Monday, 5 January 2015

Sacred Spaces in the Jungle

For posterity, some writing on the awesome structures of the jungle, before they get razed by the cops*.

I've just got back from Christmas and New Year in Calais, which for anyone searching for the ultimate multi-cultural party, is perhaps the best place on Earth (picture 500 or so people and one sound-system, everyone sharing their musical traditions and dancing styles, with a huge dose of Euro-pop thrown in for good measure: hands in the air and wave it like ya just don't care yo).

During my stay I ended up spending a surprising amount of time in church. As an atheist and an anarchist this was somewhat surprising and not too little disconcerting. But this church was special, largely because of its location: the jungle.

The biggest jungle currently in Calais is known as Tioxide, after the factory that it has built up alongside. Tioxide is currently home to something like 800 people (my estimate), roughly organised into four camps along nationality lines. There is an Eritrean, Sudanese, Afghan and Ethiopian part. In the 9 or so months since this jungle started it has grown from a small collection of dwellings largely hidden in the trees to a sprawling tent city. It's been there long enough that people have started to build less temporary spaces, to diversify spacial use beyond just accommodation, and to find better ways of organising resources.

There are spaces of trade: a barbershop, a tobacconist, and a sheesha lounge, 2 restaurants / caf├ęs and a few general stores. There are spaces of religious worship: numerous mosques and recently, a church. I come from the west and perhaps there seems like some reason why I would be drawn to the church and not the mosque (there are many mosques, but one is huge and as impressive as the church for sure), but it kinda felt like an accident. The congregation requested a microphone for their Sunday service and no borders provided it. Delivering it was my access to the space.

The church has been in Tioxide around 3 months. It was built and is used, mainly by the Eritrean Catholic community. On the outside it is nothing more than a large tent with a cross on top. Step inside and you enter another world. The space is doused in candlelight and incense. It is kept warm and intimate-feeling with rugs and wall hangings. It is made beautiful with religious icons. It is a gentle, peaceful and deeply sacred-feeling space. It is made that way by the effort of making it, using it and caring for it under such adverse conditions. Being there takes you away from the jungle completely, and yet it is so of that space (the artificial factory sounds, and smells of burning rubbish and wood smoke remind you where you are). To be inside is to feel humbled.

It makes me feel that the role religion plays and the meaning it carries can vary dramatically depending on the space you are in. Back in the UK, religion plays no role in my life (Jewish family gatherings an exception). I see religion as a domination: something that stifles freedom and creativity and leaves us scared of the world. But that doesn't really translate to Calais where there is a much more obvious, pervasive and powerful structure of domination in the form of sovereignty and its border control.

To have faith in Calais is a weapon when one is forced to live so precariously. In such a place, religion and the ability to worship together feels like a subversive force as well as a way that individuals stay strong. It is subversive because it represents making your life regardless of how forbidden you are from doing so. That church is a centre for a community, and it is – unintentionally, but that doesn't really matter – a big FUCK YOU to the authorities. It is that which is subversive by being normal in the wrong place.

It is a minor miracle because it represents thirst for life and humanity and community and care and all the things that people forced to live in the jungles are denied or presented as incapable of being or having. The church (and the mosques and all the other sacred spaces in the jungle) scream of humanity. To be a witness to the faith of others in a place like this feels like such a privilege. To be a witness is also to be a participant, and that feels amazing too, because you are a part of creating something deeply meaningful there: a collective strength.

* All the jungles and the big squat "Galloo" have now been served with eviction notices, but no fixed date has been given for this.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Citizenship, sovereignty and doing citizenship differently

