"Spontaneity with roots": how protest blocked deportations in Glasgow

Submitted by AWL on 18 May, 2021 - 6:41 Author: Interview with Paul
Immigration raid defeated, Glasgow, 12 May

Paul, a socialist activist in Glasgow who took part in the successful action which stopped an immigration raid on 12 May, spoke to us about what happened.

At some point that morning a Home Office van appeared in Kenmure Street in Pollokshields, and took two men out of their flat and bundled them into a van. I don’t know who saw it first, but a lot of the activist community in Southside is clued into issues around the Home Office and asylum-seekers. There’s a tradition in recent years of resistance to the eviction of asylum-seekers. Someone made Facebook posts to tell their friends to spread the news.

Two organisations: the Unity Centre, a refugee advocacy group based near the Home Office building in Glasgow, and the No Evictions Network, formed to fight evictions of aslysum seekers in 2018, got involved. People got down there; one man crawled under the van, and his friends kept him company down there, giving him blankets and stuff to keep him as comfortable as one can be while under a van. He was under the van for eight hours. I arrived about 12-1pm. By that point a sizeable crowd had gathered and there were lots of people handing around supplies. The bus stop at the north end of Kenmure Street was a hub for water, oranges, bananas and so on. Someone overheard a policeman saying, “They have enough supplies for a month”.

It was a long stand-off because they couldn’t forcibly remove the guy under the van, and at one point they got a paramedic to go and talk to him. And under the pretext of getting a paramedic over to him, they attempted to clear the street behind the van. But that didn’t work. While the stand-off was going on, the police had lined up riot vans, ambulances, horse boxes, at either end of the street. Friends living nearby were telling me what equipment was being brought up.

There was a three-way wrangle going on between the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and the Home Office. Apparently [Scottish Justice Secretary] Hamza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon were talking to the Home Office but discussions broke down. The Scottish Government is not supportive of the Home Office’s dawn raids policy. In the end, the Scottish Government spoke to Police Scotland about how to resolve this.

The human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar was there. He is quite prominent in Glasgow refugee circles. In the evening, eventually he announced to the crowd that he had agreement in writing from Police Scotland to go to the opening of the van and walk with the two men to a mosque. No one knew anything about the men and it was assumed they were Muslim. It turned out that the men were Sikhs. So there was some delay while the route was re-worked to take them to the Singh Sabha Association. The agreement was that the police would make a cordon around the two men, Aamer, and a local activist named Mohammed Asif, and that the crowd would disperse at that point, but the crowd made an impromptu victory march through the streets of Pollokshields with the two men, shouting and singing. People were hanging out of their windows; it was lovely. The men addressed us from the steps of the building when we got there and they thanked us in Punjabi, it was very nice.

In 2018, Serco, who had the contract for housing asylum-seekers in Glasgow, started evicting asylum-seekers from their housing. Hundreds of evictions were imminent. A campaign was formed between Living Rent, the Unity Centre, a group called Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment or MORE – to raise awareness, and resist evictions. Back then I went to Royston in the north of the city, ready to resist an eviction. But at that moment a postponement was granted in the courts. That gave us more time and eventually no evictions happened. Serco lost the contract to Mears and the whole thing started again with more protests against Mears and their inability to help people in 2019.

In the pandemic there have been some woeful moments when asylum seekers were shoved into hotels en masse, evicted from their homes. It turned out that the food they were being given was mouldy; one asylum seeker died in Glasgow. There were scenes of the loyalist “statue protectors” of George Square attacking an asylum-seeker demonstration against these conditions.

The No Evictions Network was formed out of the Serco protests of 2018. There have been other moments of struggle against the Home Office. In 2018 a Kurdish family went on hunger strike outside the Home Office building. They were unable to get passports due to Home Office bureaucracy that had lasted for years. They won the speeding-up of their process through that hunger strike and many of us were there with them.

In 2017 the Glasgow Pride arrests took place with the arrest of three transgender activists, a young queer minor and a person who had been trying to tell the minor his rights. That saw many courthouse mobilisations. That brought together many angry queer people and got people talking and working together. And good friends of mine, who have been through Living Rent and movements like that… The queer community in Glasgow has an anarchistic and direct-action-y bent. I certainly saw myself as an anarchist in 2017 when I came out of the closet. I don’t know why the Glasgow scene is so politicised. There is something in the way that trans existence is so policed and forced into marginal existence, there is a reason why trans people are often homeless, often need to do sex work to get by: that would explain why there is such radical politics here. The guy who shoved himself under the van is part of the queer scene. The SouthSide has become something of a hub for the queer scene. There’s a queer bookshop and a queer, Yiddish café opening up soon. So Govanhill and Pollokshields is important for that scene.

I don’t want to say that it’s the queer scene that did it all. Everyone showed up from all works of life, and I’m sure there were many groups of friends who turned up who all have their own stories, but people from the Glasgow queer scene were among the first to arrive. I got there late, of course.

I recognised people from the left and labour movement yesterday but it was all rather low-key. People weren’t selling papers or waving banners, but I did see a Unite flag. Paul Sweeney, the [newly elected] Labour MSP [and former MP], has advocated for asylum-seekers for a long time. He helped and spoke at public appearances by the Kurdish hunger strikers. I know Paul was supportive. I saw Matt Kerr, a Labour councillor, who I think spoke briefly. There was support announced from various MPs and MSPs over the megaphone but I didn’t catch many names. Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP for Glasgow Central, was supportive. Various politicians had been trying to contact the Home Office about this but they were being stonewalled.

In terms of the attitude of the SNP, I don’t want to sound like a Scottish exceptionalist. I think the SNP is more socially liberal than the Tory party. I won’t trust liberals to follow through on their policies. But they are more socially liberal on issues like this. And they’re not in control of issues like immigration. Were Scotland independent I wouldn’t be very hopeful about having a particularly liberal Scottish Home Office. But issues like this show the fault lines between the Scottish and UK governments. These fault lines give activists potential to exploit. You can play on these kinds of contradictions.

Three people were arrested at one point. A car was obstructing the police and some people attempted to stop the car being towed. Those three arrestees have since been released but I don’t know if they have been charged.

I want to stress the tradition, the roots that this event had. It didn’t come from nowhere and it takes a lot of organising. There are a lot of threads that came together to make yesterday happen: queer activism, housing activism, migrant solidarity activism. That’s what I want to emphasise. It’s spontaneity, but spontaneity with roots.

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