Part three of an analysis of what is happening to cities
In the last two issues of Organise! we have shown that the city is a target of capital, which seeks out ways of making money at a time when other ways are not so lucrative, nor so easy. In addition, the State, both at a national and local level, does everything it can to facilitate this process. Land is being privatised and sold off to developers in return for more money in the coffers and sometimes a few ‘affordable’ homes built. In addition, both the new private owners and the State have introduced increasingly authoritarian measures to ensure that all space is closely monitored and controlled in order to ensure that money-making can go on unhindered by activities or people who may get in the way. However, these processes have not happened without resistance. Slogans such as ‘reclaim the city’ and ‘the right to the city’ can be heard all over the world. At the moment, there are individual struggles focused on a particular part of city life, eg housing, use of public space or food growing. However, all these struggles are inherently anti-capitalist and anti-State. They may not be located in the workplace and the protagonists may not often be industrial workers, but the struggles all challenge capitalism’s need to accumulate more and more money and the State’s role in supporting this.
This article will look at the numerous ways that people are resisting capital and the State’s attempts to use space for their own interests. We will also ask the question: how can we link these struggles in order to build a united urban social movement that also includes the workplace struggles?
TAKING CONTROL OF HOUSING
Housing, as a fundamental human need, has naturally been a focus of struggle. The struggles have been largely defensive: against evictions carried out by both private and ‘social’ landlords and against the general attack on social housing as exemplified by the Housing Bill now going through Parliament. These struggles are immensely important. People need to be defended on a day-to-day basis and social housing, both from the council and social landlords, is preferable to the privatisation of housing. However, both types of social housing are not self-managed by the residents. The properties can be sold off, rents increased, repairs not done without the residents having any involvement in decisions. Colin Ward, the most important anarchist thinker on housing, was very critical of the way the State introduced and controlled housing for the working class. His main point is that housing should be under ‘dweller-control’.
Ward analyses the history of housing prior to the introduction of council housing. There were many movements in which people used mutual aid and self-help to provide themselves with housing outside of State control. Most of the world’s population lives in houses built by themselves, their parents or their grand-parents. Markets supply only 20% of new housing stock according to ILO research, with most people building their own homes and creating their own neighbourhoods. In Cairo, one million people have taken over the ‘City of the Dead’ and made homes for themselves in the tombs of sultans and emirs.
In Britain, Ward has uncovered a number of examples of DIY housing in the early part of the century. For example, workers in Oxford squatted land near the quarries where they worked and built their own homes which lasted many years. The Plotlands movement that lasted from the early 1900s to the 1940s was another example of dweller-control. Land came on the market for a variety of reasons including bankrupt farms and death duties on landed estates. The owners wanted to make some money so they divided the land up and sold it off in small parcels at cheap prices to people who wanted to build their own home. These usually started as holiday homes for urban workers, a movement which picked up when the Holiday with Pay Act was passed in 1938. However, the owners extended and developed their initial build and often ended up moving to their ‘plot’ permanently. It all came to an end, though, in 1947 with the Town and Country Planning Act. The more privileged resented having these chaotic developments and to this day it is very difficult to build your own home as you need to build a fully-serviced, finished house from the start for which you had received planning permission in advance.
So we went from a situation where the working class had to fend for themselves, and came up with imaginative and practical ways of housing themselves, to a State-controlled system whereby housing was provided by the State for the working class. It is considered blasphemous to criticise council housing. However, Ward’s point is that we can do better than State housing. His is a critique of authoritarian socialists whose main strategy is to take control of the State and then paternalistically tell the working class what to do. There was no sense of ‘dweller-control’ and instead of using the working class experience of self-help, mutual aid and solidarity, the State treated people as passive recipients of their policies. The whole process of building council housing could be seen as a form of slum clearance. The terraced streets were replaced with large blocks. People were not consulted on what they wanted but expected to be grateful for what was provided.
Nevertheless we cannot deny that council housing provided great benefits for working class people and it must be defended. But at the same time, we need to look at anarchist ways of people talking control of their own housing needs that go beyond both private and State landlords.
“Everyone today is so completely dependent upon the housing supply system, whether renting in the public sector or buying in the private sector, that we find it hard to believe that people can house themselves” (Ward: 1990:69).
