SKIP TO MAIN CONTENT

Glasgow's Tradition of Resisting the Home Office

by Chris H
May 19, 2021

Following last week's successful mass popular resistance to an immigration raid in Glasgow's Pollokshields, a consideration of the often inconspicuous work that makes these successes possible. 3227 words / 13 min read

Kenmure Street in May

Many people have now seen the inspiring scenes from Glasgow’s Pollokshields where two men were freed from an immigration detention van after a lengthy stand-off. What appeared to end with as many as a 1000 Glaswegians standing up for their neighbours against massed ranks of Police Scotland with vans and horses did not start solely with an individual’s brave action in burrowing under the wheels of the van. (As he said himself the day after, “all I did was buy some time.”)

Amongst the congratulations have been comments attributing the action’s success to a vaguely-defined “Glasgow spirit” or some essential difference in “Scottish” attitudes to the current government. This risks erasing the hard work done by people on the ground over the long term which laid the groundwork for the dramatic success of the 13th of May. It’s time to acknowledge and give thanks for the thankless work that brought us here. The point too is to understand that seemingly “spontaneous” actions require long, often inconspicuous, organising work, or perhaps better the genuine spontaneity of at least significant numbers of those who, on noticing what was happening, came out to defend their neighbours rested on this work.

The genuine spontaneity of at least significant numbers of those who, on noticing what was happening, came out to defend their neighbours rested on long, often inconspicuous, organising work.

Politics at the time

Dispersed throughout the country and housed in the tower blocks no longer suitable for housing anyone else, forbidden from working and subsisting on meagre, grudging handouts, in late 2005, asylum seekers in Glasgow were in a poor state. Every week, generally, they were obliged to report to the Home Office’s centre at Brand Street in Ibrox, several miles from where they were housed. Once there, no supporters were allowed inside to help with translation, documents or even amusing children. Sometimes they wouldn’t come out from the front door but in a van out the side, on the way to Dungavel Detention Centre if lucky, or one of the sites in England if not.

At the time, New Labour were in power (in both Westminster and Holyrood) and in their post-Iraq invasion period of popularity decline. This was the time of their tabloid-pandering right-wing instincts being firmly in the driving seat. Left-wing opposition in Scotland found electoral expression in the Greens and Scottish Socialist Party, both with an unheard of 6 MSPs elected off the back of the disillusionment that would later (after the 2014 independence referendum) see Scottish Labour wiped out. The SNP had not yet gained the dominant position it has in public life today but was starting to move in on traditionally Labour institutional territory. Some of their left MSPs, notably Sandra White, were consistent in standing with asylum seekers and took part in the campaigns. With Labour in charge of the council, Holyrood and Westminster the immigration and asylum system was a mess wholly of their own making, with the Party having actively cultivated a racist common sense, often enthusiastically hand in hand with the tabloids, including through policy changes that accentuated both the cruelty and the complexity of the system. Labour had expanded Dungavel Detention Centre in the face of calls for it to be closed and sought to meet arbitrary removal targets more “efficiently” by focussing on detaining entire families.

Dawn Raids

As well as the threat of arrest at the Reporting Centre, Brand Street hosted the vans used to pick up people from the community. The preferred time to strike was before the target had got out of bed. If a whole family was to be picked up, before the kids had gone to school. These were the notorious dawn raids, experienced by asylum seekers as constant fear of being taken from their homes and given less than an hour to pack up their lives. For those who remained, they would never know whether the neighbour they no longer saw had been taken away. Between April and September of 2005 this was happening four times a week.

Individually, families were waiting up to keep a watch for the vans. Across Glasgow sleepless nights were passed in Kingsway Court, Sighthill, Red Road, elsewhere. But links were being made between asylum seeking families and with longer-term residents of the emptying towers. They began organising together in the simplest, most practical terms. A rota. Keeping watch together so that some nights in some homes could pass peacefully.

After that the next step was clear. If they came, it would not be unwitnessed. All of this was built themselves, block by block.

The first raid on Brand Street

Public outrage at specific features of the asylum system was growing in Scotland. The slowness of asylum claim assessment, whether deliberate or due to incompetence meant that children had been born and attended school in Glasgow their whole lives. The detention of children at Dungavel was felt, rightly, to be particularly cruel. A general feel of “criminalisation”, whereby asylum seekers faced more stringent reporting requirements than people on bail exacerbated precarity, stigmatisation and fear. Challenging all of these were some of the demands being raised. Lobbying efforts had reached the Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell but requests for a specific Scottish immigration protocol were rejected. By November 2005 this avenue was exhausted and direct action began. A daytime occupation of the centre appeared to have secured a meeting with the official in charge, but this was over-ruled by the Immigration Minister Tony McNulty.

At 5am on November 21st, damp in the air, perhaps 20 people gathered near to the subway exit at Cessnock, a few hundred yards from the Reporting Centre gate and out of reach of the CCTV. After some shuffling and muttering they moved swiftly and silently, chaining shut the vehicle gate and the pedestrian entrance. By a happy coincidence it was bulk pickup day and there were repair works happening on the street. A fridge and several fence parts found their way into the barricade as well. Then it was a matter of waiting and holding the blockade until the sun came up, as if they succeeded with that it meant there would be no raid that day.

