Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A Different Calais Narrative

This article is not about the crisis of the sans papiers in Calais. Its not about the regular evictions and camp destructions; the deaths, the losses and the urgent needs. It's not about the multitude of repeating ways that people are denied dignity in that dead-end gateway. It's not about how or why this makes Calais a constant and desperate crisis-scape.

Its about another shade of the story we tell about the struggle of the sans papiers and those who show solidarity with them. It's a reflection on an experience I had in Calais.

Lorries are banned from driving on roads in France on a Sunday. Because of this, Saturday night is a time when people who are trying to cross from Calais to the UK can rest. On this particular Saturday night some Calais Migrant Solidarity folks decided to hold a party, and a handful of us turned up to food distribution (the place where charities give out a nightly meal) with a sound system. It was raining hard. We had a level of enthusiasm among us that was more suitable to having some cocoa and an early night. But the rain cleared and things started to change.

Our crew joined a small group of people huddled round a fire on the edge of a camp of tents where around 150 people lived (it's gone now. Its got razed to the ground a couple of weeks ago). The tinny music that whispered out of our sound system was easy to miss, but people started to gather around the fire anyway. Instruments appeared from peoples' tents. People from different musical traditions, singing in different languages, took it in turns to perform to the growing crowd. There was music from Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria... People danced and performed to each other. Bottles of wine were passed around. In the camp, among its rubbish and puddles and dubious smells, in the mist and cold and silence of the port, there was so much laughter. We partied into the night and it was so good!

To have a party like this in a place like Calais is something of a minor miracle. It is joyful and creative and essentially normal, yet it is this normality that also makes an event such as this transformative. It points to the possibility of another world and another way of being. There are two things about the party that illustrate this.

The first thing is how the party represented a dynamic based on equality. Us 'CMS crew' came with a sound system and the desire to make something happen. But the party wasn't of our making. Something emerged that was beyond us; an essential critical mass of energy created by all of us who gathered there. It was owned by no-one, created by everyone. The party re-affirmed dignity in this communal creativity and at that moment everybody was equal. For me, this equality is one of the things that gave this event such power. It's the cornerstone of a radical solidarity, and is what distinguishes it from say, aid work, because it seeks to change the balance of power between people that is often fixed through differences in race, class, nationality and so on. This isn't the only example in Calais. When we have made and maintained social centres together, and lived together in squats or camps, again we have created moments of equality across our differences. The squat Victor Hugo is a beautiful example of this.

The second thing is the wider effect created by a moment of being together in equality. What is created is fundamentally different from and a challenge to the logic of hierarchy that is foundational to the dominant structures that make up our social world (here I am talking about 'structures' such as capitalism, racism, patriarchy and statism that make certain kinds of dominating behaviour seem 'normal'). The party represented an alternative (if temporary) reality now that doesn't fit within a social reality based on hierarchy and domination. In not fitting – in other words in being 'uncodified' - dominant social reality cannot stamp it out. The police for example, are largely impotent to do anything about these parties. These moments of 'everyday subversive activity' are what the authorities cannot stand, because they point to a persistent dignity without permission, and a wilful disregard for any 'right to exist' that the authorities seem to claim as their own.

I think this party forms part of a different narrative of the struggle of the sans papiers, one that is intimately connected to, yet very different from the one of chaos. It is a narrative of joy, dignity and equality. This other narrative is important because it signals a different way of being that rejects hierarchy and domination. This narrative is often left unsaid I think, because amongst all the chaos, violence and sadness of Calais it can seem crass to focus on moments of joy. Yet I think there is subversive power in this joyful narrative, and I also have the feeling that should we pay more attention to the joy, dignity and equality we are sometimes a part of in Calais, what we achieve together may be much more powerful, as well as more joyful.

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