It Matters: sexual harassment and silence.

This was first published here http://www.slaneystreet.com/2014/07/07/2348/ and I think appeared in Red Pepper, though i can’t find it now. But I wanted to archive it here to not lose track.

 

“Are you a hooker?”

Street harassment is ubiquitous enough to usually be little more the white-noise of living under patriarchy but, this morning, stepping outside into quiet, semi-suburban street I’m staying on, a distant horn honk brought those words back into focus.

“Are you a hooker?”

Who said that?

I walked home alone, late, despite suggestions to the contrary; the night was lovely. The downtown music almost drew me into other venues but I wanted night air and stars more than music and drunken stranger companionship. All weekend I had chosen much-needed personal space and peace over protests, parades and parties.

With some ambivalence but a vague acknowledgement of ‘safety I chose a route through well-lit streets rather than through the shadowed park I used to hang out in day and night. In retrospect, it didn’t matter. I was on a well-lit city street when first heard the words:

“Are you a hooker?”

‘Maybe they’re looking?’ I give benefit of doubt. But with all that Canada’s new proposed prostitution legislation will make it harder for people to hire sex workers and make sex-work much more dangerous, no one is going to be soliciting here, on a quiet residential street, a few hours past the resident’s bedtime. Beside that car, I was the only sign of life. Their inquiry was disingenuous so i didn’t respond. Whether or not I’m a hooker doesn’t matter.

“Are you a hooker?”
A different voice; he has a friend.

I’m silent. Out of speechlessness as much as safety. What response is there to this question, hurled like slaps across the peaceful night? What would convey the deep respect i have for sex-workers, the utter contempt I have for men who harass isolated women*, let alone for anyone who thinks the best attack is the word ”hooker”? Asking if I’m a ‘hooker’ does not hurt me—-‘hooker’ signifies an important, often valiant, and dangerous profession–-but I can infer insult and threat in their intention. What can i say to counter their use of that word to erase a right to safety?

“Are you a hooker?”
They slow down, just enough to make sure the words carry.

Despite best intentions, I inventory myself. What a person is wearing doesn’t correlate to harassment: I have been followed, harassed, even stalked wearing platform heels or rubber crocs. My shoes don’t matter. Harassment is not the fault of the harassed. Nonetheless, I check. My platform wedges are tucked in my bag; my feet hit pavement in bland, functional sports sandals. Not that it matters.

I’m at the driveway, reaching for my keys when I realize their attention is still on me. I keep walking, slowly but deliberately, past the house, not wanting them to see where I live. I am grateful for the sandals as I prepare myself to run.


”Are you a hooker?”

Why run? I should yell, curse; chase them down and fight. If it were daylight, I might. But I am still at a loss of words. What sound bite would convey how deeply violent their attitude is towards sex workers; how dangerous such an attitude is for all of society? What words are there to express the anger I feel with the absolute knowledge that if i were, indeed, a ‘hooker’; in fact if i were not holding keys to a door nearby that i could almost certainly reach before they got out of the car, that this twinge of anxiety and readiness–-another background noise of living under patriarchy–-would be panic and fear?

“Are you a hooker?”
Staccato horn honks accompany their words.

I regret that I’m not a good fighter. I have gotten out of many situations by righteous indignation, false confidence, privilege, and luck. Any of those incidents could have turned more violent – even deadly. For many they do. Women sex-workers are 18 times more likely to be killed than other women; 4 times more likely than cops to be killed whilst working and are frequently targeted by serial killers. Aboriginal women*, immigrant women, racialised women, trans women, disabled women, homeless women, queer women are all disproportionately targets of violence and murder, more so when multiply oppressed.

“Are you a hooker?”
The car stops at the corner, 40 metres away their voices and horns still reach me.

They’ve stopped too far to see me clearly but they might back up or turn around. I stop walking. I won’t confront them, wanting to stay safe but quiet, not disturb anyone else. Not prepared to deal with the anxiety it would produce. Knowing that talking about this is less-likely to lead to fighting sexual harassment than it is to lead to more cautions for women not to walk alone at night. For months I’ve supported others who’ve been sexually harassed and assaulted in communities that don’t want to be disturbed by its reality. If I can’t even get my anti-sexist community to deal seriously with sexual harassment or assault, how can I expect others will react?


“I didn’t hear/see anything”
“Did you call the police?”
“Can you prove it?”

Who said that? Was that you?

I double-back, cut along the side to the rear, relieved i have a key for the back door. I stop in the backyard , look up at the night sky. I don’t hear them anymore. I try to let everything go but the stars. It doesn’t work. Not quite, though the breeze is cool and the sky is familiar and comforting. I go inside.

And I look in the mirror.

I know it doesn’t matter that my dress is form-fitting. I’ve gotten catcalls as often wearing oversized waterproofs as when wearing halters and mini-skirts. I’ve been oinked at as a well-coifed size 7 and a disheveled size 20. I have had my breasts commented on, gestured about and groped (unconsensually), in various states of couture and stature, by strangers, acquaintances, co-workers and bosses, since I was 12.

What I’m wearing doesn’t matter but i can’t keep myself from searching nonetheless.

I assess. Is it revealing? Not really. No cleavage. The skirt nearly hits my knees. And a cardigan hovers loosely, hiding the jersey-hugged curves that feminists say i ought to, anyway, be proud of.

“It doesn’t happen to strong women”
“What do you expect if you wear that/ smile at strangers/walk alone”

I disgust myself with these thoughts. For all I’ve done to fight the notion that what you wear, how you look, matters; for all I’ve done to insist that harassment is not the fault of the harassed, i still checked, listening to the past voices echoing in my head.

On principle I’ve long-since made it a point to talk openly about sexual harassment I experience.

For this i am sometimes accused of bragging. Sometimes, but not always in jest; often, but by no means always, by cis-men.


“Are you trying to make me jealous?”
“At least you got some attention”

Who said that? Do you know them?

The news is peppered with politicians talking about “legitimate rape”, with pundits blaming women not just for wearing too little, but also for wearing too much, as when women wearing hijab or niquab are assaulted or attacked. Every complaint of harassment or assault is meticulously scrutinized. Every word, act examined. So much so that we, or at least I, now do it myself.

I fell asleep with my own silence tonight mingling with my friend’s silences around known sexual harassment and assaults that have occurred in my communities. I write this today wondering how many people will doubt my story, or think i am over-reacting, or, indeed, boasting.

What do you say?
“Those guys were assholes”

Do you know them?”
“Not me. Not my mates. We’d never…not really”

Those blokes were friends of someone. How do you know they’re not friends of yours?

——————-

* Nearly 700 aboriginal women have gone missing in Canada over the lasts 30 years; despite international pressure, the Canadian government has ignored this crisis.

Since writing this a week ago, I’ve learned that the proposed new Canadian legislation against prostitution is being debated in the House of Commons this week. Find out more about the critiques of Bill C-36 and why prohibition/ciminalization of sex-work is dangerous from the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Reform.

