It was 9am on 13 May 2021, when Nick, 63, and Ishbel, 62, got a text to say there was about to be a Home Office raid in Kenmure Street, which lies in the Glasgow district of Pollokshields. Both retired, and living just a 10-minute drive away, they were there before the enforcement van had found a place to park. Ishbel ran to the front door of the tenement; Nick, a bit slower walking with a stick, made for the front of the van. As Ishbel observed: “They’ll not be able to move as long as we’re standing there.” Meanwhile, another man had slipped underneath the van and was lying there.
Two men were detained in the van. Immigration officers, with a man jammed against the wheels of their vehicle, had very little room to manoeuvre – but this was just the beginning. A steady trickle of people joined the trio, growing when Eid prayers ended at the mosque on the corner of the road. “After that, it basically just exploded,” Ishbel says. “People could see it on social media, they could see it from their windows,” says Nick. “You could see folk from all the local shops bringing trays of food, neighbours bringing fruit.” Nick went to fetch a blanket for the man under the van, and when he got back, there were refreshments being handed out.
Aamer Anwar, a leading campaigning lawyer in Scotland, who fought the detention of women and children at the notorious prison-turned-detention centre, Dungavel, in 2003, arrived with his son, 13, and two daughters aged nine and six. He describes doing this all very matter-of-factly, as though it is the most obvious place to take your children on Eid.
“When I got into the van and was negotiating with police, what I asked for was 24 hours,” says Anwar. “Release the men into my custody, and the crowd – which is peaceful, which is community-based – will disperse.” By this time, Roza Salih was also there; she’s a local councillor, but is also a founder member of the Glasgow Girls, schoolkid activists who, in 2005, successfully and famously fought the detention of their Kosovan classmate, Agnesa, and her family.
These are our streets. My kids will remember that day for a very long time
The mood at the hundreds-strong protest was celebratory. “I told the police that their second option was to send in 40 riot vans, but you’ll be sending them into what?” Anwar says. “Men and women, black and white, one of the most diverse communities in the whole of Scotland. On the day of Eid. You will be picking up the pieces for years to come.”
Finally, at about 5.30pm, the two men were released and given sanctuary in the mosque. After that, Nick says, “the police formed a phalanx. They started basically marching. In front of them were people with bicycles, disabled people, parents with buggies and small children. That was the scariest point of the whole thing; we were aware then that we could have been arrested but what was at the front of our minds was: Don’t be coming to our communities and taking people away who live here.”
Nearly a year later, another raid also had to be abandoned after community protests – this time in Nicholson Square, Edinburgh; then in June came a further successful anti-raid action in Queen’s Road, Peckham, London. Tactically, such protests are clearly a conundrum for the authorities: they can’t immediately bring in a large number of officers, because they’re “going into communities, this isn’t a football stadium”, Anwar says. That leaves them scrambling for backup as the demonstration gathers strength. Add social media, and “within hours, you could be hitting millions of people, so it’s a super-fast response time. The Home Office and the police can’t actually compete with that.”
These events are such an unfamiliar phenomenon – direct action with an immediate, non-symbolic goal, successful in the moment – that they throw up a lot of questions: how did the movement start and how widespread is it? What does it mean for the hostile environment? What motivates people to gather round a van in such numbers and stay until the job’s done, which often takes hours? Could it be that despite the rhetoric in politics and some quarters of the media, not everyone wants migrants to be grabbed, detained and removed from their communities.
“It’s not like there’s a core group that always go to every single one,” says Reginald Papoola, 27, part of a new crop of leftwing councillors who just got elected (in Queen’s Road, Peckham). “It’s something that organically occurs. I’ve lived here all my life. When I was alerted to this man being taken away, it was instinctive to help him, not just because I’m a councillor, but because he’s part of my community.” From every protest, people describe an almost utopian togetherness and generosity – they talk about what cakes people brought, the singing, the buggies. Often, of course, the protesters know the detainees personally, especially the first responders. It’s friendship, or friend-of-friendship, along with political solidarity. There is also tremendous pride, in the moment and long after, about being from an area that, in Papoola’s words, is “not afraid to fight”, that guards its own values. “These are our streets, this is our community,” Anwar remembers telling his kids. “They’ll remember that day for a very long time.”
Haringey Anti-Raids is known as the oldest group currently running, established in 2016, but they stress (they speak anonymously, as a group) that they built on the foundations of other groups – a network came together in 2012 after a spate of raids, culminating in the raid on the Coronet venue in south London, which targeted the Latin American community. But there are now groups in Hackney, Waltham Forest, Newham, Tower Hamlets and west London, as well as Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle.
