Occupied London. The London Social Centre movement

London Social Centre

The following interview charts the recent story of occupied social centres which emerged in London from 2002-2006 drawing heavily on the Italian ‘centri sociali’. One participant explains their involvement, their aims and what they tried to achieve.

What were the origins of what you were doing in London?

It was after MayDay 2001 and we occupied the Radical Dairy December, January. It was a small shopfront cum house with a basement, very small on the corner of a sort of residential area. There were about 20 of us that were involved, and the reason we occupied it was because a lot of people had been to Italy and seen the social centres there before that. Before people went to Italy they didn’t actually know what social centres were. Everyone was completely new to any sort of political involvement, it was a first entry point, the sort of anti-capitalist movement in London. I mean I came from Reclaim the Streets and Wombles had been formed for about seven, eight months before we were involved in MayDay 2001, then, Genoa, Gothenburg. A quite intense period of summit mobilisation.

Some of us had been to Italy in March for a People’s Global Action Conference which was held in Milan, near…and saw the sort of diversity of people involved in it. The scale of stuff was a complete contrast to what we were doing, and people wanted more than just that, they wanted, you know, a connection with people and ideally to be involved in political intervention on a daily basis, and so the Radical Dairy was a chance to do that.

But the Radical Dairy was a conscious effort to bring together what we thought or felt the Italians were doing with social centres and what we wanted to do with social centres. So we made a really strong effort, you know, for ourselves, not to call it a squat, but to call it a social centre, really bigging it up, and that was a really conscious effort to break that sort of insular squat political culture.

Why were you doing it? Because you wanted a social centre like in Italy?

We wanted a social centre as a solution to the problem that anti-capitalism had a lot of people who turned out, but there were a lot of scare stories. We wanted to have a public connection with people and re-root ourselves with radical politics within a certain geographical locality, basically transform an area, look at what sort of social needs there were in an area.

The centres are like a beacon for people within an area that would have sympathies with them or would actually learn about how we viewed the world and what was going on and to see what we can do with them. And I felt at the same time that there was no sort of separation. There wasn’t like a sort of Maoism where we were going to root ourselves in the community then build an army.

But what was it about social centres that would meet social needs?

Firstly, they didn’t last for just one day. Going down to the Reclaim the Streets demonstrations, or street parties, June 18th in 1999 in London or anything else I really felt it was that kind of an alternative social relationship, away from the logic of capitalism as I saw it anyway. That is what inspired us – to create a space that had that kind of inspirational element but on a much more daily basis. At the same time I felt that there was the problem with the anti-capitalist movement, basically that it mobilised once every six months…we were serious about changing the world, so how do you do that if you are only communicating to one section of society?

We knew about the squat culture in London, even though no-one at the time in the Wombles was squatting. Everyone was renting or living in halls or whatever, most people had jobs and stuff. And it was never a thing that we wanted to set up a commune or anything. I was completely against that kind of thing. We wanted to be part of society so Radical Dairy was just like an experimentation in trying to realise that. No one normal would go into a squat, it is just the same old crusty types that go in squats.

I think the Radical Dairy was quite a limited place, very small but in the main it looked really excellent, really inviting. We linked up with loads of anti-gentrification campaigns in Hackney, because ‘Hackney Not for Sale’ had an office there. We had a massive library with about 700 books that were contributed by people. We had internet access and we had a bar. We had teas and coffees all day, we had musical events, sound systems in the basement and we noticed that when we actually started doing that, there was a lot of interest from people in the street, a lot of families wandered in. We had tables and chairs outside and people would come from shopping on Saturday morning and they would be sitting outside on our tables and chairs and asking for a tea and I was sitting down with them and chatting. Just ordinary working class men and women of all ages, different races as well. There were a lot of black and Asian people that would come to the place quite often, it made a real presence in the area. We had Indymedia film nights and a lot of the times on a weekend we had loads of kids. And some of the time we had so many kids running around, you would get their parents coming in at about six o’clock in the evening, and saying ‘have you seen Andy or little Charlie?’

Were there any negative reactions?

There was half a dozen odd situations which got really nasty, fights and smackheads and the rest of it. But on the whole they were dealt with quite well because we made every incident a situation to mobilise people and to actually discuss that. How do we deal with crackheads? How do we deal with drugdealers trying to take over the place? How do we combat this? From that we learned that it wasn’t actually a problem, it was a way of developing us. If someone turns up at the door who is like a 50 year old working class woman with three kids who has just come back from the market, who says well what are you about then? You explain. You know you have to develop a language to communicate with people and that was the most exciting thing that we were talking to the most random people you could imagine on so many different issues, and that was the best thing about it.

What about connections with local struggles?

So yeah there were demands made on us to support stuff, and we didn’t support them as much as we could have done. We were doing so much to maintain the place and to present the whole thing that we didn’t have time to actually concentrate on other stuff. That was the massive failings of it. Keeping the space and like, you know, cleaning the space up and making sure it was always presentable, and people were always in the building.

