Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Hebden Bridge Trades Club. Education, Recreation, Agitation.

April 29, 2008

In this interview, members of the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, in the north of England, explain their unique origins in the early twentieth century co-operative, socialist and labour movement. While quite different to many of the other social centres in this booklet, its history and politics give a unique insight into the diversity of ways people have tried to self manage their own political spaces over the decades.

Can you say a bit about the origins of how the Club was founded?

The building itself was built in 1924, and it was built by the trades unions of the Calder Valley. Calder Valley at that time boomed with textiles and obviously the different trades had their unions, and they got together to build a headquarters for the local union branches. It was also to be a place of education and recreation.

The Calder Valley was also very much involved in the development of the cooperative movement; Hebden Bridge was at the heart of that. I’ve been told that at one point 70% of the property in Hebden Bridge was cooperatively owned, it was one of the biggest in the world. This is the kind of atmosphere that it was built around. So, we are rooted in the labour and trade union and cooperative movement, which goes right back of course to the later 18th and early 19th century as well. The textiles and tailoring industries virtually disappeared in the 60s and 70s, and the club closed down. The building ended up being owned by the local Labour Party branch.

That was something over a quarter of a century ago, but we are not part of the Labour Party, we are an independent socialist club. So 25 years ago, a group of people got together, and decided to rent the top floor of the trades club as a social and socialist venue, independent of any political party, but with a set of principles which were based on those who built it in 1924, which was commitment to the labour, cooperative, and trades union movement.

Now over the years our constitution has changed a bit because the members have changed, so we’ve got anti-racist elements, and anti-fascist elements built into the constitution. We’ve got anti-sexism, pro-equality, so the constitution has evolved to a certain extent.

What are the activities today?

Essentially, the club now is a music venue. It reached the stage where it was doing three live gigs a week, and it needed more and more volunteers. It was entirely volunteer run. They used to have to have a whip-round at the committee meetings to buy another barrel of beer, I mean, that’s how hard it was. I mean now the place has got a turnover of a quarter million pounds a year and we’re still never free of money problems. We were one of the first music venues in Britain to embrace African music and start becoming a multi-national music venue.

We do a lot of benefit concerts, these can be for purely political causes, or for other good causes that our members want. Every year we have a membership of around 1200. Local political groups, whether it’s Calderdale Unite against Racism and Fascism, Calderdale Against the War, Calderdale Palestine Support Group, the local Amnesty International Group – the place hums with those local groups. Up until a couple of years ago we had three BNP councillors in Calderdale. UNITY, Calderdale UNITE, Unite against Racism and Fascism, for who we raise funds, is more or less based here and I’m part of that. There are no bloody BNP councillors in Calderdale now, and a lot of that is down to the group and organisational work that we’ve done here.

As well as the direct political heavyweight stuff, there’s also a lot of day to day community stuff – we’ve got a chess club, a walking group as well that goes off to the Pennines every Sunday, we have activities for kids. So it’s not all big politics, it’s day-to-day stuff as well. It’s playing, it’s political, it’s educational, it’s agitational, it’s organisational as well.

Tell me about how you organise?

Now, I know about the social centre movement and how it’s developing, and we’re not like that. I know that a lot of the social centres are more horizontally run, you don’t have a structure or a hierarchy, now we do. That we’ve inherited, you know, that’s how it was. You elect a committee, you elect a president and you elect a secretary. We have 14 people who are officers or committee members and they are elected each year, and all members can attend all committee meetings.

But I mean originally like it was just a guy with a long beard that came and stood by the bar who did all the stuff. Until you get to a certain size, a certain scale, and you think we better employ somebody, and then you get an entertainments manager and so on. And then you end up having a committee. So it’s not like it’s set up as a hierarchy, it just evolves that way. It might change one day to become a co-op, but running it as a co-op would be a massive step, wouldn’t it?

Well what we’ve got is ten members of paid staff, five full-time and five part-time. Bar staff, office staff, a couple work part time running the gigs, a couple who are sound engineers, a manager who has to take responsibility for the whole operation… and then we’ve got the volunteers. We generally have anything from 20-30 volunteers running the doors, you know charging on the doors, But, the key thing is they’ve all got this commitment to the place. The Trades is an institution that’s fantastically well known.

There are those who have done their couple of years on the committee, and you know, they’ve done their bit, so they can move on to something else. The thing is, if there is anything that needs doing, there is a fair few membership and ex membership. We’ve got works of every skill going represented amongst membership and ex-membership. We’ve got membership base, you know, on computer. We want something doing we know exactly who to go to.

So in terms of politics, what do you think you are trying to achieve by being here over the years?

Helping us to take action. And when I say taking action, I mean, action here, not in Africa. I suppose with issue politics, you know we tend to look at climate change or direct action, with these kind of places there are lot of people in it that would respond to a challenge, you know mobilising for the anti-war movement – that took spontaneity and the trade club played a part in that. When the Iraq invasion happened, there was 120 people in the square out there, and when they had that meeting they came back in here to organise, you know, organise what protests were going to take place.

We are a safe haven aren’t we? A non-racist, non-sexist place, you know. There area a couple of the pubs around here that are more racist, some places where you wouldn’t want to go into. Here, it’s always been a safe place to go. You know, more and more, there have been gay people living in Hebden Bridge. At the roots of that, I mean not so much now, but a lot of those original groups were coming in here.

How do you communicate all this stuff to the outside world?

No, I think people turn up and like what they find. I think one of the problems we’ve got is New Labour, people think we are upmarket you know, and the kids are not brought up interested in socialism. So what we do in reality is work with lots of groups that younger people are involved in. We’ve just got this ethical presence in the community.

What about publicity and outreach?

I mean you’re having to explain it yourself, when you’re involved in an organisation like this you spend so much bloody time running the place, the physical side of stuff, it’s sometimes difficult to find time to sit down and debate, where are we going?

What plans have you got for the future?

We’ve got to become financially secure. We have got to make it into a place that is self-financing and secure, for the whole community, and be an asset to the community. Politically, we will go on doing, fighting, the struggles that we have been doing. The BNP are here for a long time, we need to keep it going.

Well, you’ve been here for a lot of years so you must be doing something right. Thanks.

The Trades Club is at Holme Street, Hebden Bridge. Tel 01422 845265 and see the website at http://home.btconnect.com/tradesclub/trades

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The PAD (People’s Autonomous Destination), Cardiff

April 29, 2008

“I’ve only been a few times to Pad but it fills me with excitement as this area of Cardiff is lacking a sense of community and Pad is the antithesis of this. I am looking forward to seeing what I can share and what I can learn from the random bunch of people sitting on Pad’s eclectic furniture.”

“P for PAD, P for Patience, P for perse-fucking-verance.

After our initial flurry of activity in the autumn and winter of 2005 we remained a group but found ourselves slipping into a repetitive pattern of meeting after meeting with the same agenda – website, money and building. We dwindled in numbers but eventually got ourselves a space in the spring of 2007. Perseverance paid off. And we paid – too much, but better to spend money on somewhere rather than nothing. Next, the lesson of patience. I wanted people to come flooding out of the proverbial wood work. Instead they seeped. But every drop adds something and the space we made was used more and more and the tide was rising. We noticed one day, when we were wondering whether we could continue to justify our rent, if enough people came through our door. We looked around us and saw how much growth had happened. The seed we planted two years ago, watered by energy and enthusiasm, and friends and strangers, is still going, still growing.

Here’s what people have said about us:

“Well what can in say. Yummy food, nice people. Since getting involved with the PAD I’ve become more empowered, more motivated and more ready to Fuck the system. Lots of Fun.”

“Once upon a time I was walking back home and I found a copy of Gagged (a South Wales anarchist newsletter) on the floor in my street. After reading it I went on to the internet to check the website links that appeared on it. I checked where the social centre was and realized it was just in my own street!! I’d passed by it so many times but thought it was something private. As I was an activist in the Basque country and I knew about how social centres work in Britain (I was involved in ACE in Edinburgh before) I immediately joined it in it’s different activities. It has been an amazing experience until now and I feel I am growing personally as well as politically, fucking loads. Long live the PAD!”

“Not bad – ain’t been kicked out yet.”

“It was cool getting the new pad together…best converted butchers I’ve ever seen.”

“Nice to be somewhere that doesn’t rely on government or local council funding leading to bureaurocracy, red tape, conditions, excess health and safety regs and the hiring of ‘well meaning’ paid community workers with an agenda of their own.”

“We always said PAD was a way of working together or a concept rather than a physical space, hence the name “people’s autonomous destination”.

“It’s an idea that’s constantly changing and developing and I think that’s why it’s exciting to be a part of it. Over the past couple of years the PAD has manifested itself in squats, in a Quaker meeting house, on Cardiff’s main high street and now exists more permanently in a rented space that used to be a butchers. Although the physical space we’re in seems to change, the PAD is always somewhere people can come together to plot, create, debate, learn, share, cry, laugh and dream for a world free from corporate or governmental control.”

“The PAD – grannies, vegan fry ups, meetings, gas bottles, meetings, tea and coffee, dogs, anarchist politics, meetings, posh nosh, organic whole foods, meetings, local kids, meetings, friends, principles, values, fun.”

The PAD is at 118 Clifton Street, Cardiff. See their website at http://thepad.wordpress.com/

Sustaining social Centres in the long term

April 29, 2008

Max Gastone

Over the last few years there has been a growth in the number of social centres being established by activists’ communities along the lines of mutual aid. This is a positive step forwards, but it needs to be accepted that they are also having an impact on activism as a whole. While they have helped boost activism by bringing much needed focal points and links with the local community, they are also responsible for the burn out of activists and of sucking up a lot of energy. In the initial period of setting up, it is an exciting time and volunteers are plenty. The long term problems get swept under the carpet and this is leading to problems in social centres once they are established.

The main problem is that, despite all the good intentions and hopes, the day to day running of social centres inevitably falls on the shoulders of a few. They are expected to see though the dull and boring back-of-house stuff such as bringing in the beer, doing all the phonecalls to chivy volunteers into signing up, sort out the finances, and so on. And when there are not enough volunteers, the burden of responsibility falls on them so they feel obliged to do extra work to maintain the project. They are so busy holding things together that they never get a chance to relax and enjoy the space. In the end these people eventually burn out and walk away, from both the social centre and activism in general. A social centre which is burning people out is not functioning on the lines of mutual aid. Resorting to regular call-outs and appeals is simply tackling the symptoms and not managing the root of the problem. The result remains the same, with out the energy of key people, any project such as this heads into terminal decline.