Maggies and Stella are both organizations run for and by sex workers with good resources about violence against sex workers.

Here is some info on violence against sex workers in the UK, though i know less about groups who organize around such issues please do include other links if you know of them.
International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers – 17th December

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No persecution in Bahrain or the UK: Let Isa Al-Aali stay.

This was an update from my piece which originally appeared in Slaney Street.

by Amanda Dorter

“The youth in Bahrain are victims of unfairness and injustice by the regime… Many have been calling for the release of relatives, improvement of the human rights situation and democratic rights. Our demand is to seek justice for impunity in torture cases. If I return, I’m returning to death and torture.”

Isa Al-Aali, in an interview with John Lubbock, May 23 2014 Vice

Sign petition here to keep Isa from being returned to torture.

Hopefully by now you’ve heard of Isa Al-Aali, the 19 year old torture survivor fighting to remain as a refugee in the UK, against fears of repeated judicial torture in Bahrain. He got an 11th hour reprieve last week from deportation back to Bahrain, but his struggle is far from over and he could face a renewed deportation order as early as next week. We are asking people near and far to sign and share this petition, calling on the Home Office to release this torture survivor from detention immediately and to grant him leave to stay as a refugee. Letters of solidarity and support for Isa to the Home Office are encouraged and can be cc-ed to: sayed[at]birdbh.org.

According to a recent statement made by Al-Aali to Vice following news of a legal injunction against his removal, “I’m still not confident about the next steps for the Home Office. My experience has been miserable, so it’s just a temporary decision”

Part of the peaceful pro-democracy movement in Bahrain following the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising, Al-Aali was first detained by police in 2013 where he was thrown from a moving vehicle whilst shackled, beaten, threatened at knife- and gun- point, including being threatened with having his genitals cut off.

He was detained twice more and fled his homeland after being threatened with death for refusing to turn informant on fellow protestors. Bahrain has a well-documented history of political repression and human rights violations, including using weaponized tear gas and bird shot against protesters and using torture. Bahrain security forces have killed at least 95 people since the 2011 uprisings. Bahrain’s Prince Nasser has recently been accused of participating in torture himself. It should be noted that the UK, in the face of clear evidence of growing human rights concerns, continues to defend Bahrain.

Since coming to the UK, he was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to 5 years prison in Bahrain. When the Bahrain government somehow learned that Isa’s asylum claim was turned down, they were quoted in their newspaper heralding his return to Bahrain, claiming that people like him were not political refugees but terrorists who needed to be deterred. They celebrated the UK’s “reason” in refusing his asylum claim. The on-going media attention surrounding his case and the rising exposure of Bahrain’s repressive state put him at greater risk.

He came to the UK seeking asylum from a judicial system that is widely recognized to use “Arbitrary Detentions, Ill-Treatment, and Torture” only to be taken into custody upon landing in the UK and put in detention at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre for the last 3 months. Harmondsworth has been the site of on-going campaigns against poor conditions and negligent-to-violent staff, including the detainee hunger strikes at the beginning of May. A 2014 report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons found Harmondsworth to be deteriorating, rather than improving, in its care of vulnerable people.

He was put into the Detain and Fast Track (DFT) system, which has been widely criticized since 2006 for not allowing people proper time or resources to adequately represent their claim; Isa certainly lacked proper access to legal support or even translation when first detained. The Home Office also has explicit rules against holding people who have been tortured under DFT and yet here is where Isa remained. Medical Justice calls detained torture survivors “second torture”.

Imagine the torment one would feel after fleeing from psychological and physical violence to the promise of security, only to find that the notion of the UK as a welcome space for democracy and freedom and a refuge for those subjected to persecution at home, is a myth.

This hope of sanctuary from torture is systematically taken away: by being not welcomed but detained at the airport, faced with an obfuscated and Kafkaesque bureaucracy in a foreign language, held in a detention centre known for its neglect and violence, with every hope of freedom shattered in the outcome of his successive asylum hearings. It’s still much better than what Isa faces in Bahrain. After all, who would subject themselves to such a system in the UK if they weren’t at risk of grave physical danger where they came from? But it must come to an end nonetheless – an end that sees Isa finally walking free; free from detention and guards, free from torture, free from persecution, free from fear.

 

Please help him achieve this. Call on the UK to release Isa immediately from this arbitrary and harrowing detention and grant him leave to remain in UK without fear of persecution or return to torture. Sign and share this today https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/the-home-secretary-we-the-undersigned-call-on-the-home-secretary-to-immediately-release-19-year-old-torture-survivor-isa-al-aali-from-detention-and-to-grant-him-indefinite-leave-to-remain-in-the-uk#

For those unfamiliar with the case, you can visit the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy for a full background and updates. You can find a piece with broader context, including information and links about Bahrain’s human rights record, The UK relationship with Bahrain, and the UK trajectory on migrant rights on Slaney Street

You can also find out more about the UK’s cozy relationship with Bahrain, as well as more coverage on Isa’s case, human rights in Bahrain, migrant detention and the growing xenophobia of the UK in this annotated list below.

LINKS
ISA AND HIS CASE TO DATE

Vice Interview with Isa http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/isa

Petition: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/the-home-secretary-we-the-undersigned-call-on-the-home-secretary-to-immediately-release-19-year-old-torture-survivor-isa-al-aali-from-detention-and-to-grant-him-indefinite-leave-to-remain-in-the-uk

Update on Isa’s current situation at Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy  http://birdbh.org/2014/05/uk-court-delays-deportation-of-19-year-old-bahraini-torture-survivor/
Update from Bahrain Watch https://bahrainwatch.org/blog/2014/05/23/uk-court-delays-deportation-of-19-year-old-bahraini-torture-survivor/

Backgrounder http://birdbh.org/2014/05/uk-plans-to-deport-torture-survivor-facing-imprisonment-in-bahrain/

Initial articles about Isa’s removal order:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/isa-haider-alaali-case-bahraini-teen-fears-torture-after-losing-asylum-claim-9392576.html

(£) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/53cc2584-e1ab-11e3-9999-00144feabdc0,Authorised=false.html?_i_location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ft.com%2Fcms%2Fs%2F0%2F53cc2584-e1ab-11e3-9999-00144feabdc0.html%3Fsiteedition%3Duk&siteedition=uk&_i_referer=#ixzz32X4yEgmo

Pieces putting Isa’s case in context of Bahrain human rights record, Bahrain/UK relationship and the Fast Track system  for asylum claims in the UK:
http://www.slaneystreet.com/2014/05/19/home-office-to-send-bahraini-pro-democracy-activist-to-face-imprisonment-torture-and-death-threats-isa-haide-al-aali-will-be-forcibly-removed-from-harmondsworth-on-thursday/

http://www.righttoremain.org.uk/blog/bahrain-and-uk-no-sanctuary-from-torture/

http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/esme-madill/bahraini-torture-survivor-resists-deportation-from-britain
Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/saveisa/
Twitter #SaveIsa #SaveIsaAlAali

