This week, as it’s the Manchester Histories Festival and we’re here in our new home at Central Library, we’ve been taking advantage of the handling table in the Ground Floor Archives+ exhibition area.
On Tuesday afternoon Ruth and I pulled together a selection of items from the Steve Cohen archive, which is a large collection of anti-deportation campaign memorabilia from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, donated by the Manchester activist and community lawyer Steve Cohen. There are more than 70 campaigns represented in the collection but we decided to focus on the case of Viraj Mendis.
If you were in Manchester in the 1980s you’ll recognise the name – maybe you remember seeing the graffiti on bridges and overpasses around Hulme: ‘Viraj Mendis must stay! Stop all deportations!’ or hearing the chants: ‘Viraj Mendis is our friend! We’ll stick with him until the end!’
Mendis’ campaign was significant because he fought it on political grounds rather than just personal ones, campaigning for a change in immigration laws that he and many others on the left saw as fundamentally racist. Rather than petitioning his MP to avoid deportation (the usual route) he took sanctuary in the Church of the Ascension in Hulme, from where he continued to campaign for more than two years before his eventual deportation back to Sri Lanka in January 1989.
The items in our collection reveal a lot about this story. You really get a sense of the scale of the Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign (the VMDC). All the left-wing groups in Manchester rallied behind him, turning the Church of the Ascension into their headquarters, pulling together against the common enemy of the Thatcher government.
We have a huge hand painted banner, with little floral handles, all filthy at the bottom with dirt from the streets of Manchester. It reads
VIRAJ MENDIS WILL STAY
TO DEMONSTRATE IS NOT A CRIME
What stands out in the Viraj Mendis material is how every mention of his personal situation is followed by a demand for wider civil liberties. This was clearly more than one man’s plight; it was about social equality for all.
From the VMDC Bulletins running from the early 1980s to 1989 you get a feel for the ebb and flow of the campaign. Most strikingly the December 1988 edition optimistically predicts ‘Victory in 1989!’. By the end of January 1989 Mendis had been deported. Supporters pulled together with emergency meetings, whilst the Conservative party responded saying ‘Good riddance’.
Mendis was a hugely divisive figure, and even some on the Left disagreed with the way he ran his campaign as a political protest. The national furore he caused, at least in part, prompted the government to tighten immigration law, removing the possibility of individuals appealing to their local MP for representation to the Home Office – a crucial last resort for fighting deportation orders. We see far fewer campaigns today because there is very little room for influence within the system.
That’s what makes the Steve Cohen collection so fascinating; it captures a very particular moment in our recent history when politics, law and society were such that community campaigning could make a real difference. The handwritten placards, cheaply printed flyers and hastily sewn banners give a feel for the urgent, grassroots nature of these campaigns – whole communities throwing their limited resources but boundless commitment behind their neighbours, fighting for their mixed race neighbourhoods. Whatever your politics or opinions about immigration today, there is something very touching about such energy and solidarity.
Click on the thumbnails below to see more images. There’s lots more to see in the collection itself – if you’d like to see it in the flesh just get in touch.