Monday, July 27, 2015

England's Dream (Part Two)


The first presentation of my book Occupation Culture in England was in Brighton, the famous seaside resort town two hours away from London. Brighton has had a strong squatting culture -- many squatted houses by many groups, protest occupations around food issues, pop-up squat art shows, etc.. It's also the bailiwick of a right-wing MP who pushed through the notorious bill criminalizing squatting a few years ago, contravening centuries of common law on behalf of property speculators. (I understand; as David Harvey and others have often explained, contemporary hyper-capitalism needs property speculation to survive. Shelter is a basic need; its manipulation is the surest way to make financial bubbles and extract huge profits today.)
My book talk was the Cowley Club, a rented social center on Brighton's main drag. The place is medium big, serving as a venue for music and concerts, a cafe bar, and a bookstore. It's multi-level, with a kitchen behind, and a back building housing an extensive library and archive. (Like many such, this holding is comprised of other radical archiving projects of the past which have accordioned down into this relatively secure space.)
House Magic journals hanging in the reading room of the Cowley Club

Michael, an economics student who runs the Cowley Books project in the place (it's both a library and a bookstore), arranged for my talk. He expected very few people to come, since the squatting scene in Brighton is at a low ebb, and like many others, Michael himself is soon moving on. But, as luck would have it, there had just been a spectacular short-term occupation in town, the Radical Bank of Brighton and Hove. I'd hoped to make it in time to visit, but the project was evicted days before my arrival. I met SqEK member Lucy Finchett-Maddock at a cafe near the Cowley Club, and we were soon joined by a few of those squatters. It turns out that if you're not squatting to live, then you're not breaking the new law. So they weren't in jail, like those poor homeless bastards rousted from derelict housing.
The Radical Bank got good local press, but they were evicted anyhow. Very shortly thereafter, their target, the nefarious Barclays Bank, put up a sign on their long-vacant premises inviting civic organizations to submit proposals for using the space. We presume the Radical Bank gang was not invited... Barclays likely want like a benefit shop, a second-hand goods sales outlet like those that dot the main shopping street of Brighton, keeping the vacancies looking busy and giving old folks something to do.
Lucy Finchett-Maddock is a scholar in Brighton now, working on the law around squatting. She's part of a major effort by legal scholars today to put definition into the much-abused concept of the commons. This is urgent work in the face of the global wave of privatizations and expropriations of public property and services. Lucy recently posted a two-part exegesis of her work, raging against the "legally sanctioned expropriating forces" which have reached new levels of nihilism. She sees the link between privatization and the demise of protections of protest. Hope she sees in one judge's citing of the Magna Carta, the ancient document that grants rights to the forest in the case of an eco-village eviction from the Runnymede site of that long-ago signing.
While the activists of the Radical Bank come from the "anti-cuts" cadres of the student movement and the 15M/Occupy nexes, Lucy sees the new wave of English squatting as primarily driven by the recent expropriations of social housing; it's eviction resistance. The squatters in the Elephant & Castle pub (see last post on this blog) clearly came from there; they're local folks.
Lucy Finchett-Maddock's analytic work in the legal arena has been paralleled by the artist Adelita Husni-Bey in an extended project undertaken in Utrecht, Netherlands at the inimitable Casco Projects space. Husni-Bey brought together activists, lawyers and scholars to consider what might constitute a fair and balanced law on squatting, one that makes room for social justice and cuts down the frenzy of property speculation that makes hyper-capitalist bubbles. Working collectively, they drafted a “Convention on the Use of Space” in the spring of this year "as a response to the housing crisis: the lack of affordable homes, absence of provisions for those without legal right to stay, rising rents, and the criminalization of squatting." As it turns out, the former manager of Cowley Books, now squatting in Rotterdam, took part in these meetings.
