You can never quite know what you might see on any given evening in London. As the city wound down for drinks and dinner after another week, a Byron Hamburgers branch in Holborn found itself the target of a sting operation led by two direct action protest groups. Well, more of an insect operation.
Members of the London Black Revolutionaries and Malcolm X Movement acted in response to this week's controversy over the burger chain's cooperation with the Home Office to ambush and later deport dozens of its unregistered migrant employees on Friday evening. The plan was to release 8,000 crickets, 4,000 cockroaches and 1,000 locusts into the middle of two Byron restaurants on Friday evening – I was invited down to witness what the organisations saw as this somewhat biblical act of vengeance.
We were meant to meet up beforehand, but a communication breakdown meant I missed the first hit on the St Giles Street branch. I was hastily told to head over to the second target on Holborn High Street. Outside, I saw what looked like two City boys meeting at the front of the restaurant, likely deciding to go in for a bite. When they hurried out two minutes later, I realised they were part of the "sting".
"We went in with intent to cause disruption to Byron's business and we wanted to take affirmative action," they said to me afterwards, once I'd tracked them down. "These are our people being deported… we want an apology. There's no reason for businesses to be doing the work of the UK Border Agency. We're sending a message out to other companies too, not just Byron."
In all honesty, the display wasn't as dramatic as I'd imagined. I'd pictured chaos and screaming as swarms of insects flew about a frantic restaurant with toppled chairs and half-eaten burgers left abandoned to the appetite a merciless scourge. What I actually saw was a somewhat bemused crowd encircling what appeared to be a pile of white larvae on the floor in the middle of the restaurant.
The clientele couldn't really tell what the moving pile was, and apart from the odd shriek or jump, the whole affair was rather calm. In fact some of the customers on the periphery of the restaurant barely took notice and simply continued to eat their food at their table. Several people inside didn't seem to have noticed how or why the infestation made its way inside.
After I'd been pushed outside by management, no doubt spooked by my camera, I chatted more with the protesters – who, for obvious reasons, wanted to remain anonymous. As we spoke, it became clear that their message seemed to run deeper than this week's scandal. "We needed to develop strategic actions right now in terms of the black grassroots and the immigrant grassroots and the context of growing fascism on a state level", one of the London Black Revolutionaries said.
In a reference to Katie Hopkins likening Middle Eastern immigrants to cockroaches, one of the Malcolm X Movement members added: "They want to call our people cockroaches. Cockroaches are coming for you. Cockroaches don't die – we multiply and we take over."
While I understood why the protesters felt compelled to act, I couldn't help but feel that the ones being most victimised could have been those the activists had set out to defend in the first place: the waiters and chefs who, as I was leaving, had to clean up the mess left behind by the sting.
When I put this to the London Black Revs, they said their direct action was meant to be a wake-up call to those still working at Byron, to stand in solidarity with their fellow workers.
Though what Byron did was legal, those opposing it – including an unrelated picketing protest that coincided with Friday's action – believe it's unethical. That it essentially amounts to entrapment, since staff who were later questioned by the Home Office were called to work for a training day. For that reason, both London Black Revs and the Malcolm X Movement said they had one final message for Byron. "No more entrapment or we'll be back. Any business chain, any time: you are vulnerable. You are in our proverbial crosshairs."