The Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh

Much of this piece is based on an article by Sarah Young, which first appeared in Peace News in 2007. Thanks to both Sarah and Peace News.

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Tell us some background about ACE

ACE dates back to the Council funded Edinburgh Unemployed Workers’ Centre in the 1980s. The Centre had been prominent in the movement of non-payment of poll tax and other sorts of direct action. In 1992 the Council cut off all funding. So the Centre users took it over and ran it collectively.

In Summer 1994, the council issued an eviction notice and then we occupied the building twenty four hours a day until 5am1st December, when police and sheriff officers sledgehammered the door in. But we had an emergency phone tree and people turned up to resist the eviction. Police reinforcements were brought from all around the Lothians. It took them hours to finally evict the building, and 23 of us were arrested.

But the group stayed together without the building. It was a time of resistance to the Criminal Justice bill and the Claimants Group was very active because it was when the Job Seekers Allowance was being introduced. There were a lot of occupations at Job Centres and so on. Then early in 1997 we found this building and we have been here ever since.

For years the premises have been pretty run-down, but through the Social Centre Network someone generously gave us a donation, and in 2006 we completely renovated ACE, mainly doing the work ourselves, plus with the generous help of some friends with particular skills. As you see its really nice now, sometimes people who haven’t been here a while walk in and think they’re in the wrong place!

Now Leith Wholefoods sells good organic food here at a reasonable price, that’s brought a lot of new people in. Leith Wholefoods has as our tag line “run by skint people for skint people” and we are committed to helping making organic food affordable for everyone. Organic food is basically just food that isn’t toxic, both to the people who eat it and the people who grow and handle it. All food should be organic. The irony is that because organic food has this ‘luxury’ status that sometimes we can’t afford to buy our own goods! Most of us can only afford to have part of our diet organic but at least this helps us do that. We also try to raise awareness about the politics of food production and consumption.

We show films every Sunday, followed by discussion and socialising, one of the recent showings had Jan Nimmo from Glasgow speaking about her films on the struggles of banana workers in South America, and it was packed out.

What social and political movements is ACE a part of now?

There are women’s collectives, for example Women’ Health Workshops who encourage women’s autonomy in health care. The recent Forum event on Queer History was really successful, and the recently formed Queer Mutiny group hold meetings at ACE. There is now also a Women’s Caff that runs on the last friday of every month and is there both for women simply to meet each other and hopefully get some solidarity, and also for anyone who wants to plot and plan different projects, events etc. together.

Edinburgh Claimants have held our advice sessions here ever since 1997. People drop in every Tuesday afternoon for support and solidarity over benefits, housing and debt problems.

Then there is the Chiapas Solidarity Group which is twinned with zapatista villages in Mexico. ACE sells zapatista coffee and handicrafts. Some folk are really involved in the struggle over climate change and a group went down to the climate camp at Heathrow, using ACE as a base. More recently a local Plane Stupid group started meeting at ACE, and have already blockaded a private jet company at Edinburgh airport.

The revolutionary union the IWW meets here, and more groups are starting to use our facilities, like LETS, Leith Permaculture and Indymedia Scotland, it’s not only great to see the space well-used but hopefully it will lead to groups making connections with each other and encourage the idea and practice of a community of struggle.

ACE is about people organising to take control over their own lives and you know, I think that just about all of us see it as something that is revolutionary. It is about fundamental change, even though the way into it is through more immediate issues. The issues can be joined up together – peoples’ needs can only be met by revolutionary change from the bottom.

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Could you say a bit more about what the Women’s Health Workshops are all about ?

We have run health workshops for women which are continuing in the spirit of feminist self-organising. We have a quote from the introduction to Rina Nissim’s book ‘Natural Healing in Gynecology’ on our section of ACE website which says:

‘In developing the kind of health care that meets women’s needs, the self-help movement uses a model of health care which differs from that of modern medicine, one which borrows extensively from the approach of natural healing. One difference is in the concepts themselves of illness, health and health care.