Squatting and occupations
Squatting has always been a way of people housing themselves. This is because of the system of private property that excludes the majority from access to land. The recent history of squatting in Britain begins in 1945 with ex-servicemen, returning from the war to find empty houses but no place for them to live. The movement started in Brighton and other seaside towns. A Vigilante Campaign installed families in unoccupied houses. In addition, there was a country-wide movement to occupy ex-army and air force bases. James Fielding moved into the officers’ mess at Scunthorpe on an unoccupied anti-aircraft camp and other families followed. The example was taken up in other places in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and a Squatters Protection Society was formed. By 1946, over a thousand camps in England and Wales had been occupied by 39,535 people. Local authorities were forced to provide utilities such as electricity and water. However, on Sept 14, 1946 the great ‘socialist’ minister, Bevan, instructed local authorities to cut off gas and electricity. People rallied against this and the local authorities often refused to implement the orders. Meanwhile, the new communities were a model of self-help and mutual aid with families organising communal cooking and childcare.
The squatting movement grew to occupy other places as well- houses, shops and hotels. In London, people occupied luxury flats in Kensington and Marylebone. Gradually, the self-organised housing movement ground to a halt, partly as a result of pressure and attacks from central government but also because council housing was put forward as an alternative. Pragmatic squatting continued in a quiet way but it was not a full-blown social movement.
Squatting as a social issue took off again in the late sixties. Ron Bailey and Jim Radford were angry at the failure of councils to comply with their statutory duty to house the homeless, when there were large amounts of council homes which had been waiting for years to be demolished. Families occupied these homes and local councils responded violently. Council employees deliberately smashed up interiors so squatters couldn’t live there. Councils eventually backed down in the face of a growing movement of support and handed over empty properties to housing co-ops.
The current housing crisis has also seen the re-emergence of squatting. However, the State, always hostile to squatting, has made it more difficult for people to squat, passing the Criminal Law Act of 1977, the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 and recently the 2012 law that made it a criminal offence to squat residential properties This will put a lot of people off squatting, despite a desperate need for housing. However, for many, squatting is the solution to the housing crisis. Government statistics show that there are 200,000 long-term empty homes (over six months) and 600,000 total empty homes in England (www.emptyhomes.com). Increasingly squatting is being supported as a solution to the housing crisis by not-so-radical elements. A Guardian writer: “Bring back squatting. Repeal the silly law 2012 law criminalising it in residential properties. Occupy all those buy-to-leave homes, and the squillion empty premises being hogged and sat on by supermarket chains so that no one else can use them” (Michele Hanson: April 13, 2015). In Manchester, Gary Neville, a former Manchester United player told homeless squatters in the former stock exchange he owns that they could stay for the winter and he would help them find homes once the work was done turning the building into a hotel.
Occupying properties has also been used as a way of stopping evictions. Sweets Way in Barnett, London was an inspirational campaign where residents, supported by housing activists, refused to leave their homes, fending off the efforts of the developers for many months. Though it was not successful in the end, the campaign has encouraged others to resist being moved from their homes, showing that it is possible to at least delay the process. A comment from one of the residents says it all:
“We do live in ugly world indeed. Since February we were fighting outrageous behaviour of Barnet Homes towards hard working people of the amazing community of Sweets Way. We fight to save much needed homes and the future of neighbourhood. My kids met beautiful people who committed their lives to changing the world, very inspirational people. So what I will teach my kids is very simple – helping others and making changes for better in this world is risky, and you might end up with criminal record or in jail, but making changes is much needed in this world and standing for those in need is essential. The system we live in is design to bully weak and support greed. So dear children, follow your heart, not the rules of the broken system.” (https://sweetswayresists.wordpress.com/). Occupations have also been used to highlight the fact that there are empty homes that could be used to house people. In Sept 2014, activists from Focus E15 and supporters occupied one of the empty low-rise blocks on the Carpenters Estate in Newham, London. The council has been gradually moving people out of this working class estate, which is adjacent to Stratford and therefore prime real estate. It now stands mostly empty but people fight on. The occupation lasted only a short time but it showed that the flats could easily be lived in. They continue to campaign under the slogan ‘no to social cleansing’ and ‘repopulate the Carpenters Estate’. (http://focuse15.org/)
We need to look back at the early post-war squatters for inspiration on how to make squatting a more effective way of actually housing people. The fact that so many ordinary people occupied empty properties, without any help from ‘activists’, and housed themselves for many years is something we need to encourage. However, this is difficult as so many people are not used to taking action for themselves. Individuals and families need to be prepared to organise together to occupy places like the Carpenters Estate for the long-term, just as the servicemen and their families did in 1945. Instead, people wait passively for the State to provide them with a home. However, in the current climate, this is less and less likely to happen. People have to be prepared to ‘house themselves’ and the housing movement needs to provide support and solidarity.
