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‘This would not have happened if the people we found were white’

LEA REISNER tells The Civil Fleet about the Louise Michel, a feminist refugee rescue ship named after the famous anarchist and funded by the world’s most elusive street-art star — and how the civil fleet came to its aid when Europe abandoned it

“THE revolt of the tribes was deadly serious,” wrote the French anarchist Louise Michel in her memoir about the doomed 1878 Kanak rebellion against French colonial rule on far way New Caledonia.

Louise Michel

The Kanak people, whose south Pacific home France had turned into a penal colony, were seeking the same liberty that Michel and her comrades had sought during the 1871 Paris Commune.

“Let me say only that my red scarf, the red scarf of the Commune that I had hidden from every search, was divided in two pieces one night. Two Kanaks, before going to join the insurgents against the whites, had come to say goodbye to me. They slipped into the ocean.

“The sea was bad and they may never have arrived across the bay, or perhaps they were killed in the fighting. I never saw either of them again and I don’t know which of the two deaths took them, but they were brave.”

In 1880, in her seventh year in New Caledonia, the communards were granted amnesty and Michel was finally allowed to return home to Paris, where she received a hero’s welcome.

Michel dedicated her extraordinary life fighting for the freedom of the working class, of women, of the poor, of the peoples colonised by European states, and for animals.

Though she would be dismayed to know that, 115 years after her death, we are still fighting the same oppressions, she would surely welcome the refugee-rescue ship that bears her name and its feminist crew defying fortress Europe in the Mediterranean.

The Louise Michel rescue ship (Pic: Louise Michel)

“We came up with a couple of names for the ship,” says Lea Reisner, a German member of the Louise Michel’s crew.

“One of the other names we had on the table was [US abolitionist] Harriet Tubman. We knew it had to be a woman because we consider ourselves to be feminists.

Lea Reisner (Pic: Louise Michel)

“But in the end, we chose Louise Michel because she was a perfect encapsulation of what we believe.”

Reisner spoke with me over Skype earlier this month while she and the crew were in Spain following the Louise Michel’s eventful first mission.

“I’ve been doing SAR [search-and-rescue] since 2017,” she says when I ask how she ended up saving the lives of people that European governments would seemingly prefer to drown in the Mediterranean.

“I started on the Iuventa. I’ve worked with Sea Watch a lot, as well as on Moonbird” — the charity’s reconnaissance plane.

“I met Pia [Klemp] on the Iuventa and we fell in love with each other immediately. We were in touch all the time and have been friends since.

“Then Pia got an email from Banksy and we started this project.”

Let’s back up a little bit. We’ll get back to Banksy’s involvement.

Nine of the Iuventa 10 activists in Switzerland, where they received the Paul Grüninger Prize in May 2019 (Pic: Iuventa 10)

The Iuventa was one of the first non-governmental organisation (NGO) rescue ships to operate in the central Mediterranean. Between August 2016 and August 2017, the ship’s crew saved around 14,000 lives in 16 missions.

The Iuventa and other NGO ships were initially welcomed by the European authorities, until conspiracy theories peddled by the Italian far-right caused then deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini to get the country’s secret service involved.

The crew were spied upon, the ship was impounded and 10 members — including Klemp — were accused of co-operating with human traffickers. Three years on, no charges have yet been made but the investigations against the Iuventa 10 are ongoing.

One of Banksy’s most famous pieces

Meanwhile, the anonymous British street artist and political activist Banksy must have heard about Klemp. He emailed her with an offer to buy a boat so that she and other activists could go back to sea and prevent more people from dying at Europe’s borders.

Reisner says her first reaction to Klemp’s email from Banksy was mainly: “What the fuck?”

“We were certain it was a hoax,” she adds. “But at some point it became clear that it was not a joke. I mean, it was absurd. We’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff in the Med, but that was like, next level.

“But eventually we came together as a group of friends and activists and got started. We bought the Louise and, yeah, the whole story begins.”

In the early days of the so-called “refugee crisis” — back in 2015, ’16 and ’17 — charity rescue ships were much smaller and faster than the huge ships they have to use now.

Back then, they would find refugee boats on their way to European safety from war-torn Libya and act as a kind of first aider, distributing food, water and life jackets while waiting for the European coastguards to come and take the refugees to land.

They would even work with the navy ships that made up the European Union’s anti-human-trafficking mission, Operation Sophia, before the bloc decided to pull them from the area last year.

Since then, the NGO vessels have been the only dedicated rescue ships in the central Mediterranean — apart from the EU-funded Libyan Coastguard, whose incompetence has been widely condemned.

“It’s a good thing that we have bigger ships now,” Reisner says, “even though most of them are stuck in European ports most of the time. But it’s a good thing that they’re there.

