Saturday, December 29, 2007

Koepi Bleibt

I posted some photos about the Koepi squat from my travels in Berlin, one of the most inspiring and interesting spaces I have visited (coming from two countries where squatting is far from accepted or common). This is a recent story about the status of the squat which is soon to be evicted in Der Spiegel (read: warning mainstream media).

Berlin Commune Fights the Property Developers

By Stefan Berg and Marcel Rosenbach

The Köpi in Berlin is famous as one of the last remaining remnants of the city's squat culture from the early 1990s. The building, which is in a desirable location, has now been sold to a property developer -- but the residents aren't giving up without a fight.

The Köpi in Berlin's Mitte district is a symbol of the city's far-left scene.
Sabine Sauer / DER SPIEGEL

The Köpi in Berlin's Mitte district is a symbol of the city's far-left scene.
They sat down together just like every week, but this time the mood was different: nervous, tense, but also a bit agitated. "It was as if we had just survived a battle," said one of the people who attended the meeting two weekends ago.

The war comparison image is not that far-fetched. Nine cars and many trash containers had been set on fire in Berlin the night before. There had been an enormous police presence on the streets and more than 50 people were arrested. The tabloid Bild described it as an "anarchist war" right in the middle of Berlin's trendy Mitte district.

The demonstration -- the topic of discussion at the meeting the next day -- was about "autonomous free space." Its purpose was to protest against the victory march of capitalism ("Smash Capitalism" was one of the slogans) that is changing the face of the cash-strapped German capital -- slowly, but visibly, especially in the former East Berlin districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.

The location of the meeting was not without significance. The group had convened in the "Aquarium" meeting room in the building known as the Köpi, located at Köpenicker Strasse 137 in Berlin's Mitte district. The Köpi is one of the self-defined "free spaces" that the violent protests had been all about.

In 1990, it was one of the first buildings to be occupied by squatters in former East Berlin. Today, it is the most important radical left-wing residential project in the former city of squatters. The building has even been featured on postcards, thanks to a slogan painted in giant white letters on the outside wall: "There are no borders between peoples, only between the top and the bottom."

Architecturally speaking, the Köpi is the surviving rear section and two side wings of a typical Berlin residential building with inner courtyards from the beginning of the 20th century. From the outside, it is in terrible condition. Next to the main building, the Köpi also has a lot for trailer homes and tents.

But for residents and the large contingent of sympathizers with the radical left-wing movement, the Köpi is more than just a run-down old building. It is a symbol, a sort of last refuge for alternative lifestyles.

The Köpi is self-organizing and run on communal principles. The plenary session every Sunday is the main administrative body. Participation is strictly limited to Köpi residents and representatives of the many cultural projects and bars that have found a home in the commune. Outsiders are barred from the meeting and mobile phones are prohibited -- for fear of surveillance by the domestic intelligence agencies, which keep a close eye on far-left activities in Germany.

On the day after the demonstration, there was a roll call of sorts to see if any of the Köpi's residents had been among those arrested. It appeared that this was not the case, and the demonstration was chalked up as a success. The slogan "Köpi stays" featured on many of the placards the protestors were carrying, and a few young sympathizers had even dressed up as "Köpi Knights," complete with helmets and shields.

The Köpi slogan has never been more topical. Since the spring, defending free space has taken on a very concrete meaning, namely preventing forcible eviction. The Köpi and two adjacent properties were auctioned off in a forced sale in May, under dubious circumstances and to an even more dubious buyer.

Since then, officials at the State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) have observed increasing levels of violence within the Berlin anarchist community. During the course of the year, 111 cars -- from Minis to luxury sedans -- have been torched, many of them company cars owned by industrial giants like Siemens or the German national railway company Deutsche Bahn. The authorities are convinced the perpetrators were members of the radical left-wing community.

Since the night of rioting in Mitte, security officials in Berlin have issued dire warnings that the city could face the sort of violent unrest that plagued Copenhagen in December 2006 and March 2007 after police evicted the occupants of the Ungdomshuset left-wing youth center. Many members of Berlin's radical left-wing community who had traveled to Copenhagen were among those arrested. The demonstration two weekends ago was held on the one-year anniversary of the first Copenhagen riot.