In effect, activists are becoming managers of social centres (though naturally we don’t have them because we don’t believe in that sort of language…) without the back up and support they need. What breaks people in this position is the constant pressure to ensure that things are actually being sorted, having to deal with other people lunching them out and so on. The pleasure of being involved in a social centre soon wears off when you are carrying that sort of responsibility.

So where is the heart of the problem – well, it is founded on the basic assumption that people have time and energy to sustain such a space. Social centres are set up with the best of intentions, an oasis of mutual aid and support in a desert of capitalism, but whether we like it or not, they are far from utopian. There are the pressures on activists to have jobs, and on the social centre to pay the bills. This causes rot around the edges and if we have not proofed the heart of the project then the rot takes its toll as volunteering inevitably drops off. If a couple or even one person is holding the fort, then what actually is being expected of them is to hold down a second job for free! The politically correct answer is to say that everyone should be sharing the burden so no-one ends up with all the boring managerial jobs, and in an ideal anarchist world that is what would be happening. It is blatantly not happening in reality because the world we live in is not geared to supporting it, and no amount of preaching is going to change that. The model for the most part is failing.

The question remains though, how do we maintain the long term sustainability of social centres? The answer to this is to challenge a second assumption of the movement – that everything should be done for free. Why? The proposal is that social centres should be employing people to do the necessary day-to-day work as there are significant advantages to be gained.

Firstly, it helps stop burn out by giving an activist a paid job to do the boring stuff that has to be done. If they need to work, then why not in a job that is doing helping create social change? This in turn will ease pressure on volunteers who on the whole hate doing the managerial back-room stuff, and retains them longer. It is far easier to find people who want to do the occasional bar shift than find people prepared to manage an event for the entire night. It means that necessary jobs do not get lunched out, thus avoiding soul-destroying meetings which attempt to resolve the perennial crises that social centres often drift into as a result.

A second advantage is that of continuity and promotion. A person who is looking after a centre and providing a central point of contact will actually encourage people to use the place; it is likely to become a self-sustaining position financially as there is in place a solid basis for growth.

This is about having realistic expectations of what volunteers will contribute in the long term. Avoiding the energy destroying stuff means those involved can focus on why they got involved in the project in the first place, the front-of-house stuff and help it develop further. Too often social centres do not have time to sort this out as they are too busy dealing with the behind the scenes management, and the project becomes static and fails to fullfil its potential. If this state is not checked, then you are in a slow decline as problems invariably mount up elsewhere (degrading building/decoration, increased mess and disempowerment which all leads to a declining volunteer base as the vicious circle begins).

Often the response at this point is that employing someone is “selling out” our anarchist principles. I disagree strongly. Social centres are projects with one foot in the capitalist world and the incredible pressures in running a professional centre needs to be recognised. They are a useful stepping stone on the way to achieving the society that we desire, but still a long way from it so it is wrong to develop their business models on a world we don’t live in yet.

What actually matters is the long term survival of social centres, and just as importantly the people helping to run them, so that they remain bases for promoting social change. And it is hard to create social change in a space that is burning people out, or unable to sustain itself. If a social centre has people acting as de facto managers and that is not explicitly recognised, then again this a failure of principle. Anarchism does not reject people acting in a managerial role where they are responsible to the collective as a whole through an agreed system. However, an ad hoc development of that system has no accountability and thus ceases to be about mutual aid. The employee is a manager only in the limited sense that they over see the day to day running, the maintenance, doing the dray, etc., not that they manage the entire project. It is an important distinction to be recognised in this debate, though depending on the project other job descriptions might be more appropriate which do not carry the same baggage.

A key point to remember is that employing someone is not an absolving of responsibility by the remaining volunteers or an abdication of power into that person’s hands. The accepted model is that the volunteer committee runs the project and the employee is answerable to them. This happens in cooperatives such as Radical Routes where there is a paid finance worker to ensure that difficult job is done properly, but the control remains firmly in the hands of the cooperative as a whole.

The model can be adjusted so that collectives take on the job contract guaranteeing to perform the jobs in return for the ‘wages’. In one case in a community centre, one of the user groups paid for their rent on their action centre by looking after the social club bar located in the same building. Thus the job was actually collectivised and gave the collective an incentive to look after a community based project. The problem with this type of approach is that it depends on the collective remaining cohesive and there being enough collectives actually interested in doing it.

One final point on this, if you are considering employing someone, a useful lesson learned is that letting your mates do it because they are your mates is liable to backfire. For it to work, the criteria has to be someone who cares about the project, is capable of doing the boring stuff and reliable. Without all three you will become unstuck, but never be afraid to fire someone. What matters, as ever, is that it does not become another footnote in a history full of footnotes on nice ideas that did not quite make it.

The author has a number of years experience in helping to run social centres and squat based projects including OARC in Oxford. He has burnt out badly as a result. A number of discussions with others involved in social centres have helped develop some of these ideas.

The Sumac Centre, Nottingham

April 29, 2008

The Sumac Centre

A place where people can meet and talk and plan and change the world!

The Sumac Centre is nestled in a community in inner city Nottingham. It’s been open as a community and activist resource and social centre for 5 years. It grew out of a smaller rented space called the Rainbow Centre (established 1985) when the organising crew decided they wanted more control over the centre and to own their own space.

The Sumac is run as a co-operative through a series of smaller collectives (such as the Bar and Garden Collectives). All the collectives are open for anyone to get involved, and run using the principles of non-hierarchy. The whole centre is run by volunteers, which can be a challenge, but makes a very rewarding and relaxed working environment.

During the week, the Sumac is mainly used as an activist resource centre. The Sumac has provided essential support for many grassroots social and environmental justice campaigns through its facilities such as meeting spaces, radical library, gathering-hosting and a printing press. These are groups like the Camp for Climate Action, Nottingham Defy-ID or Nottingham Animal Rights. It also provides our local community with access to radical literature and ideas through the radical library, film showings and speaker events. The space is also used regularly by a home education kids group, and has also seen kids gardening sessions and community craft fairs.

Inside the Sumac

On the weekend, the Sumac transforms into a social hub for the local and activist community. The Sumac is a friendly non-corporate space that the community frequent to meet, eat, drink and conspire! There is a popular bar stocking local real ales and other quality drinks. It hosts gigs by local bands and a kids’ night every Thursday where local families are able to come and socialise. Cheap, healthy evening community meals are cooked up every Saturday, and often on Friday by a refugee group, or on Wednesdays if there is a film or talk. Many people say these are the only decent meals they get all week!

Veganism is something of great importance to the Sumac Centre, which has a long history of supporting the animal rights movement, and everything that is sold in the centre is 100% vegan. We are the only 100% vegan venue in Nottingham, and are even brewed special vegan beers by our local brewery, Springhead.

Sumac Sign

Recently, the Sumac has been branching out into community popular education. Every Saturday sees a ‘Sumac Skillshare’ event, where a member of the local community runs a workshop on a skill they can share. This ‘school’ is being run to empower and reskill the local community, as well as to prepare us for the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change. Workshops so far have included food preservation, basic electrics, mass catering, bike maintenance and planning direct action. The skillshare has been a really inspiring success – get in touch if you want to know more!

Veggies are an integral part of the Sumac Centre and of the Rainbow Centre before that. They are a vegan catering campaign that sets up burger vans at festivals and protests, feeding the hungry without exploiting animals since 1984! They are to be found lurking in the Sumac basement making sosages and burgers or rushing in and out loading and unloading vans as they get ready for their 3 events that weekend! They have also built up an excellent field kitchen and with volunteers from the Sumac, they have fed up to 300 people a meal at events like Camp for Climate Action or the eco-village at Stirling during the protests against the G8 in 2005.

So where now for the Sumac? Nottingham currently has a flourishing activist scene, which the Sumac has helped grow and support. Hopefully this will go from strength to strength! Having recently done some major refurbishments, we are now thinking about rebuilding the outbuildings using eco-building techniques to extend our resource centre.

The Sumac Independent Community and Social Centre is at 245 Gladstone Street, Nottingham. Phone: 0845 458 9595 or email on sumac [at] veggies [dot] org [dot] uk. Their webpage is at www.sumac.org.uk

Other Media:

Photos: The Sumac Centre Reopens After Radical Revamp

Article: Nottingham Braced For Squat Actions

Article: YES, we’re open !

Article: The Sumac Centre needs help !

More coverage: Notts Indymedia Free Spaces page

Participatorama – only at Star and Shadow Cinema, Newcastle

April 29, 2008

Participatorama -The Newest Development To Hit Cinema In Years

TonTon and Tha Visible Choirboy

The Star and Shadow

The Star and Shadow Cinema is a radically alternative open-access cultural organisation and venue in Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England. While it has cinema in the title, it consists of much more – bar, meeting and workshop spaces, gigs, parties, film/art/music/publicity resources etc. We are mostly known as The Star and Shadow, without the ‘cinema’ bit, a name which was bodged together out of other suggestions, and in a sense reflects the ambiguity and multiplicity of our organisation and work. It perhaps makes us differ from the other centres in this pamphlet. Our identity is not explicitly anti-capitalist or confrontational, however it is very clear that our aims, working practices and a lot of what goes on in the building are centred around mutual aid, D.I.Y. processes and self-empowerment in the face of the capitalist system. Our politics is largely implicit rather than explicit, which means that people have less prejudices about considering to come along or take part. We don’t have leaders, bosses or ‘staff’. We are run by volunteers, try to share skills, and operate through consensus.

Roots

While there is no over-arching ideal that binds us together, it is fair to say we all wanted a collective space that we could take collective responsibility for and feel the collective benefits of, while allowing individuals to express themselves fully. As such, behaviour isn’t proscribed. We wanted to create something that moved away from the traditional market relationships of the entertainment and cultural industries: from supplier/consumer to participator. This is perhaps problematised by the fact that we still operate to some degree in the former paradigm – we sell drinks at the bar, charge ticket prices for cinema and gig admission, but redeemed by the fact that anyone can participate in the programming or organisation of the venue, and we are volunteer run and not-for-profit. We wanted to create an environment that is non-hierarchical on entry. One experiences the inherent power dynamics in public art galleries, concert halls, museums, libraries and other loci of culture, (especially the cinema multiplex) where the audience is meant to fall in line and consume what is on offer according to a set of unwritten rules and codes of etiquette with no fuss please, no matter how hard institutions try to make themselves more accessible. We wanted a place that is grass roots, where everyone meets each other on eye-level, and there is potential for genuine personal liberation.

