From November 5-11, roughly 500 people from throughout the United States and Mexico gathered at the Mexicali-Calexico border in the Sonoran Desert bioregion for a No Borders Camp, a temporary autonomous zone and direct action meant to challenge neo-liberal capitalism, border militarization, and migration controls. It was the first North American manifestation of a series of similar camps that have taken place in Europe, Oceania, and elsewhere since the late-1990s.
The campers’ common motivations were clear: We want a world without arbitrary, oppressive borders. We want a world where the diverse imperatives of local communities are primary, and where the centralizing imperatives of global capitalism have receded into the dustbin of history. And we want US militarization of the Mexican border to be immediately withdrawn.
The camp was organized along decentralized lines that roughly embodied the kind of world most participants seek to create. Workshops, strategy sessions, dialogues, art projects, games, dance parties, video screenings, and live music took place nearly each of the days, encompassing a variety of topics and themes. Many occurred in a relatively spontaneous way, with little or no advance knowledge by organizers.
Many activities entailed large-scale coordination. A memorial service for migrants who have died trying to cross the border occurred at a Holtville, CA cemetery on November 10th. A pair of marches and rallies occurred: one on November 9th at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in El Centro, CA, where hundreds of suspected “illegal immigrants” are routinely incarcerated, and the other on November 11th at the Mexicali-Calexico port of entry.
Important planning sessions to strengthen the “no borders” movement took place throughout. For example, multiple meetings occurred regarding a civil resistance campaign in Tucson, AZ, during spring 2008.
As a spraypainted message on the US side of the “separation barrier” that bisected the camp into two groups mentioned, “Fronteras Son Invitados Para Dividienos” (Borders Are Invented to Divide Us).
For over 15 years, the US border with Mexico has been a main battleground in the struggle over migrant politics. Since the inception of the Clinton administration’s “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, the number of US Border Patrol guards has more than doubled to 11,000, making it the largest law enforcement agency in the country, slightly surpassing the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nearly 90 percent of Border Patrol personnel are deployed on the US-Mexico border. To assist the agents, several “separation barriers” – essentially, large border walls – have been constructed across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
The consequences of these policies have been catastrophic in human terms. The Tucson-based Human Rights Coalition reports that a total of over 5,000 people have died attempting, but failing, to start new lives in the United States by crossing over from Mexico since 1997.
The desperation of those seeking to migrate is a direct outcome of US multi-national corporations’ increasing socioeconomic dominance of Mexico. For example, corporate corn growers receive up to $21,000 an acre in subsidies from the US government, enabling them to dump their corn over the border at 80 percent of cost. As a result, over six million farmers and their families have had to abandon their plots and enter the migration stream, according to a 2004 Carnegie Endowment study. Inevitably, they follow the flow of capital northward.
The pace of border militarization is now only accelerating. In 2006, the US Congress approved partial funding and “possible” construction of a reinforced border wall, with up to three layers of fencing extending across 700 miles of the US-Mexico border. Under the 2005 Real ID Act, the Department of Homeland Security and its contractor, Boeing, are not subject to any US laws in the process of building the wall. Rather, they answer solely to the Secretary of Homeland Security.
The creep of this particular form of racist, utterly authoritarian militarization has been devastating to brown communities nationwide in particular. Many people in Orange County, San Diego County, Imperial County, and elsewhere now fear leaving their homes to go to the grocery store or to purchase basic amenities, for fear of being rounded up by one of ICE’s “Fugitive Operations Teams,” of which there are at least 61 nationwide. Residents of East Boston and Chelsea, Massachussetts reported in August that it “looked like the city was under siege,” as armed ICE agents roamed the streets and detained anyone they deemed suspicious.
Given these circumstances, it is no surprise that the camp itself took place under the watchful gaze of several dozen Border Patrol officers, who stood guard day just beyond the clusters of tents at the outskirts of the campgrounds. The officers even set up several columns of stadium lights to illuminate every inch of the camp within their sight-lines, so ostensibly to detect any activities they deemed illegal.
Even so, the camp was marked mostly by a festive atmosphere, with few altercations between campers and Border Patrol. Initially, the “separation barrier” built via Operation Gatekeeper divided the camp into two groups, one on each side of the border. On the fifth day, some camp participants succeeded in negotiating with the Border Patrol to allow for people to cross around these walls, with limited restrictions, thereby uniting the two groups of campers — as had been the organizers’ goal all along — and instrumentally diminishing the border.
On the final day of the camp, the rally at the Calexico-Mexicali port of entry was in full-swing when around 100 Border Patrol officers, many having interacted amiably with campers earlier in the week, assaulted a group of about 30 demonstrators on the U.S. side with pepper gas pellets, tazers, and batons. Three people were arrested, but not before receiving vicious beatings. After two full days in detention, two arrestees were released, but the third remains in custody in the Imperial County Jail in El Centro, California, on charges of assault of a federal officer. He faces possible deportation.
Given the location and context, this was somewhat of a fitting conclusion to what was otherwise an inspiring week of non-hierarchical community building. In the words of the No Borders Camp web site, the event marked a highly successful “intervention in a discourse that at times ignores and at other times justifies the systematic violence and exploitation experienced by migrant and indigenous peoples the world over.” Unfortunately, at the end, it was also subject to a measure of that same violence and exploitation.
During the session immediately prior to the rally that ended with the police violence, the participants – newly united from each side of the border — conducted a large meeting where they began planning for the next No Borders Camp. Among the ideas discussed were to hold it at the San Diego-Tijuana border or perhaps the Chiapas, Mexico border with northern Guatemala.
Will Parrish is an anti-imperialist organizer and writer living in Santa Barbara, CA. He was one of over 20 No Borders campers from Santa Barbara. For more information on No Borders Camp, including how to support the political prisoner detained in En Centro, see www.noborderscamp.org
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