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One Day Without Us: a day to stand up for migrants’ post-Brexit precarity

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Marienna Pope-Weidemann interviews Matt Carr, core organizer of the 20 February British day of action for migrant solidarity.

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The banner of One Day Without Us. © One Day Without Us

On 20 February, three different events will ask for Britain’s attention and action. It is the UN World Day of Social Justice, and Parliament will be debating Trump’s visit.

But also, importantly, Monday 20 February will see the UK-wide ‘One Day Without Us’, a National Day of Action to celebrate the contribution of migrants to the UK.

It is an invitation open to migrants from inside and outside the European Union, and everyone who supports them, to celebrate the contribution that migrants make, for 24 hours.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann talks to author and core organizer Matt Carr, to find out more.

Tell us about One Day Without Us. What’s the core idea?

It all goes back to a Facebook call out and discussion in October 2016, after the Tory party conference. That was the worst single display of constant xenophobic and racist messages that I’ve ever seen at any political party conference in my lifetime. It was worse than Enoch Powell back in the 1970s, in that it it was being so widely legitimised.

Minister after minister was coming forth with this stream of astonishingly xenophobic and ultimately self-destructive policies to keep foreign doctors out, foreign students out, and so on. We’d also seen this incredible rise in street racism, with a new sense of entitlement after the referendum when we started seeing again supposedly older, supposedly transcended forms of racism.

And then having that being normalised at the Tory party conference, and Labour taking quite a soft approach to it, politicians across the board were really normalising hate crime and people wanted to do something about it.

'Throughout 2016 people felt repeatedly kicked and now they are recognizing a dangerous political drift'

My proposing the idea was influenced by what I’d seen with One Day Without Us in Italy, a similar mobilisation in the States in 2006 and on a smaller scale here in 2010. There was a huge response, much more than my posts normally get! It became clear very quickly people wanted to build something big. Although the core group remains just a few new volunteers, we’ve had a lot of support from other organisations, Migrants Organise, Migrant Rights Network, War on Want: seasoned campaigners.

Early on, the idea of a strike/boycott put a lot of people off. The paradox there for us is that if we hadn’t been talking in those terms early on it wouldn’t have attracted so much interest. At the same time it ultimately became an obstacle to a really broad mobilisation though and so we responded to that. The worst allegation was that it was irresponsible to call on migrant workers to strike.

Can you say something about why that was, the unique difficulties facing migrant workers standing up for their rights?

They often have no guaranteed rights to do so, no union protection and are on precarious zero hours contracts, so it can be very difficult for them to strike even with an immediate industrial objective, let alone participate in a political strike like this.

Another thing was that a strike focus would make it impossible to get the unions on board because some of the big unions, as soon as they hear the word ‘strike’, they’d back off. Many are keen to say they stand against racism but when you start talking about migrant workers’ rights you sense a certain tone of blue labourism; they don’t want to touch that issue. That’s why we were so pleased to receive UNISON’s support.

Related: Trade unions today: rebuild, renew, resist

Now, there are a range of ways to participate and mark the day: from very safe, secure actions everyone would feel comfortable doing to more radical actions. Of course some people say you’re too fluffy and other people say you’re too radical but it’s not ours to manage; the point is, migrants themselves are leading this across the country, in all the different ways they want.

What we’ve tried to do is create a platform that brings new confidence to people who’ve been really battered for many years now. And the question of solidarity for us was crucial: that British citizens are standing with them, engaging in their actions. And that principle is really taking off.

You mentioned the new precarity of EU nationals – what’s their place in One Day Without Us?

Everyone’s vision of the future now has been altered, not just by the street racism but by the referendum, the way politicians are quite clearly using EU nationals and migrants generally as bargaining chips and scapegoats.

We had an issue early on with a lot of EU nationals objecting to being seen as migrants at all. For us it’s not a negative word, we’re trying to reclaim it, renew the dignity in it. We’re talking about migrants in the broadest sense.

