Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mexicali/Calexico: No Borders Camp, November 2007

A black flag flew high in the crisp desert air. Clenched fists and pleading palms pounded on both sides of the wall that separates the United States and Mexico. To the rhythmic dissonance of flesh beating against metal, hundreds of masked faces were chanting, “We want a world without borders!”

After about an hour of shouting and whispering through the holes of the 30 foot-tall fence, the crowds on both sides gradually began to march, together, flags waving, drums resonating, East along the border. Curious bystanders stared, and authorities behind sunglasses and armored vehicles muttered into radios.

Welcome to Calexico/Mexicali, November 2007. “Mexicali and Calexico,” reads one of the many leaflets the crowds are distributing, “are not sister cities, they are one city divided by a hyper-militarized line.” Calexico on the US side, with a population of roughly 30,000, is in Imperial County, about 120 miles east of San Diego, California. Mexicali is the capital of Baja, California, with a shifting population of around 850,000. On this bright day in November, several blocks from the legal point of entry on the border, hundreds of people from around the world gathered on both sides of the wall to improvise a spacetime with no borders.

No Borders camps have been springing up around the world for at least a decade. On the borders of Germany and Poland, Croatia and Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, Ukraine and Slovakia, the US and Mexico and many more, thousands of people have converged to demonstrate and take actions against the borders that divide countries, cultures, families and lives. Camps have also surfaced in the interior of countries where the effects of borders are imminent; at immigrant detention centers in Australia and at the International airport in Frankfurt, Germany.

I arrived at the crowd gathered at the border with a visceral awareness of history in the making. This was to be the first binational No Borders camp, with people on both sides of the wall discussing and demanding this idea of a world without borders which had brought them together from near and far. Veterans from other camps were in attendance, from Australia, Ukraine, Spain and more.

Several hours later, four miles East of the point of entry, we set up camp where the steel wall ends and the border line is replaced by the All-American canal, the largest aqueduct in the world, which channels the Colorado river into the arid agricultural plains of Southern California. Another point of historical and symbolic interest: The wall which separates the two camps is constructed from old helicopter landing pads left over from the Vietnam War. In its shade, water tanks, tents, a medical van and a media center were quickly established.

The campers on the US side are by no means alone. It’s a perpetual standoff with the Border Patrol. For the entirety of what became a week-long encampment, between six and sixty border patrol vehicles, outfitted for battle, surround the camp. They erected five sodium lights on 20 foot poles that lit the camp at all hours of the night. Campers were cordial but controversial, always up against the police line, which consists, depending on the hour, of two to three levels of law enforcement with pellet guns, lethal guns, riot shields, batons, helmets, video cameras and earpieces. Helicopters and unmanned surveillance planes fly low overhead at least every hour. A fifty foot-tall tower across the road is mounted with several surveillance cameras. Behind my handkerchief and sunglasses, even without the cameras filming us from the ground, rest assured the authorities know everything they can.

Meanwhile, flags, banners, murals, photo exhibitions, free literature, graffiti and makeshift bathrooms adorn the wall. A ladder to facilitate communication with the Mexican side is the focal point of our self-appointed adversaries, who perhaps think that this whole camp is a pretext for smuggling immigrants. The idea of a world without borders is most likely too much for the agents with video cameras who film our every move.

What is this idea? What is the force which inspires these campers? Strictly speaking, the No Borders Camp is illegal, in that it takes place on government property for which no permit has been acquired. Campers risk not only harassment and arrest, but considerable injury, if the many weapons of the Border Patrol agents are any indicator. And yet around the world people continue to take these considerable risks to demonstrate and enact this idea of a world without borders. Why?

The US/Mexico Border: A Human Perspective

The US Mexico border is a place of much conflict, suffering and tragedy. The death rate along the border is truly alarming. For the past seven years, a rough average of 500 migrants have been found dead on the border every year. Upwards of 4000 people have died trying to cross this border since 2000. And even this figure is a low estimate, as it accounts for only those people whose bodies have been found.

To put this in perspective, far more people have died on the US/Mexico border since 1995 than were killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September the 11th, 2001. Another pungent comparison is that more people have died on the US/Mexico border in the last eight years than throughout the entire 28 year duration of the Berlin wall. If statistics are at all to be believed, the US/Mexico border since 2000 has been 300 times more fatal to Mexicans than the Berlin wall was to Germans.

On a string stretching all around the camp on the US side, four thousand small white flags fluttered in the desert wind, each representing a migrant casualty of the border since 1995. For the campers, each small piece of cloth was a reason to be there, a reason to put themselves at risk, a reason to show their opposition to this ongoing tragedy and express and embody their desires to build a world without the borders that cause it.

