Brixton before the Riots, part 3: The Brixton Plan & Squatting

Three main elements contributed to the eruption of rioting in Brixton in 1981. In parallel with the development of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, the racism it faced from the police, and the resistance this provoked, the other crucial factor was the heavily squatted nature of housing in the area, which had the effect of producing the third factor – the proliferation of radical and liberation projects.
Mass squatting in the Brixton area was a product of a combination of a failed planning project, a spike in homelessness and the emergence of the modern squatters’ movement in 1969.

The Brixton Plan

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

The Borough was faced with a rising level of homelessness: a survey in 1967 reckoned that much of the housing in the area had less than ten years life left in it, and that to house the 14,000 homeless households, and cope with those who would likely be made homeless as these homes became unusable, the Council would have to build or refurbish 4000 houses a year for the next seven years. This didn’t even take account of those on the Waiting List. Given the then shortage of building workers this target was unlikely at best. But pressure was put on the Planning Dept to come up with a solution.

Lambeth Director of Planning, Ted Hollamby, had won a reputation for small-scale housing developments that blended with their surroundings, and came from a radical background, living as he did in a ‘progressive’ architectural commune in William Morris’s old Red House in Bexleyheath. While previously working for the London County Council, he had attempted to save old buildings from demolition. He seems to have been a somewhat contradictory character, or had a change of heart. Under Hollamby’s leadership (it was said of him at the time that “The planning process is highly centralised, taking place as it does entirely within [his] head.”) the Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Ted Hollamby launching a development. Behind him, 3rd from the right, then Lambeth councillor Ken Livingstone. Whatever happened to him?

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, and part of Coldharbour Lane turned into an urban motorway. Interestingly that’s why Southwyck House, known universally locally as the Barrier Block, is built like a huge wall with relatively few windows in the side facing Coldharbour Lane: to cushion the noise from this subsequently never built motorway. Not just to make its residents feel imprisoned – although for years rumours have asserted the Block’s design to be modeled on a plan for a Swedish Prison. When it opened, after ten years in the building, huge problems with different contractors, it was declared unfit for families to live in. It was gleefully pointed out in 1995, when then Prime Monster John Major described council estates as ‘grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect’ that ex-Lambeth Housing Chair Major had been on the planning committee that had approved the Barrier Block!

Artists impression of Brixton town centre as it was to become

The plan was openly to re-engineer the area’s social mix, bringing middle class ‘urban professionals’ into the area, and (less openly) to disperse black people and other undesirables from Central Brixton. The 1971 opening of Brixton tube station was seen as the first step in “an attempt to upgrade the area on a very large scale.” Plans for a new office blocks, new schools, and new housing estates were scheduled; they would entirely replace the majority of the crumbling Victorian houses in Central Brixton. Some of the planned estates was to be low-rise, high density, but the centre piece featured Brixton Towers, five 52 storey tower blocks, the highest housing scheme outside Chicago, 600 feet high. A new park would serve the proposed 6000 new residents… In effect the plan would have restricted traffic to a few major trunk roads, encircling islands of high density housing with limited access. Such schemes carried out elsewhere quickly decayed into ghettos, cut off by perimeter roads; in fact the first new estate to be built, Stockwell Park, although low-rise, turned into a nightmare for many. Its purpose-built garages were not used for years, damp and disrepair set in and it rapidly began to be used as a dumping ground for supposed ‘problem tenants’.

Few of Lambeth’s 300,000 population knew much about this plan. But pretty soon, the effects of the processes set in motion under the plan began to bite. Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed. And as part of the proposals a huge central shopping centre was to extend from Coldharbour Lane out as far as Kellett Road (this would have been built by Ravenseft, responsible for the Elephant & Castle folly). And so a huge area of Railton Road and Mayall Road was Compulsory Purchased.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had  ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised (much of the Ringways project was defeated by local opposition), and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this was never met.


By the early 70s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Rising property prices had led many landlords to evict tenants to sell off houses. There were also an increasing number of empty houses (officially in 1971, 5225, two and a half times the 1961 figure), many of which were occupiable and not scheduled for immediate demolition, as it could take as long as 7 years from CPO to redevelopment.

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population. Admittedly he attempted to mix conservations with the massive developments, though its the bulldozing that dominated. He’s remembered fondly in Brixton for his part in the design of estates like Cressingham Gardens…

Oh My God they’ve Moving in Next Door

Squatting came to Lambeth in March 1969, when a group occupied an empty five-storey office block in Brixton Road in protest at housing shortage.

A Lambeth Family Squatters Group quickly developed, housing mainly families stuck in overcrowded or badly repaired homes or waiting for council housing.

By 1970, the Borough Council had made an accommodation with its local Family Squatting Group to licence families to stay in occupied houses. This was very much in the spirit of the times, as pressure and media attention drew public support for squatting in empty property. However, licensed squatters were soon outnumbered by unlicensed ones, mainly single people, who the Family Squatting Associations wouldn’t house, although there was also a rise people who were squatting politically, occupying empties as shared houses or communes as a challenge to property rights and conventional ways of living, This neither the original squatting groups or the Council liked at all. Lambeth’s ‘official’ squatting group became Lambeth Self-Help Housing Co-op in 1971, the Council handed over 110 houses to them to administer (172 by 1974); in this way, Lambeth, like other authorities, was partly recognising they could do little to stop squatting and might as well have it under some form of loose control, as it could take the houses back when it could afford to do something with them. Much divisions arose from the licensing of some squats; Councils slyly pitted co-ops against squatters and tried to drive wedges between them. It’s true that while co-ops saved many people from eviction, they also acted in many cases to pressurise people to leave houses when the Councils demanded them back, and helped to regulate squatters, tone down organised resistance and shovel people into paying rent for substandard houses. There was also a lot of double dealing; squatters would be offered rehousing on the day of eviction, and as the Council trashed the house around them they would be moved to a hard to let property, often unfit to live in. in some cases this house would be taken back very quickly too  – in at least some cases the day after they were moved in!

Lambeth Self-Help, like many ‘70s housing co-ops, slowly evolved from a DIY activist group towards a larger more bureaucratic set-up. By 1977 they had a paid workforce of ten; by the 1990s they were managing hundreds of homes, often Council street properties that had been in poor nick. They housed many people over the years, but like many such groups, some of the people who ran the group were either power-mad or corrupt on a small scale. Abraham Korten, who evolved to become LSH’s supremo, became a notorious power-monger; just one example being how he attempted to persuade the Council to hand over Rushcroft Road and other shortlife properties to LSH in 1999, without even consulting the Rushcroft Road residents themselves. At other times, leading co-op activists secured large properties for themselves ahead of other needy members…

As noted by an observer elsewhere: “The squatting movement of the 1970s contained a number of middle class activists… it tended to be these people who became most active in organising short-life groups and co-ops to negotiate deals with local councils… Large shortlife organizations… gradually developed a bureaucratic structure run mainly by (these) middle class professionals, who were quick to recognise a new job market for their class… Housing activists who were willing to function as an extension of the local state housing bureaucracy were soon to be seen doing the council’s dirty work.”
(anonymous leaflet, circulated within Shortlife Community Housing, (a Camden Housing Co-op) reprinted in No Reservations, 1988.)

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton; St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St all in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell… and  many more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions, Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions… and many more. Many of these squat nexi became housing co-ops and some survive in that form today. And 100s of other squats existed, on their own or in ones and twos, with 1000s of flats on estates also being squatted.

Most of these arose in streets which had been part of Compulsory Purchase Schemes, then left largely or wholly empty by planning blight. Some remained squatted (or intermittently licenced) for nearly 30 years, some became co-ops in the 70s and 80s, some gradually were evicted. Some squatters formed action groups to try and preserve their houses, of these, as with Villa Road, some partially succeeded and became co-ops, while others like St Agnes Place prevented their destruction but made no long-term deals with the Council. While many of the squatters were content to house themselves and live a quiet life, the growth of squatting as a whole bolstered a large and diverse radical scene in Brixton. Many of the squatters were alternative types, socialists, feminists, anarchists, bohemians or artists of one stripe or another, or lesbians and gay men trying to create new ways of living outside the traditional family set up…  Many others wanted little more than somewhere affordable to live. These widely varying reasons for squatting led to disputes and splits, as some of the more ‘political’ squatters took a more confrontational line while others pursued licences and formed co-ops. In may cases though, a dual approach saved people’s houses, as with Villa Road.

Many buildings were occupied for social centres, housing a dizzying spectacle of alternative projects and community spaces. There was a social centre/ squatters advice at 119 Railton Road next door around 1973-4, part of a large Frontline squatting (a Railton Road squatters group was still going in 1975). The radical People’s News Service operated from no 119.

The shopfronts (since demolished) at no 78-80 Railton Rd, in front of the St George’s Residences, included a squatted Claimants Union office, the South London Gay Centre and a women’s space, around 1974-6…

Communes, radical experiments in alternative ways of life to the traditional nuclear family, were set up…

Young, Gifted and Homeless

Gradually many local black youth began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, their squatted HQ was in Vining Street (and was attacked by racists in August 1983).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were often fractious (see report on the 1982 frontline riot, below). Black magazine Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.” Although this statement ignores many exceptions, and “indigenous population” is an unlikely term where London is concerned, there is an element of truth to this statement. Many white squatters WERE “outsiders”, and did often have little commitment to stay in an area, which they weren’t originally from. But a huge chunk of London’s population has for centuries been from elsewhere, transient, moving (often forced to move) from one area of town to another. Squatters in many cases would settle down if they could – it’s the landlords, council, cops and courts that drive them out.

Black squatters of course received their unfair share of agro from the local state and the bizzies. And the press, always up for a story about noisy blacks, spread tales of black squatters terrorising their neighbours.

Some of the black Squatters’ actions had longer term effects than anyone could have foreseen. In January 1973, Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull, two black women squatting in a flat above a disused laundry at 121 Railton Road, were illegally evicted by agents of the private landlords. They broke back in, only to be dragged out by 5 cops; Olive however escaped the filth, climbed back in and spent several hours on the roof, supported by a crowd of people outside. There was some scuffling between cops and this group, and black youth worker, Ivan Madray, was nicked; (in the way recuperation gets ya, he was later one of the “community leaders’ discredited during the riots in April 1981, accused of collusion with the police.)

The council and cops failed to get her down with offers of accommodation, and they eventually left. She re-occupied the flat, staying there for ages. Later Sabaar Collective took over the building for a black bookshop; when they left in 1980, anarchists who had used Sabaar as a postal address squatted the building, founding the 121 Bookshop, which squatted there for 19 years, getting evicted in 1999.

Olive Morris had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager; women were vocal and active in the Movement. As a result tensions had arisen, and women activists had begun to meet and discuss the problems; as a result a sense of the need to organise separately developed. As part of this process Olive was later a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, the Brixton Black Women’s Centre and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent; she was a fearless fighter against the powers that be. She died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Lambeth in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department (recently demolished).

Villa Victory

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness.

Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups –  one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organising in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help.  Tenants groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

The Gutting and smashing up of houses was an integral part of this strategy: houses when evicted were to be rendered totally unliveable in. In some cases this got highly dangerous: houses in Wiltshire Road were wrecked with an old woman still living in the basement, while people were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in the Housing Dept thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

There was resistance to the evictions/destruction. In November 1976, a crowd of squatters barricaded Vining Street off Railton Road, jeering off bailiffs and workmen, to prevent their homes being smashed up – much of Rushcroft Road and Vining Street was already semi-derelict from neglect.  The Council had already admitted that evicted houses would lie empty for two years and more.

However Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

In Villa Road, empties had been gradually squatted 1973-76. In response to tenants campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Rd, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor Terrace, Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…There was a plan for a demo when the Queen came to visit on 30 June 1977: what happened? Hope she had a torrid jubilee visit…

Meanwhile some Possession Orders in Villa Road were thrown out in court. Negotiations opened up with the council, and after much trench warfare and court wrangling, half of Villa Road was saved as part of Lambeth Self Help, in return for the demolition of the southern half, with rehousing for most of the residents.

Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers.

Fighting off the wreckers in St Agnes Place, January 1977. The child in her mother’s arms would go on to fight Lambeth taking the street till 2005…!

In St Agnes Place, squatters had first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses, although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. These houses remained squatted for decades, to be finally evicted and demolished in 2005.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers of the Plan, had pulled out the previous summer. The planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969. By the time the High Court hearing on Villa Road resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise with squatters at Villa Rd and elsewhere… St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road…

In May 1978, a new left-Labour Council was elected with Trotskyist Ted Knight, a and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chair respectively. The left had been fighting to try and take over from the old rightwing Labour guard for years. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Interestingly though, watered down versions of parts of the Brixton Plan were still surfacing in the 80s. In 1983, planning officers were proposing radical alterations to the lands cape, including demolishing many houses behind the west side of Brixton Road, to build shops and offices, and rerouting Coldharbour Lane through Rushcroft Road and Carlton Mansions (handily this would have got rid of hundreds of squatters and co-op dwellers living there). Central Brixton was once again being envisioned as hosting a grandiose block of flats on top of a car park and new shops. Opposition was rallied by housing co-ops and others, through the Brixton Action Group, who described the planners as “an elusive lot who lurk in Streatham making recommendations about land use and building design which we experience years later when we are told that although our houses are viable and necessary the council regrets that the land has been zoned for office development…” Fortunately amendments were made to the plans, which took objections into account, and ended up substantially humanised.

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

 

In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist Policing, Resistance & Black Power in 1970s Brixton

Part 2 of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

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“It is no exaggeration to say that thousands and thousands of young blacks have grown up in British society having little contact with any other section of British society but the police and courts. They have developed in the shadow of the SPG, the Vice Squad, the Flying Squad, the Starskys and Hutches of the panda car brigade, the Old Bailey, Inner London Sessions etc.” (Race Today, 1982)

In the early 1960s, Brixton experienced a swelling of the West Indian population, mainly in the form of the children of the first generation, who had begun to settle in the area from the late 1940s. Numbers of the original migrants had left young kids in the Caribbean, with relatives, partly thinking they would soon be returning from the UK. For most, forced into low paid jobs, any thought of saving up and moving back were largely scuppered. The ’50s had been a time of sparse isolation and discrimination for many, and the expense of sending money back home for support was biting. Gradually many came round to the idea of bringing their offspring over; an added urgency was given by the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. The Act aimed to restrict non-white migration into Britain by setting quotas for workers with particular skills or lack of them; basically it was aimed at West Indians and Asians. As economic boom times began to come to an end, fears were being whipped up about competition for jobs.

Many young Afro-Caribbeans then arrived here around this time, often just coming into teenage years or a bit older. Many couldn’t get school places, or went into very different schools when they arrived; older ones found it hard to get work. The experiences they had, in education, on the dole, with the police, were to create a generation that began to go beyond mere existence, survival, endurance, and fight back…

The Coach and Horses pub, Coldharbour Lane, the earliest Black-owned pub in Brixton, & its owner George Berry, after a racist firebomb attack.

Racial harassment was a daily occurrence for Brixton’s black community in the fifties. “In those days, there was a lot of racism was the teddy boys. I used to work in Effra Road, and one day I was going to work and it was very foggy. I knew these chaps behind me were white. The one of the came up alongside me and felt my hair. My hair was straightened at the time, and he said, ‘This one’s hair feels white, so leave her alone.’ Then one of them shouted, ‘There’s a nigger over there.’ Whoever it was, she really got some kicks – you could hear her screaming. But things like this helped us to band together. We were all West Indians! When the teddy boys beat up a Black person from another island, some people would wait until a white person came into our area, pick up the milk bottles and beat them up. It was vicious but they were desperate times.”

Thoughout the 1950s and 60s, the gradual withdrawing from the empire and loss of the colonies led to a falling back for many white British people on their feeling of racial superiority to “the coloureds”. Hence the rise of racist attacks, race riots, as in Camden in 1954, Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959; and support for fascist groups like Oswald Mosley and co. In some areas tenants & residents groups organised to keep blacks out of social housing, afraid “they” would spread into ‘white’ areas. Public health laws were also invoked to attack multi-occupation, hitting West Indian families in the large crumbling Victorian homes in areas like Brixton.

In response to racism many Black Communities kept their heads down and tired to simply weather the storm. Others stuck their heads above the parapet. In March 1958, the West Indian Gazette was founded in Brixton. Their office was above Theo Campbell’s record shop at 250 Brixton rd, and later at 13 Station Avenue (now Station Road). It was founded by Claudia Jones, a communist deported from the US, and Amy Ashwood, widow of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The Gazette was produced monthly, with very limited resources, though supported by international Black communist superstar Paul Robeson and other black radicals. The paper covered race relations, discrimination, police harassment, campaigning all the time for equality for the new migrants, but in the context of a wider sense of social change and justice… It was Claudia Jones, who did most of the work, as manager, editor, main writer and fundraiser.

Claudia had been born in Trinidad in 1915, moving with her family to Harlem in 1926. Claudia grew up in poverty, facing racism and inequality, which led her into a life of campaigning and journalism. In 1936 she joined the US Young Communist League, a hugely brave step when even the CP was heavily chauvinistic. Claudia became Negro Affairs Editor on the US edition of the CP paper the Daily Worker, and became involved in campaigning on wage freezes, voting rights, lynching, poll tax, women’s conscription… she was imprisoned on several occasions. As a result of her sterling work in the land of the free she was deported in 1955, and chose to come to Britain. On arrival she joined the Communist Party here, (though she had a fractious relationship with the party, being sidelined and virtually ignored – the CPGB was even more racially backward than its US counterpart) and set to work campaigning here for the same causes… As well as setting up the Gazette, she became active in the Coloured People’s Progressive Association, and also helped to set up first Notting Hill Carnival in 1959. Claudia sadly died too young in 1964 aged 49. She is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

SUS and SPG

As early as the 1960s, police attitudes towards local black people were openly hostile, and this expressed itself in violent persecution. Police openly labelled their operations against black people in Brixton ‘nigger hunting’.

“If things go on like it is going on now, twenty years time, or forty years time, our children may be marching from Liverpool and Birmingham coming to London singing ‘We Shall Overcome’…” Nameless Jamaican, during a 1964 conversation in Brixton about prejudice and the US civil rights struggle. Quoted in Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion‘).

It took less than 20 years, and they weren’t singing we shall overcome…

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids.  The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…” Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.” In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

In Brixton, to this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

National Front paperseller in Brixton

At least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Loughborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road  – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewisham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

State Paid Gangsters

“War…War… All we doin’ is defendin’…”
Linton Kwesi Johnson

On top of the day-to-day community policing of the type just described, Lambeth and Brixton in particular was regularly graced by large-scale invasions of the Special Patrol Group (later re-branded the Territorial Support Group or TSG, after its operations had aroused massive outrage); basically the paramilitary unit responsible for large operations and responding to/policing public order situations.

“Between 1975 and 1979 there were six attacks by the SPG on the people of Lambeth.  Every time the same general pattern was followed – roadblocks, early morning raids and random street checks. In 1978 over half the total strength of the SPG, 120 officers, supplemented by 30 extra officers from Scotland yard were drafted into the Lambeth police area because of its alleged ‘high crime rate’. Over 1000 people were stopped on the streets and 430 people arrested; 40% of those arrested were black, more than double the estimated black population of the local community. The SPG operation was concentrated around four housing estates, all with high black populations.”

On top of this several CID, Serious Crimes Squad, Flying Squad and Fraud Squad officers would be drafted in to take part in operations. SPG activities were heavily influenced by policing tactics in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Occasionally SPG could be seen walking the streets, eyeing up black people and hanging around outside squats and blues clubs; more often they cruised the streets in their transits, up and down the Frontline, stopping cars and searching, setting up roadblocks, swooping onto estates, hauling in groups of kids under ‘sus’, raiding, intimidating. One SPG operation centred around an alleged Bomb Squad car that had been stolen and supposedly pursued to Railton road. The area was sealed off. More than 30 police, including the Bomb and Anti-Terrorist Squads, were involved. Although the official story was that there were detonators in the car for controlled explosions, is was widely suspected at the time that this was in fact a dry run for a counter-insurgency operation. Many SPG ops at the time consisted in no small part of low-level intelligence gathering, ie collection of names, addresses, details, of people who for one reason or another the police believed to be suspicious.

Grandiose claims were made for the SPG’s affect in reducing street crime, the main excuse given for their presence. Figures were bandied about, Reports issued, but little real hard evidence could ever by brought to bear. The anger the squad’s heavy-handed tactics created built up throughout the decade. Across the country, the SPG were increasingly being used to police (attack) strikes & demonstrations; they had evolved from an anti-crime unit into a paramilitary force. Police methods in Brixton more and more seemed to be the actions of an occupying army against the local people. And this wasn’t just a Conspiracy theory  – that’s how the cops themselves saw things.

Commander Adams hit the nail on the head when asked (on TV) about an SPG operation in Brixton: “No good general ever declares his forces in a prelude to any kind of attack.”

As an ex-police officer revealed: “You are told that you are the Law, you control the streets, you don’t give way to others. You make them give way. You’ve got to demonstrate your authority.” The police believed for many years in Brixton that they were involved in a war for control of the streets – a view mirrored on the other side. A statement from a social worker claimed (around 1979-80) that “When talking to these young people one gets the impression of guerrilla – young people believe they are winning the war.”

