No Border No Nation Action Camp Strasbourg
From 19 to 28 July 2002 a border camp took place in Strasbourg, organised by the European No Border network. It is the most recent in a series of border camps (action camps) organised in recent years by this European network of refugee solidarity groups mainly dedicated to illegal immigrants and refugees who have exhausted all legal possibilities. We, the Autonoom Centrum, also participate in No Border. The initiative for this network was taken during the Euro Summit in Amsterdam in 1997. No Border is a network of campaign groups. One of the activities resulting from this network are the border summer camps. Where the previous border camps specifically dealt with migration and attracted hundreds of people, a broader set-up was chosen for this camp, which resulted in the participation of many people from the grass-roots globalisation movement and the People's Global Action (GPA) network. With some two to three thousand participants it was by far the largest camp so far.
The camp proved enormously successful in the number of people it managed to attract and in setting up the necessary infrastructure to keep the camp going for a week. But it has also met with criticism. Criticism which may benefit us in the future, for example in the upcoming PGA-conference in Leiden. This critique is by no means new, but we felt it was important to comprehensively commit it to paper.
Demonstrations and actions
First a short description of some demonstrations from the border camp.
On Monday a successful demonstration against the residenzpflicht took place at the European Court, in which many sans-papiers participated. That same night three hotels belonging to the ACCOR chain were attacked and thrashed.
On Tuesday night there was a demonstration in the centre of Strasbourg, instigated by the arrests that were made. A number of the demonstrators wore balaclava's, walls were sprayed with slogans, and the police was said to have fired a tear gas grenade. Guided and protected by the Samba Band everybody managed to return to the camp safely. Many people claimed that from that Tuesday on and in reaction to the events leading up to it, there was a significant change in atmosphere.
There was a demonstration against the detention centre for illegal immigrants planned for Wednesday 24 July. But as no one was being held there are the time - apparently the refugees were transferred before the start of the No Border camp, of which No Border was aware - the demonstration did not proceed to this destination. However, a demonstration was held regardless, but without a clear purpose. Of the 500 protesters some 50 wore balaclava's. Many slogans were sprayed, initially selectively, but later travel agents, solicitors firms and medical practices were also targeted.
The atmosphere became tense when the demonstration passed a synagogue. Part of the 'black block' wanted to spray the building with slogans, while part of the demonstrators tried to stop them. At times like these one wonders what kind of people one is campaigning with. One may safely assume that the slogans would have been anti-Israeli in nature. We feel that equating the Jewish religion to the politics of the state of Israel is nothing short of anti-Semitism. During that same demonstration the police later intervened with tear gas and the windows of several banks were smashed. This resulted in the prefecture announcing a ban on all demonstrations and actions that very same night. The rest of the week campaigning proved to be virtually impossible. Those caught doing so were immediately stopped and driven back to the border camp in a police van. In part, the atmosphere and discussions in the camp were dominated by fears for a police raid. All the more remarkable as there were no concrete indications for a police raid and given the situation in the camp (2000 people in tense, a large number of trucks and motor vehicles, and the dimension and location of the area) a police raid seemed highly unlikely. Decision-making in the camp became increasingly diffuse and rumours began to play large part. People were dreading Saturday 27 July, the day for which the concluding demonstration against the SIS was planned. A number of those present no longer wished to demonstrate, some 100 people together with the Samba Band decided to go campaigning and distributing leaflets in the centre of Strasbourg, while others wanted to stick to the demonstration at the SIS. In the course of several meetings on Friday and Saturday morning, which lasted for hours, right up to an hour before the demonstration was due to leave, it became clear that nobody wanted a confrontation. Unfortunately, the meetings largely failed to deal with the fact that many people were possibly less scared of the police than of ( the consequences of) the behaviour of a number of their fellows demonstrators. During the week it became clear that well-organised groups such as the Samba Band and the group from Germany proved most capable of taking initiatives and carrying out actions.
The camp was structured according to a system of barrio's. The camp was divided into five sections grouped around the five kitchens, individually organised to meet and deal with issues occurring in their individual section. Each barrio delegated a number of people to participate in interbarrio-meetings regarding the camp as a whole. There were number of groups operating separately, such as legal aid and indymedia.
