Cowley Club – Big Questions

When I sat down and thought about what had been the biggest debates during my time involved with the Cowley Club, there were four big questions which I thought of:

  • Can we sustain places for the long term without having paid ‘volunteers’ who make sure everything keeps running?
  • Are we more a stop gap in social services than a radical solution to society’s problems?
  • How do we cope with violent or aggressive behaviour?
  • Does the Cowley Club suck energy away from “real” activism?

I base these responses on conversations with other people, but they are my personal views.

Can we sustain places for the long term without having paid ‘volunteers’ who make sure everything keeps running? Every so often things appear like they may be falling apart a bit, the regular cleaning angels are away on holiday and things are looking shabby. The plumbing system is old and leaks sometimes, the beer or food order doesn’t arrive or the electric is about to be cut off. Who takes responsibility for these random but essential maintenance and behind the scenes jobs? There are no bosses, remember? So, who wants to give up their weekend to try and fix things up?

At the end of summer 2006, the Cowley was going through one of these rough patches. Someone proposed that we needed a funded bar manager. This person would not get paid much more than being on benefits but would take responsibility for getting things done like checking the rota and paying bills. A big “crisis” meeting was called. Although there were good reasons and arguments for paid staff, ultimately the proposal was rejected. Not purely on idealistic or political grounds but because of some important practical considerations too. If we started paying one person, then what about all the others? There are probably about twenty people who regularly or occasionally take on what in other places would be seen as managerial roles, whether they like it or not. This work often falls to the people who have been involved for a certain time and therefore know the ropes, but also can be anyone who sticks their head up and takes on responsibility for stuff. In the meeting we discussed how paying one person would quite possibly mean that people wouldn’t feel called upon to take on responsibility, and that all these others would not be around to fill gaps . Basically in that loose group of twenty or so people there is a huge wealth of skills, contacts and experience which could never be met by one person.

The reality remains that just a handful of people take on a big amount of responsibility, and I shudder to think what will happen when these people hand in their keys and resign from their unpaid and often unnoticed role. One of the worst things is that these people are not thanked or acknowledged by the vast majority of the club’s users. And worse than that they get blamed when things don’t work, accused of being cliquey, or fascist bureaucrats for enforcing the legal requirements of the club license. To pay people is not a way out of this problem in my view. It would only deepen the underlying problem, which is that a lot of people do not really want to take responsibility for having a collectively run space but are happy to use it. It’s important to remember that most projects – anarchist or not – are often organised this way with a few people taking on responsibility and ultimately making sure things happen, and others along for the ride and helping out on a less committed basis. This is just how things pan out, and it’s important to openly acknowledge these dynamics, and continuously keep the avenues open where people can step up to take responsibility rather than confining this to one or two paid jobs.

Sure there are times when energy is low, but as the big meeting showed, when people hear that there is a crisis point being reached, often a new spurt of enthusiasm is found. Just like in any long term project which demands daily input, it can burn people out, people get bored or frustrated and move on from a social centre. But if there is a real core value and belief in the project, then either new people will come along or some other metamorphosis will occur.

Are we more a stop gap in social services than a radical solution to society’s problems?

(or: As a regular volunteer, you can sometimes feel like you are carrying those regular customers who, for… )here can be a dynamic in the club where the regular volunteers feel like they are supporting the regular customers who spend most of their money in the club but can not, for whatever reason, take on much volunteering responsibility (busy with jobs, young kids, mental health problems etc.) The Cowley Club is not just a self organised space but does also provide services, such as cheap meals, English classes, advice and a social space. About a year ago we discovered that the local mental health services were encouraging people to come to the club when they were discharged from a period in hospital. In a lot of ways this seems a good idea, after all having a regular, cheap, healthy meal can be really important when you’re trying to get yourself back on your feet. At the same time it raised some questions about the way that untrained volunteers were somehow being expected to support some really quite vulnerable people, by recommendation of their health professionals. We contacted the mental health team and they were quite indignant and informed us that we are, according to our website, open to everyone. They are probably desperate to find something to recommend to their clients, and the Cowley Club offers itself as an inclusive space – however, the reality is that situations arose in the club that volunteers found hard to deal with as a result, and that we felt a bit used.

However, over the last few months, two groups have begun to use the club regularly. One is the Inner Visions self help group. The other is a support group for people using the drug and alcohol services. While these initiatives will not solve the issues involved, it’s really fantastic to see that there are self organised responses to the gaps in the so called health system, and that there is a cheap space where these groups can develop.

This same question arose for the teachers working at the Migrant English Project, also based at the club, as the government announced huge cuts in ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages.) While the project is rightly proud of its autonomy from government funding and its resulting freedom, an already stretched service of one to one English classes and advice is further pressured.