The historical roots of the cinema are in two film groups who hired another small cinema down the road for four and a half years to show respectively; a)political and b) alternative/ historical/art films. We couldn’t have an office or bar on the same site, so we moved to the larger old warehouse in the Ouseburn area. Part of the vision came from experiencing our emotional sister cinema, The Cube, in Bristol, and other inspiring squats, self-organized venues and cinemas in Europe. Equally, the call out for the G8 Camp at Gleneagles encouraged us to organise our own ‘Building Festival’ where people came with their skills and labour to transform a plain warehouse into cinema, bar, and the rest.

The building used to be part of Tyne Tees TV’s production studios. We found it with help from the City Council in a terrible state of disrepair, and renovated it from TV set building workshops (somewhat poetically, considering the devastating impact TV had on cinema in the 1950’s and 60’s) into a multi-purpose environment that was dryish, warmish and lit. Since then, gradually people have put their creative energies into it making it cosier and more visually and spatially imaginative, a process that will continue as long as we are here.

We organized the ‘building festival’ in April 2006 and invited people from all over the UK, through networks in Europe and of course mainly in our home city to come and help build our place. Over 50 people came for a fortnight, helped demolish and then construct, using materials which were recycled wherever we could find stuff to recycle (carpet tiles from an old snooker hall, insulation and plaster board from an art exhibition, timber from a salvage yard etc.) We cooked and ate together, and had film screenings, parties and drinks in the pub together. The aim of this exercise was to skill share, get a decent way into the building of the cinema, make new friends from similar collectives elsewhere, and benefit from their experience and enthusiasm for the DIY approach. The festival lasted 2 weeks, followed by another 6 months of smaller groups building, and by the time the venue opened about 150 people had helped in some way or another: 150 people who felt ownership over the building and would therefore consider it theirs to put stuff on.

This process was done entirely legitimately and legally: our building meets all the building regulations, licensing and environmental standards that applied in November 2006, when we officially opened. While this conformity to the bureaucratic requirements of the state is nothing to necessarily brag about, it does give us a sense of long-term sustainability than something less legit might have allowed. Ultimately, many of those issues we had to deal with were empowering, common sense and in the public interest (like accessibility and dealing with emergencies like fires).

Activities and programming

Content-wise, the programming of the Star and Shadow is very varied, by-and-large presenting things normal profit-centred cultural centres would ignore. Freed from that economic pressure, we are able to offer culture for contemplation and criticism, not just consumption. We operate an open-programming policy, unlike any other cultural organization we know of. Anyone can come along with an idea for a film, gig, workshop, performance, exhibition or way to use the space and discuss it with a group using consensus decision-making.

Film screenings range from political documentaries followed by discussions, to screening experimental artists work, to showing films from the history of cinema. There is a very strong focus on enjoyment and having a good time, and we all strive to create a programme and an atmosphere to enable that. On close analysis, we could generally argue that the anti-spectacular context (D.I.Y. home-made cinema, friendly open-minded volunteers) combined with the approach to programming, encourages reflection on current and previous struggles, as communicated through journalism or art, and further revealing latent meanings in otherwise ignored genres (politics in sci-fi films, queer analyses of b-movies and melodramas, deconstructing propaganda in seemingly innocuous Hollywood cinema). Gigs tend to be put on by local bands or promoters on the DIY scene, and incorporate the diverse styles that exist in the highly varied musical sub-cultures internationally. There is no emphasis really on one over another. We have space for workshops and exhibitions by local or visiting artists, again which try to circumvent the ‘art-world guided by the market’ relationship. The space is flexible and anyone can ask to exhibit. There is plenty of space for organizing meetings, planning projects and running workshops, and many resources to facilitate those processes too (from photocopiers and screen printing to high quality video cameras and a DIY 8/16mm film lab for home processing and printing). The bar is stocked ethically, with local pints, fair-trade and environmentally sustainable drinks, food and cleaning stuff.

At the core of the management are open, weekly organizing meetings, which are regularly devoted to publicity and the programme, and normally attended by 5-20 people. An online wiki website has really helped people collaborate on shared ideas, and information (like this article). Developing the wiki has pre-empted a lot of long and tedious meetings, and significantly helps prevent individuals from overburdening themselves with all the knowledge ;-). Using a wiki has meant that most information about how to do something, where something is, how far we are along with something, or whatever, is centralized onto an openly accessible website which anyone who has registered can adapt or improve. This is used most effectively in the programming of the building, where anyone can register and book an event on the calendar. This procedure is protected by the fact that any programming suggestion on the wiki is accountable to the weekly meetings.

By far the biggest contribution to the sustainability of the Star & Shadow is our own labour. We have perhaps 200 people who have volunteered at one point or another, and receive about 3-4 emails a week from people interested in helping out, which compensates for the alarming turnover of volunteers. This turnover needs to be looked at, and is slightly baffling, because no one as yet has complained about volunteering being difficult or unpleasant! Perhaps it is just peoples priorities are in constant flux.

The continuity of people taking larger responsibility seems to be getting better too (we need to have key holders, people to do specific time consuming jobs etc.) Financially, bar sales contribute the most and we might one day be able to survive off them. On top of that, the place is kept going by the grants we get from the City Council, and Arts Council and very occasionally the Film Council, which helps with programming special things and the £19,000 annual rent. The conditions attached to this money are relatively minor. There are different opinions about how quickly, or if at all, we should be trying to become self-sufficient. Broadly speaking people would be happy to be entirely self-financed, but some think we should take state money if it doesn’t stop us operating in the way we want to.

The standard entry charges are pretty low (£4 & £3) but no one is turned away because they don’t have enough money. We advertise that entry is free to people seeking asylum. Of course people who volunteer on the door, bar or projecting get in free. True to our recognition that the place is ‘only as good as the people involved’, we have adapted the Brazilian local government process of Participatory Budgeting. This lays bare the past budget and gives anyone who comes along to an annual process the awareness and tools to say how we should raise and spend the money to keep the place great.

Glimpses of autonomy

Each month there is a gathering of activists to plan direct action as groups and individuals. Often there is food and a film as well, to inform ourselves. This forum ‘Glimpses Of Autonomy’ is an essential resource to anti-capitalist politics on Tyneside. The activist scene in North East England has never been that linked with others because it is almost 100 miles to any other major city.

Way before the G8 in Scotland in 2005 activists were given some money to set up a Social Centre on Tyneside. This proved to play into the hands of “the enemy” because we spent ages and ages looking for good buildings and talking instead of taking down the systems that get us down. It’s a pity because this demoralising process followed three brilliant squatted social centres. But the transient nature of the squats enthused us to use new money to try to create a social centre that would be around for a long time. After lots of arguing and involvement in the Star & Shadow most of us think we now have many of the things we wanted from a Social Centre, here in the Cinema. Not quite everyone thinks that, though.

For the last four years an associated collective has organized the Projectile Festival of Anarchist Film & Culture (www.projectile.org.uk). People have travelled from across Britain to take part in the workshops and see an internationally unique festival. It has proved to be a more friendly, less dogmatic and more cultural alternative to the London Anarchist Book fair. The festival has been a space to talk about our differences rather than shout at each other.

The future

So far the activities at the Star and Shadow have not been that child-focused or even child-friendly, for that matter. Kids have been to lots of events but none have been organised by them. A working group has just been set up to try and fill this gap, so fingers crossed. Whilst the Cinema is inevitably part of the cultural gentrification of this part of the city, we offer an alternative take on it, and are respected for that. A Trust made up of volunteers (unrelated to our project) oversees the ‘regeneration’ of the Ouseburn area, and is actually quite powerful in resisting acutely negative changes, most obviously the building of high-rise expensive apartments. We are at the stage where we must consider what to do when our lease runs out – doing a community buy-out or moving on are two options.

There is an ongoing debate about what we programme, how we market ourselves and who exactly we are talking to. Do we programme and publicise in a way which some assume is more populist, in the hope of attracting a more diverse, or as some might perceive it “unconverted” audience? Or do we embody our politics in the programme and publicity itself? A prosaic example of this is: should we keep a consistent sense of branding in our publicity, or should we continue to deviate for every piece of publicity we create, in an act of resistance against the psychology of capitalist advertising? Maybe we should be radical in our approaches and strategies if we want the end result to have a radical impact. In reality, we go for a varied and multiple approach, but frequently don’t get our shit together quick enough to let people know what is going on with enough notice! One area that there is always room for improvement is how much we share our skills. Lots of people have tried doing new things, but there are some jobs and roles that don’t have a varied personnel.

The flexibility of the Star and Shadow – as opposed to a ‘concrete position’ concerning content and how it is organised – is very important. It does however open us up to exploitation by people who just want a free space to do their thing, and then go home again. We have some pretty satisfactory systems in place to limit that form of exploitation, through working groups and confirmations for most things only being made in open meetings. Equally, the notion of creating a liberatory space is kind of esoteric and hard to evaluate (“Did you feel, madam/sir, that you really had a transformational experience tonight?!”). On bad nights, it can feel that we are providing (with free labour) a service to people wanting a nice, cheap place to hang out and drink beer. On good nights it feels like the opposite.

The Star and Shadow is therefore an open-minded free space (as in libre not as in beer, to borrow the term from the Open Source paradigm), not constricted to a totalising set of principles. A space where people are able to experience and critically engage with the world around us: to work out how we ended up living this way, what should be changed, how to feel mutually fulfilled, and where we focus on our shared strengths rather than allow our differences to divide us.