The idea was to coordinate the camp from the grass-roots level by means of the barrio's and the interbarrio. However, this soon proved dysfunctional. Communications were inadequate. Frequently, the various barrio's appeared to be discussing different items on the agenda, rather than discussing the same items across the camp. We feel the main reason for this was the lack of overall direction and coordination. There was an information point where information was gathered, but as it had a facilitating rather than a coordinating task, it proved too limited.
The facilitating infrastructure, such as the kitchens, was a lot more efficient. Well-organised groups carrying out set tasks, such as these kitchens, radio, and indymedia are important to the smooth running of a camp. And they proved reasonably well equipped for their tasks.
The main issue is how to establish the necessary cohesion to avoid these activities being carried out in isolation. We feel that in the future, without abandoning the fundamental basic-democratic structure, we should opt for a committee which manages or co-ordinates events - or whatever you'd like to call it - and which is given a mandate to take the necessary decisions. Even though this may seem to conflict with our basic-democratic principles, this is not necessarily the case: such a committee would be installed only to oversee that those tasks agreed on by everyone in advance are carried out effectively.
Meetings and discussions
In several sections the meetings at barrio level were of an acceptable standard, but unfortunately the general meetings, especially in the second half of the week, were not.
The way in which meetings were carried out was clearly influenced by the presence of many people from basic-democratic groups active in the anti globalisation movement and the PGA. A jargon was being used which was relatively new, at least to us and presumably also to many others. When one agrees with something, one is not allowed to applaud but is supposed to wave his or her hands. Meetings are chaired not by chairpersons, but by so-called facilitators. Breaking in with a technical question is done by making the 'timeout' symbol we all know from the world of sports. Any suggestion of leadership is strictly forbidden. Undoubtedly these forms have been chosen to make sure that everyone can have his or her say and to avoid the loudest voices always getting their way. Such attempts are laudable, but in their current form they bring their own problems. Meetings take far too long and are very tiring. For the chosen procedure does not facilitate decisions being made within a reasonable time limit. This results in people leaving meetings prematurely versus people who persevere until the end; and also in a number of people consistently taking the floor when they feel that the meeting is progressing in an undesirable direction, trying to redirect the course of the discussion, repeating themselves and trying to revoke decisions made earlier. Also, a subculture seems to have emerged which, as a matter of course, seems to be laying down the rules for everybody. For people who are more practically inclined, these meetings are a disaster, in which they will probably never again wish to participate after having tried once. Therefore, these meetings as such are at least in part responsible for the lack of initiatives to take action rather than stimulating these. Our impression is that the Strasbourg No Border camp was monopolised by activists from the anti globalisation movement and the PGA. In the previous camps participation from migrants and refugees was high, now it was minimal. That isn't to say that incorporating issues regarding migration in the grass-roots globalisation movement should not be applauded.
Many problems may be avoided by clearly determining the aims and the agenda of a gathering in advance, thus setting the preconditions for all discussions and actions. It would also be better not to have the meetings chaired by whoever happens to volunteer on the spot. It would seem more effective to have a chairperson with some insight in previous decisions, who is acquainted with all relevant information, who is aware of the aims and limitations of the discussion and who is capable of adhering to these. And by no means unimportant: decisions and policy-making should be delegated in part to smaller numbers of people. When so many people are involved, nothing will be achieved if everyone constantly needs to be involved in everything.
Stricter coordination would also be a good idea. The random selection of subjects exhibited by the PGA conference in Leiden is, to us at least, not very inspiring. And once again the content is very weak. People seem to think that if only they create the facilities, everything else will come about on its own. Or even worse: it will have to come about on its own as having a select group setting out to define and limit subjects in advance is against basic-democratic principles.
Remarkable with regard to the discussion content at No Border was that there was barely any preliminary discussion, various discussions were cancelled on spot and that the discussions which did work out well were mainly those which had been prepared specifically by a certain group and had little to do with the camp as a whole.
Violence, tactics and means
We feel that once again a limited number of people in Strasbourg managed to ruin things for the rest. This has nothing to do with the use of violence or being radical. Radical practice mean taking one's radical ideas a step further, which can just as easily be done in a completely pacifist way. To make radicalness worthy of imitation should be one of our primary aims.