UK AND MIGRANT DETENTION
Migrant strikes against conditions in detention and “detain and fast track” system https://network23.org/antiraids/2014/05/07/hunger-strike-and-protests-now-in-3-uk-migration-prisons/

Piece on migrant detention and fast-tracking, following hunger strikes by migrants in detention centres, including Harmondsworth, where Isa is being held http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/no-listening-us-britains-migrant-rebellion/

June 7th protest at Harmondsworth against Fast Track and Detention https://www.facebook.com/events/704451662945994/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming

“second torture” of detaining migrant torture survivors http://www.medicaljustice.org.uk/reports-a-intelligence/mj/reports/2058-the-second-torture-the-immigration-detention-of-torture-survivors-22052012155.html

UK Home Office notes on Rule 35 prhibiting vulnerable people from being detained and fast tracked https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/300366/17.2012_v2.0_-_Application_of_Detention_Centre_Rule_35_ext.pdf

Deaths of migrants in custody http://www.irr.org.uk/news/deaths-in-immigration-detention-1989-2014/

High Court on DTF for torture survivors http://www.freedomfromtorture.org/news-blogs/7329

BAHRAIN AND THE UK

Exposé on allegations of torture by Prince Nasser by the Financial Times (behind a paywall) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/98a09550-d8eb-11e3-a1aa-00144feabdc0,Authorised=false.html?_i_location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ft.com%2Fcms%2Fs%2F0%2F98a09550-d8eb-11e3-a1aa-00144feabdc0.html%3Fsiteedition%3Duk&siteedition=uk&_i_referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.slaneystreet.com%2Fwp-admin%2Fpost.php%3Fpost%3D1955%26action%3Dedit

and in the Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/bahraini-prince-nasser-bin-hamad-alkhalifa-could-lose-uk-diplomatic-immunity-over-torture-claims-9359303.html

UK’s analysis of Bahrain, including acknowledgement of use of torture and repression of freedom of expression https://www.gov.uk/government/case-studies/country-case-study-bahrain-progress-on-reform-implementation

UK “mission” and “priorities” with regard to Bahrain https://www.gov.uk/government/world/bahrain

2014 Human Rights Watch report documenting “regression” of human rights in Bahrain http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/bahrain

Experience of other Bahraini dissidents living in the UK https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/middle-east/11697-bahraini-activists-speak-out-about-systematic-persecution-by-british-government

Critiques of the UK relationship with Bahrain and Isa’s removal order ;   http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/05/16/uk-bahrain-prince-windsor_n_5336978.html

BAHRAIN CONTEXT

15 year old boy killed last week by police with birdshot in Bahrain http://www.abna.ir/english/service/important/archive/2014/05/22/610428/story.html
Torture of journalist Nazeeha Saeed http://www.mediadefence.org/stories/my-story-nazeeha-saeed

Account of torture from Bahrain http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/i-was-tortured-as-a-bahraini-political-prisoner-0000005-v20n1

Release of political prisoner from jail in Bahrain http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27559533
Bahrain Watch https://bahrainwatch.org/

Bahrain Centre for Human Rights http://www.bahrainrights.org/

INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY
http://toronto.nooneisillegal.org/node/858
UK’S RISE OF XENOPHOBIA
https://www.facebook.com/groups/59856051718/permalink/10152543052286719/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/10854566/David-Cameron-draws-up-immigration-laws-to-foil-Ukip.html
http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/478076/We-were-wrong-we-are-sorry-Senior-Labour-MP-Sadiq-Khan-pens-open-letter-to-Ukip-voters
(more links coming soon)

Urgent: Stop the deportation of 19 year old Isa Haide Alaali who faces imprisonment, torture and death threats in Bahrain.  

An old piece published on a site that no longer exists; I’m just trying to keep my writing all in the same place

May 2014

“What is the most mind-boggling is that it is so easy to deport someone or to sentence a human rights defender to life imprisonment, but it is so difficult to find accountability for a prince,”  Maryam  Alkhawaja, Acting President, Bahrain Center for Human Rights [Huffington Post]

As the clouds broke across Britain this week and many of us stretched our faces towards the sunlight, breathing in the summer breeze, not all were so lucky as to enjoy such a reprieve. It’s not the grey British sky, however, but the cold stone walls and repressive bureaucracy of the Home Office that kept some from the sense of such freedom.  Of people who come to Britain seeking asylum, roughy 12% a year find themselves locked up in brutal private detention centres, and slated for deportation back to violence, torture and even death, without due process in this country of ours. The incredible inequities of the Detained Fast Track (DFT) machine were brought to light 10 days ago when detainees across the UK participated in sit-ins and hunger strikes demanding change a system that unfairly detains people in unsafe and violent conditions, lacking access to mental health resources or health care and deports them without adequate time or resources to prepare a claim for asylum.

One such protester, 19 year old Isa Haider Al Aali, has been slated for forced removal this Thursday, back to Bahrain. Isa fled Bahrain in February of this year, seeking asylum in the UK. In his absence, the Bahraini court sentenced him to 5 years in prison for participating in protests against the government. This government has been accused of killing nearly 100 protesters and citizens since the uprising of 2011, using weaponized tear gas and bird shot against activists and civilians alike, in the streets and in mosques, and using torture against people in detention. Isa’s deportation will be directly into the hands of such forces where he faces imprisonment and fears torture.

“The decision by the UK to deport me to Bahrain could put me at risk of my life as I will get tortured,” said Isa in a recent interview with The Independent.

According to the Bahrain Human Rights Society, Isa’s first arrest was following peaceful pro-democracy protests in February, 2013. During this arrest, he was thrown out of a moving vehicle whilst in handcuffs, beaten, and  threatened with genital mutilation and death at knife-point. After 90 days in prison he was released, and asked to inform against other protesters. In the face of his refusal, he was threatened with further arrest and death. Since then, he has been imprisoned twice, both times being subjected to further violence. He fled Bahrain after being released on bail from his last arrest, seeking asylum in the UK. He was subsequently sentenced in abstentia to 5 years in prison by a Bahraini court.

Just today, a Bahraini state newspaper reported on Isa’s removal order with the headline “Haider, will return on Thursday!” under which they proclaim him a terrorist to be brought back to the hands of the government, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy

Though it’s sadly not uncommon for the UK to deport people back into life-threatening situations in their country of origin, the timing of this is particularly curious given that it comes amid shocking revelations about the alleged involvement of the Bahraini royal family with torture this week, as a legal challenge to the protective shroud of diplomatic immunity possessed by the King’s son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, was revealed by the Financial Times in relation to charges that he participated in the torture of pro-democracy activists during the 2011 uprisings.

