Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Calais: Whither The Apocalypse?

Well, civilisation as we know it failed to end during last week's No Border Camp in Calais. No riots occurred, no fences at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel were torn down, no hotels were set on fire, no babies were found with their heads bitten off. In fact nothing much happened to disturb the tranquillity of the town whatsoever, unless you include the antics of the local authorities, the police and the press.

During the build-up to the Camp the police, judiciary, town and regional authorities had, to varying degrees, sought to create an atmosphere of fear and trepidation. Initially they chose to ignore us, not returning phone calls and cancelling meetings. Then, when they realised we were not going to go away, they started to brief against us, co-opting the press into what moved from being a campaign of disinformation to one of vilification. There were constant media enquiries as to whether we had any 'violence' planned, whether we expected the 'black-block' to 'infiltrate' the protests, etc. (see previous posts).

And they then started to believe their own propaganda, planning for a massive police operation to combat what they now believed would be mass civil insurrection. Additional CRS companies were ordered into the area; new summary orders were passed banning the sale of petrol, gas canisters and knives; temporary laws banning the wearing of masks and hoodies and gatherings of 5 or more people were introduced.

So what happened to all the 'terrorists'? Well their were certainly plenty on the streets. Many were gathered at road blocks and in groups armed with riot gear and dressed in the dark blue uniform, others were charging around in groups of 4 in unmarked BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité - the cowboys who patrol les Banlieues) cars. All were terrorising the locals as the No Border campers alike.

The police briefed the media that there were up to 3,000 of them in the area and, given that they outnumbered the 500 at most on the Camp site 2 to 1 (assuming they ran 3 eight hour shifts), they had little else to do apart from the constant harassment of the stopping and searching of anyone who vaguely looked like they might be involved with the Camp.

In fact, there was little or no Freedom of Movement in Calais through out their presence. Someone from the Camp were even stopped, beaten up, handcuffed and thrown into the back of a van whilst going to buy loo rolls. He was told "we're not your English bobbies!" and only got away without further injury because the cops were 10 minutes from the end of their shift and just let him go.

Much was made in the UK press, well the Mail and the Sun, of the arrests made during the week. The full count is not in yet but, apart from the arrests from the blockade of the detention centre at Lille (26 detained, 15 released after 24 hours & charged with organising an unapproved demo; others refuse to give fingerprints and held for 35 hours without water, access to a doctor or vegetarian food, abused and forced to sleep on the floor) and the one woman caught shoplifting, almost all stem from the temporary legal orders brought in before the camp.

Twenty people were arrested for handing out copies of the camp newspaper, Nomade, in the centre of town on Boulevard Lafayette. Startled onlookers watched as dozens of CRS and BAC officers arrived within seconds of the leafleting beginning. All were handcuffed, some after being wrestled to the floor, and arrested for an 'unauthorised demonstration'. They were kept for hours in custody and 2 face additional charges of 'insubordination' i.e. being rude to the police. (Activists were also told by the police that there was an unofficial ban on them downtown as well.)

The rest were for possession of camping equipment (camping knifes, tent poles, mallets for tent pegs, machette for chopping fire wood), the possession of hoodies (hooded jackets including waterproof cagoules and scarves were routinely confiscated) or banners (banners and banner poles were also confiscated). One person was arrested for possession of petanque balls (the banning of boules games!

Of the 'outrages' expected by the authorities, the only thing approaching that was on Friday evening when a small number of activists temporarily blocked the A15 motorway down into the Docks. The police responded by firing tear gas at the handful of protesters and smoke grenades into the camp site. The CRS however managed to block the motorway with their vans for nearly an hour! And that was it.

On Saturday the police were at their most unhelpful. At first they tries to stop and search all 500 people making their way from the Camp to the start of the big demonstration at the Lighthouse. They confiscated a few jackets and scarves and even tried scanning peoples' SIM cards in an info trawl but this was stopped when camp lawyers got in touch with the sub-prefecture (people detained by the police also said that all videos and photos on phones and cameras seized even though it's illegal).

Eventually they realised there were too few of them to achieve this and gave up on the idea. But rather than allowing the group to make their way directly to the Lighthouse (a half hour walk at most), the CRS constantly blocked the route and it ended up taking nearly 3 hours to get there. Fortunately the March had waited for the Camp to arrive, and it set off at 12:15 on the route eventually negotiated between local trades unions and the Calais sub-prefect (the original route to the Coquelles CRE was redundant as it had been emptied of migrants and the authorities had refused to negotiate with No Borders).

Ranged against the 2,000 or so people on the demonstration was a helicopter, water cannon at the port entrance, mobile fences blocking off the side roads, police armed with automatic weapons, smoke & tear gas grenades, rubber bullets and body armour; and that was just the plain clothes BAC, never mind the CRS who probably outnumbered the demonstrators just by themselves.

Needless to say, the march (just like the Camp itself) past of peacefully (even more peacefully as there were NO arrests*). The only disturbances were to the cops' macho demeanour when they were faced by the Rebel Clown Army, a force never before witnessed on the streets of Calais.

All in all, the Calais survived the police occupation force though it did put a dampener on Camp activities (and Camp numbers as a number of activists were scared away by the thought of constant harassment if not the cracked heads that had been promised by some of the Lille CRS). Many migrants preferred not to run the gauntlet of police around the Camp, though those that did enjoyed participating in the Camp; the food, the films, the free internet access and especially the chance to play football - the cops always break up any football game the migrants normally try to hold.

The other thing all the migrants enjoyed for the duration of the Camp, even those that didn't make it there, was the fact that the cops were all too busy harassing the Camp (and the Calaisiens who looked like they might have anything to do with the camp) to bother with them for the week. But no doubt they can expect to be regularly tear-gassed, beaten, arrested and have the 'Jungles' and their few meagre possessions destroyed now the Camp has gone.

*That didn't stop the Telegraph on Saturday and the Sunday Express claiming, respectively, that there were "brawls" when "2,000 demonstrators were met by a similar number of French riot squad officers, who deployed tear gas in efforts to disperse troublemakers" and "protest in support of illegal migrants trying to get into Britain turned violent yesterday" under the title Riot at Migrant Protest.

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