How did the political activity of the Wombles affect the Radical Diary?

We had May 2002 which we organised through Radical Dairy. During that time, we got raided by police. Before that, our electricity got cut, there were about 50 riot cops who raided the place, computers got seized, that galvanised support in the area as well because people saw it. Then we started seeing people’s true relationship to the place. Residents came out on the streets that morning shouting at the police. I remember this woman saying ‘my kid goes to that place, he can’t go to the park where there’s too many fucking crackheads, why aren’t you concerned with the crackheads?’

What were relationships like with the community?

There were a lot of locals that would come in and cook once a week, there were a lot of teenagers, teenage girls that would come and use the computers to do their home work. They actually wrote letters to the police after we got raided saying, we need this space, we need our computers because we do our GCSEs on them and stuff, and would completely understand the idea of self organisation and say well you know it is an excellent thing you are doing, we want to contribute. So they would come one night and cook for us.

What were the things at that time that struck you that weren’t right?

It was hard for a lot of people to realise that we were not there to project our lifestyles, our politics onto a place. Instead we were there to work in conjuction with people. Very much trying to have a dialogue with people, create things basically out of that. And also this thing of people not prioritising those kind of struggles that have been emerging in the area and responding to them. That was the biggest thing. I mean some of us felt that that was what we needed to do, but how to do that was something else.

How long did it last for?

It lasted for about 13 months, which is quite a good run, until February 2003.

What happened next?

After the European Social Forum in Paris in November 2003 we had made a lot of good connections and developed a bit and then decided we wanted to open another social centre. We wanted a social centre because we thought it was the thing that created a meaning to and expand what we were doing. At that point our idea of social centres got a bit more sophisticated. There was a No Borders night we had which was our main reason for occupying the place.

Where was this?

This was in Kentish Town in London, January 2004. We had a meeting with about 30 people to discuss what we wanted from a social centre, what we wanted to happen and why, and everything else we learned from the mistakes of the Radical Dairy ; occupied the place on Fortess Road, resisted eviction, put a call out trying to make this kind of impression that we wanted to create a movement around social centres. It lasted about six weeks and then Grand Banks got occupied just down the road.

Now that started off a completely public space. It was a truly public space; we had a relationship with the kids in the local area and a school, it was an excellent place. We wanted to have more political meetings, be a bit more politically developed, more events that were really like popular in the area, a good perception by people that weren’t ‘us’ about the place. Lots more people, families and kids came to the place. Lots of kids getting involved, a lot of kids taking on the place and managing it. We also had a lot of events happening there, we started getting involved in the European Social Forum in London and used that as a place to organise. So yeah, we decided to do a social centre again as a way to resolve issues around how you actually create a movement. So we occupied, and then also at the same time we wanted to be involved in migration issues, through No Borders.

Considering it was quite a limited space it worked pretty well and we tried to make it as professionally looking as possible, you know we bought a coffee machine. We were doing various sorts of discussions and trying to make the place look nice. We had exhibitions up. We started an anti copyright cinema for which we did a lot of flyposting. Each time we had an event on we leafleted literally 400 houses around the area constantly, and for the anti copyright cinema we had the most busiest night with about 120, 130 people. We were basically premiering Hollywood films.

We also wanted to revitalise the social centre network. At that point there was another social centre, ‘Use your Loaf’, which had been going for about a year. With Grand Banks there was this thing because it was so essential to the area, so visible and stuff, as soon as we occupied it we had people from the area coming down before we even opened, asking if we wanted furniture. When we opened up I think the first day we had about 60 or 70 kids just walk in at lunchtime and it just you know, overwhelmed us basically. It was a case of, well we don’t really need to publicise what we are doing. A lot of them were like 15 or 16 and we asked them ‘what do you want out of the place?’ And they said, ‘oh, we have been banned from the shops here, and, you know, there is nowhere to eat’. So we said, ‘ok, we will start doing food’. So we started doing food everyday and it got busier because people came down for lunch. It was a public space basically. People were meeting there on the Friday evening before they went clubbing.
What were the major problems?

The major problem was that it had been dominated by non political activists, so there were a lot of burnt out people saying why are we doing it? Why as anarchists are we cooking food for middle class kids? For them they didn’t engage with the fact of trying. The most productive thing we can do is create an accessible place where people are engaging in an analytical dialogue with us and then developing from that point onwards. Also not patronising people. They create their own sort of political engagement as well rather than some sort of factory thing where they come in non political and they come out as anarchists. And stuff doesn’t work like that.

How long were you there for Grand Banks?

Mid February to August 2004. It was quite a short time. Then we got evicted, and then we did the Beyond ESF stuff in November 2004 (at the London European Social Forum). We had the initial eviction on May 19th. We had about 200 people for the eviction. People came out of school for it and it was really successful and a lot of kids who used the place were interviewed in the local paper which made it a big story in the area, and then obviously we got evicted in August.

