Monday 26 July, early afternoon, a blue-and-yellow-striped Immigration Enforcement “racist van” is spotted parked up on Old Montague Street, off the Whitechapel end of Brick Lane. Two uniformed Home Office officers are sitting in the front. An alert goes round, a few people arrive on the scene and go looking for any signs of a raid in the shops nearby. A number of other UKBA bullies are seen, not in uniform but wearing stab-proof vests, in an unmarked grey van (VW transporter license number MX13AWZ) a little further up Brick Lane outside the police shopfront.
A couple of people go to challenge them, asking: “what do you think you’re doing?” “where are you raiding?” “do you have a warrant?” And just telling them plainly that racist bullies aren’t welcome in Brick Lane, that they should leave. Speaking calmly, but in loud clear voices so that other passers-by start to notice and gather round.
The wannabe cops react with typical sneering arrogance, but also look definitely flustered. A few more people start gathering round, people come out of the shops to look.
After five minutes or so of this, the officers get back in their van, shut the doors and do up the windows. A couple more minutes later, and the marked van has pulled up behind them. Then the two vans pull out and start driving in convoy slowly north up Brick Lane. A few people follow them, shouting. Someone in a car now stuck behind them starts honking the horn and shouting at them too, then is joined by a motorbike rider who does the same. After a little bit of this strange procession, they speed up and drive off. They weren’t seen again around Brick Lane that afternoon.
So what were they up to? We can’t know for sure, but it seems likely they were about to raid a restaurant or shop. The plainclothes officers would have gone in first. The more obvious marked van kept on a side street round the corner so as not to attract attention, and would have been used to cage the people they arrested.
We can guess this because we’ve seen the same pattern time and again. A routine operation, an everyday occurrence, “just doing their job”. There were 4,573 raids last year in London, with East and South East London areas hit particularly hard. Over 12 raids every day. Every day, people’s lives and dreams ruined, people thrown into detention centre hellholes, families and relationships broken up, people deported to poverty, torture or death, more human meat ground up in the mincing machine of the border regime, that starts with a bunch of cocky macho bullies in a van.
But we’ve also seen, many times now, that it only takes a few of us standing up to them to throw a spanner in the machine. On Monday, less than half a dozen people confronted this bunch, calmly but firmly made their presence known, and alerted others in the street. That was enough.
This is certainly not a one-off. In Deptford last month, again, it was only a handful of people who challenged a raid in progress, and Immigration Enforcement turned tail and left, even abandoning their marked vehicle. We’ve heard many other stories that haven’t been so widely reported. Such as one night raid in Kentish Town a few months ago when, again, a group of 5 or so people confronted a UKBA team about to kick down someone’s front door, and scared them off just by standing there with their faces covered.
For sure, it won’t be so easy every single time. But often it is. Why? We might speculate that Home Office teams have standing orders to avoid any attention or “disorder” (until someone leaks internal documents on this, we can’t know exactly what). We can remember that these officers have far less powers, less training, and less pay than police, and don’t even get a truncheon. One thing we do know is that actually most raids are of dubious legality, and so they may well be wary of getting challenged when they are themselves breaking the law.
Apart from all that, what they are scared of is that a handful of people challenging them will turn into a crowd which has the power to actively block their raid. We saw that, for example, in Peckham last year, when dozens of people united in the street and chased the vans away. Or in East Street on 21 June last year, when well over 100 people came out to see them off. And we remember that, after that day on East Street, which had been a regular target for Home Office raids, they didn’t come again for at least a year.
For sure, one day they will come back, or just hit somewhere else. But every time one operation is aborted, that means maybe someone isn’t in detention or on a deportation flight. That in itself is a big thing. And more than that, every time a raid is stopped like this, every time people stand up and say “No”, we put them on the back foot, meaning they will be a little less confident next time. And, maybe most of all, we encourage ourselves and each other, we see and we show that it is possible to fight back.
And to fight back you don’t need to be some kind of heroic “activist”, or have any special skills or knowledge. You just need a few friends or neighbours, and yes a little bit of confidence. As people involved with the Anti Raids Network have often said, we are not “the group” or “the organisation” fighting raids in London. The aim of our network is just to share a few communication tools, a few information resources, and a few stories like this to show what is possible. By doing that, maybe we can help grow support networks in our neighbourhoods and help boost each other’s confidence. Then it’s down to all of us to take action in our streets, whoever and wherever we are.