Inspiration from abroad
There are many examples from around the world to show the way forward. In Spain, the serious housing problems have prompted radical solutions. People had been encouraged to take out mortgages to the extent that 80% of Spaniards had mortgages. With the economic crisis and people losing their jobs, many were unable to keep up payments. Between 2007 and 2013 there were 420,000 foreclosures and 220,000 evictions. Meanwhile, 20% of Spain’s total housing- 5.6 million homes- remain unoccupied. The Platform for Mortgage Affected People (PAH) has resisted evictions and housed families in unoccupied buildings. They have developed into a mass movement with support from a range of people. For example, the Assembly of Locksmith Professionals in Pamplona unanimously decided in December 2012 to refuse to change locks on houses under foreclosure proceedings. Firefighters in Catalonia and A Coruna have refused to assist evictions.
One example of a PAH action that took place in 2013 is the 16 families who took over living an abandoned, brand-new block of flats in the Catalan town of Salt. This example shows that squatting is about much more than getting a roof over your head. One resident comments:
“It started out with just needing somewhere to live, but now we’re taking control of what we eat, what we do in our free time, how we relate to each other”.
In Caracas, Venezuela a half-built 52- storey tower in the centre of the city provided a home for thousands residents for 8 years. The building had been left empty by a Venezuelan tycoon after the banking crisis. It was first occupied in 2007 and eventually became home to 1200 residents. The occupants transformed the abandoned block into a community with grocery shops, tattoo parlours, internet cafes and a hair salon.
Both these are examples of ‘dweller-control’ and should be a source of ideas and inspiration to the housing movement and all those who are homeless, facing eviction or stuck in high-rent, unsatisfactory property. And it is not just about a roof over your head, but about creating a community that is self-organised and outside the control of private capital and the State. If we could develop such a movement in Britain, then we wouldn’t be so reliant on begging the State to provide more social housing.
Colin Ward puts forward self-build as an anarchist alternative to private and State housing. However, there are limited examples of this and it is difficult to know to what extent this is a feasible or even desirable option. We saw that Plotlands was an example but this was limited in scope. More recently, there have been some examples and the idea is now being promoted as a way of providing more homes by the Greater London Authority.
One of the first more recent examples is a scheme in Lewisham, London in 1976. Walter Segal, a German-born architect, wanted to promote a self-build scheme for families on the council waiting list, using pockets of unused land. Despite bureaucratic delays, the project is a success. People remarked on the communal atmosphere and how people helped each other. The housing professionals also enjoyed the experience, finding that there was amazing creativity amongst the residents. They made countless small variations and innovations. The street of 13 half-timbered houses are still there and receives many visitors every year. Another project was the Zenzele self-build initiative in Bristol, where unemployed young people built their own homes.
A number of agencies now seem to be promoting the self-build concept across the country. The Greater London Authority in London have set up a register for individuals and community groups who may be interested in undertaking a self-build project. This is the result of the Self-Build and Custom House Building Act 2015. One becomes suspicious of any initiative coming from this government. Ward said that the traditional left labelled the Lewisham project ‘petit-bourgeois’ and ‘little capitalist’. He goes on to argue that the Left has let the Conservatives appropriate the anarchist principles of self-help and freedom of choice. Nevertheless, in the current situation it is difficult to know how to respond to the openings for self-build. From an anarchist perspective, we need to look carefully at each project and see the extent to which there is dweller-control and self-organisation. And we need to ensure that the government does not use this as an excuse to get rid of the social housing that there is. Still, it is an example of people housing themselves and many positive things could come out of projects like this- as with squatting and occupations- if people are working together and helping each other then it is a step towards the creation of an anarchist society. We can’t just wait for the revolution to somehow magically create the perfect society, but can literally build the new society in the shell of the old.
