Building the migrant justice movement

30 November 2020
Akram Salhab

by Akram Salhab and Neha Shah, Migrants Organise 

Building the Migrant Justice Movement was published as chapter 6. of Runnymede Trust’s report Immigration and the Lottery of Belonging in Britain, released in June 2020. Republished under Creative Commons Licence.

The global lurch to the far right has created a series of new strategic questions for the ‘migrant rights’ movement in Britain. Traditional methods of lobbying and awareness-raising appear wholly insufficient in light of an intransigent government intent on escalating anti-migrant policy and sentiments. But what is the alternative to such approaches? 

One answer has been to give greater attention to ideas of ‘community organising’ and ‘movement building’. However, precisely what these two terms mean at the current historical juncture remains under- explored and poorly understood, producing political responses of varying effectiveness. 

To work out the immediate and long-term strategies for the ‘migrant rights’ movement, we need to understand the approaches currently being adopted, along with their ideological and organisational assumptions. As migration has now become a euphemism for race, this is a critical task for the anti- racist movement too. This chapter sets out some preliminary ideas, in order to advance and develop debate among those to whose work, lives and future it is relevant. 

Our chapter will primarily discuss the role of migrant and BME communities from among whom a migrant justice movement must be renewed and led. This inevitably must include the largest, most active migrant communities working in coalition for common cause and via institutions that are politically active and representative. The ‘migrant rights sector’ – NGOs, solidarity organisations and activist groups – has an important yet secondary role in providing infrastructure for the movement. 

Community organising 

In the contemporary political lexicon, ‘community organising’ is hailed as the solution to a variety of problems currently vexing progressive forces. It refers to the idea that for change to be possible, politics must be remade as an activity in which everybody can be included. The approach is often contrasted with ‘elite lobbying’ – attempts to achieve small campaign wins via media work and policy proposals made directly to politicians. Community organising is instead a slower process of building grassroots power so communities can define their own problems, design their own campaigns and create organisations that can bring about longer-term, structural change. 

The latest usage of community organising has taken place alongside an importation of models of organising from the United States, particularly Saul Alinsky’s method developed in 1930s Chicago. Alinsky’s model outlines a vision of politics which is relational, focused on achievable wins, and which places considerable importance on the role of ‘The Organiser’ to bring about social change. It claims to eschew ideology in favour of a narrower agreement on points of common interest. Alinsky’s main purveyors in Britain are Citizens UK, although other organisations, less explicitly, have also draw heavily from his work, methodology and jargon. 

Many aspects of the model – its terminology and strategic approach – have been widely adopted within activism circles in Britain. In the migrant rights sector, community organising has been seen as an antidote to models of service provision that regard migrants as passive recipients of support, instead ‘empowering’ them to take action within their community. There are a variety of community organising training and leadership schemes which have effectively supported individuals to acquire the skills and confidence to take public action. 

However, there are a number of disconcerting elements to how community organising is currently conceived. Community organising is often spoken about as a ‘pioneering’ approach, hitherto unheard of and without precedent. Knowledge of its rarefied method is the domain of organisers, who impart information to those they are teaching via formulaic training that looks at power analysis, active listening, strategy and action planning. Although this approach relies heavily on Alinsky-based models (or variants of it), it is presented as universal practice and its particular methods as being intrinsic to community organising per se. This is often accompanied by lazy references to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who are inaccurately subsumed into this same tradition defined not by any conceptual or methodological continuity, but instead, by vague references to ‘hope’ and ‘change’.(1) 

Also introduced into Britain from the United States is a model of intersectionality which seeks to identify and address interconnected social oppressions. This model rejects a singular focus on economic or political issues, insisting instead on the need to confront, equally, other forms of oppression and exclusion such as sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia (although class oppression is often conspicuously absent). Its advocates borrow heavily from radical women in the African-American tradition, often quoting thinkers such as Audre Lorde. In the charity sector, this model is characterised by a quasi-therapeutic attentiveness to ‘self-care’ and healing as an antidote to the demanding nature of political work. 

As with Alinsky’s approach, the main concern is the totalising nature of how this model of political work is presented. Intersectionality’s impulse towards inclusivity is much needed, however it is a model of broad-based organising developed in the US context, and yet it is taken, wholesale, as a model for political work in Britain today. Out of context quotations are used to equate systemic analyses of oppression with interpersonal manifestations of discrimination, exclusion and insult. State racism and colonialism become reduced to individual ‘white privilege’, capitalist exploitation transformed into just another social oppression.(2) 

A serious analysis of discrimination and exploitation, both internationally and within Britain, is neglected in favour of an uncritical transposition of US specific conceptions of race and anti-blackness. Altogether this has heralded a move away from traditional notions of active solidarity on a universal basis, towards the less substantive idea of ‘allyship’ with those who have ‘lived experience’. 