Raids got worse when the SPG came to town: “During November 1978, when the SPG were in Brixton, the activities of the Youth Project were severely affected. Our chief club night, on Thursdays, was reduced to a handful of attending members. Through January and February, it recovered to the usual 100 mark.”

SPG operations in 1973-5 led to the creation of Lambeth Campaign Against Police Repression; in 1978, All-Lambeth Anti Racist Movement, the Black Parents Against SUS, the Trades Council, the Anti-Nazi League and other groups campaigned against the SPG presence, culminating in a demo through Brixton In November ’78.

If there was a war going on for the control of the streets, clearly Brixton Police/the SPG saw community spaces and youth centres as an extension of the battleground. The effect of continuing attacks on clubs drove more young people ONTO the street, where confrontations were increasing.

… And the Resistance

“those days of the truncheon and those nights,
of melancholy locked in a cell…
were well numbered,
and are now at an end…

All we doin’ is defendin’…”

Linton Kwesi Johnson

“The revolt of Brixton’s young blacks against the police did not begin when the media and the rest of British society discovered it on the weekend of April 10th to April 13th [1981]. In the last ten years, young blacks in Brixton engaged the local police in minor skirmishes, organised protests, violent street confrontations and hand-to-hand fighting in youth clubs and other social haunts. Add to these the string of one to one incidents, characterised by the hostility and violent outbursts of the participants. Much of this history has taken place behind the backs of the rest of British society, often unrecorded.”
(Race Today, 1982)

From the late 1960s on, this constant war between black youth and the police was fought not just physically, but politically. In November 1969, black people protested in the market, after a Nigerian diplomat was attacked and arrested by Brixton Police (who accused him of nicking his own car, an old old tactic familiar to any black person who dared to own a vehicle); predictably, the rozzers steamed into this demo: “three brothers and a sister were again beaten, one of them (Bro Tex) received a broken arm.” Olive Morris (later a Black Panther) had been arrested during the diplomat’s own arrest.

Many first generation West Indians who moved into Brixton, responded to racism, police attacks, discrimination, by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) “Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.”  (Race Today, 1982)

Many young blacks opted not to enter into crap low paid jobs,  even if they could beat the constant low-level racism of employers; but drifted into permanent unemployment, and the street life that was increasingly taking over central Brixton.

This rebellious generation produced community organisations that gathered the anger in the area together and forged it into a weapon.

Earlier organisations had taken on institutional racism – the League of Coloured People, etc… In the mid-1960s, a number of groups had federated to form the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), but the alliance of older black organisations, newer and more radical groups, had foundered on political differences, soon splintering.

“What the Black panther movement did initially was to give people, mostly the children of working immigrants, a place to belong, an identity and a feeling that we are a force; we are somebody, we are a dimension in the world, we’re not just somebody’s servants.”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Younger black activists were increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, CARD and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967 by Nigerian playwright and poet Obi Egbuna in Stoke Newington, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. The UCPA politicised black young people through meetings and study groups. Ogi Egbuna had been a speaker at Speakers Corner: “he was also giving these kind of militant speeches at Hyde Park Corner. We were quite impressed, we thought, ‘At last somebody is standing up and, you know, not just taking it, not just taking the crap.’ “ (Farrukh Dhondy).

Egbuna had travelled in the US and met some of the Black Panthers there. Heavily influenced by Marxism, he stressed the importance of an international struggle against capitalism, as a part of the global struggle against racial oppression. In a speech from 1967 at Trafalgar Square, London, Egbuna stated: “Black Power means simply that the black of this world are to liquidate capitalist oppression of black people wherever it exists by any means necessary”.

The UCPA’s early activity focused around support for the struggles in Rhodesia, Vietnam, liberation struggles in Africa, and the Chinese Cultural revolution… At home it became increasingly active around police racism and harassment. In 1969 the Association held a black poser rally against ‘organised police brutality’ in Brixton, as well as joining in protests against paki-bashing in the East End. While not directly advocating violence except in self-defence against racist attacks, UCPA speakers did urge direct action to paralyse the economy. Roy Sawah, in a speech 1968 at Speaker’s Corner, urged “coloured nurses to give wrong injections to patients, coloured bus crews not to take the fare of black people and Indian restaurant owners to ‘put something in the curry’.”

Speakers denounced ‘white devils’, ‘anglo-saxon swine’ and the like, and were prosecuted… Egbuna himself later that year ended up in prison accused of threatening to kill police and certain politicians – charges that were dismissed when it came to court. They had been prosecuted under the new Race Relations Act – ironically at a time of increased racist attacks and violent incitement against black people. This was the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. He wasn’t prosecuted (though he was sacked from the tory government).

The UCPA only lasted from 1967 to 1971. It foundered on the lack of a unifying idea of its purpose. “Within that single organisation, there were members who believed that the answer to the black man’s problem lay in the overthrow of the capitalist system, and there were others who felt it lay in the Black man going to the House of Lords; there were some who saw themselves as part of the international Black revolution, and there was a faction who believed that the Black man in this country should concern himself only with what goes on in this country… in short, it became all too clear that what we had was not one movement, but movements within a movement.” (Egbuna).

Egbuna resigned from the UCPA, together with others dissatisfied with the disunity of the group he formed the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the  British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the dissolving UCPA.

The Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

Education, self-education, was at the heart of the movement. “The Black Panther movement wanted first to educate black people, you know, let them know where they’re from. In those days people like my parents, you know, that generation didn’t believe that they came from Africa… deep down they believed but they just cut that off… in schools, like in my school, Tulse Hill here… we had history from 1066 and the Normans and the Stuarts… but there was no history about Africa, how we as black people left Africa and end up in the Caribbean and America into slavery… So the Black Panther movment wanted to educate people about where they from and their culture, and they also wanted to tell us about capitalism, and communism, and socialism… why we work as slaves, why slavery was abolished…”

Increasing educational opportunities for local black children was one of their most practical activities:

“We had a Saturday school. During that Saturday school, the parents had a chance to do other things. They were very happy to have us. We were so idealistic. We’d go and collect the children and take them off their parents’ hands all day. We would feed them. I still see some of the parents of those children. They were very grateful for that. I don’t know how supportive they were of us but they certainly tolerated us. I think they understood what we were trying to do. I think those were the first supplementary schools. After that they became increasingly institutionalised.”  (Beverley Bryan)

Beverley Bryan, a teacher at Santley Street primary School in Brixton’s Acre Lane, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, to become a pre-eminent dub poet, were two of the early panthers particularly involved in the supplementary education classes, often held at 38 Shakespeare Road – picking up Black kids from their homes, holding classes in english, maths, black history, drama, and more…

Groups of black activists formed Black Studies groups, sometimes in schools: “We went to the Head and asked her to let us set up a Black Studies debating society. She was really shocked and upset by it all. She kept saying, ‘But why, we’re all one here.’ So we went off to join the Black Studies programme at Tulse Hill School, until she gave in. That’s we began to come into our own. We started with the black berets and carried it through, right down to black socks and shoes! That’s also when I went to my first Black meeting. I heard a Black woman there, and I was really impressed with her. Seeing a Black woman up there on the platform made me feel even more enthusiastic.”

Such groups fed into the Panthers; while the debating society at Tulse Hill School drew pupils Linton Kwesi Johnson into the Party youth section, after Panther leader and lawyer Althea Jones-Lecointe came to speak to a debate.

The Black People’s Information Centre

“Well in those days black people wouldn’t be allowed to meet in public places like the Town Hall in Brixton, and other public places, so the only way they could meet is if they were to meet in their own homes. So the Panthers decode to buy the building…”

Barred from meeting in most public spaces or buildings, the party moved into 38 Shakespeare Road, a 3-story building they had managed to buy, with help from donations; some of it money given by sympathetic left figures: “leftwing intellectuals, you know, like Vanessa Redgrave was a donor”. The party also had a HQ in North London, a building in Barnsbury Road, which was replaced later by a house in Seven Sisters, 37 Tollington Park, bought with money given by author John Berger.

The Panthers also regularly met and organised social events at Oval House, the arts centre in Kennington Oval.

To understand who I am

“I had the idea, right at the beginning, that culture was the only way out of this mission to complain. The mission to complain was, you know, ‘we are poor, sad blacks, beaten down, you discriminate against us, racism, racism, racism, complaint, complaint, complaint”, and that wouldn’t end until one said ‘Look, forget about the sadness, here’s what I can do.’ We could have an intellectual culture, and I’ve always thought that was the way forward…”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Militant as it was, Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups… The cultural element helped to draw people in, but also participation in the movement opened people’s eyes to their own cultural heritage, as Linton Kwesi Johnson relates:

“My real interest in poetry began when I joined the Black Panthers. Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature, because going to school here I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that black people wrote books.

In the Black Panthers they had a library and all of a sudden I discovered all these wonderful books written by black people. One book in particular was a book called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ written by an African American scholar by the name of W.E.B DuBois. And this book was not a book of poems, it was prose, but it was a very poetic prose and the language was very moving, And that book just stimulated my interest in poetry, and made me went to discover more poetry, and made me want to try and articulate in verse how I felt, and how the black youth of my generation felt about our experiences growing in this racially hostile environment.

I learnt a lot about my culture and I was able to locate myself in the world, and to understand myself more fully. Who I am, where I am coming from, and why I am where I am now.”

Here to stay, here to fight

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists  – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into the Black Panthers.

A notable campaign was launched in November 1970, in support of Joshua Francis, a middle aged West Indian, whose house in Brixton was invaded by four white men, one an off-duty cop, who beat him up so he needed 30 stitches; upon which the police arrived and nicked Francis for assault (for which he was later sentenced to nine months inside).

Danny Dacosta and Neil Kenlock, who were taking on the role of movement photographers, in fact had to sneak into the hospital past the police, to take pictures of Francis’ injuries.

In contrast to most previous cases of police violence, the mould of silence was broken: Joshua Francis’ case was taken up, and made into a high profile Joshua Francis Defence Committee, later renamed the Black People’s Defence Committee, which met at the Brixton Neighbourhood Centre, at 1 Mayall Road, bringing together black community activists from the more moderate flank as well as strong presence from the Black Panthers, the Black Unity & Freedom Party and others. The Committee organised demonstrations in central Brixton, as well as fundraising for Francis and his family, and later similar cases of police violence.

And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants’ and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In 1970 four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by Sgt. Ridgewell,  at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested.

Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment

However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Apart from state repression and everyday police hassle of this kind, the Panthers also experienced its unofficial reflection – the racist attack. In 1973 the group squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, Freedom News and so on.

“So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building… So [we] put in toilets and showers and we made it decent.” (Farrukh Dhondy). Dhondy and two others were living in the building as well as the bookshop. “On 15th March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking…. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick…” Dhondy managed to jump out of the building in his underwear: “by that time some neighbours had had gone and called the people at Shakespeare road… and they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he put a coat around me… The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass.”

Five other similar targets had been fire-bombed that night, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another. “the police never did anything about it.” Shock. “the place was a shell, it was burnt out.”

Inevitably the constant repression had its effects: membership of the Panthers dwindled.

“it was like a meteor. It just rose and then by 1973 it had just fallen apart. Some people went to prison. At those demonstrations some people were picked out by the police and there were trials. We had big trials, publicity trials, which we attended. There were also smaller cases where people would get nine months. So people were getting records out of that period and people were beginning to ask questions.” (Beverley Bryan)

The Panthers evolved into the Black Workers’ Movement, around 1973; part of the impetus for this was a change in some people’s analysis of how class and race fitted together, and a developing Marxist consciousness: “The Black Workers Movement were organised around issues to do with racism within the workplace: equal opportunities, equal promotion, equal pay and so on…” Not only fighting the employers, but also in many cases, fighting to get recognition from established trade unions here, many of whose members saw black workers as a threat to pay, and conditions, thinking they would drive them down through competition. “So we had to fight, for example, to get ourselves into the trade union movement, and to be involved… and to build solidarity with white working class people…” (LKJ)

Though the BWM later fizzled out around 1975, in hindsight, some saw the Panthers and BWM as a movement that had served its purpose, that its decline allowed people to move on to other projects and stages of the battle. But others do point out that some of the groups taking a direction towards co-operation with white working class or left organisations didn’t carry a big section of the early activists with them; people who had come in to a black power movement, and saw white working class support for Enoch Powell, the National Front, or how trade unions etc had excluded black people, weren’t always convinced of this new turn, that this was where black people’s interests lay.

The Race Today office

Among the other Black organisations and spaces that arose in the 1970s, there was the Collective around the magazine Race Today. Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), became a strong voice in the 1970s and ’80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

Living above Race Today from 1981 till his death in 1989 was a man who had a most powerful influence in its politics: CLR James, (Darcus Howe’s uncle), Trinidadian Marxist, writer, and cricket correspondent! Politically he had moved through anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism to Trotskyism. During the 1930s he wrote the classic ‘The Black Jacobins’, about the 1790s Caribbean revolutionaries who fought off the Brits, the French and the Spanish.  James broke with Trotskyism when he rejected Trotsky’s ludicrous theory of the Soviet Union as a ‘degenerated workers state’. Gradually he had come to reject the idea of a vanguardist party, and was more enthusiastic over autonomous struggles developing among oppressed minorities and encouraged support for black nationalism.

James exercised a practical influence on some of the Panthers: “We used to write all this stuff [in Freedom News], theoretical stuff, in the magazine, about… what black people or immigrants in Britain need and so on, and one day Darcus brought his uncle, CLR James, to the meeting and James said, ‘Who is it, writes all this newspaper…. Why are you writing all this theoretical stuff, nobody cares for that. Why don’t you write about what you do?’ Then he asked somebody in the room, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m a bus conductor.’… ‘What goes on at the garage? …What disputes are there? What fights are there? What day-to day stuff goes on?… Write about that, it’ll instruct people.’ …” (Farrukh Dhondy)

Like the Black Panthers, the Black Unity and Freedom Party emerged from the earlier Universal Coloured People’s Association (after the Panthers had splintered off, the core of the surviving UCPA forming the BUFP). Although stronger in the early ’70s in other parts of London – notably Peckham – and in Manchester, the BUFP also had a presence in Brixton, and unlike the Panthers, survived the period,  continuing their activity into the 1990s at least. Founded in 1970, (45 Fairmount Road in Brixton Hill was an early contact address) the BUFP adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology – unlike the UK Panthers, they “sought more actively to work with white radical groups than most black groups did, not because they were white but because these groups shared or had similar ideological orientations as the group, that is to say, they placed the emphasis on class, not colour/race or gender.” Whereas the Black Panther Movement ‘placed the emphasis on cultural awareness and the unity of all blacks, and were therefore regarded  –  using the American term popular at the time  –  as ‘cultural nationalists’.  This meant that African history, culture, dress, hairstyle and so forth were of predominant importance to them.  So too were events in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Third World.

Looking back, ex-members could see how this manifested in a more rigid format:

We were much more Marxist and we had a different ideology. Our discussions would be about the Russian Revolution and about things which were completely alien really to who we were… We chose Russia and then China as the way. Whereas the Panthers didn’t have that much of a Maoist ideology.” (Leila Howe).

Perhaps the difference in emphasis partly explains why the Panthers had largely fragmented by the mid-70s, and the BUFP lasted a couple of decades longer; a question Harry Goulbourne considers in Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain. ‘Cultural nationalism’ perhaps had a stronger appeal at the time, but its susceptability to being co-opted, funded, and institutionalised by the leftwing element of the local state was maybe much greater than the more uncompromising class positions of the BUFP. Did the latter survive by refusing to be gradually assimilated into the local authority-GLC supported hinterland? But on the other hand, it’s also true that sometimes the most exciting and forward thinking projects do rise up and collapse quickly; there’s a role for refusing to concrete yourself into a long, rigid existence, but instead moving on to other battles and pushing new boundaries.

The BUFP were still going in Brixton in the 1990s, still involved in community organising, for instance in the Orville Blackwood Community Campaign around 1993-4, protesting the killing of local man in a mental health prison and supporting similar cases.

The onslaught of government funds

Hand in hand with the stick of state repression, came the carrot of state funding:  “The government had unveiled their Urban Aid program in 1968, at first, without much impact. Slowly, they filtered small sums of money into the black community, aimed, they said, at ameliorating the problems of young blacks. The programme was conceived in the home office Children’s Department, and its major thrust was the social control of young blacks in revolt. The funds cascaded, eventually, under the Inner City Partnership and the Community Relations Self-Help programme. Millions of pounds have been poured into the black communities. By 1973, these radical Black Power organisations, now considerably weakened by state repression, crumbled before this onslaught of government funds. Young cadres, once headed for the Panthers, now gathered around government financed projects. Organisations, which were once autonomous and politically vibrant, were now transformed into welfare agencies which extended the crippling welfare state into every area of the black existence.”
(Race Today)

A plethora of black organisations emerged in Brixton, some operating in complete rebellion against what they saw as racist white society, some attempting to make their way within the existing structures, and numerous shades of opinion in between. Many eventually gained recognition, and official funding from either Lambeth Council, the GLC, or other bodies. This caused its own problems and dilemmas: there’s no doubt many worthwhile projects survived longer and expanded, doing much useful local work, through these grants. There’s also no doubt that it caused fierce divisions (as Race Today‘s comments, below, illustrate); council funding did tend to handicap activity that challenged the council, eg on its policies regarding black people, re housing, jobs etc., as well as the thorny questions of who gets the money, and who doesn’t – not in itself unconnected to class relations and ambitions within the black community. But another abyss remained, that autonomous projects that started with nothing, became used to operating with state handouts, and was in many cases unable to carry on or return to a hand to mouth existence when the moneybelts tightened. This applied across the board, with black, women’s, gay projects, and much more. It is also however true that the funding often ceased in the 80s or 90s, when wider change had overtaken many of these schemes – their struggle to survive was as much about a radically altering social landscape, with a gradual decline in the hope and grassroots autonomy that the 60s and especially the 70s has seen spring up.

Just some of the local alternative/radical black groups that emerged in Brixton specifically included Melting Pot, whose squatted HQ in Vining Street helped hundreds of black youth to squat locally among other projects; the black radical bookshop, Sabaar Books, which initially ran as a squat at 121 Railton Road in the late 1970s, then in 1981 moving to 378 Coldharbour Lane, having gained council funding.

There was also the Abeng Community Centre, in Gresham Road, which is still there. In the late seventies, the Abeng hosted an important national conference of black women. It was the first such event of its kind, which hundreds attended.

Later, in the 80s, there was Meridian Bookshop, at 58 Railton Road, another Black bookshop, and the Ujamaa Centre at 14 Brixton Road…

“Three paces behind the men”

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The UCPA had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late 60s and early 70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’ oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 70s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was a influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and so on…

Black women pioneers included the legendary Olive Morris, who had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. Fro it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of the Nigerian the police were harassing (mentioned above), was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabaar Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Olive Morris climbing into the back of 121 Railton Road, from the cover of the Squatters Handbook

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out. The building was then re-squatted by others and was used as a black bookshop…’ 121 was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when the anarchist centre was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)

Initially the Panther leadership was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…”

After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, (based at 121, then 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to Stockwell Green).

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…

We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s Group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

Later on Olive went to study in Manchester, where she also became heavily involved in community organising and student politics, and visited China – like many of the early Black power activists (and white leftists too!) she was heavily influenced by admiration for the Chinese revolution (as well as ‘national liberation’ movements in the developing world).

Olive died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Hundreds of people came to her memorial ceremony a few weeks later, testimony to the impact she had on people’s lives.

Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department. An insult to her memory? A radical remembered by a Bureaucratic Hellhole, where many of us have withered many weary days trying to get them to sort out our HB claims… Ironically, however, this was one of Olive’s battlegrounds: “The first time Olive made a real impression on me was during my early days in the Movement. It was on a demonstration of residents from the the tenants concerning housing conditions – there had been a lot of fires Ferndale Road flats. Beverley Bryan and Olive had been working with in the flats caused by the use of paraffin heaters and the tenants were demanding that the Council install some form of heating. A demonstration of about 30 tenants made up mainly of women and children, together with members of the Movement, set off one weekday morning from the
flats in Ferndale Road to the Housing Office on Brixton Hill. It was the first demonstration I’d been on. When we reached the Housing Office the tenants demanded to see the Head of Housing to discuss the issues and were told by the housing office staff that this would not be possible and we were to leave the premises or they would call the police. The tenants were unsure about what to do next until Olive spoke to the women and told them that, yes, we
would leave the premises but that they should leave the children behind, saying that if the Council would not meet with them then the Council had better look after their children because it was not safe to take them back home. The women were naturally nervous about this course of
action as they feared the Council would take their children into care but after further persuasion from Olive they agreed to do so and all the adults left the building leaving the children in the care of the Housing office staff. We were not outside the offices for more than ten minutes
before the head of the housing office agreed to come and meet with the demonstrators and the outcome was that the issue of heating provision would be looked into as a priority.” (Liz Obi)

(This building was actually demolished in 2020) The small park in Myatts Fields estate also named after Olive was a slightly less ‘orrible memorial, though it has now been destroyed by the building of a new health centre.)

