Fatima Uygun and Tabassum Niamat reflect on how a community stood up to be counted.
Kenmure Street in Pollokshields on Glasgow’s Southside is a quiet street, almost a leafy suburb. But events there last year echoed around Britain and the world. What happened on Thursday 13 May 2021 attracted the world’s media and became an inspiration for many actions elsewhere since.
Despite, it’s seemingly quiet residential look, Pollokshields and Kenmure Street are no strangers to political action or to community solidarity. Successful previous organising against planned visits by the fascist Scottish Defence League (SDL), strong community reaction to racist murders in the Southside, community’s involvement in the 2001 occupation of nearby Govanhill Baths and widespread local campaigning against the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and occupation of Palestine means this is a community that is already politically aware and organised.
That locals sprung to action was not a surprise to those who live there when the Home Office and police decided to come to Kenmure Street to arrest two local residents on the day of Eid 2021. The two were two Indian Sikh men but to the people of Kenmure Street they were simply neighbours who needed help.
Strong community networks have been built up over the years in Pollokshields by people also getting together to take over local spaces such as The Quad and the former Bowling Green, in gardening projects, and everything from chess clubs to knitting groups. It is these groups that create the spaces where people come together, from different backgrounds and ethnicities, to share and to talk. The local schools are very active in their community as are churches and mosques.
Much has been written about the events of 13 May 2021 since, but perhaps the most important element was that, when various political groupings and activists came to lend support, they found a community that knew how to organise, knew what to do, and a community that left no space for the political sectarianism that often prevents effective, coordinated and cohesive action. Community leaders joined with Marxists, anarchists and politicians from mainstream political parties to make it a successful anti-racist action.
The pride in defeating the Home Office that day was palpable. Local people did not want this to be one-off event and immediately set about organising events and spaces that would bring people together to carry on the work in fighting the Tory’s hostile environment and its cruel Nationalities and Borders Bill.
One immediate reaction was a group of local women coming together to hold a gathering in the local Maxwell Square Park under the banner of ‘We All Belong’. People came together in the park after many gatherings online and in person at the Bowling Green to share food, music, to talk and to pledge to the continuing fight against attacks on their neighbours. From those meetings under that united slogan and the statement that ‘No-one Is Illegal’ emerged the idea to hold a ‘Festival of Resistance’ to celebrate the anniversary of the Kenmure Street protest.
The Bowling Green has become a community hub, a friendly space for all. It worked with the experienced community anchor group, Govanhill Baths Community Trustwhich had 20 years of experience of community organising since its occupation of the Calder Street pool. Together, we brought local groups, faith groups and individuals round the table to form an idea of what that celebration should look like. The overwhelming consensus was that it should not just be a celebration but that it should also be a show of political strength in the community, prepared to fight again and to keep fighting.
The festival began on Friday 13 May, exactly one year from when the police van doors were opened and our neighbours set free. Closing that part of the street where the protest took place, we sat in silent protest then marched, chanting slogans, to a community space on Melville Street where a symbolic tree planting took place – a tree that will grow to represent solidarity and resistance.
The next day, the streets were alive once again celebrating resistance. Stalls filled the pavements with refugee groups, political campaigns and unions able to engage with the local population and hundreds of festival visitors. In the park ‘Love Music Hate Racism’ organised a stage where performers and speakers joined in, to call for action against the Borders Bill and to sing and dance together. If hate can be defeated by love and solidarity then there is no better example than what happened that day. The sun came out, people laughed, hugged, danced, talked and ate together. It was a joyous and defiant occasion.
Strolling down Kenmure Street, you will see a lovely green residential street, you will see people enjoying the company of others. But you will also see windows adorned with posters showing solidarity with struggles here and elsewhere from ‘Black Lives Matter’ to support for striking workers. The events of 13 May 2021 have since been repeated in Edinburgh, in Dalton, and Peckham in London. We hope that what we achieved is an inspiration to others. We, as a community, will continue the fight and we will mark the occasion every year from now on to make the ‘Festival of Resistance’ and the spirit of solidarity as much a part of Scotland’s calendar as any religious or national event. See you there next year and every year.
Fatima Uygun is Trust manager at Govanhill Baths and a resident of Kenmure Street. Tabassum Niamat is the manager of the Bowling Green project in Kenmure Street.