Saturday 15th August 2020 – little over one week from the time of writing – will see seasoned and newly engaged social activists take to the streets of Bonnyrigg in support of and solidarity of Debora Kayembe and her family. Circa one week ago, EdinburghLive, The Daily Record, and S.T.V. News detailed the sustained racial abuse the Kayembe family have been subjected to. In EdinburghLive, Kathleen Speirs and Sian Traynor wrote that ‘[f]rom vile verbal abuse to attacks on her home, the family have said they are in constant fear whilst living in what is thought to be a well respected area’. Debora, herself, highlighted the devastating impact this experience has, telling readers ‘I fear for mine and my children’s lives here every single day’.
Arriving in Scotland more than fifteen years ago, Debora (a Congolese refugee) has gone on to build a career as a human rights lawyer and now serves as a trustee for the Scottish Refugee Council. In August 2019, her portrait was added to the The Royal Society of Edinburgh collection in recognition of her impact on Scottish life – the first female African to be featured. She’s lived in Bonnyrigg with her two teenage children, both of whom, she stated, have been subjected to verbal abuse at their school. These incidents, she suggests, have become increasingly commonplace in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
‘I’ve had many cars damaged. My tyres have been slashed and had nails put in them and I’ve been spat at while I’m driving’
‘One night, a mob of 10 teenagers stood outside our home and chanted “Go home! Go home!” until a neighbour stepped in to help’.
Ahead of the demonstration next Saturday, Debora proclaimed that in Scotland ‘we’re saying we’re against homophobia, against racism. [So] when it happens, we come and we scream out from our mouths “we do not want any racism in Scotland”’. In line with this call to action, the Facebook Event titled Freedom Walk – Friends of Debora, advises that a ‘broad coalition of anti[-]racists, trade unionists [including Midlothian T.U.C.], community activists [as well as] The Universal Peace Federation Scotland and Black Lives Matter campaigners have come together to support Debora Kayembe and her family in Bonnyrigg after they were subjected to racist abuse and harassment in their home, forcing them to move to another part of Bonnyrigg’.
Like Debora, I’m a member of the Scottish Socialist Party Lothians Branch. Consequently, I became aware of the abuse she faced in having nails puncture the tyres of her car in its immediate aftermath. I’ve seen the public announcements regarding the march for solidarity; much of it reminiscent of the Muirhouse Anti-Racism Campaign (M.A.R.C.) in north Edinburgh during the early 1990’s. Some thirty years ago when a family who originated in Botswana were the victims of explicitly racist attacks many local residents rallied outside of the tower block in which the targeted family lived to show their support and to showcase via strength in numbers that racist behaviour would not be tolerated.
The problem is, however, that just as Debora linked current racist attacks to the Brexit vote, as we move towards some form of ‘recovery phase’ from our current global pandemic, such hatred will likely become further prominent. Folk will compete for fewer jobs – many of which are already zero-hours, sessional, or precarious – creating a space in which people will seek someone to blame when we find ourselves jobless or struggling financially. We must ensure our frustrations for these crises are targeted towards the appropriate demographics – and it’s not our neighbours.
Many businesses currently find themselves in a position to overhaul their employment practices and management structures. In many industries, profit serves as the priority rather than the welfare of workers and in a great number of these companies it’s better to pay off a handful of full-time workers, replacing them with low or no guaranteed hours. Those who become trapped on such dire contracts mustn’t see their colleagues or rival candidates for such jobs as the reason for financial precarity and job insecurity, lashing out or demonising their perceived ‘other’. Rather, it’s employers, management, and the business class who fostered a capitalist culture that permits such neglectful practices. Migrants (within Scotland or from further afield) are not ‘taking our jobs’ – the jobs were never there in the first place. Thus, when calls of ‘go home’ ring out, we must be ready to defend our neighbours, friends, and comrades.
Similar issues of powerlessness plague the Scottish capital in the housing sector as the local council permits new mass developments in a process of gentrification. We in north Edinburgh need only look towards the community mobilisation of the Save Leith Walk Campaign which challenged yet another development plan – one that forced the closure of many long established cafes, pubs, and independent retailers before the local residents saw any success. With the further chaos now caused by the construction of an extended tramline in a city that already boasts a highly creditable bus service (that too now disrupted by these developments), a great many jobs have been lost and businesses have closed permanently. Some retailers shifted online and other trades sought new premises, but many of them are gone for good.
