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No Borders Calais: how to organise a secret festival

“Dwelling, moving about, speaking, reading, shopping and cooking are activities that seem to correspond to the characteristics of tactical ruses and surprises: clever tricks of the ‘weak’ within the order established by the ‘strong’, an art of putting one over on the adversary on his own turf, hunter’s tricks, manoeuvrable, polymorph mobilities, jubilant, poetic and warlike discoveries.” Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

“Everything is possible if people work together – even stopping Calais from being Calais.” Arnaud Borderer.

We actually did it: No Borders Calais organised a successful week-long music festival (6-12 September 2010) in Calais, one of the shittest towns in Europe, in the teeth of the French police and the local authorities, with no publicity at all, a few hundred euros, and little of what you could call organisation. And some of us say it was just about the best party we’ve ever been to.

It’s safe now to let the cat out of the bag: anyhow there’s a crop of videos up on YouTube already, and a few references to “Hafla bila Hudud/Festival Without Borders” have scattered themselves across the web. At the time, though, there was every need for secrecy. In February, when No Borders legally rented a warehouse (the “Kronstadt Hangar”) as a social and sleeping space to be shared with undocumented migrants, it was raided and closed down twice in two days by French riot police. The immigration minister Eric Besson appeared on national television denouncing No Borders as “violent left extremists” and repeating his vow to make Calais a “migrant-free zone”. We knew that any public event would be met with gendarmes and batons, so the festival was announced only by word of mouth and on closed email networks. Even so, around 100 international supporters came from all over Europe, from Ireland to Poland, to join migrants and local Calaisiens for a week of music, art and festivity.

Since last November the number of migrants in Calais, trying to cross the Channel, has fallen to perhaps less than 200. But if anything the number of police has increased: there is still the permanent presence of the notorious CRS (Compagnies Republicaines de Securité) riot police who make constant raids and patrols against migrants, and the PAF (Police Aux Frontières) border police have become increasingly active alongside them. The grim everyday for Calais sans-papiers goes on: raids, beatings, arbitrary arrests, bedding and belongings destroyed and stolen, teargas in the water, pepper-spray in the sleeping bags and so on.

In Calais a party, a night out, a simple gathering of friends, is much more than just hedonism. A party in Calais is something extraordinary. A music festival is an insurrection. We held concerts in the park and in some friendly local bars, as well as at the camps (“jungles”) and squats where people live. The first night in the park we were sniffed at by undercover police; but when they saw our numbers they had to back off, and through the week our numbers grew. Internationals and locals with papers stood in the street outside events ready to form protection rings around migrants if the police moved in to snatch. CRS looked on bemused – where had all these pesky No Borders come from? – and drove past empty-handed. And that is what solidarity means – that is what we can do when we simply stand together.

In Calais, cooking and sharing a meal together is an act of rebellion. The routine: philanthropic associations hand out tasteless food, truly reminiscent of Dickensian gruel, in a bare yard surrounded by barbed wire, overlooked by undercover cops, council inspectors, and racist charity bosses. The festival took place at the end of Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month, a particularly hard time in Calais with hunger and thirst compounding fear and exhaustion. And through Ramadan the police customarily raided at sunset to catch Muslim migrants gathering together to break their fast with heated-up charity slop. For the festival, the Dutch activist kitchen Rampenplan came to cook nutritious meals at lunch and sunset. We ate the evening meal together in the park, in the town square, and in the open space opposite the official “food distro” point. People with and without papers, sharing food with music, banners, laughter, comradeship.

Just a few highlights. The massive Eid (end of Ramadan) party in Africa House (the squatted ex-factory which is the home of mainly Sudanese migrants), which brought together all the migrant communities of Calais – Sudanese and Eritreans and Pashtuns and Hazara and Kurds and Iranians and more, eating and dancing together. Saturday night’s final party in the park with Pashtun dancing and Kurdish singing, followed by a parade up the main street to a bar for sets from Combat Wombat (Australia) and WildKatz Project (Brighton). Rebel recording sessions in the jungles, and in our short-lived new No Borders squat which for two days became a cauldron of sound and visual creation. The “Food not borders” stall in Place D’Armes. Taking over the food distro yard for weekend picnics with klezmer music, football, and multilingual chalking everywhere.

“For a few days,” said one sans-papier, “I felt I wasn’t in Calais.” Yes, it was only a few days. The next Monday, the biggest police raid seen since February fell on Africa House, this time particularly targeting No Borders activists in a “revenge” attack. Since then, the daily grind of raids and brutality continues — back to normality. But in those few energetic days we won something longer lasting: not just a vital breather, a glimpse of life beyond state repression, sweet sustaining memories, but the creation of new links of solidarity that we will continue to build on.

That brief breathing space brought Calaisiens, visitors, and migrants from different, sometimes mutually suspicious, communities together like never before, creating new connections and relationships, deepening trust, knitting together our resistance. Not to mention: we learnt how to organise a secret festival. What next?

Festival videos:
www.tinyurl.com/peacenews330
www.tinyurl.com/peacenews331
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More info: calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com
We always need more people to come and work in solidarity with migrants in Calais, as well as supporting from the UK. And if you know anyone who’d like to come and play music in Calais, please get in touch: this is just the beginning!

Topics: Reportage | Refugees