The blockade held until 11 in the morning. After the barricade was cleared a human chain was formed. When it was time to disperse, the police made three arrests. The people arrested showed the diverse group involved in the action: a worker for a refugee rights organisation, an SSP MSP and a Faslane Peace Camp resident. If the choice was a deliberate attempt to split the coalition, it backfired, as the three carried their case through and were acquitted, at least in part because police officers couldn’t agree whether they were sat upon a fridge or a washing machine.

Opening an office

Before the case had even reached court the pressure was kept up with three consecutive days of blockades in mid-December. Amusing wins like that secured due to the fridge or washing machine confusion were important for morale because the problem seemed overwhelming. It wasn’t clear how many raids were succeeding and there were problems communicating between the different sites and across the diverse cultures that the asylum seekers had originated from.

There were no asylum seekers at that first reverse raid on Brand Street, so a concern in the early days was to bridge the gap between solidarity actions by the status-secure and the people directly affected by the Home Office policies. It took time. An office was opened by No Borders activists between the subway and the Reporting Centre. The idea was that people would register there with their name and an emergency contact before proceeding to the Home Office. That way we would know whether anyone was being detained and could act quickly.

Oftentimes there was little that could be done to prevent a detention. Oftentimes we tried anyway. Once a van drove the length of Brand Street with two volunteers clinging to its bumper. (They were arrested after the van stopped, but the case was dropped and so the CCTV evidence was never made public.)

Less photogenic but equally heroic work meant that detention was no longer the end of the story for many asylum seekers. Simply being able to immediately inform detainees’ lawyers and friends of the situation took away some of the Home Office’s impunity and gave time to file papers preventing removal. The legal system remained a game rigged against asylum seekers but we were at least keeping the pieces from being hidden. We were able to get people out of the limbo of indefinite detention and back into a supportive community through initiatives like Bail for Immigration Detainees. Securely-housed Scots residents took people, sometimes whole families, into their homes in quiet solidarity that speaks loud.

There were many fingers in our raised fist of defiance.

Making links, growing confidence

One incident that stands out was when a tearful Glaswegian woman stepped into the Unity Centre office, flanked by travel agency colleagues. “Do you help people from here, as well?”

“If you’ve got a problem with the Home Office, of course.”

Her Turkish husband (or partner) had been detained by the Home Office and she had nowhere to turn to. The border regime was revealed as not hurting only “others” but “ordinary Glaswegians”, too. All across the city similar revelations had been occurring, famously including the “Glasgow Girls” fighting for the return of their school friend.

A sense of the arbitrariness and injustice of the Home Office was building across the city and tabloid media management no longer held sway over all.

Another incident that showed the growing confidence and assertiveness of asylum seekers was during the March 2006 visit of Immigration Minister Tony McNulty. We got word of his schedule and trapped his car inside the City Chambers where he had met council officials and was moving on to Ibrox. An angry crowd of mostly Muslim women blocked the side gate, regardless of concerns expressed by those of us with secure immigration status. He was in sight and years of anger were expressed.

Anxious to avoid publicity, the minister left lying across the back seat of his car and only the officials and us knew what had happened. This was being led by them, I reflected as I slow cycled and weaved in front of the ministerial caravan. There can have been no doubt in the minister’s mind that they had a problem in Glasgow and we were delighted to be that problem.

Links and structure tests

It might be significant that the forging of these links happened before current social media technologies were available, with their easy-share, easy-go affordances. Messages had to be passed manually, with a non-zero cost even if only in SMSs. The messages travelled far down some branches, not at all through others. And they all came with an explicit call to action, easily measured: be here now. In Jane McAlevey’s terms in No Shortcuts this was a structure test. Who is willing and able to turn out at short notice, who is able to activate a few more people. Every morning it was clear whether what we were doing was working and whether we were getting stronger.

Travelling at an inconvenient time to crowd into the foyer of a tower block was a sweet balance, looking back. Non-zero effort but minimal risk allowed people to build trust. We had crowds of dozens of people obstructing the passage of eight or ten immigration officers. The immigration officers, in turn, had very limited legal powers; perhaps no more than an ordinary citizen, apart from for their specific target. This meant that in any unusual situation they relied on police backup if it looked like there might be trouble. For the police to make an arrest required two officers per arrestee (at least in Scots law at the time, for reasons of corroboration) and once you have a crowd of 20 then you’re talking about police numbers not readily available at 5AM on a regular weekday.

If we could prevent them from preying on scared and isolated individuals, the odds against Home Office detention squads were–or could be made to be–in our favour and the practice of dawn raiding would become politically and financially too expensive for them to sustain. And so it proved. I don’t think they ever announced a change in policy but through 2006 the numbers of raids trailed off and by mid 2007 they were almost unknown. It entered into the popular consciousness of Glasgow that “we” stopped dawn raids. The thought that this victory might be being undone explains some of the huge popular response to the raid at Kenmure Street.

