Cross-posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power – Blog post by Benjamin Thomas White, University of Glasgow, UK
I’d just handed the baby over to my partner after the breakfast shift last Thursday morning when a friend messaged me. Activists had tweeted that an immigration enforcement raid on Kenmure Street in Pollokshields was being blocked by local people. My friend lives on the other side of town, but I live round the corner. ‘On way’, I replied. I pulled some trainers onto my bare feet, told my partner what was happening, and left the house.
The van was parked in front of another friend’s flat. ‘IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT’, with the targets of the raid inside. Ringed by police officers facing out, surrounded by protestors facing in. (I didn’t know until later that someone was lying under the van to stop it moving.) My friend was there at the front, face mask on, talking sharply to the police. His partner, nine months pregnant and with the home birth team on call, came out later with their two-year-old. Not that the home birth team would have been able to get through: police vehicles already blocked the street in both directions, up and down the block. I took a picture of the immigration enforcement van and the ring of police, and tweeted it. People on Twitter immediately noticed the black-and-white union jack with a ‘thin blue line’ down the middle that one of the officers was wearing.
How many protestors were there by that point? A few dozen, maybe more. I knew several of them: friends, neighbours, or just people I’d seen around. Pollokshields is a densely populated neighbourhood, and you get to know people’s faces from the shops or the swing park. ‘These are our neighbours, let them go!’ But there were a lot of police too, not just the twenty or so around the van. I decided to take pictures of how many vehicles there were. A car parked on the corner at the bottom of Kenmure Street; a small van in the middle of the road next to the protest. On the other side of the protest, two more cars in the road further up the street and a van at an angle on the crossroads with Leven Street. Men stood outside the Zia Ul Quran Centre on that corner, worried: the first day of Eid al-Fitr. Another car and van up where Kenmure Street opens out onto Maxwell Square. Six police cars and three vans already.
As I turned back towards the protest, a police officer (G244) took a full face picture of me on his phone: the hostile environment being hostile to me. ‘You’ve already got my picture, mate!’ Had I? I’d taken pictures of cars and vans, but I’d avoided taking photos of individual officers. Was he the one who’d been standing in front of one of the cars? Maybe. I’d photographed his torso and arms, but not his face or number. Walking back towards the protest I saw that another police van had parked at the bottom of Kenmure Street.
So we stood there, sometimes chanting, and already asking questions.
Why had the Home Office ordered a dawn raid in Pollokshields – the most diverse neighbourhood in Scotland, with a prominent Scottish Muslim community – on the first day of Eid? If it wasn’t deliberate intimidation it was appallingly insensitive.
It escaped no one’s notice, a week after the Scottish elections, that this was Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency: what were she and the other local MSPs doing? They were at Holyrood, being sworn in that very morning. Quite the day for the Home Office to take such aggressive action over immigration, a ‘reserved matter’. Police Scotland had tweeted that it ‘doesn’t assist in the removal of asylum seekers’, but the immigration enforcement officers were the only people they were helping, with that many officers and vehicles on a residential street on a weekday morning. But public order policing is used to protests happening in city centres, where streets can be cordoned off and protestors, if need be, kettled. People run out of food and water; it starts raining; they need the toilet and there’s nowhere to go. How do you kettle a protest on a street where the protestors have the key to every front door, because they live there? How do you wait out a protest when protestors can just nip home to use the toilet and get some lunch?
I nipped home to use the toilet and get some lunch. The media were already covering the story: journalists who’d seen the fuss on social media were messaging protestors. When I came back out (now wearing socks), my partner and the baby came too.
The protest had grown. More people from Pollokshields were there, and good neighbours from elsewhere in Glasgow too. The weather had got brighter and warmer. The protest was calm and serious, but the atmosphere was tense. There were ever more police vans parking nearby, larger ones now, with riot shields ready to pull down over their windscreens. The police didn’t seem to know what to do except ramp up the numbers.