The fear of violence erupting on a similar scale in Berlin is not unfounded. In the past few days, Berlin's left-wing radicals have invited like-minded groups from throughout Europe to come to the city. They plan to hold an action week and a street festival at the Köpi around May 31 of next year, the date the property is to be handed over to the new owner -- empty, clean and complete with all sets of keys.

In May 2007, the presumed investor appeared in public for the first time, coming to the administrative court in Mitte, right on time for the auction. A tall man with a noticeable gap in his front teeth, he arrived with bodyguards and introduced himself to the court clerk as Besnik Fichtner, managing director of a company with the futuristic-sounding name Plutonium 114.

Fichtner, a former floor tiler from Kosovo, seemed unimpressed by the catcalls and attempts to intimidate him by the roughly 70 Köpi residents who had managed to get into the courtroom. The property was eventually sold to the company Fichtner represents for €835,000. This is roughly half the property's market value -- in other words, a steal for Fichtner. He also bought the two adjacent properties for a total of €900,000.

The eviction notice that was recently posted on the bulletin board in the hallway at the Köpi makes no mention of Plutonium 114. Instead, the documents are signed by a company calling itself Joles GmbH, headquartered in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. "Once all apartments currently occupied by tenants have been cleared," the eviction notice reads, the "construction work" will begin. Everyone knows that "construction work" in this case means only one thing: demolition.

From the standpoint of the radicals living there, the notice is nothing but a provocation and a declaration of war. They see it as a confirmation of the slogan on the building's wall, the slogan about class warfare; for them it's about anarchists versus speculators, and for them the rules of engagement are clear. Black banners now hang from the front of the main Köpi building, reading: "It'll be a hot winter" and "Köpi remains a risky investment."

Statements of support for the Köpi group have begun appearing throughout Germany, on signs at demonstrations, on the walls of buildings and on the Internet. Berlin's new Alexa shopping mall at Alexanderplatz had barely opened its doors before the first "Köpi stays" graffiti had appeared on the walls.

The Köpi residents are already getting organized ahead of the coming battle. One group is responsible for PR and dealing with the press, another is looking into the mysterious buyer and his backers, and a third manages the professionally designed website.

The attendees at a meeting in the "ACC," or "Antisocial Cultural Center," in the Köpi basement seem peaceful enough, even mild-mannered. Demian, a pleasant 29-year-old with a buzz cut, is a member of the PR committee. Of course, "Blase" ("Bubble") is there, a man who, with his flowing white hair and full beard, has the look of the chief of the Köpians and could easily be Demian's grandfather. Blase's real name is Peter Rösch. He was a courageous dissident in East Germany, and he has remained fundamentally true to his principles and his critical stance toward authority. He doesn't live in the building, but in a nearby former squat. He has made the Köpi his mission, and, unlike some others, he wants to see its problems resolved peacefully.

Standing at a counter in the windowless basement, Demian and Blase attempt to explain what it is they are fighting for, what the Köpi means to them. In addition to the "ACC," the building is home to "Koma F," a cocktail bar that is also used for concerts. There is a mattress-lined room with a climbing wall, a metalworking shop, a silkscreen-printing room and even a gym where the "Köpi Fight Club" practices martial arts.

In the former East Germany, the complex was home to a bowling club and ping-pong club, among other things. The slogan "Onward on the Road of Socialism" is still emblazoned above the door. From the perspective of Demian and Blase, the building has now truly become the property of the people. The Köpi PR man calls it a "utopian experience," an alternative form of cohabitation beyond the confines of the conventional family.

Blase has a significantly more political take on the situation. For many years, he fought his battles on behalf of the Köpi in round-table discussions with the district mayor and representatives of the Berlin Senate. In the upheaval of the early 1990s, Blase and his friends managed to convince the owners to sign leases with them, contracts which they insist are still valid. When an investor began building a nursing home directly adjacent to the Köpi's walls, which would have covered up the wall with the legendary top/bottom slogan, he was forced to agree to have the slogan painted onto the wall of the nursing home -- with sufficiently large letters.

