JS Jones was at the Kenmure street action (13 May) that successfully freed two men from a Home Office raid. He reflects on the complex power dynamics of the day, and how self-organisation created the basis for the victory.
In a Home Office van, past the livery of the state with its blacked out windows, were two men who had been seized by immigration officials in a raid on one of Islam’s holiest days, intent on ripping them from their community and their safety. Beneath the van, with its official fluorescent panelling, an activist had thrown his body. A stand-off ensued.
Over the hours more and more people came. Neighbours of the men, residents of this district, politicians and lawyers attempting to negotiate for the men’s release. Water and food was passed out among the crowd, still clad mostly in masks in an area where COVID-19 rates had been spiking again, chatting amiably. The men in the van were there legally but unjustly, the activist underneath needed support or else he faced removal and arrest, the men taken to further, unknown danger. The antidote to this state violence could only be collective civilian presence. In this action, every person was a shield.
Hours later, after negotiations and tweets and pictures and tactical murmurings, the crowd escorted the two men from the van to the safety of a local Mosque. There was an agreement, reached by activist lawyer Aamer Anwar and Alison Thewliss MSP, that they would be released and not pursued in the future. Near the top of Kenmure street, by a row of cafes and home stores and florists, a queer family who had spent most of the day with their very sleepy toddler recalled what had happened. It didn’t take much for their energy to return, matching her bright woolly jumper, just a parent saying “We won!” The action was successful, and it seemed both extraordinary to have won, and entirely routine.
To paraphrase a nearby cafe owner who had spent the day making coffees and giving food to paramedics, it’s odd to see your everyday surroundings in the media. It makes you consider them differently, as though from afar. The familiar is reconsidered: the van that looks like a CCTV unit from any policed event or high street, except on closer inspection it says “Immigration”. The Mosque you walk past all the time, was it here that these men were attacked? No, it must have been the tenements opposite, maybe the one where they’ve planted those herbs now it’s getting warmer, or the other one a neighbour sits outside as soon as it hits 14 degrees?
Sometimes scale forces perspective: the police look the same. All of them. Past this street, and onto the next. And the next. And the others. In their vans. Dozens of them. And the mounted officers. At successive street corners. Where did they go? Are they in the crowd on the other side? Why can’t we see them? Is this how those men in that van have to navigate their streets, their lives, every day?
In the crowd there were discussions, neither anxious nor relaxed. There had been some confrontations with police earlier in the day, word that several people who tried to block the van’s path with a car had been arrested. Video and photography of police rushing people sitting near the van. A phalanx of officers attempting to use a paramedic as a trojan horse to increase their own numbers near the van, repelled by the crowd who naturally, peaceably let the paramedic through. Protests and actions are characterised nowadays as being ‘peaceful’ or ‘not’, with individual interactions parsed on social media and in news clips like action replay in sports. The action was effective, the atmosphere in the crowd entirely un-menacing. There were children, dogs, people with lanyards identifying their exemption to mask wearing regulations, none threatened.
In years spent covering riots and civil unrest, here and internationally, I have not seen a police presence like I did at Kenmure street. I have seen ‘massive police operations’, to use the genteel media term for when whole areas are locked down in paramilitary fashion and control passes to security officials. Kenmure street was the centre of something different. The policing presence was highly concentrated, within a couple of streets of the action. Even after hours without any violence the numbers seemed to be increasing, officers massed at one end of Kenmure street, with incident response units and ambulances. In the crowd there was discussion as to how this would end up. Less worry than bemusement. As one activist put it, “people can just go home and come back, it’s not like we’re going anywhere.”
Still the police numbers were alarming, even bemusing. They couldn’t expect to arrest their way out of this, surely. But here they were, in number, with dozens of vans waiting around. They weren’t going to try and scare people away, surely. But here they were, with horses, at a stationary crowd with no intention of violence, on a residential street with children.