The relationship between us as an “autonomous” space and the state social services is a complex one. Taxes are collected, nominally to pay for this provision, but the volunteer sector ends up supplementing cuts in services while more and more money goes to private companies, military spending etc. Our capacity to support people, with little training or money, is limited but it’s fundamental to my politics that we need grass roots projects which try and do things ourselves, away from the state. Charities and so called NGOs are often funded directly by governments and can not be too critical for fear of losing funding. Having solid spaces in which to do this is one of the great things about somewhere like the Cowley Club.

How do we cope with violent or aggressive behaviour?

Violence, aggressive, sexist, racist, homophobic behaviour are all pretty common in your average British pub of a weekend. Of course social centres are not somehow magically immune to these, although it is hopefully the exception rather than the rule. One of the biggest struggles in collectively managed spaces can be working out proportionate and fair responses when incidents do happen. Many of us want to actively work against this sort of thing, in our lives in general. How does this work in our collectively run spaces? When problems occur, late at night in the bar for example, what kind of structures are in place to address it, who can a volunteer turn to? Although often enough, a group of regular users will successfully deal with the odd idiot when it’s all straightforward. But, there is no manager or bouncers to come and chuck out drunken arseholes and anyway, why should anyone put up with this sort of thing, especially when you’re not even being paid? Conflicts or issues can be brought to the General Meeting for resolution or for example, to ban someone, but that might not be for another 3 weeks, and then what would happen? Would you feel further victimised by having to repeat it all in front of all those people? And what would happen to the drunk guy anyway? He may have been coming to the club much longer than you.

We have got a mediation group who are the first point of contact for if there is a problem. Anyone can ask for them to be an intermediary in any dispute, or for them to bring a situation to a general meeting on their behalf. I asked someone from the mediation group, how we ended up with a mediation group and how it works?

“While day to day running has always been dealt with by the café, bar, entertainment collectives, and we also have monthly general meetings where all other decisions are made, we also started off with a ‘management committee’, which what we legally had to have. This was a core group of mainly ‘founding members’ who were pretty committed. I came along later. We met fortnightly and dealt with the boring issues of post, bills, drains, etc. Looking back we had already set up a hierarchy by having this group called the ‘management committee’. And although these meetings were always meant to have an open door, people tended to look at us as though we were the decision makers. We were also the group which met most regularly, so when incidents happened people often came to us. From time to time we had various issues about members / volunteers / users of the club that would be brought to our attention. So we would fumble around trying to sort stuff out and invariably, I feel, got it wrong or would be over-authoritarian. (Probably due to the vested interest we had in the club and feeling protective about it.) This fed in to the idea that we were the behind the scene managers which wasn’t good for the openness of the club in general.

The climax of these tricky situations came about with a poster which gave guidelines for behaviour or good conduct in the club. This is a recurring theme in autonomous spaces in general and also at general meetings, and it sparks lots of debate and seems to get a lot of people very het up about safety, cliques, etc. At one point this dispute ended up with a volunteer being hit by someone in the club. The management committee decided to ban that person, give them a letter telling them and inviting them to a general meeting. This was an infamous meeting, (amusingly it was also probably our largest ever!), where a dreadful court-martial style thing happened and we all floundered around trying to work out what to do. I do not even remember what the exact outcome was, but I think we decided to form the mediation group soon after this.

So we disbanded the management committee and formed an admin group to carry on with bill paying etc., and a mediation group to try and resolve interpersonal conflicts and issues. All sorts of different people and different problems get brought to our attention , sometimes by word of mouth, or at meetings. We have decided to take each ‘case’ individually as there does not seem to be any clear formula for dealing with conflict. Over a couple of years now, we have tried to build up a culture of trying to get support from other members, or people bringing issues to the mediation group. There are 5 or 6 of us and when an issue comes up then we first tell all the others by email. We have a quick email discussion over a few days and then decide what to do. Generally it’s best to act as quickly as possible. We can do various things and it’s usually one or two of us who take this on:

  • Talk to the person who is concerned / complaining.
  • Talk to the person who’s been complained about.
  • Bring the issue to a general meeting.
  • Explore the issue by asking others what went on and what they think we need to do.

After all this, the whole thing can be left. Or the parties involved can be met individually, or they could be brought together to talk stuff out. The general meeting can decide what needs to be done if there’s no resolution. The general meeting can decide to ban people and often does. This is usually with the option that if the person concerned wants to be ‘un banned’, they can approach either the general meeting or the mediation group to start a dialogue, but the onus is on them. We still don’t have all the answers and dealing with all this stuff takes time. But I do think that this approach means that people are heard and we don’t have any draconian laws (yet) in the club. I hope people also feel safe We had a mediation / personal safety training day a while ago which was positive. I hope we get it together to have another soon to continue building this culture of responding collectively when difficult situations arise.”