For modern western medicine, disease is caused by germs, bacteria and viruses, and health care consists of combating enemy microbes with chemicals, and interrupting the course of the disease. The natural healing approach, on the other hand, is a holistic one which recognises the emotional, social and environmental factors in disease, and which treats the person as a whole being. Moreover, symptoms (disease) are regarded as an expression of the body’s attempts to return to a certain equilibrium. Treatment of these symptoms, then, lies in helping the system concerned to do its work. For example fasting or eating lightly when you have a fever helps the body by allowing it to focus on ridding itself of toxins already present, and not overburdening it further. Natural Healing is also a more preventative, or health oriented, style of medicine, stressing how one stays in good health – for example through diet – rather than focusing solely on treating each illness as it occurs.

Another difference lies in modern western medicine’s profit orientation. In addition to spawning the pharmaceutical industry (not a few of whose products are – although expensive – ineffective if not downright dangerous), this means quality health care is sometimes available only to those who can afford to pay -and pay dearly – for it. In contrast to the passive consumerism encouraged by modern medicine, and the information-for-sale (to be jealously guarded) attitude of modern medical practitioners, self-help seeks to encourage autonomy through information sharing’.

We think this sums up a fair bit of our thoughts. We have also developed a womens health reference library which is available for women to come in and use whenever ACE is open.

What direction is ACE taking?

We are trying to broaden the Edinburgh Claimants work by starting a Solidarity Network where anybody that’s up against the authorities can get direct practical solidarity, whether it’s about housing, work, benefits, debt or whatever.

Often we are able to sort things out by pressurising the benefits manager or the electricity company or whatever, but sometimes they just dig their heels in. The Network would contact people so they could turn up, say at the benefits office or workplace, stage some kind of direct action and basically not budge until the thing is sorted out. Networks like this are already working well in Ontario and, more recently, in London. As well as Edinburgh Claimants, ACE itself and the local IWW have committed to the new network, Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty.

One of the folk in ACE was very involved in the opposition to the privatising of social housing in Edinburgh. Against all the odds, council tenants voted to reject the privatisation that the council had spent millions on pushing. But there is a real need for a movement over more social housing. That movement doesn’t really exist at present, though there are people interested in getting something going.

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What are the other issues just now?

In 2007 Edinburgh Council published a huge list of cutbacks, They wanted to close down over 20 schools, nurseries and community centres. This was met by complete outrage on behalf of everyone in the community, including workers threatened with redundancies. There was a lot of really encouraging self activity, for example we met a school student involved in setting up a web site that drew together school students from different schools.

The main closure program was stopped, but they are still pressing ahead with cutbacks, so that is the sort of thing that we hope to link up with local people over.

Another important struggle in the city is about local people in the Old Town fighting for community control over development. They are resisting a business-dominated development plan, known as “Caltongate”. Already some of us have some involvement and contact with that struggle, and we hope to take that further, especially as it seems direct action may ultimately be the only way to continue opposition to the development.

The Scottish parliament is within walking distance from here. What do you think about the Scottish Parliament?

It isn’t something that we have a collective ACE statement on! Personally, though I would never argue that it is better to just have a UK parliament and not a Scottish Parliament, at the same time I think that in terms of real change there is very little difference.

One very good practical example of that was the Scottish Parliament passing a law inspired by Tommy Sheridan that was supposed to abolish warrant sales. This came out of a real social movement of non-payment but the passing of this law was presented as in itself a great victory. But what we find here is that we still have loads of people coming to us for support who are being harassed severely by the sheriff officers using other types of threatening methods, like bankruptcy.

What this really shows to me is that you can’t actually effect real change just by legislation because if the people in power still have the possibility of doing so they can still attack you, just in a different way.

In short the Scottish Parliament just shows that there isn’t really a parliamentary way to change things. It is self activity and direct action that is most important.

How are people going to start reconnecting with politics?

