You know you’re protesting when you’re standing knee deep in mud, step ladder in one hand, flask of hot tea in the other, shouting “no borders, no nations, stop deportation”.
Fourth Wavers joined 600 protestors (or 1500, according to more optimistic reports) in a field in Bedfordshire, where the notoriously brutal and traumatising women’s detention centre, Yarl’s Wood, is hidden away. A beautiful Smörgåsbord of human rights groups came together to demand that Serco-run, Yarl’s Wood SHUT DOWN. There was an emotional tug of war between offering hope and solidarity to the detainees who could see us from their cells, and the fuck you anger towards the Yarl’s Wood bullies and the corporate patriarchy they represent. The result was an angry carnival atmosphere: Drumming, chanting, colourful banners and balloons, mixed with some good old fashioned fence kicking and shouting.
What moved me most was how close we were to the detained women, who were just a few metres away, waving at us from their cells. Because the Serco guards were invisible to us, there was a surreal, tantalising feeling that we were close enough to reach through the fence and just swing open the exit. There was a real feeling of solidarity as we protested together. We held banners on long bamboo canes, stepladders and anything that would be visible above the perimeter fence. They stood at their windows wearing t-shirts with messages of freedom and holding placards. Recently released women shared their experience of Yarl’s Wood and led chants on the megaphone, and detained women did the same, via a complicated set-up with mobile phones and loud speaker (which I was very impressed by, considering we were in the middle of rainy field).
Ex detainees told us that the protests had made the world of difference to them when they were in Yarl’s Wood. For many, their only experience of the UK was to be locked up, humiliated and treated like animals. It would require superhuman strength for anyones spirit not to be shattered on the floor by this experience. Which I am sure is no accident on Serco’s part. So for a crowd to arrive with the message; “We haven’t forgotten you. We hear you. We see you. We’re angry too and we’re on your side” restored some humanity to the situation. All of the detention centre protests have strengthened detainees and sparked internal protests, including mass refusal to be locked up, hunger strikes and hiding detainees when they are due to be flown home. On the coach back from our protest, ex-detainees were getting messages about a new hunger strike underway at Yarl’s Wood.
For me this protest was the epitomy of the classic feminist mantra “the personal is political”. We took political action by protesting, to shine a light on the organisations involved and their abusive treatment of vulnerable detainees. On a personal level, we offered solidarity and support to these vulnerable people by sharing stories of Yarl’s Wood, giving messages of hope and protesting with them, rather than for them. The protest was also beautifully intersectional. Movement for Justice, an anti-racist group, organised the event and were joined by All African Women’s Groups, “No Borders”, Lesbians and Gays Support Migrants, several feminist groups; Sisters Uncut, Fourth Wave, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts Women’s Group, and the trade union Unity.
The strength of such diverse groups coming together felt like a strong contrast to recent divisions between feminists. The explosive disputes about transgender and sex work issues are magnifying what separates us as feminists, and ignoring the many values that unite us. Broadly speaking, feminists want a society that is inclusive, with equal rights, and non-hierarchical and respectful of vulnerable people. Essentially, a more compassionate world. The feminist movement will not be part of creating this society if we attack and exclude each other for holding different opinions. These debates are important, and of course they will be emotionally charged, but it is not helpful if the political contradicts the personal. Or simply put, you can’t demand the end of the “he who shouts loudest wins” society by shouting loudly to drown out all other voices.
Why Yarl’s Wood?
In short, Yarl’s Wood is a privately-run detention centre (read: prison) for female asylum seekers. Women who have been forced to flee their own countries because civil war is raging, or they voice “controversial” political opinions which could see them imprisoned and tortured, or perhaps they are a lesbian in a country where “corrective” rape is viewed as a legitimate “solution”. Our response in the UK is to lock up these people, indefinitely, and re-traumatise them through sexual violation by male staff, the routine use of solitary confinement in response to minor problems and other forms of dehumanising treatment. Detainees have fewer basic human rights, and are treated more brutally, than the most violent criminals in our prisons. Their only crime is to be a victim of persecution simply for being the wrong type, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. When you reduce this scenario to its bare bones, the state is essentially joining forces with the private sector (Serco, in this case) to criminalise vulnerability.
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