Today’s blog was supposed to be a fully digested piece on solidarity segueing neatly into information about my academic writing about organising precarious workers in the Colombian mining sector and information about tonight’s event at UCL’s Institute of America where I’ll be talking about the fetishisation of unions in Latin America. I was going to make a joke about what makes a feminist anarchosynicalist of a psychoanalytic persuasion tick.
That was the plan.
But instead I wrote this blog on the Eurostar from Paris yesterday afternoon. On Friday I’d travelled to Paris to meet my twin sister who was visiting from NYC for Paris Photo. On Friday we’d shopped on Rue de Charonne and went for dinner just round the corner. Since we were off the pop we walked home early, stopping outside La Belle Equipe to breath in the lovely young folk, and joked that if we still drank we’d be at the bar hoping that their beauty would rub off. Ten minutes later we heard that 19 people had been killed there.
A painful disorientating weekend. Jarring encounters with other lost people, the cheer of little dogs and sleeping with the lights on. And then the hardest part, saying goodbye at Gare du Nord. Letting go.
I feel like a dog that’s been kicked in the stomach, cowering in a corner too sore to be touched.
The last time I felt this animal fear was in Colombia.
Colombia is considered the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. The civil conflict, La Violencia, carries on uninterrupted clustered around areas of economic activity, such as mining. The Cerrejon mine is the largest open cast coal mine in the world – a complex region of richness and poverty, paramilitaries, guerrillas and ordinary working people.
Stuck in the middle of this political drama is Sintracarbon, the mining trade union. Being a Sintracarbon activist is intrinsically dangerous. Every time negotiations take place the entire union executive goes into hiding – separated from their families and unable to travel by car or company buses for fear of assassination. Vigilant to the sound of a motorbike coming from behind.
As head of education for the miners’ international I worked with Sintracarbon for a decade – years of solidaristic programmes to help build relationships within a traumatised working population. Funded by the steady Swedish trade unions, we set up safe spaces to talk, to think beyond the violence.
On my first trip to Colombia I arrived in the afternoon to be bundled into a car and frog-marched into a hotel room. I was told that they would be back to collect me in the morning to hold meetings with union leaderships in an undisclosed location. I was instructed to stay in the room, lights off and away from the windows. A man mountain with a gun sat outside my room. I stayed up all night, sitting in a dark corner going off my tree with anxiety. As the realisation that this wasn’t just machismo dawned, I became angry that despite everything I’d been told about working in Colombia nobody had told me how it would actually feel.
It appeared that within 24 hours of landing I was frightened out of my skin. Literally scared out of my body and my mind.
The next morning I was bundled into another car by armed men. Squeezed in the back seat with two huge miners they laughed out how white I was. They said that I should have come with them last night, out dancing until 4am. Apparently it was fun.
I remember this exact moment in slow motion – as I comprehended what had just been said turned into rage. Dancing? You bastards, I muttered. That made them laugh more and offer free salsa lessons. What followed was two weeks of (their) hilarity and ‘Reina, q-q-q-q-quieres bailar?’. Chuckle chuckle bloody snort.
After about two years working with them I could handle the heckling and learned to dance the salsa in my lunch breaks. This was not for the comedy – despite often being the only woman in the room and a strategically significant 8 inches taller than most of my dance partners – but rather for the therapeutic value. To go beyond words and back to the body. Jaime, Carlos, Cristian, Pablo, Miguel Eduardo and Erland – companeros bailamos.
In a context of violence, one of the great seductions is to believe that we are united in our trauma. Our actual experience can be that when the balance tips in favour of fear, all bets are off. Colombia taught me that even when we are politically and socially aligned, we can lose our faith in each other. Betrayals, mistakes and withdrawal from the people we love, our wounds sometimes too deep for the other to get close.
In unions we can hide behind ideological defences, or retreat into a religiosity and righteousness. We can be so afraid of our own vulnerability that we become heroic to the cause. These defences turn the world into them’s and us’s – good people and bad people denying the reality that violence turns some of us into cats, others into dogs, but rarely into lions.
I learned in Colombia a great paradox – that sometimes when we appeal to higher social values, we can become less rather than more human.
Solidarity is not a union of like minded folk who would never hurt each other. Solidarity as an ideal exists precisely because we are all capable of acting defensively and against our own human interests. In a context of violence, if there is a fight to be had it is a psychological one. To continue to take the risk of practicing solidarity by making contact with other people who are not the same as us.
Sometimes the very best we can do is to be just human amongst other humans.
Tonight at 5.30pm we will hold a discussion about precarious workers in Latin America. Click here to join us.
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