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)

The Cowley Club

Radical Bank of Brighton and Hove

Ben Bailey, "Inside The Radical Bank", Brighton Source, May 2015

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

Peter Linebaugh, "Magna Carta Manifesto: The commons was at the core of a founding document of Western democracy" (n.d.; extract of 2008 book)

OurAutonomousLife? A 4 episode experiment in making a squatter’s sitcom

Adelita Husni-Bey, “Convention on the Use of Space”
"The website will be online soon"

Tino Buchholz, "Creativity And The Capitalist City", 2013 [English]

Almudena Serpis, "Anti-austerity movement revives radical urban squatting", at The, posted 24th June 2015

Mayday Rooms

Boal, et al., eds, "West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California"

Field at Newcross

Logo from the 1980s' squatter zine "Crowbar"

Saturday, July 11, 2015

England's Dreaming

The immediate developments after the Spanish municipal elections of May were so exciting -- and they continue -- that I have not blogged any of the specific action related to this blog. The text by Xavi Martínez and friends from the Ateneu Candela in Terrassa posted here June 9th was exemplary. He's a social center activist who has been elected to that city's council, and that text translation explains what he believes the squatting movement can bring to the new left municipal governances in Spain. That's exciting, and directly in line with a primary intention of this project ("Occupations & Properties," and the related zine "House Magic"), to enlarge and extend the subterranean currents that connect self-organized political and cultural action and mainstream center stage "obedient" politics and culture. And it goes on apace in Spain. (Updates, analyses and reflections can be had on the website of the Spanish fortnightly Diagonal.
Even so, apart from these kinds of reposts this blog has been quiet. But the spring and early summer have not. This is squatting season, and this writer has been worn out by all the action. I've put down my public pen in favor of brief spits and squibs of Facebook and Twitter.

flyer for the newly squatted Elephant & Castle pub, London

What I've neglected to report has been the substantial action behind squatting research these past several weeks. The SqEK conference in Barcelona concluded in later May, leaving behind a multi-lingual website that should slowly be accreting video records of the conference papers, including on economic self-organization, centered around occupied factories in Greece and agricultural towns in rural Spain. Conferees toured the neighborhoods of Barcelona, visiting squatted banks and communes. Immediately thereafter, I prepared for a visit to the USA to talk about my book and the anthology we printed for the SqEK conference called Making Room. (That was part of the Movokeur research project, a primarily statistical comparison of squatting movements in a handful of large European cities, which came to an end this year; the surface of that work was barely scratched.)
The distribution problems with that book, and my own Occupation Culture, have only recently been sorted out. Both are available in hard copy form in Europe, and in free downloadable PDFs, at the site of the publishers -- that's Minor Compositions for Occupation Culture, and Journal of Aesthetics & Protest for Making Room (also at La Central for the latter). (As my tour comes together, a website is in development; there is an "ad hoc" tour page on the "House Magic" website, which is a mirror site for both book PDFs.)
My book Occupation Culture is a fruitcake of information about squatting, social centers, and the many currents, both activist and cultural, that run through them. A lot of it came from this very blog. The Making Room anthology is an important book, the first gathering of texts from activists of the movement writing of disobedient culture across Europe in its many aspects. Again, it's a useful tool for those who argue that the innovations social movements have made in hacking back commonses from the sordid tsunami of privatization should be adapted by governance.
Meanwhile, I have been on the road...

... starting with A Tour of England, during which I saw The Cruel Work of "Revitalization" in Southwark, London.
One might think the way to re-develop a low-rise working class and immigrant neighborhood close to the center of an expanding global city would be to devise a solution that preserves as much as possible of the social fabric and historic institutions of the existing communities while at the same time making generous provision for the arising of new ones. In some ideal utopia of reason and functional democracy this might be the way to approach the problem. But those imaginary happy folk don't live in London, nor would their rulers be thinking like the English barons of capital.
The district of Southwark is now suffering a new Norman invasion. Years of careful circling of the Elephant and Castle area, some preliminary probes to plant high rise housing near the thundering roundabout, and a long series of sellouts by the local chieftains have prepared the way. Now the historic housing estates, which are vast, carefully planned wending series of low-rise houses with courtyards and playgrounds, designed as architectural reefs for a vibrant and tranquil community life, are soon to be levelled. The projects are called "revitalization."
"I cut down your generations like grass," bragged an ancient Assyrian king on his stele. Then new peoples will move in, who have no idea what existed there before them. "Oven-ready" from the universities, as one government education advisor recently put it, happy for a place in the great global project of London. They will don their plastic suits and march off to the labor of carrying on the consensual madness of the day.

