Chalkboard – the successes and failures of a Maryhill community tendency

Nick Durie

“Hey guys, This looks amazing! We need to start doing this where I stay, there are no youth clubs where I stay, and no decent transport links for young people to get about! Always keep fighting for what you want – don’t let them hand you anything on a plate cos there will always be something wrong with it!”

Joe Pearce [Posted by Anonymous to George’s X Chalkboard at 8/17/2006]

This short overview is part of a series of three essays looking at the future of Maryhill, previous attempts at community organisation, and what could be done to improve things in this area to advance working class control, power and influence, and how this relates to the goals of libertarian socialism.

The George’s X Chalkboard ran from September 2005 to September 2006. On one level it was a small office and drop in centre (“social centre”), ran collectively by a membership group, organised legally through a fully-mutual co-op. On another level it was a community tendency, organising campaigns and trying to kick-start local organisations and fight against the gentrification of the neighbourhood in which the centre was based. Briefly here is a short chronology of the project as it took shape.

Timeline

1. The centre opened with an exhibition. Thousands of leaflets were distributed around Woodside and Possil. The centre, for the space of a weekend, was opened with a montage of local historical information, some of it from a radical and socialist perspective (such historical antecedents, often up to the very local, are really not very hard to find in places like Glasgow).

2. From the beginning, a local tenants association, Cedar Tenants Association (which had been recently started following anger over an out-of-action lift in one of the three tower blocks) met in the new centre. During the first few months the centre was used primarily to allow people to meet with those involved with it and discuss questions relating to the local area.

3. Several months in, the Chalkboard started to develop a community newspaper, calling it the Burgh Angel.

4. Attempts were made to move beyond merely operating the centre as part of a strategy for opposing gentrification. Some of the volunteers got involved with Woodside Community Council, which, it is thought, maintains a seat on Glasgow City Council’s North West Area Committee (an administrative unit in charge of the day-to-day running of the North West of the city). Their aim was to win the Community Council to a position of opposing gentrification.

5. From the beginning of the year the centre started to be used by bored local kids as a place to spend time in. The ‘café’ had not proven effective at bringing in lots of other sections of the community.

6.
In January attempts to broaden the outreach of the centre started to come together. The first edition of the Burgh Angel was published and attempts to get a public meeting together for the nearby Hamiltonhill estate, which suffers from a great deal of planned deprivation and is being prepared to be demolished: “Today I chaired (or tried to chair) an incredibly rowdy meeting of almost 70 people on my estate. A neighbour and myself called it. With help from three comrades from the neighbouring estate and a pair of visiting lefties (I think anarchos?) from Leeds we leafleted 900-950 households of the 1000ish on the estate. The leafleting was meant to be total, but there was confusion and some places got leafleted twice. This took several hours over three days, although only three people did the bulk of the leafleting. Lots of people talked to the leafleters, one of the Leeds guys had to wing it.” [ Posted: Submitted by AnarchoAl on Fri, 24/02/2006]

7. A community campaign, consisting of Speirs Wharf Residents Committee and Cedar Tenants Association began to push for a public local inquiry into the development of a 17 storey , £15 million tower block at the far end of the canal. The tower block was to be the first development project of a 15 year masterplan to develop and gentrify the canal side. The campaign began to put pressure on various authorities and agencies.

8. This initial success in Hamiltonhill at starting new groups spurred the group on to work with others in the St George’s Estate to develop two further associations in these areas. By late March small groups in the rest of the St George’s Estate had been established.

9. With around 4 local associations, on two estates, within the boundaries of one Local Housing Office of the Glasgow Housing association, activists involved with the Chalkboard became involved in trying to develop a federation of residents associations for the whole city

10. The success of members working with Woodside Community Council over this period led to a large public meeting in April for the whole community on the issue of anti-social behaviour. This was significant in terms of numbers in attendance (around 200), although it was taken over and the Chalkboard speaker was not able to address the situation. Following on from previous discussions it was decided to use this public meeting to start the official launch of a youth club campaign.

11. Following on from the Community Council public meeting, certain divisions in the tactics and strategy used at the centre, which had always existed, started to deepen. Some wanted the centre to be focused on a more developmental role – providing a training and coaching resource for people in the local community to launch initiatives off their own bat. This NGO approach was shared and hotly disputed by the same people within the organising group at different times. Others in the centre felt that there should be a more proactive approach with individuals acting like a tendency or a political organisation consciously getting local groups off the ground and then supporting their development, in order to build working class power in local communities. There was also no coherent codified strategy. Some felt both approaches could be adopted and run together.

12. At around the same time the Scottish Socialist Party, whose activists locally had began to get involved with the centre and some of the other activities, faced an internal crisis in their political party – most then had a lot less time to devote to the activities of the centre.

