Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush.
I haven’t been to Calais since before the brutal state eviction of the ‘Jungle’ in 2016, but in 24 hours here, it became clear that all that had changed was the particular manifestations of police racism.
The violent near-daily attacks on the ten thousand strong migrant village allowed most of the repression to be kept out of the public eye, whereas now the violence and harassment has been distributed across the region, along with the thousands of migrants that have been forced to scatter since the eviction.
Where once the presence in an ‘illegal’ camp provided the pretext for police attacks, now skin colour alone is used to single-out, round-up and at times physically brutalise those passing through town. Racism has of course always been the lynchpin of policing in Calais, but the lack of a shared living space as a focus for state violence has forced the police to show their true colours, stripped away of any other pretexts.
When two of us arrived at the main Calais train station at 6:30pm, four Arab teenagers were getting grilled by French police with machine guns at the ready. One was arrested, three were sent off, papers deemed to be insufficiently out of order as to justify their formal arrests.
Moments later, six young Africans were pulled aside, in three groups of two, as they disembarked from a Dunkirk train. My friend took a photo of the police and was told doing so inside the station was against French law.
The six boys were pulled aside, just as the last ones had been, as their papers were checked, stood against a wall in the cold. At the assembly time, we were approached and asked for identification. They took our ID and lined us up against the wall with the six others, telling us we were ‘under police control’ until further notice.
Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush.Of the six, four were arrested this time, the other two let go. Shortly after threatening my friend with arrest if she didn’t erase her photos (which she reluctantly did), we were released.As we continued to hang around, two more trains arrived. On both, as with the previous ones, every white passenger (the vast majority) walked freely out the front doors of the station, while the vast majority, if not all, people of colour were detained.In two hours of watching cops, we witnessed 17 controlled by the police (not including ourselves), all men and boys of African and Middle Eastern descent, which resulted in nine arrests. And while it would be harder to say with as much certainty, I don’t think a single black or brown man got off a train in that two hours that didn’t face police detention.The French courts have ruled this practice racially discriminatory and illegal, but it remains the norm according to the migrants, volunteers and activists I have spoken with in the last twenty-four hours. What we saw in two hours one evening is playing out all day, every day in various locations around Calais.Perhaps this is why the French gendarmerie were so touchy about being filmed? It would be impossible to watch the pattern we watched play out in those two hours, without coming to the conclusion that these arrests were the result of racial profiling and systemic discrimination.
The courts know this, but the gap between a judge’s diktat and police implementation is at times an unbridgeable divide. For now, it is up to those of us with relative privilege to continue to stand with those facing – and resisting – the brutality of this racism system, and shine a light on the reality of the police’s post-Jungle policing strategy.
NOTE: The practice of racial profiling at the train stations and throughout the city of Calais has been happening systematically for many years in the city – and was a strategy employed during the time of the “jungle” as well.
Get our weekly email