The Border Patrol

Such a vision, however, must contend with the vast economic and political machinery of border enforcement. If anything, the Border Patrol is bigger and stronger than ever before. Since 2001, the infamous Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has been disbanded and replaced by the Department of Homeland Security. Consequently, Border Patrol agents have been invested with all the material and ideological weaponry of the War on Terror.

Federal spending on border enforcement, relatively static throughout the 60s, 70, 80s and early 90s, increased by a multiple of five from $750 million in 1993 to $3.8 billion in 2004. Well over 11,000 Border Patrol agents, all bearing the emblem of Homeland Security, are entrusted to guard US borders from illegal immigrants, every one of whom is automatically a suspected terrorist.

Yet despite this presence, more undocumented immigrants are crossing the border into the US than ever before. While statistics here are necessarily rough, according to the Urban Institute, it’s estimated that 1.5 million immigrants join the US population every year, and at least one third of these (500,000 per year) are undocumented. Wayne Cornelius, a professor from the University of California in San Diego, notes that this “explosive growth of unauthorized immigration has been occurring at a time when the United States was spending considerably more on immigration control than ever before.” In light of the data on increasing immigration, it would be an understatement to call this spending ineffective. This raises the important question of how our money is really being invested.

The Undocumented War

Immigrants are now the fastest growing prison population in the United States. This has come about as a result of the latest federal immigration policy, which has mandated a sweeping campaign of raids at immigrant workplaces across the country.
The agency responsible for these raids is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Formed in the aftermath of 9/11, ICE is one of the most powerful agencies in the United States today. ICE special agents have more authority than most other official US employees. ICE works closely with the CIA and FBI, and forms the largest investigative force in the Department of Homeland Security. Additionally, ICE is the only federal law enforcement agency with a nationwide radio communication network.

Raids on immigrant workplaces have dramatically increased in recent years. The Indypendent recently published some sobering statistics: The number of immigrants arrested in raids jumped from 510 in 2001 to 4,383 in 2006. There are currently 75 “ICE fugitive operation teams” deployed in the US to detain and deport undocumented immigrants. In 2006, 195,000 immigrants were arrested and deported. 26,000 people are in ICE custody on a daily basis.

ICE also contracts private companies to build detention centers. The industry that is arising behind and through these detention centers is unsettling in its size and its unaccountability. From 2000 to 2005, ICE contracted Kellogg, Brown and Root, a Halliburton subsidiary, to build detention centers across the United States. In 2006, another no-bid contract with an estimated value of $385 million was granted to KBR to build still more immigrant detention and “processing” facilities.

Once “processed”, these immigrants are then “repatriated”; sent back to Mexico. Deportation, in another era called exile, now masquerades with ICE under the euphemism of repatriation. One novelty in this narrative is the process of “deep” or “long-distance repatriation” wherein Mexican immigrants are flown by airplane into central and southern Mexican cities to discourage any attempt to return. While the policies of detention and deportation have proven thus far entirely ineffective at decreasing the tides of immigration, they have been quite effective at spending our money. In particular, the deep repatriation of immigrants in 2004 was facilitated by 151 chartered flights, each of which cost US taxpayers $50,000.

Fire to the ICE!

On Friday the 9th, the same day the Berlin Wall fell 18 years earlier, close to a hundred No Borders Campers caravanned to the ICE detention center in El Centro, a town outside Calexico, for a rally. “ The El Centro Service Processing Center,” reads a leaflet distributed at the rally, “is one of the busier ICE facilities in the nation, maintaining an average daily census of 500 to 600 males... ICE will spend an estimated $1 billion this year to detain 27,500 people in eight Service Processing Centers and seven contract detention facilities across the United States.”

The rally was colorful, loud and diverse in tactics. From the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, a group of clowns that honked horns, danced, mimed and mocked along the police line, to 15 foot-tall puppets, to a black bloc contingency that destroyed part of the fence, the rally danced around the facility and blocked two lanes of traffic on the road that runs in front of it, singing and chanting the whole way.

One younger camper dressed in fluorescent green spoke in Spanish into a megaphone pointed over the fence to the immigrants detained inside, “We’re here, there are many of us, we’re young and old, we’re from Mexico, we’re from the US, we’re from all over the world, and we’re here in solidarity with you. You’re not alone, here we are, you are not forgotten!” Actions at and against detention centers have been on the rise. In 2003 in Australia, we heard, No Borders campers working in collaboration with detainees actually broke into a detention center in Woomera, freed immigrants, and transported them to safety.

