On the struggle against Bässlergut prison

This text, first published in Avalanche, offers a perspective on the direct action struggle against Bässlergut, a prison and detention facility in Switzerland, from one of the activists involved. The facility, sited near the German border, is currently being expanded and anarchists have been active in trying to sabotage the process. The writer makes a case for an insurrectionist approach in the course of this article, which is reproduced here to give an idea of the thinking around some of these issues. 

It’s a Friday night and once more some people gather on a clearance in the forest and start their way to a nearby prison in Basel, a small, rich city in the small, rich territory of Switzerland. It’s September 11th 2015 and the group runs towards Bässlergut, a prison in the suburbs of Basel.

Around 30 people can be in deportation cells, another 43 cells are there for serving sentences in it. Arriving at the walls, fireworks are set off, slogans are shouted and a banner hung at the fence. On the banner it reads “Director Arsehole – Politics fascist”, a slogan shouted by an inmate during a previous visit like this.

The prisoners are shouting back and bang against the barred windows, as always during these rebellious visits, that happen once in a while. Before the group disperses in the forest, a pole with a surveillance camera on top on the parking lot is destroyed. In the aftermath of the prison demo the call to resist the planned construction of another prison next to the old one spreads. 

This took place a week before an announced demo against a military training called “Conex15” in the Region of Basel, at which the scenario of a collapsing Europe is supposed to be simulated. “Economic crisis”, “sabotage and looting of oil, gas and grain-depots” or “refugee streams” are just some of the keywords of this.

The demo is heading towards Bässlergut once again, where it clashes with police, trashing everything on its way that should be trashed and can be destroyed quickly – even though just for a short amount of time, few days or weeks after the facade of social peace shines again.

Expansion begins

Since then, two years have passed. In spring 2017 they started to build another prison right next to Bässlergut. There they plan on imprisoning 78 people. The two different types of imprisonment – sentenced prisoners and those awaiting deportation – will then be in separated buildings. In following years the “reception centre”, which is right next to Bässlergut, will be turned into a “federal asylum centre”, combining different parts and forces of the asylum machinery in one administrative authority.

The “federal asylum centres” will be built in numerous parts of the country and in a lot of places there is resistance against them. One example for this is the city of Zürich, where they have been testing this form of camp management since early 2014 – here, a radical and direct struggle against it developed. Actions, sabotage and occupations happened in other places as well, even before they opened the camps. So, in these two years it wasn’t just the authorities working on their repressive project.

Besides the call for resistance against Bässlergut II (after the 2015 demo), a leaflet and poster called “When the enemies of freedom get a move on …” was published in early 2016. This put the developments of Basel into a wider context, in which similar prisons and camps have been and continue to appear in Europe as well as in other parts of the world. In this context, this one specific prison and detention centre is just a small, local picture of the ongoing, world wide war of the ruling order. Here an extract of the text:

…it’s no problem to find more and more examples for the war waged against the migrants that has caused the death of thousands already. Unfortunately, this war waged in the still young 21st century by far isn’t the only one. The different newly imposed surveillance laws in a lot of countries, the improvement of military and police infrastructure, the construction of different jails all over Europe, cities turning into open air prisons and the increasing repression against those who chose to resist, all this is part of the same blow of those in power.

A war that became so normal that it simply doesn’t need explanations any more – webbing the net of the society of control thicker and thicker, stabilizing the power of privilege; everybody in their place, registered, transparent, for being able to reintroduce the order and disarm disturbing elements at the smallest sign of losing control or once things step out of the row.

An attack against a local project of power like Bässlergut must, from an anarchist point of view, be looked at as an attack on these internationally relevant developments and should contain this view, if possible, in its approach. To fight a local project of power is nothing but a tool to make an abstract, globally intertwined, historically grown and at times too confusing system visible by pointing at a concrete manifestation of it. A specific struggle is, in the first place, a beginning.

The nights catch fire

The Bässlergut has been used as a prison only since 2000 and has been confronted with criticism since then, evolving as a reference point for local resistance against the massive practice of deportation, the European border regime, as well as the incarceration and punishment of people through the state in general.

It must be admitted that there is little general public hostility against this prison in Basel or against authority in general – and the prisons of Switzerland have not experienced any uprisings or resistance in recent years. Therefore this struggle can’t be described as an intervention into an existing social tension. Such a tension is simply not there, or at least not visible.

Still, with the history of 2015 in mind it was clear that the expanding of Bässlergut wouldn’t be possible without any trouble. Even if the struggles against this prison, as well as the different logics it stands for are as old as the prison itself and the calls for resisting its expansion spread early, the struggle got much more intense since the start of the construction site and attacks on the responsible grew in number. What started off with smaller interventions, such as punctured car tires, developed into arsons against cars of the companies involved in the construction of the building. Recently on the same weekend a civil police car, a car of locla phone company Swisscom and a drilling crane of the responsible construction company Implenia caught fire in different places.

