In May I attended a protest outside of Dungavel Detention Centre, a premises run for the Home Office by private US security firm The GEO Group and used to detaine asylum seekers who have seen their bid for refuge rejected or put on hold by the UK Government. Located vaguely in the south of Scotland, this day of action was part of a coordinated event calling for the closure of detention centres across 20 locations around the UK, France and Greece. Later that evening I went to a rave. I felt there might have been a juxtapose about my plans for the day but as they unfolded I found a greater degree of similarity between the two than I could ever have conceived of. This is my account of it all and the ways in which I discovered the power of celebration to protest.
*Since writing this, it has been announced that Dungavel is to be closed down. With a new holding facility due to be built by Glasgow Airport it is by no means the end of the fight. There will be the opportunity to fly people out quicker with less duress but at the same time, in being based that much closer to populated areas, those who wish to can mobilise easier and quicker. This may even allow for an evolution of protest as people could begin shutting down runways or taking other steps through direct action. Despite the uncertainty of what is going to follow, perhaps the closure of this beacon of isolation should still be greeted with a degree of symbolic jubilation.
The day began in a needless rush. Up late the night before, I muddled together a plan to meet with my friend at Edinburgh Airport at 1030 to pick up a rental car to take us around the country. Getting out of bed at 1045 I felt a pang of guilt over the idiocy of my self as they texted me from Terminal 1 asking of my whereabouts. Tottering along, we eventually met sometime after 12 with another friend even further behind. We arrived at the hire desk just as the booking system had crashed so took our place in the queue waiting to be seen to. In front of us were three Finns, off on their way to Ardnamurchan on the western peninsula of Scotland. We got talking and convinced them to ditch their plans and drive in cohort with us. However it was not to be. The rental company insisted on using the card the booking was under for payment meaning that each time our new friend typed in a wrong pin code, it served as another death knell to this spontaneous plan. Three strikes and you’re out. It was our turn next and my sympathies turned to near empathy as I discovered I would be unable to hire a car without access to a credit card unless I paid the £130 premium insurance rate. Booking the car at £62.50 had felt like a push and now pitifully we had fallen down a cavernous pit of spending.
The proceedings of the day would put the importance of such expenditure into perspective but still there’s plenty else I could enjoy spending £130 on. It was pleasing getting to start up a conversation with three people from a different place and even if they weren’t permitted to get a car, their passport was no barrier to their freedom to move on these lands. They didn’t have to prove anything to say that they weren’t ‘illegal’, they were welcomed in from the skies and suffered only the menial trappings of British bureaucracy.
Having collected our car, we now had to navigate the seemingly endless back roads and roundabouts to make it to Dungavel. This journey itself gives you a sense on how hidden away these people are from our society. The roads that connect them with proper towns and villages of others are eked out in a way similar to the carvings of a blunt knife on skin. Hostile yet undefined. It was a dreich, grey day in the back end of nowhere this Saturday but what day of the week would it not be dreich and grey if this was your permanent locale? To be confined in what amounts to a prison there day in, day out would obviously take a toll on anyone, never mind the fact that the people locked up are having to adjust to this miserable climate on top of everything else in their life.
With that depressing backdrop though what I was to become a part of was one of the most inspiring experiences I have ever had. A crowd of a few hundred or so, mostly coming down on buses from Glasgow or Edinburgh but from all different strands of life before that had descended around either side of the great wall to show support, solidarity and love to the people enclosed inside.
As soon as I arrived, I walked past three men from different parts of Africa who knew that there were people from the same country as them inside. Sitting on a fallen tree, sheltering from the winds, they pivoted around to offer me biscuits and tea and we got talking from there. They were living here, working, studying, doing things no different to what anyone else does. They told me that those inside would want to be doing the same but for whatever reason had been deemed unworthy of access to the facilities of this country. It is difficult to think of Britain’s immigration policy as being any more sophisticated than a heaving, sweating, tar drenched game of Russian Roulette set in some dank backroom hut. For those inside, which out of the two carry odds more likely injurious to their health, an opiate riddled South East Asian with a gun to their head or the henchmen of groups such as GEO and G4S armed with the legitimacy of the British State?
