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In Scotland, the Best Photo of the Year (and a Vision of a Better Society) is Born

By Petr Knava | Social Media | May 14, 2021 |

By Petr Knava | Social Media | May 14, 2021 |


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A few years back I wrote a piece about my favourite photo of the year. The photo in question was of Alex, a lad in a wheelchair and a Slipknot t-shirt, borne aloft by the crowd at a metal festival in Spain. Sure the metal flavour of it all helped, but it was the pure solidarity pouring out of the image that made it have such an impact.

Yesterday, incredible images came flying out of Scotland that spoke not only of the power of solidarity but of an alternate view of how power could be distributed in a society. In the morning of 13th May, on Eid al-Fitr, a white van with the words Immigration Enforcement emblazoned on it in large, bold letters rolled into the Pollokshields neighbourhood of Glasgow, one of the city’s most multicultural neighbourhoods. Officials from the UK Home Office then raided a flat and forcibly removed two men of Indian origin, pressing them into the van.

Their plan to scuttle off without a fuss did not come to fruition, however. Instead of a clean getaway, they were met with a spontaneous protest as hundreds of neighbours and people from the community surrounded the van, preventing it from moving. As the day wore on, the crowd swelled, trapping the van completely and refusing to let it leave, with chants of ‘These are our neighbours, let them go!’ filling the air. One protester lodged himself underneath the van for several hours in order to prevent it from carrying the men off.

Eventually, the outnumbered Home Office officials and accompanying members of the Scottish police force had no choice but to relent, and the two men were released from the van to massive cheers from the crowd. Emerging with smiles on their faces, they were escorted to the local mosque by the jubilant protesters.

Institutionally and legally speaking, the UK has never been a particularly welcoming place for immigrants and refugees, yet things have gotten progressively worse since 2012 when the then-ruling Liberal Democrat/Conservative government and Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the so-called ‘Hostile Environment’ policy framework (their label), which enacted a policy framework designed to make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible for people without legal leave to remain to stay in the country. Housing has been made difficult, as has healthcare—with NHS staff being asked to act as de facto immigration officials by limiting healthcare based on immigration status; victims of trafficking have been mistreated; deportations have increased; people have died in immigration detention facilities—the list goes on and on.

Fast forward to 2021, and the UK has only travelled further down this road, with the neoliberal capitalism championed by both the Tories and Labour (with a beautiful five-year exception to the latter) contributing to British—and especially English—society becoming a hard, cruel, fractured place. Hollowed out social services, an insecure job market, an impossible housing market, and a depleted welfare state more concerned with doling out punitive measures instead of providing support to those most in need has created an environment in which the powers-that-be find it remarkably easy to blame scapegoats for society’s troubles.

When it comes to blame, the elite and the media that serves them know exactly where to point the finger.

The bankers that crashed the economy?

Tumbleweeds.

The Tory party that caused 150,000 needless deaths with their handling of the coronavirus crisis and used that crisis to siphon off billions of pounds of public money by handing contracts to their dodgy mates?

Tumbleweeds.

Immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable, often racialised people, just trying to live?

Foghorns and dogwhistles.

With a decade of worsening conditions, racist media narratives, and the odd Brexit vote thrown in there, the Hostile Environment under current Home Secretary Priti Patel has only gotten worse. In 2019 a UN report said that the combination of austerity measures and Hostile Environment policies was responsible for futher ‘entrenching racism’ in the UK, with the cruel immigration system enacted by the latter ‘stoking xenophobic sentiment’.

This is the kind of society that the rich and powerful want to see: Atomised, bitter, and lacking all bonds of solidarity so as to be ripe for exploitation, which is why the news and photos coming out Glasgow yesterday have been such a powerful force. They are bold evidence of the fact that even after all the elite’s concerted efforts to turn us against each other, some people refuse. They are manifestations of the cry of solidarity born in Allende’s Chile, ‘The people united can never be defeated.’ All of the photos are incredibly powerful, but there’s one in particular that really stood out to me:

Think of all the countless photos we have seen just over the past year. Of protests and uprisings. Of BLM marches and Colombians fighting neoliberalism and women protesting unsafe streets and the Palestinian people refusing to be slowly eradicated. Of countless others in previous years. No matter the struggle, always there is a common theme: The police, armed and aggressive, swarming in and surrounding the people, mercilessly beating them until they disperse or are arrested. That is the structure of power we live with. The racist and violent, carceral capitalist state. That photo from Glasgow is so powerful because it so neatly and strikingly shows, in one very effective composition, how society should be structured instead. How it actually is structured: The people have the power. They serve us. We surround them. In Shelley’s words: ‘We are many, they are few.’ It just so happens that the few do a damn good job of making us forget it sometimes.

Here’s hoping that the lads who had been detained remain safe and free, and that this happens to every single one of these vans.

Every other photo and video from Glasgow was equally glorious, as Twitter showed:

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



Header Image Source: Getty Images/Jeff J Mitchell