Dem a Black Petty Booshwah?

dem wi´ side wid oppressah
w´en di goin´ get ruff
side wid aggressah
w´en di goin´ get tuff

dem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flawdem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flaw……..

dem a seek posishan
aaf di backs of blacks
seek promoshan
aaf di backs af blacks…

(Linton Kwesi Johnson, Di Black Petty Booshwah)

A whole subculture of state funded black organisations sprang up, according to some observers forming a buffer layer, attempting to impose quiet solutions on the rebellious youth. In Brixton as elsewhere, elderly conservative self-appointed ‘community leaders’ took the queen’s shilling to ‘keep the peace’, ie channel anger and reaction into complaints to MPs, cases to corrupt solicitors, to dissolve rebellion. Race Today condemned them roundly:

“Failed business men and women of the older generation, they have sought social elevation by way of government grants; ruthless in their fraudulent acquisition of government funds for personal use; official society needs them and is willing to use them.  And then, there are the born again blacks who are distinguishable from the mass of blacks by educational attainment. Plunged into the fiercely competitive world of the meritocracy, they cry racial discrimination at the slightest opportunity in order to cover up their individual inadequacies, “they sound radical enough, but on close inspection their hostility to the white working class disguises an even greater hostility to its black counterpart._ Instead of campaigning against police repression, they sat on Police Liaison Committees, but ” It is the most vulgar whitewash. The police representatives are not representing the police and black representatives are not representing the black community. It is merely a cloak to cover up the continuing escalation of the struggle”.

But it’s also fair to say that one decade’s radical can easily be the next outbreak’s respected community leader, co-opted by the police or the Council to help pacify rebellious youth (the next generation…) Early 70s Brixton activists turned up as effective mouthpieces for the police in 1981.

Though repression had been a factor in the demise of Brixton’s Black Panthers, internal divisions had also played its part. Apart from the tensions between men and women (see above), some former Panthers pointed out that class divisions had always been present in the organisation. A number of the founders had been children of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, some of whom had come here a it older, to study; some of these did have a tendency to see themselves as an intellectual leadership, heading up a larger mainly working class membership. “It was started by these middle class children from the Commonwealth and they only came here to get a degree so that they could go back to get very god jobs in their country… So the Black Panther Movement wanted a revolution, but of course, we couldn’t do a revolution in this country… once we were educated and get to a level to understand the system, people wanted to go further, and those middle class children didn’t want to go any further, because they had their jobs to go back to, you know, they had their life cut out for them unlike us who were left here being a plumber, bricklayer, whatever… So they just said look, we don’t want this anymore, and they just went back to their posh position, in Jamaica, in Soto, in India… and that is why it dissolved.”

Tensions had grown up between leadership and membership, sometimes over what seems like disapproval and ‘morality’, attempts to control the behaviour of some of the members, over issues like sex: “you have to be very careful you do not become what you’re fighting against… They [the central committee] would summon people from the organisation who were kissing in the back of Shakespeare Road, and have them before the central committee and suspend them… The youth group, within the panthers, were always very hostile to the central committee…” Some of the core leaders left, partly in opposition to  ‘kangaroo courts’ of members for what seems like either sleeping with the wrong people, or of being too interested in sex.

According to another ex-member: “you know the idea of young people who are doing all the kind of grassroots work but you also had the leadership, they start to fight amongst themselves…”

Another factor was the pressure to increasing militancy. The glamour of the US Panthers, who had made a great play of going armed, wearing uniforms, posing with guns, in military formation and giving themselves grandiose titles, exercised a strong pull; understandable, perhaps, when back people were facing attacks and police repression (though the fate of the US Panthers,  large numbers of who were shot and killed, and hundreds jailed, would show that it is difficult to take on a highly organised and militarised state on its own terms in this way… not to speak of the elitist, macho and authoritarian dead end you can end up). “Some of the young people in the movement wanted to turn militant like the IRA… some of them wanted to wear berets and uniforms… they wanted to arm themselves with guns and raid places… A guy called Wesley… he got hold of two other guys who were on the fringes of the movement, they got hold of guns and they held up a Knightsbridge Spaghetti House on a Friday afternoon (wages day)…” After a six-day siege, with the three armed men (calling themselves the Black Liberation Army) inside, holding several hostages, they were forced to surrender and received long sentences (17, 18 and 21 years each). Allegedly the money they hoped to seize was intended for the setting up of a black school (at least one of the men had been involved in the panthers supplementary schools program.) The fallout from this event also helped to disillusion Panther Party members about the work they were doing.

With the collapse of the BPP, some ex-members allege both of the buildings owned by the party fell into the hands of leading members, in whose name it had been registered legally, who took personal control of it… “Two of the central committee people… we didn’t even know they’d bought houses where we had parties and changed it to their own names and they took it. They’re still renting one, the one in Shakespeare they sold.”

Many of the Race Today collective also went on to do very well for themselves – eg Farrukh Dhondy, even LKJ and Darcus Howe, became very successful cultural figures and/or pundits in themselves. Farrukh Dhondy also sees a consistent trajectory in the early 70s activism and later work inside the cultural establishment. Which is obviously debatable! Was there a difference between the path they took and that taken by some of the less prominent organisations around Brixton that grew up in the 70s? There’s a measure of truth in the accusation that black groups ‘took the man’s money’ and sold out – but another way of looking at it is that they survived into a harsher economic era, became stable, and used some of those state/GLC/local authority grants in ways that did enable lots of grassroots and radical projects to make more space and autonomy for people. If some grants did buy off radicalism and temper anti-council actions; others used that cash to carry on the struggles they were involved in., for as long as the money lasted.

A more pertinent question might also be; who got the money, who controlled the purse-strings? Class, self-confidence, the ability to work the system, knowing your way around the knotty corridors of funding applications, played a part in how certain groups and individuals ‘rose’ in those years. As did a certain amount of lefty back-scratching; witness the connections at grassroots between Labour activists, community activists, some black radicals and feminists, even squatters (or more accurately, a section of all these), in the early ’70s. Grassroots links in the early ’70s evolved into networks of power in 1980s/90s inside councils, the Labour Party, the charitable and NGO sectors…

Activists shared not only demos and meetings, but also a language, and often a perception of the world and how things worked. If moderation as you get older, or a more realpolitik approach, is somewhat inevitable, those connections can also help the right people find comfortable niches in the structures that they began by fighting… To some extent people see this as achieving something of the change they demanded (and in small ways this may even be true); but change sometimes means only change for YOURSELF. For those without the connections, much of daily life remains the same.

The moderation of aging, being convinced that compromise sometimes can allow you to do some good, the urge to get on, ambition for a cushier number, simply being tired of constant aggro or unpaid social work – the offers of what seem like useful positions on police consultative committees – many factors draw people from one side of a barricade to another. It happens gradually in most cases, people are often not aware of the shift in their own dynamic; though Race Today weren’t wrong to point out that some people are always out to rise on the backs of others.

Living on the frontline

The Black Panthers may have succumbed to police repression and internal tensions; but their militant and organised opposition to the police reflected, and itself, influenced, the culture that had grown up, a culture based in the street and the blues clubs of the Frontline; a culture of opposition to the repressive machinery of the state and largely of disregard to the traditions of employment and respect for the Law, work and ‘getting on’ in life.

As the economic recession hardened, young people of all colours increasingly saw less and less hope in ‘the system’_; for black people especially even the promise of dead end jobs vapourised. The strong street culture that the first West Indian migrants had recreated in the 50s grew and grew, until it became the dominant hallmark of the area – a constant to and fro of young blacks, hanging out, dealing, talking, playing heavy dub, smoking spliffs and drinking.

Increasing numbers of people hanging out on the streets increased the number of confrontations with the filth, who could be relied on not to be major fans of this type of streetlife. Each skirmish wound the tension up a notch.

There was the case of the Railton 4, arrested in Railton Road in June 1971, and brutally assaulted by the police; this provoked large pickets and street meetings in response.

On June 19th 1973, after the Brockwell Park Fair, a running fight broke out between 300 youths and the police. Cops had aggressively steamed through the fair “looking for a black youth who had stabbed someone in a Dulwich road chip shop”. An angry crowd gathered and it kicked off. In response, cops swarmed in from all over South London. Robin Sterling, Lloyd James and Horace Parkinson, were nicked at random, beaten in the copshop, charged with affray, Assault on Police, Possession of offensive weapons. They were found guilty in March 1974, and got three-year sentences. There was an  outcry; especially about Robin Sterling, who was only fifteen. While community leaders like Rudy Narayan and Courtney Laws launched appeals and mitigating pleas, a mass meeting of 70 schoolkids, very militant, aged 9-15, called by the Tulse Hill Students Collective (based around pupils at Tulse Hill School), organised a 1000-strong kids demo from Kennington Park past Camberwell Magistrates Court, through Brixton, past Tulse Hill School to Brockwell Park, and sparked a strike in several South London schools. The Tulse Hill Collective was influenced by the local Black Panthers; including the school’s most notable radical ex-pupil, local Dub poet, former Black Panther, member of the Race Today Collective  – Linton Kwesi Johnson… Other former Tulse Hill pupils include ’80s reggae legend, the Cockney Translator, Smiley Culture, deceased in 2011 in dubious circumstances while being arrested at his home in Surrey, and former Lambeth Councillor, GLC supremo and London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Robin Sterling of the Brockwell 3 was later freed on appeal.

Throughout 1974 there was battle after battle: hand to fighting at the Railton Youth Club, as the cops raided it; in September, at the Swan in Stockwell, cops stoned windows, then invaded the Swan Disco Club, resulting in a running battle. Seven young black people were nicked, charged with affray, assault on police, possession of offensive weapons. three were found guilty, four got off. A month later there was yet another bundle at Stockwell Tube: a group of black teens coming back from a disco at Caxton Hall were forced off the train by cops who then nicked youths at random, which led to a fight. They were charged with affray, possession of offensive weapons; nine were acquitted, one found guilty of possession of an offensive weapon.

During the 1975 SPG campaign in Lambeth, a pitched battle broke out, after cops beat up a fourteen-year old boy, leading to several arrests.  Police harassment of individuals regularly provoked reprisal. On Tuesday June 1st 1976: Mr Johnson, a 61-year old West Indian, was stopped by police after shopping at Railton Road Cash & Carry. They accused him of nicking the shopping. As he reached for his receipt they pushed him and jostled him; several passers-by intervened and were also assaulted and abused. This led to a confrontation as a crowd of a hundred black youth protested and police reinforcements poured into the area.

During August Bank Holiday 1978, a number of black youth setting off to Notting Hill Carnival were  assaulted and frisked by plainclothes cops, who neglected to introduce themselves before wading in.

In November 1978, the SPG nicked 10 kids on trumped up charges at Stockwell Manor School.

In response to all these events, a politically very moderate Council for Community Relations in Lambeth was set up, to try and bridge the gap between police and the black community. This attempt to shore up normality ended in farce, when in February 1979, the police even raided this Community Council’s office, and fitted up three members of its staff for the stabbing of two cops and a barman in a bar brawl several days before, on the basis that the three men wore sheepskin coats, as did a suspect in the incident. Case solved! As a result the embryonic Police-Liaison Committee collapsed, sparking a Lambeth Council Report into police-community relations. These were the days of the first Ted Knight administration: a leftwing Labour Party group, dominated by young energetic councillors who had emerged from the activist scenes of the 1960s and ’70s, had taken seized control of the Council. As a result, the Council was taking on a left aspect, funding and supporting black organisations, and being critical of the police forays into paramilitary head-cracking.

“Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said!”

On the 18th of January 1981, 13 young black people aged 15 to 20 were killed in a fire at a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road, in New Cross, Southeast London. The police initially stated that they believed the fire was caused by a firebomb, though they later backed away from this, instead targeting black kids present at the party. The fire was widely thought to be a racist attack, and that police were covering up evidence and dragging their feet in the investigation. Family members of the dead received abusive racist letters afterwards.

Black people were enraged at the lack of official action, or even  attention or recognition of the tragedy; politicians and worthies ignored the dead and the relatives. As the banners said: “Thirteen dead: Nothing Said”.

The following Sunday a mass meeting of 1000 people at the Pagnell Street Community Centre (formerly the Moonshot), a black youth centre in New Cross (often raided by police itself, in similar fashion to the SPG antics in Brixton) led to a demo to no 439, which blocked the A2, the main road out of Southeast London, for several hours. From weekly meetings of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, came the Black People’s Assembly, which organised the Black People’s Day of Action on Monday 2nd March 1981; 20,000 black people and supporters marched from nearby Fordham Park through Peckham, Elephant & Castle, across Blackfriars bridge and up through the West End to Hyde Park. There was some minor skirmishing; nothing especially unruly, but the press went ape, splashing headlines about ‘Blacks on the rampage’. The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

After the Day of Action, police operations in Brixton (as elsewhere in the capital) were stepped up. The police presence throughout March and early April ’81 was unusual. Even ‘respectable’ residents commented on it. In the first week of April, the police launched Operation Swamp ’81, timed for completion at the weekend. This was intended to foreshadow Operation Star, a London-wide production. Brixton had been chosen for the experimental run. Uniformed police officers were pulled out and sent in again in plain clothes. 943 people were stopped and questioned in the four days immediately prior to the riot, 118 nicked, 75 charged. The police claim that Brixton was chosen because it has high figures for street crime. But to young blacks in the area, the operation was a show of police strength – a boast (partly a response to the New Cross march) that no one but the Met would rule the streets.

It was obviously calculated that the people of Brixton would accept it. The boys in blue were winding things up to an unbearable pitch. At one youth club, the general view was put into words: “Retaliation MUST come soon, this is too much.”

The inevitable result was the April 1981 Brixton Riot.


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More Reading

This is an admittedly inadequate article, conceived as a chapter in past tense’s so far unfinished project on the past and present of rebellious and underground Brixton. It’s a work in progress, which was put aside in 2007, and is yet to be finished. A longer, more researched version is hopefully to appear in the near future, though we haven’t yet completely worked out in what form.

For now, people interested in reading more about police-community relations in this period, would benefit from looking up:

  • The Final Report of the Working Party Into Community/Police Relations in Lambeth, London Borough of Lambeth, January 1981. (A ‘Final Report’… produced 3 months before the April ’81 Riot…the irony!).

Periodicals

  • Race Today magazine, numerous issues.
  • The Leveller magazine.

Newspapers

  • South London Press.
  • Brixton’s Own Boss, a radical community newspaper in the 1970s.

Books

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, Trevor & Mike Phillips
  • Heart of the race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online here
  • A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance, A. Sivanandan.

Articles

  • Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain, The David Nicholls Memorial Lectures, No.2, 2000, Harry Goulbourne.
  • Writing our own History: Talking Personal, Talking Political (on history of the Brixton black Women’s Group), in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife no 19, 1990.

Today in London industrial history, 1975: Workers occupy Crosfield Electronics, Holloway

At clocking out time on March 6, 1975, 300 workers at Crosfields Electronics factory in Archway were told they were to be laid off as from that moment. Some, thinking there was no alternative, accepted the redundancy money. Others, however, decided not to take this kind of treatment and occupied part of the factory on March 26. They began a sit-in which they kept up, 24 hours a day, for the next two months.

Crosfield Electronics was a British electronics imaging company founded to produce process imaging devices for the print industry. The firm was notable for its innovation in colour drum scanning in its Scanatron (1959) and later Magnascan (1969) products.

Crosfields produced photo-scanning equipment for the print and newspaper industry, developing the first digital scanner for the printing industry in the mid 1970s. They had a factory at 766 Holloway Road, on the corner of Elthorne Road (possibly now where Whittington House is today?).

The company was bought in September 1974 by the De La Rue Group – a big multi-national company. The workers were assured there would be no redundancies, But De La Rue had decided to run down and close Holloway Road and transfer production to its Westward factory in Peterborough. The 300 redundancies might only be the first step in a gradual shutdown of De La Rue’s London Workings.

In March 1975, 300 employees at Crosfields Holloway plant were informed that they were to be made redundant in accordance with management’s decision to transfer production to the company’s factory at Peterborough.

On March 26th, some of the workers began a a sit-in with the intention of saving their jobs. The fitting-shop building which was to be imminently closed, was occupied. Workers from other parts of the factory assisted in barricading the building. Around 30-40 workers were involved, a mix of male and female employees. They occupied the whole workplace, some bringing their children into the factory during the occupation.

Many of the workers involved had previously experienced similar redundancy – some three, four or even five times.

1970s Britain saw a large wave of factory occupations by workers, as restructuring and decline caused massive upheaval, threats of closure and management attacks on wages and conditions.

The sit-in lasted 49 days.

These were far from the first jobs in North London lost in this way. 30,000 Jobs, for instance, were lost in Islington alone between 1966 and 1971. The government was offering subsidies to firms which moved development areas outside the capital, and there had been an enormous flight of industrial capital from London. At the same time there were few major developments in manufacturing in London, and no plans for any.

For many who lost skilled industrial jobs, they were unlikely to find new ones, and ended up seeking lower paid work in the service industries.

The attempt to close down production at the Holloway plant should be seen in context of two growing trends at the time: a shrinking of the UK manufacturing sector, partly as a result of restructuring and ‘rationalisation (notably after takeovers of smaller firms by larger, often transnational companies)  – and a particular move to close down factories in London and move production elsewhere, often to cut wages and costs.

There was a notable rising rate of redundancy in London, and new manufacturing industry was not opening up to replace pants that were closing. What happened to Crosfields’ workers illustrated vividly the fate of employees at many smaller firms which were subjected to ’rationalisation’ when incorporated into bigger companies by take-overs and mergers. Many workers were faced with the choice of redundancy or moving out of London to keep their jobs.

The question was asked at the time, Why was this plant being shut down? Was it because of economic difficulties? Was it because of lack of orders? Was it because of ’cash flow’ problems? Had Crosfields been a bad acquisition for De La Rue? Or was it because Crosfields had, over a period of time, become a highly organised factory, with high trade union membership…?

Lynne Segal and Alison Fell interviewed some of the twelve women involved in occupying Crosfields about their fight:

“How many women worked here?
— About 90, in the whole factory.
How many are here now?
—There’s only about 12 of us fighting it. Occupying. What were your exact jobs?
— We were classed as wirewomen – wiring is when you use a soldering iron and make up chassis.
Have many of the other women been able to get jobs?
— No, there’s very few of them working. I meet them outside walking around.
The ones who have got work, where have they got it?
— They’ve not got it in wiring, there’s nothing like that left in London, you have to go away outside.
Are you all from Islington?
—Well, I’m from Islington, most are Islington or area.
—One woman who left’s working in a cafe round the corner. She was a deputy supervisor —wages must have been £75 a week. She’s lucky if she’s getting £30 now. I wouldn’t let the governors see me come down in the world like that.
—Some are working in the hospitals and taking home less than £20. Some are charwomen.
Have any of the women moved to Peterborough?
—No, there were only about ten out of 300 offered jobs in Peter­ borough. That was a lot of rubbish, them saying it.
—Really they just weren’t interested, they just wanted to get rid of all this building.
You’d had a few fights here to get your wages up before the occupation, hadn’t you?
— We had good money here because we had a good union and they fought and got us good rates. I think we were the best paid factory for this area round here. And listen, we’d have been up to equal pay in April, because that’s when it was to start from. But you see they have got us out, they gave us redundancy in March.
When you first had notice of redundancy, what did you feel?
—Oh, it was terrible, terrible. That’s the reason why a lot of the women went, you know, they were getting harrassed, they were getting a bit pressurised to get out.
—I think there was a lot of confusion because you must remember this came right out of the blue, nobody was expecting it.
—At the end of the day, they got you into a meeting and then they sent the line managers to tell the workers they were going to be redundant because the factory was closing down. It was shocking. People cried.
Did you spend a long time casting round to think what to do?
—There was no time
—it was late on when we were told, everyone was clearing the shop. There was a bit of bribery if you went straight away.

