One Day Without Us: UK Immigrants Strike Back

I first came across the idea of an immigrant strike in 2006. That year, on May 1st – workers’ day – in the USA, immigrant communities mainly from Latinx countries staged a one-day boycott of businesses and schools. The idea was to show what a day without immigrant participation would look like. More specifically it showed what the economic effects of this would be, especially given negative propaganda about migrants being a burden. There was a beauty, simplicity and power in this action, and I wondered what it would be like to do something similar here in the UK.

Fast forward over ten years later, and the action was repeated on February 16th 2017 in the US, which was reeling from the election of Donald Trump, his racist rhetoric and travel ban. According to some sources, around 100 workers were prosecuted for taking part. But what was also surprising was how many employers were sympathetic to it.

In the UK, there is now a similar movement, “One Day Without Us.” The approach is different, however. Rather than a strike, it’s a demonstration “to celebrate the presence of migrants past and present in the UK.” It’s an opportunity to share stories, music and support amongst immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike.

The event in Cardiff was organised by Eunice Chipachini, a business-owner originally from Zimbabwe and now a proud Cardiffian. She asked me and Laura Bradshaw, from the Oasis project in Splott, to come down with sound equipment and musicians to the Senedd/Welsh Assembly in Cardiff Bay on Saturday February 17th, a mercifully sunny day in the middle of a harsh Welsh winter.

What made this different from so many other demos was that it wasn’t just people making speeches. There were songs and personal testimony by people from Africa, the Middle East, Wales the EU and beyond. Eunice even asked questions to the audience and got them up on the mic to answer them! The common theme was that whether we were born here or not, we had all made Cardiff our home. Passers-by, who were enjoying the brief respite in the weather, got sucked in to the spectacle. It was impossible to feel threatened by something so welcoming and joyful. I felt very lucky to be a part of it.

It is interesting to me that this event took place in Cardiff Bay, formally Tiger Bay, which used to house some of the longest continuous communities of colour in the UK. Many of them were moved on during the Cardiff Bay development, despite the fact that it was considered by many as “a symbol of racial, ethnic, religious and ecumenical harmony.” In addition, parts of Cardiff are now facing a similar exodus due to the effects of gentrification. Is there a case for something more confrontational here, like the immigrant strike in the US?

It’s not for me to say. Immigrant communities are not a homogeneous block, nor are they organised as such. The various intersections of class, colour and so on could result in some of the most vulnerable being the victims of such an action. We can look to the Polish community here in the UK, who, tired of the constant negative stereotypes of them in the British press, decided to stage an action to counter it on Thursday 20th August 2015. Some chose to strike, others chose to give blood instead. It’s hard enough to get one nationality group to agree on a course of action.

As well as this, with the spike in racist attacks since Brexit, the ongoing lack of status amongst EU nationals here, raids by the UK Border Agency, the Prevent strategy targeting Muslims – including children as young as four, stop-and-search disproportionately targeting communities of colour and so on, it seems to me to be enough for us to get together, hold each other close and support each other in the way we did on Saturday. The wider public are already hyped to the max about how immigrants are supposedly a “problem”, and there is only so much aggro immigrant communities can take right now.

Many thanks to Eunice and everyone who helped out and participated in this event. I hope it can grow in the years to come. You can follow what happened elsewhere in the UK on the One Day Without Us Twitter feed.

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