Working-Class Glasgow Stood With Refugees

Last week’s standoff between Glasgow’s Southside and the Home Office was an inspiring victory, but it wasn’t spontaneous — it was the product of many years of organizing against evictions and deportations.

Protesters surround an Immigration Enforcement van to stop it from departing after individuals were detained in Glasgow on May 13, 2021. (Andy Buchanan / AFP via Getty Images)

It may not have involved running battles with fascists, but what happened in the Southside of Glasgow on Thursday will go down as one of the most important flash points in the recent history of defending refugees and asylum seekers from a Home Office that is very rarely rattled this effectively.

From the Glasgow Girls of Drumchapel — a formidable group of school children who forced the Home Office to release their friend Agnesa Murselaj and her family dawn raided in 2005 — to the recent demonstrations against the mistreatment of asylum seekers in the city’s hotels, Glasgow has a long and proud history of defending what the city calls “Refuweegees.”

So, when the Home Office turned up to forcibly remove two of their neighbors on Eid al-Fitr, Priti Patel’s enforcers should have known that they would face resistance. They could not have known, however, that by 5 PM the people of Glasgow would have forced them to release their human cargo and provide them with a two-hundred-strong police envoy to their local gurdwara.

The Battle of Kenmure Street

At 9:30 AM, a van marked “Immigration Enforcement” pulled up outside the tenement flats of Kenmure Street in Pollokshields, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Glasgow’s Southside. Within minutes, they had dragged Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh from their homes and thrown them into the back, presumably to be sent to Dungavel or even Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The officers believed that the hardest part was over.

Thankfully, activists from The Unity Centre had been following the Home Office van from the early hours of the morning and were immediately on the case. They soon put in place a plan to prevent it from moving. An activist from No Evictions Network managed to jam himself under the axel of the van, preventing it from leaving while more activists arrived. Thanks to a few viral tweets, soon scores of locals began surrounding the van and forming a human roadblock. At this point, the police outnumbered the protesters but still couldn’t move them.

Within an hour, the protesters numbered over a hundred and by lunchtime there were well over five hundred people surrounding the van with chants of “these are our neighbors, let them go” and “racist police, off our streets.” By 2 PM, a huge Palestine flag was raised above the Home Office van and people spoke through a megaphone about the problem of racism and violence toward refugees across the world. By 4 PM, the sheer number of people who had gathered completely overwhelmed the street and the police force had sent at least thirty riot vans.

The action was strategic, it was political and it won. The moment that Lakhvir and Sumit emerged from the back of the Home Office to thank the crowds of jubilant supporters which had demanded their release was one of the most beautiful events I’ve ever witnessed.

Prominent human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar had successfully negotiated the release of the men, using the commitment of the crowd to disperse as leverage with Police Scotland. They knew that we wouldn’t leave and that despite being ready to do so, they couldn’t move us by force without causing a diplomatic incident which would have caused a major political scandal. As Anwar himself made clear, it was the sheer size and resilience of the crowd that forced the most heinous arm of the British state into an embarrassing climbdown.

Communities Against Deportation

But the crowd wasn’t just large and angry, it was trained. What happened on Thursday was the culmination of years of work from community activists who have been effectively challenging forced evictions across Glasgow, building a network of people who know what to do and who to contact.

As someone who has been integral to building these networks, Sean Baillie put it like this:

The residents on the street knew what to do and where to call, subsequently local activists were able to mobilise quickly and effectively by putting their bodies on the line buying time for wider mobilisation. Relationships that have been built up through struggle meant that word was able to spread quickly across organisations and networks. People knew what to do, how to act and what to bring. Bust cards, food, water was stockpiled and distributed quickly.

To take just one example, by lunchtime the Zia-Ul-Quran Mosque had already set up a stall of food and the closest bus stop had been turned into a tuckshop of treats from local cafés to keep the protesters going all night. The skills, experience, and confidence embedded deep by organizations like Living Rent and the No Evictions Network meant that despite the viscous response from Police Scotland, the protesters were able to outwit them at every turn:

Those on the ground remained flexible but co-ordinated, at one point there was at least five “fronts” in the one street each responding to a strategic-points as police moved into move a car blocking a possible route the van could take out.

This strategic advantage can be reinforced by the fact that until around 5 PM, Police Scotland had been preparing to either kettle us or send the cavalry in, with mounted horses poised in the next street. Despite several vicious advances, they were unable to move us and had to retreat every time.

Political Conflict

Of course, the physical standoff on Kenmure Street was aided by the fact that there was also a political standoff between the Scottish Government and the Home Office. While the local MP Alison Thewliss sought answers from Priti Patel’s office, other representatives including Chris Stephens, Paul Sweeney, and Pauline McNeill made their disgust clear to the crowd (and the Police). Pressure was building on Humza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon to go even further than they had done in the past when it came to calling out the Home Office.

The Scottish Government’s bizarre attempt to relinquish any liability on the part of Police Scotland for either facilitating the removal of the men or the escalation of events was just not borne out by the facts on the ground. Contrary to what the first minister said, Police Scotland were not in an “invidious position,” some sort of innocuous force aiming to prevent public disorder or harm. They didn’t just assist in the manhandling of our neighbors, they proactively sought (but failed) to facilitate the Home Office in the removal, detention, and likely deportation of two men who had been members of our community for ten years.

I personally witnessed Police Scotland officers violently throw peaceful protesters to the ground. They trampled on people sitting on the road trying to stop the removal of their neighbors. A few officers had claimed that they were just doing their job. But it is neither moral, nor in many cases legal (as court challenges have shown), to remove people from their home for the “crime” of not having filled in the proper forms to ensure continued status to remain.

Marching the two hundred meters from Kenmure Street to the Nithsdale Gurdwara was an enormous moment for everyone participating in that demonstration. They forced the Home Office to do the unthinkable and release the men — setting a precedent of successful resistance against their most inhumane tactic.

Police Scotland needed to save face and obviously wanted it to look like they were performing a duty of care to the men. But as Sumit Lakhvir waved at the crowd around them, it felt like a victory parade; for them and for their fellow Glaswegians.