The Star and Shadow is at Stepney Bank in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Email info [at] starandshadow [dot] org [dot] uk and see the website at www.starandshadow.org.uk

Warning! Social centres can be bad for your health

April 29, 2008

“so, what’s this place?”
“it’s a social centre”
“what’s a social centre?”
“it’s a non-heirarchical anti-capitalist autonomous space”
“what’s that mean?”
“erm……….”

warning!

opening a social centre can be really bad for your health.
you may think that it’s going to be a wonderful adventure,
you may think that it’s going to bring people together,
you may think that you are creating a different model of society,
a place where everyone is equal, noone is denigrated or bullied and good triumphs over evil at every turn.

but what you may get is a cliquey, narrow-minded, intimidating old-boys club.
what you may get is people claiming ownership of the space because they flourished a paintbrush more than you.
what you may get is accusations and counter-accusations,
patriarchy vs matriarchy,

bullies who claim they are being bullied when someone finally stands up to them,
the sound of tumbleweed as the collective collectively turns away and examines their navels when the difficult issues rear their head.
the crashing sound made when the resepect you once held for people tumbles from the rafters.
the puffing up of inflatable egos that seem to draw breath from the apparent safety of behind a computer screen.
being reminded that the personal is political, then attacked for bringing personal issues into the space.

volunteers claiming thousands of pounds in wages.
having to work with liberals.
watching the same people dance the same circle of going nowhere whilst kidding ourselves that we are being succesful….

so, before you open a social centre,
before you commence on a journey that will undoubetdly cause you to question your very existence on this planet,
stop,
look,
listen…
but most of all
talk to the people who are with you,
find out just what they think a social centre is,
cos, even the slightest difference of opinion can cause schisms that mean someone is going to lose out.

can you guess what side of the schism i ended up on?

Autonomous spaces and social centres. So what does it mean to be anti-capitalist?

April 29, 2008

Paul Chatterton

A huge amount of people get involved in what are called ‘autonomous social centres’ – cooking food, putting on film nights, teaching English, making banners, planning actions – the list goes on and on. But what are they all about politically and what are the hopes and dreams of people involved in them? Why are they there at all? How do they organise and strategise? These are the questions that were on my mind when I set off to talk to people involved in social centres up and down the UK in 2006. I talked to people who told their stories about their social centres and their politics – as they saw it. This article tells these stories using their own words. I use direct quotes from people so you get a more direct idea of what people were actually saying and I’ve changed the names to protect their identities. I’ve put my own interpretation on what I think this all means for a political movement of autonomous social centres in the UK.

I’ve used the term ‘anti-capitalism’ in the title with good reason. In less than ten years since its media appearance in 1999 in Seattle and in the ‘Carnivals Against Capitalism’ on June 18th, anti-capitalism has become a widely debated and identifiable movement. Whether acknowledged or not, social centres are part of the building of this anti-capitalist politics. Ok, the way they do it and the way they talk about it is different in each place. But a real desire to make some kind of politics beyond, and against, capitalism begin, right here and now, rather than waiting for some hoped for revolution the future, is what keeps people involved and inspired.

So what is anti-capitalism?

It’s a movement as old as capitalism itself which rejects or disrupts the normal workings of ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’ – competitive accumulation, private ownership of production, wage labour, and market exchange. It’s often interchangeable with anti-global, anti-neoliberal, anti-corporate and anti-imperial movements. It is defined through many ideas and the main ones include:

It is a dis-organisation, often called a ‘movement of movements’ characterized by ideological and organizational diversity;

It is a fundamental challenge to the meaning of revolution that doesn’t aim at seizing state power but instead makes the revolution everyday;

It is an extra-parliamentary movement outside the mainstream political process and a clear break with more vanguardist/Trotskyite revolutionary socialist movements;

It sees direct democracy, participation and horizontal organizing as key organizational values;

It is locally grounded but also internationalist, making connections with other struggles.

As I talked to people involved in social centres, it became clear that anti-capitalism meant a number of really important things: that they want to create political projects grounded in their communities; they are comfortable with politics which was messy and impure; they want to build strong relationships between people; the way they organise them is experimental and promotes self management; and they develop political strategies which attempt to break outside the activist ghetto. In the next few pages I want to explain what these mean in more detail.

Politics is all about place

Anti-capitalism needs to happen somewhere – to come together and be visible. Social centres allow this to happen – they create something like an ‘urban commons’ (like the village commons) which is self managed and open to all who respect it. Social centres respond to a very basic need – independent, not for profit, politically plural spaces where groups outside of the status quo can meet, discuss and respond and plan away from direct policing and surveillance. Social centres fill the gap left by the decline of traditional political places such as working men’s clubs, trades clubs and workplaces that provided a resource base.

People describe social centres in many ways – using words like platforms, safe spaces, bases, incubators, ground territory and shelters – all of these provide safety in our turbulent times. One person in London put it this way:

‘And in a sense that means this place has become a bit of a hawk in the storm I suppose. Things flourish and wax and wane and we kind of stay in the midst of it.’

People want to mix more mobile, confrontational and short-lived politics around direct action in smaller affinity groups or mobilisations at summit sieges with something more permanent. John from one London social centre said:

‘We could really do with some kind of a long term, permanent place where we can put down some roots and be seen and be visible and be proud of what we were doing, and not to be seen to be hiding or actually hiding.’

Putting down roots through renting or buying also reflects that squatting is more and more difficult in the UK. Many permanent social centre collectives did emerge out of the strong UK squatter culture of the 1990s realizing that squatted spaces are short lived and can be an energy drain. Loss of space is a constant frustration when you want to start to engage on a longer basis.

But securing space also has a wider role. They are a key organising tool for political education within communities and movements. Julie from Newcastle says:

‘And a lot of that is to do with using a social centre as a platform or a space where you can develop other things that would mean you could take control of your life. So it’s basically creating space where you’re allowed to develop that analysis and discuss and socialise and, really, increase your understanding of what’s happening in the world and what you can do about it. People want to develop and they want to analyse and identify as part of a bigger thing and whatever. I think it’s still important because there’s nothing like that in the city…’

The impure, messy politics of the possible

‘Say we all passed a resolution saying that this place is now against capitalism, which I always assumed it was, what the fuck does that mean? I am an anti-capitalist, I will completely say this now right, but I have no idea what that means; I have no little blue plan in my bedroom about how society should be run. It is meaningless; it is like, what we do now basically.’

What are the political identities of social centres?

Anti-capitalism is pretty elusive as the quote from Steve from Leeds highlights. It means different things to different people. There’s often general reference to being not for profit, rejecting hierarchy and domination, or embracing equality. People often express it through a unity of resistance and creativity within our everyday lives – blending a confrontational attitude with living solutions. Michael from Newcastle put it this way:

‘What I think I try to do when I look at my life, is that I try to destroy systems that corrupt and dominate, and create alternatives that are mutual, and so all the time trying to destroy and create.’

But when you scratch the surface you find that there is a reluctance to be pinned down – the whole point of the politics of the place is that they are open, complex and messy. James from Leeds said:

‘I think one of the wonderful things about this place is that it holds together, it’s a really open, complicated space that accommodates really very different people, which I think is amazing. The people who congregate round here are people who want to get their hands dirty basically. They want to get involved in all the complexities of something, they don’t want pure things. It makes you face up to loads of stuff all the time.’

This impure politics opens up debate so that conflicts and differences can be acknowledged and resolved. It’s not easy – it’s a politics that needs constant work as different views and backgrounds bash together. Time and again people use the word ‘possibility’, in contrast to lack of possibility of the hum drum of parliamentary politics. And it is this possibility that our dreaming means something. David from Newcastle put it this way:

‘You know, that’s what I think it contributes towards – showing alternatives and contributing therefore to alternative realities. It’s like a window of possibility and that’s where I think its validity comes from, but in terms of like achievableness.’

This kind of hope and possibility is made all the time, as Sarah from Leeds said:

‘I think it is also important to maybe not ask the big ‘Why are we here?’ question; maybe there doesn’t need to be a big reason, and to think, as you say, that it is just a big exercise to see what we can get away with and what we can do – what the collective imagination can dream up. A process with no kind of aims or destinations, its kind of what you develop along the way.’

But don’t expect quick results. The timescale of this impure politics of the possible is much slower. Social centres offer a steadiness, longevity, a sense of history and ‘something gentler to hold a position from’ as one person put it. It’s this stability and openness together that can allow some really amazing and powerful politics to emerge.

Rebuilding the social collective

Anti-capitalist politics are not just about bricks and mortar. They are also about the hidden work of rebuilding social relationships around emotions, solidarity and trust. While bread and butter issues such as housing struggles or ecological damage are important so too are our basic emotional connections and responses to one another. This is invisible essential political work, and if ignored erodes the bedrock for affinity, understanding, tolerance and consensus. Social bonds that ties us together are often more important than the roof and the walls. A member of the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford said:

‘The 1 in 12 is beyond the building anyway, it is about relationships. It won’t go if the building goes, even though the building is very important.’

Creating these social bonds is really crucial especially in cities that are becoming dominated by corporate bars, offices and restaurants. Ed from Leeds commented on the value of these bonds:
‘It’s like trying to recreate society almost, because the whole focus of gentrification is like as if government and business are trying to create atomised individuals and trying to really destroy any social setting, so the best you get is going down the pub. The idea of doing this, of creating a space where it’s not to do with conforming to certain norms, it’s somewhere where we can actually come down and have a social co-experience. The reason why governments want to destroy socialisation is because they realise that they can get really fucked over by it. People start talking to each other and think ‘Hang on; we don’t actually have to live like this.’

Creating these bonds can transform people so they can understand themselves, their situations, their relationship to others and those with more power, and begin the task of political awakening.
Self-management and the art of experimental organising

Ok, social centres might be militantly self-managed, but a huge amount of effort is put into organizing them. They are, in effect, a programme for expanding and making real self-management and a commitment to direct democracy, consensus decision-making, direct participation and a rejection of hierarchical organisations, as well as various forms of discrimination. One of the trickiest issues faced by social centres is developing a collective understanding of what self-management actually means, and how to get people to take this on. This politics of self-management contrasts with the disempowerment and alienation of our lives at school, work and home.

Overall, organisationally, social centres are defined by their flexibility and pragmatism, choosing minimum formal legalities and, in parallel, developing their own forms of direct democracy. Trial and error feature large as well as a willingness to accept mistakes and try new avenues when things don’t work. This flows naturally from the fairly widespread distrust of institution building, hierarchy and bureaucratic organisations within anti-capitalist, anarchist movements. Sarah from Leeds, put it this way about the origins of their social centre:

‘I remember sitting down with somebody and writing a potential budget to see if we could afford… what we could afford, like if we had a bar how much money you’d make from a bar, how much money you’d make from a café – figures plucked out of the sky. All of those debates we’ve had ever since, more or less. We had no idea what we wanted to do, no experience of it and no idea how to do it.’

This informality and pragmatism is about the importance of deeds rather than propaganda. Decision-making structures are also highly inventive and flexible. Consensus decision-making, a tool for promoting direct democracy between individuals based upon an equality of participation and the incorporation of many voices, is used almost universally as a tool for making decisions. Inevitably, such flexible, experimental ways of doing things can go badly wrong. They are far from perfect. But working out how to make decisions means that we also resolve problems and sharpen models for direct democracy. Andy from London put it this way:

‘We made every incident a situation to mobilise people and to actually discuss those situations. How do we deal with crackheads? How do we deal with drug dealers trying to take over the place? How do we, you know, combat this? So it was actually seen, from that we learned that it wasn’t actually seen as being a problem it was a way of like developing us. The problems aren’t the problem I mean its just situations. It is how you solve them you know?’

But lets remember that self-managing a space is a form of direct action in itself, especially through its rejection of paid labour and hierarchical structures. It is this that keeps inspiring new generations of people to get involved. Working together and running a building collectively and independently is a political project of self education, where people learn how to work collectively, manage their lives, and come to realize that different ways of organizing social welfare and economic exchange do exist and are doable.

Lots of challenges still remain – the tensions between consumers/service users and maintainers/carers, gender divisions which are made worse when they are simply brushed under the carpet, the tricky and unresolved issues around paid work, the lack of time that people can commit to projects, the problems and limitations of informal self discipline and teaching others about collectively agreed rules, inclusivity and accessibility. This final point is a really important one. Inclusivity is key to the politics of self management as it both extends radical politics to newer groups but also sustains new energy and attracts new generations of people to manage and nourish the project.

Developing political strategies outside the activist ghetto

So what about political strategies? Well there’s no blueprint, nor should there be. There’s a rejection of fixed leadership and committees, in favour of more flexible, experimental and participatory strategic priorities to achieving radical social change. An important part of the debate is whether social centres are a means to a broader political end, or whether they are an end in themselves. Are they facilitators, containers or catalysts for political activity, or are they actually confrontational political strategies in themselves? Often, so much work goes into running and cleaning social centres and autonomous spaces that there is little time left for what is seen as the real stuff of activism – political meetings, demonstrations and actions, organising, building social movements. Many activists, used to being mobile, are anxious about fixing themselves to a place too firmly. These fears – creating a self managed safe space that is too inward looking and comfortable – are important and need addressing, especially if social centres start to become trendy cafés, bars or alternative shops.
So what is their effectiveness as political projects? On one level, they make new worlds seem more achievable and increase the possibility of politics based on self-organising and collectivity. They are also a crucial entry point for a largely depoliticised generation due to the lack of visible, active radical alternatives in their workplaces, schools and communities. But gauging effectiveness is an illusive and probably pointless task. One person’s effectiveness is another person’s failure. Success is also often externally and negatively defined – when such radical projects are seen as an effective opposition they provoke repressive responses from the state and police. A nice double-edged sword.
And who do social centres aim at? On the one hand, they look inward – as resource centres and safe bases for those involved in developing and deepening anti-capitalist resistance and direct action. On the other hand, they look out beyond the comfort zone of known activists and like-minded politicos into the wider community, and connect and support local struggles. Ultimately, these are not separate strategies and there needs to be a desire to build a broader base of support for anti-capitalist ideas and practices locality by locality.

But the relationship between social centre activists and the local community remains largely unresolved. There is a tendency to assume, as one person put it, that ‘they’ (the ‘non-political’ public) have a conservative way of looking at things. In general, there is a strong push to overcome these perceptions. First, people want to reach out through actions and deeds, through living examples that inspire people, rather than through the use of propaganda words and slogans. Second, people value the largely unknown views of the local community in their own right. So social centres reject the ‘sausage factory’ route to social change where ‘non-activists’ are processed and indoctrinated to think in particular ways – in you come Mr and Mrs non-political, and out you come ready for the struggle! As one member of the London Social Centre collective put it:

‘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.’

These days social centres really try to avoid looking like ‘ghettoised anarchist squat spaces’ as one person told me, preferring to be professional looking, using familiar signs such as coffee machines, art exhibitions, and reading areas to be part of ‘normal society’. Being welcoming is also seen as crucial. Gary from London explained:

‘When you walk through the door what is the first the first thing that happens to you, the first person you talk to what is that interaction like? Does someone smile at you, do you get a gentle non-judgmental interaction with somebody, on an architectural level, what’s the place like when you come into it – you know, how can you make the place as welcoming as possible?’

Reaching out is a result of the self-critique and discussions about political tactics within the anti-capitalist movement. It is a reflection of a perceived failure of autonomous, anti-capitalist groups to capture substantial ground and spread ideas within mainstream society, especially since the heyday of Seattle. Geoff from the London Vortex Collective said:

‘The problem with the anticapitalist movement was 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?’

Activities in social centres, then, often try to attract people to engage in debate, analysis and socializing, through public talks, film screenings, reading areas, café and bar spaces, gigs. These activities create social centres as hubs for sparking debate and action on key issues in that locality. This isn’t to say that there is consensus about reaching out. Doing it is often seen as a sure-fire way of diluting important political imperatives and strategies for working towards insurrectionary and confrontational politics. In one social centre, for example, participants became divided over the issue of whether or not it was ‘anarchist’ to give local people food.

Closing salvos. Reflections on building anti-capitalist strategy

What are the strategic prospects for these kinds of anti-capitalist projects? The table below summarises some of the ways that social centres resist and promote. There are a number of strategic issues I want to end on. The first refer to priorities for growth. What is needed to promote more individual radical, self managed place projects committed to anti-capitalist practice as well as a network to support such spaces? Progress has already been made through network meetings and a dedicated website and social centres continue to support a range of anti-capitalist projects and host national meetings for movements such as No Borders and the Camp for Climate Action. There is a need, and probably enough desire, for a stronger sense of a collectively functioning network that can mutually support the wider movement as well as individual projects. We also need to ask ourselves if the network is fighting on the right issues, and if not how does it define wider areas that social centres are well placed to address? An obvious starting point is land and property speculation and wider struggles over urban gentrification and privatisation.

Points of resistance and promotion.
 
POINTS OF RESISTANCE
POINTS OF PROMOTION

Space

Enclosure, privatization, speculation, gentrification
Commons, platforms, safe spaces, permanence, incubation, shell

Political Identity

Fixity, purity, answering
Impure, messy, possibility, questioning, complexity

Socialisation

Alienated, dependent, depersonalised, individual
Autonomy, care, interdependence, collective, mutual aid, solidarity,

Organization

Hierarchy, representative, static, wage labour, for profit
experimental, consensus, direct, flexible, free labour, not for profit, self managed, biodegradable

Strategy

Ghettoisation, blueprints, propaganda, indoctrination, co-optation
Means and ends, deeds and words, outward facing, engagement

There could also be a stronger push to support an anti-capitalist politics in the UK, and through this identify which parts of a wider infrastructure of resistance and creation could be supported and developed (for example, independent media, health, production, prisoner support, outreach). Social centres could also state more forcefully what they are for and against and contribute to stating feasible alternatives locally. Many do this through, for example, workers co-operatives, not for profit entertainment, and free libraries and meeting spaces.

Second is the issue of growing these kinds of projects into a more connected, coherent and politically effective movement. Are they just defensively local projects or can, and should, they have wider meaning, and provide models for the benefit of our society? What is their role in a wider parallel, externally oriented, growing infrastructure which meets our desires and needs right here and now, but which also genuinely represent non capitalist values? This is not to suggest creating a comfort zone in which activists can circulate, but rather promoting an ever-expanding set of activities that can start to genuinely create parallel opportunities for housing, leisure, work and food. It is about making a post-capitalist future begin that seems feasible exciting and doable and avoids the dogmatic, moralist politics of the Left.

Another strategic area is about developing and sharing anti-capitalist ideas. Education, and the long tradition of popular education, is important here. There needs to be more times and spaces for people to come together to discuss joint approaches to confronting neoliberalism. At some point there needs to be serious connected conversations with all those on the Left about the merits, or not, of movement building to seize power on the one hand, and focusing on grassroots power on the other. Locally, social centres also should consider whether, and how, they need to confront the local state as it becomes a block to further change, and the problems of just promoting their own version of local self management. One final issue relates to the ongoing tensions between strategies of illegally occupying/squatting space and legally renting/buying space. The accusation that legality and inclusivity has de-radicalised these place projects and professionalised activism needs addressing head on and needs talking about.

There are a number of key internal strategic issues such as, often invisible, internal hierarchies, lack of attention to accessibility, emotional needs and inclusivity, gender divisions and domination of men especially within group process, and age divisions especially those between different political cultures and movements. The wider issue is how anti-capitalism can break out of the limits of the protective, internally looking ghettos it sometimes makes for itself. We have to ask ourselves, how can our examples appear more do-able and what we say more feasible? Finally, there are strategic issues of evaluation and collective methodology. What methods can be used for evaluating our own projects so we know what is working and what isn’t? Can we evaluate why anti-capitalist ideas do not spread. Is it the content, the medium, the messengers, the process, the presentation? How do we decide what we do next? How can we use wider consultations and co-inquiry to develop a greater collective understanding of what we have achieved, and would like to achieve, and to engage with others about key issues?

A commitment to anti-capitalism is always going to be messy and incomplete. Social centres and autonomous spaces in these dark times are amazing reminders of the possibilities of building the new worlds we dream of. We still ask, what now? What next? When will the future begin? Social centres help here: they continue to give us strategic glimpses of what an anti-capitalist life may look and feel like.

The Seomra Spraoi Social Centre, Dublin

April 29, 2008

The Seomra Spraoi project to create an autonomous social centre in Dublin came directly out of the experiences of people working under the banner of Dublin Grassroots Network. DGN was loose, anarchist/libertarian alliance, which facilitated the Mayday 2004 mobilisation against the EU summit, ‘celebrating’ the expansion of the European neoliberal project. Whilst relatively small in comparison to most other summit mobilisation across Europe, it was the biggest single mobilisation by anarchists and unaligned individuals in the history of the state.

The experience of being involved in organising these mobilisation showed many of us the necessity of having a stable space to use as a political resource. Some folks involved in the Seomra Spraoi collective were part of the Magpie collective, who squatted a building in the plush surroundings of Leeson Street in Dublin. It was here that many of us met for the first time, as it hosted most of the organising meetings for the Mayday protest. The squat got evicted a few weeks before the summit, but its resonance continued. The genuine sense of community that was felt, as well as the potential that autonomously organised activity suggested within us, was key in motivating people to get proactive and look towards creating a social center in Dublin. Whilst most of our sense of what social centers ‘are’ was formed by either visits to or being somewhat involved with social centers in the UK or across Europe and beyond, we also wanted to make our own thing and to bring to bear what we had collectively experienced and learnt, both positive and negative.