—I believe a lot of the managers were getting bonuses to get the shop cleared quickly.
Did any of you have families who reckoned you shouldn’t fight it, that it was a losing battle?
— No – my husband asked me two questions; ‘Had you a good job there?’ I said I had a smashing job. He said, ‘Were you happy?’ I said I was happy in that job. He said, ‘Then it’s worth fighting for.
So get back there.’
What about problems with kids and childminding now?
—My children are at school.
—Mine are grown up.
—Those with younger children used to pay to have them minded, it used to come from the woman’s wage. Now they can’t afford it. They find it hard to get down here and hard to manage.
When some of you decided to stay and fight, did you feel isolated?
—No. It doesn’t worry us. They call us things. ‘Militants.’
—They were traitors to walk away, those who left. Because we all voted not to Accept redundancies.
Do you get criticised by neighbours and friends?
—Yes, I was called a militant.
—No, my personal friends say ‘I agree with you.’
What about the women who left?
— I don’t see them. Even if I see them, love, I don’t speak to them, I hold my head up high.
Some women must be really pleased you’re fighting, thinking about their own jobs?
—Aye, I think it’s good. I feel happy fighting it. I think I would have
been miserable if I’d walked away with my tail between my legs.
How long do you think you can hold out for?
—Don’t know. If it takes a year, a year and a half.
—You see, if you don’t fight to stop them taking the jobs out of
London, they keep doing it. So you have to do something to draw the line somewhere.
What are you surviving on economically?
—The union is giving us some. £5.
—When donations come round he gives us some money.
Why can’t you get the rest made up by Social Security?
—See, you can’t —before you get redundancy money you must lodge your cards with the Labour Exchange. The governors have put the stop around – even the married men can’t get any for their wives and children.
—Crosfields slipped the word down to the SS offices. So to anyone who comes along they say you must lodge your cards, you’ve got to take your redundancy slips to show that you’ve accepted redun­dancy —so that would mean your fight was finished.
How do you manage on £5 a week?
—When I was working I saved. We just have to use our savings. —We have to cut down too.
Do you think you’ve got stronger and more confident as women since you’ve been occupying?
—See, I wear trousers to work now. I feel I’m one of the boys now. —Aye, we’re all pals now. We’ve got a great friendship, that we never had when we were working, with the women and the fellows. We never spoke to anyone much before, just saw them.
How do you think this affects your husbands?
—My husband says he saw more of me when I was working, because we come here evenings now.
Who makes the tea and the meals?
—The women all do a bit. The women have been doing most of the cooking though. We’re always washing dishes and cleaning up.
—We’ve tried to get the men to do it too.
[During the occupation a large notice appeared on the wall, stating: ‘If you have some very good reason for not washing your cup, you may leave it here.’]
What do you see as exactly what you’re fighting for?
—Our jobs back. If I wanted redundancy money I’d have walked away at the beginning. We all want our jobs back, there’s plenty of work —I was in the middle of a job.
—I think it’s better to have your job than to be on the dole.
Will you all stay as long as the occupation lasts?
—Yes, we can’t back out now.
—We must stay till the end.
—And just think how these governors have been dirty, in a lot of ways. They’ve probably blacked us. 
What will you do if you finally get defeated?
—We don’t think of defeat, we’re hoping to win.
—We’re talking about a victory party —I’m going to buy a new
dress for that. Why not, I’m no defeatist.
—One man says to me why don’t you take your money and go? But we’re hoping to win.
(Spare Rib, no 37 (July, 1975), pp. 9-10., interview by Lynne Segal and Alison Fell)

The workers raised a weekly levy to supply food to those in occupation. The dispute was well supported by fellow trade unionists. Lorry drivers refused to cross picket lines. Electricians refused to disconnect the electricity supply.

Crosfields occupiers

Deputations to MP’s, ministers and councillors proved that these merely passed the buck from one to the other, and did nothing to help the occupiers save their jobs. The independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) had a meeting with the parties in April, but no agreement was reached. Instead, the police force were used to escort finished products out of the factory in the middle of the night, and social security benefit was denied to workers’ families. The firm launched tortuous legal processes to serve writs on those in occupation.

On May 5th the employers secured a High Court originating summons claiming possession under RSC Order 113. The Summons was heard on May 9th, just four days later. A Possession Order was granted to the company, delayed only slightly by an appeal on a question of law regarding the way the summonses had been served. However, the consummate legal servant of capital, Lord Denning, ruled that there was nothing wrong with the methods used.

De La Rue used the added leverage of threatening to sub-contract out its sheet metal production, laying off more Crosfields workers.

The Crosfields workers were faced with the agonising decision of whether to attempt to remain in defiance of the court order, or to cut their losses and leave. In the end, they decided on the latter, in the face of the strength of the state forces employed against them, and because of insufficient time to rally support from wider sections of the trade union movement.

After long negotiations, shop stewards finally put it to a factory meeting that morning, that the seven reinstatements and the increased redundancy pay offer they had wrung out of the management should be accepted. The vote carried it.

Lynne Segal and Alison Fell went back to find out what the women occupiers felt:

“—They agreed to take seven, all together, back – one wireman, an electrical inspector, one labourer, two wirewomen, a plumber. What about the new redundancy offer?
An extra £175 for every year worked. It’s all right for the people who’ve been here 10 or 15 years, not the others.
How do you feel about it all?
—It’s sad, we could cry.
—We’re all sad, because there are people who fought who won’t be getting any vacancies. The convenor’s not getting reinstated. It wasn’t money we were fighting for, it was our jobs.
Do you think it’s all been worthwhile?
—Yes! We put up a good fight. We nearly bankrupted him!

—We occupied this building for eight weeks — tell me how many could do that?
Do you think you’ll be out of work for a long time?
—Yes
—I’ll try one of these government re-training things for redundant women. Huh! Fourteen pounds a week.
Will you see each other again?
Of course we will. We’ve got all the names and addresses.”

While many factory occupations in the 1970s were successful, the sheer economic power of De La Rue robbed the workers of what security they had won – they lost the fight for their jobs. As Spare Rib put it: “Despite support from other sections of the factory and from the Labour movement locally, the odds were still completely unequal; De La Rue’s cynicism in all these doings was bulwarked by the profits and power of its status as a multi-national combine, and by the laws of the land. The workers were negotiating merely with their whole lives and futures.”

De la Rue was eventually taken over by Fujifilm Japan and named Fujifilm Electronic Imaging, now FFEI Ltd. following a management buy-out in 2008.

Today in London Black herstory, 1979: Organisation for Women of African & Asian Descent hold National Black Women’s Conference, Brixton

“Nearly 300 black women met together in Brixton on March 18 to take part in the first ever National Black Women’s Conference.

It was an historic occasion, both in that it was the first time that Asian, Caribbean and African sisters had got together in such numbers, and from so many different areas, to discuss the issues and campaigns concerning us; and in that it marked an important stage in the develop­ment of an autonomous black women’s movement here.

The conference was organised by the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), which was set up in February 1978 and hopes to develop into a national umbrella group made up of local black women’s groups and individuals who are active in anti- racist, feminist and community campaigns.

A number of talks were given, raising such issues as racism and sexism in immigration laws and education, the racist use of Depo- Provera, black women’s participation in campaigns against “SUS” (Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, which is widely used by police to harass and arrest black people, claiming that they are “persons sus­pected of loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence”);and “Sickle Cell”(an hereditary blood disease, suffered mainly by black people, and widely ignored by the NHS). We also discussed the establishment of black women’s refuges and supplementary schools. All those who attended, from the elderly black woman of 60 to the young black schoolgirl, played an active part in the day’s discussions.

In addition to the talks, poetry and short play, sisters had the opportunity during the breaks to buy books, posters and badges on black/feminist issues, to view the photo exhibition on black women in Britain, and to listen to progressive music by or about black women.

The atmosphere and concerns of the conference were recorded by OWAAD sisters, who filmed the entire day on video. We hope to have the film ready for hiring out to interested groups within the next few weeks. The talks given will also be available soon, in an illustrated pamphlet, and we plan to produce a regular newsletter.”
(Spare Rib,
June 1979)

On Sunday 18 March 1979, around 300 black women from all over Britain met at a conference at the Abeng Centre, in Brixton, South London. Attracting a variety of individuals, bringing together existing local black women’s groups and encouraging the formation of more, the conference is often hailed as marking the start of the Black Women’s Movement in Britain.

The conference was organised by the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), which had been formed a year earlier, with the aim of establishing an organisation that would unite smaller groups and individuals into a collective movement. Acting as a forum, OWAAD helped black women from come together to plan, discuss and issues concerning them in Britain , and organise support for liberation struggles across the world. OWAAD held another three conferences, produced a bi-monthly newsletter, FOWAAD, and was successful in mobilising women behind practical protests. Underpinning the women’s political organisation was the assertion of a collective identity as ‘black women’.

The organisation specifically united students from West Indian, African and Asian countries with women who had grown up as migrants or children of migrants in Britain. Experiences of racism and involvement in racial politics were important aspects in the political consciousness of many of those organising under OWAAD. In 1948, passenger liner Empire Windrush arrived in London carrying 492 Jamaicans, responding to the call of the 1948 Nationality act for citizens of the commonwealth to claim British citizenship and work for the ‘motherland’. Migration to Britain occurred mostly from the West Indies, India and Pakistan.

Although certainly not the first non-white population, migrant workers and their families became increasingly visible, contributing to the emergence of modern British race relations. Political movements sprang up to combat racism and inequality, and express emerging concepts of Black Power and black liberation. In parallel with this, black workers found themselves fighting to establish themselves both in the trade union movements (often themselves rife with racism) as well as fighting discrimination from employers. At the same time, the Women’s Liberation movement was also erupting, as women began to organise themselves against male supremacy.

The women who founded OWAAD found themselves facing oppression on various fronts – as women, as black people, many as workers – caught between the various movements, none of which adequately addressed their needs and desires. The black women’s movement evolved an intersectional approach to find their way forward.

OWAAD was formed in 1978 when women in the UK African Students Union initiated a meeting at Warwick University. Recognising growing numbers of black women organising locally, they discussed the formation of an organisation that would take a more national position. Those present were nearly all involved in black organisations and community groups. They asserted that as black women they faced a ‘triple oppression’, concerning their race, gender and class, and required their own organisations to fight on all three fronts.

One of the founding groups whose work contributed to the building of OWAAD, the Brixton Black Women’s Group, later wrote an account and analysis of OWAAD’s development, the problems that it faced and how it dealt with them, and its ultimate demise.
We reprint this below.

The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent

A critical look at the growth, contradictions and eventual demise of Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent in the late-1970s/early 1980s, as well as the lessons to be learnt from it, by members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), a now defunct group begun in 1978, sought to bring together Black women from a number of different backgrounds and political perspectives in Britain. It was an important chapter in the history of Black women organising.

OWAAD initially provided a national link between Black women in Britain. But the task of uniting so many diverse and differing elements, particularly in the absence of a fundamental grounding and appreciation of the concrete experiences of each particular grouping, proved too much. Its demise in 1982 was important however, because of the opportunity it presented to analyse and assess and hopefully to learn something about where we are as Black women organising.

Growth of OWAAD

In February 1978 African women who were becoming active in the African Student’s Union (UK) launched the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. These origins do not reveal the far-reaching implications of its birth and development It was not the first or the only Black Women’s organisation. In other areas African women, such as ZANU Women’s League were forming separate caucuses to their national liberation organisations. Black women resident or born in England were beginning to meet in study groups; still others had begun self-help groups like the Manchester Black Women’s Co-op[1]; others were spearheading the ‘Stop Sus’ campaigns. OWAAD performed a different function. It presented as a possibility a chance for Black women from all over England to meet with each other, share ideas and give help and support to what each were doing.

The guiding forces behind the first OWAAD meeting were women who had already been active in the few local groups there were. In the earliest months, African women students from Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea, for example, were prominent in the discussions about how best to organise a network federation of Black women. After a short while, women activists from the indigenous Black community became involved, and the proposal for a national Black Women’s conference was developed. As the organisation of the conference progressed, it soon became clear that the main thrust of the conference was to be the position of Black women in Britain.

Few of us expected the 250 women who turned up at the first conference. We in the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BWG) had made informal links with other women organising, but did not imagine there were so many ready and eager to begin to organise and articulate around the specific oppression of Black women. The conference discussed a wide range of issues around health education, the law and immigration; as we saw these to affect us. The women who came were greatly inspired and went away to form Black Women’s groups in their own communities in places like Hackney, east London, west London, Southall and others around the country.

With this growth, we realized the need for a newsletter to ensure links were maintained with women who were intensifying their activities in their communities. There were many important issues and campaigns that had to be fought. The newsletter FOWAAD was launched to ensure that women from OWAAD knew what other women were doing, and could be called upon to give practical support. An example of this was the protest over the use of virginity tests at ports of entry. As soon as we were alerted to the use of this offensive practice on Asian women, OWAAD organised a sit-in protest and picket at Heathrow Airport. This later culminated in a demonstration in central London against State harassment organised by women from AWAZ (Asian Women’s Movement) and Brixton Black Women’s Group.

In other cases, women from OWAAD gave support to women on strike (for example Futters[2]); women involved in education battles against sin-bins and expulsions; women fighting the Sus laws; and those facing deportation. OWAAD had all the energy and vibrancy that the Black Movement needed at that time.

By the end of the second conference of 1980, the organisation, which was becoming very large, had developed a structure which we had hoped would facilitate the widest participation by both groups and individuals. Committees responsible for the coordination of the different aspects of OWAAD’s work were set up. These were the newsletter, calendar and diary, media, and so on; each was then accountable to a large collective coordinating group, which was the final decision-making body. Ostensibly, there were no appointed leaders or spokeswomen.

Because the organisation was made up of groups, campaigns and individuals, leadership was exercised according to the demands of each situation. Between the second and third conferences, some contradictions started to surface. Some were structural, the umbrella structure proving unwieldy; others were centred around Black women’s sexuality; whilst still others dealt with the complexities of putting the political principles of Afro-Asian unity into practice.

By the third conference, these cracks in OWAAD presented themselves visibly as major rifts. Meanwhile, the internal contradictions of some local groups led to their demise. Moreover the third conference, held in 1981, coincided with the uprisings in the Black communities nationwide. Consequently, much energy, time and organisation was devoted to the coordination of legal and political defence campaigns. The urgency of the situation reinforced the drift away from involvement in women’s groups.

At the conference itself, the major points of friction were over sexuality and the general line of organisation. Both of these were political questions which it was impossible to discuss properly, let alone resolve, without any agreed political framework to guide the debate, and any necessary re-organisation. The impact of the breakdown of political consensus was particularly acute at this time. Consequently, OWAAD, as an organising body, was left with virtually nothing for the year. Attempts were made to draw the organisation together and to reconstitute the coordinating committee with the few groups and individuals that continued to attend meetings. The result was the fourth conference in 1982 which was inevitably a debacle. Few of the older founder members were left. Moreover, the theme of this conference – ‘Black Feminism’ – brought angry criticism from newer members, who did not understand the history behind the theme, and/or were ‘hostile to feminism’, and therefore saw its choice as a retrogressive step.

The failure both to discuss the differences and develop a way forward for OWAAD was illustrative of our inability to explain the historical trajectory of OWAAD and to integrate a feminist analysis into our practice, whilst retaining socialism as our major foundation stone.

Since then, several attempts have been made to revive OWAAD, but the organisation is in fact now dead.

Contradictions

The demise of OWAAD is very important because it exemplifies in specific terms, the general difficulties that Black women face when organising. In its very early history, an issue which appeared to us a relatively small, became crucially important, since it highlighted the way in which concrete political situations affect the specific kind of analysis developed by a group. The issue at hand was that of Afro-Caribbean and African unity. This became important in itself because, whilst we all recognized such unity as an objective reality, we were unprepared to deal with the kinds of differences between us, which resulted from our concrete experiences.

At one level, such differences of approach revolved around the form of struggle we could wage. There were sisters from the African continent who were involved in liberation struggles there, which they wanted us to focus on. On the other hand, those of us from the indigenous Black community saw the need to integrate these issues into our overall work. We were also concerned to keep a focus on Black political struggle in Britain and the Americas. How could we all come under one banner? How could our primary fight against racism and sexism be reconciled with our African sisters’ fight?

Differences over emphasis raised analytical questions such as the place of Black Consciousness[3] in situations outside Europe, the Americas and apartheid States. What we were beginning to learn very quickly, was that the concept ‘black’, had very different meanings for those of us living in white-dominated societies and regions, compared to those of us from societies which were ostensibly independent. Whilst all of us were dominated by imperialism, the manifestations of this domination were obviously very different in the two types of situations. In our attempt to develop a political analysis and practice which recognized the anti-imperialist base of all our struggles, we had failed to take account of the subjective impact of specific situations and their practical implications. Thus, the fact that our aims and objectives were all-embracing, might have avoided rather than confronted the problem.

Paradoxically, it was the recognition that we had to be more specific on our platform, coupled with the involvement of even more local women, that led to our concentrating on Black women’s lives in Britain, that a second, but related, contradiction emerged.

In focussing on Britain, it became clear that an organisation of African and Afro-Caribbean sisters could not take up the issue of racism without responding to the questions being raised by Asian sisters. The aims and objectives were seemingly contradictory, even when applied to the British situation. In one sense, we were all-embracing, but in another, more practical, way we had not widened our base consciously to include all of those who could and should be involved.

It was not until the Winter of 1978 that OWAAD became the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent. Perhaps it was because the issue of Afro-Asian unity had not been there from the beginning that it was problematic. More fundamentally, perhaps, it was problematic because our political line, whilst basically correct, was still unable fully to realize itself in our practice. Just as our practical focus had led to the de facto exclusion of African sisters, so too was our line to prove unable adequately to deal with cultural differences within the indigenous Black community. There seemed to be a fear that recognizing such differences between us would lead to a breakdown or denial of the objective unity which contemporary British racism and historical colonialism imposed on us. Thus, when some sisters raised the cultural aspects, differences between us were seen by others as divisive.

Consequently, the unwitting exclusivity of OWAAD’s focus, which resulted from the numerical strength of Caribbean sisters in the organisation, became symbolic of our inability to grasp the fact that recognition of cultural differences can be a political strength which helps us to transcend the divisions which our colonial and neocolonial masters (and mistresses) and their agents attempted to foist on us.

Sexuality

Another issue that played a major part in exposing our differences was that of sexuality – the questions of our relationships with men, with other women and society at large. From the first conference there had been questions asked about the absence of a debate on sexuality. We who had been founder members of OWAAD attempted to defend ourselves, and thereby deflect the criticism, by showing how we had attempted to widen the definition of Black women’s sexuality by relating it to the way in which imperialism structured women’s lives.

Our argument was that imperialist relations structured and determined not only our role in production – in factory and field – but that these relations also determined the emotional, sexual and psychological aspects of Black women’s lives. Consequently, we could only understand our sexuality in terms of the interplay between, on the one hand, class and race relations, and on the other, those relations between men and women. It was inevitable, therefore, that the specificity of our social, psychological and emotional dependence on men would lead to a different kind of feminism from that of white, European women. The struggle for a new and self-defined sexuality was therefore part of the anti-imperialist struggle, since such self-definition, centred around the nexus of relations of production and relations of gender, involved a challenge to both our traditional cultures and cultural imperialism.

The potentially explosive issue of sexuality was now taken out of the realm of sexual activity or sexual preference, and into the wider more ‘politically respectable’ terrain of gender relations.

This was, however, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many of us felt (and still feel) that this was a positive development for two reasons. Firstly, we felt that we had begun to place gender relations and women’s oppression onto the political agenda of black organisations. This was certainly a progressive step since, as feminists, we knew that revolutionary analysis and practice had to address itself to the fact of women’s oppression and particularly, to the structures and processes which reproduced the conditions of that oppression. Secondly, we also felt that a full understanding of women’s sexuality could only be gained in relation to, and as an aspect of, the total complex of social relations of class, race and sex. Such an approach could keep us from falling into the trap of making sexual orientation the basis of organising, or the basis of divisions between us. On the other hand, however, this approach served as a guise NOT to discuss the construction of sexual orientation (rather than sexuality in its broadest sense) at all. We thereby rendered sexual preference to the realm of the ‘private’, even though our argument was that ALL aspects of life were social. There was, therefore, an inconsistency in our approach.

The fact of the matter was that we were unsure how to deal with an issue that, more than anything else, showed the weaknesses which became exposed when oppressed women try to organise around both the ‘traditional’ areas of struggle and those issues specific to our oppression as a sex. Stated bluntly, we became the unwitting victims of our own and our communities’ ‘homophobia’.

It was felt that sexual activity, as it came to the fore, was too sensitive to be discussed publicly. The question was constantly posed as to how could we ‘waste time’ discussing lesbianism, heterosexuality and bisexuality when there were so many more pressing issues. It was, besides, a weapon the brother could use against us, as supposedly illustrative of our lack of seriousness. Political men who had witnessed the disintegration of the Black movement and felt threatened by a vibrant Black women’s movement could, and did, use it against us. Perhaps the favourite and most effective line of attack against Black women organising has been, and still is, that we are all ‘frustrated lesbians’. And Black ones at that! A charge which was effective in the sense of undermining our sense of legitimacy, since it nurtured either our own belief that such issues were irrelevant, or our lack of confidence in raising these issues at a political level. Moreover, the irony in this situation was that it was supremely illustrative of the dependence on men, which we argued was a part of women’s sexuality and oppression.

Another popular way of undermining Black women organising consisted of accusations about ‘dominant, middle class bourgeois women’, who are isolated from the ‘woman on the streets’. We succumbed and continue to succumb to the fraudulent and divisive analysis that ‘women on the streets’ could not discuss, articulate and somehow begin to fight their oppression. The argument goes that because we are organised, we are no longer ‘typical’ of Black women; and therefore, the campaigns and issues we take up are misguided. This was based on the assumption that we are middle class because we are all supposedly the recipients of higher education. It would be facile to attempt to refute this notion by giving a head count of how many of us had done so. But two points do need to be made. Firstly, since when were we in the business of attacking Black people for gaining access to higher education. It seems somewhat contradictory to accuse us of selling out or being irrelevant when some of those same people are actively engaged in the struggle to ensure that Black children ‘achieve’ in the education system. Secondly, since when did access to education and the fact that we may occupy ‘middle-class’ jobs automatically lead to petty-bourgeois politics. Our opponents are guilty of conflating two issues in the attempt to absolve themselves of the responsibility to challenge women’s oppression. But at the time these kinds of attacks seriously undermined the early unity of OWAAD.

At a practical level, events such as the uprisings[4] had an enormous effect on many women. Black women took a leading role in some defence campaigns. Women were arrested and involved on the streets. Many had fathers, brothers and lovers who were arrested, while others had to contend with their homes being broken into and destroyed in the aftermath. Despite this, the input of women – as women – somehow became marginalized. Part of the reason for this was that when women became involved in defence campaigns, we could not devote the time to our own women’s groups, and many felt they should not. Consequently, the strength we gained from our women’s groups, did not play the major role it should have done. Why was this and what input should we have made?

