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From the Ground to Victory

Lessons from Kenmure Street about Community Organising from the Unity Centre

By guest bloggers, Etzali Hernández and Martha Simms, volunteers of the Unity Centre

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Tripod.

On Thursday, the 13th of May 2021, we saw the people of Glasgow send a clear message to the Home Office that their violent practices of immigration dawn raids, detention and forced removals are not welcomed here. Over 200 people gathered to resist the removal of two men whom our racist immigration system has failed. The response was collective and organic and was not part of any individual’s political campaign but an inspiring display of solidarity by the local community and grassroots groups. Those gathered kept the energy going for over 8 hours, repeatedly chanting: ‘These are our neighbours, let them go!’ and ‘No borders! No nations! Stop deportations!’.

When the mounting pressure from the community couldn’t be ignored, the Scottish Government altered their earlier non-committal stand and ordered the release of the two men who were detained. Contrary to the claims of some high profile politicians, including the FM, and Police Scotland, it was the direct action of neighbours, migrant solidarity groups and community activists that prevented the raid from being successful by challenging immigration enforcement officials and ultimately reversing a Home Office decision. We would not allow the State to claim ground-up solidarity for their political agenda.

This event came about after the home of an elderly man was raided in Glasgow early in the morning of the 23rd of April. Following the raid the targeted man was brought to the hospital after suffering from chest pains due to stress caused by the raid and an existing health condition. Since then, there have been two demonstrations against the re-emergence of immigration raids as an eviction tactic against asylum seekers in Glasgow. The Unity Centre, a volunteer-run organisation providing practical support to asylum seekers, actively resisted and organised protests in the early 2000s when the City saw a series of dawn raids tearing families from their homes. The message from the organisers was clear – “Not again, not in our city!”.

The Kenmure Street protest saw mass resistance on several levels: from people contacting local MPs and the press, to sharing communication about safety for protesters in the immigration system, to organising legal support and legal observers to witness the handling of the situation by Police Scotland. If there’s something to take away from this experience, it is that people are organised and determined to resist. This is a product of many years of work from community activists who have been organising against evictions and deportations. 

For years, the Unity Centre has been building community and support by having in their ranks people with lived experience of the immigration system, folks from different socio-economic backgrounds, as well as individuals with anarchist/abolition politics. People involved in the beginnings of the Unity Centre have created other peer support groups such as the Unity Sisters which supports women in the asylum and immigration system and LGBT Unity Scotland which supports the LGBT asylum seeking, refugee and migrant communities. Unity’s support networks also expanded when other members formed groups that focused on specific campaigns, for instance, We will Rise, a group of refugees, asylum seekers and their allies based in and around Glasgow, was formed to campaign for the end of immigration detention. Another is Glasgow No Evictions Network which was formed to stop evictions and fight for access to adequate housing for asylum seekers. Others like Migrants Organise for Rights and Empowerment (MORE) have also campaigned to create opportunities to access further education for people with precarious immigration status. 

What all these groups have in common is their ability to create and consolidate communities. They provide a much-needed space for those who are disempowered by running monthly meetings to build relationships, by organising events to raise awareness of the issues that people seeking asylum and migrants go through, by providing for their immediate needs like food parcels, food vouchers, and mobile top-ups, and by running training to build people’s capacities in different skills from how to effectively respond to the media to building one’s self-confidence. Group members have been trained in organising, campaigning and direct action skills. 

What we witnessed in May was not just a spontaneous act but a pinnacle of years of organising and campaigning for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and of building networks of people trained to know what to do, where to call and who to contact. 

So what happened that day?

9:30 am (approximately): an immigration van was spotted and reported by phone to the Unity Centre. People on the ground spread the word amongst other groups such as the No Evictions Network. 

An attendee quickly positioned himself under the immigration van whilst other neighbours surrounded the van to prevent it from leaving with the detained people inside. During this time, Unity attempted to communicate with those detained to ascertain what support they needed.

Police Scotland arrived, apparently responding to a public disturbance, and by 10:30 am, up to 100 people had gathered. Some groups, including the No Evictions Network, Refuweegee, MORE, Glasgow Mutual Aid, Maryhill Integration Network, and the Unity Centre, gathered together with the local community rallying around for support. Neighbours brought supplies in, and a food and drink station was set up at a bus stop, with other neighbours offering the use of their toilets to protesters who had been outside for hours. 

1:00 pm: more than 150 people gathered, blocking the police and the van with the two men still detained inside. Immigration had left, and the police were still there. 

2:00 pm: Paramedics had arrived to attend to the person under the van. Police attempted to break through the crowd, but protesters were unrelenting. The public refused to let police in, with the paramedics staying strong and cooperative. 

The police initially stated that they were there to respond to a public disturbance. They later claimed that they were to facilitate immigration enforcement, which is not a risk-assessed or a responsible practice. The heavy presence of Police Scotland with their horses and riot vans threatened protesters who were peacefully attempting to protect their neighbours. 

5:00 pm: There was a complete u-turn in the behaviour of the police and the narrative of politicians, including Nicola Sturgeon. Up until this point, the authorities had been claiming to be powerless to act. Where riot police and horses had been gathering and preparing to break up the crowd by force, they now claimed to be overseeing the health and safety of the public.

We contest the narrative that the police were “freeing detainees from immigration” as twisted and deceitful. That the police were there to protect the detained folks conflicted with several eyewitness accounts where officers were seen denying the men inside the van food and water. This account is just an attempt to avoid any accountability for their collaboration with a racist system. The lawyer Aamer Anwar successfully negotiated on behalf of the detained people and urged their release.

It’s essential to notice that several police officers wore Blue Lives Matter badges in plain sight, including the Sergeant in charge of the operation. The group, No One Rogue Cop also reported that most police officers had their badge numbers hidden to avoid any chances of identifying to hold them accountable for their behaviour.

What happened that day was a great example of a successful non-violent direct action. Other strategies such as lobbying, advocacy, sit-ins, blockades and a wider range of tactics were also used that made the stopping of this raid a success.

What next?!

First of all, we want to thank the community and our comrades from different groups and organisations, as none of this would have been possible if we didn’t work together and trust one another. There’s so much wisdom in the phrase: “People united will never be defeated”. Let this be the start of a wave that disrupts the racist immigration system from the ground.

Unfortunately, we can’t always resist the Home Office from detaining people in the immigration system in this way. This is because people are most often detained when they sign in at the Home Office in Ibrox. Signing in is a legal requirement and makes it possible to detain people silently. By now, you might be wondering what you can do. Here are some ideas:

  • Organise your community, start with your neighbours, close friends and co-workers. Do you know how to support a friend going through the immigration system? Read the guide from Right to Remain or the Self-Help Guide against Detention & Removal by Legal Action for Women to get a sense of what it is like to claim asylum. Do you all know your rights? Get the information you need from Scottish Community & Activist Legal Project (SCALP).

ABOUT OUR GUEST BLOGGERS:  Etzali Hernández and Martha Simms are both volunteers at the Unity Centre. At the moment they support social media and tasks that don’t require them to be physically in the centre. Etzali used to work for Tripod with the Organising for Power Programme.