Does the Cowley Club suck energy away from real activism?

This is perhaps the most thorny question. Are we all wasting our time running a space when we could be focussing on more urgent struggles? And do people get involved with the social centre as their contribution to struggle and so not create more confrontational actions or projects? Behind this we have to ask what is the relationship between having the social centre and the movement/ activist activity in the area? What is real activism and do people get distracted from it or drawn to it by a social centre? I have heard the argument that the social centre is an unproven experiment in “movement building” which was imported from other European contexts in to the UK. People are waiting to see the evidence that its working. Certainly in Spain, Italy, Germany and many other European countries, social centres are a very visible and common thread of political struggle. The fight for autonomous spaces in Barcelona and other cities, is seen as a really front line and squatted spaces are fiercely defended. In my experience these spaces are not so much about welcoming new people, and more of a resource for an established anarcho scene where anti-speculation and struggles for housing are really important. In Catalonia, this comes from a tradition of ‘ateneus’ or community centres with a long radical tradition but also as places for providing social space for music, food and political meetings.

The UK context is very different in the size and visibility of the anarchist movement. Here there is not a network of social centres in any one city, even London struggles. There has been a conscious attempt to build up a UK network of places which fulfil both the solid base function and operate as a some sort of outreach project.

Although I wasn’t around at the time, I understand that that the Cowley grew out of these general aims and over the years being open as much as possible to the general public has been important. Amongst UK social centres, the Cowley is unusual in the way that it is open 3 days a week to anyone for the café and although other things are often “members and their guests only,” joining or signing in as a guest is easy enough. Neither veganism, feminism nor anarchism are explicitly forced on people, but its certainly the best stocked book store and infoshop on all three things you could find on the south coast. So, does it work, are there more or less people involved in the scene since the Cowley opened five years ago? I am not personally one to hold much by statistics. How can we judge the success or failure of a particular project? There are so many other things to take in to account, what impact has the recent raft of anti freedom to protest legislation and crackdown on civil liberties had? What other factors influence whether or not to get active, such as the political situation, other campaigns and the NGO/charity sector, the cost of living etc.? Sometimes it feels like we are fighting a losing battle, and only a few people turn up to advertised events and the energy is really low. But I also think that its impossible to underestimate the powerful influence that finding information, and a different non consumerist space can have on people’s ability to take action and challenge the corporate crap we are all sold and to have a visible example that it’s possible.

In what is a quite a small and limited scene, I think it’s often a matter of engaging with what’s there. If I waited to find the perfect thing for me to put my energy into I could end up never doing anything. There is a school of thought that social centres are an easy option and somehow people who would otherwise be involved in campaigning or direct action are tied up with the washing up. Another way of looking at it, is that everyone has different things they are happy/comfortable doing and having as many ways of possible for people to get involved is a good thing. I have had some incredible conversations with many many types of different people in the café over the past two years, (young people doing work experience, single mums from local rehab houses, out of work documentary film makers, people travelling through, etc.) Of course, not all of them have gone on to lock onto some gate or other or even been that interested in what a libertarian social centre was all about, but it has been important nonetheless. I have worked with people for whom it was the first time they had got out of the house to do some work since a breakdown, or learned how to make hummous, or work in a place without a boss and get trusted to go out to the shop with club money without having to have a full CRB check. Dedicated “activists” have to take on responsibility, learn to negotiate difficult personal challenges and act out of solidarity.

Working at the Cowley regularly challenges me, I have to deal with nitty gritty of how not to work in a hierarchical way. It brings me in to contact with many people that I would not otherwise meet and helps breaks down the idea of activists and everyone else. There is no guaranteed path from one thing to other but being part of working in the club can be a really valuable part of the mundane, everyday revolution.

If the project is failing and it’s not an inspirational place any more then it will end. A bigger question may be about how we use the space to support our long term campaigns and actions. A place to meet, distribute publicity from, cross pollinate ideas with other groups, raise money, get post, store banners, put on film or info nights etc. Local groups such as Smash EDO, Brighton ABC and No Borders have definitely benefited from the space and resources. Perhaps we don’t use the space to ever really discuss all these big questions. We don’t really have any political forums for debate, it’s all practical organising meetings really and informal chats between people which probably isn’t the best.

Reading the other contributions to this booklet has made us think about doing another Rebel Alliance direct action forum, or some sort of thing to bring the political motivations and direct action right in to the space on a regular basis. Sometimes you feel like a muppet working for free for someone to get a cheap lunch. But overall these long term projects are an important way of trying things out, building our infrastructures, and having to reflect on what we do. Again and again the questions come up – often about how the fuck we deal with all society’s/people’s problems that we have to confront in our space. I don’t have any clear answers, but the last five years have been a steep learning curve and I think it’s important to discuss these things and work out ways to be more effective and sustainable.

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