6 times peaceful protests actually worked in the UK
This weekend’s direct action in Peckham proves that regular people have the power to change the world
image Historic England
words Louis Staples
Peaceful protest is powerful and effective. And we were given a clear reminder of this fact over the weekend, when protesters gathered in south-east London to obstruct immigration officers as they attempted to remove an unnamed man.
Video footage posted on Twitter showed a crowd of about 200 people sitting on the ground in front of the vehicle in Peckham, while another clip showed members of the public standing and shouting “let him go”. The protesters were attempting to stop the van from moving, and eventually Metropolitan police officers were called, which led to a stand off and tensions between the crowd and the police. Footage circulated on social media showed officers pushing members of the crowd – it was an ugly sight.
Eventually, after officers were unable to remove the man, he was released. Celebrating the result, the organisation Lewisham Anti-Raids tweeted: “After 4 hours of resistance and a crowd of 200 people they’re letting our neighbour go! People power wins. We’re shouting ‘don’t come back to Peckham!’”
The identity of the man officers were attempting to remove is unknown, so it’s likely we might never hear the end of the story. But even what we know so far is proof that there is power in numbers and that, yes, protest actually works.
In celebration of collective solidarity and direct action, here are five more times peaceful protests had real results.
Glasgow’s May 2021 immigration raid
The scenes from over the weekend in south London were reminiscent of a similar stand-off between Home Office immigraiton officials and members of the public in Glasgow in May 2021.
Astonishingly, the Home Office attempted to carry out an immigration raid at dawn during Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan, in one of the most multicultural areas of the city. Police Scotland officers then showed up and eventually released the men, with hundreds of people surrounding vehicle men were held in and chanting “these are our neighbours, let them go!”
Nicola Sturgeon condemned the raid, which was carried out on behalf of the UK government. The Scottish government does not have immigration powers – currently they still reside with Priti Patel. Following the men’s release, Sturgeron tweeted: “I am proud to represent a constituency and lead a country that welcomes and shows support to asylum seekers and refugees.” Condemning the Home Office action, she added: “To act in this way, in the heart of a Muslim community as they celebrated Eid, and in an area experiencing a Covid outbreak was a health and safety risk.”
The Colston Four
In 2020, protests spread across the world in response to the murder of George Floyd. In the UK, we saw anti-racist demos up and down the country. One of the most memorable – and consequential – protests happened in Bristol, when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was famously toppled into the river.
The toppling of the statue became a huge “culture war” issue, with right-wing outlets fuming at its removal. It was eventually replaced with a statue of Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid by artist Marc Quinn. The “Colston Four” – the quartet who toppled the statue – were eventually acquitted by a jury in Bristol. The jury found that a conviction would be in conflict with the group’s right to freedom of expression. A good day for peaceful protest all round.
The Bristol bus boycott
There is a long history of anti-racist protests in Bristol. In the 1960s, Bristol Omnibus company discriminated against employees on racial grounds. The company refused to employ Black or Asian bus crews, which was supported by the Transport and General Workers’ Union, who feared that employing people of colour, who were usually immigrants, would drive down wages. (This was particularly hypocritical given that the union in question was a vocal opponent of apartheid in South Africa).
In response, the local West Indian community, students and the local Labour party set out to oppose this racist attitude, and mounted a boycott of the bus company that lasted for four months, until the company backed down and agreed to hire employees irrespective of their race. Over the next five years, two Race Relations acts banned discrimination on the basis of race in employment and housing.
Extinction Rebellion obviously has a long way to go in their ultimate goal of, you know, saving the planet for future generations. But one thing the climate activist group has done successfully is pressuring councils across the UK to declare a climate emergency, by staging consistent local protests. In the last three years, 300 out of 404 councils in the UK have declared a climate emergency – that’s 74%. Impressively, the councils range across the political spectrum, from councils run by the Conservatives, Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and Greens. These declarations come with targets to help councils work towards decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy (the government’s target of doing this by 2050 is not ambitious enough, according to scientists, opposition politicians and activists). So, of course, there is always more to be done. But this is just a small example of how peaceful protest can have real consequences.
The Stansted 15
Speaking of heroism, we can’t forget about the Stansted 15. They’re a group of human rights activists who took action to stop a deportation flight leaving the UK in March 2017. The plane was chartered by the UK Home Office to deport 60 migrants to Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The protesters snuck into the airport then arranged themselves around the front landing gear of the aircraft and locked their arms together inside double-layered pipes filled with expanding foam, also displaying a banner stating “mass deportations kill”.
The group were initially arrested and endured a ten week trial. In December 2018, they were prosecuted and convicted of terrorism-related charges. The group were all handed suspended sentences and community orders. But in January 2021, all of their convictions of the Stansted 15 were overturned on appeal, when the court found that they had “no case to answer”. This protest had direct consequences for the 60 people whose flight was stopped, and wider ramifications for the rights of protesters.
How to help
Visit these websites to learn more about the UK asylum and immigration system and how you can take action: