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On the morning of 13 May 2021, an Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) van was spotted on Kenmure Street in Pollokshield, Glasgow. Local activists from the No Evictions network local to the area swiftly turned up and one lodged himself under the van to prevent it moving. Over the course of the day, hundreds and hundreds of people arrived to block the van from leaving the area with the two detained residents.
Rather than surrender to the will of the community, Police Scotland doubled-down. They made multiple attempts to charge through the crowd and reclaim the ICE van through force. But the community stood firm and refused to let their neighbours be deported. Eventually, at an impasse, Police Scotland ordered the release of the two men into the custody of their solicitor, and they emerged from the van to a jubilant crowd after a whole day of captivity.
It would have been easy to see the events on Kenmure Streets as nothing but inspiring, spontaneous resistance from a close-knit community. However, No Evictions were quick to set the record straight, noting that that this moment was years, if not decades, in the making. The public cannot predict when an immigration raid will take place, but you can prepare in advance for the eventuality. The community resistance in Pollokshield was the result of relentless flyering, network building, mutual aid, and popular street education.
This event should not be seen in isolation. As Britain’s neutered mainstream left seems unable to combat the growing authoritarianism of the Conservative Party, grassroots activists are once again seeing the power of direct action.
In essence, direct action is about effecting political change almost immediately. These are acts that go beyond the traditional protest march to include occupations, blockades, strikes, sabotage, street defence, and resisting police power. Striking is one of the most effective, tried and tested forms of direct action. Yet political forces in this country over the last 40-odd-years have done everything in their power to criminalise union activity. It’s one of the reasons (along with corruption) why today many of the big, corporate unions who are embedded in the Labour Party do not strike or use other forms of direct action. Instead, it remains the preserve of independent unions and more recently school students. The 2010s saw the fewest workplace strikes undertaken since records began in 1891, however, student school strikes have increased exponentially since 2018 representing a willingness of the youth to radically organise themselves.
Among environmental groups, there has of late been a serious upsurge in acts of political direct action thanks to groups like Extinction Rebellion, who use it as a guiding principle. It speaks to a long legacy of direct action in the environmental movement, from raids of animal testing labs to sabotaging pipelines, which activists are reclaiming. A new generation of environmentalists – struck by the urgency of the climate crisis – have again begun to take organised direct action, rather than wait for global summit proposals.
Anyone who has lived or studied the politics of France, Bolivia, Italy, Kenya, or other countries with strong social movements, will know that direct action is a popular form of protest around the world. Now young Britons seem to have rediscovered its necessity. There has been the occupation of the Murdoch printing press, the toppling of the Edward Colston statue, the June 13 street-battle against the far-right, the university student occupations, the Pimlico school strike, activists assisting migrants crossing the Channel, the use of Section 44 to force school closures: these are just some of the direct actions in the last 12 months, devoid of any party political support, that have galvanised their respective movements and empowered the grassroots left of Britain.
In May 2021 alone, the group Palestine Action occupied two factories belonging to the Israeli company Elbit Systems, whose weapons and technology are used to kill Palestinians, as well as oppress indigenous nations in the US and migrants in the Channel crossing. This action, which halted manufacturing, was supported by the Leicester Fire Brigade Union who refused to remove the protestors at the Leicester site. Meanwhile, multiple University College Union branches across Britain have begun striking to protest redundancies, pay-cuts, and departmental closures in the Higher Education sector.
These actions are perhaps an inevitable conclusion to decades of capitalism: establishment profiteering, austerity economics, exploitation of labour, the erosion of public services, dire imperialist wars, and the botched handling of the pandemic. It’s all people can really do in a moment of significant national decay, in which none of the traditional left – including all the ‘revolutionary’ socialist and communist factions of Britain – have done anything tangible to protect the young people and migrant diasporas that have been acutely damaged.
The limitations of the march
Through the political manoeuvring of the capitalist class, along with cultural habits, Britons mostly opt for the peaceful march as their protest of choice. These certainly have their place in politics. They allow a relatively safe environment for those who are unable or unwilling to take direct action. They also do much to bring different political movements together. Additionally, they allow time for political education. Certainly in a small setting, they can raise the political consciousness of the local population. What follows is certainly not an attack on the idea of the march, which in particular should be encouraged for smaller, less politically active areas of society.
However, the march from A to B has its limitations, particularly in areas like London, one of the global epicentres of political action replete with experienced activists, groups, parties, and movements. In these imperialist cores, we should be demanding more. In 2014, during the Israeli assault on Gaza that killed over two thousand Palestinians, the Palestine movement in London galvanised hundreds of thousands to take to the streets. This year, hundreds of thousands more. Yet what exactly have we achieved in all this time that the Pro-Palestine movement has existed in Britain? What have we won for the Palestinian people? In 2002, millions took the street to protests the invasion of Iraq – yet if it didn’t stop the war, what did it achieve? Did we, retrospectively, do enough? Should we have escalated the struggle and taken stronger forms of direct action against the state? Attracting big numbers clearly doesn’t itself constitute political change.
Some might argue that given the Police, Crimes, and Sentencing Bill that is making its way through parliament now, even a march is a threat to the government. They’re right. Marches are still threatening and clearly the police think so. Were they not, they never would have acted with such ferocity against the brave Bristol protestors in early 2021. The Bristol protests proved that even a march can be militant when organised correctly. But when we inevitably come out the other side of this bill, will we feel that we did enough to stop it if it passes? Will we feel that we should have agitated the Kill the Bill movement to go even further? Clearly the government fears this rising direct action, it is precisely why they implemented the bill at this time. If they win, this could result in a society which shrinks away even further from militant action, in the same way we see most unions so reluctant to strike.
Direct action gets the goods
Meaningful direct action is of course easier in a politically organised setting. Unions evidently have a distinct advantage in this area. Dockworkers in Livorno, Italy, recently refused to load designated cargo on to a ship when they found out they were weapons destined for the Israeli apartheid regime. South African dockworkers in Durban followed suit. This is reminiscent of the Rolls-Royce workers at a factory in East Kilbride, Scotland, who refused to work on the engines of military aircrafts when they discovered they would be used by the fascist Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.
Yet many of the most powerful direct actions in Britain have also come outside the workplace, such as the organised activities of the Suffragettes or the Bristol Bus Boycott. Britain’s new grassroots is rediscovering radical forms of organising and with it we must also reclaim our radical history. Yet first and foremost, if we are to move any further forward, we must #killthebill that is a blatant attempt to stymie this growing appetite for direct action.
Rohan Rice is a writer, translator, and photographer from London