Housing co-operatives are another alternative solution that could facilitate dweller-control. In other countries, co-operatives are much more widespread. In Norway, for example, they provide homes for 14% of the population (www.cds.coop/housing) whereas in Britain the percentage is 0.6%. Co-operatives aren’t necessarily distinct from squatting or self-build. You could have a squat that is run as a co-operative, where everyone participates in decision-making. A co-operative could undertake a self-build project for several individuals and/or families. However, the difference is that co-ops would have more security than a squat and would be based on collective ownership or collective management of something which was owned by another body- normally the State.
It is not just a question of getting a home, but of your control over that home. One of the issues with council housing is the fact that tenants do not play a major role. They have been excluded from the plans for their homes and once given the home they have little say in how it is managed. Obviously with private landlords, they have even less of a say. This is why people think that owning their own home is the ideal. People want security and the freedom to do what they want with their home and it seems the only option. However, private ownership is now beyond the means of most working class people, especially young people. And, having seen what happened in Spain, you don’t actually own your home but are living somewhere that is effectively owned by the banks. Ultimately, we need to address the whole issue of who owns the land. Elsewhere in this issue we address the question of “the commons.” But in the current situation, where land is either privately or publically owned, we need to consider how to maximise the control that people have over their homes. But you don’t necessarily need to own the home yourself in order to be able to have dweller-control. Housing co-operatives can take many forms and are compatible with both squatting and self-build.
There are different types of co-ops and one issue is the extent to which they are actually run by the tenants. There is also the question of ownership and who has ultimate control. One housing co-operative that has been going since the 80s is Bonnington Square in Vauxhall, London. The Inner London Education Authority acquired a large number of properties with the purpose of demolishing the properties and building a school. However, they were left empty and a group of people decided to bring the properties back to use on a temporary basis. They formed a housing co-operative and negotiated with the ILEA. The end result was that the properties were leased to South London Family Housing Association and the management was handed over to the co-op. The co-op did up the properties and opened a café and community garden. The plans for the school were dropped and now the co-operative has a degree of security. Within the properties there are different types of tenure including tenants, shared owners and owners.
The problem of course is that the actual landowner has ultimate power over the fate of the homes. If the landowner is the ILEA which is now defunct, who did the deed transfer to? If the owner is ultimately the State, then there is no guarantee that the land will not be sold off. This is what happened to the Tower Hamlets Users of Short-life Housing (TUSH). This co-op was set up 35-years ago when the council had neither the money nor the will to renovate seven derelict properties. The original members began renovating and maintaining them and lived there and getting involved in community work and campaigns. The council eventually gave them licenses to live there. Last autumn the council decided to move everyone out and take back possession. One of the residents had been there for 30 years. It is unclear what the council will do with the properties but if past behaviour is anything to go by they are most likely planning on selling them off to private developers.
Other co-operatives have found more security by buying the properties. This is what Radical Routes did when they bought a property in Birmingham in 1986. Radical Routes has now made setting up of co-operatives, both housing and work, a key part of a revolutionary political strategy.
“We are working towards taking control over our housing, our education and work through setting up housing and workers co-ops, and co-operating as a network. Through gaining collective control over these areas we aim to reduce reliance on exploitative structures and build secure bases from which to challenge the system and encourage others to do so”. (www.radicalroutes.org.uk)
The London Housing Co-operative Group, recently set up by people who are part of the Coin St Housing Co-operative and neighbourhood centre. It seems a unique experience of local people taking control of a prime area of central London under the control of the residents. Eight housing co-ops have been established since 1977 when the campaign was launched. From their website:
“Thirty years ago the South Bank area of London was bleak, unattractive, had few shops and restaurants, had a dying residential community and a weak local economy. Local residents mounted an extraordinary campaign leading to the purchase of 13 acres of derelict land, since developed into a thriving neighbourhood.”
Of course there are questions to be asked about the extent to which it is still under dweller control. Looking at their website, the structure seems to be based on top-down decision-making. Given the value of the land they control, it will be interesting to see how they continue to reflect the original aims of the campaign.