What these developments pointed to was some uncertainty about what we were struggling for – or more correctly, what our priorities were. Overt feminism, that is, raising the question of women’s specific oppression, seemed sometimes inconsequential, eclipsed by the larger Black struggle. These ideas went back to the heyday of the Black movement, when it was felt that women’s issues or ‘the woman question’ was a secondary matter that could divide the struggle.

One other difficulty that OWAAD highlighted was the internal weakness in our organisations and groups. Many of us had rejected the male idea of leadership through the totem pole. The backward idea that had existed in the Black movement was that leaders were singularly the baddest, toughest towards their own comrades; and that leadership was the prize after a cockfight. What could we put in its place that was less destructive and individualistic?

OWAAD provided the alternative of co-operative organisation without positions of leadership to be fought over. Working through committees provided women in OWAAD with the supportive ground to develop their political consciousness. However, it left too much space for dissension – for political shifts from the anti-imperialist base. It was open for any small group to attempt to take over the organisation and try to move it in a different direction.

The problems highlighted here seem large. It might cause some to wonder how OWAAD lasted so long, and how Black women are still able to organise. It is clearly because the problems of women organising are not insurmountable; and we still need to form strong organisations. We should, however, learn some lessons from the demise of OWAAD.

Lessons

The first of these involves the need to develop political unity without minimizing the differences between us as Black women, whether these be of a cultural or tactical nature. Such differences have come about as a result of the different colonizing influences we have experienced. These need not and should not continue to be viewed in a negative way, but rather accepted and made use of, so long as there is no major difference in ideological perspective.

The oppression we have suffered (and continue to suffer) as Black women, whether in Britain, the Americas or Africa, serves to keep us divided, but this oppression must also be the objective basis of our unity. We must learn to appreciate our different cultures, understand our different experiences and distinguish between these differences and objective political differences. It is from this perspective that we can then attack the various forms of oppression which divide us. Only in this way can we facilitate our continued growth as Black women and thus be in a better position to react against the source and substance of our oppression in a strong, informed and concerted fashion.

Another important lesson to be learned from OWAAD’s demise must be the acceptance that we must continue to stress the importance of keeping the question of gender relationships on centre stage. This will inevitably involve an understanding of the relationship between sexuality and women’s oppression; but the traditional resistance amongst the Black community to such an examination, must not prevent us from publicly declaring the need to look at the construction of sexuality; and to publicly support lesbian women.

Similarly, our focus on gender relations is the only way in which we can ensure that the question of Black women’s oppression is not relegated to a secondary level of political consideration. As Black socialist feminists, it is incumbent upon us to point out that women’s oppression is inextricably bound up with the issues of race and class; and that it is right and necessary to tackle all three simultaneously, and with equal determination.

However, having declared the inextricable links between sex, race and class, we have the responsibility to carry through the political arguments with regard to feminism. This means that the thrust of our work will have two strands. On the one hand, we will continue to organise autonomously and address the issues we face as Black women. On the other, we must bring a feminist perspective to the work of our comrades in mixed, progressive Black organisations. In this way, we will be raising the consciousness of the Black community within the context of the totality of Black socialist politics.

Brixton Black Women’s Centre (BWC) is at 41 Stockwell Green, SW9. The BWC aims to give help and support to Black women in the community. We do this by: providing a welfare rights information and referral service; participating in a health group; providing meeting facilities; holding open days on themes reflecting Black women’s lives and struggles; having a small but growing library; running children’s projects at Easter and summer holidays.

In the near future we intend to develop a craft centre; a girls’ project; a film group; regular women’s socials; relaxation sessions. If you have any ideas and/or want to participate come and join us. For further information, phone 01-274-9220.

Originally published in Feminist Review, No. 17, 1984.

Notes

1 – Manchester Black Women’s Co-op: Set up in the late 1970s, by “the late Ada Phillips, Kath Locke and Olive Morris who was at that time a student at Manchester University and a founder member of The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). […]”. It maintained a political and campaigning outlook as well as doing practical work, and reformed itself as Abasindi Housing Co-op a few years later:

“The Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative] was established to create a self-help educational programme within the community geared especially to the needs of young mothers. From this basis of concern there developed an office skills training programme and opportunities for young people to become involved with various community based initiatives. In turn, this situation exposed the author and other young women to a range of political actions on behalf of the community.

During 1979 the members of the Black Women’s Co-operative undertook a lengthy and critical review of the organisation’s achievements and developments. The women concluded that in spite of some of the activities, the project was not as effective as it should be in significantly involving black women in the development of their community. Hence the need to widen the Co-operative’s activities and areas of interest. Furthermore, it was agreed that the group should show itself to be both autonomous and self-determining.

With these objectives in mind, the membership decided to reform as Abasindi. On the 1st January 1980, Kath Locke, Duduzile Lethlaku, Yvonne Hypolite, Maria Noble, Popgee Manderson, Madge Gordon, Abena Braithwaite, Shirley Inniss, and the author were among the local women who founded the Abasindi Women’s Co-op. Two of the women were born in this country of English and Nigerian parentage and the others were from Barbados, Trinidad, Aruba, South Africa and Jamaica. For a number of years, Abasindi was based in the Moss Side People’s Centre, formerly St. Mary’s Primary school and now the site of a privately run children’s nursery. The People’s Centre at that time also housed a number of community groups including the Moss Side Adventure Playgroup, The Family Advice Centre and a project for young people. Approximately one year after Abasindi was formed, Moss Side’s reputation as an inner city area with particular social problems was the subject of much media attention. This was in 1981 when alongside cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, London and Liverpool; it became the site of four days of social disturbance.”

2 – Futters: South Asian women went on strike in 1979 at a Harlesden factory, Futters, a family owned light engineering firm that was only a couple of miles from Grunwicks; the dispute was in protest at low wages, poor working conditions, inadequate toilet facilities and victimisation of union activists.

3 – Black Consciousness: Originally the Black Consciousness Movement developed in apartheid-era South Africa as a radical black movement opposing apartheid, which rejected the idea of garnering white liberal opinion and support, and determined to develop a black-led autonomous political rebellion against not just apartheid, but ‘white values’. The Black Consciousness Movement helped bring cohesiveness and solidarity to the black anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, despite itself being banned and repressed, and the murder of its leader Steve Biko by SA police in 1977.
The BCM were both influenced by and had influence on black power movements in the US and beyond, and the term ‘black consciousness’ is used in the text here in a wider sense, to clearly mean a set of ideas centering black experience and black action to free themselves from oppression, rather than any reliance on winning white approval or courting whites to change things on their behalf.

4 – ‘The uprisings’: known in the more mainstream media as the 1981 riots that broke out around the UK in Spring-Summer 1981, beginning in Brixton in April, many provoked by police violence and racism.

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More reading

Material relating to OWAAD has been well preserved at the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton: a collection of organisational papers was given to the archive by a founding member, Stella Dadzie.

‘The Heart of the Race’, a classic book, containing testimonies of women involved in the 1970s UK Black Women’s Movement and OWAAD, has recently been re-published.

Amrit Wilson, Finding a Voice: struggles of South Asian women

Bethany Warner’s dissertation, The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent: constructing a collective identity’ is also well worth a read.

Here’s a brief film discussing OWAAD’s campaigns

 

 

Spotlight on London’s historical anarchist spaces: Centro Iberico

Centro Ibérico was an important meeting space and community centre, run by anarchists in London through the 1970s and early 1980s. It became a focal point for an international class struggle based anarchist movement, and an organising centre for supporting anarchist and other political prisoners through the Anarchist Black Cross.

The origins of the Centro as an anarchist space can be traced to a meeting between Miguel Garcia Garcia and Stuart Christie in a Spanish prison…

“My first meeting with Miguel García García took place in the mid-1960s in la primera galleria of Madrid’s Carabanchel Prison. He was in transit to another penitentiary and was in what was known as ‘periodo’ – a fortnight of sanitary isolation, ostensibly to prevent or limit the spread of disease. I was the practice nurse (practicante) for the 7th Gallery, a position that gave me the run of most of the prison and allowed me to liaise with comrades in different wings, especially
with isolated transit prisoners or prisoners in solitary confinement.
Miguel passed through Carabanchel on a number of occasions over the years, going backwards and forwards between penitentiaries and Yeserias, Spain’s main prison hospital in Madrid.

Miguel and I struck up a close relationship, one that was to endure for a decade and a half until his death in 1981. What particularly impressed me about him on our first meeting was his undoubted strength of character — forged by his experiences in the Resistance as an urban
guerrilla and ‘falsificador’, and in Franco’s prisons — and the extraordinary quality of his spoken English, a language he had acquired entirely from English-speaking prisoners. No other political prisoners I came across during my three years imprisonment in Franco’s jails had
Miguel’s mastery of language, or his skills as a communicator. Our conversations centred on how to expose the repressive nature of the Francoist regime and raise the profile of Franco’s political prisoners in the international media, something I was in a position to do given my
relatively privileged position as a foreign political prisoner and the access I had to the outside world through my by then extensive network of friendly functionaries in Carabanchel itself.
In 1967, following receipt of a personal pardon from Franco, I was released from prison and, on my return to Great Britain, I became involved with the resuscitated Anarchist Black Cross, an anarchist prisoners’ aid organisation. The focus of our activities was international, but Franco’s prisoners were, naturally, because of my history and the continuing and intensifying repression in Spain, top of our agenda. The case of Miguel Garcia Garcia, one of the Anarchist Black
Cross’s most prominent correspondents, was one that we regularly pursued with the international press and through diplomatic channels.

Released in 1969, after serving twenty years of a thirty-year sentence (commuted from death), Miguel came to live with me in London. It took him a little time to acclimatise to the profound social and technological changes that had taken place in the world since his arrest as a young man in the Barcelona of 1949, changes that were even more profound in the ‘tolerant’ and ‘permissive’ London society of 1969. In fact, so great was the trauma that he literally was unable to speak for some months. The shock of his release had triggered a paralysis in some
of the muscles in his throat, and, through Octavio Alberola, then living under effective house arrest in Liege, we arranged for him to see a consultant in Belgium about his condition.

The time with Octavio was well-spent and brought him up-to-date with what was happening within the European movement and the role of the International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement, which operated under the banner of the Grupo Primero de Mayo, a continuation of the clandestine anarchist Defensa Interior (DI), which had been tasked with the assassination of Franco.
The First of May Group had recently emerged from the sabotaged (by Germinal Esgleas and Vicente Llansola) ruins of Defensa Interior (DI) as an international, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist revolutionary organisation, structured to carry out spectacular direct actions. It
took its name from the first operation carried out on 1 May 1966 when members of the group kidnapped the ecclesiastic adviser to the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, Monsignor Marcos Ussia. Soon the group began taking in a much broader area of attack targeting, in particular, the US and European governments for their complicity in the imperialist war in Vietnam.

Back in London, mainly with the moral and financial support of comrade Albert Meltzer, my co-editor of Black Flag and the driving force behind the revived Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), Miguel entered into a dynamic new phase of his life as the International Secretary of the ABC and a pivotal figure in the libertarian resistance to the Franco regime. With Albert he embarked on lengthy speaking tours of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, West and East Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark and Italy, talking to a new generation of radicalised young Europeans about anarchism, international solidarity and, of course, the need to confront tyranny with practical cooperation and direct action.

It could be said that the result of one of Miguel’s early talks — in a crowded meeting room at the offices of Freedom Press in London’s Whitechapel High Street in February 1970, shortly after his arrival in Britain — was to give rise to the so-called Angry Brigade, Britain’s first urban guerrilla group. Miguel’s voice was still weak so I had to do much of the talking for him, but as the evening wore on and the story of his adventures and deprivations at the hands of the Francoist authorities unfolded, that and the fact that his revolutionary spirit and determination remained clearly undiminished, it was clear he had made a deep emotional impression on the fifty or so young people in the audience. Here, in front of them, in person, was someone who had been in direct confrontation with a fascist state, who had been totally involved in resistance struggles, and who had paid a heavy penalty. Nor was it a purely historical struggle. Franco remained in power and a new internationally coordinated anarchist action group, the First of May Group, was carrying on that struggle.

At Freedom Press that February night in 1970, the significance, the importance of the First of May Group, and the tradition it — and Miguel — sprang from, was not lost on the people crammed into the small room to hear Miguel Garcia’s story. Among those present were some of the core activists later convicted in the historic ‘Angry Brigade’ trial: John Barker, Hilary Creek, Jim Greenfield and Anna Mendelson.

Miguel’s flat in Upper Tollington Park, near North London’s Finsbury Park, soon drew visiting anarchists from all over the world. It also began to attract police attention once Miguel launched (with Albert’s help) the Centro Ibérico and International Libertarian Centre in London…”
(Remembering Miguel Garcia by Stuart Christie)

Around the time Miguel Garcia came to London, a group of Spanish Communists, who had been running a meeting place in a parish church hall in Holborn, styling it the Centro Ibérico, moved out to bigger premises and changed the name (According to Luis Monferrer Catalán the space they set up was the Centro Machado in 1968 in Notting Hill Gate).

Miguel started a new Centro Ibérico from the church hall, the Parish Hall of Holy Trinity, Kingsway (directly opposite Holborn station) and also launched an International Libertarian Centre, “a cosmopolitan venue that became a magnet for anarchists everywhere; it
had been many years since there was such a thing as an international anarchist club in London, and its success was entirely due to Miguel’s powerful personality… it was an added bonus that we retained the old connections with visiting Spanish workers that the CP had carefully built up…” (Stuart)

“I warned him about the problems of serving drink there, pointing out the acting minister was Dr Donald Soper, famously an advocate of total abstention. He belonged to the neighbouring Methodist centre and was standing in for the Anglican vicar, who had the usual small
congregation. Miguel assured me, “I know priests. You don’t have to tell me, a Spaniard, about these holy fathers, as they call themselves. I will offer him a glass of wine and he will agree to everything”.
Fortunately Dr Soper never came to the hall while we were there, possibly having other things to do on a Sunday, so this interesting theory was never tested.
The last of Spain’s exiled confederal families gathered there. They had made themselves quite an interesting community in London, keeping together like an extended family. The majority had settled around Portobello Road, Notting Hill, where the original CNT-MLE offices had been, though with the growth of families they extended to the suburbs.
The “Centro” was able to put them in touch with a new generation arising in Spain and with Resistance activists, but the ghost of the years of ossified bureaucracy and passivism had not finally been laid, here or elsewhere.
The hall became popular with the Spanish community generally, resident and visiting, and Miguel made them so much at home that we had to have two halls, one Spanish-speaking and the other a babble of tongues. The Spanish accepted the fact that it was an anarchist centre, even those who had grown up under Franco who tried to obliterate the memory of anarchism and the Basque and Catalan tongues. It would have made [Franco] sick to hear anarchism expounded not only in English and German, which he wouldn’t have minded on the grounds they deserved it for permitting heresy, but in Castilian, Catalan, Basque and even Galician, the
language of his native province which, incidentally, he hated most of all.”

Visiting speakers included Jose Peirats, the historian of Spanish anarchism, author of The CNT in the Spanish Revolution who gave a lecture in June 1971 in the parish hall to 200 people: “The libertarian [movement] was well represented (some 150 or so of those present) ranging from exiles of thirty years – and their children and grandchildren – to immigrant workers and students, visitors on a temporary basis and new exiles. The rest of the 200 included some communist critics.”
(Black Flag, v.2, n.6, June 1971)

“Before long we were having separate meetings for gallego (Galician) speakers. When it was proposed, I remember telling them in my usual rambling way about Lloyd George at the Versailles conference who had read, or glanced at, a scientific article asserting the Galicians
were the same people as the Welsh. He opposed the retaining of Galicia by Austria saying he objected to “his Welsh people” being under the domination of “Huns” not realising Galicia in Spain was not Galicia in Austria/Poland. An American woman who happened to be present told me afterwards that her parents had fled from Roznow (in the other Galicia) and Lloyd George’s mistake ruined thousands of lives when Poland took over from Austria, which made the anecdote less amusing.
Another casual visitor wanted to know more about the Angry Brigade, almost as soon as that expression was heard. It was hard to answer his questions, even if I hadn’t suspected he was a police agent. Like many of an authoritarian frame of mind, he thought it a centrally directed
conspiracy, and that I was a sort of PRO to its Central Committee. He actually used terms like “political wing of your armed struggle”. Miguel said to me in Spanish, “Ask yourself. Who would want to know so much?”
The visitor reddened and I suppose he understood. Would a spy have blushed? But he never commented. It didn’t matter because all I knew and had to say was already expressed
in the pages of Black Flag, and occasionally picked up by the mainstream press. From the tenor of his questions the inquisitive visitor sounded more to me like an emissary from the IRA or Sinn Fein trying to pick up allies — the “troubles” were just re-re-starting. When he did refer to Ireland he referred to the danger of fascism, and the Nazi-clerico-fascist groupings in what he called the Free State (an expression only used by diehard Republicans or diehard Tories, neither of whom recognised the legitimacy of the Republic). According to him, only our co-operation with nationalism in the North could prevent the spread of fascist nationalism. I didn’t agree with Miguel that we were dealing with a police spy or agent-provocateur but the political
argument sounded dodgy.
Another not particularly welcome guest was a young German who came just as I arrived, from working late on Sunday, to help with the sweeping-up after the meeting and who, between discarding his cigarette ends on the floor while I was doing it, raved at me for my alleged support of the Baader-Meinhof ‘Gang’ of which he knew only the reported press garbage.
At first patiently (for me anyway) I told him he failed to understand the clash between anarchists and Leninists that was going on in Germany.
(“But I am a German, of course I know what is happening in my time” — “I bet your father never said that ” — “Ah, you are a racialist”). Somewhat hot and impatient with clearing up his dog-ends after a day’s work and answering tired old pacifist cliches I finally shouted “Piss off” and
chased him out. Ted Kavanagh commented drily that it was a very witty reply and restored my good humour, but the outraged student went away to denounce me in a pacifist paper as a “middle-aged, middle-class man who only believes in violence”. To be considered “middle-class” by an earnest student when you’re pushing a broom after him would excuse a
belief in violence, even if it left one or two more besides.
On the other hand there were so many wonderful people who came along that it would be impossible to try to mention them all. I felt proud to have gained so much respect and affection which more than compensated for the hatred I seemed to generate from those outside of the movement and class for which we fought.
Amongst the activists were some Irish Anarchists trying to build up a class struggle movement in Ireland and get away from the old routine of workers in the North fighting each other for the slums and routine jobs, and in the South yielding to apathy. They did great work for the Black
Cross for prisoners abroad, but soon after brought down on their heads the full vindictiveness of the Republic for daring to try to break the mould of Irish politics.” (Albert Meltzer, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels)

The Anarchist Black Cross had been set up in London in the late 1960s, by Stuart and Albert, to offer practical support for the many anarchist comrades who had been arrested in Spain, resisting the Franco regime; usually charged with “banditry and terrorism”. Groups like Amnesty International would not support these activists as they were engaged in active ‘violent’ class struggle, and Amnesty’s policy was, and generally remains, to decline to defend those accused of crimes of violence, whether they committed them or not. This meant they defended those innocent of fighting the State and only those victimised for their innocuous beliefs were helped. This included editors and publishers, scientists and philosophers, but never workers. The
Communist Party raised large amounts for their own members through various front organisations but the resistance, certainly in Spain, was out in the cold.
The Black Cross publicised the cases of Spanish anarchist prisoners, and supported them and their families financially; later, its activities spread around the world, and ABC groups sprang up all over the place over the next 40 years… It continues today.

In July 1972, Black Flag reported “Over the last four weekends we have met comrades from France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Canada, U.S.A., Jamaica, Australia, South Africa and even some from London… We are doing our best to transform the Centro Iberico meetings into an international centre which will have its own premises… also a place where, separately, Spanish immigrant workers can meet.”

Haverstock Hill

Albert Meltzer, striking a pose in the Centro 1976.

In June 1973, the above desire for their own premises was made concrete: the Centro Ibérico moved to a large basement, at 83a Haverstock Hill, near Chalk Farm, Camden. To this important space came many extraordinary people, including survivors from innumerable political upheavals.

“… The printing press [on which Black Flag and other anarchist material was printed] was used by Ted Kavanagh and Anna Blume in a huge basement at Haverstock Hill, [after the demise of the Wooden Shoe bookshop], which otherwise was the rehearsal room of a pop group. The
group were on a weekly rent from the bookmaker’s shop above, replacing a religious youth group (from a neighbouring church or synagogue, I do not know which). Their leader/parson/rabbi or whoever was concerned had leased it from the shop above when it was a greengrocer’s and the basement was virtually uninhabitable. They repaired it well but when the shop changed hands to become a bookmaker’s the guru opposed both change
of user and the betting licence. As Mammon won, they either went or were evicted and the pop group took over. After a year or so it found itself no longer in harmony with the scene and Ted was left on his own.
Without notifying the landlord of change of plan and letting him think it was still the same pop group (he never appeared), we made it into the new International Libertarian Centre/Centro Ibérico, an anarchist club to which came wonderful young people from all over the world as well as survivors from innumerable political upheavals….” (Albert Meltzer)

Social gatherings were held on Saturdays and Sundays. Veteran anarchist insurrectionary, artist and performer John Olday launched a regular cabaret night: “John Olday’s Anarchist Cabaret opened with a swing at the International Libertarian Centre with three performers putting over a strong political cabaret act – with strong overtones of Berlin of the twenties – supported by others; with added support in the next cabaret a fortnight later (they are taking place alternate Saturdays). Still in its early stages and bearing marks of improvisation, the political comment in song is making its impact and despite some weaknesses may develop into the nucleus of what we hope will be Anarchist Theatre…” (Black Flag v.3, n.9 [March] 1974)

Emilienne Morin and her daughter Colette Durruti, 1973.