Within the anti-globalisation movement there is a fragile balance between the use and non-use of violence. Non-violent campaigners accept that there are others who do wish to resort to various forms of violence. But one always has to stop and think about the aims being pursued, whether there is mutual respect and whether people are considerate of one another. At the G8 protests in Genoa few people will have objected to the attempts to enter the red zone by force, but many will have objected to the mindless destruction of cars and shops or setting fire to banks and travel agents in buildings also housing ordinary people. The usually heavily disguised 'black block' often stands out for being barely organised and lacking clear plans.
In the course of the week in Strasbourg the number of slogans on buildings increased rapidly (people spraying buildings indiscriminately). In Wednesday's demonstration several people carried large sticks sporting something resembling a flag - frequently nothing more than a piece of multi-coloured cloth. These sticks were obviously brought along for very different purposes indeed. Nameplates, including one at a day nursery, and camera's, for example at the station, were vandalised. These actions were mainly carried out by a group of people wearing balaclava's throughout the demonstration and zigzagging through the Samba Band players, much to everyone's annoyance.
What ensued was a cat-and-mouse game with the police, with each side waiting for the other to make a move. The police by charging in with tear gas, the demonstrators by smashing windows, hopefully limiting themselves to those of banks. In this game it really doesn't matter who takes the next step: it is an obvious and predictable process, in which we activists must be aware of our own responsibility.
Which are the arguments put forward by the advocates of balaclava's? The most nonsensical argument we heard was 'they are not forbidden'. A slightly more convincing argument is to avoid arrests. To be unrecognisable whilst spraying slogans. In a strong demonstration where everyone feels spraying slogans is justified, there is little chance of being arrested. People join together to prevent arrests. But even if one is arrested, the question arises how serious that really is. Communication to the general public is much clearer when unequivocal slogans are sprayed openly on specific targets. Many people have little or no objection to taking risks for sound actions. It would seem that the people in the black block are the most fearful. Of course there may always be people who have good reason to disguise themselves (for example because they are wanted by the police). But there are many ways to disguise oneself. Their attitude seems to be dictated predominantly by a need for an outward show of fervour and a cult of violence.
Another example of this attitude was that during the meeting regarding the SIS demonstration the people who did not seek a confrontation were being talked about as if they were afraid of confrontations, even though they had explained several times that these non-confrontational tactics were a strategic choice. When a migrant subsequently suggested to sit down, block the streets and let ourselves be arrested should the police try to stop the demonstration (a strategy in which he ran significantly higher risks than many) - i.e. an option which clearly did not express fear of repression - this suggestion was immediately dismissed.
What is the sense in all this? Among other things, it seems to have lead to rising insecurity among campaigners. Within the No Border camp discussions tended to centre in large part on feelings of fear regarding police brutality and an expected raid on the camp. The city council issued a ban on demonstrations. Naturally, arrests followed. Mutual distrust arises, and that which reaches the media and the population of Strasbourg are the by now more than familiar images.
What is the extent of our mutual solidarity? People wishing to sport balaclava's and to resort to forms of violence will always do so, regardless of what anybody else may think. People carrying out actions from a demonstration provoking a reaction from the police carry a large responsibility with regard to the demonstration as a whole. And even more so when it is unclear whether their actions are fully supported by everyone.
Following the Strasbourg arrests, much time was taken up by the predictable solidarity demonstrations. Even 24-hour pickets were suggested to express everyone's support, whereas any politically motivated activist being detained would probably much rather see the actions supporting the aims of the gathering being carried out.
The question is: What do we wish to achieve? It seems as if a number of campaigners only seek to reinforce and perpetuate their radical image. The media cannot be trusted. The same goes for the police and the government. And the general public? Well, what about the general public?
We will have to take much more responsibility for the things we organise and stop shifting the blame to police repression or media coverage. In Strasbourg the council was initially more than willing to co-operate and demonstrations could proceed unhindered. It is taking things too far to describe Strasbourg, as some do, as a pre-eminent example of increasing repression against the rising anti-globalisation movement and groups such as ours striving for open borders. What we witnessed was no more than standard police performance, a 'logical' and predictable reaction to activities originating from the camp taking place in town.
In labelling this 'repression', one should realise that this is a time-honoured form of repression which has always been deployed in response to actions and which is in no way unique.
