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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Between Borders

Immigration is one of the major points of conflict in the new global economy.  Because of the deportation process brought against me by the national police, I experienced the precarity that marks the life of a non-citizen: prohibited from working legally or receiving medical care, threatened with the possibility of being stopped and sequestered every time I crossed a border within Europe, denied freedom of movement, exposed to a greater vulnerability and graver consequences if I were arrested.  But unlike the vast majority of the millions of people in Europe and North America who are denied the privileges of citizenship, I had white privilege.  This meant that the police were much less likely to stop and search me on the streets, and if arrested—though I would be sent back to prison because of the criminal case—I would probably not disappear into one of the immigrant concentration camps where torture and abuse are commonplace.  One night when I had a bad infection, I was turned away from the first hospital I went to, but at the second hospital, the secretary kindly looked the other way and let me see a doctor without paying or signing for anything.  I wonder, would she have done that if I were black, or Arabic, or Pakistani?

Throughout the European Union, the various member states have constructed dozens of concentration camps for warehousing tens of thousands of immigrants.  Governments outside the European Union—those like Ukraina that want to join, or those like Morocco seeking good relations—agree to help fortify the borders and set up their own concentration camps.  Many immigrants are tortured and beaten, denied contact with the outside world, denied legal help, and disappeared.  Their families and friends might never know what happened to them.  In Barcelona and dozens of other cities, unknown numbers of illegal people sit in the police commissary, for years, without ever seeing a lawyer or being allowed to contact the outside world.  Many countries, such as Turkey and Iran, torture political refugees who are denied asylum in Europe and heartlessly shipped back.  Some countries, such as China, do not allow refugees to be sent back.  These people simply become wholly illegal.  In progressive Nederland, Chinese refugees spend years locked up in immigrant prisons.  If they are released, they are turned out onto the streets, homeless, not allowed to work or have a home, though sometimes squatters help them find a place to live.  In the United States, immigrants who cannot be deported or who do not have any paper identity are imprisoned indefinitely.  Every several years, their cases come briefly before an apathetic court which usually denies their release.  There is no limit on how long they can be locked up, and generally the easiest solution is that they are kept behind bars until they die.  They are illegal people.

In the past decade, a No Border movement had spread across the continent.  Anarchists and other radicals worked together with immigrants to oppose “Fortress Europe.”  In Nederland, activists broke into a detention center for unaccompanied immigrant children, contacting the prisoners there, making a documentary about their situation, and eventually shutting the center down.  During other break-ins, Dutch activists managed to sneak some immigrants out.  With chants of “No Border, No Nation, Stop Deportations!” activists in Germany hung banners and locked themselves down to the gates of detention centers there.  Anarchists travelled to Spain’s colonial territories in North Africa and protested the fortification of borders and the concentration camps in Morocco.  When crossing the border back into Spain, they mobbed the checkpoint in a surprise move, allowing several immigrants to slip across in the confusion.  In Italy, anarchists firebombed companies that profited off the construction or operation of the concentration camps, or companies involved in deportations.  Actions like these occurred across Europe.  On at least a dozen occasions, people from multiple countries organized No Border camps, coming together in a border region near major detention centers or along the routes immigrants used for crossing into the EU.  They held workshops and strategy discussions, tried to build sympathy among locals for the immigrants, and often held actions on both sides of the border or outside the detention center.  Sometimes they managed to temporarily open the border or enter the detention center to talk to the prisoners.

After centuries of gory, nationalistic wars, European radicals have a strong tradition of opposition to nationalism, though nationalism is on the rise again in the mainstream.  Major political parties in every European country have begun speaking of national pride for the first time since the days of Hitler.

“Close the Internment Center for Foreigners. Rights for Everybody. No one is illegal.”

“Close the Internment Center for Foreigners. Rights for Everybody. No one is illegal.”

Interestingly, I noticed a strange sort of reverse nationalism among many European anarchists.  They were not proud to be German, or Dutch, or Italian, or whatever, but proud not to be American, while still enjoying all the privileges of citizens of the empire.  They may chafe at the notion, but the US is the best thing that has happened to Europe in terms of its self-image.  The European Union is a powerful junior partner to the US within the military and economic processes of global imperialism.  European governments hypocritically talk about human rights and moderate the worst excesses of the cowboy politics of the US.  Such excesses are perhaps inherent to the role of imperial enforcer—one recalls that the British lacked their characteristic reserve when they had to engage in police action in India.  At the end of the day, Europe is always there to supply peacekeeping troops and investments for whatever project the US has initiated; neither is the EU too timid to launch its own wars.  The states of western Europe have been imperialist for longer than the US, and they are no less imperialist today despite their relative decline in military power, yet somehow they have cloaked themselves in an image of humanitarianism and innocence that European radicals often uphold, by pretending that imperialism is an American phenomenon.

It was so bad that other anarchists, upon learning that I was American, would quip that I was an imperialist, or ask if I liked Bush, as though their own government’s practices were less imperialistic, or their own elected leader any better.  And it was not uncommon to hear, from people who had never even been to my country, that we had no culture, just McDonalds and Starbucks.  Most visiting Americans rushed to confirm the misconception, hoping to join the cool kids’ club.    With such an idea of culture, one got the impression that European radicals were not opposed to imperialism so much as nostalgic for the days of more refined imperialism under the British and French. And in fact anti-Americanism has long been a tool of the European Left, an easy populist substitute for anti-capitalism used by Communist and Socialist Parties who, from Greece to Portugal, had no intention of abolishing capitalism.

It was perhaps worst in Spain.  I was constantly called a Yankee, or a guiri—their word for rich foreigner.  In general, Spain had the audacity to consider itself a poor country, and the people felt a trifle oppressed by those wealthy northerners.  There was, naturally, much more attention given to US imperialism than to Spanish imperialism, even though Spain practically invented colonialism, and Spanish corporations were currently devastating Latin America.

Meanwhile, the already pronounced Spanish xenophobia was exacerbated by the Catalan independentistas and their mistrust of foreign influences.  This mistrust, in turn, was duly justified by the waves of northern squatters who flocked to Barcelona and scoffed at anything Catalan as “nationalistic.” The parents of many of the young Catalan anarchists and squatters had been prohibited from speaking Catalan under the Franco regime; moreover it was their first language, the language they spoke at home. Yet the unwillingness of foreign squatters to learn Catalan, their full agreement with Franco and much of the present day Spanish government that because Catalunya fell within the borders of the Spanish state the inhabitants should speak Castillian Spanish, would either force the movement to conduct its meetings and print its posters and newspapers in Spanish, a second language for most of the natives, or to exclude those foreigners who did not speak Catalan. This exclusion resulted in an English-speaking squatter ghetto in Barcelona, populated by the punks and travellers who were too timid or too lazy to integrate themselves and at least learn Spanish in order to participate in the movement, despite the cold shoulders they received upon arrival.