Even with this success in preventing one new construction project, new university-owned accommodation sites further marginalise residents within their own community. Unlike many U.S. universities and colleges, there isn’t a dedicated campus space in which all student life occurs. Rather, university student housing expands throughout the city centre (Cowgate, Nicholson Street, Holyrood), down into much of Leith, and well beyond. Likewise, the unregulated tourist industry has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of properties be commandeered entirely for short term rentals via websites like AirBnB, thereby reducing the number of affordable properties for those wishing to live centrally. Like the way much of north Edinburgh was created as folk were forced out of the city centre and into the high rises and other multi storey flats built during the 1930’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s, increasingly people can only find affordable homes on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
This, however, does not merely affect long term residents, but also those moving into the Scottish capital for work or to study. When someone arrives into a new country or city, people go where there are job opportunities and create homes where the rents are contextually cheaper. More and more folk find themselves living in poor and working class communities such as north Edinburgh, the Southside, and out towards Wester Hailes creating communities rich in social, cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity; but so too putting pressure on schools already bursting at capacity and places immense demands on local services including community and healthcare centres. This occurs due to the lack of investment in genuinely ‘affordable housing’, not the faux affordability promised as a percentage of new builds; alongside ever increasing rents that then result in greater competition for the remaining properties. Once again the cause of insecure housing is not each other, not the migrant, but the landlord class and the agencies who fail to ensure an adequate and liveable standard of property at an affordable price. The Covid pandemic and ensuing job losses left many renters on Universal Credit and, at the time of summer contract renewals, many tenants suddenly find themselves instructed to leave their homes as landlords refuse to accept tenants whose sole source of income comes through social security (‘No D.S.S.’).
Debora suggested, I believe, quite accurately that Brexit gave rise to increased anti-migrant and realistically publicly aired discrimination towards the U.K.’s non-white communities. Following the other major referendum concerning Scottish secession from the British state, there has also been a significant anti-English sentiment aired by some within the various Scottish independence movements. This has once again been illustrated in recent weeks by those carrying anti-English banners in the borders in an effort to police who enters the country.
Yet, the conditions created by the landlords, the management class, profit-driven businesses, and the cowardice of the state results in a society that excludes poor and working communities from a comfortable life. This doesn’t for one moment excuse those committing acts of hated, prejudice, and discrimination Debora and her family endured, but rather it illustrates that in some cases such tensions arise from misplaced anger towards those in our immediate vicinity. But not always…
Brexit has not produced racism, but it has helped foster a culture in which hatred thrives in the open; where (let’s be realistic) men will counter a Black Lives Matter protest under the guise of defending a statue; and in which intolerance of others actively is encouraged. We’ve witnessed the rise of a trans exclusionary movement that platforms hatred and deploys tactics of misinformation, misgendering, and outright hostility. One need only look at the confrontation that occurred in the Lush shop on Edinburgh’s Princes Street earlier this week or the suggested £10,000 spent creating a bizarre advert in Waverley station proclaiming ‘I <3 J.K.’ – the children’s author who has perpetuated ill-informed commentary to her millions of online followers.
Action for social change can be radical and all-inclusive, but more often it’s reformist in nature and requires patience. The recently deceased John Lewis spoke of ‘patience’ as a dangerous word; a term that permits the ongoing mistreatment of communities along lines of race, class, gender, ability, and so much more. Yet, despite this, systemic change generally takes time and those in positions of power at the state level and in parliament are rarely willing to support progress before it enters into the public consciousness and to ignore it would cost votes. So, for now, we must do what we can to change our society and our communities at the local level. We must show both those who would encourage the working classes to fight amongst ourselves, and the individuals who embody this hatred through acts of violence towards others, that their actions will not be tolerated.
We’ve done it before on anti-racist fronts through community organisations like M.A.R.C., and – sticking with north Edinburgh – more recently through All About Me. This all women-led organisation formed primarily of lone mothers demonstrated that political action in our communities doesn’t need to follow the historical norms of an angry white man with a microphone occupying centre stage. Rather, here we witnessed the group members co-produce a list of demands, prioritising the practical and immediate acts that would change their lives, targeting these at the precise institutions responsible for the precarious housing situations that faced.
Again, with the North Edinburgh #SaveOurServices Campaign last year showed us alternative methods of ensuring inclusion in our activism. Here, service users who faced losing vital organisational support but because of the sensitive nature of that aid could not make themselves known had their messages carried on placards by other local residents undertaking protest at the city chambers. Provided we ensure that the stage and calls to action are led by those with lived experience of a given issue, there is room for mutual aid.
So for now, I encourage anyone who is in a position that allows them to consider joining us next weekend in Bonnyrigg to support Debora and her family to do so. Let’s show the cross-community spirit and ethos of M.A.R.C. remains alive. Attendees are encouraged to meet at King George V Park (EH3 5EN), for a 13:00 (1p.m.) start.