Housing co-ops are certainly an idea that the radical housing movement should explore as part of solving immediate housing needs, promoting dweller-control, and creating an alternative vision of housing provision.
TAKING CONTROL OF PUBLIC SPACE
In the last issue of Organise! we looked at how private capital and the State seek to dominate all space, increasingly excluding all activities that don’t make money or that challenge their authority. In this issue we will show how more and more people, in many different ways, are resisting this colonisation of space.
Taking control of cultural and social space
Colin Ward, in his book A Child in the City argues that there is a continual and consistent struggle between the urban working class and the dominant culture for space in the city. The book documents the importance for children of being able to explore freely and create their own pathways through the city. Traditionally children would be outside on the street, in derelict buildings and brown-field sites exploring, discovering and imagining. Though he focuses on children, the lessons for all of us can be drawn. Everyone should be able to make the city their own and this can only be done if we have freedom to explore and discovery all parts of the city. This has become increasingly difficult. For children the increase in traffic has been a major problem for their use of the street. But it is a problem for all of us as we are squashed onto crowded pavements. Cars rule the city, mainly because they are transporting people to work or to shops. There is no space for play or for idle ramblings. And, the takeover of more and more pace by private capital has also reduced the scope for our free movement through the city. But people are rebelling!
One of the most daring and imaginative ways of fighting back against our exclusion from the city is ‘place-hacking’ or ‘urban exploration’. Groups of people are actively seeking out the places that have been forbidden to us- the tops of skyscrapers, underground tunnels and empty buildings. Bradley Garrett, a University of Oxford academic, got involved with a group of ‘urban explorers’ as a part of a research project. His book on his experience (Explore Everything: 2014. Verso) makes fascinating reading. He did not just stand back and observe but became a full, and some would say way too enthusiastic, participant. He admits that the members of the group would not explicitly share his analysis of the implications of what they were doing but the feelings expressed by some, eg “I have to connect with the city” say a lot. Garrett sees urban exploration as both a celebration and a protest. They uncover places authorities want to keep hidden, they are “taking back rights to the city from which we have been wrongfully restricted”. It is a protest against the “security-entertainment complex”. At the same time it gives the explorer an amazing sense of freedom and control of the environment. Imagine what it would be like to stand on top of the Shard without arriving there by approved means or discovering the hidden bunkers under the city! The city becomes ‘transparent and within reach of those who feel excluded from its production and its maintenance’.
You don’t have to go such extremes; this kind of urban exploration is not for the faint-hearted. Parkour, though still physically demanding, has become increasingly popular. It is defined as physical training by using parts of the built environment; it involves jumping, climbing, running and swinging. For a group of women in Glasgow, it is explicitly about reclaiming urban areas as women. According to one participant:
“The reclamation of public space as a woman is very central to my understanding of parkour, and my love for it. Practicing parkour has opened up access to new areas of Glasgow that I would have never gone to before. Several of these areas may even be classed as ‘dodgy’ or ‘unsafe’, but parkour gave me a reason to enter them, and allowed me to form positive bonds to those areas. Practising parkour in the evening and night time also serves as a way to fight back against fear that, as a woman, I have been trained to feel.
Parkour lets us create new emotional bonds to space. We begin to see the city in a new light as our parkour vision develops, allowing us to view our surroundings in a new way. For all practitioners, this allows us to reclaim our city space, using it as our playground, rather than being boxed in or herded by the architecture. I have strong emotional attachments and many happy memories in my training spots. Parkour allows a female practitioner, through new positive experiences in city spaces, the chance to create new emotions towards these spaces, which can replace the old ones of fear.” (www.glasgowparkourgirls.wordpress.com)
Other youth subcultures are finding the need to reclaim space in order to engage in their activities. Skateboarders are an excellent of example. Last summer, in Greenwich. London, a group of skaters took over an old car wash and turned it into a skate park. They lasted for several months, hosting workshops, art activities and performances as well as skateboarding. It was described as a “skate summer camp in the middle of London”. Unfortunately, the developers were able to get them evicted in order for them to proceed with yet another unaffordable housing development. A spokesperson for the collective commented:
“We’ve had a fantastic summer here, it really goes to show what an alternative community plan can achieve. We can’t understand how planning permission can be given for such high-density developments that squeeze out the children. This is happening all over the borough”.