“What’s been missing recently is a smaller, faster ship. That was something all of us were talking about for quite a while, that would be really good to have.

(Pic: Louise Michel)

“Now that the Libyan SAR is quite big, it’s possible that distress cases can be ten hours away from the Sea Watch 4, for instance. But it’s quite different with the Louise. We can really speed up and make a difference there. Our first mission has proven to be a very good thing.”

The Louise Michel co-ordinated its maiden voyage with the launch of German charity Sea Watch’s new ship, the Sea Watch 4, in August and assisted it during its rescue operations.

“We got to the distress cases a few hours before the Sea Watch 4 could. We handed out life jackets, stabilised the situation and made sure the people were safe until the Sea Watch 4 came.”

After those first few operations with Sea Watch, the Louise Michel saved the lives of 89 people on is own. The weather was worsening, so they planned to take the rescued to shore, or at least attempt to — Malta has refused to allow any ships to disembark refugees into its ports since March and Italy has been subjecting them to protracted stand-offs.

But on August 29, the crew was alerted by Sea Watch’s reconnaissance plane Moonbird to 130 people on a rubber boat in distress within Malta’s SAR zone.

“It was such a fucked-up situation,” says Reisner.

“They had been on the water for three fucking days.

“Some of the women were completely burnt. They had these chemical burns all over their bodies. There were children on board. The youngest was about eight months old and was completely dehydrated. He couldn’t open his eyes any more.

“There was a dead person on the boat and we later learnt that three more people had died on the journey.

“We were very aware that the Louise was at her limit. We knew we could bring 89 people plus 10 crew to a safe port but we knew if we took an additional 130 people on board, this would not be possible.

“We sent out two mayday relays on behalf of the boat. But we were left completely on our own.

“We ended up with two life rafts attached to our boat, plus the deflating rubber boat that had a dead body on.

Life rafts attached to the Louise Michel (Pic: Chris Grodotzki)

“We got everyone safely through the night, which was possible because we set up the ship in a very good way and we had all the means we needed. But it was really shit. I have seen a lot in SAR, but that was shit.

“It was not a situation we had ever envisioned when we were talking about our operational objectives in the beginning. Well, we did. But I didn’t expect it to happen.”

By this point the world’s media began to report what was happening. The Sea Watch 4, ten hours away, changed course and began heading towards the Louise Michel, as did the two other NGO ships, the Astral and the Mare Jonio.

I ask Reisner how it felt being within a European SAR zone but completely ignored by the authorities.

“It made me really, really angry.

“I’m an anarchist, so it’s not that I have a huge trust in or belief in authorities in general. I know that we are living in a world that is far from the utopia I envision.

“But as long as it is like this, I expect the authorities to at least do what they’re supposed to do. And this is not leaving a 30-metre yacht with two life rafts and a dead person alone for more than 24 hours.”

The Italian coastguard did eventually arrive. They took 49 of the most vulnerable people as well as the body – and then left the rest alone again.

But then the Sea Watch 4 arrived. Already carrying 0ver 200 people, the Sea Watch crew brought all of the Louise Michel’s rescued on board their ship.

“I don’t know what would have happened without Sea Watch. I really don’t have words for how grateful I am for them.”

The Sea Watch 4 and the Louise Michel (Pic: Chris Grodotzki)

Soon afterwards, the Louise Michel headed back to its home port in Spain to refuel and change crew. Risner says she cannot tell me when they will be going back to the central Mediterranean. But they will be going.

Reisner sees the Louise Michel’s mission as part of a global fight against fascism.

“Europe’s, well not only Europe’s but all western border policies are fucking fascist,” she says before adding, “or let’s say at least racist. Maybe fascist is a bit too strong for all of them, but at least very, very racist and people don’t even recognise that.

“Europe doesn’t want us to do what we do, that is quite clear. And they’re trying to throw stones in our way wherever possible, which is not surprising to us.

“There are a lot of politicians in Germany who post a lot of Black Lives Matters logos on their social-media profiles and then vote the next day for a law that makes deportations easier or which makes entry into the European Union harder. And that’s fucking racist.

“While we and Sea Watch rescued around 400 people, around the same amount were pushed back to Libya. It’s down to fucking luck if you get rescued or not.

“And we cannot rescue everyone. We are quite a way from that. But that’s the reality we are in.

“But what we can do is show how racist this is.

“What happened to us in the Malta SAR would not have happened if the people we found were white. If there was a sailing yacht sending a distress call from the central Med to Malta, there would probably be five patrol boats and four helicopters trying to find these people and rescue them.

“But as these people were black. And I think we have to call it like it is.”

The Louise Michel (Pic: Louise Michel)

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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