I think in the end it has got to come out of people’s every day lives. But, sometimes things happen in an unexpected way, for example in recent years one of the most hopeful upsurges was the school students strikes against the Iraq War in 2003 which spread like wild fire all over Britain. Here in Edinburgh we were involved with school students who occupied Edinburgh Castle!

A lot of people don’t have a fixed long term workplace any more, so there needs to be a way of organising that reflects the fact that people are in a more precarious position, moving in and out of work and maybe also moving about a bit, so this where the idea of the Solidarity Network comes in.

And one thing that struck me from going to Chiapas and Zapatista villages is that politics there isn’t something separate from everyday life; everyone is involved, it is their lives.

We also have to realise that when struggles break out, the people who are directly involved in them, whether they consider themselves to be revolutionaries or not, are often practically in advance of what long term activists would have thought possible. This was very true of a struggle we supported, against the creation of a rubbish disposal site in Gartocher Terrace in the east end of Glasgow a few years back. The residents’ self-organisation was incredible, they devised the most ingenious blockades and at one stage even occupied the local police station!

I think that somehow we have got to get away from politics being seen as the preserve of a few activists and sort of encourage it to be seen as a part of life.

Well, we’ve kept the most difficult questions to the end! What do you see as the main problems or dangers that social centres face? And on the other hand, what do you think are the most important positive contributions social centres like ACE can make to the struggle?

Hmmm, tricky! Well, I think social centres can play an important positive role in the struggle.

But of course there are problems and dangers. This is just my personal view but I feel that one of the main potential dangers is that a centre can be a kind of ghetto, a kind of club mainly just for a certain kind of people, maybe often young and without kids and maybe often belonging to a particular “sub-culture”. And of course, like almost all political projects – and all of society – it is easy for them to become male-dominated.

Related to this problem of becoming a ghetto, I think there’s a danger a social centre can become an end in itself, rather than its participants seeing the centre as part of a wider struggle. I think it’s always vital to be involved in and give solidarity to struggles in the community and in workplaces, struggles against racism and gender-based oppression, wherever and whenever people are standing up for their needs and rights.

Another problem, living in a money-based society, especially if you are renting a building or paying a mortgage, rather than squatting, then there are usually high costs to be met, and bureaucratic procedures to comply with, and fund-raising and admin-type tasks can take up a lot of energy and time that maybe could have been used for something more productive (though we have had ace fund-raising socials that have been great fun – and very positive expressions of creativity!)

But, ok there are these potential problems and dangers, but there are so many positive things social centres can do. One important thing, social centres can be a relatively accessible way new people can see what the movement is about. Somewhere like ACE, it’s set up as a shop – an Info Shop and a Wholefood shop, and we also have free broadband internet and a library – so people can pop in without committing themselves, they can browse, see what’s going on, read and take away different kinds of information, if they want they can start chatting to the folk staffing ACE to know more.

Then, another thing, social centres can help bring together different groups and networks of resistance, because they are all meeting in or using facilities in the social centre. I think this is really important, because to my mind there aren’t any “single issues”, everything’s connected, we’re facing a whole system of capitalism and patriarchy.

Then some kinds of important activity just needs a stable base, for example for the Edinburgh Claimants work we need a phone to ring up the benefits offices or the sheriff officers, we need a space for our benefits guidebooks and information, we need a place that people with these problems can come and find us every week. Without ACE it would be really difficult for us to carry on our activity.

Sometimes in a crisis a social centre can be really important to help bring people together. For example in March 2003, just before and just at the start of the Iraq war, ACE played a big role in bringing people together to take direct action against the war, immediately having somewhere we could meet for free, and whenever we wanted, was very important.

I’m sure there are lots of other positive things to stress, like people getting moral support and friendship in an often atomised society. ACE has come a long way in a positive direction in the last couple of years, and we can be hopeful about the future I think.

The Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh is at 17 West Montgomery Place, Edinburgh. See www.autonomous.org.uk | www.edinburghclaimants.org | ace [at] autonomous [dot] org [dot] uk

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