This tale of increasing repression is forever being repeated in certain circles following actions, even when these allegations can barely be substantiated. In Strasbourg a rumour was circulated that a couple of dozen riot police were housed in the Hotel Mercure adjacent to the camp, suggesting that they had been posted there expressly with us in mind. However, according to the hotel staff the police had been stationed there for over six months. Following the electoral victory of the right last year, they had to make good on their promise of boosting the police force. Police was transferred from outside Strasbourg, but as there was no space to house them yet, part of the hotel was rented for them.
It often seems as if a number of people are eager to label anything and everything 'repression' merely to underline their own radicalness and the bestial nature of the state in order to facilitate thinking in terms of 'good' and 'evil'. However, this does not alter the fact that compared to some ten years ago we have indeed witnessed a general curbing of the freedom to demonstrate and tougher sentencing with regard to political action.
Brushing criticism under the carpet and keeping it among ourselves is not going to get us anywhere. Far too much importance is being attached to the argument that it would be a sign of weakness to show our differences of opinion. To us, this comes across as a rather spurious way to smother criticism by continuing to blame everything on repression.
At future action meetings we would very much like to see concrete guidelines against wearing balaclava's in demonstrations, unless a clear decision has been made in which circumstances, and more importantly why, this would be acceptable. We would like to see clear agreement in advance on what is and what is not acceptable during demonstrations, determined by the nature of the protest. The use of violence remains an option to be discussed, but only when it is incorporated in a strategy whose aims are open to discussion and forms a positive part of a movement and its aims as a whole.
Uncontrolled violence, which is usually carried out from the unwitting cover of a much larger group of activists - who are often less than pleased about this, and that is putting it mildly - only serves to evoke insecurity and distrust. With the exception of course of emotional and spontaneous outbursts of anger.
We are convinced that sometimes radical action in the streets going hand in hand with violence as an understandable outlet of popular fury (as in Argentina, for example), or as a breaking point in a confrontation with the powers that be (such as refusing to accept a no-gone zone during an EU summit), is unavoidable. However, this was definitely not the case in Strasbourg.
Lack of initiative
Another significant feature of the No Border camp was the lack of initiative among a large group of people. It seems as if people expect discussions and actions to be organised for them, in which they can then choose to participate. Many of them don't even attend meetings. This may be interpreted as a negative thing, but this does not necessarily have to be the case. It may well be that many people agree with the camp's purpose, but lack the time or the energy to get actively involved in its organisation. But one is entitled to expect everyone to at least make sure they are aware of any decisions that have been made.
This is only possible when there are groups organising activities and taking responsibility for the way they are carried out. A demonstration which is not very well planned and organised and in which many people participate who have not taken part in the preparatory meetings, makes for few people taking responsibility. This can have a negative effect, especially when things happen during these demonstrations or actions of which many people do not approve. Instead of ventilating their criticism and addressing people with regard to their behaviour, many will decide not to participate in future. It was striking how little the people whose conduct in the streets caused great insecurity among many of the other participants were criticised directly. In our view this does not square with the purpose of the camp.
Inward or outward-looking
As mentioned earlier on in this article, the way in which meetings are conducted and in part the way in which various actions were carried out appear to be geared towards the creation of a separate little world. An island within society as such. The question is whether the waters between our little island and the mainland can still be bridged. There is a real danger that the importance attached to form will begin to dominate the purpose. For example, the way in which meetings are conducted tends to become more important than reaching clear decisions within a reasonable time limit (the main aim). In the US people tended to applaud a lot during meetings. People tried to put a stop to this by waving their hands in stead of clapping. It is never wise to slavishly copy the way in which meetings are held in another country or culture (similar processes can be witnessed in Indymedia). Another example of a subculture taken too far, at least from our point of view, is the way the media are dealt with and the ban on taking pictures both in the camp and during actions. Even during demonstrations protestors wishing to take photographs were aggressively approached by other demonstrators who threatened to tear the roll of film from their camera's. What do we have to hide or to protect that prohibits pictures being taken? The police and the justice system will be doing so regardless, if need be with technologically advanced equipment from small planes. Outside the camp on the public roads everyone is free to take pictures, but once inside the camp this is suddenly prohibited. It is a shame that people are thus limited in taking photo's or videos back to their own town or country to provide others with an impression of the camp.