Frank, whose hair is dyed peroxide-blonde, represents the Köpians' less moderate fighting contingent. He was one of a handful of original residents who selected the building after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he remembers that Friday in February 1990 when he and the first squatters entered the building before the last tenants and sports clubs had even vacated the premises.

Frank was there when three mountain climbers rappelled from the side of the building and painted the famous slogan. The phrase was chosen by the plenary committee, which already existed at that time.

Frank became a father during his days living at the Köpi, and it was there that he celebrated his daughter's birthdays until she was 10. That was when he moved out, but he never left completely. Today Frank is the organization's chairman, is among its most loyal supporters and attends virtually every event.

There are several factions at the Köpi with varying positions on the question of violence. A strong faction believes that the Köpi has only survived as long as it has because its residents are considered unpredictable. The group has already issued an open threat on its Web site: "If Fichtner feels he needs to terminate the lease, then we will terminate the cease-fire."

This strategy has been sufficiently intimidating until now. According to officials at the Berlin Senate, there have been more than 50 inquiries from potential buyers of the property over the years. But all of them quickly reconsidered, and a number of scheduled auctions for the building were cancelled.

To nip these sorts of problems in the bud, the new owner opted for a more cunning approach. First he sent Besnik Fichtner and his intimidating bodyguards to Berlin. The legal correspondence came later, from Kosovo. He reasoned that perhaps ethnic Albanians from Kosovo could manage to drum some respect into the anarchists, and that intimidation is the best way to fight intimidation.

No one in the radical community believes that the Köpi was in fact sold to a buyer in Kosovo. In fact, Fichtner is merely a trustee. The real new owner has his offices only a few kilometers away, in an opulent building on one of the city's main shopping thoroughfares, the Kurfürstendamm. Siegfried Nehls, 43, who likes to put a "Dr." before his name, is an old hand in the Berlin real estate renovation business and operates a network of several interrelated companies.

Nehls and his partners underestimated the radical left-wing community. The Köpi residents hired an experienced attorney, Moritz Heusinger. Their research team obtained information about the Nehls empire from government offices and the courts and got hold of the relevant documents from the local corporate registry. It didn't take long before the identity of the real new owner was discovered.

Just one week after the auction, a group of Köpi residents showed up in the front yard of Nehls' parents' house in a Berlin suburb. Nehls' father was open to discussion and even invited the Köpi delegation into his house, but Siegfried's brother called the police. A few of the uninvited guests were charged with trespassing and were even arrested for a short time.

In addition to the squatters, investigators have their eye on the new owner of the building. Nehls has been peppered with lawsuits since the late 1990s -- from subcontractors and many buyers of his condominiums. According to the Berlin public prosecutor's office, several pending cases involving charges of fraud have now been put together. Nehls and his partners are accused of having defrauded construction companies of their revenues, a charge they deny.

One month after the Köpi auction, dozens of police officers raided Nehls' offices and his apartment. Fichtner's office and about 20 other apartments and offices were also searched.

Real estate developer Nehls is a giant of a man with a deep voice, and yet he prefers to respond to SPIEGEL's inquiries in writing. His statement comes from a company called Vitalis Beteiligungsgesellschaft für Altbauten mbH (Vitalis Holding Company for Old Buildings). Nehls is registered as the company's managing director. The letter explains, in smooth-talking real estate terms, that the company is interested in Köpenicker Strasse 137 because it is in "a highly appealing neighborhood" where properties, in the coming years, "will become increasingly attractive, in light of their charming potential for mixed-use residential and commercial development."

The letter also explains the reasoning behind the abstruse Plutonium-Joles-Vitalis purchasing setup: "From the standpoint of the State Office of Criminal Investigation, closing this center poses a not insignificant danger." Despite the fact that the sale was handled through the trustee, the letter continues, "our office, as well as employees and family members of the managing director, have received personal threats."