Such destructive attacks have been a central element in this struggle, but forms of resistance have become far more diverse in the last year. With posters “against the state, its borders and prisons” people were called to “come together with friends and accomplices, to organize, to make plans and to put sand into the gears of all those, who seek to keep us as passive spectators of their expansion of power and attack them” and “despite the propaganda of power, which intents to make us believe that they are almighty and untouchable” the poster states, “that revolt is possible, that the fire of freedom is alive, as long as there are individuals who confront their own oppression with joy and dedication”.

Summer 2017

A list of responsibles is published, more online than on the streets. Across Basel, slogans and stickers against Bässlergut appear. There are discussions and encounters around Bässlergut discussing the possibilities for resistance. 

As an intervention against Swiss National Day on August 1st, the prisoners were visited by a wild demo and the walls of the construction site were painted with slogans. In May, a demo of 200 moved towards the site, but was stopped by police. A few days before, an Implenia excavator was set alight, media talked about the attacks, the mood is recognizably incited.

The attacks, as well as the media campaign of defamation are ongoing. Authorities are under pressure, but are incapable of showing results. A special unit has been introduced by the police. The question is not if they will hit, but when. On October 15th 2017 six houses in the regions of Basel-Land, Basel-Stadt, as well as Zürich are raided. In some cases police confiscate computers, mobile phones and clothes, some people are taken to the police station, interviewed and forced to give their DNA, but then allowed to leave.

Taking DNA is omnipresent in Switzerland – even in case of smaller crimes such as shoplifting it is possible for the police to take it from you. When it comes to subversive acts, the taking of DNA is standard. In case of resisting the extraction, the authorities are allowed to use “appropriate” force. The repression apparatus is always trying to expand their database, especially when it comes to potential rebels and their acts. A match of your DNA and the DNA taken from a crime scene is often enough evidence for a conviction.

People affected by the raids are accused because of the demo in May – for “violation of the public peace”. It’s clear that this is not actually about the demo, at which basically nothing happened besides a few property damages through spray-paint. So the authorities reach out to connect the people attending this demonstration with different arsons and attacks. In the best case (for them), they would have found something incriminating at one of the places searched or the DNA taken from the accused leads to some sort of clue or evidence. Otherwise, this is to be understood as a warning and another menace to those who give life to this struggle or seek ways of contributing to it.

On November 30th, cops search the anarchist library “Fermento” in Zürich. “In the shop window of the library one could see calls for crimes and offences against companies and private persons, which supposedly can be seen in connection with recent arsons against the building of the PJZ (police and justice centre) and Bässlergut. The PJZ is being built in Zürich and has been met with resistance, verbally as well as physically, since its announcement — Implenia is also involved building it. Zürich has seen arsons against excavators and company cars this year as well.

Insurrectionary practices

Such a struggle, intending to go beyond attacking and stopping this singular manifestation of power, inviting people to fight in a self-organized way with the means of direct, active critique rather than representation and delegation, can’t depend just on the voice or force of one single organization or similar structures.

Such a struggle, which calls for the destruction of the entire edifice by pointing out a specific aspect, lives from the creativity and initiative of different informal groups and individuals, following their own paths and ideas while still directing decentralized attacks towards a common goal, by which they can complement and coordinate. 

The visibility of these struggles certainly is a strength and weakness at the same time. In Basel this was clearly the case. In 2016, different cars and containers were set on fire alongside other methods of direct attack. In some cases there were communiqués, in a lot of other cases the unknown persons rather chose to let the flames and shards speak for themselves.

None could really know who exactly attacked what and their precise reasons, but still these acts brought a certain tension into this usually conservative city. So one can only speculate about the reasoning for the attacks, but what became pretty clear was that even if local media had to report about the series of arsons, they never connected these incidents. The investigative authorities had no lead.

In 2017, again burning cars and other attacks occurred. A lot of these incidents were connected to the struggle against Bässlergut, as those who still remained unknown stated on the internet – in other cases the connection was clear because of the chosen target or the chosen means of attack (though concerning the forms of attack, creativity doesn’t seem to be the strongest attribute of the anarchist world). The connection is there. Even if the police were still without a clue, they could connect one public demonstration with attacks against the same prison.

To catch those who carry out attacks at night is, if certain security measures are considered, pretty complicated. To film a public demo and identify those attending it in the aftermath is relatively easy. This is neither supposed to be understood as a point for maximum clandestinity in our struggles, nor against communiqués in general. These times might come at some point. But as long as we have the possibility to spread anarchist ideas, to agitate and to openly call for direct, destructive attack or to exchange thoughts and reflections on this type of struggle, we should continue to do so – be it via the communication about actions carried out or through the international correspondence, as it is done in this publication (Avalanche).

The bigger question is how to bring visibility and dispersion, clarity and diffuseness together. Visibility and clarity, so that everyone around can understand what is being fought for what reasons. Dispersion and diffuseness, because resistance shall not have a centre, neither in terms of organization nor in terms of the targets of attack, but should (and has to) spread – for that the attacks come from all sides, with all means, from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Making circles

In other contexts, where one might find a more widespread hostility towards the structures of power, the question of the danger of specific struggles might be a little less relevant. And it should be clear that it is a bad idea to align our struggles alongside their potential dangers. If we decide to be a potential (or even actual) threat, then we actively take the risk of receiving strikes ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand the dynamics of repression, to foresee its strikes, to confuse or, if possible, avoid it. The following considerations might still be taken as a point to reflect and improve insurrectionary theory and practice.