The First Minister tweeted that the police had been put in an “invidious position,” by the Home Office, their mission to protect the public, entirely distinct from supporting Westminster’s overreach. On Kenmure street that provided little reassurance, and was clearly disingenuous. There the only sense of menace was from the overwhelming police presence. In the crowd people made way for support dogs, passed out water and food, hoisted children onto shoulders for a better view, let camera crews onto window ledges for coverage. Police had little interaction with the crowd as far as I could see.
By late afternoon on Kenmure street it was clear that the situation could be resolved peacefully, without any need for police intervention, if the Home Office released the men. Difficulty might have arisen had the Home Office opted to counter the civilian action against its policies, either by waiting out the crowd or somehow removing the men. It was clear the situation was in the Home Office’s hands, and the FM’s point that the police were solely to ensure public safety was further discredited: if the Home Office had wanted to take any further action to enforce its policies they would have almost certainly relied on Police Scotland to do so.
The FM’s stance at first glance looks entirely reasonable, which is its greatest fault, indicative of a wider state of thought in the SNP. With policing being a devolved matter and immigration being reserved, the FM could be seen as being stuck between the police cordon and the immigration van, trying to protect public safety against an unjust policy. But this demands a naivety we cannot afford. The UK Home Office operates a migration policy which has racism and inhumanity at its core. Faced with a rebellion in one of its provinces against that policy it said precisely nothing – not a press release, not a tweet from any minister – throughout the event.
Countering its effects needs action like that seen on Kenmure street, or by those – including some SNP members – who negotiated for the men’s release. The FM’s attempt to excuse Police Scotland’s involvement in a Home Office operation relies on people feeling an attachment to some state security elements more than others. We are invited to look at the van, its awful markings of a state without moral authority, at the crowd of people just like us, only active, while ignoring the state security which the devolved government is accountable for.
Acknowledging the Home Office’s moral bankruptcy is worthless without further action. The Scottish Government now has an example of civilian, non-violent resistance to state violence which it can act to protect and encourage, by ensuring Police Scotland approach future situations differently. There could be established policy that inhumane and unjust policies which are reserved to the UK Government will not be supported by Police Scotland within areas under Scottish Government jurisdiction. There could be guidelines on how the police could support non-violent action. There may be means of utilising what authority the Scottish Government has to usurp Westminster policies it cannot veto outright under the current devolution arrangements.
But this seems unlikely. Until now the SNP’s time at Holyrood has been spent building a reputation for ‘good government’ in the hope of presenting a ‘credible’, ‘responsible’ model of independence to appeal to voters who care about that sort of thing more than the inherent wretchedness of the Union.
Like any good jobseeker the party has a CV bristling with excellent examples of teamwork, innovation and enthusiasm: its implementation of an austerity programme and PFI initiatives portrayed as somehow different to Westminster’s, its subsidies to big business to stimulate the economy and generate more renewable energy than Westminster, now its steadfast loathing of the hated Home Office, backed by its own police force. Every hero needs an anti-hero and the SNP have theirs. On the strength of last week’s elections that seems just about acceptable to most people who took part in the electoral process, now we get to see how it plays out.
Perhaps no separatist organisation has spent so long in authority as the SNP has without either winning independence or fragmenting. At Kenmure street we saw a spontaneous rebellion against state violence, aided by the work of elected representatives. But elsewhere, and crucially at more senior levels, we saw distinctions drawn between forms of state security and an appeal to pity: “what can we, a humble government, do in the face of such violence?”
For a long time the party has carefully cultivated an image of respectability, calling for greater autonomy but promising more of the same. It takes events like those at Kenmure street to demonstrate the redundancy of a politics based on continuity from an unjust state. It takes a person throwing themselves beneath a state security vehicle, it takes people to shield the captives inside, in this case we saw negotiators work with officials elsewhere to secure their release. It does not take policing, and it does not take accommodation. That child in the bright wooly jumper saw an early success, but presumably we should want her not to have to resist state violence in the future.