Notes from a talk at Housmans bookshop Kings X about squatted social centres…led by a guy from the 56a infoshop.
“Many social centres are closing at the moment. The history of 56a Infoshop is that in 1988 it was a food co-op. In the 1991 the back room was taken over by anarcho-squatters for an infoshop. It was inspired by 121 in Brixton and info-shops in Europe.
“What is a social centre? The model comes from Italy where they are very common. There they are aligned to a Marxist tradition. In the UK they tend to be aligned to Anarchism.
56a is no longer a squat, they were given a ten year tenancy by Southwark council, the reasons for which are still a mystery.
56a is very small, basically one room. People come for a cup of tea, to look at books, to have discussions or arguments or to change their minds about things. In 1991 when it started, there was a sectarian aspect to it…if you weren’t anarcho-syndicalist they were unfriendly. In London today there is an opening out of ideas. The older generation burn out and come back. The new generation are more open. People used to think that there was a separation between activists and ‘normal’ people. Nowadays is about breaking down that divide. At 56a there is a bicycle workshop for kids and they try to get involved locally.”
“Squatting laws in England are probably the most liberal in the world. In Scotland there is the Law of Enforceable Right.
In France they wanted to copy the Scottish law.”
“But the French do have the ‘treve d’hiver’ in which you cannot evict someone between October 15th and March 15th. ( I remember when living in Paris, seeing the streets littered with furniture thrown out by bailiffs mid-march). This was a law brought in after a particularly harsh and cold winter in 1955. “
A guy from the Hackney Social Centre which was recently evicted, spoke:
“This location had long-standing gang issues anyway (it was the notorious Chimes bar) and the owner became violent with us. The eviction was very confrontational and people were standing on the roof wearing balaclavas and waving black flags.”
“Which is not such a good idea!” interrupted the guy from 56a.
There was a debate as to whether local people came to the parties there, or whether it was an anarchist ghetto. Personally I did meet there local black teenagers from estates, ‘chavs’ frankly who would never normally go to that type of event, who clearly enjoyed having a cheap and lively night out with interesting people in their locality.
Another social centre Ramparts, which managed to hang on for 4 years, organised women’s meetings run by local Bangladeshi girls. However this created a weird energy with the boys which culminated in every window in the building being broken. Once I went there and there was a Muslim teenager’s afternoon disco going on, with girls in veils snogging boys on the stairwell.
Oddly Ramparts was a former Islamic girls school.
The guy from 56a talks more about Black Frog, the Camberwell squatted social centre that 56a helped set up, which involved local people but only lasted 6 months…
Question: “Is this a waste of energy? Spending 6 months setting up something that is eventually destroyed? Could that energy be better used elsewhere?”
The guy from 56a replies:
“Revolutionary politics has died. We try to find ways that promote things as they are now…autonomous and empowering for local people. It was a learning experience setting up that social centre even though it only lasted a short time. But it was exhausting and I felt burnt out afterwards”
A girl asked “Do we have to be really political to come to these social centre meetings?”
“No, we mostly talk about pragmatic stuff such as ‘why is this place not clean?
In general though, the authorities don’t want us to be on the street. There is an erosion of street culture, of conversations on the street. Everything is virtual now.”
The girl again: “I’ve just come down from Liverpool and I’m impressed by the amount of events that London puts on, free street events..”
Others chip in: “But they are always in commodified spaces and there should be an element of criticality.”
“How are these events free? We pay for them out of our council taxes”
Ms Puddleduck interjected:
“Many of these events rely on corporate sponsorship. The recent event in Victoria park, you had to buy Workers Beer Company beer, you couldn’t take in your own alcohol and have your own picnic. Ten to twelve years ago, at the same event, you could.. Festivals in general are now so expensive.”
The discussion moved onto how the media distorts perception of squatting, making out that if you pop out to buy some chips, evil squatters will move into your house and take it over. Recently the Daily Mail ran an article on squatting and it was discussed whether the rise of media interest in squatting is connected to the end of economic speculation in the property market.
Bowl Court on their opening day set up a Squatters Estate Agency and the media were very interested in this. (Humour and wit are always a great method for attracting positive interest in radical politics). The Wright stuff TV show had a discussion programme on squatting last week, and Ben Rampart put up spirited and rational arguments for squatting (keep watching the The Wright stuff“>Youtube clip, he comes on later). Ben makes the salient point that most squatting takes place in commercial property, which are held onto, or even deliberately dilapidated in order to justify demolition by (often foreign) property developers who have no interest in the fabric of the local community.
The land is what the developers want, not the building, even if the architecture is of historical interest, they don’t care. Often squatters protect a building, repair it and prevent it from falling down due to neglect. There are several instances of this:
Tolmuth square near Euston which was due for demolition is now social housing. The London fields lido, squatted for 12 years, was mooted to become a car park, and is now revitalised as an open air swimming pool. Bonnington Square in Vauxhall was a squatted street. It’s now legal, with a community cafe, and paving stones have been lifted to create a magnificent city jungle (I recommend a visit to this lovely hidden corner of London).
Somebody mentions that the Red Lion pub in London’s Soho, where Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, has been empty for some time…
A lady from Argentina talks about how many Italian anarchists emigrated there in the early part of the 20th century were forced to squat due to poverty. The economic crisis of 2001-2 led to squatted businesses because the owner had left the country. The workers, say in a bakery, jobless, would club together and say if people still want to buy the bread so we’ll continue to run it ourselves as a co-op. Then when things improved, the owners would return, wanting their business back…
James from Bowl Court talks:
“We wanted to build a space based on permaculture principles. We have a windmill on the roof, keep our rainwater, have installed solar panels, we wanted it to be sustainable. We want to show a different kind of city living, where you don’t need a lot of land or money.”
There is also a squatted community garden project near Clissold Park in Stoke Newington…
“The neighbours like us being there, it’s better than just wasteland. However we want to get the neighbours more involved but they may be a little intimidated. They have said that it’s a nicer place to walk past.”
Discussion moved onto forest squatting both abroad and in the UK at places like Tinkers Bubble. There are also long-standing squats such as Kristiana in Denmark. which the state asked the police to clear, but as their eviction of youth social centre went so badly wrong, riots on the streets, they refused…
In Istanbul there are 5 million people who are forced to live in ‘overnight built homes’ or Gecekondu…
I expressed frustration that all the social centres were either in East or South London, and that nothing was going on in my part of town, North West London. There have always been strong squatting communities in Hackney and Peckham, however, with the Olympics coming to East London and the general push westwards by the speculators of the City of London, opportunities for squatting in those areas will be reduced.
Massimo of Bowl Court replied that he’d recently done a recce of the canal path down to Acton, which is very industrialised, with many empties… c’mon then…