13. There was a public meeting held on the housing situation throughout the area to build for a conference of tenants and residents aimed at establishing a network of tenants and right-to-buy homeowners from across the city.

14. Following on from this public meeting there was a citywide conference. Following that conference contact was made with some tenants in other parts of Maryhill. Various attempts to form residents associations were made, with which the Chalkboard had some contact.

15. A group of Chalkboard activists attempted unsuccessfully to prevent an eviction in Cumlodden Estate, Maryhill. This issue and that of anti-social behaviour make up the bulk of the next edition of the Burgh Angel, which now spreads to Milton in terms of distribution.

16. The city council attempts to form a ‘community association’ to undermine the tenants association activity in the St George’s Cross area.

17. A public local inquiry is called to investigate the canal tower block plans.

18. The Youth Club Campaign has an abortive march, after a police gala day is hastily arranged to clash with it. The event however draws a lot of press attention.

19. Attempts are made to develop a network of “Friends of” groups for local parks and green spaces.

20. Serious discussions about the future of the centre begin, as it becomes difficult to sustain the centre through volunteers. A number of the local tenants organisations have begun to collapse as Chalkboard and SSP activists have moved onto other things.

21. By August the centre is effectively closed.

Organisational Influences and Ideas

The group which developed the Chalkboard grew out of the attempts to set up an anarchist social centre in 2004, which culminated in the Printworks Social Centre. This was a failed project which led to a year of introspection and group development, where the Glasgow Autonomous Project (the group which was to be the Chalkboard) organised events and coffee mornings out of a community centre in Govan. In a precursor to the Chalkboard centre, the group was involved in supporting a creative initiative in the Saltmarket, which ran as a drop-in space for locals following weeks of community surveys, and was funded as an art project. The Chalkboard group also became a member of the co-operative lending group Radical Routes.

The group had a constitution, a vision statement and a statement on perspectives and aims. Without going into too much detail it’s worth quoting these latter sections.

Article 1 – Founding Statement – Vision Statement

1) We strive for a sustainable society where all people are free to live their lives as they see fit without fear of oppression, persecution or marginalisation insofar as this does not prevent others from doing the same. We see this fulfilled through a society built upon principles of co-operation, solidarity, mutual-aid, direct democracy and freedom of association.

2) To achieve this world we need radical social change.

3. a) Against all hierarchies. In order to achieve radical social change and not repeat the mistakes of the past we need to avoid recreating hierarchies which could lead to a new class division in society in the future.

3. b) What this means in practice is that we have to be actively promoting equality by providing a safe, anti-discriminatory space. We recognise that people are discriminated against because of their class, sex, race, sexual preference, accent, physical ability, religion and mental health and in a variety of other ways. The struggle for a world without hierarchy includes the need to challenge all prejudice wherever it occurs.

3. c) It also means running on a directly democratic basis because we know that we don’t need managers to tell us how to run our places of work or our communities – this is another form of disempowering hierarchy. We know we are capable of doing this ourselves, given the resources.

4. a) We recognise in the forefront of our minds that there is a class struggle going on. We are on the side of the poor, the landless, the jobless, the waged labourers, the working class, the oppressed people of the planet. We are against those who have disenfranchised us, who make our decisions for us, on the wealth of the world that we have produced, which they are plundering from and damaging, exclusively for their benefit.

4. b) In order to fulfil our part in the class struggle, we have to contribute to building a mass movement to resist oppression and challenge the interests of the ruling class, with the ultimate goal of abolishing all classes and the class system.

4. c) In order to play our part in this struggle against hierarchies we must spread our ideas in accessible ways.

4. d) We consider it important to host a space which can be used for tap roots activism, activism which empowers and teaches people, so that they have the tools and confidence to take part in this struggle.

Aims and Objectives

1] To provide a welcoming, clean and tidy, anti-discriminatory space for tap roots groups to organise out of and hold workshops. This is to be a drug free space (where “drugs” includes alcohol and tobacco, but excludes caffeine and medication).

2] To provide a space that will:

– Serve as a free drop in centre which is a useful forum for the spreading of our ideas.

– To reach out to and involve significant numbers of new people in this project and in groups and projects which use our centre, without compromising on our principles, but nevertheless by remaining attached to the real world.

– To spread anarchist tactics of direct action and direct control amongst the wider Glasgow community, and by such means win better conditions for the Glaswegian working class to live under so that we all can continue and extend the struggle.”

Clearly then, the group, while containing initially a minority for whom “class” constituted just another form of oppression, had a majority perspective that the primary aim of the centre was to engage in the class struggle by spreading ideas and developing the consciousness of workers. This perspective set the centre and the group around it apart from similar types of “social centre” groups throughout the UK.