We have already extensively discussed the use of disguise during actions. All these things are part of an insider cult, deemed unpleasant and off-putting by many. The main question remains how we present ourselves to the outside world. One of the most important questions we, the Autonoom Centrum, always ask ourselves, with regard to camps such as Strasbourg, but in fact with regard to all our activities, is how we communicate what we do to the general public. Demonstrations mainly serve to express our views, and the more pictures taken or reports published, the better. With regard to outward communications, Strasbourg must be considered a failure, at least in part. A number of demonstrations have left bystanders with a dominant image of wanton destruction and scary people, all dressed in black and disguising themselves with balaclava's. Few attempts have been made to put our ideas across in more constructive and creative ways, not withstanding that these may also be a thorn in the side of the authorities.
We should try to prevent outsiders merely viewing our campaigns as an exclusive struggle between campaign groups and the government. A struggle they feel completely excluded from. We need to try to reach the general public with our ideas and critiques. This requires a lot of 'old-fashioned' activities: taking our views into local neighbourhoods, into the workplace and into schools and universities. The current activist networks appear to be increasingly international in nature, without being firmly rooted locally. This was also apparent at the No Border camp.
Are we merely intent on creating a space where we can be ourselves, or is it also our purpose to try and change the rest of the world? In the first case we will probably never transcend beyond being a subcultural phenomenon. To achieve the second, we will have to become a more 'mature' and open political movement.
In our view, our 'own' structures are not occupying themselves with this nearly enough. There is a lot of lashing out against and shutting oneself off from every other form of left-wing political organisation. When the local ATTAC branch distanced itself from the camp, it was welcomed by many people saying: See? We seem to emanate an arrogance of being right and an aura of political 'correctness'. This further hampers our outward orientation.
It is hardly an expression of strength and, with regard to Strasbourg, a concluding demonstration against the SIS (one of the main reasons for organising the camp to begin with) which manages to attract no more than 200 of the 2000 participants is in fact an admission of weakness.
A separate, but necessary discussion centres on the amount of consideration we should display towards migrants and refugees (an issue which is often debated within our network and also in Strasbourg). It is almost as if they constitute one of our main new revolutionary subjects, the ultimate victims of Capital, as workers used to be for the vanguard. We have experienced that a large part of refugees and migrants are predominantly interested in status and money. One might even say that they help maintain capitalist society. It is mainly people with a higher education and belonging to the elite who manage to reach Europe in the first place. Which doesn't detract from the principle of open borders which we stand for and the fact that there is a growing divide between 'us' and 'them'. The left has already miscalculated once before with regard to 'workers'; let's try to avoid making the same mistakes with regard to 'refugees/migrants'. Are we capable of viewing our own ideas critically and putting them to the test?
There should be more clarity in advance with regard to the aims we set ourselves and from which the necessary preconditions may be deduced. Meetings should be conducted in more orderly, practical and effective ways.
In preparation, programming content is at least as important setting up the necessary infrastructure. This may help limit discussions to a more comprehensive package.
Setting prior conditions is important: organisers should clearly determine a number of preconditions and take full responsibility for them.
A clear strategy on how we approach both the press and the general public is required. We should be looking for creative means to do so.
In conclusion, some critical remarks regarding the Autonoom Centrum itself. It may seem as if we are excluding ourselves from the critique we have put forward here, but we are well aware that we also have ourselves to blame for a number of things. First of all, we hesitated far too long whether all of us should participate. This was in part due to the rather muddled and far too brief discussion on content in the preparatory stages. When we finally decided to participate, it was far too late to mobilise a larger group. Subsequently, the AC also failed in its preparation, in spite of the fact we are an outstanding example of an organisation which has access to plenty of information and possibilities to organise activities within the context of a camp such as this. And finally, we failed to take sufficient initiative on location, except to participate in discussions, actions, meetings and cleaning up; in short, we have also been far too expectant. Next time we want to be more clear ourselves about what we want, how we can actively work towards these aims and how this fits in with the larger whole. But participation certainly hasn't been a waste of time, as one learns from one's mistakes. And we have also experienced a lot of inspiring moments and met a lot of inspiring people. As is often the case with larger events; the 'corridors' often prove more than interesting!
Ed Hollants, on behalf of the Autonoom Centrum, Amsterdam