Petrol Girls Singer Ren Aldridge Reflects On Visiting Displaced Residents in the Calais ‘Jungle’

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[Originally appeared in Noisey in January 2016]

By the time you read this, they may have already bulldozed much of The Jungle.

French authorities for days have threatened to plow into the migrant camps in the seaside port town of Calais and level any of the hundreds of ramshackle homes that sat too near the busy nearby motorway. This particular incarnation of “The Jungle,” as the residents there call it, houses 5,000 people, maybe more, all displaced from their homes or fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Migrant advocacy groups guess that around 2,000 people live in the part of the camp the government intends to remove. One group working in Calais to organize and relocate people estimates that 300 women and 60 children call that portion of the makeshift village of tents and shacks home.

For the people living in the Calais camps, it’s disaster piled on top of disaster. Reports from inside The Jungle mirror war zones, or countries where decades of entrenched poverty has run ransack. Young children suffer from scabies and other parasites. Tuberculosis and malaria has cropped up among the residents. Illnesses and infections borne from bacteria-infested water is systemic. As Doctors of the World reported in June, one toilet in the camps serves 150 people, and that was before the camp’s population swelled to 5,000 or more. Many of the residents there suffer through such conditions because conditions in their home countries are even worse: catastrophic civil war in Syria, perpetual fighting and emerging civil war in Sudan and so on. Now, authorities want those displaced by their eviction efforts to live in repurposed shipping containers. Residents describe them as prisons and have pledged to peacefully resist the bulldozers when they come. While The Jungle may be squalor, it’s also a community the residents want to preserve as they await asylum.

Ren Aldridge struggles to place how many times she’s been there. Since being dropped off there by a touring band in September, she’s crossed the channel four, maybe five times, often staying for days and weeks at a time. Aldridge, the lead singer of UK hardcore punk band Petrol Girls, went to volunteer but quickly realized that that dynamic—some humanitarian volunteer swooping in to save needy victims—was a dead concept, and one that smacked of a kind of shallow colonialism. The camps teem with people with extensive skills and experience, recognized community leaders without papers who are doing amazing things but struggle, as they all do, with violence in every direction.

A day before she and Petrol Girls embarked on a UK tour in the leadup to the release of the band’s new EP, Some Thing, Aldridge talked with Noisey about the Calais camps, the system she believes perpetuates the migrant crisis and how she thinks punk and art can help address the problem.

During the interview, Aldridge was exceedingly cautious when describing her time in Calais. She shrugged off questions about conditions there that might have devolved into descriptions of the camps, and she was protective of the people and friendships she’s built there. They are so vulnerable there, she says, exposed to increasing police hostility, violence from fascist groups, and a growing public disdain in France and the UK—often their intended destination. She doesn’t want to pile on, to expose the defenseless even further, she says. “I don’t want to do poverty porn. It’s so sensitive,” she says. “I don’t want to feed off of people’s situations there, but I do want to talk about the fact that it exists, and the wider context that allows that to exist.”

Noisey: Tell me about the first time you went to Calais and visited “The Jungle,” as it’s called.

Ren Aldridge: I got dropped off there in September. I went on a total whim. We had just done a week around the UK with Typesetter, and they were going out to the mainland. Zock, our drummer, was driving them out, and I thought: Fuck it, I’m going to go. I had been reading a lot about it, and I heard a lot about it, so I wanted to go and check it out. I question now whether that was a wise thing to do. I went sort of naively. There was a call-out for people to help out there. So yeah, I just went, and I have been back quite a lot since.

It’s hard to know what to say about it really. And there is already a lot online about what the conditions are like at the camps. It is obviously horrific. But what is not being paid attention to is the broader political context of the situation, and the reasons why people are stuck there. They’re trapped by violence on all sides. They are coming from all kinds of different places—Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria obviously, Eritrea. And the reasons people keep coming are that they are fleeing various forms of violence, and then when they get to Calais or another camp—and there are lots of other camps, including one in Dunkirk just down the road from Calais which I believe is in even worse condition—they are met essentially more structural violence.

They’re trapped in awful conditions behind massive fences. The police are fucking disgusting—tear gassing people for any reason. I don’t know. It’s hard to know what to say, really. The whole situation is completely unacceptable and I feel like we need to think bigger, and think about why they are not just allowed to be part of our societies. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just racism, and it has to do with this weird idea of “nations,” which, in the context of human history, is like… what the fuck even is a nation? Why am I English and my friends are Sudanese? Why is that a thing? It’s such a constructed way of separating people, and the violence that they are receiving just because they happen to be born somewhere else really blows my mind.

You say you feel naive that you just decided to show up there. In what way? What do you wish you knew before you went that might have been useful?

I think quite a lot of us just turned up with no experience in humanitarian work. Obviously, there’s the argument of: where do you get experience? But I always question everything all of the time, and every time I go, I go there thinking: Right, I’m going to do this, and this means this, and so on, but then I’ll be there for a few days and everything will totally shift. You learn so much so quickly, and the situation develops so quickly. It’s all been a complete mindfuck.

But it’s not about me. It’s about the people who are stuck there. When I first went there, there was no structure to the volunteer effort. It was just a load of people, probably like 20-odd people, who just showed up and thought: Fuck, there’s all this humanitarian fundraising happening in the UK, but nobody facilitating that going out to people. I question things from a political point of view, so even though I have the utmost respect for the people who are doing humanitarian work out there, I moved away from the humanitarian side of things and focused more on to the political side of things. Because I think it’s really important to emphasize that people there—even calling them refugees is problematic, because it implies people are in need.

Yeah, their situation is shit, I would not question that for a second. But they’re not without capacity and their own agency. And I think a lot of humanitarian work and charity efforts, that kind of perspective, denies people their agency and ignores their skills and what they have to contribute. And I think that kind of logic fuels the idea in the UK that we don’t have space and we can’t look after everybody—that kind of argument, which is common and one I argue about a lot. But these people have so much to give, and I think that isn’t emphasized enough. People are more than capable of looking after themselves if they’re not surrounded by structural violence and being beaten up by the police every night.

All people want is asylum. And I don’t even begin to know how we fight for that, but it’s what we have to do.

I’m interested in how people there who, as you said, are surrounded by this structural violence go about maintaining their agency. How do they organize themselves in a political way? Or is that not reality, and they are just trying to get by on a day-to-day level?

I can’t speak on anyone’s behalf, obviously, but it shouldn’t be underestimated how difficult it is just to get by on a day-to-day basis in those kinds of circumstances. That’s where I would see all of the humanitarian activity as having real political value. Because if you can sort people out with the basics—with food and with shelter—that’s material solidarity.

Especially now that it’s winter, there are some large structures on site. But they are under attack from the mayor in Callis. They are trying to get rid of the camp, but with no idea what to do with the people. In these kinds of weather conditions, you need some kind of large structures for people to be able to gather to organize politically. But even basic things like that are kind of impossible. People are finding a way around it, and people are organizing themselves within their communities. I think it’s important to support that.

At the moment, they’re facing an eviction. I think it’s fairly common news now. But the French government is clearing a large portion of the camp, moving people back away from the roads. They’re trying to move people into fucking shipping containers! And they’re not providing enough of them to cover the number of people whose homes they’re destroying. They’re going to destroy like 2,000-odd people’s homes—homes, places they’ve managed to create as a kind of home in the circumstances they’re trapped in.

I think myself in circles about what to do all the time. It’s like the authorities want these people to just disappear. That’s the bottom line of it, for me. It’s so disturbing that every action that they take—building these massive fences, getting more police force in, clearing areas of the camp—all of these things to me say: We want you to disappear, we don’t want you to be our problem, go, get away. Without stopping to think that they’re just fucking people! They’re just people who deserve the right, the fundamental human right, like all of us, to live in dignity and safety and warmth, and to be able to eat.

[Long pause] I feel like I kind of rant myself into silence about it! [Laughs] The kind of structures causing it are so big, and so terrifying, that it’s really overwhelming to try to work out where to challenge it. And I didn’t talk about it for a long time, at least not in a public forum, because I think it’s so huge and it’s so big to even get your head around to understand what’s happening.

How much does the ethical structure of punk life and community help to frame the way you think about and approach larger political issues that create these situations where you have displaced, stateless people who now are the victims of a lot of different kinds of violence? How much did punk lead you down this path, where you’re thinking and caring about and acting on these issues?

I think that goes a really long way back. Punk rock politicized me when I was really young. I think I’ve carried that politicization with me the whole time. Punk rock really empowered me, especially over the past few years doing Petrol Girls. Feminist punk rock, and the community that surrounds it, built up my confidence so much that I now feel like I’m brave enough to face things. That’s big.

I do think punk rock and the community around it empowers people. It’s that DIY ethos of just being like: This thing is shit; I feel empowered enough to do something about it. I think that’s a large part of it. And the community aspect of it. Because of punk rock, I’ve always lived in these communal living situations. You learn a lot from that aspect of it. When I think about how we would be able to fight these structures, it comes down to community.

In a lot of ways, wider society is becoming more and more alienated. More and more things are mediated by the internet. If I think about my friends who aren’t involved in punk rock, their lives are very much [centered on] work and wherever they live, and a lot of their socializing is online. Whereas in the punk rock community, we meet in spaces, physically, regularly, and I think that has a lot of radical potential. I feel like the internet is quite limited in how far you can express yourself, politically or otherwise, whereas in these physical spaces where you have a meaningful community, they empowered me, and I also see potential in it for moving forward with this.

Is there a kind of frustration that goes along with that? When I think of political organizing, I know that there’s sometimes a rift between the ability to get together in groups and organize yourselves in that social way, but then the reality of a certain situation or place can be much more difficult to sort out than that kind of organizing will allow. Did you feel that kind of frustration, in Calais, for example?

Yeah, for sure. In such horrendous, actual living circumstances, it’s very hard to then begin to organize productively. I feel like the authorities are just trying to strip the people there of all of their dignity and agency in every move that they make. Yeah, just to strip them down and make them disappear. What was your question again? [Laughs]

Ha, yeah. That was basically it. I don’t know if it was a question. I can sometimes be frustrated by the difference between discussion and the ability to act. And I know that exists in any political situation—there’s a difference between what people say, what their intentions are, and the reality of what can actually get done on the ground.

I would share that frustration, and I’m really privileged to have an outlet for that. The band is literally anger management. You can literally just let it all out and then come back to an issue.

It is hugely frustrating… it’s hard to describe what it’s like to be there, in that situation. When you’re out of it, I think I struggle a lot with it. I don’t really live anywhere; I move around between all of these different places. And having conversations with people about that situation to me really depends on the context of where I am and who I’m speaking to, and what I think I can or cannot achieve with that person or group of people.

And I find it frustrating talking about this issue everywhere that I go. You talk to some people about it, and all they want to know is why people there have mobile phones. So you have to zoom right out of the situation and be like: Right, maybe that’s pretty much all they have? And start having that conversation. So personally, the frustration I feel is moving between these different contexts. And then at the same time, my frustration doesn’t even compare to how frustrating it must be to actually be stuck there. That’s something that even though I’ve spent time there, I’m never going to understand what that feels like, to have experienced so much violence and be trapped between that violence. I can leave, and I do leave whenever it gets too much, or whenever I have other things going on. But, like, that’s really fucked up in itself.

Frustration comes from trying to figure out what you can actually do—what your skills are, what your privileges are, and how you can use them to best benefit a situation you can barely get your head around.

Let’s talk about the new record. It sounds like you wrote the new record before you started making trips into France. Is that right?

It’s so weird! It’s so weird to jump into talking about the new record.

I know!

I’m not criticizing at all—this is so typical of what my life feels like at the moment. Like on Facebook, most of my friends have to do with punk rock, but increasingly more and more have to do with that situation [in Calais], and the clash of that in my brain is like: whoa, what the fuck! [Laughs]

But, yeah, the record. We wrote it and recorded it before I got involved in the situation down in Calais. But what, for me, has been really interesting is that “Slug,” the song we’re about to release the video for, we have two different songwriting processes, one of which starts with the riff and the drums, and this is one of those songs. For me, this is a harder process, but the lyrics will then come out of the rhythm of the music, so they will come much more subconsciously. And that song was all about how fucking depressed I was at this time last year. Like, I was so fucking depressed. I’d never experienced anything like it.

But! Reflecting on the lyrics more and more as we performed the song over the course of the year, I realized that I had this consciousness of what was going on in the rest of the world. There’s a lyric in it: “The border’s closed, defenses raised/ I hear no warmth in how some humans are described.” I think that was a recognition that I hadn’t put much thought into, about how the people who are affected by this crisis of borders are being spoken about in mainstream news. So I thought about this more and more, and when we play, for me… I don’t know. If I watch a band, I can’t always hear what the lyrics are. So when we play, I try to draw attention to specific lyrics or to what a song is about and what I’m trying to communicate. It’s something I’ve always done, and I was thinking more and more about that song and what it meant, and reading more and more into that situation. And once I started spending time in Calais, and realized it applied completely to that, and the lyrics completely fit that situation.

For me, our music is really strong when it can apply to lots of different people’s situations. It means lots of different people can identify with it. I can’t remember how I felt when I was depressed in January. But I know how I feel now, and now, it’s about that situation. So when we made a video for it, it became about that. If that makes any sense.

It makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting when you can tap into something you maybe didn’t know was there, that maybe wasn’t in the forefront of your conscious mind. I think that’s a fascinating part of any writing process. I assume songwriting is no different.

For me, I see a lot of my political potential in this part of being creative. In making art and making music, you make something, and then when you look at it afterwards, you kind of separate yourself from it. And it allows you to zoom out of a situation or a concept or an idea, and look at it in a different way, maybe a more realistic way. I think that’s politically productive. It allows you to see a wider context.

I question myself about this all the time, and I’m doing my fucking head in thinking about it: Do you think that music and art have political potential? I think they have a role to play in changing the way that things are. I think it’s when you really zoom out, where you’re pushing for a kind of cultural change. It’s a way of questioning and thinking about how we understand the way things are, and then starting these conversations that can create change.

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