Category 10: selfreflection
At my last visit to the doctor, I was asked – as often – with great interest about my fanny pack. My answer: it is from Lesvos. The material of the bag consists of old rubber dinghies: the boats with which migrants try to cross the Mediterranean Sea on one of the most dangerous routes in Europe. I say try consciously, because the death toll in the Mediterranean has topped 20,000 since 2015. Europe’s borders are deadly. It makes me angry. It makes me sad. The fanny pack reminds me of this every day. It also reminds me of the huge garbage dump in northern Lesvos. Thousands of old and tattered dinghies, life jackets, hoses, engines, old clothes and shoes are stacked there as a reminder of the migrants who have taken the route across the Mediterranean. When talking about the situation of migrants on Lesvos, people sometimes forget that migrants have already made such a life-threatening journey across the sea before they are often stuck for years in the open-air prisons of Greece. Why am I telling all this? I want to make it clear that the events overlap so quickly, what has been experienced so far and the coming experiences of the migrants are so profound! In the months of my stay on Lesvos, I often could not even recognize and classify all the dimensions. In the weeks after the fire, we were chopping vegetables, cooking, distributing food, holding meetings, getting medicine, distributing clothes and so on. To understand the shit show that has been going on for years at the external borders of Europe takes a lot of time and reflection.
Many of my thoughts revolved around the fire in September 2020. For the Greek government, the so-called arsonists of Moria were easy to identify. Just three weeks ago, two of the six defendants were convicted. The trial was riddled with irregularities and violated key constitutional principles of fairness and presumption of innocence. Even before the trial began, it was clear that the two defendants would be found guilty. Migrants have been criminalized for years and sentenced to long prison terms without evidence. I have met so many – especially young men – on Lesvos who have been locked up in prisons for years without any reason! The same will now happen to the six men who are said to have burned down Moria. I refuse to foreground the people who started the fire, this is not my concern. Rather, I want to make clear what Moria stands for symbolically in terms of migration policy: a rigid policy of foreclosure, a neoliberal project to maintain capitalist interests, and the perpetuation of colonial conditions through the hierarchization of human life, racism and segregation. In my view, the setting of Moria on fire should be read as an appeal to abolish those institutions that deprive people of their freedom, rights and dignity. This includes the detention and immobilization of people in Detention Camps. The fire in Moria and also the fires in the new Camp are part of the uprisings for the abolition of all forms of racist segregation and for freedom of movement. They will not stop until the promise of a dignified life for all is fulfilled! And white Europeans who claim to be in solidarity with migrants are obliged to support these struggles! Get angry. Listen. Get organized.
More than half a year later. More or less six months ago we’ve been sitting together in a flat in Mytilini, collecting information about what happened in the last weeks. Damn, it’s been a crazy time. In the last weeks, we experienced things some of us never did before. Normally, working with NBK isn’t that exhausting: supplying food once a day, having a meeting once a week and doing some other support or political work in the rest of the time. In the last weeks, there was no time for other things. We woke up at 8 in the morning, cooked and distributed food until it was evening, had our meeting afterwards and went to bed. It also sometimes felt as we had no emotions. When trying to work and give as much support as you can, emotions can stand in your way – and working all the time leaves sometimes no space for thoughts about all this shit that is going on around you. Therefore, the past days became blurred and some of us couldn’t distinguish the days and events that had such a big impact on us and the people we want to support.
But the situation calmed down. The new camp became the ‘new normality’. We stopped cooking for up to 2.000 people, we deliver food again once day and not 4 to 6 times. We got again time and space for thoughts, reflections and emotions. So we start to recondition the past weeks writing down our experiences, reading some newspaper articles and doing some research about what happened in other parts of the world – because that was also something we didn’t catch. In the beginning, we’re doing this reflexive work mainly for us. We had less time talking about us as a group and reconditioning the events could be a first step to do so. But the events that had an impact on our work were highly political events and already then – in the end of September 2020 – only few people analyzed the situation on Lesvos in the past weeks. So the idea is growing to not only do this work for our internal group reflection but also to publish our research reaching more people and keeping the memory alive.
Now it’s March 2021 and many things happened in the past half a year. The new camp is even more of a ‘new normality’ that it has been already in the end of September. Because of the pandemic, the Greek state widened its authority which could be seen in attacks on demonstrations – as always on November 17th, December 6th and concerning the hunger/thirst strike of Dimitris Koufontinas. We also saw the improvement of authority concerning the situation of migrants: in the beginning, there was no lockdown in Greece except for the people living in the camps. The following lockdown was very strict and made racist police controls and the oppression of migrants more easy. Two of the six migrants that were accused of arson in Moria already got convicted in an unfair and inappropriate trial. On the other hand, there were also some positive happenings: some of our comrades got asylum, some of them could leave Greece and many people were evicted to the mainland. Some of the people who made it to the mainland now suffer from the harsh live in Athens which is – again – worsened because of regulations due to the pandemic and racist police controls. So, although there were also positive things happening, the status quo didn’t really change.
