It was a dull, grey Thursday morning at around 9.00am. Gazing out the window, my husband suddenly beckoned me to join him. Outside was a police car with blue lights flashing alongside a large white van marked 'Immigration Enforcement' parked at the corner of Kenmure Street and Nithsdale Road. We'd never seen such a vehicle but knew what it was. Half an hour later, both vehicles had gone so we hoped they hadn't found who they were looking for. Shortly afterwards, we heard a commotion and ran to the living room window which looks onto Kenmure Street and its tenements opposite.
Parked directly outside the close where two of our friends lived, the ominous vehicle sat with an accompanying police van. But instead of scaring people – its purpose – it served as an early warning system to local activists and residents. A small crowd had surrounded the van including an activist now famously known as 'Van Man'. The first hero of the day, he wedged underneath the van to buy time for others to arrive in support. That's how the extraordinary day of 13 May 2021 began. We were stunned at the scene but had no idea just how stunning it would soon become.
Two Indian nationals – Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh – who live in the same close as our friends, had been taken from their home then bundled into the back of the ugly van. 'They are lovely, quiet and law-abiding neighbours!' my friends shouted up to our window from the street.
From the vantage point of our curved corner flat with a wide window-ledge, I began filming the scenes unfolding below. It would turn out the window-ledge would play a role in beaming remarkable footage around the world.
Pollokshields say 'let them go!'
A close-knit community here in Pollokshields on Glasgow's Southside, word travelled quickly and by lunchtime hundreds of people joined the protest. Ominously, the police presence grew too. The crowd was steadfast. Refusing to be moved they chanted: 'These are our neighbours! Let them go!'
This spontaneous combination of grassroots activists and ordinary inhabitants of Kenmure Street and the surrounding neighbourhood gathered to resist the 'enforcement'. A formidable display of solidarity and neighbourliness, people from many ethnicities, class backgrounds, professions and no professions, students, pensioners, parents and children chanted together in defiance. Locals provided refreshments and toilet facilities. This was no ordinary protest.
Nor was it a political demo. It was a local community outraged. Constitutional politics, from either side, played no part in it. Not one saltire was held aloft. Tweets from politicians had no bearing whatsoever on the protest. It was not a 'Scotland' protest as some nationalists have claimed. Bristol and Liverpool would be more likely to hold one than Edinburgh or Aberdeen. In fact, according to recent attitudinal research, Scotland's population as a whole is only marginally less in favour of immigration than England.
In truth, it was not even all Glasgow's protest. The inspiring 'Glasgow Girls' campaign against the UK government in 2005, successfully preventing the deportation of their schoolfriend who was subjected also to a dawn raid, was rooted in the working-class community of Drumchapel. The Kenmure Street protest was rooted in the most diverse community in Glasgow and Scotland: Pollokshields.
We are not a mob
By the afternoon, the tenacious crowd grew to almost 1,000 people in this tense stand-off with the UK Home Office and the Scottish police. For a few hours during the afternoon, I was sure this day would end badly with injuries and violence given the sheer numbers of police, including several riot vans, two streets cordoned off, mounted police lurking under trees in Nithsdale Road, and at least 100 police officers, many of them in riot gear. A ring of policeman had surrounded the van staring scarily from above their masks into the middle distance. It was unimaginable that Police Scotland would 'let them go'. Although individual policemen spoke quietly of their unhappiness at being there, their bosses claimed they were there 'to ensure public safety'.
It didn't look that way. Far from it. Police Scotland were not in an invidious position as some claimed. It looked like a deliberately inflammatory act of trying to rouse the crowd into throwing the first stone. For what? To ensure the Home Office could drive off safely with two of our neighbours who, having lived here for 10 years, had (allegedly) dodgy visa applications?
According to critics afterwards, for that heinous crime the law had to be enforced. Send in the horses, or whatever means, to disperse the protesting neighbours.
It's little wonder that racism is suspected as the motive lying behind such a disproportionate over-reaction. If critics genuinely had an issue about law enforcement, why not direct questions to Police Scotland, who didn't enforce it? Or the Home Office? Neither enforced the law because the protest was not 'mob rule', but rather a peaceful, community objection to dawn raids. Like that of the 'Glasgow Girls', it ended in an inspiring victory.
Sure enough, the police attempted to disperse the crowd, ostensibly to allow through a medic. Even I could have devised a better, less hostile way to do it. Anyhow, unsurprisingly, this attempt at dispersal didn't work. The protestors sat down on instruction from a distinctive man donning a pakol.
It turned out his name was Mohammad Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation. Mr Asif was the second hero of the day. To the protestors, most of them locals and not activists, he advised caution, how to proceed peacefully, imploring them not to be provoked by police intimidation into retaliation. He announced loudly and clearly that they'd sit there for days – if that's what it took – to get the men released.
It worked. And it worked precisely because this was not a 'mob'. If it had been a mob, it would have allowed the police to move in, as has been the tragic way of it for countless protests in the UK and around the world. A couple of hotheads were in Kenmure Street for sure, but this was a disciplined, determined crowd, none of whom lifted a finger in physical aggression. The power of it was a sight to behold.
They did 'let them go!'
Astoundingly, the atmosphere changed. Aamer Anwar, the human rights lawyer and third hero of the day, turned up with his two children. Alongside local MP Alison Thewliss and following tense negotiations, they secured Sumit and Lakhvir’s safe release. Aamer spoke to the crowd prior to the release. The atmosphere was jubilant but tense. Things could still go badly wrong.
When the van doors opened, surrounded by scores of policemen, the men emerged to uproarious applause and chanting that reverberated around and against the huge stone, tenement canyon. It was a spine-tingling few minutes for our community who witnessed it. We were tearful from the sheer joy of it.
Aamer then walked our two neighbours, surrounded by police who had now become protectors, and accompanied by our wonderful Pollokshields community, into Nithsdale Road to the local gurdwara where they'd be formally released by the Home Office.
On my phone, I captured the exit from the van of Sumit and Lakhvir. I posted the 20 second video for my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. Lakhvir emerged blinking from his metal cave into the light. He waved at the crowd – not a clenched-fist power salute or a politician's wave – but a shy, astonished, grateful wave from someone who couldn't quite believe that he hadn't been transported to Dungavel.
Somehow, the video captured the moment and the emotions of many: millions, in fact. Last time I looked, there have been over 7.5 million views of the clip. Glasgow's place in the international fight against a 'hostile environment' was applauded by people across the world.
Let's hope it is the beginning of a change in immigration policy in Scotland. As the excellent 'No Evictions' network asked: 'What powers are being used by the Scottish Government right now to make life less dangerous for people in the asylum and immigration system? How will the government in Holyrood take concrete steps to stop these raids?'
It may well be the case that eventually these two men will lose their battle to remain in this country. I sincerely hope not. But 13 May 2021, and the 'battle of Kenmure Street', will go down in Glasgow's rich history of formidable community and working-class protest. Pollokshields sent the message to politicians, governments and people around the world that indeed, peaceful resistance to immigration enforcement and the grotesque 'hostile environment' policy can succeed. Nae Parasan!