Visitors included the Spanish militant and historian José Peirats, and Emilienne Durruti, partner of Buenaventura Durruti. Another regular at the Centro Ibérico was ETA leader Pedro Ignacio Pérez Beotegui, also known as ‘Wilson’, who was involved in the planning of the December 1973 assassination of Franco’s protégé and deputy, prime Minister Carrero Blanco.

“When the centre had established contacts in Spain, one of the most pressing demands upon it was for contraceptive fitting or abortion. It was illegal in Spain, and pregnancy for unmarried girls was a disaster. As soon as the sexually liberated got in touch with an organisation
fighting oppression, that was the first thing they asked of it. We had to accede to the demands of a steady trickle of young women who turned up at the door, with the fee for an operation and the return fare, nothing more. They never realised they had also to pay a doctor’s
fee, nor had they reckoned on the extra few days’ stay required. It became a standard requirement for the Centre to find a room, and raise the extra fee, and it was embarrassing for me that I always needed to take them by car and arrange matters with the clinic. The receptionist never said anything, but I wonder what she thought seeing me coming in
week after week with a different senorita.
At one time Miguel approached a socialist feminist group to see if they would co-operate, as they had many resources we lacked, as well as access to funding. They were most hostile. They claimed we were encouraging private medicine. I do not know if they expected the young
women to wait until Spain had a National Health Service, defiant of the Catholic Church into the bargain, but it would have taken a lot more than nine months, and the penalties they faced for motherhood were severe.”

Miguel Garcia was the heart of Centro Ibérico; according to Stuart Christie the Haverstock Hill space was “entirely [Miguel’s] creation and he spent his whole time nurturing it, cutting himself off from any paid employment, even though he was well past what should have been retiring age anyway.
Through Albert, however, he did extract a small pension from the British government.”

Albert Meltzer chatting in the Centro, 1975.

[Miguel] had a way of making you think that. He turned the basement into an internationally
known place to go if you needed help in London; somewhere to find a welcome, food, a bed for the night, or a place to squat. He also brought people together from all over the world, becoming the birthplace for many affinity groups that were active in Central and South America, and Europe.
In 1970-71 Albert was working in Fleet Street as a telephone reporter/copy-taker for The Daily Sketch, a right-wing British national tabloid newspaper, and after much discussion and argument — and believe me Miguel could be extremely argumentative and pugnacious — Albert finally convinced Miguel to write his memoirs. And so it was that the typescript of what was to become Franco’s Prisoner was hammered out between Miguel and Albert and typed up in a disused back room of one of Britain’s foremost Conservative populist newspapers — and paid for on the time of Associated Newspapers.

Miguel Garcia chatting in the kitchen at the Centro, 1975. He wore that pyjama jacket in the style of a housecoat or smoking jacket!

The book, Franco’s Prisoner, was published in 1972 by the Rupert Hart-Davis publishing house, [which had originally commissioned Stuart’s book The Christie File, but reneged on the contract at the last moment because of the allegedly contentious nature of the material.]
As well as providing wide-ranging advice from abortion to legal aid to squatting, Miguel played a key role in many of the international defence campaigns run by the International Anarchist Black Cross at the time, including those of Julian Millan Hernandez and Salvador Puig Antich in Spain, and Noel and Marie Murray, two members of the Dublin Anarchist Group sentenced to death in Ireland for their alleged part in killing an off-duty Garda officer during a bank robbery in Dublin, in 1975.

Salvador Puig Antich had been a regular visitor who accompanied Albert and Miguel on some of their speaking tours around Britain. Returning to France in August 1973 to take part in a conference of young activists to set up the anarchist defence group known as the MIL (Movimiento Ibérico de Liberación), Salvador Puig Antich was involved a series of
spectacular bank expropriations across Catalonia and Southern France. In September 1973, however, Puig Antich walked into a police ambush in Barcelona’s Calle Gerona in which he was wounded and a Francoist policeman was shot dead. Puig Antich, 25, was garrotted in Barcelona’s Modelo prison on 2 March 1974.

After the military coup in Argentina on 24 March 1976, Miguel persuaded a lot of people to ‘lose’ their passports so that comrades fleeing to escape the Junta could adopt a temporary identity change. In June 1976 he installed a printing press in the basement at Upper Tollington Park, on which he printed a number of anarchist books in Spanish, including Anarquismo y Lucha de Clases (the Spanish translation of Floodgates of Anarchy, written by Albert Meltzer and myself) that he distributed in Spain. As well as printing identity documents, he also got together a group of young Spanish comrades in London to produce their own anarchist paper Colectivo Anarquista.”

In the late 1970s Miguel returned to his native Barcelona where he fulfilled one of his life’s ambitions – to open his own bar. La Fragua, a former forge at No 15 Carrer de la Cadena in Barcelona’s Raval District… As with the Centro Ibérico, La Fragua became a Mecca for anarchists and libertarians from all over the world…

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Phil Ruff, who was centrally involved with Centro Ibérico, has sent us an account of the centre at Haverstock Hill:

The Centro

I first heard about “The Centro” – Centro Ibérico/International Libertarian Centre – when it first opened in June 1973, through an announcement in Black Flag. I was still living in Birmingham then, but was already in contact with Albert Meltzer (1920-1996) and Miguel Garcia Garcia (1908-1981), because the Birmingham Anarchist Group was very active in the campaign of solidarity with the new wave of anarchist resistance (MIL-GAC) in Catalonia. The Centro was really Miguel’s baby, but Albert paid all the bills and usually carried the can too!

Phil Ruff in the kitchen at the Centro, 1976 with a copy of Marcus Graham’s Man! (Cienfuegos Press, 1974).

The Centro occupied a large basement underneath a bookmaker’s shop at 83A Haverstock Hill, London NW3, half-way between Belsize Park and Chalk Farm tube stations. The front door was just round the corner in Steele’s Road. When you opened the front door there was a small room to the left, where John Olday (1905-1977) lived in bohemian squalor. To the right a steep flight of stairs dropped down to the basement premises. At the bottom was a large room used for meetings, film-shows and for a brief period John Olday’s “anarchist cabaret”. Parallel to the stairs, abutting the meeting room, was a smaller room which housed an offset printing press belonging to Ted Kavanagh, an Australian comrade (born in Melbourne, 1936), on which he printed Black Flag. Between the print room and the stairs was a short passage leading to a small kitchen, facing the meeting room. The Kitchen opened out on one side to a tiny courtyard and outside toilet. The wall opposite the courtyard was used to display anarchist papers and a few books. At the far end of the room was a low counter, behind which sat Miguel Garcia and a gas cooker, on which Miguel would whip up delicious paella. Miguel also dispensed red wine and cans of beer to customers, though never actually bothering to acquire a drinks licence.

As the name suggests, the Centro was a focus for visiting activists from Spain and Portugal, the older generation of CNT exiles in London who had taken part in the civil war, and a steady stream of women seeking abortions unavailable in Franco’s Spain and people needing a place to stay or wanting advice on squatting or finding jobs. Miguel helped unmeasurable people in this regard. The “International Libertarian Centre” bit of it covered everybody else; not just British anarchists but comrades from all over the world, becoming in the process the birthplace for many affinity groups that were active in Central and South America, and Europe.

My first visit to Haverstock Hill was not long after the Centro opened. It was a film night, showing a British film “Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition” (Maurice Hatton, 1970), starring a pre-Sweeney John Thaw as a sex-mad Trotskyist struggling to come to terms with the May ’68 uprising in Paris. The place was quite crowded for that; a mixture English, French, Spanish, Argentinean, Italian, German and Danish comrades.  It wasn’t always like that though. After I moved to London in the summer of 1974 (aged 22), I accompanied Miguel on endless trips from Finsbury Park to Haverstock Hill, almost every night until it closed in September 1976, to open up the Centro so that someone would be there if anyone dropped in. Often it was just me and Miguel looking at the paint peel off the walls and having a drink, but if someone did drop by Miguel would immediately make them welcome, cook up a paella, and start weaving his magic. He was without doubt a great communicator and would have made a wonderful hostage negotiator. Everybody left the Centro feeling they were Miguel’s best friend, and ready to slay dragons.

Stuart Christie (1946-2020) and Brenda Christie (née Earl, 1949-2019)

The Centro also provided a venue for meetings of the Black Flag group, which when I joined it in 1974 consisted of Albert Meltzer, Miguel Garcia, John Olday, Ted Kavanagh, Lynn Hudelist, Iris Mills and Graham Rua (a New Zealander, Graham died on 14 January, 2020), plus Stuart and Brenda Christie, who were living then in a flat near Wimbledon Common under Brenda’s maiden name as “Mr and Mrs Earl”. Stuart’s acquittal in the “Angry Brigade” trial in December 1972 was bitterly resented by Special Branch, and they vowed to get him by fair means or foul.  Also, a failed attempt by Spanish and French police to implicate Stuart in the 1974 abduction of a Spanish banker in Paris by the GARI, in solidarity with anarchist prisoners in Spain, meant that a lot of police attention, as well as interest from several European security agencies, was focused on what went on in the Centro. Ted and Lynn took this as good reason to move to Australia and open a bookshop. And around May 1975 Stuart and Brenda also deemed it prudent to move out of London, opening a tea-shop in Yorkshire; followed not long afterwards by Iris Mills and Graham Rua, who moved up to Huddersfield. The Black Flag group in London was reduced to Albert, Miguel, John Olday and myself. John fell out with Miguel shortly afterwards and retreated upstairs to his tiny room to concentrate on his idiosyncratic bulletin, “Mit-Teilung”. From then on the bulk of the editorial work fell to Albert and myself; sending copy up to Stuart and Brenda (“Marigold”), who between them took care of the typesetting, layout and despatch.

One funny incident at the Centro, after Stuart and Brenda had departed to Yorkshire, involved Jaime Pozas de Villena (died, 14 Feb. 2017), a leading figure in the “ácratas” student revolt (1967-1969), First of May Group and CNT, who had been in prison with Miguel Garcia and Luis Edo.  I arrived to find him with his trousers down, in a distressed state, injecting himself in the bum with penicillin. He and several other young dudes had all unfortunately been struck down suddenly by a dose of the clap – contracted it was said from the same young lady! She was later exposed as an informant for the Spanish Embassy in London; one of the more unconventional means of targeting the Spanish resistance! Miguel was doing his best to supply wine and sympathy, but he obviously thought it was hilarious.

Other groups often rented the meeting room in the Centro. One was called Solidarity for Social Revolution (a split from Solidarity I think – someone with a better memory and more interest in leftist esoterica than me will know all about this). My only interest was that among the people who turned up to the meetings were two veterans of the Communist Party in the old Jewish East End, Joe Jacobs (author of Out of the Ghetto, 1978) and his pal Arnold Feldman, who invariably escaped to the kitchen to swap tall stories of bygone struggles with Miguel over a few glasses of wine. Another memorable character who often dropped in with Albert Meltzer was Joe Thomas, “Father of the Chapel” in Fleet Street and a copy-taker on The Guardian, who for years was the lone ranger of Council Communism in London. One afternoon Joe got into a long conversation with Albert and a vibrant French lady of a certain age about Spanish labour struggles. After the French woman eventually left to catch her train, Joe turned to Albert and remarked in awe that the lady seemed to know a lot about the Spanish anarchists. Albert erupted into fits of laughter – she should do, he said, her name is Emilienne Morin – she used to be married to Buenaventura Durruti!

Steele’s Road: Phil Ruff outside the almost historic front door to Centro Ibérico, April 2018.

The Centro was eventually forced to leave Haverstock Hill in September 1976 after the landlord, who owned the betting shop upstairs, wanted to turn the basement into a swish gambling club. I remember him coming down the stairs to conduct negotiations with Miguel, with a huge minder in tow, who looked like an extra from central casting for a remake of The Krays, whom he introduced politely as his “lawyer”! He received poetic justice in 1979, when the gambling club was raided by plain-clothed detectives of the anti-terrorist squad investigating the “Person Unknown” case. The bouncers on the door, thinking the cops were rival villains, turned the raid into a full-scale brawl; an interesting indication of how quickly police intelligence falls out of date. The anarchists were long gone!

Afterwards we moved briefly to a dreary church hall in North London before transferring to a classroom in a squatted former school at 421 Harrow Road – but it was never the same after leaving Haverstock Hill.

Miguel eventually moved back to Barcelona to open an anarchist bistro (La Fragua) in the historic Barrio Chino, but kept-on his flat in Finsbury Park as a refuge. He died of TB in a London hospital in December 1981 and was cremated in Muswell Hill.
Philip Ruff

Philip Ruff is the author of “A Towering Flame: The Life & Times of the Elusive Latvian Anarchist Peter the Painter” (Breviary Stuff Publications, 2019). Available from: https://www.breviarystuff.org.uk/philip-ruff-a-towering-flame/

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John Olday performing at his “anarchist cabaret”. Philip Ruff: “I have absolutely no idea how that grand piano ever got into the basement down the Centro’s steep stairs!”

Postscript: According to Albert Meltzer, “we lost the old Centre in Haverstock Hill… through the carelessness of John Olday. He returned to Germany from Australia, where he promoted gay cabaret of the German Twenties type, and found to his surprise that in his twenty years absence from the anarchist scene the Springer Press had made him famous. The opening of the German police files from Bismarck to Hitler, had encouraged academics to write about the German movement they had previously ignored. Olday was cast as the link between the old and the new on the basis of being the only German they knew, by reason of his copious if little known writing, who would fill the gap between the anti-Nazi resistance and the renaissance after the war.

He accordingly found entertainment work in Germany, even on the nonconformistic gay scene, utterly impossible and came to England. He had a small amount of cash which soon ran out (for some reason he could or would not take the pension or social security to which he had to be entitled) and contacted me to see if I could help. I put him up in a room of the Haverstock Hill club, explaining it was officially uninhabitable because of the rats in the cellar. When the landlord found out he was living there, because of his complaints to him about the rats, we all got evicted. The landlord was outraged to find we had been running a club, because of the profits he realised he was missing, and once we were out applied for a licence ostensibly in the name of what he thought was an “already running Spanish club”. As it was at the height of the “Persons Unknown” case it got raided a few weeks later by police looking for arms, surprised to find cigar-smoking punters playing baccarat instead.”

The Centro Iberico squatted school in West London

Other spaces became the focus for the small groups of class struggle anarchists around
Black Flag and ‘Anarchy’ magazine… A London anarchist centre was planned and eventually opened in Wapping, as the Autonomy Centre. Meanwhile, in Brixton, the former Sabaar
Bookshop was squatted again and re-launched as the anarchist 121 Bookshop.

Centro Ibérico itself continued to meet weekly for a while at the Community Centre, Archway Rd., London N19 (a converted church directly opposite Highgate Tube).

Then (as Phil Ruff says above) it was later set up in West London, at 421 Harrow Road alongside the canal, in a former school. It was occupied sometime around 1977 – that year, Miguel Garci wrote about the activities there in Black Flag: “[…] The CNT locals are mostly open all day, but particularly frequented in the evenings. Each union is producing its own bulletins, in addition to which some produce newspapers, as well as the national and regional newspapers. Then too there are numerous local publications of the grassroots type – for this purpose as many offset lithos and especially duplicating machines as possible are needed. There are many comrades who learned to use a litho thanks to the Centro Iberico in London: supplying lithos and duplicators will help preserve that traditional diversity of publication that always characterised our movement in Spain – and keep alive our many years of international co-operation.” (Black Flag, v.5, n.2, 1977)

Events held here included a centenary commemoration of the birth of Joe Hill, on 7 October 1979, and an Anarcha-feminist conference in December 1979, according to notices in anarchist mags of the time..

“An anarchist feminist weekend is planned for December 7, 8, 9 at the Centro Iberico, 421a Harrow Rd, London (Westbourne Pk nearest tube) for women only. There will be workshops on: video, self defence, ‘creative destruction”, as well as discussion workshops on internationalism, on ‘living and work situations‘ and others. Poetry, films and other entertainment are also planned, and a creche, food and accommodation are available. In conjunction with the weekend there will be an open discussion with both men and women on ‘Sexism in the Anarchist Movement‘ on Saturday, 8 December, 7 pm, at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London W Cl . This is seen as an attempt to discuss the problems of sexism through direct contact with men and women, rather than dealing with it in a separatist way. Refreshments, a film show, and anarchist feminist literature. Women attending the Centro Iberico workshops over the weekend should bring sleeping bags.” (Freedom, November 1979).

Another event held at the Harrow Road Centro was ‘Beyond the Bullshit’, an anarchist weekend of discussion, debate and education, which took place in mid-June 1982, organised largely by the collective running the 121 anarchist centre in Brixton. Workshops were held on anarcho-syndicalism, anarcha-feminism, organising protests, self-help, solidarity and more… Around 150 people attended. Read a report from Freedom anarchist newspaper.

After the demise of the short lived Autonomy Centre in Wapping, the Harrow Road Centro hosted the anarcho-punk gigs by the Mob, Conflict, Poison Girls and the Subhumans, as well as industrial art-performance posers Throbbing Gristle), which had been held at the Autonomy Centre… Gigs ended in 1982 sometime, possibly when the building was evicted?

“The Spanish anarchists lived in the classrooms upstairs and allowed us to convert a former assembly room downstairs into a performance space. A stage was built using old cookers from the kitchens covered with carpet retrieved from skips. Although the Centro was evicted at the end of 1982, for a few month during the spring and summer it  was used once a week for anarchist punk gigs.”

There’s lots more on the punk gigs at the Harrow Road Centro on the Kill Your Pet Puppy site, and some photos here and here

Until recently graffiti of the First of May anti-Franco anarchist group (who were closely linked to the Angry Brigade) could be seen on the wall of the school on Portobello Road.

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Dedicated to the memory of Miguel Garcia Garcia, Albert Meltzer and Stuart & Brenda Christie

Miguel Garcia leaving the kitchen at the Centro, 1976.


Related items worth a read

Miguel Garcia’s Story, edited by Albert Meltzer and published by the Miguel Garcia Memorial Committee in association with Cienfuegos Press, 1982.

Remembering Miguel Garcia, Stuart Christie.

Franco’s Prisoner, Miguel Garcia Garcia.

I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels, Albert Meltzer.

There’s a list of events at the various incarnations of the Centro Ibérico gleaned from the anarchist press put together by the Kate Sharpley Library.

The Squatters Estate Agency: Ruff Tuff Creem Puff

The squatting movement that flourished in London from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, of which some vestige remains, threw up many wild and brilliant initiatives. In the 1970s, when tens of thousands of homes lay empty across the capital, thousands of these were squatted, providing homes for several generations, as well as multiple projects, cafes, gig spaces, gardens, dancehalls, bookshops, nurseries, and much more… most evicted, or turned into co-ops, legitimised, sold off…
Much of this went on completely ‘unorganised’, in the sense that people squatted autonomously, finding empties themselves, breaking in, doing the work of doing places up etc.
But acting as something of a backbone to the scene were a plethora of squatting groups, usually local organisation, often ad-hoc and shifting, who provide support, advice, lent tools, and often kept lists of empty potentially squattable buildings.

Of these, one of the earliest, operating from what for much of the decade was London’s Squat Central – West London, and especially the areas around Notting Hill and North Kensington – was the cutting edge, and sometimes notorious Ruff Tuff Creem Puff squatters estate agency. engineers, … The Ruff Tuff squatters got much information about empty properties from sympathetic telephone postal workers, council office workers as well as a British Gas official…

In their own words: an account of Ruff Tuff Creem Puff from 1978 (nicked from the anthology Squatting: The Real Story, published in 1969). Written by the agency’s own Heathcote Williams.

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The inside story of Ruff Tuff Creem Puff, the only estate agency for squatters

By Heathcote Willliams

The Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency was founded in 1974 by ‘Mad Dog, Fluke and Flame’, Gods’ Groupies, stimulated by their squatting of the ‘Meat Roxy’, a former Bingo Hall in Lancaster Road, North Kensington, where every Saturday three or four hundred people gathered for a free ball. Electricity was re-routed from a squatted house at the back, a large double bed put in the middle of the auditorium for people to accompany the music in their lubricious fashion, and above the stage in letters four feet high there was written: CIVILISATION HATH TURNED HER BACK ON THEE. REJOICE, SHE HATH AN UGLY FACE.

At the end of the day, half the people seduced into coming had nowhere to go. It being winter, and our social consciences being intricately plucked, the Meat Roxy was established as a place to live as well, but gradually, perhaps through the loudness of the music, the roof fell in. Other accommodation had to be found for these errant space gipsies, Tuinal freaks, lushes and werewolves clamouring for shelter from the wind and the rain and the cold in the Ladbroke Archipelago.

A set of house-breaking equipment was purchased, and a small survey of the neighbourhood carried out. Empty properties sprang up like mushrooms and were cropped. The first bulletin advertising their availability was Gestetnered and published in an almost unreadable edition of 150 copies, and the Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency (named after a Robert Crumb cartoon character) was registered as a working charity (Astral registration number 666).