If we could prevent them from preying on isolated individuals, the odds against Home Office detention squads could be made to be in our favour and the practice of dawn raiding would become too expensive for them to sustain.

Conclusion - Political implications for now

The Scotland versus Westminster conflict of this has always been present, but in the case of the weekend’s encouraging events it doesn’t map onto a simple nationalist-unionist axis. The Scottish Government has no powers over immigration, at least formally. Those are reserved and the SNP have consistently called to be able to set an immigration policy that “meets Scotland’s needs” and reverse a long-term trend of depopulation1. What the SNP have not done is used the non-reserved powers that they have to frustrate the operations of the Home Office; the moral rhetoric has not been backed by action. Policing is devolved, there’s no reason for routine cooperation with Immigration Enforcement Teams. As we found in the past, the powers of immigration officers are limited. When confronted with immigration-secure people they can only really act with police support so in practice the SNP in Holyrood, using devolved policing powers, could render much of the activity of Immigration Enforcement Teams close to impossible if they wanted. As with so much else, what looks like law comes down to power and willingness to use it.

In contrast to the SNP’s desire to set an immigration policy, there was an element of the campaign against raids and deportations that maintained a consistent, principled No Borders line. These people are here, they want to stay, they have lives here, it’s not for us or anyone to judge the worthiness of those lives. Not all parts of the coalition took this view–we heard many speeches on “Open Borders not No Borders”–but No Borders was (and remains) the right choice practically as well as politically. If we were to stop to assess the validity of a claim before trying to help we would have been bogged down in argument (and vulnerable to being bogged down by bad actors). Is this person a refugee or an economic migrant? Are they really gay and couldn’t they live safely closeted in their country of origin? Are they fifteen or sixteen? Could they have claimed asylum in a country they transited through? The absurdities multiply and we should reject them all. It also avoids the pitfall of the SNP’s “we need to stop our population declining” as a justification for at least a marginally more humane immigration policy–what happens when the trend reverses?

As an apt tweet after the Kenmure Street events put it, “do you want no borders or do you just want a saltire on the immigration control vans?”

Popular fury against the Home Office has an anti-Westminster, pro-Independence component but it would be a mistake to extend this to uncritical support for the SNP. A consistently more radical stance is the only defence against their backsliding on the issue.

Equally, Labour in Scotland have a hard sell if they want to co-opt this grassroots energy. Regardless of the merits of local activists (and they seem much better than in the old days), folk remember that it was Labour who birthed the hostile environment and that the internal voices speaking against it had no weight against the Party’s dominant wing. Labour activists would do well to prioritise work within grassroots groups at this point.

The Kenmure Street resistance was broad-based and clearly included people who didn’t hold an absolute No Borders position. However, at least some of the work that made it possible required that principled position, which can function as a basis both for effective grassroots organising and a defence against co-option and backsliding by the state and political parties. It reinforced peoples’ sense that it’s not right for the state to take your neighbours away forever. That having the “wrong” paperwork is not a crime.

You can’t build a strong, diverse coalition against border-related injustices if some groups are at risk of being sold out for palliative reforms.

You can’t build a strong, diverse coalition against border-related injustices if some groups are at risk of being sold out for palliative reforms.

Borders kill. Let people live.

Conclusion - times

As strange as it may seem, there is as much time between today and the birth of Glasgow’s anti-raids activism as there is between that time and the anti-poll tax campaigns of warrant sale resistance. Some things are the same, even the phone number to report a raid. The tower blocks have been demolished, the geography of the struggle has changed in ways I’m not qualified to comment on.

What remains is a generation knowing not just that it is possible to resist agents of the state this way–with your neighbours, without permission from media or political representatives– and any school textbook mentioning Mary Barbour will do that. Crucially too, there’s the experience of knowing that it can succeed. Knowing that if you put yourself in the way of injustice, publicly and firmly, your neighbours will have your back and you won’t be standing alone.

And that shows us that direct action is never (solely) an individual act of heroism. The support network takes time to build up and for much of that time gains seem marginal or nonexistent and the work is stressful and thankless. When it does erupt into success like we saw recently in Pollokshields, let’s use that energy to build our capacity for the future.

Acknowledgements

This is compiled from one person’s memories and experience of a mass movement. No insult or slight is intended (except to the Home Office and individual officials) in the emphasis I’ve given to particular strands of it. I use “we” in a loose, playground sense not to be read as claiming I was central to any of this stuff. If there’s any illegality implied in the article then it must have been a big boy who done it then run away.

I was helped with dates by the notes on the evocative photos of the late Robin Taudevin and the contemporary reports still online at No Borders Glasgow. Like it’s customary to say, all mistakes are mine alone. There was a lot going on all at once.


  1. This trend, especially in rural areas, is likely due to uneven economic opportunities, but policy to act on those factors, e.g. by tackling concentrated land ownership and management exclusively for the shooting industry, has been lacking. In practice what the SNP mean by meeting Scotland’s needs looks more like encouraging more workers to take up poorly paid seasonal jobs in tourism. 


Author:

Chris H