From the outset we decided that if our social center was to be public and open, squatting was not a realistic medium term strategy. As a tactic it can be useful to do squatting actions to raise issues but with the knowledge that at the time it couldn’t be a sustainable way of creating social and political resources, we opted to rent a space. We called a meeting in November 2004 to “organise a social center” and sure enough the only folks who turn up where the ten or so poeple who animatedly ( repeatedly and over pints) reckoned that a social center would give Dublin the kick in the ass we felt it sorely needed. We weren’t put off and knew that meetings aren’t always where things happen. The wind was in our sail given the year we had had. Our first public event was to host a screening of films about social centeres put together by the Direct Action Against Apathy collective. After cooking dinner for the hundred or so people who turned up in the community hall of St Nick’s it was clear that there was an energy and desire for what we wanted to do. It gave us more impetus and a real sense that even though we where just a few people, that we had the support and active interest of a much wider base. We initially found a room in a ambiguously squatted residence of a well known radical artist in the city centre. Three years on and we then we have become ‘home’ to most of the radical, non-hierarchical campaigns in the city, provided resources and respite for many groups and individuals, and also seemed to become the hottest place to get you late nite dance off in the city. Much of these well and other activities are well documented and can be found on http://www.indymedia.ie. Along the way we were complete media tarts, doing interview in print and radio, in local press and national magazines. Most, if not all, of the coverage was sympathetic, and it was clear to us that there are spaces to exploit to get our voices out there for short term gains. Although it wasn’t all rosy. Much of the problems and major obstacles Seomra Spraoi has faced since its beginnings are also to do with the pragmatic choice of renting. In short, landlords generally ARE bastards!!!

The poetics in the physical

Developing an explicit political orientation as a collective is a process. Like any imagined participatory democracy we may wish for, its basis is on founded upon discussion. Unlike almost all ‘P’olitical organisation, Seomra has no defined membership, (turn up to three meetings and you’re in) and as such has posed challenges. Whilst we grew out of the experiences of activism and anarchist tendencies, as more people got involved so to did the range of visions. In itself this is a positive thing. But its no easy task either for a bunch of people to explicitly attempt to define its collective politics when we come from differing backgrounds, political experiences. To some extent we all, as individuals, continue to tease out our own understandings of the world around us and our roles within and upon it. This is as true for the sub-paying class struggle anarchists of Seomra Spraoi as it is for others coming from arts background.

Given what it takes to organise and work at events, prepare workshops, clean toilets, fix the motor to the glitter ball or the other day to day buearocracy of social centers, we found that its really helps to create structures and make space for these conversations. Initially there were quite a few groans whenever we tried to shape political conversations and sometimes there has been a kind of tension, often unspoken, just from a sense of impending conflict that might somehow damage the collective. But now these discussions are now very much part of Seomra Spraoi and how we function. Whilst we still don’t label the collective with any particular ideology, its strongest tendencies are radical left, libertarian, autonomist, anarchist, and still figuring it all out, if you catch my drift.

Our reason for being was not to be a solely political organisation, but our desire and motivation were not just abstractly creative. As is prevalent within much of the ‘ movement of movements’, particularly in the West, it’s always much easier to declare what we are against than what we stand for. But by setting out aims and principles, we discovered that there is a massive amount of common ground within the collective, and that revolutionary desires reside very deeply within us once we talk about it in ways that resonate, and break down the fossilised rhetoric of much of the authoritarian left and reclaim ideas of revolutionary activity. Like democracy itself, the process of achieving common agreement is often more important than the words themselves, in terms of creating spaces for educating each other and appreciating the subtle distinction of our politics even within the self selecting collectives of social centres

In the midst of this there was also a constant desire not to recreate some of the problems that we felt other social centers across Europe encountered. We wanted to avoid creating an ‘activist ghetto’ and challenge the provider/consumer barriers. Whilst the anti authoritarian, anti capitalist movement is quite numerically small in Ireland, we still wanted to anticipate the problems associated with becoming a ‘sub cultural’ phenomenon within the city. Some practical things we did to preempt this were doing workshops on ‘welcoming’ and working gig nights. We found that by running these we not only increased the pool of people taking on some of the work, but also enabled people to feel an empowered part organising, and we always had at least one person in the space who took responsibility for helping new visitors orientate themselves, and be able to give a background to how the space was run, what it was all about etc. I think this definitely helps shape a culture of openness and inclusiveness, that enables people to feel more part of what was surrounding them and much more likely to bring there own ideas and creativity.

As we are currently ‘centreless’ there has been an opportunity to assess what we have achieved, on our own terms, over the past few years. The collective itself is stronger, more cohesive and more confident that it has ever been. Plans are afoot to host a social center gathering, looking at the experience of past collectives and attempting to shape further the role of social centers in creating, nuturing and sustaining a growing movement of autonomous anti-capitalist activity, in all its variety of forms. On a personal note, I’ve found being part of this collective one of the most inspiring and sustaining ways of being and feeling productive. We have, in the here and now, shown forms of work and ways of working together, that really are not very prevalent in the city. Our last space created a buzz about it that Dublin hasn’t seen in a decade. Within all that there have been many mistakes made and lessons learnt.

One thing that was brought up by an Italian friend at her last Seomra Spraoi meeting stuck with me. She said that when we continually discuss spaces and processes (which I do myself all the time), we(I) often forget that it is people that are central to making things happen, and it is by engaging people that we engender trust, friendships and solidarities. It is us (and you?) that are the backbone of all our collective endeavours. Whether teaching in the kitchen, helping kids find something fun in the freeshop, fighting over what government actually means, or sorting out the double booking between WSM and Animal Liberation, people are the one constant. Ultimately, it is what we carry within ourselves and see in each other that makes collective organising more than a good idea, but the genuine source of revolutionary change. Even the term ‘collective’ doesn’t do justice to reality and the very fluid borders between organisers and participants. In affording us spaces for learning and honing the ways we not only work together, but also describe that activity itself, self managed social centeres offer us all the opportunity to put flesh to our idealisms.

To keep updated with the Seomra Spraoi social centre project visit: www.seomraspraoi.org/ and http://seomraspraoi.blogspot.com/

Other media:

Audio: Seomra Spraoi Radio One Interview

Article: A Hidden History of Social Centres In Ireland…

Article: Seomra Spraoi calls for solidarity and support

Photos: Seomra Spraoi: We got us some space!

Photos: Photos of Seomra Spraoi’s last weekend at Ormond Quay

Article: Give Us Some Space: New Initiative to Create Dublin Social Centre

The rampART. Creative Centre and Social Space, London

April 29, 2008

Ben

Part I. rampART

The rampART social centre was established in a derelict building in Rampart Street, which had been previously used as an Islamic girls school. It had been empty for two years before being squatted along with the vacant houses in the block during May 2004. We didn’t want to spend ages in meetings discussing a name so we took it from the street. People often pick names which don’t stick as ultimately it’s what other people call the place that gives it its name. For example, there are a group of kids using the place that call it Sly Street (which is the little street directly next to the building). Anyway, we capitalised ART in Rampart for a bit of style – something different. It suggests the place is some kind of art project although it’s not really, or not much, and it helps to generate a veneer of respectability. There is an ‘art room’ but it’s mostly used for painting banners. We have had some art exhibitions but they are certainly the minority of events.

The block is in a conservation zone which means planning consent is a little tighter than some other places and that effects how easy and attractive it is for developers. There is actually a long history of this block escaping from redevelopment – a builder who does stuff for the owners says he was here when it was all evicted 30 years ago but the redevelopment never happened.

The community served by the rampART has generally not been a local one, but a community of politically motivated people from around the capital and beyond. There have also been hundreds of guests from all over the world enjoying free crash space while attending events in London – seventy Bolivians stayed earlier this summer. Regular users include the samba band, the radical theory reading group, the women’s cafe, ‘food not bombs’ and the cinema collective. The 24/7 rampART radio stream that started with coverage of the European Social Forum has expired a long time ago, and is resurrected occasionally for live coverage of major mobilisation like the G8 or DSEi. Other radio collectives now use the space to broadcast their weekly live shows – including Wireless FM which came from St Agnes Place and Dissident Island Disks.

The building is always bursting at the seams with stuff collected from the street and was regularly used for meetings, film screenings, benefit gigs and other performances. Many people may have passed through for gigs or meetings and been unaware of all the structural work done to transform it over the years, to create a larger space for banner painting, and the addition of a wheelchair accessible toilet which was created by PeaceNews volunteers, modifications to improve the layout of kitchen, a permanent serving area, fire exit, building a modular stage, sound desk, a covered roof garden-smoking den, and knocking through walls on the first floor to create a room for meetings of around 60 people.

Throughout it’s existence, the proximity to the London Action Resource Centre (LARC) greatly affected the way rampART was used. For example, there has been virtual no interest in office space at the rampART with groups preferring the long term security offered by LARC. Groups have tended to prefer using LARC for regular meetings while larger one-off meetings often end up at rampART along with benefit gigs and screenings. It’s strength as a gig venue has led to a bit of a party culture in terms of proposals, something that the collective is keen to keep in balance.

There have been many large public meetings and weekend long gatherings at the rampART. Last summer for example there have been public meetings relating to Diasarm DSEi arms fair and organising meetings and gatherings relating to both the No Border and Climate Camps. The space has also been used for street medic and direct action training. These types of events often attract the police and their attempts to intimidate exiting activists and newcomers. During DSEi week, poor intelligence resulted in embarrassed police staking out queer bingo instead of a convergence space. Having said this, the RampArt doesn’t seem to suffer much surveillance compared to some other spaces. Perhaps it’s because of the word ART in the name ;-). We do get police photographers during big London mobilisations and some big public meetings but there have been many things we expect surveillance for and don’t get. Personally I don’t see it as surveillance anyway – it’s purely intimidation and that is the aim. I imagine the internet and phone lines are monitored but I doubt it would provide much use as people aren’t completely stupid. I doubt the place is physically bugged but people assume that it is.

Problems we have had over the years include the fact that we routinely got the blame for the fly tipping occurring across the street. This is somewhat ironic as the vast majority of the content of the building has come from the streets in the first place leading to suggestions that the rampART should claim land fill tax credits from the Council. A series of risk assessments and visits from the fire brigade meant we installed emergency lighting, smoke alarms, extinguishers and safety notices around the building. The biggest job was the construction of a fire exit built in the hall, as previously there had been only one exit from the whole building. Sadly the new fire exit messed up the sound proofing and we had several noise abatement orders and all events had to finish earlier.

