”. Basically, there are a small group of what I will call “The Bulgaria (based) Collective” who have been working for many months getting the plans for the camp together and have, as a part of that process, had to give their names and addresses to the police. There are a variety of reasons for this – it’s a legal requirement to inform the police about any kind of protest, and where in many other places it’s more-or-less fine to tell the law to fuck off and just do your thing anyway, in Bulgaria there are a great deal more fascists than anarchists, and those fascists are armed and organised. There are a very small number of No Borders activists – perhaps 5-10. We are witnessing the first baby steps of a movement in a country where none like this has previously existed. The Bulgaria Collective ask that we respect their wishes and keep conflict with the police and controversial actions to a minimum, since it’s them that will bear the brunt of what happens afterwards. This is understandable, but difficult. Camps like this are by their very nature decentralised and focused on autonomous actions within a diversity of tactics – many of them controversial and provocative of police responses.
When a staged “die-in” is called off by members of the Bulgaria Collective for being too confrontational (people lying passively on the road are causing an obstruction to the border), many begin to question what in fact they are able to do in this context.
This dichotomy gives rise to a lot of frustration and some very creative responses, for example: a small group of people hitchhike over the Bulgarian-Turkish border into “no man’s land”, declare a free state and hand out flyers; street theatre, a samba band and information boards on the streets of Svilengrad are designed to grab the public’s attention (although the streets are quiet, unfortunately); candles and shoes are laid outside the Border Police Headquarters to symbolise those who have died on the EU borders (the press said we threw the shoes at police and lit candles under car tyres!); a huge banner with a free legal phone number is erected outside the detention centre… then there are the usual flash-mobs, marches and banner hangs of course. These are symbolic actions – it’s understandable, but frustrating.
Demontrations at detention centres always feel different to me. Somehow it’s suddenly all a lot less theoretical and a whole lot more real: here is the prison where they lock up migrants who dare to seek a better life. Here are the people at the bars of the windows, shouting “Freedom!” in every language they know. Around fifteen hitchhikers came to this camp from the Hitchgathering a couple of weeks before, many as a result of the workshop Jasper and I facilitated. It’s amazing to see how people grow and change through these experiences. Some who began the week not understanding why some people “seem intent on violence” suddenly need holding back when they see a line of police protecting an immigration prison. Once again I’m seeing a camp’s power to radicalise people.
Among the other actions are a variety of on-camp discussions, presentations and workshops on topics from the situation in Calais and the Ukraine borders, to Understanding Whiteness and the privilege it brings.
At no other political camp I’ve been to has the level of self-reflection been so high. The apex of this for me was during the session on Roma Rights. Three women from Roma backgrounds put on this “workshop” (actually more of a lecture) in order to give vent to their… well, lets just say fury, at the level of unawareness and subconscious racism within the camp. Conversations about a visit to a Roma community opposite the detention centre at Lyubimets had provoked a variety of stereotyping and racists comments – you know the ones, about “gypsies”, stealing and romantic ideas of musicians… The women gave us all a firm talking to – “You are a white mob! …Do you know what a white mob looks like to these people? …This is ethno-tourism! …do you know why Roma people had to become performers? …”
Despite the explicitly non-violent context of the camp, which many participants felt to be narrowly defined and limiting, the camp seems to have achieved many of it’s aims – reaching out and awareness raising to local people who are already seeing an increase in migrants coming through their communities, growing a movement in Bulgaria and networking campaigns in other parts of the world.
Next year, Stockholm.