Vitalis also provides, for the first time, detailed information about its plans for the site: It intends to develop "approx. 150 apartments with almost 12,600 square meters (135,000 square feet) of living space," adding that it can be assumed "that it will not be possible to preserve the existing old buildings."

The man at the Berlin Senate who is responsible for managing such problematic cases is Ralf Hirsch. He is in charge of a project dubbed "Social City" -- and he comes across as somewhat helpless. Hirsch was caught unawares by the auction plans, just as the Köpi residents were. He invited Nehls and his attorneys to his office for a preliminary discussion, but he had little to offer as a mediator. "The only alternative," says Hirsch, "would have been for the state or the residents to purchase the property."

But Berlin is broke. The Senate's formerly deep pockets, into which it was able to reach to calm down the owners of more than 100 squatted buildings in the German capital by paying them subsidies, are now close to empty. Nevertheless, everyone involved senses that Berlin will be paying a high price for the controversy, one way or another. The policing costs are already in the hundreds of thousands of euros. If nothing else, there is one thing that Hirsch hopes to avoid if at all possible: individual evictions, which would take place apartment by apartment, tenant by tenant. "It would mean a state of permanent war," he says.

It's obvious that Hirsch doesn't even want to imagine the scenario. He represented the city during the long years of round table discussions with the Köpi, and he has a closer relationship with the residents than many would imagine. He knew Blase in the former East Germany, where both men were members of the dissident community.

"The truth is that everyone wants things to remain the way they are," says Hirsch. That may be the case for Demian, Blase and the other Köpi residents -- but it certainly does not apply to Nehls, the real estate developer.

Faced with the current stalemate, city officials nervously anticipate even more volatile times ahead. May 1 is normally considered a potentially explosive date -- far-left anarchists have a tradition of rioting in Berlin on that day. This year, many fear May 31 could also be a tad too lively for comfort: Inspired by current events, the Köpi cinema recently added a series of films about "liberation struggles" to its lineup.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Law Dogs - lukewarm justice in a bun (genious)

Sometimes people ask if I had/have 'culture shock' from being in the U.S., usually under the assumption that the U.S. is drastically different to Australia, if only they knew. Occasionally small gems spring up to remind me I've been residing in the Empire however...

Law Dogs is one of them, a hotdog stand that gives free legal advice. Law Dogs...its just too good. I noticed this stand in a moment of disbelief from the backseat of a friends car, alas it apparently is a burrito stand these days (not that I don't support more burrito stands...)

For the full, movie-worthy story of Law Dogs:,+WITH...-a090640341

Monday, December 10, 2007

7.5 months later...

...I have a room again. The house is slowly coming along, the shower, dining room, and kitchen are functionable at some level, and we can walk from room to room without stepping over things. Now if we can just figure out a way to look like we are not trying to gentrify the neighbourhood...

What it looked like when I moved in 2 months ago...

Sunday, December 9, 2007

In contrast to the 80 degree weather and surf earlier this week, I was caught in the rain and high 40s temperature riding home last night. The combination of rain, wind, and a clear sunny day today meant you could see clearly the mountains further north of L.A. that are usually concealed by a thick blanket of smog and brown haze. Apparently it dumped snow last night...

This is from the Mt. Wilson observatory (about 5000 feet above L.A.) that we sometimes ride up to, about a 19 mile ride up from the base, an hour or so ride from downtown.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Riding to school (or really anywhere from home) I have to pass over the L.A. river to get in to downtown. The other day I noticed the new and massive MTA piece that almost spans from the 1st to the 4th street bridge

Fire your boss!

One of the biggest days of surf hit this west-coast this week, so we headed out (along with almost every other person in California). Though it was bigger further south and up north, there was some good waves to be had in L.A. and Ventura. And being the first month of winter the 80/23 degree weather was tough to take

Looking off the point at Leo Carrillo

Getting out of the surf I noticed a sign had been posted while I was out (same beach, same day...)