As we got up off the tree and began walking with our new pals, we entered into a carnival of sound as the noise penetrated the gapsome wind. Each decibel issued a cut to the jagged iron bars. I have never picked up on such a full, giving, almost dismissive act of defiance before. There we were, people no doubt filled with anger in our day to day lives, fuelled by injustices we see that we feel we can so often do so little about, standing in front of this physical embodiment of the wrongs we want to fix. And on the other side were stories I can barely begin to comprehend. But in the pissing rain, we had gathered together, those locked up, standing outside to show us they were there, greeting our noise with increasing voices of their own, a perfect channel of energy, just for a moment eviscerating the barrier that stood between us. The wall that day to day not only binds them from the world but also common humanity was fleetingly made irrelevant. Music was played, dances were had and all the while, there were megaphones in use for people to project themselves into the prison courtyard, speaking in a range of different languages for those inside. Kurdish, Arabic and French amongst many others.
This show of strength illuminated through me so strongly. Surrounding us were these people who had their own reasons for being in Scotland and for whatever fortunes were free on the outside standing there at the gate to let these other humans from someplace more akin to their homeland know they hadn’t been forgotten. And not only had they brought with them the familiarity of a shared language and empathy of the personal struggle but they had come over the top with added numbers to their ranks, people fortunate enough to have never had to consider navigating the traumas suffered by others, who had came to show that there was hope. Hope in the solidarity, hope in the willingness of people to turn up and hope that they will build on this and do whatever the next thing that is needed of them may be. To turn up outside of a prison to shake your hips is meaningless in itself but do not underestimate the power of such actions when aligned with the desire for further change at the back of it. The moments where you are living in the present just have to keep on getting better.
The day continued on from there, privileged enough to be able to leave that place, we left willing that those inside might feel a modicum of rejuvenation to take on their isolation in the coming days, weeks and months. We drove off to Glasgow to pick up a pal, ignoring her cries of fatigue from a late night just wrought out as we then headed west back home to Oban for a secret party steeped away in the woods. A friend allowed us to refuel by laying on dinner for our arrival before we embarked on the most teasing of trails. For twenty miles we ambled past lochs, hills and an ever quickening sunset but after some meandering travails that took us down a couple of dirt paths for a close, scraping look with the fully insured hire car, we emerged through the wilderness, out of the darkness and into a beam of light, noise and people.
We parked up and entered into a sea of familiar faces, some more weather beaten than others. Stretched out before us was a litany of warm embraces, powders, pills and the swirl of pungent smokes in the air.
We could not have separated ourselves any more from the
claustrophobic jail that we had been in front of just hours before but perhaps driven by that awareness, we saw how free we were not just in this moment but in life in general. What an absolute privilege and pleasure it is to be able to descend onto a place reserved for the faces of those you have grown up with. Hidden away with no other soul but loved ones knowing of your whereabouts, no authority figure daring you to step out of line. And you know what was done with that freedom? Music was played, dances were had. And there was the same level of love emanating from those around us as earlier in the day, perhaps in part heightened further through chemically induced dramatics but organic and true in root nonetheless.
I looked around at the ravers, the smokers, the madcap misbehavers and felt that despite the infrequency with which we are all together and the disparate paths our lives will continue to take as we grow up and grow older, the unanimity I feel with these people through this connection built on a sense of place means I know I would do pretty much anything for them. And if things were the other way around I believe they would do the same. Should the people inside of that detention centre not have the same relationships, or at least the right to? Are there not parties and music and dancing waiting to once again emanate from their homes? Our Highland utopia was one that could be replicated in any corner of any part of the world. Would it not be such an honour to bask your time in the search for others to have the chance to find that again? It shouldn’t take such a leap to be able to bring these people into your life and through that act of inherent giving, trust that if the roles were ever reversed there would be others who would do the same for you.
If ever my friends, those nearest and dearest, were in need of help, support and love and myself and no one else they knew were there to provide it for them, I would be overjoyed to find a group of strangers in a distant, far away place were standing outside in the rain cheering them on.
Sometimes you can find yourself getting so worked up about the things you see as wrong in the world that it can be all that motivates you. Sometimes that is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, though, by celebrating life you can make the biggest impact. What I took from the day was that if you embrace what is beautiful and shared and present in all of us then even just for brief moments it is possible to light up that sense of darkness. With that it can show paths that can take you through to the dawn and into a place where people need you and you need people. And ultimately it got me asking most pertinently, what should we do anything for if not for that?
Protest photography by Jacob Forsyth-Davies
Party photography by Ruairdh Galbraith
By Paul Gibson