Informal links too had been developed with the groups Hackney Independent and Haringey Solidarity Group at the London, 2005, Community Action Gathering. This had provided the group with a lot of inspiration and ideas for future activities, particularly in relation to the interplay of forces with municipal authorities, fighting for an extension of the local social wage and fighting gentrification. One member also had been involved in community politics in the neighbourhood for years, and as the group around the centre grew it brought in experienced community campaigners. One of the leading activists had been heavily influenced by the ideas of Murray Bookchin and his writings on Libertarian Municipalism, and many were also drawing inspiration from the Independent Working Class Association. A number of activists involved with the centre though were not influenced by any of these thinkers or ideas, and came to the project having been influenced by groups such as the Wombles, and the anti-capitalist movement more generally. Others too took inspiration from more general grassroots ‘community development’ ideas, such as those of Alistair MacIntosh and Colin McLeod, of the Galgael Trust, and the campaign against the Harris Superquarry, as well as the radical land reform ideas of Andy Wightman.

The group was coming from different places, and although a certain base unity was agreed around the aims and principles of the organisation, ideas tended to be very fluid and the organisation often pulled ideologically in different directions.

Projects

The Chalkboard could roughly be said to have had six main projects (although there were a number of other smaller or more limited projects devised):

1) Create a drop in centre which functioned as a café / social space where people could meet up and discuss the local community and come into contact with radical ideas.
2) Build up collective representation in the area through tenants associations and other civic and civil society groups, women’s forums, classes, lectures and general civic engagement.
3) Develop a community newspaper.
4) Try to build dual power for the community and the organs of collective representation in opposition to the power of the local council and the Glasgow Housing Association.
5) Fight for improvements and investment in the local area.
6) Generalise local struggles into wider tenant campaigns and develop a citywide tenants movement.

There was an overarching idea shared by most that trying to develop in these ways would make residents more inclined to fight for the area and make the area harder to gentrify through demolitions as people would put up more of a fight.

Strategic Perspectives?

It would be fair to say that there was no agreement over which projects constituted the most important activity of the centre and the centre groups. For some people numbers 1 and 2 constituted the most important activities of the centre. For a couple of individuals the most important contribution was the Burgh Angel newspaper (which continues to exist). For most of the rest – which created some tension – the most important aspect of the centre was to work consciously and politically to develop a counter-power based in local mass organisations. That counter-power would consist of tenants associations started up and consciously structured to mirror the nature of local housing administrative areas, and that attempts should be made to make local LHO committees of the GHA subordinate to local tenants associations. These bodies would then work with the local community council (where some attempts were made to take this body over) which has a delegated seat at the administrative meetings of the council’s North West Area Committee (the local government executive in most matters). Pressure would be brought to bear on these institutions and these mass organisations would start to seize aspects of state power, coming up with local architectural schema for the estates that they represented, or holding community patrols to try and tackle anti-social behaviour.

There were, it could be fair to say, two or three separate ‘plans’ or strategic perspectives on how to take the centre forward, some of which were not contradictory, some of which were.

Achievements Overview

The Chalkboard and the tendency clustered around it, working in tandem with local residents groups, was a major factor in achieving:

* Defeat of an unwanted local yuppy development worth around £15 million

* New lifting mechanisms for lifts in three local tower blocks on the St George’s Estate, worth – it’s estimated – around £700,000

* A meeting with the deputy government minister for education on the issue of a youth club

* Investment in youth facilities (estimated at being worth around £300,000)

* A lot of local corruption was also exposed, and people in the area are now a good deal more cynical towards certain local politicians and local ‘committee people’.

Assessment

Of the three main organisational perspectives of what the Chalkboard could have achieved, the author believes that the most ambitious was the aim to build a community counter-power.

Certainly in terms of creating a café or social space the Chalkboard was more or less a failure. The centre became a magnet for local kids which was both good and bad for the centre. The idea of getting involved and campaigning for a youth club came directly out of this, as it was clear that local kids were very bored with little to amuse them, however it also refracted the fact that the centre by this point was not buzzing with adults coming to sample Woodside’s most famous social venue. We were perhaps beholden to our premises for that (a converted shopfront) in that it was difficult to construct on a budget anything other than a clean and presentable office. Over time the excitement for a café venue waned somewhat and the centre became slightly more instrumental.

As far as the centre being used as a hive of local news, the window for the centre was always full of relevant local information and was increasingly well used. The newspaper too, though slow to start and not regular enough, has provided some focus for information and socialist ideas to be spread in a non-threatening way. This continues to this day.

