by Selma James
Margaretta D’arcy had never seen the new Centre, on Wolsey Mews, Kentish Town, and so on a trip to London some weeks back, she finally visited. The All African Women’s Group had its bi-weekly meeting the same day, this time it was about 85 women and when appropriate Margaretta was invited to address them. What I remember was she talked about how war had affected all of us and how hard we must struggle against it. The women were delighted in particular with this and greeted that with cheers and applause. They asked how old she was and when told that she would be 83 in June were even more delighted that such power was emanating from a woman of such a great age.
The meeting was very different from ones I had attended over the years. In 2003 when the AAWG started there were only 15 or 20 women meeting bi weekly and trying to work out how this group could help them to get their right to stay. They were often in very bad health physically and psychologically when they arrived in the UK. The trauma of gang rape which some had suffered was sometimes compounded by what must be a worse trauma for mothers: they didn’t know where their children were and whether they were safe. These children had been left behind because they would have been in greater danger if they had travelled with their mothers across boundaries that didn’t want to be crossed.
In a few years of bi-weekly meetings they worked out their principles: self-help. The meeting would find out how a woman’s case was to be fought and what help she was to get. But help would only be forthcoming if she did her part. There were no servants. There were no lady bountifuls. There were no women on the career ladder. There were only women ready to work their butts off while undermining the power relation between those who had a right to be here and those who were striving for that right. So the principle was not only self-help but collective self-help. There was a discipline on all to work for all.
In 2005 they had helped Legal Action for Women (LAW) with a handbook that described in words of one syllable how, if they were in detention, they could get out: what the law was; who they should contact; how to get hold of groups at the Centre. And if they were out, whom to call to ask any questions that arose when following the advice the handbook offered and what their rights were which there was nobody to tell them about.
At one point there was a hunger strike among those women in detention, and Black Women’s Rape Action Project and others at the Centre became their first point of contact to disseminate the information the hunger strikers needed the world to know. Many in the All African Women’s Group mobilised at the Centre by phone with the people inside. And together with BWRAP they tackled the reluctant media outside. A number of things were won and a lot of information like the sexual abuse from G4S guards was uncovered.
Now the group had grown to 80-90 women every other week. The problems of the law and the destitution that the law imposes are compounded by the fact that each woman requires about £10 in London fares to attend the damn meeting.
But what struck me forcibly about this meeting, which I had never seen in the years before was the hope that was pervasive among the women. Why were they hopeful? I’m depressed about Trump for example and the Klansmen who are his mates. The thing is that some women have won because of the enormous effort of the Centre’s Asylum collective: Women Against Rape, BWRAP, Legal Action for Women and the AAWG, who have the passion and now the training to work to win. Those women believe they will win and they made me believe it too.
The only disappointment was that this tremendous gathering which had so much power and so much promise was so little known. It was as though this power was contained by the Centre rather than exploding into public view and movement consciousness. For now there was a movement which has formed itself around Corbyn and McDonnell which could benefit enormously from what these dynamic women knew and understood. So I’m proposing that every meeting of the AAWG reports from the women on how they fought their case and how they won, on the hard work that AAWG and other women at the Centre have put in to make that possible, on the friends in high places and low, few as they may be, who have rallied to their aid, and on the fares that it has cost for the meeting.
We need to know what is happening to the AAWG and the ever more repressive and racist laws they face. We need to know how massive is the mobilisation of others too against the Nazism which divides the world into citizens and non citizens of wherever. We need to understand, because of the threats we all now face, how Hitler came to power in the 1930s. And we need to know about the massive movement that existed against him before it was defeated, among others, by politicians who claimed to represent us.