A small silver car was parked among the police vans on the Leven Street crossroads. The police brought a tow truck to pull it away, arresting a woman roughly as they did so. I didn’t see this closely because the arresting officers were surrounded by a ring of other police, and then protestors filming the arrest. But I heard her screams. A little later a legal observer told me there’d been three arrests. Meanwhile the local Westminster MP Alison Thewliss had arrived. The Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf, whose father’s accountancy firm has its office round the corner, had tweeted that eight Home Office ministers had declined to speak to him, and the first minister had condemned the Home Office action. And more police vans kept arriving. Larger vans now filled the street further up, and a column of fifty officers stood two-by-two along the pavement around the corner on Leven St. On the other side of Nithsdale Road, more vans, more police, an ambulance or two, and what I assume was a mobile incident room. ‘POLICE’, it said on the side, ‘Keeping people safe’. Mounted police in groups of six, ready to come down the streets leading to the protest.
At one point a phalanx of police approached from the bottom of Kenmure Street, moving at the double in a V with a paramedic in the middle. Some protestors were already sitting in the road near the van, and more sat down as the phalanx arrived. The police waded into them, but couldn’t get past. ‘We’re trying to get a paramedic through!’, one of the officers yelled. But if the paramedic had walked up unaccompanied no one would have stopped him. (He did, a bit later.)
The hostile environment will use medical personnel as a tool to break a protest.
So the standoff continued. People circulated food, water and sunscreen among the protestors. A line of police was now standing shoulder to shoulder across Kenmure Street below the protest, not stopping people from getting in (or out), but making clear the we were crossing a line if we did. But it was clear that the protest wasn’t going anywhere. The rumour now spread that vulnerable people should leave because the police were about to disperse us by force. ‘Whoever takes that decision will be out of their mind’, another friend said. The pictures and videos that we were all taking, and posting to social media, showed how many older people were in the crowd, how many families with babies and children. It would have been a very bad decision. But the police were showing us that they reserved the right to take it.
Almost lost in the middle of all this, but the focus of everyone’s attention, was the immigration enforcement van, two detainees still inside it (and an activist still wedged underneath it). But around the van, and much further afield, things were shifting. Scottish Afghan community activist Mohammad Asif had been by the van all day. The Glasgow lawyer Aamer Anwar was there too now, wearing a smart suit and holding his young son’s hand, talking to media and the police. Alison Thewliss was also talking to them. Phone calls and Zoom meetings were taking place between Glasgow, Holyrood and Whitehall – or perhaps Croydon, where the Home Office immigration bureaucracy is headquartered. A resolution was negotiated whereby Police Scotland advised the Home Office to abandon the ‘removal action’ in the interests of safety and public health: there’s a spike in COVID-19 cases in Pollokshields at the moment, though all the protestors and police were wearing face masks. The men would be released into the care of a local mosque. (They were actually Sikhs.) In return the protestors would disperse. This was announced to us over a megaphone, after which the protestors let police in to form a cordon. We stood with some other friends, three babies among our group, pressing ourselves into the hedge as fifty booted police officers passed two-by-two inches from us.
Then, at last, the van’s doors opened.
You may have seen footage of this moment on social media or on the news, or photos on the next day’s front pages. It was a good moment, and we cheered with everyone else. But the baby was getting grumpy – he’d been out all afternoon – so as the released detainees Sumit Sehdev and Lakhdar Singh made their way down Kenmure Street surrounded by police and cheering protestors we brought him home. The joy of having participated in a successful protest (so rare!) against a racist and unaccountable immigration bureaucracy was mitigated, even at the time. It still is, as I write this, a few days later. Another raid in Glasgow that same morning detained a man who was staying in emergency accommodation near the city centre: a non-residential area with no neighbours to see and stop it. And thinking about the protest, I can feel the tension my body still carries from it. I was talking to people I knew all day, but I haven’t named any of the many friends and neighbours who were there. I don’t want to place any of them at risk: a Home Office source described us as a ‘mob’, and what kind of policing does that invite?
Yesterday one of those friends told me they’d spent the whole of Sunday thinking about the protest and crying, a delayed reaction. I can understand it. A single immigration enforcement van detaining two people in a dawn raid was halted by a citizen protest. To protect it the Home Office ordered an incursion into my neighbourhood that flooded it with police: dozens of vans, mounted units, presumably hundreds of officers on foot – certainly well over a hundred. The police vans were slower to disperse than the protestors, some still parked opposite our flat a couple of hours later. The next morning ‘community liaison officers’ were out and about in Pollokshields, asking questions, gathering intelligence to use against us in future. The hostile environment is hostile to us all.
It’s hostile to you, too.
Images credit: All images author’s own.