By David Carr
Glasgow sometimes likes to rest on its laurels. We brag about our radical tradition, from the rent strikes of 1915, led by the inestimable Mary Barbour to the Red Clydeside near-revolution of 1919. Or our proud boast of being the city that sent the most men and women to the International Brigade. These memories – for memories are all they are – are kept alive in the fabric of the city – a statue of Barbour in Govan, of Dolores Ibárruri (‘La Pasionaria’) beside the Clyde. Or the folkloric renaming, post indyref, of George Square as ‘Freedom Square’. In some minds, at least.
But the past is the past. Glasgow, as other British cities, has problems in the here and now. It would be wrong to say that the radical tradition has ceased. It still inspires. But traditions and statues do not oppose the eye-watering austerity being passed on by the city’s SNP-led council’s ‘shock doctrine’ closures and sell-offs of vital resources such as libraries and community centres. They do nothing to fix the problem of rogue landlords and disgraceful housing conditions that some endure. They do nothing to combat the Hostile Environment that puts our refugees and asylum seekers in constant fear.
Fortunately, a new tradition of resistance is being forged in Glasgow.
Present day Glasgow has its own self-mythology about how welcoming it is to incomers. ‘We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ is the saying. ‘Everyone’s fae somewhere!’ Realistically, though – Glasgow is a harsh location for refugees and asylum seekers. Is there racism? Of course. But leaving cynicism aside, many do, quite genuinely, devote their time to welcoming our new neighbours. A term has been coined, ‘Refuweegee,’ to denote a person who on arrival in Glasgow is embraced by the people and considered a local.
But under Priti Patel, Theresa May’s Hostile Environment is fully in force in Glasgow, Scotland’s nominated city for the dispersal of refugees and asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are forced into desperate conditions – and are constantly under threat of ‘lock change’ evictions from private companies such as Serco and Mears. This is neoliberalism at its most rapacious. There is profit in human misery.
Immigration powers in Scotland are retained by Westminster, rather than being devolved to Holyrood. This is a bone of contention for the Scottish government which, partly out of sheer humanity, partly because it recognises the ongoing depopulation of Scotland, welcomes immigration. But the treatment of refugees – their sub-standard housing conditions, the pittance they are given to live on, the lives hanging by a thread, in constant fear of deportation are most firmly the responsibility of the UK government. It is in this context that the people of Glasgow are left to pick up the pieces, welcoming and supporting these ‘New Scots.’
I was in a Zoom meeting when the call came – because that’s how things are these days. My son shot into the room and, as he pulled on his boots, mumbled something about an immigration raid and ran out of the door. He texted me from the train: ‘Where’s Kenmure St?’ I sent him directions to my old neighbourhood of Pollokshields, a vibrant and diverse neighbourhood of blond sandstone tenements.
I finished my meeting and fired up my social media. Deportations are tragically frequent. Countless times activists have received a text to alert of somebody being wheeched away from the Home Office building in Ibrox to the infamous detention centre in Dungavel, Lanarkshire. These occasions are heart wrenching. The Home Office always wins.
But this time was different. There was a truly remarkable picture on Facebook, taken from a top floor tenement flat, of a Home Office van surrounded by a ring of steel of police officers – and a crowd of about two hundred. Two New Scots, I learned, were inside the van, having been snatched in an early morning raid. Another person had crawled underneath. That van was going nowhere.
‘Bring warm clothing’ the callout said. Clearly they were in for the long haul.
Activism in a time of Covid is a tough call. Whether the protest is for #BLM or against the atrocities in Palestine, individuals have to do their own risk assessments and take responsibility for their own and others’ safety. I had severe qualms. But they were taking some of our own, so mask on and out the door.
The crowd had swelled when I arrived. People had answered the call and appeared in their throngs, with the usual hastily made cardboard placards. ‘Refugees Welcome Here’; ‘No Human Is Illegal’. Neighbours of the asylum seekers were leaning out their windows. Chairs were set out in front of the madrassa. Women in their finest shalwar kameez for Eid-al-Fitr circulated amongst the crowd. There were stockpiles of free food at a bus shelter. You couldnae move without being offered a bottle of water and a Crunchie bar.
The police were there in terrifying numbers. I counted twenty-four vans (which equates to almost two hundred polis) and six horses. These to control a peaceful – but determined – crowd. Or as the police officers of Reddit r/police later referred to it ‘an angry mob.’ Police Scotland have no role in snatching asylum seekers. Officially. We later learned that they were there ‘to protect safety, public health and well-being.’
This, though, does not explain why a detachment of police suddenly pushed into the crowd, knocking people down and trampling on them. I spoke to one of the trampled who told me that some of them had intervened, grabbing and holding on to a person of colour – with no idea who each other were – to prevent them being dragged away by the police, staying with him and holding his hand until they knew he was safe and well. They’ll likely never see each other again, but it was a moment of unwavering solidarity in the heat of the standoff.
The crowd had a good energy. They chanted on. ‘We love our neighbours! Set them free!’ A cheer rang out as two hastily-painted banners were unfurled from a top floor flat – ‘Community Policing Not Police Horses’ and ‘If this is Team UK, we reject it’.
But make no mistake. This was not a demonstration. This was resistance. The people of Glasgow – not just ‘the usual suspects’ but ordinary, everyday friends and neighbours of the snatched, and anyone who was simply pissed off that people could be treated like this was there.
And we were determined. I have been on many a jolly demonstration – always worth doing, but often, ultimately ineffectual, other than providing an opportunity for kindred spirits to mingle, for activists to build networks. This time, it was for real. There was a sobering moment when – my anxiety levels already high because of covid – I was handed a magic marker to write a solicitor’s phone number on my arm.
The action will no doubt go down in history as a spontaneous demonstration of support by ordinary people. Which it was. But groundwork is important. While the initial resistance did come from neighbours, someone had to set up the phone alert systems, to post on Facebook and WhatsApp and Twitter and Instagram. Someone had to print out the bust cards. To get to the stage of having six hundred people prepared to face down the Home Office and Police takes relentless organisation. It must be seen against the background extant in Glasgow whereby groups such as The Unity Centre, the No Evictions Campaign and the Living Rent tenants’ union are constantly and relentlessly organising. This has been continuing for decades, outwith the attention of most.
This is the new tradition. Cities around the UK have been organising themselves to combat racism and austerity. Is Glasgow special in this? Doubtless not. But – jeezo – did we come through that day. The people of Glasgow were prepared to face down the law, sitting on the street or laying down their bikes to form barricades against a genuinely anticipated Police onslaught.
And the state blinked first.
At around at 5.30, local Human Rights lawyer Aamer Anwar – never a stranger to publicity – arrived and a deal was struck. The two men, Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh, Glasgow residents for ten years, were released to the joyful approbation of the crowd, which then processed to a nearby mosque where the two men will have safety.
The two spoke to the crowd in Punjabi and one called out ‘This is why we need independence!’ to great applause from the crowd.
This was a memorable day. The Battle of Kenmure Street will be celebrated fondly in the years to come. It now joins the radical tradition. But asylum seekers are still in danger and the fight goes on. And it won’t be enough to just turn up on the day. Community resistance has to be built. We must recognise, support and foster links with those on the frontline in this struggle.
But for now, job’s a good’ un. The people of Glasgow can stand tall and true. And next time the Home Office come after our own – we’ll be prepared. As local activist Pinar Aksu said: ‘They picked the wrong city to mess with.’
If you see a Home Office Immigration Enforcement van anywhere in Glasgow, try to note the van’s registration number, and
phone The Unity Centre on 0141 427 7992 and/or