Casco Projects is the same art center which produced Nazima Kadir and Maria Pask's squatter situation comedy "Our Autonomous Life" a couple of years ago. That was part of Casco's Grand Domestic Revolution series, a years-long set of inquiries into new emerging conditions of daily life driven by feminist analysis.
I sat with Lucy in a Brighton cafe near the Cowley Club. This cafe itself was a curious place, with strong coffee, vegan lunch and desserts up front, and a warren of meeting rooms available for community groups in the back. (Sorry I forgot its name; Brighton has a vivid food culture.) Soon we heard about the Radical Bank squat project from a knot of polyglot activists, British, Spanish, Portuguese, who had come together to make it happen. Later that night, at my talk at the Cowley, the same folks showed up together with the rest of their gang. (They'd had a meeting that night.) There wasn't much discussion. For them my talk was entertainment, and I was happy to provide it.
I spent the night at Michael's house. He lives behind a vacant pub. It is inhabited by a property guardian, an "anti-squatter" hired by a company to make sure that the place isn't actually squatted. This growth industry is the property management sector's response to the squatting movement. (Tino Buchholz made a film about this phenomenon -- Creativity And The Capitalist City you can watch on Vimeo.) Michael told me that this pub was part of a creepy property speculation scheme whereby the managers of a chain of pubs bought out taverns all over England. They would then starve the business by charging exorbitant prices for supplies (the chain pubs have to buy from their parent company) and services, driving them out of business. When they were closed, the spaces would be converted from pubs to luxury housing. This Michael said, was driving "pub wars" in neighborhoods all over the country, as people organized to defend them as community assets and block their development. It didn't seem that anyone was defending this one, however. The owners were long gone -- "nice people," Michael said; they'd tried hard to keep it going. They produced regular concerts there. It had been an important venue for local musicians in Brighton...
The Cowley Club itself produces a lot of concerts, and it is an important gathering place -- although it's a private social club by law, not a public house. But today it's suffering from a dearth of volunteers. Everyone’s working too much to afford the time to volunteer. Michael thinks that the economy of the Cowley Club is unrealistic because it was set up at a time when many folks were "on the dole," receiving unemployment benefits which have been cut to the bone during the many years of tight-fisted governance in the UK. In truth, the place was pretty quiet during my visit. On the day I left, Karola, who lives upstairs, cooked for the regular weekly lunch cafe, a really inventive delicious vegan meal. I'd met her before, on my earlier visit to Brighton, and at the SqEK meeting in Rome. Karola's a long-time squatter from Poland, whose inventive cookery is matched by her quirky and colorful dress -- she's a kind of Baroness Elsa of the Brighton radical left.
I wrote in my last post about the great squatting action I stumbled into in Southwark. After Brighton I returned again to the new giant hostel there, built ironically in the former headquarters of the British Labor Party, occupied only some 20-odd years before being sold out. (Rather a metaphor for that disappointing neoliberalized political party, no?) That hostel continually processes hordes of summer-schooling youth groups. Student housing is all over Southwark now. That's the kind of transient rootless population that most lends itself to the rapid rejiggering of a neighborhood ecology, hordes of young people from elsewhere paying attention to their studies in between serious engagement with pizza and beer.
What's going on around can't doesn't really concern them. A weird commercial sign in the neighborhood featured the distinctive fuzzy purple arm of the Sesame Street character Elmo raised in a fist -- "When stuff sucks, make it right" read the slogan. Uhm, yeah. These rents and prices suck.