Calls to arrest Nasser during a 2012 visit to the UK were initially rejected on the grounds of diplomatic immunity as commander of Bahrain’s Royal Guard, but a case challenging this was revealed on Friday, May 9th by the High Court, and the case will proceed in October. Participation in torture by a public official is a prosecutable offence under the UK Criminal Justice Act of 1988.

These accusations were revealed in the same week as Bahraini pro-democracy activists protested the royal treatment of the Bahraini monarchy at the Windsor Horse Show. Bahraini pro-democracy activists protested the welcome of the rulers of the Bahraini regime by the UK head of state, who has been a supporter of the regime despite the myriad of accusations of brutality.

According to the Huffington Post, Bahraini activists in the UK have accused the UK government of assisting Bahrain in it’s attempts to cover up their regimes brutality, in the interest of trade deals and influence in the gulf. Prince Andrew, in particular, has spoken in defence of the Bahraini royal family although he cancelled his planned attendance at a pro-Bahrain regime event in London on Friday at the last minute.

In the wake of these revelations and amid such growing protest it seems particularly heinous to be deporting Alaali to certain imprisonment where it is clear that Bahrain’s judiciary is corrupt and such imprisonment likely means ongoing torture.

It seems even more suspect that such a deportation happens in the wake of recent hunger strikes by migrants in detention across the UK. Isa was among over 330 people who participated in hunger strikes early this month, protesting the conditions in the detention centres as well as the Detained Fast Track process overall. In addition to poor to no access to healthcare and mental health care in the detainment centres, migrants held have been subject to violence by guards, leading to deaths in custody over the past years. Harmondsworth, where Isa was detained, has the highest record of deaths in custody.

Sadly, the conditions in Harmondsworth, grim as they are, are likely much less-harrowing than what Isa will face should he be essentially deported into the hands of the Bahraini regime later this week.

“No asylum-seeker arriving from Bahrain should be processed and detained under the fast track process,” according to renowned migrant rights solicitor Sue Willton.“Bahrain has a well-documented recent history of torture and human rights violations verified by an independent commission. Isa Al Aali continuing detention and threatened removal represents a serious injustice.”

By forcibly removing Isa from the UK back to Bahrain, the Home Office is not only in direct contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights against deporting a person at risk of torture. This convention, however, is something that the Home Secretary Theresa May wants scrapped, claiming such human rights get in the way of the UKs ability to act in it’s national interest. Of what interest is it to the UK to send a young man standing up for democracy to almost certain torture? Is it merely part of their on-going attack on migrants in the UK, particularly whilst pandering to the growing right-wing nationalist flames fanned by parties such as UKIP and Britain First? Or is it because of Britain’s close relationship with Bahrain? By sending Isa back, the Home Office is clearly helping to obscure the very brutal reality of the Bahraini regime. But most imminently, they are putting Isa at clear risk of torture and possibly death, sending a message that the well-being and in fact the very lives of those who stand up for democracy are not to be valued.

As John Horne, of Bahrain Watch says, “It is an absolute betrayal of the Government’s claims to uphold human rights when it seeks to deport a young activist who fled persecution and now faces imminent imprisonment and possible torture.”

See the full backgrounder on Isa’s case.

Please join us in our call to stop the removal of Isa. You can contact your local MP through this website https://www.writetothem.com/ and ask them to intervene with the Home Office on Isa’s account. Please be polite and clear in the request.

For other inquiries or offers of support, please contact Sayed Ahmed Al Wadaei (Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy) at sayed@birdbh.org

Waiting…

first published with ASIRT, circa April 2014

– by Amanda Dorter

I arrived to my first volunteer shift at ASIRT‘s weekly drop-in clinic to a group of people already waiting; 17 people had had signed in before 10am and they, alone or with  their children, friends and family, filtered in as we opened the doors. And then they waited some more. First for an initial intake, then again for more in depth support in trying to understand and navigate through the opaque and Kafkaesqee Home Office bureaucracy within which they were trapped.  Over35 people signed in for the clinic that day whilst the 6 of us, three staff members and as many volunteers, engaged holistically with empathy whilst trying to see everyone in a timely manner, a nearly impossible contradiction to resolve given the convoluted nature of most people’s needs. But most people come to ASIRT as a last resort. What can they do but wait, all day if needed, in hopes that when they leave they will be one step closer to realizing their rights or, at least, one step closer to food and shelter for the coming few days.

As they waited, a volunteer came by with lunch, (the only meal that some of them would have that day), supporting each other in keep their babies happy, their toddlers occupied and arranging to get their older kids picked up from school. They found solace, advice, and interpreters among each other, sharing a sense of camaraderie that is built through adversity and waiting rooms.

“Adil” was new to Birmingham, being forcibly relocated from his hometown of more than a decade in Leicester, where his solicitor, family and friends were. He had come in to try to establish support in his new city. When i asked if he had secure housing and money for the time being he said  “I don’t know”, and showed me a recent ruling that denied him Section 4 support (£36/wk on a non-transferable Azure swipe-card, valid at a restricted list of chain-stores for a restricted list of items and housing). He didn’t understand the decision, let alone know why, getting the results of the decision but not the rationale; Adil was very confused. Fortunately, a seasoned ASIRT worker speculated that his this decision might be due to a problem with his claim, and that we should try to track down if that was true and what it might be. Were it not for this insight, he’d never have known there was a problem with his newly-filed asylum claim.

I spent over 2 hours with one phone on redial, trying and failing to get through to various UKBA offices, whilst i used my mobile to call the courts, his solicitor and a Leicester-based charity he’d accessed, to track down various pieces of this puzzle that had left him destitute and unaware of the status of his claim. Without credit for his phone or money for the train, he couldn’t possibly have tracked this information down himself.  We eventually got a copy of the decision to deny him funding which, in everyone’s opinion, was illegal. But through it we learned that his claim had been submitted to the wrong office, despite having a receipt saying his claim had been received. He had no idea that his claim was therefor rejected, pending a new submission to a different office. We figured this out with unanswered rings to the UKBA telephone number as a monotonous and relentless soundtrack. His next step, to make an appointment to resubmit his claim to an office in Liverpool, required a train ticket and an appointment. ASIRT can get access to funds for such a ticket, but the more difficult matter will be the appointment. I’m told some people have wrung that office for 3 days straight without getting through. And that they only answer the first 30 calls in a day.

Here was a shoe-string budgeted charity in which workers are somehow making time to see over 35 people in a day, trying to reach a fully-funded government agency that can’t even answer the phone to book an appointment. It’s baffling, but indicative of the increasing need for charities like ASIRT to exist and be able to continue to see every person who walks through the door, and spend the time needed to sort out the intricacies of each person’s needs.

Adil’s circumstances are far from rare. In many cases, in fact, people with young children find themselves in similar circumstances, and end up couch-surfing or sleeping rough for weeks, months, even years, until they find themselves at ASIRT, where they manage to access temporary food and shelter, and start the process of getting greater stability.

Adil’s circumstances also illustrate why so many people want support for even some of the simpler aspects of being a migrant in the UK. One error can lead to disastrous results, and so people even with relatively secure status came in with forms to fill out, terrified of making a single mistake lest they be sent back to the beginning of this bizarre nightmare of bureaucracy, and have to endure more waiting, destitution, and possibly face detention or deportation.

One, a permanent resident who had lost her documents in a fire had been waiting for the Home Office to send back her file, so that she could essentially submit it back to them to get new documentation from them to prove her existing status. In the interim, she received the ubiquitous communique from the UKBA’s bumbling bounty-hunter firm, Capita, indicating that she may be subject to removal and should leave as soon as possible.  She came in full of questions: “Who are these people? Is this legit? Does this mean there’s another problem with my file? It doesn’t seem real because why on earth wouldn’t they send an official letter. What would have happened if this had gone to a spam folder? Are they just trying to intimidate us, because, if they are, it’s working.”

She was not alone in her wait to get documents back from the UKBA, many long past the 40 day deadline to respond to such requests.

Still others were waiting on files from ex-solicitors, including the firm Blackmores, an office that was shut down controversially, after experiencing some financial struggles due in part to policy changes including those that make legal aid increasingly difficult to access. With Blackmores gone people are struggling to find someone else with the needed expertise and qualifications who can become familiar with their case. With changes to legal aid rendering 93% of immigration cases no longer eligible, finding new solicitors will be nearly impossible for most. Yet claims are 50% more likely to succeed with legal representation. People using ASIRT are increasingly relying on pro-bono legal services or support from the Birmingham Law Centre –which came close to closing this winter due to lack of funds—to deal with some aspects of their case. ASIRT itself is not immune to this decade’s economics; charities like ASIRT have seen average reductions of 20% in funding over the last year, and funding sources as well as individual donations continue to diminish. The current economic climate is conspiring with on-going changes to polices around legal aid, judicial review and immigration policies to deepen the pool of destitution, with fewer and fewer ways to keep afloat and a decreasing number of organizations able to help people navigate their way out. Which is why, I suppose, so many people were so patient while they had to wait.

And after all,  people who come to ASIRT are sadly used to waiting, having often been in and out of limbo, waiting for claims and appeals to be ruled on, for new ones to be filed, fighting sometimes for well over a decade, for basic human rights here, enduring destitution, violence and unrelenting fear in the UK as a better option  than any other alternative they may have. And so, after weeks, months, years of this, they were willing to endure 8 hours longer in the hopes that this will lead to eventual security, if not for ever, at least for a little while.

And that is why ASIRT so needs the support of us all in continuing to both intervene at policy levels and provide the tireless service committed to helping out everyone who comes in, with an unwavering sense of care, respect and solidarity for the services users, as well as for each other—something that is rare and hard to maintain in understaffed, stressful, front line work. I have to say in my short time there it’s been one of the more supportive and collaborative environments i’ve worked. I wish circumstances were such that ASIRT had no reason to exist, but I appreciate the work that they do and the opportunity I’ve had to be a part of it so far.

I’ll be back for my third volunteer shift this Thursday, but this Sunday I’ll be participating in a walk to help raise money for ASIRT. Every dollar raised will be matched by the Midland Legal Support and will go directly towards maintaining the services that so many people wait for week after week. If you can help support us in any way, by donating to ASIRT, joining us in the walk, and/or spreading the word to your communities, please do. Please help ASIRT continue it’s work, giving hope to those dispossessed and destitute by our system, so that, at least for some, the wait for justice and security can come to an end.

Who cares for the cargivers

[first pubilshed in a cook ‘zine “from farm to fork” by  le frigo vert collective circa 2009 http://www.lefrigovert.com/ More recent info on canadian migrant workers can be found here http://interparesfundraising.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/international-migrants-day/#%5D

Part nanny, personal care attendant, health care worker, maid and cook, we can’t forget aboutdomestic workers when we talk about food and health. The majority of domestic workers arewomen, from the Philippines, but also from Caribbean countries who enter Canada through theLive-in Caregivers Program. And though they work tirelessly to feed and care for their employers,they often have little access to food or care themselves.

Coming to Canada because of conditions ofpoverty in their homeland, created by programsof global capitalism, women often leave behindtheir own families to come and take care ofsomeone else’s here in Canada, all for the hopesof being able to send home money, andpotentially, eventually being able to move herewith their families.

One of the biggest difficulties for Filipinaworkers entering Canada through the LCP isthat of immediate forced integration.“With children,” says Evelyn Calugay, a memberof Pinay, a Montreal-based Filipino women’sorganization that focuses particularly onworking to organize and empower Filipinodomestic workers, “ it’s recognized thatintegration should be done gradually rather thanabruptly, but workers are expected to integrateimmediately. It has a huge effect on yourphysiological system to be immediately forcedto eat an entirely different diet.”

Generally, when they do shopping for theiremployers, they shop in places that don’t carrythe type of food they are used to, so they areonly able to access their own food on their dayoff, and some aren’t even allowed to bring theirown food back if, for example, doing so wouldviolate a dietary mandate (such as kosher law).Room and board is supposed to be part of thedeal for domestic workers, but many are deniedaccess to their employers food.

Employers will keep track,” says Calugay, “They will look in the fridge and ask about every morsel that is missing”. Calugay says some members of PINAY admit that they live on bread and butter, while others admit to keeping

food under their bed.

But often, food is the least of their worries.The wages are low and although on paper, thesewomen are entitled to days off and privaterooms, in practice, they rarely have privacy andare often on call 24-7. They receive no benefitsand in Quebec, are not even covered by CSST(Quebec’s workers comp), which means thatthough they take care of other people’s health,they have no resources to take care of theirown. Indeed, many who become injured, ill orpregnant while in the LCP find themselves firedfrom their jobs thereby losing their workpermits and being at risk of deportation.When asked to describe the treatment oflive-in caregivers over all, Evelyn said they aretreated as “disposable objects; not human

beings”.

We are hailed as ‘modern-day heroes,’ butin fact, we are ‘modern-day slaves’,” said YolynValenzuela, of Siklab, a Filipino migrant workersgroup, in a recent speech about the LCPPeople in the LCP program can, after working24/36 months, apply for landed immigrantstatus, but the criteria are so restrictive andthe conditions so harsh few make it that far.A main barrier to this being that as soon as adomestic worker changes employment forwhatever reason, (be she fired, fall ill or leave,even if she leaves an abusive or dangerousenvironment) she must apply for a new workpermit. Though permits can be issued withinweeks, it often takes upwards of 6 months, and,in some cases, over a year.In the meantime, mostwomen find work, but without a valid workpermit, they not only have no legal rights butbecause these jobs are not documented, theirtime is not counted towards requirements ofthe program. Simple math shows that if the bureaucratic wheels turn too slowly, the workerwill never make the 24/36 month requirement,and will be deported..