To the rhythm of cheers and rattling fence, the campers hung a banner from the barbed wire which read “500 border deaths every year, 500 years of colonialism.” A dozen or so climbed onto the sign in front of the facility facing the road, covering it with graffiti and waving the requisite black flags. As the group marched down the street, another camper with a loudspeaker addressed the activities of the many ICE employees who were watching us behind binoculars and video cameras from the roof of the detention center. “No one should tolerate it, and no one should perpetuate it,” her voice echoed. “I know that I stand here with white skin and privilege and I know that it’s my responsibility to do everything that I can to change what people like you are doing. And like I said, this is just the beginning.”

Dance and Drama on the No Border

After the rally, the majority of the group drove back to the legal point of entry for another demonstration. As you approach the point of entry, a loud metallic cranking sound reverberates through the busy street. It is the sound of the turnstile for pedestrians crossing into Mexico. There is no security of any kind to cross into Mexico; only a large metal turnstile that resounds in an endlessly repetitive reminder of inequality and privilege.

For about an hour the campers danced in full regalia to the rhythm of hand drums and whistles in front of the point of entry, distributing flyers to passersby about the No Borders Camp. A large banner read: “Movement is a human right. The border crossed us!” After an hour or so, the group moved to the fence a couple of blocks away where campers from the Mexican side were waiting. As both sides chanted “No one is illegal!” a giant piñata was hoisted up and over the fence to the Mexican side. When the piñata burst with a shower of fake money, campers on both sides fell to the ground in a mock death, many of them holding white crosses above them on which was written “500 die every year”. Slowly, hands began to clap, and the chant picked up again: “The people live, the struggle continues.”

That night, back at the encampment, there was a binational singalong. A microphone and guitar was passed back and forth between the line of Border Patrol agents and both sides sang to and with each other. As the night progressed, the singalong became a dance party, and most of the camp, by now grown to about 300 on the Calexico side and 150 on the Mexicali side, danced together into the early morning. Campers climbed the fence and danced hanging from it, a few campers on the US side built a makeshift screen of colored paper and erected it on a pole in front of the glaring sodium lights. It was a night of tangible exuberance. One camper, pointing at the Border Patrol agents standing rigid and perplexed between the two dancing crowds, shouted over the music in my ear, “They’ve never seen anything like this before!” That’s for sure, and I’m not sure any of us had either. Engraved with a depth and precision that only music can realize, a world without borders was dancing inside each of us. It was no longer an idea, but a lived experience that none of us would ever forget.

A Binational Forum

On Saturday, November 10th, 18 years and a day after the fall of the Berlin wall, both camps gathered before lunch for a binational forum. In the small area between where the wall ends and the canal begins, the Border Patrol patrolled their omnipresent line between the hundreds of people who gathered to talk and to listen. A microphone was passed back and forth across the line, and everything was translated into Spanish and English. A variety of hopes, desires, analyses and concerns were expressed. While no physical walls fell on that day, a world without borders seemed not only possible, but undeniable.

One camper expressed desire that in the future more mainstream left media be present at similar No Borders Camps. If more people knew about such camps, he reasoned, the movement for a world without borders would be that much larger. Another camper disagreed entirely. She alleged that such media has its own agenda, and predicted that it would manipulate the message of the camp to serve another end. “We don’t need corporate media to tell us that no borders is what we want,” she said. Both arguments were applauded.

Another expressed the need for future camps to make greater efforts to include and take into consideration indigenous peoples and perspectives. Indigenous peoples who live on the borderlands are in an especially vulnerable and marginalized situation. Squeezed between encroaching populations on both sides, indigenous people also face harassment from anti-immigrant groups and suffer from the environmental degradation which the border conflict simultaneously generates and neglects. Seven indigenous nations live in the borderlands of the US and Mexico; the Kumeyaay, Cocopah, Tohono O’odham, Akimel O’odham, Yaqui, Yavapai-Apache, Tiwa and Kickapoo. Ofelia Rivas, an activist with the group ‘O’odham Voice against the Wall’, speaks to the depth to which the militarized border impacts the lives of indigenous peoples: “It’s like somebody put a knife in your mother. The barrier will continually be there, and you can’t pull it out.”