Since then 23 bulletins have been published, ranging from one foolscap side to eight, and listing empty properties available in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Italy and Yugoslavia.’ A nucleus of seven or so people worked under the umbrella of the agency: whoever lived in our house became involved. The house was often watched and the possibility of prosecution for incitement or conspiracy to trespass frequently lurked on the back-burner. Office hours were round the clock.

People were sent to us from almost anywhere: social services departments, highly funded pressure groups such as Shelter or the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless, occasionally Harrow Road Police Station, and BIT, the hip Vatican and self-help centre down the road. It was a house rule that anyone could stay for a night in the house until we found them somewhere permanent. On average, 15 to 20 people came round looking for somewhere to live each day.

We opened up places for people but often found that many of them regarded us as the landlord. They would come back half a dozen times complaining about roofs, drains and windows and it was a long time before it occurred to them that they could do anything about the place themselves. Fluke often fell back sardonically in these circumstances on the ancient Arab saying: ‘If you rescue a man from drowning, you have to look after him for the rest of your life.’ In most cases we told people where the house was, what its history was as far as we knew, explained the score in law and lent them any available equipment.

The surface problem was homelessness, and in many cases when that was solved everything was cool. We’d see the person we’d fixed up and find that their days were glowing again, and they would promise to keep us fed with any empty places that they had noticed. But in many other cases homelessness had created far worse problems. People who had no house built houses inside their heads; people who’d been chronically rejected over a long period lived in a shell and sat in the office without being able to speak. Getting fixed up with a place got transmuted into getting a fix. Being warm had changed into a whiskey-sodden rush.

One man sat in the dilapidated chair in the corner of the kitchen-cum-office for two days without saying a word and then suddenly leapt up and stuck a knife into Fluke.The knife fortunately was fairly blunt and came out without any brown rice on the end. Gently asked for some explanation, it transpired that he’d had nowhere to live for two years save a mausoleum in Highgate Cemetery. The spirits had apparently commanded this act: ‘Fluke is a good man being bad but I caught him when he was a bad man being good.’ And then there followed an indecipherable word salad based on his connections with the spirit world. It made us feel that handing out houses to people for nothing was all right but that it often wasn’t enough.

Another man, who’d just come out of Parkhurst where he’d been serving nine years for armed robbery involving £30,000 worth of platinum, crashed through the door in a feverish state and said: ‘You’re social workers, aren’t you?’ in an almost accusing manner.

The accusation was denied.

‘Hang on, hang on, look how ‘bout I get a wee bottle of something. What you drink? Wine? I’ll get some.’

He reappeared with six bottles of Mateus and a two foot square box of chocolates ‘fur the kiddie’. He said: ‘You wondering why I’m doing all this aren’t you? Well, I’ll tell you. I need your help. You have drugs here don’t you? You people have drugs?’

‘Only the look in our eyes, that’s all.’

‘No, seriously, you have drugs here? You’re hippies aren’t you? Hippies always have drugs. I’ll pay you for it . . .’

Not to let the chance of a deal go begging, Cocke Lorrell who’d just done a run of three weights, pulled out his scales and said: ‘How much do you want?’ fondling a large polythene bag filled with the stinking soul-smoke.

‘What’s that?’

‘Best Buddha Grass.’

He was mystified. The theft of those nine years of his life had meant that he’d missed Weed Power.

‘Dope,’ said Cocke Lorrell, ‘it’s grass. Dope for ever, for ever loaded.’

‘Oh, no. I don’t want that. I want some cyanide.’

There was a deathly hush. It transpired that he couldn’t stand being outside. He just didn’t know where to put himself. He tried to ‘buy a few friends’, as he put it, but ‘no one wants to know’.

He went on raving about the cyanide, convinced that if the coast was cleared with a large backhander we’d supply it: ‘I’ll pay you for it. I’ll make it worth your while, believe me,’ and he spilt a wad of £20 notes onto the table.

Cocke took him to the window (which was on the third floor) and said: ‘Look you can have this window cheap.’ ‘What you mean?’ ‘You can throw yourself out of this window for 10p’ and gave him a giant cuddle. His face began to crease into a smile. Cocke hugged him so hard and rubbed him and insulted him: ‘Your life’s not yours to take, dummy’, and then settled him down to his wine, told him the cream of his police jokes and then got him so stoned that he was wandering around the house all night in his knickers reciting Gaelic sagas. His life was a little safer than before.

One visitor called Julia came looking for a place to live, scanned the bulletins along with a large map of London that had colour-coded pins stuck into it:
• Red: ‘Squatted, but might be room’
• Green: ‘Ripe for plucking’
• Blue: ‘Empty but needs a lot of love’

Julia said: ‘I think I’ll try Freston Road it’s near where I work.’

‘Where is that?’ said Fluke, passing the time of day.

‘Oh, Hammersmith Town Hall in the Housing Department.’

Fluke looked slightly stunned: ‘How would your colleagues feel about your squatting?’

‘Oh, I don’t think they’d mind. Except for the ones who’re members of the National Front.’

And despite the existence of five members of the National Front working in the Housing Department of a soi-disant socialist council, Julia was able to half-inch lists of empty properties from the council files. She became the Mata Hari of Ruff Tuff, forcing the size of the bulletins up from four pages to eight. Other useful informants included a telephone engineer, a postman and a Gas Board official.

Freston Road in fact, became almost entirely squatted through Ruff Tuff activity and was turned into an almost ideal version of Squat City, much beloved of gutter cartoonists.

The walled-in gardens were joined together into one large communal garden which almost fed the entire street. A squatted shop opened, selling wholefoods at knock-down prices, and there was a kind of synergy present where people bopped in and out of each other’s houses, doors left open to the street. If any problem arose, the load was immediately spread around.

On rare and extreme occasions the Cosmic Joker evicts the Social Worker in the tactics of the Agency. A German once entered the office, dressed in a gold lame suit, and followed by his family all in fresh sheepskins from Afghanistan, lavishly embroidered: ‘I would like please a place with bath, and garden for the kinder, and mit telefon. I am from Endless Music. We are biggest Rock and Roll band in Germany and we have many contracts with Island Records. You give a place to us now bitte?’

Mad Dog stood up and surveyed the little scene. ‘Well,’ he said, pretending to consult the latest bulletin, ‘Yeah, I think we got just the place.’

‘Ja? gut, gut.’

‘Yeah, you take the tube to Green Park. Turn right out of the entrance.’

‘Ja, ja.’

‘And you’ll find a huge building on the right hand side. We’ll let them know you’re coming.’

‘How will I find it again please?’ (scribbling greedily).

‘It’s right on Piccadilly, near St James’ Street. It’s just been squatted. There’s a man from Ruff Tuff on the door, dressed in a huge black frock coat, with gold braid, just like your suit, and for a joke he’s got a badge on his cap with the words “Ritz Hotel”. Just tell him you’ve come from the Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency and your rooms will be waiting for you.’

Through the good auspices of Patrick the postman, a partner in the agency, six houses were found and cracked for Chiswick Women’s Aid who seemed to need a house per week. One windy night Tony from Rough Theatre bopped in with a van, scored Gareth, Mary Jane, Mad Dog, and Jonathan Marconi, and they all tooled off to Richmond where Tony claimed there was a derelict hotel once used by the BBC in the thirties and forties to transmit the tea-time concerts of Max Jaffa and the Palm Court Orchestra.

Palm Court Hotel squatters

They found a strange haunted place by the river, strongly barricaded with two-by-four joists nailed down to the floor inside. It took about two hours to crack as they had to wait for traffic noise to cover each snap of the jemmy. The Palm Court Hotel had been a giant pigeon loft for three years and was recycled as a little palace for 30 battered wives and their offspring.

The bulletins listed anything from a hovel to a palace and had a style of their own: ‘36 St Luke’s Road. Empty two years. Entry through rear. No roof. Suit astronomer.’ Some houses in Norfolk belonging to the Royal Family were squatted after featuring in the bulletins, Mick Jagger’s unused country house found some occupants, and the Cambodian Embassy was squatted when abandoned after the overthrow of the Buddhist oligarchy of Prince Sihanouk. Two Mercedes cars were found in the garage of this weird house-cum-temple and the only way that the squatters could be evicted was if the Khmer Rouge had decided to move into the London Property Market. They were still in occupation at the beginning of 1980. Buckingham Palace with its 614 rooms often featured.

All the time while bulletins were being pumped out and houses being cracked, the gutter press kept up a shrill and hate-filled descant. Squatters are vermin, proclaimed the Daily Express. They have lice, shrilled the Evening News which employed a spy to insinuate himself with squatters and obtain free board and lodging only to trash them later in his paper for an enormous fee. The squatters are an ‘Army of Vagabonds led by dangerous left-wing agitators’, squawked the Sunday People; and it ran a three-part series on squatting, leaving the gentle reader with the impression that they were all armed, dope-infested layabouts who should be garrotted.

One of the partners in Ruff Tuff was fried by the Sunday People on their front page: ‘ The old Etonian house grabber: he jemmies way in for squatters,’ presenting him as a near psychopath who would prefer to crack his way through a block of houses on his way to the shops rather than walk round the corner. The reporter had subtly gained an interview in the Ruff Tuff office by pretending to be from Cardiff Friends of the Earth who were, he claimed, doing a survey on squatting. He was duly given an extensive rundown on the homelessness situation in London – 100,000 houses empty, 30,000 people squatting, etc – together with a brief but poetic soliloquy about Wat Tyler, Gerrard Winstanley (‘The world is a common treasure house to all . . . there is no my thing, no your thing’), and Proudhon; all little gurus of this yippie cabal.

Mad Dog saw the paper the next week and while everyone else was having apoplexy, muttered ‘Revenge is a meal best eaten cold’. Four weeks later the reporter found that as a result of his own house being put on the bulletins and described therein as the Sunday People Rest Home (‘anyone on a bad trip, tuinal freaks etc, especially welcome’), he was daily invaded by lone dementoes of every description. The real Cardiff Friends of the Earth delivered a lorry load of cement to his front garden cash-on-delivery and he was forced to change his accommodation. Whether he had to squat or not was never revealed. ‘Teach the bitch to tamper with Aristocrats Lib,’ was Mad Dog’s comment.

The cosy liberal papers stayed fairly silent. The Guardian published a couple of moody pictures of a child in front of a corrugated iron fence. The Times reporter at the battle of Elgin Avenue disclosed that he’d been unable to file any of his stories about squatting for the last two weeks. ‘It’s editorial policy,’ he told us. At the same time, The Times was quite gaily publishing some extraordinary letters in its correspondence columns, one of which suggested that all squatters should be evicted from third-storey windows.

On another occasion the stencils for a new bulletin were hanging from a bulldog clip on the wall for all to survey the new mass of available houses before they went on to BIT’S Gestetner. A man came in claiming to be homeless and was left to study the stencils while people in the office went about their business in the next room. When they came back, he’d disappeared with the stencils which he sold to the Evening Standard.

The Evening Standard tried to confirm the story on the phone the next day but got very short shrift from Fluke since it was then that we knew where the stencils had gone – stencils which represented seven people’s careful research for about three weeks.

‘This is the Evening Standard. I have to tell you that Bulletin 17 has come into our hands. I can’t tell you how but we have a photo-copy of it and we think that it contains a great deal of highly contentious material . . .’

‘Do you now? Well, listen, baby blue, if you’re homeless I’ll speak to you, if you’re not you can rot off . . .’

‘Before you put the phone down, I should tell you that we’re going to publish this material.’

‘Great! The wider circulation it gets, the better. Join the Legion of Joy. Freedom is a fulltime career.’

‘Well, you can put it like that if you like. But can I ask you this . . er . . I’m looking through it now. You recommend a certain kind of implement for breaking into houses with mortise locks on . . . I think it’s a bolster, or a raker, yes, here it is, a four-inch raker. What do you have to say about that?’

‘Listen, there are about 10,000 people sleeping rough in London, in all weathers, and a lot of them are kitty-corner to you, Fat Cat, right on the Thames Embankment. That’s what I have to say about that. You think every house was opened up by the wind? People need to know how to do it. They’re not ghosts. They can’t walk through walls. Goodbye. Sleep well in your Beaverbrook Bed.’

Next day the Evening Standard appeared with a front-page headline large enough to bruise your retina: ‘SECRET SQUATTERS PLAN FOR A MASS TAKE-OVER IN LONDON’. The bulletin mysteriously returned later that night, rolled up in the front door handle and stained with whiskey. Conspiracy to trespass was mentioned in the article and the prospect of it began to cause some consternation.

‘Conspiracy to trespass . . . We could all get five years . . .’

‘Ah fuck it, what you keep muttering that for . . . Conspiracy to trespass, it’s just some legal shibboleth. To conspire, you know what that means? “To breathe together”. Con-spirare . . . I don’t mind doing that, do you? And trespass, you know what the origin of that word is? To “pass through, to transcend”. That’s the dictionary meaning. Straight up.’

‘They won’t pay much attention to that in court. I think discretion is the better part of valour.’

‘Sure.’ The doorbell rings. ‘There’s someone at the door. Life goes on.’

Two slinky and silky gentlemen file in, one kvetching about his landlady having stolen his mattress because it had ‘perverted liquids on it’, vetting his phone calls and opening his mail, all for the princely sum of £52 per month. He looks through the new list, glancing at the antics of Windsor the black tom from time to time commenting ‘Isn’t she butch?’, and then drapes our jemmy elegantly over his arm to go crack a recommended flat in nearby Powis Square.

A silent woman with a large scar on her head asks about some houses in Orsett Terrace, Paddington. She’s escaping the violent vagaries of her husband by staying with a friend in a council flat where she has to creep in and out because the couple on the ground floor suspect her friend of sub-letting and are in constant contact with the council’s Complaints Department. She’s never squatted before. She works as a night cleaner and seems desperate. ‘Can you fix me up in that street?’ she asks. ‘They got lights in the window at night. They seem nice people.’ She’s fixed up with an introduction and a little later, her own place.

A junkie seeps in: ‘I don’t want any place where the postal district is an odd number. I don’t want N19 or Wl for a start.’

‘Paddington? W2?’

‘No. God’s told me Paddington’s bad for me.’

After similar objections to almost every place on the lists he starts metronomically rubbing the track-marks on his left arm. ‘Why are you doing that?’ says Cocke Lorrell. ‘God has told me that my left arm is bad for me so I got to keep stabbing it … with stuff.’

He stays for several hours, alternately brutalising and then nursing his diabolic acupuncture points until he coincides with someone who’s just had a cure. He is enveigled away to Cold Turkey Towers in Cornwall Terrace, having been convinced that NW1 is not really an odd number and that anyway, ‘When you get really high on mathematics you realise that there’s no such thing as one’; and for the first time, this gutter St Sebastian smiles.

A family phone up. They’re paying £42 per week for bed and breakfast in St Albans. Mad Dog screams at them: ‘In St Albans? Forty-two pounds? pounds? Where the fuck is St Albans anyway? . . . Just south of Greenland ain’t it? Well put on your snow shoes and get your asses down here toute vite.’ And then they come a few hours later, bedraggled and burnt out from rent slavery and score themselves a whole house in Richmond.

Letters also pour in demanding the bulletins: ‘Dear Sir, Madam, Hippy or Freak. I am doing important mind work and need a quiet place . . .’

‘Dear Rough Tough Creamers, please send bulletins of everywhere in the world, we are tired of somewhere . . .’

‘Dear Agency, I am living in a furnished room with my two children and paying £10 a week. Please can you help me? Please answer soon.’

There have also been death threats on the phone. One was just a tape-loop endlessly repeating: ‘Hello, hello, hello. You’re a dead man. Don’t laugh.’ Well, to quote the Illuminatus, ‘If it doesn’t make you laugh, it isn’t true.’ It didn’t make us laugh and fortunately it wasn’t. But who was it? Enraged property speculator? A hit-man hired by Megalopolis? The National Grunt? Ah well, forget it, paranoia is the gout of acid-anointed youth.

Sometimes it has been very boring, sometimes very exciting. People would say: ‘How can you afford to do it? Is there any charge for these bulletins?’ Nope. It’s time for the Gospel of Free to lurch back to life. It’s time the visionaries got it on and the realists dreamt. All we want is a Garden of Eden where none of the fruit is forbidden. Communism never started – it’s private property that was the new idea.

In most cases we thought about as much of squatting a house as picking up a butt-end off the street. Why? Because, to wax philosophic for a moment, we live in square rooms and we’re treated as products instead of Beings, in rows and rows of square rooms where we’re all meant to be the same. In streets where there are 30,000 gas stoves, 30,000 TV sets, 30,000 baths, fridges and cars, when with a little co-operation (which Kropotkin showed in Mutual Aid was the strongest force in nature), maybe one or two of each would be enough.

Some squats have broken through – Freston Road, Bristol Gardens and Cornwall Terrace – with walls knocked down so that you could walk along the street inside the building. Imagine a huge refectory table on the ground floor of every street, and a huge refectory bed on the top floor. Whether you’re a yipped-up hipped-up communalist or no, the reduction in fire hazard is strong in its favour.

Jesus was born a squatter though the Church Commissioners (one of London’s largest slum owners and property speculators) would never acknowledge it. When squatters are presented as inhuman, someone’s trying to feed into the tapes: ‘You don’t exist. You don’t own anything, so who are you? How can we recognise you?’

When people are evicted someone is playing God and saying that their life in that place is worthless. When we were being evicted from one Ruff Tuff house we said to the landlord: ‘You want your house back? Then come here and live with us.’

Squatting is acupuncture for the death culture. Freedom is not yet quite free but the squatting community can give you a good wholesale price.

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The Wise brothers, long time residents of the area, offered a slightly different take on Ruff Tuff, in their ‘Once Upon a Time there was a Place Called Nothing Hill Gate’:

“The escape clause offered by having charity status also applied to the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff squatter estate agency (the only ‘estate agency’ for squatters). Despite its ameliorative social function (Harrow Road police station would occasionally send homeless people there), it did nonetheless initiate some audacious squats. Among them, houses in Norfolk belonging to the Royal Family, Mick Jagger’s unused country home and the Cambodian Embassy in Notting Hill Gate, which was squatted for several years after being abandoned when Prince Sihanouk was overthrown. Not to mention the brilliant cracking of the huge Palm Court Hotel near Richmond Bridge on the Thames. Ruff Tuffs ‘property magazine’ containing witty descriptions of potential squats is still a delight to read (e.g. “36, St. Lukes Road. Empty two years. Entry through rear. No roof. Suit astronomer.”) Yet many people entering this squatting agency felt immediately ill at ease, overcome by feelings they were unable to put a name to. Was it because it was run by renegade aristos’ with hippy names like Mad Dog and Fluke? Was it Heathcote Williams old Etonian manner of barking rather than speaking? Or similarly his references to endless esoteric, occult mysteries which made you feel like a fool for not having a clue as to what he was talking about. The cat’s name was “Windsor” and that didn’t help either. In occupying Crown Property were they perhaps settling scores with their parents? They were friendly enough all right; never too stuck-up to say hello when they met you in the street. Yet deep down one felt set apart which palaeontologists of the English class system will instantly recognise.”

Today in London’s International history, 1977: North Kensington squatters declare the Independent Republic of Frestonia

What with the all the Brexit row inspiring an increased interest in parts of the UK splitting off (eg Scotland  – and probably London next!), we got thinking of previous attempts to secede – including the odd Passport to Pimlico style revolts…

The Unilateral Declaration of independence by some disgruntled residents of the Isle of Dogs in 1970 was not the last attempt of part of London to secede from the U.K…

In 1977 squatters in three streets in North Kensington also declared independence, to call attention to the terminal decline the area was in and protect their housing. All hail Frestonia!

The building of the Westway cut through North Kensington leaving some parts of it a bit stranded. Latimer Road was truncated, Walmer Road was bisected and the area south of Latimer Road was full of empty houses and industrial sites earmarked for development.

The neighbourhood at Freston Road, acquired by the Greater London Council (GLC), had been allowed to deteriorate into such a state of disrepair by the 1960s, that GLC tenants had to be rehoused to nearby accommodation such as Trellick and Grenfell towers. However the houses were neither demolished not left empty – many were squatted.

By the mid-1970s Freston Road and neighbouring streets had become home to a new community; a bohemian mixture of artists, writers, musicians and substance misusers… Some of these gravitated to the area to live cheaply; others saw squatting as a way to build an alternative, more communal way of life. Others were desperate just for somewhere to call home.

The winters were hard, resources were scarce, and there were few amenities  – except what the residents provided themselves. Much of the housing in North Kensington and Notting Hill was in a state of decay and decline then, and squatting was rife… In the early/mid 70s thus area was squat central, and a corresponding eruption of alternative projects and radical developments sprouted in the area.

In 1977, the Greater London Council (GLC) announced plans to redevelop the Freston Road area, the details of which are captured in an edition of the Tribal Messenger (the national newspaper of Frestonia.), after residents collared a young surveyor wandering the street and interrogated him as to the plans:

“This whole area is up for grabs. Tenders from industries wanting to develop here have to be in to the GLC by today.

WE’VE OFFERED TO LEASE THE WHOLE SOUTHERN AREA!