Calugay describes this as “…a cycle [predicatedon] survival of the fittest”

Unbelievably, these conditions are better thanthey were. In the past, workers would have toreapply for permits periodically even if theyremained with the same employer. A long foughtcampaign demanding that LCP workers begranted a work permit for the full 3 years andnot be tied to a specific employer had a partialvictory: 3 year permits are now issued. The factthat the permits remain tied to a particularemployer, however, renders this victorysomewhat hollow in that most workers changeemployers throughout this 3 year period andthen are stuck with the problem of not beingable to document work until their newpaperwork (permit) has come through.LCP workers in Quebec won a moresubstantial victory through the Quebec HumanRights Commission recently. Currently,domestic workers in Quebec are not coveredby CSST (Worker’s Compensation in Quebec).A report done by McGill professor and co-founder of the Montreal Immigrant WorkersCentre, Jill Hanley, found that 30% of domesticworkers experience a job-related injury. In November of 2008, the Quebec Human RightsCommission ruled that this exclusion wasdiscriminatory on the basis of gender, ethnicityand social status. Of course, the ruling is onlythe first step and to date it is unknown howthe CSST will interpret and manifest this newstandard. [having left the jurisdiction shortly after writing this, i have no idea how this has affected the terrain]

[another update: Montreal Immigrant Worker’s Centre http://iwc-cti.ca/ launched an association of temp agency workers in order to fight and organize for themselves for better work conditions and dignity…and struggle for basic things that we all take advantage of… such as minimum wage, holiday pay, dignity and respect, and also against their own injust situations of fighting for status and against deportations..The struggle continues

  • Amanda Dorter is a frigo collective member

For more info or to stand in solidarity with workers in the Livein Caregivers Program

check out the Pinay website at http://pinayquebec.blogspot.com/

Tainted food: The politics of food production and its labour in Canada.

[first published for le frigo vert’s cookzine: From Fork to Farm – circa 2009]

There is a constant and understandable concern about the quality of the food that we eat. Frequent recalls due to contamination, the decreasing nutritional value of non-organic and industrially farmed food, and new studies discussing relative benefits or dangers of various products keep many of us on our toes. “Buy local” trends have also been on the rise as people believe that it is safer, more ecologically sound and ethical or at least neighbourly to support small, local producers. But the most profound issues of food politics go beyond ecological and health concerns to the consumer. Behind the food we consume is the taint of colonialism, racialized and gendered oppression, and exploitation of workers throughout the world.

At times, it is impossible to make choices that are affordable, nutritious and just; indeed it’s often impossible for consumers to find out about the conditions under which a particular piece of food is grown, picked, processed and served, but the more information we have, the more conscientious our choices can be. Just as we might commit to doing an herbal cleanse after a binge of take out meals and junk food, we can commit to fighting for workers’ rights even though we might consume the food brought to us by worker exploitation.

People need to move from personal health consciousness to holistic human consciousness,” says Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justicia (Justice) for Migrant Workers (J4MW)in an interview with me a few days ago.

Throughout Canada, all food industries, from farm to processing to food service rely heavily on migrant labour to do difficult and often dangerous work at a low cost to the employer yet a high cost to the worker. The majority of these workers are are not entitled to permanent status in Canada nor to many basic rights, such as minimum wage, overtime laws or basic health and safety coverage. In some cases, people participating in the program can, after a long period of time and the meeting of many requirements, apply (with no assurances) for landed immigrant status, but the criteria are so restrictive and the conditions so harsh that few workers make it that far.

Many people enter into these programs because of poor access to food and basic necessities in their homelands. These conditions, due to decades of imperialist exploitation through policies of global capitalism like the IMF and World Bank, force people into coming to places like Canada either under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program or more specific programs such as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP)and the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) that are designed to maximize profits for Canadian employers (Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program pdf.).

Though there are differences with all these programs, what they have in common is that the workers essentially have few rights and no recourse. Minimum wage and overtime laws do not apply. People are often forced to work without breaks. Workers are housed by their employers with little, if any, privacy or safety. In the case of farm workers, access to food, clean water, and basic sanitation such as toilets is not even a given (J4MW, December 2, 2008). D

When asked about the treatment on such farms,Ramsaroop recalls something told to him by a worker when he first because involved in migrant worker justice. ‘To the local (white) people, we are invisible.’ That’s always stuck with me,” he said. “They’re straight up…and they all say the same three things: indentureship; slavery; treated as less-than human,”

In “The Real Dirt on Farm Work” by the Centre d’Appui (2006) a 69 year old worker has spent 20 years working 8 months per year through the SAWP program and “is still no closer to getting residency status or claiming the Employment Insurance benefits he’s paid into than the first day he arrived” describes his experience in similar terms:

[T]hey treat us like slaves”, he says of SAWP. “The Mexican government sells us and the Canadian government exploits us”

Such a system harkens back to the way in which Turtle Island came to be colonized. After mass theft of land and slaughter of indigenous people, European settlers cleared the land, started large-scale plantations, and maintained elaborate households, with slave labour.

It’s also interesting to note that, in addition to migrant labour, large-scale food production (from farms to abattoirs) relies heavily on prison labour. Prisoners have no labour rights, not even on paper. In Guelph, prison labour was used throughout most of the 20c for farming and slaughterhouse work firstly owned by the department of corrections, but eventually privatized with Better Beef. Slaughterhouse workers have higher overall mortality rates than the average worker.

Inmates at the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, known as The Farm, work plantations of sugar cane, cotton and corn earn 4-20 cents an hour, sometimes working 17hours without a break. 85% of prisoners at The Farm will never leave, even being buried on prison grounds. Many of the prisoners working there today trace their roots back to slaves who worked the same fields during the antebellum, while many guards and administrators trace their heritage back to plantation owners from the same time

And while prison labourers have no avenues of escape from the toil, migrant workers are bound not only by having no other options, but by fear of physical and emotional violence, sexual assault, violence towards their families, and a constant fear of deportation.

Many of the requirements of the various programs are tied closely to work permits, which are often short-term and offer no real protection, as people find themselves fired and immediately deported without cause or notice, and forced to pay their own ticket home. And if a worker’s permit expires, or s/he leaves one employer, they must reapply for a permit which is both costly and involves time delays. Though permits can be issued within weeks, it often takes upwards of 6 months, and, in some cases, over a year. In the meantime, in order to make ends meet, these people have to take under the table jobs, which means no rights or protections at all. Additionally, because these jobs are not documented, they do not count towards requirements of the any program.

The majority of undocumented workers,” says Michael of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal, “are asylum-seekers waiting for their work permits. It can take 6 weeks, it can take more than 18 months, and people are not given any idea of which it will be, or why.” In order to live, they have no choice but to work under the table to make ends meet. Not only are they not protected by any labour laws, but they fear any complaint they make might reflect badly on their asylum review, that they might be pegged as “trouble-makers”.