This isn't true of all students, of course. Journalist Almudena Serpis relates the Radical Bank squat to the recent wave of student activism against austerity in England, called "anti-cuts". She quotes SqEK jefe Miguel Martinez, who points out that the UK squatting movement has always been more focussed on housing. The Brighton project is a different kind of initiative, which responds to the repressive criminalization of the practice.
The most extensive phase of action in London for my book Occupation Culture (which, after all, grows out of an archival project) was the day-long event at Mayday Rooms. This relatively new operation is dedicated to radical archiving, and some organizing. (I ran into a group of immigrant workers meeting on one floor of the narrow Georgian-era building who invited me to share their pizza.) Mayday Rooms has seen some impressive efforts of recovery of little-remembered or forgotten past incidents, including the documentation of the Free University of the 1960s in both London and New York City. A good measure of these results are mounted to their website.
Our session was arranged by Stevphen Shukaitis, a professor at Essex University and my publisher. (His imprint Minor Compositions is a spin-off of the venerable Autonomedia of New York City.) This day of meetings was the Mayday Rooms' method of "activating" a new area of collecting for them -- archives from the history of squatting in London. At one point the building's alarm went off, and no one seemed to know how to stop it. During this interminable screaming hell of sound, Iain Boal wandered into the room. Iain was lead editor on West of Eden, an anthology of texts on the California commune movement of the 1960s and '70s, and is a principal in the Mayday Rooms project.
Anthony, who works at the Mayday Rooms, had prepared some materials he laid out on the conference table for our small group to look at. These included squatter zines from the high tide of the movement in the '70s and '80s, and a large crumbling scrapbook, most of it from 1969. This was the moment when London's squatters took a building in the center of the city, and they were all called "hippies."

Part of the strength of English subculture has to be that most of the people -- and certainly the yellow press, the pandering tabloid newspapers -- make such a show of vilifying it. Blubbering English indignation, it would seem, is an inexhaustible national resource. We all noticed that the headlines characterizing and denigrating the squatters of the late 1960s were virtually the same as those used by the yellow press in the 2000s, especially in the run-up to the vote on criminalizing squatting. "They must keep a stylebook."
During the afternoon, x-Chris of 56A, from whose copious files duplicate copies of the squat zines had come, gave a rundown of Southwark squat history and the current challenges residents and activists are facing.
The next day I gave a talk at The Field at Newcross. This small derelict building was given to a group of young people, some students at nearby Goldsmiths College, for their short-term use in return for a basic renovation. Marc Herbst, editor at Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, set up the gig. I was happy to meet them, and not very surprised to find that so many of the problems these folks were facing were the same as animated the squatting movements. It will be exciting to see the new solutions they come up with.


ETC Dee, "Moving towards criminalisation and then what? Examining discourses around squatting in England," in Squatting in Europe Kollective, eds., Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles (Minor Compositions, 2014)
https://www.academia.edu/3218412/Moving_towards_criminalisation_and_then_what_Examining_discourses_around_squatting_in_England

The Cowley Club
www.cowleyclub.org.uk/

Radical Bank of Brighton and Hove
https://radicalbank.wordpress.com/

Ben Bailey, "Inside The Radical Bank", Brighton Source, May 2015
http://brightonsource.co.uk/features/inside-the-radical-bank/

Lucy Finchett-Maddock, "Their Law: The New Energies of UK Squats, Social Centres and Eviction Resistance in the Fight Against Expropriation (Part 1 of 2)," Critical Legal Thinking, 7 July 2015
http://criticallegalthinking.com/2015/07/07/law-new-energies-uk-squats-social-centres-eviction-resistance-fight-expropriation/

Peter Linebaugh, "Magna Carta Manifesto: The commons was at the core of a founding document of Western democracy" (n.d.; extract of 2008 book)
http://www.onthecommons.org/magazine/magna-carta-manifesto

OurAutonomousLife? A 4 episode experiment in making a squatter’s sitcom
http://ourautonomouslife.info/

Adelita Husni-Bey, “Convention on the Use of Space”
"The website useofspaceconvention.org will be online soon"
https://useofspaceconvention.hotglue.me/

Tino Buchholz, "Creativity And The Capitalist City", 2013 [English]
https://vimeo.com/49254956

Almudena Serpis, "Anti-austerity movement revives radical urban squatting", at The Ecologist.org, posted 24th June 2015
http://www.theecologist.org/green_green_living/2921348/antiausterity_movement_revives_radical_urban_squatting.html

Mayday Rooms
http://maydayrooms.org/

Boal, et al., eds, "West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California"
http://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=378

Field at Newcross
http://thefieldnx.com/


Logo from the 1980s' squatter zine "Crowbar"

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