This week David Cameron announced the possible creation of powers to cancel the passports for up to two years of UK nationals who travel abroad to fight for the Islamic State. The measures are designed to counter the 'existential threat' posed to Britain by 'extremists'. Civil liberties campaigners have accused the Government of 'dumping suspect citizens like toxic waste', because the plans would effectively make people stateless by stripping them of their citizenship.
If you're interested in freedom and equality then there are plenty of arguments against this proposal. For me, what's most sickening about it is it's such a blatant wielding of sovereign power over people, and in a way that completely ignores issues of race and class among other factors.
But the notion of citizenship is not one that sits easily within an anarchist perspective. Theoretically at least, to criticise this proposal – and effectively argue in favour of citizenship - can also feel problematic.
Citizenship is conventionally thought of as membership of a political community - the nation - contained within a political territory - the state. The 'benefits' of membership exist as rights and responsibilities conferred upon us by a political authority. Hence, citizenship is fundamental to state sovereignty and vice versa, so being pro-citizenship is a problem if you are anti-state.
But what about thinking of citizenship without a state?
If we strip it back to basics, citizenship can be thought of as a set common of agreements between people on what we see as our rights and responsibilities to each other. I could say that it is a system that seeks to instil and guarantee care and equality between people. In doing this it is a part of making a community and therefore a part of making a political – power-full – space. Citizenship adds up to a set of agreements that make us recognise each other as political subjects.
The problem is that citizenship within a state is something so far removed from the idea of agreements between consenting people. Within a racist, patriarchal capitalist system that has a long history, citizenship is distorted beyond recognition as an agreement that we ever consented to.
Furthermore, within the framework of the state, citizenship has become thought of only as a legal status that is given to people by the state; something that is static and unchanging. From this perspective it is rarely approaches as a process that is enacted by people, and re-created all the time in the way that people behave as citizens or not. It is a legal status too, but it is also defined by the way we behave, and in that sense is beyond the views of the government as to who or what is a good citizen. We enact citizenships and in doing that, change it. In that sense citizenship is dynamic. Through our action we reinforce, as well as contest and hence change what citizenship is and means.
Some say it is this very distinction that is the problem; that if we need to tell each other we are equal, then there's some kind of inequality already present for that to be necessary. But I think this unnecessarily presents social organisation as inherently negative or authoritarian. Whereas wherever people live in common, having ways to make visible hierarchies can be an incredibly positive way of nurturing equality that would be extremely difficult without them. Citizenship can enable equality.
Coming up with ways that people can enshrine care, well-being and equality into their relationships with each other is very much a concern of anarchism. So I don't think its citizenship per se that's the problem, but how it's used within the state system.
Thinking of citizenship in terms of agreements of care that politicise its subjects enables us to separate citizenship from the state, because it enables recognition that we enact or create citizenships all the time, in many different spaces and communities beyond the state. Acts of citizenship are acts where people recognise each other as valuable in and of themselves. In that sense they happen between people who might already be excluded from citizenship / denied certain rights. People without papers coming together to discus how to organise their camps in Calais is an act of citizenship even if it is not generally recognised as anything political at all. Whenever a group comes together and discusses how they want to be together, that is a little act of citizenship.
I am against Cameron's proposal because I am against the dominant conceptualisation of citizenship that is implied in it; that sees citizenship only as a web of rights conferred by the state. So the issue for me is not about how to be anti this proposal and also anti citizenship, but rather that we talk about citizenship in a different way, and continue to focus and explore the citizenships that we create and enact in our localities.

Monday, 13 October 2014

What does listening to BBC radio news on repeat do to you?

It sends you to bed, mad with rage, yet exhausted, having spent all your energy shouting expletives at the radio all day. So, this article is coming to you live, from bed.

I work in a little shop, and often have the radio on. Yay for music. Boo for totally shit news coverage. Two of the major news stories, repeated on the hour were the following:

News item number 1: NHS workers staged their first walk out strike in 32 years, demanding a 1% pay increase (although the term 'increase' should be used loosely since earnings have been cut by 15% in real terms under the coalition, claim staff). Cue interviews with strikers and statements from the Tory's, which went something like this: 'we can't give these guys what they're asking for because if we did, we would have to cut more NHS jobs'. Put another way: 'If we gave you what you wanted, we might have to sack you'.

But why is that the only option? Why why why why why can't we increase expenditure to the NHS and, I don't know, stop funding Trident quite, for example?

News item number 2: In the run up to the general election the major TV channels are going to host a series of 3 live debates among the front runners for parliament. One of these debates will feature Nigel Farage (and none of them will feature the Greens).

Why does the BBC keep treating Farage as if he is the latest thing that everybody wants for Christmas? All this fluffing of Farage makes the BBC's undertone sound too much like its a when rather than an if UKIP will enter government. What a loada vile biased bullshit.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Statement from those on hunger strike in Calais - 11th June 2014

Taken from Calais Migrant Solidarity 

"As agreed, the exiles occupying the place of food distribution took breakfast together this morning. They formed two groups, those who will continue to eat and those who are fasting. Those fasting had slightly bigger portions. They sat in the middle of the courtyard. Yesterday they had a list of 53 people willing to get involved. By late morning they were a large thirty or so, and were waiting for those to join them who have tried to cross that night – which they will no longer be able to do during the fast. We should know more in the afternoon how many are on hunger strike.

Their spokesperson can be reached at 07 53 93 21 53 (he speaks English).

Here is the text of the call out on which they agreed:


After the destruction of our camps and our occupation of the food distribution place, French authorities came two times to meet us. They announced us they will come again to meet us Thursday June 3. Nobody came and we are without any news from them.