Let’s stay with the example of Bässlergut. Last year the arsons targeted a very small number of companies involved in its construction – and in most cases, the attacks were put into the context of the struggle via communiques in the internet. Attacks against the police, politicians, political institutions or companies and structures, that might not be directly involved with Bässlergut but still are part of maintaining the apparatus of control, punishment and deportation as a part of the whole complex of oppression remain rare.

Capacities are limited and for that reason it is hard to be present with ideas and acts at every corner in which we recognize the mechanisms of oppression and power. This could again lead into the black hole of disorientated confusion. Specific struggles on the contrary avoid this trap. In Basel we struggle against Bässlergut and not against the wall between USA and Mexico. The construction of this prison is in the focus of this struggle and for that, those who are responsible for its building should be in the focus of attack.

But around this centre one can see a number of different, but still intertwined circles. Bässlergut is a building with cells, with inmates, with guards and fences, that has been put there by politicians, built by companies and after that maintained, supplied, organized and guarded by other companies. It is part of a wider context, it is part of a social relation of domination and submissiveness, of participation and acceptance, which itself is being nourished, produced and reproduced by sometimes clearly identifiable actors. It is this social relation that keeps the system running and which needs to be subverted and destroyed in the end.

Not everyone sees themselves or their friends as being under the direct threat of being imprisoned or deported, but absolutely none can withdraw from the grip of power entirely, which has integrated and absorbed everything and everyone.

Prisons play an important role in this, but even if prisons were abolished it would be only because the judicial authorities would have found more effective and socially more appropriate ways of threatening and punishment. It would change nothing about the fact that all of us are forced to live in this monotonous, well structured society, that keeps us trapped under the same laws, the same values, the same lies, the same disturbing reality, the same emptiness and the same uniformity. Society would condemn us to continue this one path and to apply our dreams and desires to this reality.

Maybe it is exactly this what makes society the way it is. So, if we don’t fight for the end of this civilization, the destruction of power in all forms and the possibility of self-determined experimenting, for the complete reappropriation of our lives in all their pride as well as the dark sides, for what then? For a little bit less racism, for more “humanity”, the destruction of one single prison, for a better survival, against the plundering of a plundered planet, against the greed of the greediest, the self-organization of the existent?

Well, have fun with that. But we were at our struggles. To stay focussed on the objective without neglecting the attack on the circles, the social dynamics around, perceiving them as integral parts and requirements of the chosen objective is the crucial tightrope walk we have to handle. As well as to broaden our critique as to inspire the most different individuals to act.

A simple example: If there would have been more attacks against surveillance cameras in the city or companies that profit from the ongoing armament of surveillance and repression, in addition to the ongoing attacks against profiteers of the prison building and if these attacks would have been put into context of a struggle against the prison society in general, the field of struggle would have been expanded.

The struggle would have been more likely to be able to point out the social dynamic of oppression and, at the same time, call and incite for the onslaught onto a concrete, not yet existing building that is a symbol for this dynamic. Maybe people, who are really upset with all the surveillance cameras around would understand, why other people fight so vigorously against a prison. Maybe these persons would not make a difference between these two forms of control and oppression any more… Maybe, maybe… we for sure can go on like this forever. In the end, the attack onto the Bässlergut actually is an attack onto this stupid wall between USA and Mexico, because it is an attack onto the world of domination.

It will never be over!

The anarchist critique has been pointing at Bässlergut for years already and will continue doing so. However these struggles develop we can say already that this prison is not only telling a story of total, even if sometimes subtle oppression, but one of the radical resistance against it as well.

Realistic voices might state that this prison will be built anyway and for sure it will be be hard to impossible to convince them of the opposite. But this can’t be the starting point and by far not the motivation for rebellious, anarchist hearts. The resistive seed has been and will still be sowed, the longing for a different, completely different world as well as the possibility of direct attack most people should have recognized. What others do with it can neither be in mine nor in others hands.

The question that should concern us is where and how we sow these seeds of rebellion, how to cultivate and grow them. It’s never impossible that ideas actually spread, that people actively decide against continuing to obey, to stop waiting and to start here and now to define and to influence the circumstances of their own lives and their surrounding.

If anarchy cannot be a simple opinion, no philosophy about some possible, better future and much less a programme, a clearly defined goal, it can be a journey of constant discovering and shaping your diverse and chaotic self in confrontation with a hegemonic truth or authoritarian dynamics.

Under circumstances without any authority it would be much more possible for all of us to shape ourselves and the world around us with our ideas and imaginations. Living under the severity of the existing circumstances, formed by state and capitalism, is not the end of our freedom-loving existence or anarchy. They will search their path, even under these nauseating circumstances. And they will find it. This way or another.

A strong embrace to all those who are on the run.


This article appeared in Avalanche 13, which has been announced as the last issue of the project.

Pic: A 2016 demo against Bässlergut, from Aus dem Herzen der Festung.