A more long-lived example is the evening/night time occupation of the shopping centre opposite Westfield in Stratford, East London. While Westfield and the Olympic Park are symbols of the worst that is happening to London with high rise luxury flats and the corporate takeover of all available space, walking through the original mall is refreshing. It has become a place for young people to ‘hang out’, with a lively scene of skateboarders, roller bladers and street dancers. The space is used by a variety of people, from teenagers to thirty-somethings, both male and female. There is a welcoming atmosphere. One female user commented: “What I like about the place is that we’re one big community, just having fun. We all end up knowing each other. And it’s a great place to learn. People don’t judge so harshly as they might in a proper skate park”. The police don’t hassle them. Perhaps there are too many of them committed to using this space, and the space has been used like this for at least 5 years.
This growing movement for taking back public space is one of the most positive developments of recent years in our fight for the city, showing the power of direct collective action. As Garrett said: “If you ask people to have access to these spaces, you won’t get it or if you do get it you are going to have to pay. And so we’ve got ourselves into this situation where we don’t have any choice but to trespass if we want to participate in our cities.” (www.channel4.com/news/public-space-occupy-private-land-place-hacker)
Space and political action
Political movements need places to organise and take action, for example social centres. (see article elsewhere in this issue). Despite the growth of social media and internet activism, effective political action involves physical spaces. We organise protests outside Parliament and Downing Street, local government offices, embassies, shops, corporate headquarters, estate agents etc. We need to be able to physically confront our class enemies. We also need space to communicate with other members of our class. At work, we need to be able to hold meetings and to socialise with workmates in order to discuss issues. In the community, we need to be in the places where people live their lives. And, we need space to organise ourselves- where we can gather together to discuss ideas, plan actions and socialise. However, this political space is being eroded.
Occupy is an important recent political movement that highlighted the importance of public space as a base for political protest and activity. The point of these protests was not explicitly about space but nevertheless had the occupation of a particular space as a key part of the movement. The movement began in Wall St, New York, the physical and symbolic centre of global capitalism. For nine weeks, people occupied Zuccotti Park (Liberty Plaza). This physical place was the site of the daily assemblies and the base from which other activities were organised. The protesters had originally wanted to occupy Chase Plaza, the location of the charging bull, the Wall St icon. However, as this is public property, permits were required for a protest so the police barricaded the area. So ironically, it was easier to occupy private land which is owned by Brookfield Office Properties, which is big property owner in Manhattan, including the World Financial Centre. Obviously Brookfield was not keen on people being on their land; there are park rules banning tents, sleeping bags and other structures. Therefore, the Occupy Movement, though aimed at the general problems created by global capitalism and the financial system, also led the way in reclaiming public space for public protest. In Britain, protesters were unable to occupy land in the City itself and ended up in from of St Paul’s cathedral. Nevertheless, a space that is dominated by tourists was reclaimed for the purpose of public protest.
The reaction of the authorities to this world-wide movement showed how the State and capital use the monopoly of space to restrict challenging political activity. We already experience the constraints of demonstrations where we are forced to march from A to B in a narrow corridor, hemmed in by the police or by march ‘stewards’ who do the police’s job for them. Increasingly, there is less and less places for people to come together in large groups, whether it be to organise political activity or just to socialise. It is of course ok to have officially-organised events, but the more political, autonomous events are becoming harder to organise. Britain seems to lack the large squares or piazzas of continental Europe and therefore we are forced to ‘trespass’ in order to be able to organise public assemblies.
Political activists have also challenged the way councils have attacked the homeless. This has often involved the occupation of public space as a way of both providing accommodation for the homeless and staging visible protests against council policies. In Nottingham, activists organised a homeless camp by occupying empty land in the city centre. From a Statement issued in January 2016:
“The services the council claim to work so well, do not work as well as what you are lead to believe. This is where we come in, we are secure, we offered tents to homeless people. Their friends can visit during the day but at night it is a policy that we only have homeless and activists on camp. The camp is ‘staffed’ 24 hours a day meaning that staff members are always on watch and protecting our camp. As we speak we have our own CCTV systems being put in to place and will be monitored by our staff from our caravan HQ. We shall be getting a medical caravan that will act as place for our residents to speak privately with their social workers or counsellors. Even as an emergency shelter for those who are really ill and need it like a bed in a hospital. We will build a kitchen, a communal space with log burner and start building small rooms for a bed and storage space for their stuff.”
