Origins and early history
In the late summer of 1999, a small group of people with a collective history of involvement in direct action organising got together to discuss buying a building for use as a resource centre and meeting space for London’s direct action and radical groups. The need for such a permanent space had been felt for some time, and as fortune would literally have it, a participant had part of a large inheritance to dispose of. A few meetings and building visits later, ‘Fieldgate’ as it was initially known was bought.
Part of the reason for settling on this particular building, alongside its central(ish) location, was the area’s radical history. One of the group lived nearby, having been part of the earlier upsurge in squatting in the area and eventually gaining tenancy. Opposite was the derelict Tower House, an infamous London ‘doss-house’ where Jack London, Stalin, and Orwell had stayed (now being remade as yuppie flats), and round the corner was Freedom, Britain’s oldest anarchist bookshop. The area – one of the poorest in the UK – has been home to successive migrant communities and the collective were aware that it was now home to a large Muslim community, which most of them had had very little contact with before. It was later discovered from a local historian that the LARC building itself had a radical history, having it seems been home in the 1920’s to one of the last ‘International Modern Schools’ initiated by a local group of Jewish anarchists and dedicated to ‘bringing up children in the spirit of freedom’.
In 1999, when the collective bought it, the building was a storage lock-up for a ‘rag trade’ business and was in need of extensive repair. Part of the cash had been set aside for renovation, and the group hoped to have the space done up and fully running as quick as possible, anticipating it may take over a year. In the end it took around 3 years to fully plan and finish rebuilding, in that time some of the founding collective left, new participants arrived, and the wider ‘movement’ moved in often unanticipated directions. There were extensive meetings to decide on the centre’s aims, objectives, structure and rebuilding and lots of workdays to tear out the old plaster, asbestos, rebuild the walls and ceilings, plumb in a disabled toilet, change the doors, lower the floor in the mezzanine library-to-be, plaster, paint, sand and cement, to name just a few of the jobs. A lot of the building and refurbishment work was carried out by paid professionals, but some was done by the group, learning new skills as they went along, and helped by friends and volunteers. An environmental ethos ran throughout this renovation, recycling and reusing stuff where possible, and using ecological paints, plaster and other building materials. During most of this, sometimes with buckets to catch the rain in the main hall, the building was being used informally for meetings, banner and prop making, for action planning, for Mayday and DSEi organising, and many other events.
These years were also an “arduous and horrible process of becoming legal”: applying for discretionary rate relief, insurance, setting up a company limited by guarantee and other officious tediums. The soon to be London Action Resource Centre or LARC (pronounced ‘lark’) was unofficially open as soon as it was bought in ’99, but its fully renovated and official launch had to wait until summer 2002.
Aims and identity
“J-18 was a high watermark for this movement. There was a huge surge in interest and involvement. We really needed a long-term place where we could be seen, put down roots, be visible, hold meetings and have some of the resources needed for action.” (from interview)
“As the police repression following demonstrations escalated and squatting became increasingly difficult, we wanted to create a safe space and resource for London’s direct action groups. Because of London’s size, our social movement has always been very dispersed. We wanted a building with resources that would be a catalyst for the different direct action groups in London to meet face to face, to discuss ideas and strategies together and to build up new affinity networks that would contribute to strengthening London’s and the UK’s direct action networks.” (from the LARC history page on the website).
For some of the LARC collective, as well as in name, LARC is “an action resource centre, not a social centre”. This could be explained by the fact that LARC was set up before ‘social centre’ or ‘occupied social centre’ from the Italian and Spanish movements became the common term for such spaces. Press one or two further and you might get the reply that more than socialising is required for a successful revolutionary movement. Such a tongue-halfway-in-cheek distinction seems to be a partly polemical response to the recent promotion of ‘social centres’ in the UK. LARC clearly does see itself as part of a growing network of social centres and autonomous spaces, publicising them and supporting them where possible. Some of the collective have been and continue to be actively involved in helping set up more such spaces – squatted, rented, or bought – and strengthen links between them. Whatever the terminology (and ‘social centre’ is often shorthand for a number of spaces, clubs and centres that don’t explicitly call themselves that), LARC also shares many similarities with spaces that do call themselves social centres, such as the stipulation that political parties, religious groups, racism, sexism are not welcome and an identification with, and attempt to practise, self-organised, non-hierarchical, anti-capitalist politics. While the collective are obviously aware of the ‘unusual’ financial situation that led to LARC’s existence and therefore keen for the place to be a wider resource, LARCers have also had lots of involvement with running squatted places – from the St Johns Street ‘squat centre’ in Islington in 1997 to the Atherdon Road ‘community centre’ in Hackney in 2003 and beyond. The dichotomy between providing resources or a centre for some imaginary community ‘out there’ and looking at how we could provide space and resources to strengthen our own ‘political community’ has been a recurrent issue. But as squatted and community social centres appear and disappear, LARC provides a stable base for everything from storage to providing meeting space for the groups who have just been made homeless from eviction and a place to use the phone and internet to coordinate ongoing campaigns, actions and the occupation of new social centres.