Both of these approaches, alongside others, almost entirely overlook, and therefore disparage, the rich traditions of community organising in which many groups in Britain are already embedded. As Satnam Virdee has argued, British working-class history is the history of migrant struggles, whose contributions have reinvented class politics by bringing to it new tools and methods of organising.(3) While the cultural and economic contributions that migrants make to British life are much vaunted, their political contributions are egregiously passed over. The negation of this history reinforces cultural imperialism and obscures the many lessons that past struggles have for today’s activists.(4)

This erasure of historical struggles is accompanied by an invisibilisation of migrant struggles in the present day: a combination that leads to a denial of the agency of the communities supposedly being ‘organised’. Migrant community groups, often without websites or social media accounts, work informally in supporting individuals, building consciousness, arranging commemorative events and organising in support of justice back home. Much of their campaigning output does not receive media coverage, is published only in their language(s) of origin and is circulated to the community, both in the diaspora and back home, via WhatsApp. This hive of activity exists often without knowledge or recognition of anybody beyond these communities. 

Within communities there are different strands of emancipatory thought, including socialist, liberal and religious tendencies. These are reformulated by migrants in accordance with the dynamics in the new community. For example, Latin American grassroots unions have revolutionised the British trade union movement by bringing a vibrancy and tactics uniquely suited to the challenge of organising precarious workers in the gig economy. Meanwhile, the Kurdish movement’s principles of women’s liberation, ecology and direct democracy have reinvigorated the anti- racist movement in Britain and introduced novel critiques of the state into the political mainstream. Both examples (and many more could be given) have innovative conceptions of power, theories of change, organisational structures, and approaches to recruitment and education, as well as internationalist interpretations of justice. 

Acknowledging such struggles, both past and present, shifts the terms of the debate on migrant community organising considerably. If the task is no longer to teach or empower communities but to learn from them and take their lead, then the practices required are of a wholly different order. This doesn’t suggest an uncritical adoption of every way of doing things, but rather, an acknowledgement  of, and positive engagement with, existing forms as a starting point. Reorienting migrant communities as the agent of change would not only bring fresh answers to old questions but throw up new questions and organisational priorities altogether. Why is it that migrant communities and their histories of struggle have been made invisible? What structural impediments – financial, organisational and legal – restrict or misdirect their activities? And perhaps most importantly, what can be done to overcome them? 

Very practical organisational principles follow from this. For example, has there been a thorough assessment of existing initiatives prior to creating and launching a campaign? Is the campaign inclusive of those it is intended to help and oriented towards building on and supporting their work? Does the design of the campaign reflect their values, worldview, language and organising traditions? Is there practical work to retrieve and amplify a community’s organising history, rather than offering top-down, off-the-shelf training? Can media coverage be directed to include stories of community resistance rather than just case studies or spokespersons with ‘lived experience’? For those committed to building a migrant rights movement, these questions are an essential starting point. 

Movement building 

Movement building refers to the political work of knitting together local, regional and sectional interests and campaigns into a broader alliance with greater ability to bring about change. Its necessity emerges from the analysis that alone, groups and campaigns are weak, but together, they can acquire sufficient strength to seriously challenge the structures confronting them. 

How ‘BME’ and migrant communities are organised, and how they have been organised in the past, is an important starting point. A brief retrieval of the histories of struggle, of black struggle, in Britain gives us a greater understanding of the organisational questions that groups have faced, and in which direction our energies can be best focused. 

The black community – Asian and African-Caribbean – was created in the 1950s and 1960s by a culture of resistance to a racist system that imported their labour while denying them their basic needs in housing, schooling, and social and welfare services. The black community responded to this state neglect and racist policing with a range of radical self-help initiatives, coordinated through organisations such as the United Coloured People’s Alliance and the Black Unity and Freedom Party. Their common struggle was amplified through shared projects, news outlets and schools, and drew sustenance from the global anti-colonial revolution, creating ‘a beautiful massive texture that in turn strengthened the struggles here and fed back to the struggle there’.(5) 

The demise of this unified movement began during the economic downturn of the early 1970s. Sivanandan (among others) attributes this decline to divisions created by state-sponsored urban initiatives that funded and de-radicalised migrant organisations and institutionalised the black community’s self-help initiatives. Such strategies sought to disband the unified black culture into its constituent parts, and then offer each group up for integration. The unified political colour ‘Black’, a term for all those who wove together their different anti-colonial traditions in a common struggle against racism, was diminished, and the fight against racism became a fight for culture and ethnicity. 

These policies of state capture were further accelerated under New Labour and successive governments, all of whom have pursued a policy of selectively funding migrant charities and turning them into marketised companies. These new third sector organisations filled gaps in welfare and service provision that was once provided by the state. Liz Fekete notes the concurrent rise of ‘professionalised and well-funded multi-agency counter-extremism and hate-crime “industries” [which] have turned the focus away from collective struggles against racism in all its forms, to concentrate on a narrow struggle against prejudice, hate and bigotry, or a vacuous struggle against extremism’.(6)

This has further quashed what was left of the old social movements and grassroots black community groups fighting for racial justice, especially those that consciously took more radical or unorthodox approaches. 

This forced reconfiguration of organising in migrant and BME communities has given rise to a number of struggles within the movement itself. Perhaps the most concerning of these are the differences in the definition of the problem – what racism is, and what it is not – and the object of the struggle – what anti- racism is, and what it is not. 