As far as developing a real counter-power goes, it is perhaps telling that at the height of the project (when there were four tenants associations, the community council was threatened with takeover and there were some efforts to co-ordinate activity in LHO committees, as well as to undermine vested interests through the Burgh Angel) the local Area Committee of the city council approved funding for a team from the social work department to start to develop a parallel yellow tenants association for the St George’s Estate. At the same time strenuous efforts were made to maintain control of the community council with public meetings being gerrymandered. Pressure was also exerted on the local youth project further up the road to avoid contact with us by a number of politicians. The local community police also paid several visits to the centre following the involvement of the centre group in a short running campaign on anti-social behaviour. All of this low level state antagonism or monitoring is a reflection not necessarily that the group was beginning to be dangerous to the authorities, but perhaps that we might become so. The most telling factor of all was when the group attempted to rally some people to resist and eviction for rent arrears. At almost no point in recent history have these kind of routine evictions been attended by police. There were five in attendance on this occasion – the anti-eviction posse being rounded up the night before via phonecalls. When one of the activists involved was arrested, the police wanted to know if this had anything to do with the G8 or Faslane Peacecamp, despite the activity clearly having nothing to do with that, and the individual involved being a clean shaven type who had never so much as visited Faslane or been involved in G8 protests. This is not testament to any success, but the obvious concern from the authorities for information is testament that we were starting to get noticed.

Post Chalkboard

Following the closure of the Chalkboard centre a number of ideas were mooted as ways ahead. One concept (enclosed in the appendix) was for a kind of anti-parliamentary front aiming to push citizen involvement and referenda in the run up to the Holyrood and Council elections of the following year. This idea was not taken up however.

Another concept was to create a ‘social forum’ of various activist groups which could at some point sustain a centre project (the centre closed not through lack of funds but lack of volunteers to keep it open, following the internal schisms in the SSP which led many volunteers to abandon the project for their internal SSP party business).

In reality neither came to the fore, but a decision was taken that the remaining finances would be distributed to any serious project that appeared to have a solid core group and a business plan and constitution to develop a social centre in future. That money remains to be claimed by anyone and so far no projects have come to the fore in Glasgow.

In the meantime the Burgh Angel continued, as did much of the community activity, particularly on a citywide level.

Lessons Learned

The Chalkboard project was a massive learning curve for the participants. It caused around £16 million worth of damage to the local ruling class, won some major investment in the community, and laid the grounds for a future tendency to be developed across Maryhill. There were lots of things we did wrong, but hopefully those reading this and interested in similar projects will not repeat those. The author believes it is not enough simply to develop a unity around some vague common platform. At no point did the Chalkboard group number actively more than a dozen people, but there was enough strategic differences in how we saw the centre and how to develop things to cause us to fail to all pull in the same direction and realise our organisational capacity. In terms of the counter-power type activity, this was only really being attempted by about half of the group at any one time and it was often at loggerheads strategically with some of the other ideas about how the group might develop. This led to a significant degree of organisational confusion and faffing about, when there ought really to have been more focus on building up the tenants associations and fighting to win and exerting control over our community. A successful example of a real community counter-power developing would have been a tremendous catalysing example and would have quickly been able to be generalised across the city in other communities. Fortunately there are now others interested in this, and there appears to be some attempts to have a more concerted attempt to develop that kind of municipalist politics in the area, but this is now one year on from the closure of the centre, and it could have been done then if there had been greater agreement on this point to concentrate our resources on this.

The other major lesson from the practice of the Chalkboard is that there was no real attempts to develop a workplace strategy, and it is not enough to ‘leave that work to other socialists’. If you cannot see many other comrades engaged in that way in your local area, that’s probably because there aren’t many. The Chalkboard completely failed to do outreach to workers or to link workplace struggles to community organisation. This is in spite of the awareness by most of the membership that those kind of linkages are so seminally important. The organisation often cited the example of combined tenant and trade union action as being vital in the defeat of plans, just before the opening of the Chalkboard, to do away with 24 hour concierge provision. Such links have proven vital for the victory of community campaigns in the past, and they will do in the future. Workplace struggles too are stronger with community backing. it therefore stands as an enormous oversight, and one of its major failings, that the Chalkboard did not attempt to develop some sort of local workplace strategy.

What the Future Holds

Many of the lessons surrounding the lack of common agreement appear to have been learnt. During the Chalkboard there were calls by some members to develop a specific libertarian socialist political organisation to be able to push the counter-power style activities. This came to nothing at the time, but the failure of the centre appears to have concentrated the minds of those who were involved, and a new strategically minded libertarian socialist organisation is being created which will be based on shared strategic ideas and shared theoretical background, which will work to specific local action plans with assessable goals. That organisation, Praxis, aims to carry forward much of the work that the Chalkboard was aiming to do in its partial and confused way, but the greater unity of Praxis is likely to grant more organisational capacity. Details on Praxis and what it is working on will be found online at: http://www.praxisglasgow.wordpress.com

Members of Praxis have also recently been involved with the successful Save Crichton Campus Campaign, which was won with combined IWW (International Workers of the World)/UCU (University and College Union) union activity and through linking this up to community organisation, so perhaps some of the more difficult lessons from the Chalkboard have been started to be drawn.

For information about on going projects see: http://georgesxchalkboard.blogspot.com

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