Furthermore, undocumented workers may be here without status for a number of reasons: fleeing war, poverty, violence and discrimination in their homeland but not recognized as refugees by the Canadian state. In such cases, too, the workers have no legal rights, just a great fear of being exposed and deported if they stand up for their rights.

Michael describes conditions in meat packing plants around Montreal:
Quebecois workers leave the plant after their 8 hour day while the migrant workers remain. Male workers are kept for 10 hours and then sent home before the women, who are then moved to an area of the plant unmonitored by cameras, locked in and not allowed to leave the room until quotas are met.

And again, there is no recourse. Complaints of such conditions, and of abuse, or sexual harassment are commonly met with indifference at best. In many cases, the complainant is forced into resignation.

In some cases, migrant workers who have tried to organize for better conditions have faced fears beyond their own personal safety, when their families back home began to be threatened.

Canada relies on undocumented workers to fill labour shortages in “low-skilled” (read low-paid and unsafe) jobs—essentially jobs that anyone with status would refuse to take. Many foreign workers are actually highly-skilled professionals, but their accreditations are not recognized in Canada.

There are hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers across Canada without labour rights and in constant fear of deportation. Earlier this spring, the Canadian Boarder Services Agency conducted raids on migrant worker communities in southern Ontario, a tactic used against such communities periodically.

“The purpose of these raids is to heighten a climate of fear and insecurity in immigrant communities. These raids are part of Canada’s revolving door immigration policy where workers are used and disposed of with little or no rights”, says Mac Scott of the Law Union of Ontario (toronto:nooneisillegal, April 4, 2009).

Despite numerous public campaigns to regularize undocumented workers, conditions have only worsened, and the resources to fight them are scarce, with the larger unions and social movements failing to support this vulnerable population.

“Bluntly, it’s racism,” said Ramsaroop about the phenomenon. “It’s how we view Black bodies”, he continues, explaining that people have just come to accept that people from Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean—the vast majority of the population in the SWAP—having fewer rights and security is just part of the Canadian context.

Problems remain where workers are part of a union in that collective agreements tend to favour local workers over migrant ones. In cases of dismissal, foreign workers are often immediately deported, which makes filing grievances against wrongful dismissal all but impossible.

Earlier this decade, in Montreal, an organization called the Workers Solidarity Network formed to promote solidarity between workers, particularly precarious workers. On a few occasions, the network would take on plights of individual workers. In some cases, the network would confront the employer demanding redress for a particular problem, such as payment of wages owed (Star, October 19, 2005). Though these cases were successful, they are individual success stories within an inherently flawed system, and one that is unlikely to be reformed. [update: recently, the Immigrant Worker’s Centre in Montreal started an independent Migrant Cleaners Union, which has the potential to fight back in a way similar to the Workers Solidarity Network]

There have been a few gains won over the years, but these are always tenuous [now, in 2012, as the Harper government just passed the Refugee Exclussion Act, conditions for all people without citizenship are worse than ever]. For example, when farm workers in Ontario won the right to unionize, Rol-land Farms, Canada’s largest mushroom producer, fired nearly 200 migrants from Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala and evicted them from company housing (Rol-land Farms Limited, 2009). Many had gone into debt to come to Canada through the SAWP program and were laid off after having completed only 4-8 months of a 24 month contract, meaning they were subject to deportation

Over all, there is little hope for justice in the near future regarding any of these conditions.

Ramsaroop describes the trend to be “a consolidation of power […] and accentuation of exploitation” and does not see that changing, though there does seem to be growing awareness and support.

What impact this support has on the conditions remains to be seen.

As Ramsroop puts it, “We can’t afford to be trendy. This cannot just be another sweatshop movement [that loses momentum and interest within a few years]. The movement has to be a sustainable and long term movement, fighting to ensure that workers have respect and justice here”

While being conscious of what you eat and where it comes from is one step towards this goal, getting behind the organizations and workers involved in the struggle is much more important. Consumer politics may show small shifts in the industry, but only large-scale movement will bring about any lasting reform.

Please visit the websites of PINAY, the Immigrant Workers Centre and Justacia 4 Migrant Workers for more information and ways of getting involved.

http://pinayquebec.blogspot.com/2007/03/pinay-is-on-internet.html

http://www.iwc-cti.ca/en

http://www.justicia4migrantworkers.org/

 References

Agriculture Workers Alliance. (2009). Retrieved May 6, 2009 from http://awa-ata.ca/

Fritschi, L., Fenwick, S., & Bulsara, M.. (2003). Mortality and cancer incidence in a cohort of meatworkers. Occupational and Environmental Medicine Retrieved May 6, 2009 from http://oem.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/60/9/e4

Harris, S. (2009, May). StraightGoods: Shut down Alberta’s temporary worker program: report Alberta labour fed says fads reshaping immigration policy by the back door. Vue Weekly Retrieved May 6, 2009, from http://www.straightgoods.ca/2009/ViewFeature.cfm?Ref=262

Hodge, J. (2006). Unskilled labour: Canada’s live-in caregiver program. Undercurrent, Vol. III, No. 2, 60 – 66. Retrieved May 6, 2009, from

http://action.web.ca/home/narcc/attach/Unskilled%20Labour-%20Canada%5C%27s%20Live-in%20Caregiver%20Program.pdf

J4MW (2009) Seasonal Agricultural Workers. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from www.justicia4migrantworkers.org/bProgramc/pdf/sawp.pdf

No One is Illegal. (2009). Over 100 Migrant Workers Arrested; Communities Demand Their Release. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from http://toronto.nooneisillegal.org/node/278

Pratt, G. Assessing Canada’s live-in caregiver program Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from http://www.metropolis2008.org/pdf/20081031/plenum/20081031_gender-dimensions-of_pratt-geraldine.pdf

Rol-land Farms Ltd. Retrieved May 7th, 2009 from http://www.rollandfarms.com/english/index.html

Star, P. (2005) (en) NorthWest America, Unfinished Business #3 – Montreal’s Workers Solidarity Network: Class Struggle Unionism. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from http://tuxic.nl/pipermail/a-infos-en/2005-October/000832.html

NOII-Toronto Over 100 Migrant Workers Arrested; Communities Demand Their Release. Retrieved May 6, 2009 fromhttp://toronto.nooneisillegal.org/node/278

Stead, H. (2002). Guelph, apeople’s heritage1827-2002. Guelph, ON, Canada: City of Guelph.

ufcw. (2009) Rights for Ag Workers. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from http://www.ufcw.ca/default.aspx?SectionID=a3b41eb1-f567-4f3b-8a8b-e70050308832&LanguageId=1

Social strike and solidarity in the streets of Montreal

As a montreal ex-pat of sorts, I’ve been following the student/social strikes and the widespread anger and defiance against the intensified state and police repression. Personal reasons demanded my presence in Toronto within 48 hours of landing in kkkanada but it’s been incredible to move from the facebook/media voyeurism onto the streets, if only briefly. I want to take a minute not just to share my brief encouter, but to give folks unfamiliar with Montreal a better sense of what is going on. This first part is more a “this is what the streets were like” account; the second, if i get to it, gives a bit more analysis and context for the strikes and why it has blossomed in Quebec.

