An experience with solidarity activism

An experience I had of living with refugees on the border here between UK and France, similar to that of the US group ‘No More Deaths’ who leave water bottles out for those people crossing the desert in Arizona. It’s an example of bearing witness and habit forming/ living in common with those people disadvantaged by circumstance. A direct democracy ethos.

In picture form and text below:


The Spaniard

Two new migrants had arrived in Calais weary from their long and tragic journey with no place to go. I locked up my bike and walked with them for an hour with all their bags and some bedding we’d picked up at the garage, to a squat we’d opened the night before. It was a Thursday night and even though we’d arranged to meet up late at night when we got there, too many people were hanging around on the street for us to just walk in.

There was a risk we’d get the police called on us, so we walked for another half an hour to the last unoccupied squat I knew.

When we got there I let them in and showed them the only room that didn’t have a missing wall or a river of water flowing through it. We arranged their bedding on the floor and ate some snacks I’d brought along. Sitting down we remembered we were all very tired, so I said my goodbyes and walked back home. On my way I was imagining how great it would be if we had enough funds for one of those little electric cars you don’t need a license for.

I get back to the women’s house and tell the Spaniard about my long walk. He stares back, his eyes getting bigger as comprehension sinks in.

‘Don’t tell me you used the space, after I said it’s off limits’; he reminded me of the other group of migrants who had said they could make something of the space, and not to tell anyone else about it. As it turned out, they stopped using it as it was a long walk from the truck parks where people try for England, and no one was around when we got there.

‘The building site, yea I didn’t know what else to do, I couldn’t tell them to sleep on the street after I’d walked them around for an hour already.’

He shouted at me for a few minutes until he had enough and went down into the basement to sleep. In the days ahead he was inconsolable, telling everyone how bad an activist I was, what a stupid call I’d made. I didn’t know how to respond to his anger. So I carried on doing what needed doing, going skipping with the bike trailer, organizing the garage, climbing over walls to scout out new squats, doing morning watch at the jungle. All the time the Spaniard avoided me, telling everyone how I’d dashed his efforts.

Then about a week later after this happened I was in the office and got a personal voice recording through on email, talking through a problem I’d been having with recurring traumas. The bell to the office rang ‘twas the Spaniard. So I buzzed him in and just started to crack up giggling, before he even got to the door, because I knew what I wanted, in fact needed to ask him.

I’m going to need that computer soon… What… what is it?

Aha well… you know how I love you right?

*stern look back*

I just got this really important audio email, I really need to listen to this, its super important to me, is there any chance you could just go back outside for like 2 minutes while I listen to it?

You’re kidding right?

*me with a Cheshire grin on my face, can barely believe what I’m asking, just laughing at the tension*

Pleeeeaaasee, you’d be my best friend in the whole wide world!

*leaving with a cigarette in his mouth, huffing and puffing*

I listen to the recording, full of joy at being listened to and understood.

He comes back in the room and sits down at the computer, and he’s trying to hide a smile, because he can’t quite be angry at the absurdity of it all.

I’m moving round the room in a little dance because I’m so happy, chatting away to him. Then I make us both coffee, and bring it over to him. He turns around at a fatal moment and the coffee knocks all over the table.

If he’d really been angry I couldn’t have pressed more buttons to make him that way if I tried. But in that moment I sensed that the sickly vulnerability of my position was just comedy gold, and I took a risk that we could laugh about this story later.

I realized quite quickly this comedy could turn into a drama before I knew it, so I moved to exit the room picking up my bag like the end of a scene, but silly me thinks I need to do an encore to really drive the message home.

As I’m leaving I’m dramatically pleading with him, ‘what crime did I do but to love with all my heart, to deserve such heinous punishment’, a la opera style. As I’m shutting the door on myself slowly like I’m being shut out the Garden of Eden, I say ‘no! Please don’t hate me! I was but a fool!’

After a week of tension, it took just 3 minutes of play acting, and we were good as gold after that. I learnt that when you make even the smallest gains in Calais, not to be flippant if the situation changes and said gains don’t seem so relevant anymore. Be delicate with other activists’ achievements.

It’s hard to hold our heads in these spaces. When a friend is looking for a target to vent their anger, it’s good to be able to throw ego to the wind. It’s good to be that inoffensive skinny boy who dismantles the image of me as being socially competitive by dancing around wildly and singing Delaney had a Donkey with pie on my face.

We learnt that day that it’s OK to go a bit mad and get our anger out at the situation in Calais; a crazy, surreal place like no other, a time capsule in people’s journey, a place that means a different thing to everyone going through it; a joke, a bullet, a game, a kick, a song, a police cell. But like every other war zone, border, hospital or prison in the business of systematizing people’s lives, people are able to enter these spaces on the worst days of their lives, because everyone of us is holding on to that hope of better days ahead.


Further reading: