Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

Petrol Girls on Calais and the Refugee Crisis

Frontperson Ren Aldridge shares thoughts on her time volunteering at the camps

/ February 8, 2016

Photo by Al Simmons

Ren Aldridge is a London (UK) based artist and activist who plays in the band Petrol Girls. We spoke about the connections between making DIY music, making art and her on-the-ground work at the Calais camps – sometimes called ‘The Jungle’ – against a backdrop of Europe’s worsening refugee crisis.



BRYONY BEYNON: How did you end up first going to Calais?

REN ALDRIDGE: I went out there pretty spontaneously. Our drummer Zock dropped me off there when he was driving another band on tour. I managed to get in touch with someone who was already out there, and stuck around for ten days. I have been back four times since then. Being involved in Calais has destabilized the way I think about everything. I’m not even sure what I think about me spending time there, or how it relates to my life, but I’ll keep going there simply because I have so many friends there now that I care about. The situation is just utterly unacceptable. These are people, they’re fucking people. They’re trapped by violence everywhere. The police there are disgusting. Surprise! The conflicts and poverty they are running from are all caused by British and Western powers at some point. Britain needs to look at its colonialist history and accept some responsibility. The whole situation is just grotesque racism, not that there’s any other kind of racism. We need a political solution, now. If our societies treat human beings like this because of where they happen to have been born then those societies need to change. Now. I feel this dead weight inside me. Fascists across Europe are growing in numbers and confidence. People are dying and existing in appalling circumstances because of where they happen to have been born.

How do you feel about the camps in Calais being referred to as ‘The Jungle?’

I personally do my best to not refer to it as that, though this is what everyone living there calls it, so I tend to use it when I’m there. I’ve heard different stories about where the term originated, I’ve heard that the people living there that originally defined it as that. My relationship with that word, as a white woman with a British passport is specific, so outside the camp I don’t use it because it has such racist connotations. It’s really important to consider the language we use around these things. Even referring to the people there as refugees is problematic to me (depending on context). It is a means of differing, a kind of sympathetic dehumanisation that fits into this charity relationship – this idea they are just in need without capacity, feeding this idea that they’d be some kind of “burden” if they got to the UK.

So much of our knowledge about what is actually going on in Calais has been through people’s reports back via social media. You’ve spoken more than most about friendships made there. This was striking, and made me think of how DIY punk predisposes us to finding common ground with strangers. What do you think?

I refer a lot to “my friends who are stuck in Calais” – this partly comes from everyone in the camp calling everyone else “my friend” and crucially, it expresses that the people stuck there are human beings first and foremost, and that I’ve formed meaningful friendships with many of those there. They’re just people, who happen to have been born elsewhere, who need a place where they can live in dignity and safety.

Punk is the reason I’ve got friends from all over the place anyway; it is why I move and meet people, and before I toured in a band, the reason other people moved and I got to meet them. This cross-European community is now proving invaluable as peoples’ asylum claims get chucked around from country to country. I can point friends in the direction of people that will welcome and look after them. Punk can creates a meaningful and unalienated community, something we can gather around. When we go to shows we gather physically in the same space as each other – and to me this is vital when so much “socializing” now happens online. I don’t think we really treat each other like people until we are face to face with them. I read something two days ago, it was in the first chapter of bell hooks’ Belonging: a culture of place, where she quotes Loyal Jones: “We think in terms of persons, we remember the people with whom we are familiar, and we have less interest in abstractions and people we have only heard about.” This has so much political poignancy! What is happening around the border crisis is just a refusal of those in power to treat people like they’re people. There’s a lot of potential to resist this by strengthening our communities. This also made me think about something Sarah Ahmed wrote on her Feminist Killjoy blog a while back. She asks: “Are we more kind to those who are more our kind?” – I think about this all the time. It is a really disturbing question.

Activism in the face of crushingly big structures like borders and the state can sometimes appear to be more about performance of doing “something,” rather than effecting any real change. How do you balance these concerns with what you’ve been doing?

I am always so hesitant to incorporate my experiences in Calais into any creative stuff because of this. I nearly didn’t even go to Calais at all because of questions I had. I think the closer you get to the reality behind an “issue,” the more obvious your privilege becomes, and that can be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t become an excuse for silence. Humanitarian work can appear apolitical when its carried out by amateurs who seem to be mostly just saying “Look! We’re doing something good! Isn’t it great?” I do understand and in some ways share this perspective, but my question is – what should people do instead? I think every effort / sleeping bag / shelter is valuable, but I constantly question where energy is best spent, and where good intent may do more harm long term, and how that can even be assessed. As the feeling of emergency heightens, it is harder and harder to see clearly. We’re all acting like cogs in a machine but we need to keep an eye on who’s driving and where we’re going.

As the feeling of emergency heightens, it is harder and harder to see clearly. We’re all acting like cogs in a machine but we need to keep an eye on who’s driving and where we’re going.

Things are so desperate in Calais, it is hard to see further than, “Shit, how are we going to help people get dry and be warm and not on fire?” But even if we managed to get everyone warm and dry, we’d have upheld a settlement of people living outside the largely white town of Calais, where they do not want to be. Which is apartheid! “The Jungle” is apartheid. The border crisis is racist, and the structures enabling this situation are so huge. I believe the only reasonable and acceptable solution for this situation is freedom of movement for everyone – not just those of us who have certain passports. This is a long struggle. Part of that fight is destabilizing this idea of “nations” and I guess that’s why in the context of all this I still feel that cutting up and sewing flags with people can play a role. Those of us with papers need to amplify the voices of those without, and do more to support their self-organisation and political struggle – and there’s always the danger with “a-political” humanitarian efforts that you will inadvertently disempower those you seek to help and rob them of their agency, or in some cases even do the police or government’s work for them. There isn’t a non-political position in this. But there are endless situations where I can’t see a totally positive solution, just honest, kind people trying to make things a bit less shit, and that is those with and without papers, to be clear.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m collecting national flags from all over the place, and then cutting them up and sewing them into new flags according to colour. It’s a symbolic kind of nation-fucking, but nations are symbolic anyway. I see a lot of radical potential in it. I like nation fucking with other people. It creates space for good conversations. The plan is to take the flag project out into significant public spaces and do it in large groups. I find it interesting how I relate differently to different flags, I’m fine chopping up the British, German, Austrian or French flags but could I cut up the Palestinian flag for example? No way. This process opens up so many questions. It is a collaborative process and anyone involved has to answer to their own questions and decide how they relate to each flag. I think art can sometimes function as social research. Art can make oppressive structures visible. You kinda have to be able to see something before you can smash it.

 Art can make oppressive structures visible. You kinda have to be able to see something before you can smash it.

Do you see Petrol Girls as part of your activism? What lessons has playing and touring in a feminist punk band given you?

Songwriting is part of how I develop political ideas. They are coming from an honest, emotional place, and tend to be a really loose collage of ideas that anyone can approach in different ways. We wrote Slug (first track on our new EP) back in January and to me then, my lyrics for it were all about depression. Now though, they’re all about the camp in Calais. The chorus lyric – which Joe came up with actually – is “these are the walls these are the words, I can see them forming blocks around my days.” Depression turned into borders. That started a whole new train of thought for me. There are loads of different aspects to being in a band. In some spaces, the very act of me and Liepa getting on stage as women feels like a kind of activism – though that is getting less common.

You’ve also long been vocal about challenging rape culture both on stage and with the International Women’s Day Zine. I feel like awareness has shifted massively in the last few years, would you agree?

Every time Petrol Girls play we speak about consent – it’s definitely part of our activism as a band. I try to not keep saying the same thing every time because there’s some danger in repetition; unfortunately it is not hard to keep reframing it because my friends and I still have fresh experiences. I do feel like things have improved. When we first started speaking up, I would end up listening to the experiences of women in the audience after shows a lot, and this happens less now.. there are so many possible reasons why, but I hope its not just me getting shitter at listening.

The zine developed from the annual Women’s Day house shows I ran at the place I lived / sometimes live in Peckham. In the 2nd or 3rd year I started chucking a zine together for it, getting other women to contribute, then last year I had loads of contributions. It was massive! The shows improved so much as well. The first one I booked was all white women playing acoustic guitar, which is unthinkable now. At the time though, in the context of the house often holding all-male shows, it felt like a massive step, and you would never see an all-male line up there now ever. It gave me the confidence to start Petrol Girls, as we formed for the third gig. The mini scene around that house has just improved so much, due to the women living there supporting each other, relentlessly arguing a feminist perspective, and others coming on board with those ideas. Its gone from somewhere that I experienced numerous sexual assaults, including in my own bed, to a pretty safe space, and the people running gigs there now make them so inclusive and lovely, it feels incredible.

What advice do you have for musicians interested in being more involved in activism, specifically around the refugee crisis?

Music has a key role in terms of pushing cultural change. The wider picture here is that we need to make our societies meaningfully welcoming to everyone. We can make music and art that expose and challenge oppressive structures, and making these things is intrinsic part of what makes us human. The heart of how to change this situation is to meaningfully relate to the people affected by this crisis of borders as fellow humans.

I think people need to look at the situation as a whole. So:

– Protest, investigate and educate on the reasons people are forced to leave their homes; wars, climate change, poverty

– Challenge the system of borders and “Fortress Europe” which is killing people on their journey to a new life

– Look at how we can make our communities welcoming to new people

– Challenge the borders wherever they appear; resist deportations

– Protest to shut down detention centres like Yarls Wood

-Join a group like London2Calais that does political action as well as material solidarity, see the various facebook groups for up to date info, and read for regular information and analysis of the situation there.

–  Join the antifascist network