The black community previously organised on the understanding that anti-racism was a collective response to attacks against those most oppressed and marginalised by the state. Increasingly, however, racism is no longer understood as a global structure underpinning systems of exploitation at home and abroad. Campaigns instead set their sights much lower, orienting themselves only against personal racism or bigotry, leaving structural and institutional racism intact. In turn, this leaves so-called ‘anti-discrimination’ campaigns vulnerable to co-optation by the very institutions that create and enact racist policies.(7)  The movement’s previous focus on black ‘issues’ – matters of national (and often international) importance that connected communities in common struggle – has been flattened into a focus on individual, exceptionalised ‘cases’: phenomena that only merit attention or resistance from a handful of ‘stakeholders’ or that advance only the most minimal policy demands. 

These divisive strategies have gone hand in hand with the intensification of the hostile environment policies of successive governments and the Prevent legislation, which together serve a repressive and depoliticising function. Both policies subject racialised people and internationalists to a raft of new threats, some legislative, some implicit, which deliberately intimidate and therefore discourage them from taking part in political activism.(8) Undocumented workers, student organisers and minorities alike are fearful of making their voice heard lest they be reported to the Home Office or have their institutions targeted by the state. 

These policies serve the twin purpose of depoliticising black and migrant struggle in Britain, and fostering divisions between groups. To confront these machinations there is a clear need for unity and the reintroduction of collective strategies in confronting oppression. Without such unity, each group is vulnerable, and their collective demands are weakened and thereby contained. For example, the Windrush scandal was used by some as a means of reasserting distinctions between Caribbean people who arrived as citizens and so-called ‘illegal’ migrants. The result has been a reinforcing of damaging language around legality and citizenship and, for those affected, an inadequate, poorly resourced compensation scheme. 

This task of creating unity requires a reforging of some of the central concepts of the anti-colonial era, and their reinvention to serve the needs of the current struggle. The rise of powerful far-right elements within minority and migrant communities means that shared oppression alone – or common ‘lived experience’ – will not suffice as a basis for unified action. 

Instead, there is a need for slower, careful efforts at re-establishing shared values and approaches to collective resistance. The movement needs to collapse the artificial distinctions between internationalism and domestic concerns and the new tendency towards separate, individualising definitions of racism. Both of these phenomena obscure the reality of the global challenges we face, thereby mischaracterising what is being fought for and which aspects of the struggle ought to be prioritised.(9) The current approach is leading down a political cul-de-sac focused on ever-narrowing interest-based models that weaken all communities working for justice. 

The task ahead is to forge a new internationalist anti-racism built around shared principles – a shared ideology – that draws on and combines progressive traditions from within migrant communities and among British internationalists. There is an enormous history of this in Britain throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when many alliances or ad hoc coalitions, including the Black People’s Alliance, the Committee Against Racial Discrimination and many others, were formed to coordinate resistance against colonialism and racism. This tradition re-emerged in the early 2000s in organising initiatives against the illegal invasion of Iraq and racist ‘counter-terror’ legislation, establishing bodies whose work continues today. (10) 

Such platforms can establish dynamic debates about shared experiences and histories, as well as about strategy and approach. This facilitation provides the basis for collective action, creating the common ground on which political struggles for justice will be conducted in the months and years ahead. 

Full report available here: Immigration and the Lottery of Belonging in Britain,

Notes 

1. For more on tracing and uncovering political traditions, see S. Hazareesingh and K. Nabulsi (2008) ‘Using archival sources to theorise about politics’, in D. Leopold and M. Stears (eds) Political Theory: Methods and Approaches (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

2. M. Aouragh (2019) ‘White privilege’ and shortcuts to anti-racism’, Race & Class, 61(2), 3–26. 

3. S. Virdee (2014) Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (London: Red Globe Press). 

4. There are many excellent initiatives working to reverse this trend by rediscovering black radical history in Britain. The Institute of Race Relations and the Black Cultural Archives are two of the most established, alongside a growing number of other grassroots and academic projects. 

5. A. Sivanandan (2019 [1990]) ‘Challenging Racism: Strategies for the 1980s’ in Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism (London: Verso), p. 66. 

6. L. Fekete (2020) ‘Fault lines in the fight against racism and antisemitism’ Institute of Race Relations, 30 January, www.irr.org.uk/news/fault-lines-in-the-fight- against-racism-and-antisemitism 

7. See, for example, the British Army’s Muslim recruitment drive: M. Hookham (2018) ‘Army targets Muslims and women in new recruitment ads’, The Sunday Times, 14 January, www.thetimes.co.uk/ article/army-targets-muslims-and-women-in-new- recruitment-ads-q0qh995dv 

8. K. Nabulsi (2017) ‘Don’t go to the doctor’, London Review of Books 39(10), May. 

9. For example, one cannot make sense of racism against British Muslims without understanding the imperialist objectives of the ‘War on Terror’, or speak about the racism of Europe’s migration policy without referencing the EU’s outsourcing of repressive policies to despotic regimes in Turkey and Eritrea. 

10. Some examples include the Stop the War Coalition in 2003 (www.stopwar.org.uk) and the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPAAC) (www. campacc.org.uk). 

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