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How our community in Peckham fought the Hostile Environment – and won

Hundreds of neighbours secured a man’s release from detention in Evan Cook Close after a five-hour stand-off with cops

Benny Hunter
13 June 2022, 4.33pm

Protesters surround the immigration van in Peckham, preventing it from leaving

Hundreds of neighbours successfully blocked immigration cops on Saturday as they tried to take a man from his home in south London.

The man, who lives in Peckham, was released on bail after a five-hour stand-off during which police tried unsuccessfully to beat their way past protesters.

Youth worker Benny Hunter was among the first to join the blockade, and helped spread the word to others. As the Home Office prepares to deport its first planeload of asylum seekers to Rwanda, Hunter says Saturday’s events are a model for how communities can both resist racist government policies and show that they do not have popular support.

Here is the account of events that he has shared with openDemocracy.

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Benny’s diary

12:08. A resident of the Evan Cook Close estate steps out to get some midday coffee when they notice an immigration van parked up by one of the blocks.

Officers are already attempting to access the building. One is carrying a ram in order to bash down the door. Moments later, a single man is handcuffed, led out of his home and into the back of an immigration van. A tweet goes up online: “Happening NOW… immigration raid, 8 officers.”

13:12. I arrive at the estate to find an immigration van has attempted to leave the close, but is blocked by a group of about six people. A seventh person is lying on the ground directly in front of the van.

Residents of the block say the officers have taken one man into custody and he’s locked in the back. The escorting immigration officers look around sheepishly: they have called for the police and they’re waiting for them to arrive. We ask them: “Why has the man been detained? Is he going to be deported? Are you going to send him to Rwanda?” There is no response. They want us to move out of the way but we won’t.

Peckham immigration raid.jpg

A few protesters gather at the start of the immigration raid in Peckham

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Benny Hunter

14:08. It’s half an hour later when the police do get there. They threaten arrests but no one is interested in walking away now. Six officers from the Met Police might have been able to help the eight officers from the Home Office – but there are maybe 20 locals now in the close and they can’t arrest everyone. The only way for the van to leave is through the one entrance, and a decent enough number of people now stand in its way. They might get it out if the police can force a route or if they arrest enough people that everyone else leaves. A radio call goes out for more officers to come to the close.

There’s a call-out on social media that we need more people to stop the immigration raid. Texts are pinging around WhatsApp groups, including one used to organise a local basketball club and one to a reading group.

With each minute that passes, another person appears around the corner of the road until a sizeable crowd has gathered. These are local people. There are school teachers, bike mechanics, local councillors.

14:54. Almost an hour since the first police arrived and there’s no backup yet. There are now about 50 people filling the road. The police are trying to work out what to do: we overhear them weighing up trying to walk the arrested man out and into another van. We start to chant: “Let him go! Let him go!” The mood is jubilant, not hostile. Some immigration solicitors have arrived and are trying to negotiate the man’s exit from the van. Some people in the crowd ask for the man to be given water and allowed to go to the toilet; I am told the immigration officers insist he already has water, but he is not allowed to leave the van. (Editor’s note: we put this allegation to the Home Office, and a spokesperson claimed it was “absolutely not true”.)

15:34. Someone tweets that a number of Met Police Territorial Support Group vans have lined up outside Peckham police station. By the time the police do arrive there are more than 100 people in the close – maybe as many as 150. The crowd of people is now encircling the van and the chanting is now constant: “People power!” and “I believe that we will win!” ring out around the estate. There are teenagers there on scooters. Parents are holding babies. Older people stand further back from the police line.

16:28. About 20 more police pull up. Some have blue plastic gloves on their hands as if ready for an arrest. How much resource is being put in, just to arrest one man? I look behind me and see the huge number of people who’ve now gathered. They can’t arrest everyone here. There’s no way they’ll be able to push through, surely? We link arms in a chain and stand firm.

16:40. Suddenly (and unbelievably) the police charge the crowd. It’s pandemonium. There is screaming. People are thrown backwards and to the floor. Some are being trampled, kicked, thrown into the bushes on either side. Behind the police, the van begins to inch forward. We shout out: “We are peaceful! This is a peaceful protest! Why are you attacking us?”

Within ten minutes, the police charge has been halted – they can’t get through because everyone in the close has sat down. Bicycles fill up the road. The cops look despondent. As the commotion dies down, a person tweets that police wearing Pride patches flung a woman to the ground and ripped another person’s earring out in the tussle. A video posted online shows a man on the ground being kicked in the stomach by an officer.

17:01. An officer talking into a speakerphone tells us that the man is going to be released from the van on immigration bail and returned to his address. A cheer goes up. We can’t believe it. Patiently we wait for the police to follow through, but it’s another half an hour before the back doors of the van open, and a man emerges. He looks back at the crowd. The now 200 people gathered in the close erupt in joy. We won!

After the detainee is released and safely back inside his home, we wait a bit longer until the police leave. As they march out of the estate, a chant goes up: “Don’t come back to Peckham! Don’t come back to Peckham!” As the vans drive off around the corner, a journalist from The Telegraph in a suit and tie arrives on the scene, out of breath, and asks to speak to the “demonstration organisers”. He’s laughed off: no one organised this. This was the community who turned out – and we are all off to the pub!

This government doesn’t have our consent

It was the victory at Kenmure Street in Glasgow that inspired the anti-raids networks that led to this moment. People are standing up and resisting what this racist government is doing to our friends and neighbours – and to refugees and migrants alike.

It took just one person to notice a van and to put a call out to their friends. A handful of people took a stand and held that van in the close for 90 minutes. Five hours after the first text went out, 200 people filled that close and the man was free.

The day after the stand-off in Peckham, hundreds gather in Manchester and outside Brook House immigration removal centre at Gatwick to protest the government’s plans to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda. This government doesn’t have our consent. We don’t accept the hostile environment, and we will defend each other from attack.

The rhetorical campaigning and the legal challenges have their place. But when the government is refusing parliamentary scrutiny of its policies; when the Home Office breaks the law, day in day out; when Windrush elders are kidnapped in the dead of night and refugees are refused asylum – then peaceful resistance becomes necessary.

The government says it speaks for the people when it enacts draconian anti-immigration policy. It says “the public” want it to raid people’s homes, to rip up families, to detain and deport people [editor’s note: a Home Office spokesperson told openDemocracy that obstructing immigration enforcement teams would “not deter them from undertaking the duties that the public rightly expect them to carry out”]. We know this isn’t true.

When my neighbour was being kidnapped from his house by the Home Office, I did something. Along with other people from south-east London, I stood firm by my beliefs and I stopped a man from being forcibly taken from his community. We won’t be the last to do something.

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