The evening after the commemeoration demo (see last post), I found myself facilitating possibly the trickiest yet most exciting meeting I have ever taken part in. It took place in several different languages, with translations and sub-translations and different parts of the conversation happening simultaneously. Fortunately two English girls had turned up the night before, one who could speak Arabic and one Urdu, which she discovered by chance meant that she could speak with the Pashtun – so we were able to communicate between Iranians, Africans, Afghans, English and French activists.
The meeting was called to gather all those interested in taking part in political actions in Calais. As soon as we sat down, Benjamin, one of our Iranian friends, told me he wanted to do a hunger strike. It was clear from speaking with him that he had experience of this form of protest and that he was very serious about it. Ali, a close friend of his also wanted to join him in this and has experience of going without food or water for a week. After many translations and sub-translations, eleven people said they would join in with the hunger-strike and would also speak to others living in their squats and Jungles. Because of the threats and conditions they are facing, especially the threat of deportation to Greece for those who have been fingerprinted there, those proposing it were keen to start as soon as possible: the following day.
The following day, Tuesday 29th September, we all went down to the docks to meet with the hunger-strikers. A policecar was creeping around watching us, but this was nothing unusual. But then more cars and vans began appearing and we grew nervous. We warned the migrants to leave, but they needn´t have worried on this occasion as the police only took all of the white activists, leaving those from the camps and a black woman from Belgium behind.
Some of us had passports with us, some, like me, did not – intending to stand in solidarity without papers with our sans-papiers friends. Regardless, we were all taken to the police station, our questions about why were ignored like before. We were made to sit in the hall of the station and wait for around two hours, presumably enough time for them to try to fabricate an excuse for taking us. Those of us without our passports decided not to state our nationality, which they did not like, saying it made checking our identity more difficult, despite the fact that most gave our names and dates of birth. After a couple of hours some of the more recent arrivals in Calais were allowed to leave. Others of us were led one at a time up some stairs where we were questioned. It seemed completely arbitrary. One girl who understands French heard the police insulting us and making jokes. One of them called her ugly. We were kicking ourselves for not having read up on French law, so much of what they were doing would be illegal in England. The only thing we knew was that they are only allowed to hold you for four hours on an identity check. Eventually it was my turn to be led up the stairs. I was taken to an interview room with an arrogant man (who later turned out to be the Brigadier of Calais), a buffon and a translator who seemed to take great pleasure in translating to me that I had been picked up and was being held because “French police are not nice”. I asked if this was the legal reason and he replied “yes” and then translated that the Brigadier was singing a U2 song. I was then told that on Sunday I had taken part in a demonstration which had not been declared in advance, thus making the demo illegal under French law. I said I would like to speak to a solicitor before answering any questions, but was told I could not speak with one because I was not under arrest. I asked if I was free to leave and was told no because they wanted to ask me some questions, which I said I would not answer without a lawyer, which they said I could not see because I was not under arrest, and so on and so on… before finally it was explained to me that I could just answer “no reply” to each of the questions in turn. I had already said that without a lawyer I had nothing more to declare and would answer no comment to all other questions. The Brigadere was happy about this as it apparently made things easier for him.
The rigmarole eventually over, I was released, where I found those who had gone before me waiting on the pavement outside. The last of our party was released four and a half hours after we were first taken, a fact the police tried to obscure by getting them to sign a piece of paper with the incorrect time on it. The first girl signed it by mistake and the others who spoke French were not allowed to read the paper. The translator had mysteriously disappeared. They refused to sign something they were not allowed to read and after having a bit of a huff the brigadier eventually released them. We are now collectively persuing legal action against the French police. Unlike in England, individual officers are not accountable for their actions and you cannot press charges againast them, so this is quite a complex process.
After later exchanging stories, we discovered that only two of our party were told we were there because of the “illegal” demo on Sunday, the others were simply told they were there for not having papers. All of us were questioned about No Borders and all refused to give information. One person managed to not give any information and did not have his identity checked, but was still not formally arrested.
On returning to the flat we discovered that police had visited us there also with summons for ten people present on the Sunday demo. The people in the flat told them they did not know how to get hold of some of the people as they had now left Calais. They were told that this was ok and that those people could just not attend. It seemed to me that they only came with the summons to show us that they know who we are and where we are staying in Calais.
Because of all of this kerfuffle, the hunger-strike was postponed. I had stayed two days extra in order to support people at the start of it and do some call-outs but I now had to leave. I originally intended to come to Calais for a few days at the start of September, but now October was looming and I was due to be in Barcelona, where a happy coincidence meant that a No Borders Gathering would start on Thursday and Alex would hitch down with me.
A lot has happened since I left:
Also have a look at my friend´s blog about Calais.