These are our neighbours
On 13 May last year, people in Glasgow turned out to surround a Home Office van in the middle of a morning immigration raid at a house in Pollokshields. As a member of Glasgow No Evictions Network, living on a nearby street, I was one of the many people involved, from the string of initial WhatsApp messages and the early chaos as people blocked the van, through the eight hours of stalemate between police and gathering numbers of protesters, to the tears and elation when the van doors finally opened and the two men inside were released.
Almost exactly a year later, a similar mobilisation last week outside a restaurant being raided in Nicolson Square, Edinburgh came to a similar (if less protracted) end, with immigration enforcement officers having to release the people they had seized and be escorted out of the area by police, to a chorus of boos. Both actions involved groups who have been organising against immigration raids for some time: at Nicolson Square it was Edinburgh Anti-Raids who raised the alarm, while the Scottish Community and Activist Legal Project were on hand quickly as legal observers. But they were also marked by their spontaneity, the wide range of people involved, and the fact that this model of direct action can be replicated.
On the first anniversary of the ‘Battle of Kenmure Street’, many of the initial questions about this seemingly impromptu outpouring of ‘people power’ are still pertinent. What was it that allowed such a crack to appear in the rigid structures of the British immigration system? The quick mobilisation of local people? The intervention of Scottish politicians and well-known legal figures? The sheer number of protesters in the face of a police force that seemed, until the last moment, to be preparing for a largescale and violent dispersal?
Decades of anti-racist and tenant organising across Glasgow provided not only material context but also key points of political principle. The idea of ‘unconditional support’ is central. Places like the Unity Centre share information, skills and resources without asking people to divulge their immigration status, to avoid the Home Office dividing line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. In Kenmure Street we knew very little about the men in the van. Occasionally people in the crowd would ask for more information: ‘How do we know they’ve not done something wrong?’ To which the general response would be: ‘It doesn’t matter what they’ve done or who they are, nobody should be treated like this.’
What should be a fairly simple political principle is difficult to uphold in a system that encourages – and, through ‘hostile environment’ legislation, attempts to legally mandate – people to enact their own ‘good citizenship’ through the policing and naming of the ‘bad’. Yet at Kenmure better instincts prevailed. ‘These are our neighbours,’ we chanted, ‘let them go!’ Other terms of political kinship were also used – ‘friends’, ‘brothers’, ‘sisters’, the occasional ‘comrade’ – but it was the idea of the neighbour that seemed to anchor the protest, with its sense of commonality that still allows a certain anonymity. ‘I am lucky that my fate brought me to Glasgow,’ one of the men, Lakhvir Singh, said afterwards, ‘where the people come out to support one of their own.’
Such sentiments – ‘one of their own’ – couldn’t be further from the rhetoric of the Nationality and Borders Act, which received royal assent on 4 May. It expands on the way New Labour’s 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act repositioned what was ostensibly a welfare system – asylum support and the accommodation of people who seek asylum – as a form of deterrent. Though Priti Patel aims to send asylum seekers to Rwanda rather than Glasgow, the fundamental principle remains: create a decreasing pool of ‘deserving’ migrants and find new ways to punish the ‘undeserving’, as a warning to others.
Patel’s policy of ‘pushbacks’ in the English Channel was recently abandoned ahead of a judicial review being brought by three human rights NGOs and a trade union representing Border Force officers, an unlikely combination of groups united by their view that the measures were ‘unenforceable’. Yet deniability rather than workability is the priority for the home secretary, who will continue to blame ‘activist lawyers’ and campaigners for the chaos and violence of the system she oversees.
People will continue to support and shelter each other against the cruelties of the Nationality and Borders Act, which along with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act aims to forestall any Kenmure Streets of the future. The government has already issued new guidance on the offence of ‘obstructing an immigration officer’, and an attempt last month to block an immigration van in Lewisham is a reminder of how quickly and aggressively the police can shut down such an action.
A growing number of anti-raids, tenants’ rights and police-monitoring groups around the country are alive to such shifts, thinking ahead to what unconditional support and neighbourhood mobilising might mean for people in isolated military barracks, or removed to other continents. As the recent action in Edinburgh shows, such groups have the potential to make the Nationality and Borders Act ‘unenforceable’ on the ground. The strategically opaque, implied ‘we’ in ‘one of their own’ seems key here, a phrase that – like the crowds of Kenmure Street and Nicolson Square – gathers without fully enclosing.