Looking down the coastline from Point Mugu

Supertubes was actually working, so we stopped and watched. Apart from being at one of the most scenic points on the coast, on the odd day the point works, the waves are super hollow and long. It was about 10-12 foot

Meanwhile a car commercial was being filmed. The helicopter would swoop down along the coast and follow the car (police were blocking traffic for 5 minutes at a time so it looked like the coastline was empty in typical car-commercial style)

Two military radar planes returning back to base at Point Mugu airbase, completing the Southern California trifecta of surf, film crews and military

Saturday, December 1, 2007


One of my favourite places in L.A., and one of the few that meets my bourgie standards of coffee consumption is Choke, something between my dad's garage and a laneway cafe in Melbourne. The strange comfort of the smell of engine grease, two-stroke and caffeine...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

BICAS, Tucson AZ

The Bicycle Kitchen in L.A. ( has been a sort of second home to me since moving to L.A., where I first built a bike 2 weeks after arriving. It moved from the Eco Village to a store front, and has always been such and amazing and impressive space, there was nothing like this in Melbourne, which subsequently meant I never had the tools or the knowledge to fix my own bicycle. Arriving in Tucson numerous people told me about BICAS, but I never quite pictured what they were telling me

The entrance into BICAS

Some of the floats from previous parades

The 'classroom'

The main workshop space

Some of the bicycle frames and parts to be built up

More bikes...


One of the many stencils outside, and my favourite

A-House dos

So after returning from a summer in Europe and the deserts of Southern Arizona, school pulled me back in and suggested it wasnt a good idea that I move to Tijuana for no apparent reason, and perhaps they were right. Thankfully after a few weeks of couch surfing, apartment minding, and traveling with my mama who was finally able to visit after 3 years, I was able to move to Boyle Heights with my now long-term housing sidekick. A fast-becoming good friend has owned a house in B.H. for some time now, but after years of pack-ratting and not repairing the 100+ years old house, has decided to make it more of a communal space. For now its the three of us, but more will move in as time progresses. Hopefully we will also see the return of Food Not Bombs to the backyard, a house full of bikes, and stupidly loud metal shows complete with scale-model church burning, but as you can see this might take some time...

The outside of the house, the city council has complained and suggested we fix it real soon

The top of the stair case with some missing walls...

Matt's room that we have both been sleeping in. This is when it was half emptied, and before we evicted the pigeons and solved the mosquito infestation problem...

The bathroom...pigeons now evicted and shower installed, but not much else

My room! It now has walls and a roof, but still work to be done

Photos of the kitchen, 3 rooms I didnt know existed, and scary torture-scene bathroom downstairs to come...

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Just Space(s) - September 26th 2007

On September 26th at Lace Gallery in Hollywood, the 'Just Space(s)' exhibition will open, running until November 18th. It is being organized by Ava Bromberg and Nick Brown, who are doing some incredibly interesting and amazing work in geography and urban planning. I have also contributed a small piece on behalf of No More Deaths.

More information, including the schedule of events, can be found at the following site, and from the information posted

You can also check out the special issue of 'Critical Planning' on spatial justice and the Just Space(s) exhibition at (also an amazing resource for all things spatial)


All events are at LACE unless otherwise noted
Details on program participants are on

Wednesday 09.26.07 – Opening Reception
7:00 – 9:00 pm

Saturday 10.06.07 – Intersection Repair workshop with members of Portland’s City Repair
1:30 – 5:30 pm

Sunday 10.07.07 – Symposia Session #1 – Prisons and the Prison Industrial Complex
1:30 – 5:30 pm

Sunday 10.28.07 – Symposia Session #2 – Environmental Justice and Public Health
1:30 – 5:30 pm

Saturday 11.03.07 – Malibu Public Beaches Safari w/ the Los Angeles Urban Rangers
11:00 am – 2:30 pm (Meets in Malibu)

Saturday 11.10.07 – Symposia Session #3 – Economic Justice and the Right to the City
1:30 – 5:30 pm

Sunday 11.11.07 – Performance: LATWIDNO – Land Access to Which Is Denied No One
1:30 – 5:30 pm


Just Space(s)
September 26 – November 18, 2007
LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions)
Organized by Ava Bromberg and Nicholas Brown

OPENING RECEPTION: Wednesday, September 26, 7-9pm


Everyday we confront spaces that don't work - from our neighborhoods and parks, to our prisons, pipelines and borders.
In this exhibition and programming series, artists, scholars and activists reveal how these spaces function - and
dysfunction - making way for thought and action to create just societies and spaces.