The police, on orders from the local council cracked down and many were arrested. However, similar activities are taking place around the country. (http://streetskitchen.co.uk/)
One way of protesting against the control of public space is seen in the innovative ‘game’ played in Berlin called ‘camover’. According to the Guardian, “The game is real-life Grand Theft Auto for those tired of being watched by the authorities in Berlin; points are awarded for the number of cameras destroyed and bonus scores are given for particularly imaginative modes of destruction. The rules of Camover are simple: mobilise a crew and think of a name that starts with "command", "brigade" or "cell", followed by the moniker of a historical figure (Van der Lubbe, a Dutch bricklayer convicted of setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933, is one name being used). Then destroy as many CCTV cameras as you can.” The game was for a fixed time, organised to coincide with the European Police Congress in February 2013 but the idea has been an inspiration to people elsewhere who are sick of the way space is being controlled and monitored by the police.
A less spectacular but equally important political activity is the setting up of political stalls in public places, normally somewhere that people go to shop. People have traditionally met and socialised as part of the process of providing themselves with needed goods. Socrates used to deliberately spend time in the market, called the ‘agora’ and was the centre of public life, where he would confront the main leaders of the day and ask them difficult questions. The purpose of our stalls is to interact with other people in our communities, to discuss issues and to raise awareness of what is going on. In the past, it has been easy enough to set up a stall. However, there are signs that it is becoming more difficult. Friends of Queens Market in east London has been doing regular stalls at the market for years. But earlier this year they were told that they weren’t allowed to hold stalls there. They have held their ground and the stalls continues.
Stratford, by the Olympic Park, has been the site of a few confrontations. During the run-up to the Olympics, private security cracked down on the stalls organised by the London group of the AF on the concourse outside the station. They seemed happy to allow religious groups to have a large and noisy presence but our stall was immediately pounced on. People instead gravitated to Stratford High St. For the past two years the Focus E15 campaign (set up to stop the evictions of young mothers in the Focus hostel and now campaigning against evictions and social cleansing in general) has held a weekly stall in the High St. This has provided a focal point for organising. People facing eviction know they can come to the stall and ask for help and the open mike provides a platform to communicate about the latest attack on working class housing. However, in December, “with 40 minutes left to go, a Newham Law Enforcement officer, accompanied by several police, confronted the campaigners, in what was obviously a pre-planned operation. Having already told the SWP stall to remove their table, the police and law enforcement demanded that we pack up immediately or else they would seize our table, banner and sound system, quoting the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (regarding the sound system) and the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Act 2003 (regarding the banner and table). However, we were determined that they would not close down our street presence and demanded that our table should be allowed to stay. It was not obstructing anyone and the shopping street is very wide.” (from the website: http://focuse15.org/). The next week, a call-out was made to other campaigns and political groups. London AF brought down its stall and joined many others in sending a message to Newham Council that we won’t let them silence political activity.
This article has shown the extent and the variety of resistance, with people using a number of strategies and tactics to campaign for their place in the city, whether it be for housing or political and social space. There is an urgent need, however, to link all these struggles together into a united movement. All the different campaigns and actions are the basis on which such a movement is built, but we must aim for nothing less than the takeover of the city. In the next issue of Organise! we will look at the ways in which the different groups are beginning to come together. We will also consider how we might facilitate this process.
One of the fundamental issues that are common to all the campaigns is the fact that land is not under our control. In order to win our fight for the city, we have to start from the premise that the city is ours. We don’t just want access to land, that we need to negotiate or beg to use. This is why the idea of the ‘commons’ is relevant (see articles elsewhere in this issue). Land should not be in private ownership nor should it be under State control. Instead, it needs to be either owned by us all or by no one, with everyone having access to what they need. Therefore, we will explore both the history and current debates about land reform as part of our strategy to build a revolutionary movement for a new society.
Author’s note: This article has been very wide-ranging in what it has tried to cover. Therefore, it may not be as detailed or fully informed on every issue. If you have any corrections or points to add, please contact the Organise! editors.
The above article appeared is issue No. 86 of Organise! magazine of the Anarchist Federation