Something special happened yesterday, as happens perhaps every time people are confronted with the stark metal walls surrounding a detention centre and hear calls of “we love you” from women imprisoned inside.
Thousands of people confronted a wall — a wall we knew we were not going to tear down, not this time. We knew and yet we shouted, hit it until our palms stung, kicked it until we thought our legs would give out. We wanted to release anger, rage and to make noise for the women inside. But part of me thinks that we thought our collective emotion and strength would break the wall down; make atoms disperse, allow us to materialise on the other side of the wall and stand face to face with Serco. There was a disturbing beauty in it.
‘Brick by brick,
Wall by wall,
Detention centres have to fall.’
The protest outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre on the 12 March wasn’t the first – it was simply the latest in ever-growing protests against immigration detention led by the incredible Movement for Justice. What started as a small but powerful protest comprised of ex-detainees and allies was, yesterday, the largest protest against immigration detention in UK history.
Yarl’s Wood is a detention centre where the vast majority of those detained are women athough men and children are also held indefinitely within its ugly walls. It has been the subject of much controversy: the prisons watchdog has called it a “place of national concern”, and reports of sexual abuse are rife yet our government have made the decision to keep the site of such violence open.
‘Back up, back up,
We want freedom, freedom,
All your racist fascist borders we don’t need ‘em, need ‘em.’
The protest was full of heartbreak.
We walked away after an exhausting day; those in detention couldn’t.
This feeling, our freedoms, our shame will not get any easier to process, no matter how many times we go back.
“Ex-detainees” who had been imprisoned in Yarl’s Wood and detention centres across the country told us about the brutality and dehumanisation they had faced at the hands the violent, racist and sexist guards in the detention centres and by the Home Office. They told us that if they resisted deportation, they were injected. They told us that when they were sick, they were told they were lyin- if taken seriously, they were sometimes handcuffed before being taken to appointmentsThis lead to women refusing hospital despite being seriously ill.
They told us so many stories of the dehumanisation they faced from the guards: calling them by their room numbers, their block numbers and not knocking before entering. They told us about sexual assault. The women inside made signs that they waved out of their windows that could only open two to three inches wide. One said, “Yarl’s Wood officers in relationships with vulnerable women”. Another said, “Pregnant women miscarrying”.
Other signs said “Freedom”.
Our sisters inside Yarl’s Wood and people inside detention centres across the country, are leading the fight against the racist, sexist state, and they are incredible. People stepped up to the mic to share their stories and those of their loved ones: resisting deportation, organising together, fighting the state, fighting Serco and sleeping in a room together in solidarity and defiance.
The signs were an act of resistance, and their protests were not limited to their signs. Women ripped up toilet paper to make confetti, wrote on windows in lipstick and blood, wrote on t-shirts and threw and waved anything that they could. A particularly amazing moment was when what seemed like 20 plastic dinner trays were thrown out of the crack of a window. The creativity and strength of protest was mimicked by those outside; with banners, balloons, kites, instruments (including pans, logs and boots) beaten against walls and breath-taking pyrotechnics displays.
The most striking pyro came from the direct action group Sisters Uncut, drawing attention to the many LGBTQ+ migrants impacted by the racist enforcement of borders. They unearthed links between cuts to domestic violence services and immigration detention and the fact that many women and non-binary people who come to this country are fleeing male and state violence.
Sisters Uncut stated: “Fear and deportation keep women and non-binary people in abusive relationships. No recourse to public funds for non-EU citizens means no housing benefit to fund a sister’s refuge space. The struggle against domestic violence is also a struggle against our racist border system.”
One of the most incredible aspects of the protest was how many groups came down from all over the country in active and thoughtful solidarity with those leading the struggle. Ex-detainees, asylum seekers, black and brown diaspora, activists, individuals forming a collective against the brutality of borders and detention.
‘Your blood is our blood,
Your fight is our fight,
Your victory is our victory.’
We must remember that our fight is not a single fight. It is not simply a fight to tear down Yarl’s Wood. We will not rest until there are no detention centres left in the UK, until immigration detention is firmly in the past.
Staring at the walls surrounding the perimeter of Yarl’s Wood, this can seem like a cloudy and distant dream. So seemed most of the revolutionary movements in history before they occurred.
Just before thousands of people around the country readied themselves for the protest at Yarl’s Wood, the news reached us that G4S (the devil’s corporation- who run “health services” at Yarl’s Wood), are withdrawing from Israel. This is a massive moment for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement. This shift was almost inconceivable before it happened.
It is to be seen how much of an impact this will make and the same has to be said about detention centres. In the words of Farzana Khan, the co-ordinator of arts and activism collective Shake!, who were also outside Yarl’s Wood: “The work continues and our victories are not solely determined by the powerful losing power but also where that power goes and what replaces it”.
This movement is also about building; not walls, not racist borders but building community, unity and love. Our collective solidarity is powerful, dangerous and beautiful. Yarl’s Wood will fall; racist, sexist and brutal borders will be destroyed. United in our struggles, we are building the future, brick by brick. Are you coming or not?