With some distance and knowing that the status quo didn’t change, we need to reflect about what we did in September. Moria burning down was such a big movement towards freedom of movement and we need to think about what we could have done to support these struggles prohibiting the status quo to exist even longer. Therefore, one thing we have to admit is that we dind’t do enough to support migrants in their struggle for freedom. While the people on the streets did powerful demonstrations demanding their unconditional right for freedom of movement, we’ve been cooking and trying to deliver food. Maybe it would only have been a gesture, maybe it would have made a difference in how the people felt, maybe their voices would have been heard more and maybe getting to the ‘new normality’ wouldn’t have been that easy. We don’t know what would have happened if we would have joined the demonstrations. And if we’re honest, we didn’t try to find out.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been easy to just stop cooking and focus on political work. As we already wrote in the past texts, most of the NGOs stopped their activities after the fire. There were only small self-organized groups that tried do to food supplies. Some of them had not that much experience in action cooking and also stopped cooking, some of them asked us for collaborations. There were some days on which only we supplied food. Being nearly the last possibility for the people on the streets to get food, for most of us the idea of not cooking and doing political work didn’t come to mind. We found ourselves in the dilemma, every critical support group finds itself in: supporting according to basic needs but then not doing enough political work which would be necessary to change the status quo in a long term. Some people would say that it’s okay to focus on work according to basic need, some would say it’s way more important to do political work. Probably, there’s not the one right answer to this question. But having not even tried to support the people on the streets in a political way and not even thinking about joining their demonstrations was something, we could’ve done better. The same thing goes with non-migrant antifascist demonstrations in this time: we did a division of labor as we did the support work while comrades of the local antifa did demonstrations in solidarity with the people on the streets. Being anarchists, we should have seen the danger division of labor keeps.
Although, we didn’t manage to support in a political sense as we should have done it, we also see ‘only’ cooking as a political action. It should be clear that cooking in solidarity with migrants is a kind of political action. When cooking only vegan – like we did – there’s also an ecological idea in it. Beyond this, cooking in a self-ruled collective anticipates the society we want to reach: everyone in the collective taking part in decision instead of bosses telling us what to do, cooking according to the needs of the people instead of the profit of some else, solidarity instead of a loan as motivation for working and at least seeing the people who we’re cooking for as equal and our support work not being a stupid gesture of ‘help for the poor’.
Although our cooking is a form of political action and us managing to do some things actually pretty good, there was something we could’ve done better. Some days after the fire, comrades from a social kitchen in Athens came to Lesvos and cooked in solidarity with migrants. While we cooked in non-public places, the comrades from Athens went to the people on the streets and cooked together with them. Taking the public space is a political action we didn’t manage to take and – even more – it’s a more non-hierarchical form cooking with (and not only for) migrants. Although there are also migrants at NBK, going directly to the people and let them participate in cooking was a very powerful gesture.
I write this just over 6 months since Moria burned down. I have been reading the posts written by NBK compas throughout this time, and have appreciated the opportunity to think through and come to terms with the rupture that took place on September 9. It is rarely now that we are afforded such an opportunity; headlines pile up, events are short lived, everything is fleeting. The past year of global pandemic has intensified this on one hand, but also perhaps might explain why this series of posts has happened at all: we’ve had time to dwell and to attempt to make sense.
I am in the UK and writing in the days following rioting in Bristol in resistance to the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Of course the riots have been condemned by the right, centrists and ‘moderates.’ But they have also been admonished by ‘pacifists,’ non-violent moralists and the so-called ‘optics left.’ By now, this should come as no surprise. There is a long and well-documented history of pacifists condemning tactics that do not align with their moral doctrine; weakening and dividing movements when they cannot control them.
I mention this because still, 6 months later, I see the fire as an act of resistance and refusal. Refusal to compromise, refusal of the non-violent attempt to ‘influence the power structure,’ refusal of the camp and the border altogether. At the time it was rarely articulated as such. Within NBK we debated whether such a framing was not counter-productive: material support was needed, which would require rousing public sympathy. The violent protester would not garner donations; the innocent helpless victim would.
I saw friends in migrant solidarity circles across Europe latch onto this narrative in their attempts to mobilize support. It was discomfiting, but I understood it as strategic. However, I do not want to ignore the uncomfortable questions it has brought up. Are we (to be clear, I am addressing primarily white ‘leftists’ attempting to work against border imperialism) more comfortable working with migrants dealing with disaster than migrants acting in resistance? Are we willing to stand alongside migrants who refuse subjugation and fight back? Do we have the capacity? Why not? Do we have the will, the want?
Non-violence lets white people off the hook. It allows us to participate in ‘resistance and solidarity’ with little danger or risk involved. Undoing border imperialism cannot be a safe endeavour; this struggle has already been deadly for countless migrants on the frontline. Can we imagine a solidarity movement that is more than a support network? A solidarity movement that is a threat? A solidarity movement that, when the next rupture happens, can keep open the space for freedom and struggle?