No, I don't think so. It is probably much more to do with, for example, the kind of friends or connections one may have in Westminster or in the City. Or maybe whether one's surname is rooted to the right family tree, or one's professional background is properly connected to companies and corporations that 'open trade opportunities overseas' and thus 'are of national interest'. These sort of factors must have some serious effect on the permeability of borders. Don't you think?
Otherwise, why are 'papers', 'permits', 'leaves to remain' or even 'grants of citizenship' so readily available to those arriving in business class tickets, or even private jets, with suitcases full of 'investment programmes' or 'trade opportunities'? For these type of migrants, borders seem to be as flexible as their wallets can be. But for the majority of people 'guilty' of searching for a better life, escaping persecution or even literally trying to just stay alive, these same borders often represent the entry door to a nigthmare that in London, for example, is called Harmondsworth or Colnbrook detention centres.
Whilst I am sitting in a bus moving west towards Heathrow to join the No Borders demonstration, I find myself thinking about this, and also about what can I (we) do about it. In the seats next to me there are four women, two from Uganda, the other two from the Ivory Coast. Behind me there is a family that turns out to be from Iran. Then there is me and my friends. In fact we are also migrants, but of the lucky sort. We have the privilege to come from countries that, because of economical and geopolitical reasons, are part of the privileged club, and thus we can move quite freely through most border controls that we encounter. It is not often that we have to face tough questioning form immigration officials, nor we face the possibility of ending up in an immigration detention centre at her majesty's pleasure when we come back to what we have chosen to be home for now.
Yeah, I know, we all know these things. So what's new then? Well, nothing it is, and this is the problem actually.
Anyway, it turns out that this is the first demo the women from Uganda and Ivory Coast attend here in the UK. They tell me that they are a bit nervous because they are not too sure about what to expect. I reassure them that it will be ok, that this is a peaceful demo, and that yes, there will be police around but that it won't get messy at all. They look at the legal advice leaflet that a London No Borders activist has just been handing to everyone in the bus, and they mutter hmm .. ok. We all put the leaflet in our pockets.
For a while I have been having stuck in my head the image of a typical border control within fortress Europe. The line of immigration officials at the distance, and at the forefront, the prominent EU and NO-EU passport holders signs that artificially separate people. A sort of border within the border. What for me is basically just an annoying procedure in my way to, or back from a trip abroad, for these people sitting around me in the bus is probably much more than that. It is a fundamentally unfair and unnecessary control that can dramatically change their fate. It is an imposition that reflects the ugly face of neoliberalism, as well as a continuation of centuries of colonialism and imperialism. Globalised capitalism is definitely tougher depending on which queue you have to join when facing an immigration control.
Yes, I know. I'm just stating the obvious here. But that image stays stuck in my head for a while whilst we continue with small talk. Eventually we get to the destination. Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres near Heathrow airport. The spot where we are supposed to start the demo is completely taken by an army of glowing yellow vests. There are also the usual few that wear that uniform with the hideous blue bit on top. Yes, you know, the ones that are very much into photography and video, and like to write down notes in small books so they can collect 'intelligence', and compare it all the time. Actually, their dedication and obsessiveness is worth a mention. At very least, it is quite comparable to that of those bus spotters that one can see sometimes standing in street corners around London.
Anyway, yes, apparently police have decided that the meeting point planned for the demo is not possible, and with some strange (if not pathetic) arguments that "they have to take into consideration the concerns of local residents," who according to them, had complained about noise at a previous demo, they divert us to a selected area. Well, as I said, as excuses go this is actually quite pathetic, taking into account that "the local residents" are basically a row of a few houses facing a very busy bypass, and that for the rest, there are two detention centres, and a waste ground behind them. This is not to say that any concerns of local residents must not be taken into account in political activity, but in this case, to put the possible noise caused by the demo as a reason, it is at very least a bit weak given the circumstances.
But as things go, and no matter how believable the police arguments are, we are taken to a pen in front of the main gates of the two detention centres. Negotiations about eventually being able to do the demo in the planned route continue between some activists and the police. They assure that once all the other busses travelling from Birmingham, Reading, Brighton and other places arrive, we will probably be allowed to march towards the side of Harmondsworth, from where the detainees will be able to see and hear us, and we will be able to see and probably hear them too. The detainees are expecting the demo, and it is generally felt the importance of being able to make visual contact today.
So what next. Surprise, surprise. After a while standing in the pen, with now a crowd of up to 300 people making noise, playing drums, and shouting "No Borders, No Nations, Stop Deportations", the police officer in command (a Copper level of command he acknowledges to be) informs that the demo won't be able to leave the pen after all. So here we are. It has previously been agreed not to challenge police decisions in mass today, as there are enough 'non regularized' people (what a stupid term!) present in the demo as to make it too dangerous. It is clear by the enormous amount of police in sight, that any attempt to move the demo towards the planned route would put some people under too much risk.