What does the future hold for the rampART?

Since the Camp for Climate Action there have been suggestions that the rampART should have an eco refit with rainwater harvesting, grey water flushes, perhaps even compost toilets and renewable energy. The current collective is keen to get more input and regular involvement from groups that use or would like to use the building and are planning a users meeting. Rather than the day-to-day practical organising and decision-making that takes place at the weekly Monday meetings, this gathering would be more of a consultation and visioning exercise. It would be an opportunity for the collective to analyse the current and potential role of the rampART to different groups and campaigns, as well as giving chance for people not familiar with the collective to gain greater understanding of the decision-making processes, practical issues and problems related to project.

Also planned is an assembly of as many different campaigning groups as possible, along the lines of the long defunct ‘London Underground’ or ‘Radical assemblies’ that used to take place in London, Brighton and elsewhere at various times. The general format would be a go-round in which each group has a couple of minutes to say what they are currently up to and what people can do to get involved. After the go-round there might be some discussion to help link up collaborations or spin off meetings and actions, followed by a quiet social evening, food and drink in order to allow informal networking. The aim is to help create a greater sense of unity between disparate groups, link up individuals to others working in their location or area of interest, reduce duplication of efforts and avoidable clashes and generally help to strengthen ‘the movement’. Initially this would be a one-off event although the hope is that it will prove useful and generate momentum to become a regular assembly, perhaps hosted on rotation in different parts of London.

Part II. London’s secret social centre…

When a possession order was granted to the owners of the squatted block of properties in rampart street that houses the rampART social centre, a scurry of activity began to secure a new building to act as a backup social centre during the uncertain period prior to eviction. A suitable property was found and entered for the first time on new year’s eve and occupied a couple of days later.

Only a few minutes walk from the rampART, the new building was also a commercial building with three floors. While the area of each floor was only about two thirds of that enjoyed at the rampART, the new building benefited from the addition of a basement which looked like it could make a great gig space. The ground floor had a tiny kitchen but with a bit of work it would clearly make a good space for a café and free shop. The first floor was mostly open plan, a good place for large meeting. Meanwhile the upper floor had been subdivided into offices and planned to use it for residential accommodation. The most exciting thing about the new space however was the yard which gave us potential to do things we could never do a rampART.

Despite all it’s potential, the place was a mess. The owners had completely trashed every floor. Wiring had been cut, light switches smashed, false ceiling and lights pulled down, partition walls torn down or holed. Additionally, the only two toilets in the building had been smashed to pieces. However, we didn’t think it would take long to put in shape. We took over a load of bedding and cushions, fold up table and chairs, water, wind up torches, candles, smoke alarms and fire extinguishers and settled in. Now split between occupying two spaces we put a call out for help occupying both buildings and preparing the new building to become a social centre.

Our priorities included sorting out toilet facilities and this led us to consider the use of dry compost toilets and ultimately to deciding that we’d try to implement stuff we’d only talked about doing with the rampART, making the place as eco-friendly and sustainable as possible. As well as setting up dry composting toilets we also planned to do rain water harvesting and install wood burning stoves. More ambitious, we aimed to generate our own electricity using wind, solar and a waste vegetable oil fuelled combined heat and power system.

Deep cycle batteries and inverters provided power for our lights and radio while we worked and a white board contained our plans and to do lists. We’d soon expanded the kitchen area massively and replaced one of the smashed flushing toilets. Three 200 litre plastic water butts were obtained and one was prepared for use as a rain water harvesting tank that would provide water for the flush. The basement was opened right up by taking down the partition walls and all the materials taken to the top floor where the first of four bedrooms was constructed. A hidden stairwell was discovered behind a partition wall and a bricked up doorway was reopened to provide access to the outbuilding and yard.

It all seemed to be going great apart from problems maintaining permanent occupation of the Rampart street properties and some of us expressed concern that it had been a mistake to commit to work in the new space before we knew when the appeal for the rampART would take place. It was fairly easy to find people to commit to the occupation
rota at the new placed but not for Rampart street and already people were asking about doing events in the new space as the excitement drew energy away from rampART. This was not what we intended, the new space was simply meant to be a backup to allow things to continue as normal at rampART without the worry that resources and events there would suddenly be left with nowhere to go.

The work that had been done at the new place in the first ten days or so meant that we could open it up as a social centre very quickly when we lost the rampART. It seemed like the pressure was off but then we stumbled across some bad news. Our original research had indicated that there was no planning consent granted and application pending. There had been an application last year but it had been withdrawn. However, whoever did the original research had been unaware that the withdrawn application had been resubmitted and granted in October 2007. The owners had full permission to knock down the building and build a six story block of apartments in it’s place!

Discussing the bad news we decided we might as well contact the owners and ask when they planned to start work and attempt to negotiate a stay but we never got round to it and later decided not to open negotiation till we were sure the owners knew we were in occupation. Instead, work progressed as before as if nothing had changed. A couple of leaks discovered in the roof were fixed and the damaged ceiling plaster replaced. All the doors and radiators that had been taken off by the owners were refitted and new doors fitted at the bottom of the hidden basement stairwell and out to the outbuilding. In the basement, the waste pipe from the toilet was been boxed up so drunk idiots didn’t try to swing on it.

By Feb 9th we’d had meetings to discuss our aquaculture plan and had been doing lots of work in the yard enjoying the unseasonal warm weather. The massive task of clearing the out building began with all the rubble removed from the brick up doorway now removed and piled up in the yard forming the starting point for raised beds. While working in the outbuilding we also removed the boards from the windows to let in some light and re-glazed them with clear plastic sheeting. One of the 200 litre plastic drums had been converted into a rat proof compost tumbler. The raised beds in the yard had
progress well and we’d rescued quite a bit of top soil from skips along with plenty of pigeon shit from the outbuilding. Inside, a four drawer filing cabinet had been converted into a wood burning stove and installed. The kitchen had been freshly painted, along with the basement floor and some of the walls.

The mast for the wind generator we’d last put up at the camp for climate action was bought over from rampART and hoisted up onto the roof. Holes were drilled and chains bolted through roof joists to provide mounting points for the guy wires before the generator was assembled and erected. Solar panel followed shortly after.

We purchased a Rayburn wood/oil fired cooking range for just 50 quid off ebay. It had a back boiler so could of been used to heat water/ radiators as well. We were going to see if it would run OK off waste veg oil but if not we’d just revert it to a solid fuel burn and use waste wood dumped in local skips. We also won an ebay auction for a Lister CS stationary diesel engine. These classic water cooled diesels make wonderful veg oil powered combined heat and power system and we calculated it would provide all our electricity and most of our heating needs when run for just 4 hours each evening and use only a gallon of waste veg oil each time.

Every thing was progressing really well and then came the bomb shell, a set of papers taped to the front door informing us that we’d been served court notice of a interim possession hearing on the 21st Feb, just one week away. Ironically, that evening the building was hosting a meeting of a radicle bike group, a spin off from bicycology. They were to look at the outbuilding and discuss using it as a space for a free bike workshop but obviously they dropped. A few month before a similar thing had happened at rampART. The Bicycology group were having a weekend long gathering, part of which was planned to be them renovating the bike workshop at rampART but just before the weekend we learned about the planning application to demolish the building so they dropped the idea. Seems like the bike workshop is cursed! Anyway, all work on the new place came to a halt and our ebay purchases left uncollected and unpaid for as it became clear that all our work and plans for the place were going to come to nothing. We considered last minute relocation of a party taking place at rampART so we’d at least have had some events at the new place before we lost it but the logistics quickly made us drop that idea. We visited the Advisory Service for Squatters who drafted a very slim defence for us but we knew there was very little hope. The best we could hope for if that the a normal possession order would be granted instead of the IPO as otherwise we could have just 24 hours to pack up and leave.

A letter was sent to the owners in a rather belated attempt to initiate negotiation and we started moving stuff back to rampART. It was impossible for us not to be aware of the irony that we’d opened the new space as a backup to move stuff to in the event of eviction. Instead we now found that not only were we moving stuff back but we’d also accumulated more stuff at the new place that would now need storing.

A day of resistance was planned for the day after the court hearing starting 24 hours from the court case with a café and continuing with an all night party to see off the bailiffs. We set up lights and a suicide rig in the basement and started to look forward to using the place for the first time.

The day of the hearing arrived and a small posse headed off to court to present our pathetic defence while others hung back to continue to prepare for the party. A few hours later the news spread like wild fire, the hearing had been adjourned as the claimants had not turned up. For the time being, the building was safe and it was decided that the events planned for the day of resistance should go ahead as a celebration ‘not an eviction party’.

To follow activity at the rampART see their website at http://therampart.wordpress.com

Squats and Spaces Solidarity Day: The Globe as a Temporary Autonomous Zone

April 29, 2008

Ye Olde Finch

On the 11th and 12th of April 2008, there will be ‘Decentralised Day of Action for Squats and Autonomous Spaces’. UK social centres and spaces will for the first time have a visible opportunity to show their knitted and interweaving solidarity, a chance to demonstrate to those unfamiliar with the movement, that it is indeed an international interconnectedness of energy that means business. The very notion of the spaces themselves shapes them as autonomous from the dominant claw of capitalism, speculation and gentrification that percolate through our lives. The idea that each of these spaces can come together and display their linkages and histories in harmony, has great historical resonance, and one that could possibly determine a public catalyst for the future of the movement.

This piece aims to introduce what the decentralised days of action are all about and highlight the main reasons for organising such events. The purpose of the article is therefore to propose the days as a soldering opportunity for the social centre movement, and how positive this can be specifically for the UK scene.

Social Spaces – What are Social Spaces?

It is perhaps not entirely necessary to give a lengthy introduction to the spaces themselves, as there are many other articles within this booklet that will do this more than satisfactorily. However, it might be an idea to give a brief gloss over what these centres are, their history, and what they are in opposition to.