Zoe Gardner, who has just left the policy team of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, says anti-raid groups started as “offshoots of other political groups, especially anarchists, going back years”. Certainly, Nick and Ishbel have been involved in direct action since the “lock change evictions” in the noughties. This is when asylum seekers who had had their initial claim rejected, but were appealing against the decision, couldn’t be raided by the Home Office, but the contractor-landlord, who didn’t want to keep them on as tenants, would “sit in an unmarked van outside, just waiting for the tenant to go to the doctor”, so they could evict them. Grassroots groups would gather. “We’d be in the stairway, just chatting,” says Nick, “and when they saw we were there, they’d just say: ‘We’ll come back another day.’”
Typically, there wasn’t much crossover between anti-raid groups and local party politics, but that is changing, too. Papoola wasn’t the only Labour councillor in the Peckham protest of 13 June. “I spoke to loads of people during and afterwards, who said that this was their boiling point. It was definitely a snapshot of the area, it’s not like people were bused in from north London.”
While the groups are a mix of activists and neighbours, mostly local and spontaneously mustered, they’re nevertheless organised. Maya (not her real name), 29, describes, in the aftermath of the Kenmure street raid, attending a training day run by Haringey Anti-Raids: they learned what a raid looks like (immigration officers, with Border Force on their lapels, often, but not always, accompanied by the police, sometimes, but not always, holding warrants); what are your rights as a detainee, as a protester, how do you protest peacefully, what questions do you not have to answer?
She was at the Peckham protest, as was Benny Hunter, 29, who lives in New Cross Gate (about a mile from Queen’s Road). It was, again, a loose collection, mobilised by a lot of different networks, not all activists, a lot of neighbours, including the parents’ WhatsApp from a local primary school. That slight sense of randomness, combined with an atmosphere that was, once more, pretty festive, may have lulled authorities into thinking people would be easier to shift than they were. “There was only one van of them, they couldn’t arrest everyone,” says Hunter. In a proper, Dad’s Army moment, the police called for back-up. “We could hear their colleagues on the radio saying: ‘There’s no one available to come help you,’” Hunter says. “Maybe they were busy with actual crime.”
As happened in Glasgow, the atmosphere was at its sourest when the protesters won, and the detainee had been released. “The situation changed really quickly,” Hunter says, “The police formed a barricade to push people backwards, grabbed people by their rucksacks, people fell on the ground. But it was very short, like five minutes.”
The chairman of Migration Watch UK, Alp Mehmet, describes these anti-raid protesters as “vigilantes”, saying: “There can be no excuse for preventing the police or immigration authorities from enforcing the law.”
The Home Office responded in a written statement: “The government is tackling illegal immigration and the harm it causes, often to the most vulnerable people, by removing those with no right to be in the UK. Preventing immigration enforcement teams from doing their job is unacceptable. Blocking or obstructing them will not deter us from undertaking the duties that the British people rightly expect to be carried out.”
The neutral language might throw you off the scent, but these failed detention raids, “cause a real problem for the Home Office,” Gardner says. “What we know about how they conduct raids is that they have very little hard intelligence to base them on. They claim to only run intelligence-based missions, and they won’t share their intelligence. But if you look at the data, they seem to be based far more on prejudice – Indian and Chinese takeaways are a constant target. Plus, there’s a 24-hour tipoff line for the public. There’s no way of measuring the quality of the information coming in from that, but there’s no way it can be called intelligence.” To re-raid a business or home after a botched attempt would put them under much more scrutiny.
Furthermore, this whole element of the hostile environment policy relies, deliberately or not, on a galloping timeline, people taken into custody and deported within days or weeks. “It makes it extremely difficult to be to able to intervene,” Anwar says. “First, has that person exhausted all legal avenues? Does that person even have a lawyer? If their lawyer has hit a blank, have they had the opportunity to instruct another lawyer?”
Once someone is in a detention centre, however, it can be difficult for them to challenge their position – have they got access to a phone? Will a solicitor come and see them? In short, there’s nothing gestural about these raid preventions; they’re not just delaying tactics.
Hunter has some worries about the consequences of the action – “that police tactics will escalate” – but says he would not hesitate to repeat it. “Of course, I want to continue to stand by people that live in my area. I don’t want to live in a society where people are kidnapped from their homes.”
As the Policing bill passed into law last May, protesters have to be aware of increasingly draconian measures against them. You can now face six months in prison, or an unlimited fine, for the wilful obstruction of a highway.
But those considerations, especially given the precariousness of the government that brought them in, seem a bit abstract. “Let’s be blunt,” Anwar says. “People living in diverse communities hate the antics of Priti Patel, hate the Home Office, whom they regard as a racist Home Office.”
“We’re not heroes in any shape or form,” Nick says. “People just believe in what’s right, and think what the Home Office is doing is wrong.” “It’s that little nudge of confidence,” Ishbel says, “from making a difference. That sense of control.”