Facilities, activities and users
LARC’s size and structure lends itself more to some activities and facilities than others. The front shop window is used to display info on actions, events and other goings on – and lots of local Muslims stand outside and read stuff on the way to the Mosque just up the road, as do other locals and restaurant-goers. The ground floor contains a meeting space for around 40-50 people, which includes a tea kitchen for drinks and making snacks. The lobby displays leaflets, posters and information about radical events in London and the rest of the world, and there is also a beautifully camp disabled toilet with baby changing facilities. The mezzanine contains an extensive radical library with a fantastic collection of books, pamphlets, DVD’s and an archive of the last 15 years of (mostly) UK direct action history, it is wo(manned) by several enthusiastic librarians. The library also offers free internet and DVD copying. On the second floor is the office which apart from the administration desk houses five computers with free internet for the use of groups and individuals, it is also used for meetings and last but not least contains two open fireplaces to provide that extra meeting ambience. The office opens up to an organic food roof garden where meetings are held amongst the vegetables and fruit in the summer. The basement provides the space for banner-making, sewing and prop-making and adds an additional meeting space at busy times. LARC also provides a duplicator and a film-projector which is frequently lent out to other social centres. New refurbishments are still happening – an environmentally friendly wood burning central heating system is being installed, also a larger kitchen for the basement.
The building is used for meetings, socials, talks, film screenings, benefits, acoustic music making, and banner/prop making for a variety of actions and events. Over the years, LARC has been used by many different political groups and campaigns. One of the success stories being the birth and blossoming of London Rising Tide, a creative direct action group aiming to tackle the root causes of climate chaos, and to promote socially just, ecological alternatives to the fossil fuel madness. Other more recent initiatives that have found a home there include Infousurpa, a weekly social centre activity news sheet, and a monthly anti-war forum. Groups who use LARC regularly include Queeruption, Indymedia London, Semilla Rebelde Zapatista support group, Anti-Olympics campaign, Voices in the Wilderness, while other groups and networks who have met at LARC include No Borders, School Students Against War, Seeds for Change, The Wombles, Legal Defence and Monitoring Group, Disarm DSEi, CIRCA ,Resist Bush, London Social Centres Network, and Rhythms of Resistance, amongst many others.
LARC is also an infopoint for the grassroots network Peoples’ Global Action (PGA), whose ‘hallmarks’ have become the basic agreement for many social centres and initiatives in the UK such as the Dissent! network against the 2005 Gleneagles G8 conference. Through the PGA network LARC has made links with similar spaces and radical groups in Europe and elsewhere and helped organise tours such as the Argentinian Piqueteros tour of 2003, one of the earlier co-ordinated activities of UK ‘social centres’. LARC has also provided the protected legal space and entity that has enabled groups to get visas for political refugees, and to get grassroots organisers in from outside fortress Europe.
Organisation, decision-making and resources
LARC is essentially a co-op in how it is legally set up and run. It’s a non-profit limited company and its articles of association are drawn largely from stock co-op paperwork. It is not though, like many housing and workers ‘co-ops’, an ‘industrial provident society’ which for a fee legalises it as a co-operative. There are directors, a chair, secretary and treasurer, who can be rotated or changed at the legally required Annual General Meeting (AGM) and are answerable to that meeting as well as the open monthly meeting of the LARC collective. Generally it is understood that, “the space is collectively owned for the use of direct action groups working on projects for radical social change. Within this shared framework all the users of the building can contribute to shaping the future of the LARC project.” (from LARC website history)
When the building was first bought, it was hoped that the original collective would eventually grow and diversify into practical and autonomous workgroups such as: office, finance/fundraising, building maintenance, roof garden, library and events/outreach, which would be open to all users of the building. In practise (apart from the active library group), this hasn’t quite worked out and the essential running and maintenance of LARC relies on the few people – aka the LARC collective – who feel responsible for the space. The main decisions regarding LARC are taken at monthly meetings with all the regular user groups of the building invited (or delegates from groups using the building). Consensus or getting general agreement is how decisions are usually made though there have been exceptions, and while user collectives are encouraged to participate or send a delegate this seldom really happens. The AGM’s though have been well attended and individuals from user groups and from the wider scene do come along to have a say on the sometimes major issues that the AGM decides upon. The LARC collective is no monolith and apart from a few stalwarts, has changed composition a lot since its early days, while the open nature of the meetings ensure it is always possible for people to get involved. Financially, as the money for the building was donated, there is no mortgage to a bank but LARC still has to fundraise to pay the incoming bills.