The projects in this exhibition reflect the renewed recognition that space matters to cutting edge activist practices and to
artists and scholars whose work pursues similar goals of social justice. A spatial frame offers new insights into
understanding not only how injustices are produced, but also how spatial consciousness can advance the pursuit of
social justice, informing concrete claims and the practices that make these claims visible. Understanding that space - like
justice - is never simply handed out or given, that both are socially produced, differentiated, experienced and contested
on constantly shifting social, political, economic, and geographical terrains, means that justice - if it is to be concretely
achieved, experienced, and reproduced - must be engaged on spatial as well as social terms.

By transforming LACE, in part, into an active learning environment, Just Space(s) seeks to provide visitors with tools to
consider alternatives to reactionary and essentializing political discourse that tends to dominate and frame our
conceptions of justice - and constrain our abilities to imagine and implement it. The exhibition presents some of the most
innovative and efficacious contemporary artistic, activist, and scholarly work engaging social and spatial analyses. In
addition, a library/infoshop and symposia and event series extend the scope and scale of the main exhibition. Taken in
whole or in part, Just Space(s) aims not merely to show what is unjust about our world, but to inspire visitors to consider
what the active production of just space(s) might look like. It asks a crucial question: How do we move from injustice to
justice exactly where we stand - in our neighborhoods and our institutions, at the level of the body, the home, the street
corner, the city, the region, the network, the supranational trade agreement and every space within, between, and
beyond? While much theorizing about - and active experimentation with - the role and potential of a spatial justice
framework remains undone, this exhibition and its public programming contribute to the articulation of a powerful
concept/tool that links critical theory and ethical practice.


THEME#1 >>> (IM)MOBILITY / PRISONS AND THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX >>> The Corrections Documentary Project (Ashley Hunt) /// Million Dollar Blocks (Spatial Information Design Lab) /// Up the Ridge (Appalshop's Holler to the Hood)

THEME#2 >>> (IM)MOBILITY / BORDERS, LABOR, MIGRATION >>> The Black Sea Files (Ursula Biemann) /// Political Equator (Teddy Cruz) /// disOrientation Guide (Counter-Cartographies Collective) /// Spatial Justice for Ayn Hawd (Sabine Horlitz and Oliver Clemens) /// Searching for Our Destination (Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri ) /// Water Station Maps and Warning Posters (Humane Borders and No More Deaths) /// Host Not Found: A Traveling Monument of the Suppression of Search (Markus Miessen and Patricia Reed)

THEME#3 >>> ECONOMIC JUSTICE / THE RIGHT TO THE CITY >>> The Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) /// Listening, Collaboration, Solidarity (CampBaltimore) /// UTOPIA-dystopia (Los Angeles Poverty Department) /// Principles of Unity (Right to the City Alliance) /// RFK in EKY (Appalshop and John Malpede) /// Spatializing Labor Campaigns (Service Employees International Union)

THEME#4 >>> ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE / PUBLIC HEALTH >>> Syracuse City Hunger Project Maps (Syracuse Community Geography) /// LATWIDNO - Land access to which is denied no one (Sarah Lewison and Erin McGonigle) /// Invisible5 (Amy Balkin, Tim Halbur, and Kim Stringfellow) /// Public Green (Lize Mogel) /// Public Access 101 - Malibu Public Beaches (Los Angeles Urban Rangers) /// Best Not to Be Here? (Marie Cieri)

