Stopping immigration raids from Glasgow to London – the power of Direct Action

What happened in Kenmure Street, Glasgow on Eid al-Fitr 2021 was beautiful indeed. I don’t think many of us have seen anything quite like this: over a thousand people coming out to block an immigration raid, forcing Immigration Enforcement and police to back down and release their prisoners.

While celebrating the rich Glaswegian fabric of neighbourhood resistance that made this possible, it’s good to remember that this wasn’t a unique event. Kenmure Street was the biggest and boldest example yet of anti-raids resistance, but not the only one. Magical things can happen even in England. In London, crowds have successfully chased off raid squads in Peckham, Shadwell, Lewisham, and probably many more places (these things often don’t make the news!)

I want to pick up on the recent article by the Haringey Antiraids group, published on the Freedom News site. It’s great to get thinking about how we can build power in our neighbourhoods to replicate the events of Glasgow. It’s totally right that everyday infrastructure like street stalls, workshops, leafleting, putting up posters, setting up local alarm phone trees, etc., is vital for this.

To add to that, I want to further highlight and celebrate the power of direct action. It’s possible to disrupt and stop raids even when you can’t mobilise hundreds of people, and even if you’re not lucky enough to live in Pollokshields. We can find lots of experience and evidence of this in “antiraids” mobilising over the last few years.

The Home Office’s own information confirms that raid squads faced a building wave of disruption from 2015. Immigration Enforcement officers complained they faced regular blockades, protests, and attacks. They recorded 27 significant “incidents of disruption” in 2017, and 21 in just the first 6 months of 2018. This forced a general tactical retreat: basically, squads received new orders to “back off” and give up raids on many occasions if they encountered even a minimum of resistance. (See this article from Corporate Watch for more details.)

A personal example: one day three of us spotted an Immigration Enforcement squad getting ready for a raid on Brick Lane, and started shouting at them to get lost. It was amazing when they actually scuttled back in the van and drove away, pursued by a small number of angry people. Why? Because their bosses knew the situation could escalate rapidly, as it had several times that year. (The Antiraids website recorded several similar reports.)

It’s true that it’s extremely difficult to get a prisoner released once they’re already in the van. Hundreds of people tried in Bristol in 2018, and in East Street, South London, in 2015. Each time riot police came in hard to back up Immigration Enforcement – the size and determination of the Glasgow crowd made that impossible. But, although Bristol and East Street didn’t manage to free prisoners, those moments of rebellion created huge local energy boosts and seem to have scared off raids for some time.

On the other hand, plenty of raids have been disrupted by smaller crowds before the target is in the van. This is what happened in Peckham, Shadwell, Southall, Deptford, and other places. (Some examples here, and on the Antiraids website.)

What role did organised antiraids groups play in all this? A police intelligence assessment is probably right that: “the majority of incidents were not coordinated by a group or activist, but involved members of the local community, unaffiliated to any groups.” But is it just a coincidence that increased disruption happened as the antiraids network developed across London? Or that many “incidents” were in areas with active local groups?

My guess is: the antiraids network didn’t direct this activity, but did help stimulate it – mainly by spreading ideas and examples. Some of this happened online: e.g., publishing stories of successful raid resistance. Probably more in the street: e.g., workshops, public meetings, demos, street stalls, posters warning of “racist vans” and celebrating successes, and just “word of mouth” spreading lived experience. Stories and information flowed among many informal channels, but groups’ dedicated interventions helped push activity up a gear.

As well as spreading direct action, antiraids groups have also worked on spreading “know your rights” legal info. It’s maybe worth a moment’s reflection on these different strategies. Legal info can certainly help people, but we need to be clear about the limits. It’s one thing to know the official powers of Immigration Officers, quite another to apply this when they come pushing through the door, shouting in a language you maybe don’t understand. Immigration Officers routinely abuse their formal powers, and knowing your rights isn’t a magic shield against that. Besides which, a lot of their most vicious activity is perfectly legal. (See here for detail on how raids work.)

From the limited evidence we have, my guess is more raids are stopped by disruption than by legal challenge – which isn’t to say there’s not a role for both. And officers are most likely to respect legal rights claims when these are backed up by other pressures – e.g., filming to expose their “malpractice”, but perhaps most of all where they are worried about a crowd gathering and so “losing control”.

On antiraids stalls, an important role of legal info leaflets has been as a relatively easy conversation-starter. And roleplay workshops can be really powerful – but maybe most of all because they don’t just impart legal knowledge, they build confidence to challenge officers. Though, again, we need to be careful not to give a false impression about the power of legal rights.

To sum up, I think on the whole direct action has several advantages:

First, it is often more effective at stopping a raid.

Second, it can have a wider impact. It was disruptive action, not quoting the law, that pushed the Home Office into a major tactical retreat.

Third, it better grows our own power.

There is also a deeper issue with the legal strategy. At its heart, it means appealing to a legal system set up and run by our enemies. And it relies on the specialist knowledge of lawyers and legally-savvy activists. The small drops of law we give out in bustcards and workshops can’t do much to address these imbalances. The beauty of direct action is it makes no appeals to higher authorities, and many many people can take an active role. You don’t need specialist knowledge, or to speak English, to stand in front of an immigration van, or let down the tires, or just shout from a distance or call your neighbours.

To mobilise on the streets most effectively, what you need is a different kind of knowledge. Knowing your neighbours, knowing how to talk their languages, knowing how to manouver in the streets where you live. Many undocumented migrants have this knowledge in abundance. And so, rather than entrench the power of experts, street mobilising builds on and builds the power of the most powerless.

The antiraids network has been a good example of “diversity of tactics”, with different people and groups taking lots of different tacks. My own feeling is the biggest success so far, and the biggest potential for the future, lies in spreading ideas and examples of disruptive direct action. Now the images and stories of Kenmure Street may help take that to a whole new level.

~ B. Marz


Image: immigration enforcement vehicle AKA racist van trashed in Deptford, London, in June 2016. Via Anti-Raids Network.