Lessons learnt and future directions
One of the major problems LARC has faced over the years has been the volunteering aspect:
“…it has been a really big struggle to get users of LARC to make the leap from consumers of the space to maintainers/producers – there is still a divide between a core of people who do everything and a wider group of people who use the space. If you are around a lot, people assume you are getting paid and so defer to authority. This hits on a wider problem of the insider-outsider divide – there is the perception that some of us run the space so people act as if we do. This is where the DIY politics falls down and a form of service provision kicks in. On the other hand, volunteers can become proprietorial and resent having to let go of power. Getting people to donate for using coffee, tea, meetings, computers has also been difficult and it is really annoying when groups don’t think about recycling and tidying up.” (from interview and personal opinion).
LARC is a long term project, one of the first of its kind in London. Running LARC might not be particularly sexy but, it is seen as (a) movement building and more realistic than short term bursts of energy associated with ‘spectacular action’ or short term social centres. Although the group sometimes detect a consumerist attitude with people using LARC, they also know that it is difficult to change an attitude that has been indoctrinated in us by capitalism from birth. Immediate gratification is, well, gratifying and washing cups after a meeting is a lot more tedious than going to the pub for a drink or five. The really positive lesson learnt by the collective after years of running LARC is that people contribute in all sorts of unexpected ways, from organising free bike workshops for local kids, donating resources, developing the library, making soup and bringing wine for the monthly meeting, providing amusing facilitation so that the meetings become bearable, clearing the computers of 100’s of viruses for the 50th time, watering the plants, doing the website, welcoming people, cleaning the toilets, doing the accounts, paying the bills, organising workdays, publicising the space, keeping the building open, organising exhibitions – the list could go on, but the point is that people contribute their time and energy for free because self-organising, however frustrating, is seen as important, (potentially) revolutionary and occasionally even fun.
LARC participants can also be self-critical when it comes to accessibility and involvement:
“How welcoming are we? It is really hard to delineate between public and private openings – we have public opening hours but we also want it to be a resource centre for existing groups. The public-private issue is an ongoing unresolved and legal tension. Our community relations are good but community participation in LARC is weak. Getting a balance creates tensions.” (interview)
Needless to say it hasn’t always been very fascinating for a bunch of ‘anarchos’ to deal with the bureaucracy of ‘normal society’. One of the more frustrating points was that we were unable to begin setting up the office and the library straight away because of disagreements with the council building control. We are also a group of people who are used to working on short term goals (like a sexy day of action), and at times it has been difficult to keep the enthusiasm on top. Several of the initiators have moved on to other good projects, moved to other cities and so on. So LARC is facing the same problem as everywhere else – too few people trying to do too much. (from LARC history webpage)
“We are a resource centre and we really want to develop the resources: to improve the computers and internet access, possibly regenerate the basement, bring in a printing press, create a social space with a café…” (interview)
It’s acknowledged that it’s not always clear just how someone can get involved, what it is they can do, beyond using the space for what they’re already doing. But it’s also said that in some ways LARC is not being used to its full potential or opened more often by those already involved. Over 20 sets of keys exist for the building, held by as many groups and individuals. These are loaned when groups use the space for meetings or events and theoretically at least guidelines are followed in the building and the keys are handed in or passed on to other users when the group or person is no longer using the place regularly. In practise it’s more chaotic, with sets being lost, and sometimes the wider responsibilities of ‘keyholding’ get forgotten.
There are other ‘ongoing issues’ such as alcohol and music. LARC doesn’t have an alcohol or music license but you can have a drink and hear a few tunes there now and again at its or its users open ‘private events’ – which is a blurred line it may not be able to sustain indefinitely. Other ‘guidelines’, such as no smoking (other than on the OK of the usergroup), or washing up, or donating, are often difficult to maintain. LARC is also not always perceived as a family or kids-friendly place locally simply because it is routinely harassed by the police around any demo or action time – London FIT team will often be outside taking pictures. On the other hand, having the police outside on a regular basis does give the place a certain street cred amongst the local community, especially the youth, who themselves are routinely harassed by the police. LARC has had a number of kids’ playdays, and activities such as bike fixing out on the street with local kids, as well as film nights, jumbles and free shops to ‘de-exoticise’ itself locally, but like many similar spaces and the wider movement generally its make-up and dress sense tends to be of a particular age and type. A collective political project involving the local community is something that some in LARC are waiting for the chance to be involved in.
Tentatively though, the London Action Resource Centre has been a success: the big jam-packed events, the collective projects where people have worked together, the garden, the occasional diversity of people who do come through the doors – LARC is well used and has been a useful and important resource for action over the past 5-6 years. Those involved certainly feel that “a wider, more connected social centres network would be a definite bonus” for a radical movement, and have been excited to see the existing network growing massively in recent years. They are also aware of the difficulties ahead in sustaining a place like LARC, and trying to help maintain, as the LARC website puts it, “a useful resource in the growing struggle against capitalism, centralised power, environmental destruction and war; and a shared tool on the way to creating a truly free and ecological community.”
London Action Resource Centre (LARC) is at
62 Fieldgate Street, London
Tel 0207377 9088
and email info [at] londonarc [dot] org
The website is at www.londonarc.org