THEME#5 >>> RACIALIZATION OF SPACE / SPATIALIZATION OF RACE >>> However Unspectacular: A New Suburbanism (The Center for Urban Pedagogy) /// Detroit's Underdevelopment (Adrian Blackwell) /// The New Yorkers' Guide to Military Recruitment in the 5 Boroughs (Friends of William Blake) /// A People's Guide to Los Angeles (Laura Pulido)

THEME#6 >>> LAND / INDIGENOUS EPISTEMOLOGIES, LAND CLAIMS & TREATY RIGHTS >>> A Century of Genocide in the Americas: The Residential School Experience (Rosemary Gibbons and Dax Thomas - Boarding School Healing Project) /// Dakota Commemorative March (Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and David Miller) /// Secret Military Landscapes and the Pentagon's "Black World" (Trevor Paglen) /// Spiral Lands (Andrea Geyer)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

New A-House?

Having to leave the A-House behind, and all of its subsequent benefits, was one of the sadder moments of being in L.A. But it looks like I'll be moving out to Boyle Heights in East L.A. to a new house next month, joined by an ex-A-Houser and some others

This was previous to my time at the A-house, but it explains the hole in the roof, and why Crom was no longer allowed to play house shows there

Kill Radio and the No Borders Camp

I'll be doing a phone interview with Kill Radio tomorrow (Sunday, 9th September) somewhere b/w 12pm and 1.30pm, talking about the upcoming No Borders camp in Calexico/Mexicali, so listen in if you like (

Friday, September 7, 2007

Earth First!

Thanks to the help of a close friend, I have a short article up in this month's issue of Earth First! Journal, discussing some of the issues of environmental impacts created by mass protest (in regards to the recent G8 summit)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


One of the more interesting things that you come across hiking the trails used for migration through the deserts of Arizona are the shrines that are set up. There are three or four that we see on some of the busier trails we patrol, including this one with its own shade structure set up. I returned three days later to find the tin of money overflowing, a new bible, and family photo left at the shrine

Edit: While at camp, a reporter and friend of NMD wrote a short opinion piece on the shrines, which articulates much better the importance of them than what I have done. This is from the Arizona Daily Star (original article with photos)

Opinion by Ernesto Portillo Jr. :
'Sacredness of the journey' is clear at tiny religious sites

In a deep Arivaca ravine, less than 10 miles north of the border, the usual evidence of illegal border crossers can be found.
There are empty plastic bottles of Electrolyte, water and food tins. There are abandoned pieces of clothing and backpacks.
But there is other evidence, striking and rarely seen.

In a natural niche in the face of a rock wall, ascending about 40 feet, is a religious shrine.

Tucked into the crevice are rosaries; prayer cards to various images of Mary, mother of Jesus; crucifixes; St. Jude; and the Sacred Heart of Jesus votive candles. There is also a small prayer book, a pen, a key chain, a color photograph of a girl 5 years old or less, matches, medallions and peso coins.

Rivulets of dried wax from burned-out candles streak down the rock. Patches of black candle soot cover inside the roof of the nicho.

Next to the opening, two small rocks pin the top corners of a scarf with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Off to the other side are large blue and clear votive candles. Some are broken into shards.

This is a rest stop of prayers on a desperate path used by illegal border crossers.

Volunteers with No More Deaths, the humanitarian assistance group that has spent the past four summers rendering aid to hungry and injured border crossers, have discovered various shrines along favored routes like this ravine.

For the volunteers, the shrines reflect something meaningful and unexpected.

"I've never been a religious person," said Walt Staton, a volunteer with No More Deaths.

But the shrine created by the undocumented migrants has given Staton a different perspective.
"I can feel the sacredness of the journey," Staton said.

The shrines evolve as items are scattered by the rain and wind, and new items are placed on the shrines by border crossers. Some humanitarian volunteers also add items.

The shrines are not common, but as the volunteers discover new, more remote routes they are likely to find more shrines.
Juanita Sundberg, a cultural geographer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, examined the shrines this summer. She and local documentary photographer Michael Hyatt are working on a project documenting the shrines.