We’re not interested in good migrants or bad migrants or a hierarchy of migrants. We want a space where all migrants can find some way to express what matters to them on that day.

How have you organised to create that space?

We always try and put important proposals out to the widest possible group of participants. That’s worked very organically and been one of the most exciting things about it. It’s not coming from the usual channels, using the same old language, it doesn’t feel like a sort of Old Left initiative because it isn’t; that openness and political diversity does pose challenges in terms of organisation, but has turned this into something new.

Can you give us some idea of the range of activities being planned elsewhere and why?

There are actions in at least 70 places that we know of so far. We put out a list of suggested actions for the people who had never done anything political before, but most of what’s going on now was developed by them.

At the more radical end we have Movement for Justice planning to march and shut down parts of central London. At the softer end, there’s social media activity, a unifying 1pm photo activity – people linking arms together for a photo and posting it on social media – rallies and marches, poetry slams, orchestras, a possible salsa flash mob, some really spectacular things. You can find them all on the event’s website.

There’s some groups doing human libraries, is an old conflict resolution technique where you consult a person, an ‘expert by experience’ as you’d consult a book in the library, a dialogue building exercise. There’s the graffiti wall in Norwich that they’re going to cover in solidarity graffiti before carrying it through the streets of Norwich; in Birmingham they’re hiring a bus to drive round every place where they can find migrant workers, hospitals, factories, with music and a moving celebration. We are just hearing about these things, and there are more springing up every day.

You’ve got one group, marginalised, very undervalued and made quite invisible by wider society, joined by activist groups with lots of campaign experience and because of that, higher collective confidence.

What have been some of the major challenges to organising something like this between migrants and allies? How do you manage the power dynamics between them, making sure migrants are more than tokens, but are genuinely leading the actions?

Migrant-led organisations being invited in to assume a central role was key. We were just a few volunteers, and when people ask ‘well, who are you?’ and your answer is ‘no one in particular,’ that can be an issue.

'Elite-driven globalization gives migrants and most other working people one big thing in common: we’re all expected to live such precarious lives'

We overcame it, built links and grew strong – I think it’s a sign of the times. It’s widely and deeply felt by people that we are living in what the Chinese used to call ‘interesting times’.

Throughout 2016 people felt repeatedly kicked and now they are recognizing a dangerous political drift, that’s really propelled us up and onwards.

You mentioned on the other hand a growing sense of ‘entitlement’ to bigotry since the Brexit vote, mirrored by politicians and much of the press and legitimising hate crime in the streets. What do you think is going on there at the deepest level?

For three decades now we’ve seen a relentless denigration of migrants of all kinds in this country’s media. It’s focused on different groups over that time but with very similar language, with perhaps three quarters of the press engaging in this almost daily.

And politicians respond with the need to take people’s concerns seriously without every really being honest about what those concerns are. I mean, they all want to listen to concerns about immigration but they won’t listen to concerns about anything else!

So there’s that atmosphere created by the establishment and also the economic factors: we live in a world of elite-driven globalisation leaving many people behind. (Although what’s often left out of that story is how much of it happens along racialised lines. And that’s important because while yes, much of the so-called ‘white working class’ is being left behind, it’s all relative and white supremacy is also a growing factor.)

What is important is that this gives migrants and most other working people one big thing in common: we’re all expected to live such precarious lives. Nobody can guarantee security in anything anymore, and we’ve totally lost any concept of ‘the common good’. And most people have lost sight of any vision of a better community, be it local, national or transnational.

That needs to be rediscovered and put into practice in some way otherwise we’re in serious trouble.

Racial power is once again becoming of enormous social importance. Is there a relationship between that and the precarity of the globalized system following the financial crash.

The cost of living crisis is ongoing and all signs indicate that actually all communities, Leave and Remain voters, white and black citizens and migrants, all share a sense that we are losing democratic control along with rights to housing, services and so on.

Do you think that’s also partly why so many people are falling back on older, gendered or racial forms of power and privilege, in the search for some security? And would you agree then that we can’t win the fight for migrant rights, free movement and anti-racism without winning the argument around austerity, exposing it for what it is: a timeless strategy to dispossess, divide and rule?

I do absolutely agree with that. I would add that we’re seeing older forms of racism morphing into something else.

The Institute of Race Relations released an excellent report recently showing how much street abuse and violence mirrors what politicians are saying, basically quoting David Cameron’s ‘speak English or go home.’ As if that is a major issue. (Of course at the same time, they cut back on funding English classes, so that’s the link again there.)

I once wrote a book about the expulsion of Muslims from 17th century Spain. That episode is often cited as an example of what happens when a country allows its own prejudices to take control even against its own interests.

Aside from the moral horror of expelling 350,000 men, women and children, Spain also fatally damaged itself for many years after. I never thought I’d see anything like that happen in the UK.

Such acts are usually reserved for times of extreme social crisis, like the way World War I created the climate for the rise of Nazism. Now we’ve just had an economic crisis and even that has produced an extreme and dangerous sort of hyper-nationalism.

We can’t put it all down to austerity but it has certainly exacerbated all the fault lines in society and made it much easier to scapegoat ‘the other’.

On the other hand are you wary of relying just on economic arguments about the net contribution migration makes to the economy, public services and so on? Does it risk disconnecting us from the moral obligation to protect some of the most vulnerable fleeing war and persecution, who might not be ‘paying in’ from the week they arrive?

There’s no question about that. We’ve called One Day Without Us a celebration of the contribution migrants make and yes, this has been questioned. But we’re celebrating all forms of contribution, social, cultural…

But that being said I do think we have to counter the myths about stealing jobs and houses and services, because they are myths and they do fuel hatred.

If the country isn’t even willing to accept free movement in Europe, people considered ‘like us’, it’s a very difficult case to make so we need to use every argument while always maintaining migrants should never have to justify their presence in the UK.

Your example of the Spanish expulsions made me wonder again, was the political establishment as divided over the question of Brexit as they appeared? Is it a case of: the genie’s out of the bottle and racist scapegoating, once their tool for maintaining control, has developed a life of its own?

Yes, you put it very well. Brexit was a real mess up in the sense that politicians of all parties whipped up fears about immigration and pandered to them, instead of clarifying public ‘concerns’.

A game played by the Tory party, that was essentially about internal party matters, has been allowed to throw away the country’s future. It’s like we’re dealing with a bunch of Etonian gamblers hanging out in some casino, and it was done that lightly, that arrogantly and with that level of disregard for that basic notion of the common good. Even on their own narrow terms of ‘the nation’s economic interest’, they’ve done something disastrous driven by the prejudices they themselves helped inflame.

Polls continually indicate the public think over 30 per cent of the population are migrants when the actual figure is around 13 per cent, and if they keep thinking that, you’re moving into this Trumpist world of alternative facts where what people feel matters more than the evidence.

If they reduce migration to the levels they’ve promised, Public Policy Research reported recently, as early as 2030 there won’t be enough young workers paying taxes to pay for our pensions! It’s startling how these points are completely left out of the general discussion.

What about the Labour Party? There’s been a shift recently towards ‘taking people’s concerns seriously’, blurring their position on free movement, and now leading figures in trade unions are following suit, the Unite leader for example saying free movement equals exploitation. Your thoughts?

I find it quite depressing. It’s very frustrating and their position is unclear – perhaps contested within the party. It’s what you expect from a Blairite government, we remember Gordon Brown talking about ‘British jobs for British workers’ and historically, some of the harshest immigration controls have been introduced by Labour. So we don’t necessarily expect them to have an internationalist position on free movement.

'We have to counter the myths about stealing jobs and houses and services, because they are myths and they do fuel hatred'

But it’s disappointing to hear it from people close to Corbyn because he’s made many principled statements about migration, free movement and workers rights in the past.