flyer posted around the neighb warning of the next phase of "revitalization"

The grand harbinger of all this -- the great steaming pile of skulls on the horse-swept plain, the far-distant fire now an inferno close by-- was the demolition of the monstrous high-rise Heygate Estate. This place fell into social pathology, was effectively demonized, and in the end cleared of inhabitants and demolished. Now there's a complex of "pop-up" shops in a pile of shipping containers called "Elephant Artspace" where there used to be a community ball field. (Dan Hancox nailed this trend among developers in February '14 in an excellent text called "Fuck Your Pop-Up Shops.")
Now it is being "revitalized." Over a period of years all the trees between the classic modernist housing towers will be cut down, and high-priced condominium apartments will be built for the new workers of London. Like most war refugees, the displaced tenants just want to go somewhere they can be safe from the raging tornado of the luxury city. Right of return to the old lands? Oh, sure, you can come back. Show us the contents of your wallet.

"Elephant Park" luxury housing under construction in Southwark, May 2015

Opposing these dicta, these deals already done, are the communities themselves. As they show their ID cards to enter their former homes, now put under the sign of erasure with security cordons patrolled by contract employees, they hold their meetings, put up flyers around a coffee shop here and there. And surely, they are hoping for the best outcome for themselves and their families. Which can only be a nice relocation at the same rent, right?
And now, to join them, comes the London Southwark childrens' crusade. A vacant pub in the Elephant and Castle roundabout has been squatted. The long countertop which saw a million pints is now covered with scavenged vegetables. A squatters' assembly is debating whether alcohol should be allowed inside what they have dubbed a "social center." (The scars of the homeless, mad and alcoholic peoples' siege of Occupy London are deep.)
I popped in to the squatted pub with x-Chris of 56A infoshop. He was wearing a t-shirt from the defense of a skatepark a few years ago. The boy who met us at the door, opening the impromptu chain lock, had the same emblem tattooed on his chest. I'd met x-Chris an hour before at the 56A Infoshop where he works.
56A is both tiny and immense. It is truly cozy -- four, maybe five people can sit in the main room -- because the place is stuffed. The walls are lined with open boxes stuffed with zines and short-run newsletters and magazines. There are rows of books, some for sale and others for browsing. Turning carousels have single zine copies displayed. Everything in those rooms is very close -- it is truly a box for reading, with every lump of knowledge close to its fellows. It becomes impossible not to think continuously of relations between one and another struggle, between the instant we are living, some years gone by, and the deeper currents of the radical past. I was so tired all I could see this time was a blur of colors and a jumble of words, but I knew where I was, inside a special kind of machine of knowledge. But it's not just knowledge. 56A is at the heart of real-life present-day squatter resistance in Southwark. People network new actions out of there.

"Elephant Artspace" architectural rendering; the trees in this image are the artist's fantasy
I waited with some folks, and finally x-Chris arrived. He had come from a meeting, and he stood in the door, seeming somehow a little stunned, or uncertain. The council has just offered 56A a 15-year lease extension at a charming rent. "Why?" he wondered.
Later, in the the newly-squatted Elephant and Castle social center x-Chris cast a wistful eye over the literature table. "In days past I'd have grabbed all this for the archive," he said. Each of these spreads, these tables of flyers, stickers, pamphlets, zines and newspapers, are snapshots of the political and cultural concerns of a resistant community at a given moment, when their resolve has steeled to direct action, and a space has been opened to share these particular words, images, messages.
The Elephant and Castle pub squat was full of small colored cards in many different languages and their scripts, with advice what to do if the English immigration police accost you. Not many immigrants are going to wander into a squat that is undoubtedly under constant surveillance, and threat of invasion and arrest by angry police. The cops were surely angry because one of their recent raids in the neighborhood to snatch up papers-less migrants had been thwarted by an angry crowd of citizens. A lot of the talk at 56A revolved around this action -- who was in jail, who was out, the status of their cases before the courts, the photos of the action which had faces blurred, the police circulating enlargements of the first photos with faces clear...