Police and art

Following the massacre in Nice, the refugees of Calais Jungle wanted to express their condolences to the people of France.

A couple of French volunteers and I convened a deep conversation that resulted in a heartfelt message translated into both French and English. We asked the French police who guard the entrance to the camp for permission to paint the message as an art project on the underpass wall that motorists see as they enter the motorway. The wall is full of graffiti conveying the dreams and frustrations of the refugees.


Would they agree to let us cover over the crass graffiti with condolences to the people of Nice?


Was there any way for the refugees to write a message of condolence that they, the police, would approve?

A sheet.

A bedsheet?


We bought one sheet and English and another for French, and stretched them over the roof of a car. Thirty refugees drew careful letters, discussing grammar in French and English. All weekend, they wrote and drew. New refuges pitched in. By the time they finished, 100 had gathered around the sheet-draped car, asking for translations into Pashtun, Arabic, Tigrinya, Oromo.

Police watched us write the message all weekend. When completed, they forbid us from affixing it anywhere visible to motorists. They also forbid us from covering or painting over offensive graffiti. We could lay it on the ground at the entrance to the camp, out of the view of drivers.


I may be wrong in what I’m about to assert. I hope I am.

By allowing only refugees and volunteers who enter the jungle to read the message, and denying French motorists the chance to see it, police are encouraging the French to think all refugees and volunteers agree with the existing graffiti, ‘Fuck France.’

Back in singing class, the youth at Hummingbird Art Center hosted new singers sporting masks they’d made. To learn mouth pops, all but one removed their masks. The boy who kept his mask in place doesn’t talk. I don’t know why. His body percussion was quick and precise. He helped others for whom the body music came more slowly. His mouth pop on the mask sounded perfect.

Express as you can. You never know when it will be out of reach.


Author: earefuge

I direct EAR (Expressive Arts Refuge) whose work focuses on refugee youth in France and Greece. At home in Oakland, California, I direct World Harmony Chorus and World Harmony Ensemble.

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