So the eviction day we had the doors open and we just had small barricades outside and a sound system and the bailiffs came and went. The police came to us and said we are not going to support the eviction saying ‘we want to end this peacefully’, and stuff like that and ‘we all think you are doing great work here and we have got no problems with Grand Banks.’ That was kind of reiterated teachers and stuff like that, parents, and then the raid in August was like Scotland Yard, there was all the Forward Intelligence Team, there was riot police and about 30 bailiffs.

What would you say were the main achievements?

The Camden Daily Journal is quite a good local newspaper and there were people writing to it and quoting Grand Banks basically, quoting our newsletters not from mainly political perspectives but really about use of space. Why don’t we open up all the empty buildings? Why don’t the Council reappropriate any empty buildings and give it over to people who want to do social projects in it, and people writing that sort of stuff. Also after the first eviction there was an actual editorial saying there was this massive thing about political apathy amongst young people and someone said ‘how come you have got hundreds of kids walking out of school to support their social centre?’ It was a social centre not a squat. Everybody knew about the place basically. I mean even the pub across the road, an Irish pub, they came over to us because we were doing screen printing and we were selling like hundreds of t-shirts.

I mean this is the thing. We want to get to a stage where our ideal situation is where we want to give the building back to people, to this community that is created there, and say ‘right you run the place now’.

Was there any intimidation against the kids to stop them using Grand Banks?

There were certain kids that had a lot of problems. They were violent. They would go out violent, they had a lot of problems like you would see their dad coming out of the Irish pub at one o’clock in the morning completely pissed and dragging their kids out and giving them like a punch in the face and stuff. You would talk to like 13 year old girls saying ‘I don’t want to go home because my dad will just beat me up.’ You know all this stuff, and you had a faction within the Wombles saying we are not social workers. Fucking hell, it is like the reason people don’t engage in politics is because they have got so much shit in their lives. That is a bigger issue, whether they are being beaten up by their parents or being attacked on the streets by gangs or whatever. Other forms of domination beyond capitalism that result from capitalism aren’t seen as political, which a few of us did see as very political. We had managed to create a space that we were part controlling and you have got the whole of society there. And it is a dream isn’t it – a dialogue between different sections of society about loads of other things.

What happened after the ESF in London?

In something like November or December we formed a small collective that was going to occupy a place. It was an initiative within the context of this new student group and only two of us in that collective were involved in Grand Banks. We occupied a building in January 2005, which we were kicked out of within seven or eight hours by police on Huntley Street. Two days later we found the other place on Gower Street which became the ‘Institute for Autonomy’. Everything seemed fine, a massive place and we set the place up as being both living accommodation and a social space. So the first and second floor and the ground floor and the basement and the garden were social spaces and there were three floors of accommodation. There was a lot of enthusiasm. There was a hacklab that actually worked, computers and stuff like that. There was a screen printing lab. There was a café which was really popular which was mainly in the afternoons. And we also had a whole room which was an infoshop.

What was the relationship between this space and the previous occupied spaces?

I think a lot of people had heard of the other places, some had been to it. A lot of the students had been to ‘Beyond the ESF’ as well so we had some sort of connection with them and they knew our politics anyway. It started off quite organically. It was like we are in the university area, it is called the Institute of Autonomy, let’s start relating to our immediate community which is students and people who work in the area. Let’s do activities that might bring them in. So we had the radical theory forum every week. The thing about the Institute for Autonomy is that the preparations for the 2005 G8 (meeting in Scotland) about March to April dominated it. The G8 dominated it and made it sort of like a G8 social centre at that point. It became a place where we could distribute propoganda about the G8 and stuff, sell train tickets.

How did the Institute of Autonomy end?

We sent people down to Senate house, the University of London offices basically and had a discussion with them about what we were doing. They were saying ‘ok, how long are you going to be there’ and stuff like that, we said ‘July’ because we knew we were going to be in Scotland in July at the G8 and basically it worked. And so July 7th 2005 they had the eviction date which was excellent for us anyway. In 2006 we went on to open up ‘The Square’ on Russell Square but that’s another story. A big focus there was to support the No Borders network and raise money for it.

How many people have been involved in all these projects?

It seems like each time we occupy a place we make different connections with different sets of people. I was saying about Radical Dsairy, there were all the old Reclaim the Streets, samba band, critical mass people, squatters, class war people and that was the first time we met them basically. The same with Grand Banks and then the Institute of Autonomy and the Square, a lot of students and lecturers as well that we have got connections with now. You could say that it went from nothing to a network of two or three thousand people maybe even more who have an affinity with social centres. We have had social centres since 2004 making these links. People are still around. They haven’t disappeared. There is a political network that manifests itself each time we occupy a building and speak in the same language and put out the same kind of propaganda. People come down and they get to hear about it and that is a really interesting thing, because obviously we want to develop it even further and further and further.

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