Social centres, or ‘autonomous spaces’, are communally-run buildings which are either occupied, rented or owned. Each of the spaces are run non-hierarchically by individuals on a completely voluntary basis. There are varying concerns that shape the make-up and activities within the centres, but these can be described as all propelled by premises of community-based activity, creativity, inclusion, and autonomy from the command of the dominant culture. They are basically there to serve the community in which the building has been located, alongside the beliefs of those that run the centres, and therefore the goals are moulded around the needs and wants of those that use the facilities within. Activities that take place within the spaces are very varied – I had a look on one space’s website the other day and there was a Foucault Reading Group. Whether you wish to entertain your philosophical delectations, utilise the free access to computers and the internet available, eat some delicious vegan food, attend the weekly meetings for the running of the centres, fix your bike at a bike repair workshop, or meet up with your local group cause in order to make plans for direct action – you can do any of these within the social centre community in the UK. Depending upon whether there is rising gentrification to be highlighted, local immigration issues or the very fact that the spaces may be contested in themselves through squatting, this is reflected in the activities and general ethos of the centres.

And squats?

As for squats themselves, whether these are centres or general communal living spaces, these are of course buildings that are lived in and are neither owned, rented, nor do the occupants’ have express permission to reside there. In the UK, this is not a criminal but civil offence. Squatting takes place for many reasons, mainly for cheap housing, but can also be the symbolic contesting of a space, and a complete opposition to the capitalist machine of private property and speculation that forces individuals to squat in the first place. Check out the ‘Squatter’s Handbook’ which can tell you everything you need about squatting and the mesh of legality that goes with it.

And the History?

The form that social centres have taken over recent decades can be traced back to the 1970s and the Italian ‘Autonomia’ workerist movement that evolved out of social deprivation and the appropriation of disused factories and warehouses for communal living and general usage. This has spread throughout Europe, influencing the development of social centres in the UK today, and indeed those throughout the rest of the world. The heritage of the reclaiming of public space, the ‘commons’ themselves, can be found much further back in British history, to a group of radicalised landless commoners who occupied St. George’s Hill outside London in 1649. These were the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’, and can be seen as the first ideological and symbolic re-appropriators of ‘enclosed’ land, in the words of leader Gerrard Winstanley, so that “…earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to the whole of mankind, without respect of persons.”

And what are the spaces and squats opposing?

What can be said that squats and spaces are opposing, is indeed a myriad of things, however they all swarm around some central ideas and beliefs. Going back to the Diggers and the Levellers, you can see that the freeing of the commons is something that resonates now, in fact moreso, as we still have enclosures – we have privatisation. The idea that the planet is carved up into little segments, some bigger than others, and individuals own each of these pieces of the earth’s great crust, is the central issue of contention. The only manner in which this myth survives and flourishes today is due to capitalism – all social centres and squats can be described as anti-capitalist in one way or another. In order to remain ‘autonomous’ from this system of private property and unchecked accumulation, the land is taken back from being sold and exploited. This is becoming more and more obvious and integral to our daily lives, and it is not a local phenomenon. The global financial markets are all interlinked, the system of capitalism hinges and impinges right down to the individual, and back up again to the inter- and trans-national. This is why days that galvanise the social centres and squats together is so important – a global response to a global phenomenon.

The Solidarity Days

The decentralised days of action were proposed by a collective formed of representatives from the squatting and social centre scene throughout Europe and beyond, and convened to discuss the preliminaries of the actions at ‘Les Tannieres’ in Dijon, France, in the November of 2007. Whether or not you are involved in the activities and running of a self-managed centre in the UK, or are a follower of the movement, you cannot have avoided the almighty eviction of 1,000 individuals from the ‘Ungdomshuset’ free space in Copenhagen in the spring of 2007. The media coverage was not just that of the independent nature with regards to the eviction, as would normally be. The crack-down on squats and social centres that has taken place over 2007 has meant although the movement is increasingly repressed, so too is it more radicalised – hence the call that brought these days of action into being. As a UK–wide response to the call and Dijon, the ‘National Squatters Meeting’ was organised in Leeds in February 2008 to discuss what would be happening on the British scene. The meeting was rendered a great success and a great example of the movement gathering itself into action.

What is hoped to be achieved through these days of action?

There are roughly four objectives which the decentralised days hope to achieve. The first is to create more visibility for squats and spaces, particularly to demonstrate the political maneuvers and strengths that the movement holds as part of a global political resistance. The second is to develop and again, illustrate the links already there, between the squats and autonomous spaces – there are obviously differences in approach to the practicalities of space maintenance, and therefore this can been as an opportunity to meld these experiences together, and build upon the residing solidarity. This is what the creation of movements is all about. Thirdly, one of the most outstanding needs of the community is to spread its reach, and gather new people from new places, inspire and conspire on an international level in order to make the movement grow even bigger and in unexpected nooks and crannies. The fourth, is to make sure the oppressive measures that have been taken against squats and social centres, are overcome and kept at bay in the future.

What exactly will take place over the two days of action?

Dependent upon what is most appropriate for each space, for the needs of the local communities involved and for the objectives of the individual centres, the actions to take place on the days have been thought of with a number of discussion points in mind. The over-arching determination, however, is certainly to ensure all actions are as decentralised as possible. Perhaps one of the most important considerations is the very fact that discussion and skill-sharing can take place across the spectrum of occupied, rented and owned zones. Because of the many differing approaches that have been taken with regards to the hard work of organising and maintaining the spaces, there are therefore those that have failed, those that have been evicted, those that live on for decades. The swapping of experiences of living communally, the generating of alternative economic exchange systems, the various ways in which legal obstacles can be counteracted, and the bolstering of solidarity between “… different users of autonomous spaces … people without papers, activists, travellers, immigrants, urbanites, rural dwellers …” are some of the central points of discussion. Undeniably, what will be great significance with regards to the days, is the very questioning of what social centres can achieve for social change, and what kind of stance the movement as a whole wishes to manifest in the face of the remainder of mainstream culture, and that of the capitalist system. There are many centres that take a more confrontational approach than others, those that are not so radical, and therefore the days of idea-trading would be a wonderful opportunity for the centres to converge and learn from each other.

The very activities themselves could range from benefit-raising events such as street parties, to large and small scale occupations, to more direct action and protests in and around the confines of the squats and the spaces. Whatever, from the sublime to the spectacular, from a reading group to an occupation, as long as there is simultaneous action and solidarity.

So aren’t the UK spaces interlinked anyway?

The answer to this is ‘yes’. UK social centres and spaces have been interwined in cyberspace for a number of years through the ‘Social Centre Network’, a network hosted on the internet as a portal for all independent social and community centres in the UK. In their own words, their aim has been to link up the “the growing number of autonomous spaces to share resources, ideas and information”. The SCN was conceived of in order to cater for the growing number of legal social centres, alongside those of the squatted tradition, as the movement had clearly increased in pace over recent years. There is also a clear distinction between the kind of social and community centres that have been supported by the platform, and those that are state sponsored or of an NGO nature, that have not. There are local networks within the movement that operate both on a regional level, for instance the East London Network, and interlinking with the larger network hubs of the national. The community, both squats and spaces, are linked too by the Social Centre Network email list hosted by Riseup.net. However, not only has there been somewhat of an ‘official’ site and linkages for the autonomous zones, but there is a subtle, and yet at the same time, well-established interlinking in other forms over the internet. What has been of wonder and of such great impetus for the gathering of movements and causes across the world is of course the impact of the internet, not least its incredible influence in other arenas aswell. So not only is there a specific SCN, but so too are all the social centres, autonomous and free spaces and squats of all colours and creeds, connected through the links on their webpages. Quite what this network would look like if it were to be digitally mapped out – possibly resembling the construction of a movement – but it would quite clearly be a cyber-expression of the philosophy behind the days in April 2008. This is where the UK social centres can be clearly seen as part of a wider ‘electronic fabric of struggle’. The interconnectedness of the scene here is already alive and real, in its virtual format.

Not only have the social centres been connected between themselves, but so too have they been in touch with larger political objectives and projects through their involvement in and support of activist groups and causes. As an example, the London Action Resource Centre (LARC} has not only been a hub of independent information, but so too a meeting point for the likes of People’s Global Action and London Rising Tide. This adds further nodes to the spider-like web that the UK social centres have been part of all along, and indicates the relevance of action days such as those in April for the future reach of the movement. Such a force of connectedness can be found in the words of those who initiated the actions, in their call before the events: “We are motivated by the same passions, we feel the same determination, face a common enemy in repression, and are united across borders by our desire to build a world of equality and self-determination. As unaligned and ungovernable islands of uncontrolled freedom we want to continue to act in solidarity, and strengthen our international links, no matter how many kilometres there are between us”.

So what does all this mean for the UK social centre movement?

For the UK social centres, there are those representatives of autonomous spaces who attended the meeting that took place in Dijon, and those in Leeds in February, to plan the days. There were of course those who chose not to. There were possible points of conflict that might have arisen over the idea of such decentralised days. The fact that there was a collective that developed these ideas independently could be seen as a nexus of contention, the basic notions of non-hierarchical and disorganised organisation that pervade the social centre ethos as perceived as compromised. Not least, in addition, the fact that this is a step beyond the walls of the social centres, beyond the local community hubs that they provide for, may also be appreciated by some of the members of the UK community, as likewise with those of scenes across Europe and the remainder of the global autonomous and squatting community. These are issues that can be brought up over meetings in the future, and discussed in a democratic manner in order to achieve consensus on all levels.

So what does all of this mean for the UK social centre scene? As one of the richest heritages of alternative culture within Europe, the partaking in such a day is clearly an extension of this refreshing transgression. The differences that arise, undoubtedly, through the choice of space as occupied, rented or owned, are seen by a number within the community as divisive. This is very clearly a chance to display the bonds of solidarity and to solder the community together as a subset of a wider enterprise. The visibility is an objective, and judging from the continued vibrancy that is obviously being exuded from the UK scene, alongside the subversive, creative residue of the anti-roads movement and protests of the 1990s, the days are exciting sparks of momentum echoing from within four walls, onto the international stage. This can only be positive for the UK scene: the knowledge-sharing and networking ensuring the movement as an intrinsic cog in the wheel of the movement of movements.

Global T. A. Z.

There is a seminal work by Hakim Bey that influences the concept of the ‘autonomous zone’ a great deal. What Bey has termed as a ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ is perhaps the closest written formulation to be found that resembles the social centre phenomenon. A ‘T. A. Z.’ is “like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it”. This is quite a familiar description I suspect: the freeing of a building from the greed that keeps it from being put to good use – an oasis in the middle of a desert of avarice. Perhaps what stands out from these days of decentralised action is the idea of a temporary autonomous zone created on an international plane, one which could suspend the participants and the spaces in a consensus of resistance for a brief interlude. This is perhaps quite utopian but also proved possible through the days of action, and for days of similar inspiration in the future.