But yes, the unions now seem to be implying that restricting free movement will restrict exploitation of migrant workers – when in fact you could perfectly easily have free movement and crack down on exploitation. And I think really it’s just certain people looking to legitimise them pandering to what they see as ‘the white working class’ - as though the working class were only white or at least, it only matters when it is.

How do you situate One Day Without Us – and the migrant rights movement more broadly – within the upsurge of protest against Trump? And how do we keep the focus on holding our own government to account for injustices here at home?

One thing I find encouraging about One Day Without Us in terms of Trumpism is that we’re trying a lot of things similar to Cosecha in the United States, for example, and in many countries. I hope there’ll be a strong international convergence of all these new, open, diverse movements because that’s what we need.

With 20 February also being about the parliamentary debate on Trump’s visit and protests against that, there’s a danger of mixed messages.

It’s very important for us to have the rights of migrants in the UK centre stage and not have that lost in a conversation about Donald Trump. Having said that they’ve been in discussions with us about how we can support and amplify each other so it could turn out very well.

What comes next, after 20 February?

Recently a seasoned migrant rights campaigner in Birmingham pointed out to me that this is the first ever national day of action in solidarity with migrants in the UK. And that’s great.

‘What next?’ is the big question and it’s a conversation that’s really coming to us from the grassroots; people are on the move, here, and looking forward, wanting to support what other organisations are already doing and build a movement.

For us, it depends what happens on 20 February. If it turns out as we’d hoped, we’ll be carrying it forward somehow.

And lastly, let’s turn to Europe. You published the book Fortress Europe back in 2012. Can you say a little about what’s changed, particularly since Trump and Brexit? We saw last week Hungary now wants to incarcerate all asylum seekers… What lessons can we draw from what we’re seeing there?

When I was researching that book back in 2009-2011 that EU-wide system of repression was already in place – what we have now is a massive increase in the numbers. When I was travelling, even the detention centres were pretty empty. It was like a ghostly machinery of repression was sitting there waiting for whoever would come. So yes, disheartening that this repressive, often racist response has spread throughout the continent, driven not only by European powers you might expect but by new member states like Hungary. So Fortress Europe is getting nastier, the cost is getting greater, death rates rising on the journeys.

You know, Syria is really the perfect refugee crisis. With the whole country consumed by a brutal war, and no room for doubt that anyone coming from Syria is a ‘genuine refugee’. But even when presented with that ‘perfect’ refugee, in this country we still won’t admit more than a few hundred people. And that exposes the ‘bogus asylum seeker’ rhetoric for what it was: a cynical pretext.

We’ve seen some positive things thanks to social movements campaigning in different places. Angela Merkel’s admittedly limited offer was courageous and would not have happened without pressure from the German people. Looking forwards, we have to find a way to a world that is accepting of migration, not just as an inevitable fact of life and of history but as something that we don’t need to fear. We have to. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

The greatest thing about One Day Without Us and the Stop Trump campaign is that both are bringing in a whole layer of first-time activists. Your own background is in writing and you’ve also made that transition. What do you think is giving hope, confidence in our ability to create change, even at this dark time?

Well that is what gives me hope: that it’s revealed the sort of seed bed of a different kind of country that’s been ignored for a long time. I’ve been really impressed by the courage I’ve seen in people. One woman I work with was standing outside a supermarket on International Migrants Day in December, by herself, giving out sweets to shoppers and encouraging them to get involved. She was all on her own doing that for the first time in her life, and I think that’s quite something, actually.

There are so many people willing not only to challenge the treatment of migrants, but to make the links to threats against wider society, drawing parallels to the lead up to World War II which is not melodrama – it’s a very real possibility. And a great many people know that.

We just need to reach them because we could be another, very different, fairer, freer kind of society – that’s a real possibility, too.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann is communications coordinator at Right to Remain, working with grassroots groups to support 1 Day Without Us. She also works at These Walls Must Fall.

You can find events related to One Day Without Us near you, or examples of actions you might want to take, on the event’s website, or connect through the Facebook event.

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