My first evening in Montreal i wasn’t on the streets. Whisked directly from airport to BBQ, you’d hardly even know there was a social struggle of epic proportion going on. I expected my ears to ring with at least the  echos of casseroles, but of course i arrived a little late; i expected my nose to twitch against he acrid smell of tear gas, but then i was visiting pretty far north of any major sites of insurrection. Of  course after more than 50 connective nights of demos, 4 months into the student strike, and a week after the massive convergence against the Grad Prix, I was aware that energy must be waning. Students have been calling for less-frequent marches, saying they are burnt out and need time to pause, reflect, and build for the strike votes coming again in August.

The BBQ and my following day was populated with friends, old and new, who have been doing deeply important work long before the two + years these strikes have been building. I wanted to be part of the street demos, but  i also wanted to understand from people i trusted and shared context with, what their perspective of it all is (plus i just wanted to see people whom i miss and love). To be honest most of my best mates have not been heavily involved in the strike, busy as they are fighting the same day-to-day fights they have been for years: “working non-stop trying to race bill c-31 [the horrific new Refugee Exclusion Act] ”; standing in solidarity, day in and day out, with indigenous commuities doubly colonised in Quebec; fighting against Bill C-38; raising young children and building families and communities; doing day-to-day, frontline street outreach.  But they’ve probably all made it to a number of cassaroles and demos and have thoughts about the shape of this student-cum-social movement.

Keys were left for me at my mate’s flat so i could settle in while she was working – doing street outreach into the early morning hours. The key was tucked away in an envelope and cushioned by a lovely red square. The next morning, at my breakfast date, the first words out of another mates’s mouth was – “do you need un carré rouge?” and he pulled out a swath of red felt, “I find it’s good to have a few on you. We’ve been having a lot of visitors lately so i just keep them on hand”.

Walking throughout the streets red squares in windows and on fellow pedestrians were less-present than i had hoped, but still pretty ubiquitous and imbued the city with a feeling of hope and communication.

My second night in town, my one and only chance to be on the streets with the masses, whatever that might look like. 8:30pm at Berri Square I wondered if I had truly missed the wave, as there were a just a handful of people milling about. Some casseroling, some (but very few) selling newspapers, waving Quebec flags (and I will talk about separatism/nationalism in part 2) one or two with anonymous masks and a few crews pacing the periphery; mostly it was folks just hanging about, like any other night in Berri Square, though with a heavy police presence.  And then something amazing happened. A few bike-cops lined the edge of the square as the Orwelian recorded announcement declared the gathering illegal. the moment the announcement started, the milling about stopped, and, like the well-rehearsed act this has surely become, people lined up in front of the police, waving flags, recording cops, starting to chant and in a seemingly spontaneous yet cohesive act, taking the streets.

It was about 100 people, mostly chatting or casseroling, as cops diverted traffic and made futile attempts at intimidation. There were no marshals to the march. No scouts or comms team. Certainly some people remained towards the front and others followed, but it felt as spontaneous and fluid as lovers going for a stroll. Walking west on René Léveque (a dual-carriageway), the police had already diverted traffic and the lanes were free. And then, like osmosis, the march flowed across the barriers into the vehicle-laden lanes. And there was not an angry honk to be heard. Not one person rolled down their window and gobbed on us. Several did roll down their window to accept red squares being doled out.


Through residential streets again and, like a small town, people called out to each other and stopped and chatted, some joining in the march, others going on their way. Waves came from windows and doorways. Most marches I have been to are met with the distant gaze of the spectator at best, more likely mistrust and hostility from the vast majority of non-participants. This was different. This felt as though the march was just one limb of a body that might be multi-tasking at the moment, but ultimately working as a whole.

Brief talks with a few folks on the streets in my very broken French gave me an impression similar to what kept Occupy going for so long. There is the political necessity for this movement, but as well there is the affect. The community that is being built through these actions, be they neighbourhood casseroles or the nightly marches.

As we approached the FracnoFolies festival area (not a week in the summer goes by without a festival in Montreal), the numbers swelled (reaching into the many-thousands after the Los Locas show finished).  Earlier in the week Cindy Milstein described the night demo being blocked from the festival crowd by a thin line of police but, contrary to the typical us/and them on either side of the blue line, people talk of the festival crowd cheering and chanting with the march. Last night the security actually approached the march and said “people like you here, you are welcome to come in”. And later in the evening, the biggest feeder march to the night demos was the Loco Locass show <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgGbsagmEZ0&gt;, which invited CLASSE spokespeople on stage to co-perform Libérons-nous des libéraux, and then encouraged the audiece, thousands strong, to hit the streets.

I had left the main march by this point, joining up with the first familiar – if camped up –  faces i saw (remarkable for a city where 2 years ago I would have at least recognized 75% of the faces at any given leftist militant demo) in the Pink Bloc’s Drag March Against Repression which was in it’s second or third hour and so split off, taking the streets on route to a well-needed pint in the village. Though a drink was the objective, the route to get there was peppered with anti-capitalist slogans and a blatant claim of the streets. The police kept a close watch, occasionally nudging people along, and at one point blocking access and forcing someone in a scooter to leave the march as the corralled people onto  sidewalk without curbcuts, radonmly grabbing one demonstrator on the way just to regain their power.

The megaphone chants included everything from “Queer, feminista; anti-capitalista” and calls to vote with bricks instead of ballots to ati-cop chants from “la police aux service des riches and des fascits” and “La police: homophobe” to “Police suck, but do you swallow”. Yet even with these militant and sometimes seemingly vulgar chants coming from what would be considered by the mainstream to be veritable freaks in drag, the passersby were on our side. Chanting along with us, pumping fists, applauding, and at the moments when  the police looked poised to to pounce, joining us on the streets for a block two.

At one point, after the ubiquitous recording pronouncing us, yet again, as illegal, the police moved in. Join us, people called, and some turned to their friends and said of course. Others stepped in between the march and the police interrogating them, both registering their refusal to accept this repression, and creating space between cops and the march – this tactic of creating a buffer was one that I used to participate in, with slight different optics, blocked up. And now an action which is common for the often-denigrated “Black Bloc” gets reflected back in its roots as natural human impulse against threat and coercion; passers-by with and without red badges unquestioningly stepping in against state intimidation in a place where, just months previous they may not have intervened even at the sight of more explicit police violence.

(still to come: part 2 – the Context of Colonialism: why this can happen in Quebec)