So we finally spend about three hours in that spot, continuing to make noise, playing drums, chanting slogans, and listening to accounts of experiences in detention by some of these present, and also, from some of the detainees inside Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. Listening to the voices of these people coming through mobile phones into a small sound system, makes the simple fact of being there much more relevant. They tell us about their personal situations, and about what is going on inside these prisons; the tough, racist and oppressive regimes operating in the centres. They also explain to us that the prison screws have prevented them from going out to the 'exercise yard' that morning, from where they would have been able to hear us. They also say that they have even been prevented from approaching the windows, so to have a glimpse of the solidarity outside. Another prisoner tells us that a bit earlier, some guards got quite heavy and have beaten some detainees up when they protested about these impositions. The mood in the demo becomes a bit somber now, and people are starting to look at each other in a way meaning 'so what are we going to do about it'. But it is clear that given the circumstances there is no use whatsoever in trying to impose our will and demonstrate around the building.
Having said that, a group of about 40 people eventually manages to leave the pen and gets near to the side of Colnbrook prison from where they can see, hear and communicate with some detainees. Everyone in the demo was aware of how important it would be for the detainees to visualize the solidarity outside (that's why they were kept away from the windows in the first place) so everyone is happy to know that at least a group of people has managed to do that. This group inevitably ends up pushed out of the footpath by the side of the detention centre by the police, and eventually penned in under Section 14 and searched one by one. After an hour or so, and not until the main demo ends, they are eventually all released. People gets back to the busses, and drive back to London for a de-brief and further planning meeting at the Square social centre. Most people seem to be happy about the day's achievements. If it's true that we have, at least, managed to make those inside feel that they are not alone and completelly forgotten, then I guess it has been successful.
As for the action itself; well there is definitely a big problem with how street protest is increasingly being suppressed in this country. The ludicrousness of saturday's police operation is beyond belief. It was a gratuitous decision that aimed to work at two levels. On the one hand to reinforce unjustified authority within the prison's regime by preventing the detainees from actually being able to clearly hear and see the solidarity outside. On the other, the continuation of the repressive measures aimed at obsessively control and prevent any form of political dissent in the streets. There was no other 'reason' whatsoever to implement a pen. It was not like the detainees would be able to jump from a first or second floor window, into the prison grounds, and then climb a five meter high wall topped with barbed wire, to finally jump to freedom to join those outside, was it? Or, in the same way, there wasn't clearly a situation where a 300 strong demonstration would bring these walls and fences down, provoking a mutiny inside which would let everyone out. As healthy as it may be to dream, it was clear that this was not the situation on Saturday morning.
It was basic repression in its most classical style. It was the state's authority coming down with its usual intransigence against people and social movements that often find themselves in the 'wrong' side of 'democracy'.
But in any case, the demonstration was worthwhile at different levels. Firstly for the detainees inside, as the demonstration hopefully showed them that they are not invisible. Their accounts were extremely powerful, and at least for a day, they reclaimed their voices. Their word became their main weapon on saturday, in that very Zapatista sense of the term. All in all, they were able to break through the wall of silence and oblivion imposed on them. Secondly for those that demonstrated for the first time in solidarity with people going through the same experiences as they once had to endure. To be able to express solidarity together with other people outside a detention centre, testifies that their struggle is not in vain. And finally, also for the groups organizing the demo, those that do the day to day ground work of supporting detainees and fighting deportations. On Saturday they were able to outreach to many more people.
But still, borders everywhere ...
Now, two days after the demo, I still have this image of walls, fences and cctv everywhere. Ubiquitous borders. Borders between those inside and those outside. Between those in this pen and those in that Section 14. Between the demonstrators and the "local community". And then a border separating the 'protest designated area' from the outside (a car park in this case) And in between these enclosed areas, the non reachable bits and pieces of public space. Restricted areas occupied with an army of police, surveillance cctv, prison guards and private security specially brought in for the day.
Actually, now I think of it, in a sense, these bits of 'public space' outside Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres didn't differ that much from most of the 'public space' left available in our cities. In between the shopping centres, chain stores, private buildings, and enclosed spaces, there is the street. A street nevertheless, that is also occupied with an army of cctv cameras, police speed cameras, tagging devices and so on, topped with private security guards and police of all sorts continuously in operation. Everywhere.
It seems that internal borders are also on the increase and more ubiquitous. Legislation brought in make our streets, and the public and private spaces, increasingly resemble those passport control areas that people inside detention centres have learned to hate and dread. It is up to all of us to make sure that conditions comparable to these inside Harmondsworth or Colnbrook are not further spread everywhere else. The struggles to close down those detention centres, and to support those that face the possibility of detention and deportation in a daily basis, can not end at the doors of Harmondsworth or Colnbrook detention centres. Freedom of movement is an intrinsic human right, both within external as well as internal borders.
View of Colnbrook detention centre
Side view of Colnbrook. No, it's not a prison, they say, just a detention centre
Demonstrators getting off the busses
Negotiations with the senior commander soon start
View of the pen with Harmondsworth detention centre at the background
Women refugees attending the demo
A refugee family showing their support
One of the first phone messages from detainees inside Colnbrook
Anarchists solidarity banner
The banner says it all
People penned in are finally being let out and escorted back to the busses