Another camper conveyed a desire that future camps concentrate more on the ecological impacts of the border. The ecological impact of the militarized border is an urgent matter which for political reasons receives little attention from the largest environmental groups. Fearful of alienating their anti-immigrant constituencies, the most powerful environmental lobbying groups have neglected the ecological disasters of the border lands. Many rare and endangered species -- jaguars, ocelots and pronghorn antelope, to name a few, are at risk of extinction because of the US/Mexico separation wall. For many species, the wall is now playing the same fatal part that the transcontinental railroads played in dividing the Great Plains bison into Northern and Southern herds. The lack of pressure from environmental groups on policy makers has allowed politicians to waive dozens of environmental protections in their construction of the fence which now stretches over 150 miles in California and Arizona.

One camper was particularly eloquent in communicating that one of the most important things we could bring away from the camp is an analysis. She was sympathetic and gratified with the many good things that the camps on both sides of the wall were able to accomplish, but lamented the disparity in resources between the US and Mexican sides of the border. She criticized the way in which the camp’s organization, in spite of its intentions and aspirations, had unwittingly replicated some aspects of the bordered world that it sought to demonstrate against.

A camper on the Mexican side specifically addressed the Border Patrol, who observed the whole proceedings from the center in stony and unreadable silence. The camper accused the Border Patrol of betrayal to their history. Every officer is a descendent of an immigrant, he reminded them, and in making a living by persecuting immigrants they are committing a treachery to their heritage.

Finally, voices on both sides repeatedly reminded us that it is not enough to construct just a camp without borders. This struggle must be carried on into the many continents and communities that the campers represented. “The whole world is watching,” several people expressed.

In the clarity of that moment, the wall, the helicopters, the Border Patrol and all their show of force seemed almost anachronistic. All that power appeared virtually impotent, an obstinate spectacle uselessly defending an illusion from the inevitable.

The Final Day: Shake-speare and Rubber Bullets

“O, kiss me through the hole of this vile wall!”
“I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all.”
(Shake-speare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1)

On Sunday, the final day of the camp, both sides packed up their tents and marched along both sides of the wall back the way they came, to where they had met and rallied on the first day, so recently and so long ago. Black flags waved, banners unfurled, puppets danced, and everyone chanted, just as they had on the first day.

But suddenly and without warning, the Border Patrol descended with batons and pellet guns, firing rubber bullets and pellets filled with pepper spray at illegally close ranges, tackling and handcuffing campers, forcing them away from the wall. Border Patrol agents continued to shoot campers that were backed up against buildings and showed no resistance whatsoever. Medics who attempted to give help to injured people were thrown aside or similarly detained.

The action which sparked this brutality was a four inch hole that was cut in the fence by some campers, to establish an international kissing booth. Several people kissed before the Border Patrol interrupted, without any dispersal order or any kind of provocation that could in any way legitimize their brutality.

This came after a week of nonviolent coexistence with the Border Patrol, a week of so much hope and growth for campers on both sides. The barbarism on Sunday was a bitter shock and an awful reminder of the powers that the militarized border embodies and represents. It was humiliating and heartbreaking.

However, “[i]t is critically important,” read the press release on the No Borders Camp website,

to situate this recent violence within the larger context of border enforcement, for which the violence perpetrated to enforce the border is not exceptional but daily. For the over four hundred migrants buried in Holtville cemetery (since 1994) [a cemetery outside Calexico of unmarked flagstones] who died trying evade the very forces we confronted today, this violence is not exceptional but a fact of life and a fact of death.

The cruel and vicious behavior of the Border Patrol on Sunday, which can be seen by anyone interested in grim detail on YouTube, was an attempt to crush everything that had happened at the No Borders Camp. The binational forums, meals, singalongs, and dances, the rallies and radio shows, the photo exhibitions and the memorial of white flags, all these demonstrated the growing strength of a movement that the Border Patrol didn’t have the least capacity to understand or deal with. And so their vast bureaucratic mechanism of control tried to destroy the movement that threatened it in the only way it knows how; with brute force and heartlessness. With the cold and clumsy logic of a boot heel, a shadow of force and fear was imposed over the glow of solidarity and hope that hundreds of hands had delicately built together.

But such callous rationale, brutally epitomized on Sunday, can only hasten the demise of the powers that exercise it. By demanding a choice between either complete subservience or violent persecution, the hope of a dialogue is destroyed along with the notion that such a dialogue might be desirable. By alienating anyone interested in compromise, the naked hostility of the authorities in the long run can only serve to strengthen the constituencies of those who demand their utter dissolution. The inflexible violence of those who represent the border makes the idea of a world without borders that much more obvious, that much more desirable, and that much more necessary.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down,” wrote Robert Frost, some time ago. This was certainly not to be the last No Borders Camp, and as images of binational meals and dance parties linger like embers under my heels, even in silence I can still hear the drums beating and the voices chanting: “Those who are watching now, will be struggling tomorrow.”

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