Bystanding – July 2015

I was a bystander on the morning when they evacuated the camp of mainly Somali and Eritrean men in flight from various forms of devastation and fear, not just in their homelands but also on the long route that had got them as far as the bridge over the Eurostar train lines at La Chapelle in northern Paris (Tripoli is “hell on earth” one said to me…). I live just nearby. When I stepped out of my door on that morning the police vans were lined up on my doorstep and all the way up the road; even if I hadn’t been expecting this crack down along with many others, I would have found myself confronted head on with the force of law as embodied in men wearing state-of-the-art police gear and school buses with white plastic covers fitted provisionally over the seats to ferry away the danger that sixty or so men represent when living off the street as they try to find a way out of their terrible predicament. So I stood by, powerless; a bystander. And I also stood by, along with others, while the operation unfolded, in the stronger sense of showing solidarity, however meagre that action was in the context. My proximity, or the extent to which I am by (a neighbour of) the baleful reality of contemporary political and economic migration had never felt quite so corrosive. I was bystanding, in all the confusion that strange verb implies; definitely not withstanding.

But if such were the limits of my possibilities that morning, they opened a fissure in the other space in which I had recently found myself positioned as bystander, here explicitly as an “innocent bystander”, endowed too with rights (apparently), the protection of which had been declared the duty of my university institution. Such were the terms – the “rights of innocent bystanders” – invoked to explain the management decision to cancel two panels of a university conference on graphic novels and cartoons which happened to include discussion of Charlie Hebdo. The risk of convening a formal setting in which to discuss the satirical magazine was deemed such that protection of us innocent bystanders, employees and users of the building, had been put before the importance of academic exchange.

A very different situation from the forced displacement of exhausted and demoralised men from the summary space of conviviality and mutual assistance that they had created. And yet these two scenes continued to evolve conjointly for me over the next ten days or so, the first in increasingly violent repression as the “migrants” and their neighbours in La Chapelle refused to let the authorities expunge the reality of the camp and what it had put in process from the quartier, while the second prompted a hardening of management speak into an official line invoked whatever the expression of incomprehension, dismay or opposition raised against the idea of curtailing the conference in this apparently futile way. (The event still went ahead, without the panel on Charlie Hebdo but with official encouragement to talk informally about the magazine as much as possible…). And as they evolved in their respective ways, what they revealed for me seemed unexpectedly similar.

In both, the people acting, regretfully so they said, in the name of the safety of innocent bystanders were quick to empathize: my emotion was understandable. Well, that was a relief, except I didn’t perceive myself to be acting under the sway of emotion; I was acting in the face of absurdity.

In both instances, this absurdity was in premised on information I couldn’t have, or perhaps even understand: Syria was mentioned; “you don’t know what they’re capable of”, again in both instances. It’s surprising how quickly terrorists and migrants merge into one undifferentiated category when the point is to justify the powers of the police to inform our lives. And not just the lives of those trekking across land and sea, through those borders we’re so keen to uphold. Those of us fortunate enough not to have to flee the places where we have chosen to live and work also find ourselves perceived as a menace, and required to remain silent, or charged with disrupting the peace.

In both the possibilities for exchange and negotiation, for local, ameliorating acts to be made, were hampered but not extinguished by the de facto official position. Various improvised solutions rose and fell around La Chapelle through the summer, from a local community garden to a major and highly organized encampment in the public jardins d’Eole, before everyone was forced to decamp and some moved to the new esplanade in front of the Halle Pajol, where neighbourly relations deteriorated as the summer wore on and the difficulty of living alongside a bored and listless group of men sleeping on mattresses spread out around piles of rubbish and summary possessions grew, until the group scattered again under the pressure of the authorities. Important exchanges happened; conversations I would not have had in another setting. Some sort of auto-gestion was in action, and the energy amassed behind it was vital, brimming and bristling with its charge at times. But it wasn’t freedom, any more than the informal discussions tolerated as a compensation for the affront of restricting academic exchange on Charlie Hebdo were untrammeled speech. Was it bystanding? Standing by, waiting for what would happen next? Or standing by in the more resistant mode of holding to something, minimally, while the rush of event channels the force of law and takes the ground from beneath our feet?

Des migrants dans le Jardin d'Eole à Paris, le 17 juin.