The religious way stations provide a wider glimpse of the people who walk miles in difficult terrain, risking their lives, she said.

"They are valuable because they tell us a lot about the people who are crossing, their spirituality, background and courage," said Sundberg.

The shrines serve as a reminder of hope to other border crossers, Sundberg said. The stops provide a place to pause and pray for family left behind or contemplate the unknown dangers that await them.

But not all the shrines are devoted to sacred saints. Some yards away in the ravine is another shrine in a larger opening, like a grotto.

Inside is a plastic-encased image of Jesus Malverde, the folk "saint" to drug smugglers. The image hangs on two thin branches behind a row of votive candles to the Virgin of Guadalupe and St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

But Malverde is not exclusive to drug runners, said James "Big Jim" Griffith, a longtime folklorist retired from the University of Arizona who has seen pictures of the shrines.

The Malverde shrine represents a general petition from border crossers who want to get their things and themselves to their destination, said Griffith, author of "Victims, Bandits and Healers: Folk Saints of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands."

There are other shrines elsewhere. One is at the bottom of a gnarled juniper tree. It contains a small mound of coins in a tin, a horseshoe, a bright-red wool scarf and religious images. There also is a booklet, "Introduction to Insight Meditation," left several months ago by a Buddhist monk who visited the shrine, said Steve Johnston of No More Deaths.

Southwest book author Byrd Baylor, a longtime Arivaca resident, said she has seen border crossers on her property carrying Bibles and candles. There are several shrines around her house.

The shrines signal powerful messages to border crossers who reach them, Baylor said.

"The shrines are a chain of hope and faith."

Final week at NMD

This week takes the prize for most intense and tiring week of my life. I headed back out to camp a week ago, along with my advisor visiting from L.A. We visited the new Tohono O'odham Cultural Center in Sells on the way, and travelled back to Arivaca along Highway 286 passing more B.P. than I have seen to date

On reaching camp we realized the wash was flowing due to recent rains, so we had to leave the car on the other side and wade in to camp. Later that week the washes were hit with some big rains, turning the entirely dry wash into a raging 8 foot deep river, carrying entire trees downstream

Our driveway become impassable

Towing out one of our neighbours and supporters of NMD

I was also (somehow) made coordinator this week, so my days involved getting up at 4.45am to wake everyone up, collecting new volunteers and showing them around, and dealing with German media, who supposedly will be running an article in German Playboy, so keep an eye out for my centerfold spread.

On Friday we also managed to get one of the trucks stuck in a wash, taking 5 hours to dig and tow it out, so there were no patrols that day

Just before leaving camp a family was found waiting alongside a road. The family comprised of two children under 10, and the mother was suffering from spinal pain and severe blisters, unable to walk any further, and needing possible evacuation to a hospital. To see an entire family close to death, lost, and incredibly distraught has been one of the toughest experiences, but knowing that I am not the one who has spent 5 days lost in the desert quickly puts your privilege in perspective, along with the ability to simply drive back to Tucson

And so ends two months with NMD, I hope to be back next summer, and that one day none of this is necessary (this year is heading for a record death toll).

No Human Being Is Illegal.

Flagstaff/Grand Canyon/Sedona

With some of my favourite folk from NMD this summer, we took a few days off and drove up to Flagstaff, Grand Canyon and Sedona, using the ever trustworthy PT Cruiser with zero ground clearance for driving off-road. Here are a few photos from the trip, camping in random areas of State forest, or certain people's parents houses in the middle of the night

Grand Canyon:


We woke up to this, after driving up the side of a mountain in a highly unsuitable car in the pitch black

I hit the trails around Sedona with Tom on some rented Giants, the trails were amazing and had been a place I'd wanted to go riding since I was a teenager. Other than getting lost and having to haul to get back to the store in time, it was amazing fun...oh that and a broken rib

The swimming hole at Budha Beach

Waking up to hot air balloons in the middle of nowhere made a night of food poisoning, sleeping on cacti, and getting lost worthwhile