Today Wednesday June 11, a part us, with the support of all of us, begins a hunger strike. We ask the French and British authorities to to resume the interrupted dialogue and meet with us without delay.

We remind them our demands :
- Houses in Calais for all the migrants who wish to go to England and the asylum seekers forced to live in the street;
- Houses with proper hygienic conditions : toilets, showers, garbage collection;
- Houses where we can come and go at any time to be able to keep trying to cross to England;
- Houses safe from the police controls and mistreatments and from evictions;
- To have access to three meals a day;
- To open negotiations between France and the United Kingdom in order that people can access the British territory.'”

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.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The UK Immigration Act 2014 - Legislating for a loss of dignity

A couple of weeks ago (May 14thm to be precise) the new UK Immigration Bill passed into law. The Immigration Act 2014 brings in an array of new measures that, in the words of Theresa May, focus on 'making it harder for people who are here illegally to stay here". The act – along with this statement - could have come straight out of a UKIP election manifesto (if they had one).

The range of measures is vast and comprehensive. They include extensions in the use of force in immigration matters (including deportation), new healthcare charges for people without permanent residency, and greater restrictions on bail for those in immigration detention. They extend powers to enter and search homes and workplaces, and add new powers to search people. This means that in a range of ordinary and every day encounters, from renting a property to opening a bank account or attending a place of learning or worship, people will be required to identify and account for themselves. Opportunities to appeal immigration decisions that label people as illegal in the first place have been further limited through cutbacks in legal aid. Presumably this measure has been taken instead of moves at improving immigration decisions (and it is worth mentioning that last year 32% of deportation decisions and 49% of entry clearance applications were successfully appealed)?

The trend of British Governments' demonising immigrants and using this image as justification to further marginalise, oppress and criminalise them is sadly nothing new, but this act sets a new watermark. In removing access to fundamental public services, the effects are likely to include poorer health, more homelessness, more destitution, and more occurrences of mental illness for the people these measures are aimed at. Removing access to healthcare does not remove people's need for healthcare or remove those people who need it. Making it illegal to rent out homes does not remove peoples' need for housing or remove those who need to be housed. Denying access to places of learning or worship does not remove those people who need to learn or pray. It just marginalises, demoralises and scares people. It weakens their support networks and makes them more vulnerable. They will create greater insecurity, isolation and social exclusion. But that's the point. 'Punish them them till they leave' is the subtext. These measures effectively legislate for a loss of dignity.

The issue as to why we allow for people to be treated like this is justified on the grounds that they are here illegally. Yet why is it that certain people are labelled as illegal in the first place? Illegality doesn't convey some kind of passive 'state of nature' but is a label created by the state. And when Theresa May talks about "making it harder for people who are here illegally to stay here" she brushes over a fundamental flaw in the logic of the state's approach to immigration.

In recent years the grounds on which a person from outside the EEA can qualify to live in the UK have shrunk. At the same time the powers to enforce the exclusion and criminalisation of anyone classified as 'illegal' have grown. The need to 'get tougher' becomes self-fulfilling: we need more measures to catch 'illegal people', because the nets of who it is we define as illegal are being cast wider and wider. This backward logic effectively leads to the continuous expansion of who it is that can be considered illegal and hence legitimately excluded. And this logic of exclusion does not only apply to immigrants. From the stripping back of the NHS that excludes people from accessing healthcare to cuts in welfare that excludes people from social security, we see this trend in other areas of all our lives. I don't want to live in a country where people are denied the right to live in dignity.

When this attack has presented itself in the past, people have resisted. Some of the most inspiring forms of resistance have been those where people have supported those under attack in their efforts to continue to carry out everyday normal activities. For example, since the mid 2000's groups have formed to resist the dawn raids carried out by the (then) UK Border Agency by being present with potential deportees when such raids have taken place. Around the same time, when the government started issuing vouchers rather than cash to asylum seekers (that could only be used in certain shops), some people started schemes whereby people could exchange their vouchers for cash. In response to this new act, we also need to start thinking about Like these acts of solidarity, we need to start showing our resistance to this new act, and to the tide of hatred that it represents.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

This Community is Grieving

 This community is grieving

This story was originally posted at  

A fourth person was killed on Friday night whilst in a truck trying to cross to England.


Three people were in the truck and realised it was going in the wrong direction, so they made noise for the truck to stop. It braked suddenly and a person from Ethiopia hit his head. Paramedics were called but he was dead on arrival.
People from different camps gathered for a ceremony before the Sunday football.

It is four people now killed in one week.

This community is grieving.