Read on:

Yesterday, Ken of 90 Freston Road [+Josefine saw him too – short-haired young inspector], saw a bloke walking up and down Freston Road with notebook in his hand examining the area. Ken asked him what he was doing, and he said he was from the council, and that the whole area (Bramley Road, Freston Road and Latimer Road) was being leased off by the council to light industries, and that light industries wanting sites here were having to submit offers (tenders) by this Thursday, today, the 22nd.

Eek! Eek!

We phoned up Mr Birlo of the GLC Estates and Valuation Dept (01-633-6861) who was friendly enough, except he confirmed it’s all true. All the houses in Freston Road and 2-16 Bramley Road are affected except, we think, the People’s Hall and the Scrap Yard. What houses in Latimer Road are affected he couldn’t immediately tell us.

So we’ve done the obvious thing and submitted a tender ourselves, asking more or less to be left alone to develop the area ourselves, and offering tentatively £10 per week per house (roughly £20,800 a year). Our tender only deals with Bramley Rd and Freston Road, as apparently Latimer Rd people aren’t so keen to stay and renovate their houses. We didn’t have time to consult anybody – there’s a copy of the letter we sent off express yesterday on the back of this sheet.

We say in the letter to the GLC that several of us are members of a sort of ‘southern branch’ of the Latimer Road Cooperative Housing Association. This was discussed at one meeting. Hope you’ll not mind us jumping the gun you northern L.R.C.H.A. people. (Any Freston road and Bramley Road people who want to join it, try going to see Jan at 351 Latimer Road, she probably knows how to do it. It costs £1, and it may be worth doing as the GLC have already dealt with these in the past.

By the way, could anyone put a report in the Tribal Messenger as to how the L.R.C.H.Association is going? What’s the GLC’s latest position with you etc?)

We asked Mr Birlo what would happen if an industrial company got a lease on our houses. How long till we’d be turned out? Mr Birlo said it could take a long time:

“We’ve got to get lease terms established first. All that’s happening is that offers have to be in by thursday so we can think about them, and so we can talk to those we think ought to be accepted. Then we’ve got to receive drawings of the buildings to be erected, architects’ and builders’ estimates, and we’ve got to have lease documents prepared.”

“What about if they want vacant possession as soon as possible?” Mr Birlo thought this was unlikely as the “date of asking for vacant possession is the date they have to start paying”.

So relax, it could take more than 6 months yet.

Josefine’s just done a bulky Tribal Messenger No 19 with photos and comics. She could only afford 50 copies (£4.50, donations welcome!) so it went only to houses in St Anns Rd, Stoneleigh St, Freston Rd and Bramley Rd. Anyone in Latimer Rd wanting to see a copy will have to come south.

Who’d like to do the next issue? (Message collection say Tues and We 4th and 5th October, for coming out Thursday 6th).

Nicholas, 107 Freston Rd, W.11…

dig it dig it dig dig dig dig”

As former resident Tony Sleep put it: “The GLC decided that it was intolerable having 120 people living in these damp old dirty houses and it would be a much better idea to knock them all down and make us homeless…”

Inspired by a previous visit to the squatted community of Christiania, in Copenhagen, Nicholas Albery, ‘social activist, author and conservative anarchist’, who had arrived at Freston Road in 1976, put forward the notion of seceeding from the United Kingdom, establishing the Free & Independent Republic of Frestonia. Albery chaired a meeting attended by 200 locals. A referendum was held on Sunday, October 30th 1977, resulting in a unanimous vote for secession. Independence was declared the following day.

Unlike in the case of Catalunya more recently, the UK government did not indulge in heavy repression…

Citing a legal loophole, the residents took the collective surname of Bramley, in an effort to support their request to be rehoused as a single family. An application for membership of the United Nations, was submitted, opening:

“We the Free Independent Republic of Frestonia, herewith apply for full membership of the United Nations, with autonomous nation status…”

Within the application were detailed plans for an independent nation, signed by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, David Rappaport-Bramley, ”a very small man who cast a very large shadow”, (best known for his later role as Randall in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits). This was picked up by the media, Rappaport-Bramley made radio and tv appearances, and before long the world was watching.

Martin Young interviewed David Rappaport-Bramley, the Foreign Affairs Minister of the newly declared independent state in London (Broadcast on November 1st, 1977)

David Rappaport

Martin Young: Good evening. Tonight we report the emergence of a new nation state and ask the questions the world will need to answer. Can Hammersmith ever be the same again?

There was a time when Britain could boast she controlled 2 thirds of the world. Now, with devolution on all sides, the one thing the Foreign Office didn’t need was another UDI. Yet now there are rebellious rumblings of revolution from residents of Freston Road in Hammersmith.

Working on the theory that small is beautiful, the 120 residents have declared themselves independent of the London Borough of Hammersmith and indeed of Britain. Overnight they’ve renamed an 8 acre site of near dereliction The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia. And they’ve applied formally for full membership of the United Nations.

When we visited Frestonia this afternoon we faced no customs or passport formalities but it’s still early days yet. 

All 120 residents are involved in running Frestonia. There’s his Excellency Geoff-Gough-Bramley, the Argentinian Ambassador to Frestonia and part-time sign-writer. He’s putting the finishing touches to a sign outside the Ministry of Culture, formerly Champion Dining Rooms. 

Meet the Minister of State for Housing & Construction, unemployed Gordon Gibbs-Bramley. There’s a Minister for the Environment, who’s in charge of the National Frestonian Park and a Justice of the Peace, Carmello di Piazzo-Bramley. There’s even a Minister for Public Health and Street Cleaning; 12-year-old Caroline Yeo-Bramley.

Although Frestonia hasn’t got it’s own currency yet, she has got a national flag, designed of course by the Minister of Propaganda. The Frestonians stood by proudly as their flag was solemnly raised outside the People’s Hall for the very first time. 

Well, with me in the studio is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has come straight from the Frestonian Foreign Office in St Ann’s Road.

Erm, David Rappaport-Bramley, this is of course a very serious political move by your residents. Er, what’s brought about this break with the United Kingdom?

David

Well the basic thing was dissatisfaction with the GLC. They planned to redevelop the area and knock down all the houses and build factories, which is against the wishes of all the people who live within the area.

Martin Young

Have you had a continuing dialogue of meaningful discussions with the GLC?

David

I wouldn’t say it’s been continuing. I’d say it’s been disjointed and er the inhabitants have been dialoguing but the GLC haven’t been listening.

Martin Young

You are of course in some ways an illegal regime since you’re actually squatters in the area at the time. Don’t you think that they might come along to evict you?

David

Erm, well we know we’re going to leave the area shortly but we’re rather proud of squatting the area because this was how Great Britain started; a Norman Conquest. Great Britain was squatted and that’s become the great nation that it is today. 

Martin Young

But supposing they do come along to evict you, which is perfectly within their rights before Frestonia is established. What will you do?

David

Well, if we get our state made legal then there could be a United Nations peace-keeping force coming in to protect us from the GLC.

Martin Young

One thing I couldn’t help noticing in researching into Frestonia today was that everybody’s called Bramley.

David

Yes.

Martin Young

Why’s that?

David

Well, the GLC have promised to rehouse all families and now we’ve formed one big family of 120 people, so we hope to be rehoused all together. 

Martin Young

So, all the Bramleys will be rehoused together.

David

Right.

Martin Young

Seriously, what do you hope to achieve from this very engaging publicity stunt?

David

Right, well there’s been a lot of effort gone into it. Really, it is one big gesture just to show that all the normal paths haven’t worked. The GLC still seem to want to build factories on this land. All the council tenants are united with everybody in the area, that they don’t want it.

Martin Young

Well, it’s an interesting story. I’m sure we’ll be following it. Thank you very much.

David

Thank you.

At its height, a national census identified around 120 Frestonians united as members of the Bramley family.

Some reminiscences from someone who grew up in Frestonia

International relations

Getting stamped with a visa for unlimited entry was a highpoint of any tourist trip to Frestonia.

Playwright, poet, and squatting activist Heathcote Williams-Bramley, who lived in nearby Notting Hill, was appointed Ambassador to Great Britain, (he premiered his play The Immortalist at the National Theatre of Frestonia in 1978).

The Republic issued its own postage stamps, visiting tourists could have their passports stamped with the official Frestonian visa stamp and pick up a copy of the national newspaper, the Tribal Messenger. The Clash recorded parts of Combat Rock at Ear Studios in the People’s Hall on Olaf Street.

The international media were captivated, with coverage from the UK current affairs TV show, Nationwide, and attention from news teams across the United KingdomUnited States, Canada, Spain, Denmark and Japan. The neighbouring UK government were forced to respond and Nicholas Exelby-Bramley (Albery’s pseudonym) received letters from Sir Geoffrey Howe MP, and Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC.

A letter was also sent to the ‘independent kingdom’ of Hay-on-Wye:

The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia

TO THE PEOPLE OF HAY
FROM THE FREE AND INDEPENDENT
CITIZENS OF FRESTONIA
WHO CURRENTLY RULE
THE CORRUGATED WAVES IN WEST LONDON

LOYAL GREETINGS!

The three streets now known as Frestonia since early last year were an open sewer in Dickens’s day: the Jarrow Hunger Marchers in the Twenties asked to visit the poorest part of London and were taken on a conducted tour of the area en route to Speakers’ Corner. It is much the same now the Rat Safari Park is still going strong but we love it! small higgledy-piggedy houses with all the back gardens joined together by mutual agreement. Windmills are planned, the streets are shortly to be turfed, and the new National Theatre of Frestonia is currently the only available venue for the Sex Pistols and much other nameless wildness.

The GLC has forfeited her rights to the property, having callously torn down the surrounding areas to construct jerry-built flash cubes and vertical slums. Frestonia is a giant squat, and since the GLC have a policy of only rehousing families from squats we’ve all changed our name to Bramley after Bramley Road, one of the three streets in Frestonia. “In Frestonia we’re a family. At the moment there’s 123. And we all call ourselves Bramley To fuck up the powers that be!” Ministries in the Frestonian Government of which every citizen is a member from birth include the Ministry of Relativity, the Ministry of Free Labour, and the Ministry of Secrets Not Worth Knowing. Other Ministries are available on request and invention from the British Embassy, 107 Freston Road, W10, Frestonia. Also Postage Stamps denomination 9D… Nine Doleniks: a division of the Frestonian Exchange, which are emblazoned with the Frestonian Coat of Arms: Nos Sumus Una Familia. We are all one family, and you can have your passport stamped with an immortal visa giving permanent entry rights at the Frestonian Embassy, 2 Blenheim Crescent, Portabello Road, Albion Free State.

Sympathetic mutterings have been received from the Danish Embassy, the World Service Authority who issue World Passports, and the Micro Patriological Society of Chicago!

GO WITH THE GLOW AND RENEW THE GLUE!

 

Frestonia 1st anniversary, Freston Road, London W11. Oct 1978


Frestonian Culture

As well as establishing a National Film Institute (which, appropriately, showed Passport to Pimlico and a feature on The Sex Pistols), Frestonia also opened ‘The Car Breaker Art Gallery’ on 14th December 1979. A review in The International Times the following year described the opening:

‘AN OPEN DOOR Art Gallery has just opened in Frestonia, London, and is now operating as one of the onlyexhibitionsites open on a non-commercial basis to more or less anyone who wants to exhibit their work. To be known as the Car Breaker Art Gallery it’s at 4 Bramley Road, London W. 10 (Latimer Rd. Tube) Tel: 01- 221 5092. Someone who normally hates all art galleries reports that the opening exibition was “Better than I feared”. This means it is probably very good.’

The gallery played host to some interesting exhibitions – including a joint exhibition by Giles Leaman and Martin Piper entitled Splotches in Space (1980) and street art, including:

‘…a whale on Stoneleigh Street, created for Ken Campbell’s production of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and an urban Vietnam Apocalypse Now re-enactment. The latter… consisting of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ at 2am, floodlights, bicycles, LSD and gloss paint.’ (Vague 2010)

Car Breaker Gallery also hosted an exhibition by Brett Ewins, who designed the 2000AD comic strips Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. This attracted 2000AD fan Jo Rush to migrate to Frestonia, who – while staying at The Apocalypse Hotel (a graffiti-covered shopfront that housed around half a dozen punks) – formed the Mutoid Waste Company, creating sci-fi inspired sculptures out of scrap metal. Mutoid came to play a pivotal role in the emerging warehouse scene in the eighties and nineties, collaborating with sound systems like Sprial Tribe to build vast mechanical beasts and cyberpunk structures at raves throughout the UK. After creating a huge skull out of a burned-out bus and a centaur from old engine parts, Rush took his creations to Glastonbury and before long became a regular part of the festival (building iconic monuments such as Car Henge). In 2007, Pip Rush (Jo’s younger borther) and Bert Cole brought their own creation – a fire spitting spider called Arcadia – citing Frestonia’s ‘mutoid tradition of hi-tech hedonism and scrap metal sculpture’ as their inspiration (Barry 2015).

The Republic announced its intention to:

“generate our own power supply… [and] our own national radio station, which will in no way interfere with the broadcasts of neighbouring nations.”

Industry

Part of the agreement regarding the rezoning of Frestonia included accommodation for light industry, so that the craftspeople could continue to live and operate workshops in the area.

Nicholas Albery envisaged a craft village, perhaps inspired in part by the Findhorn Ecovillage, under development in Moray, Scotland around the same time.

Nick’s ambitions sought simply to provide basic amenities for craftspeople who might need space to run, for example, a lute workshop. As resident and Co-Op Secretary (’77-’78), Freddie Venn recalls, these humble plans were charged as frivolous.

As a Friendly Society the Co-op could only raise up to a million pounds. The NHHT came in with 6 million, and a vote decided that they would take over, bringing in their own designers etc.

Venn disagreed with the decision and resigned her post in protest.

As she puts it, “To this day one can see the ‘super expensive workshops’ to qualify for the zoning of the  time opposite us alongside the People’s hall.”

 

Bramleys Housing Co-Operative

Following international press coverage, the residents formed the Bramleys Housing Co-operative in order to negotiate with Notting Hill Housing Trust for the continued residence and acceptable redevelopment of the site.

The Co-operative worked with the Notting Hill Housing Trust to build quality homes for the residents who wished to stay. The furore forced the GLC to negotiate and eventually the Bramleys Housing Co-operative was formed, assisted by local lawyer Martin Sherwood, giving the residents a voice in development plans for the area.

Although concessions were made, the site was redeveloped to make safe, livable homes for the residents, many of which live there to this day, along with the generations that followed.

Some residents were unhappy with this loss of independence and moved away but, according to Tony Sleep (a photojournalist who documented Frestonia), ‘everybody realised that we had to become more formal, more organised… more responsible perhaps. Less anarchic’ (Kerr 2014). There was also increasing issues with drinking and drugs: ‘the residents of Frestonia [had] developed a strong social fabric and complex cultural life before it fell into decline to the crime, drugs and social problems that gradually infiltrated the community’.

Today, Bramleys Housing Co-operative still manages the properties which were built on the Frestonia Site by Notting Hill Housing Trust, and its members live as a close-knit community. Some are the descendants of original Frestonians, although there has been a significant influx of new residents.

Large new office developments (also named ‘Frestonia’) were built on adjacent sites, and these are now occupied by the headquarters of high-street retailer Cath Kidson, as well as Monsoon Accessorize and Talk Talk.

But does the Republic still exist? The United Nations never responded to the application, nor was the notion ever officially dismissed. Some conclude that the Republic of Frestonia is “as much a reality now as it was then. And the spirit in which it was formed serves as a reminder that, faced with oppression, anything can happen when we work together as a family.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s loads more here

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on London’s grassroots organising: feminism in Islington in the 1970s

Beyond The Fragments:
Feminism and the Making of Socialism (A Local Experience)


by Lynne Segal

An account by feminist & socialist activist Lynne Segal of the grassroots feminist and community organising she was involved in in Islington, North London, in the 1970s.
Nicked from ‘Beyond the Fragments’, Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright, and Lynne Segal.
Reposted here because it’s interesting and useful.

Lynne Segal was born in is an Australia, and became involved in the anti-authoritarian milieu of the Sydney Libertarians (known as ‘The Push’), and has always remained within the libertarian wing of Left politics. She emigrated to London in 1970 and for the next decade her main energies went into grass roots politics in Islington, North London, helping to set up and run a women’s centre, an alternative newspaper, the Islington Gutter Press, and supporting anti-racist politics. It was a decade in which the extra-party Left was on the ascendant, but divided structurally and ideologically.

With Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright, Lynne Segal wrote Beyond the Fragments in 1979, arguing for broader alliances among trade unionists, feminists and left political groups. Its argument quickly won a large following leading to a major conference in Leeds, Yorkshire, in 1980 and a second edition in 1981. In 1984, publisher Ursula Owen invited her to join the Virago Advisory Board and write an appraisal of the state of feminism, resulting in her first book, Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism. This book reached a broad audience, with its questioning of gender mythologies, whether of women’s intrinsic virtues, or men’s inevitable rapaciousness, which had been appearing in the work of many popular feminist writers in the 1980s.

 

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This article was originally based on a talk given together with Sheila Rowbotham at the Islington Socialist Centre in August 1978. Since the first edition of Beyond the Fragments I have rewritten sections of it. The sympathetic comment and criticism of the first edition by my friends and comrades in Big Flame and by other independent socialist feminists have been of invaluable assistance to me in clarifying some of the ideas which appeared rather sketchily in the first edition. I am very grateful to all those who participated in this learning process with me.

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Certain political ideas and experiences are always more fiercely and critically debated than other on the left. The debate is usually confined within certain orthodox frameworks of discussion. The need for a revolutionary party and programme, the relation between party and class, and the nature of the working-class road to power, are among these classic debates. As the theses pile up on these important debates, the actual experiences of people as they consciously, and less consciously, participate in the struggle for a better life can disappear from history. And that is most unfortunate.

I believe we can learn useful, if limited, lessons from the activities of a group of people struggling for socialism, fighting for feminism, within their own small groups in one local area. I am writing as a woman with a libertarian feminist history, living in Islington since 1972. Islington is an inner suburb of London. It does not have any large industrial base, workers are mostly employed in the public sector, or in small factories. Like me, many people who live in Islington don’t work there. My political experience has been as a community activist; it is not based on the workplace.

I will be trying to draw on my experiences in the last seven years, not just in the women’s movement, but also as part of the libertarian left in London. It is a subjective account, but I hope it will raise general issues concerning women and revolutionary politics and the problems we face. I was lucky in that I wasn’t around in England in 1969 and 1970 when the reaction of the whole of the left to women’s liberation was derisory and dismissive. Though I do clearly remember Sheila’s books being dismissed by left colleagues of mine at work, and declared both diversionary and reformist.

In 1970 a group of women organised a demonstration against the Miss World contest; some were arrested, and they later produced a pamphlet which explained what they had done. And this was just one of the things I remember that influenced and inspired me in 1972-because that pamphlet Why Miss World? not only talked of the humiliation of women as sex objects, but also of the lack of confidence and fear these women felt mounting the first protest against their own oppression. It wasn’t just that women felt frightened to protest politically, but that most of us found it difficult to speak publicly at all; we were used to relating passively and dependently to the world as presented to us by men. We were used to being dominated by men: it was hard not to want to be. And it really hasn’t been easy to change this, either then or since.

Libertarianism
For me, in many ways the ideas of the libertarian left and feminism did seem to be in harmony. I will try and explain this. First of all, they both seemed new. The libertarian politics of the seventies did not really owe much to the anarchism of the past. Though anarchism has a very long history, as old as Marxism, the student radicals of the 1968 generation were in the main not radicalised through the efforts of the ‘organised’ libertarian and anarchist groupings. I know this also from personal experience as I was a student anarchist in Australia in the early sixties but I took me a few years to begin to understand the political Ideas that came to prominence after May 1968.

Libertarian politics were more of a genuinely spontaneous upsurge of ideas which drew their inspiration from many different thinkers, from Marcuse, Che Guevara and the early Marx, to Laing and Vaneigem.(l) This upsurge was a product of capital’s period of boom, when everything did seem possible, when in the Western world capitalism’s main problem seemed to be how to keep buying all the goods it could produce. This led to the reaction against pointless consumption; ‘consume more, live less’. The emphasis was on the quality of life in capitalist society and this is why psychological writings seemed important, as did those of the young Marx when he spoke of the effect of alienated labour on the individual spirit and saw the division of labour itself as a stunting of human potential.

To those who had become active in 1968 it seemed a time when anything could happen. Looking back on it, we could say that from Vietnam we drew the lesson that American imperialism, despite its technology, was not invincible. Though I’m not sure that we were aware of this at the time, we only knew whose side we were on. We certainly felt politically inspired seeing a small nation fighting ‘the Beast’ to the death. From the mass workers’ struggles which occurred throughout France in 1968 and in Italy in 1969, people drew the lesson that the working class was prepared to fight for a better life, and that it had not been bought off by consumer durables. Students, for example, were inspired by the thought that they had a political part to play, and could act together with industrial workers, as happened in the worker-student alliances of May 1968, and the worker-student assemblies in Turin in 1969. So class struggle was once again on the agenda, and the class militancy which continued in Italy and in Britain in the early seventies showed how difficult it was for the ruling class to keep a grip on the situation in a period of economic boom. That the optimism of the early seventies and the militancy of workers’ struggles which inspired us then, have not been able to survive the capitalist economic recession of the mid seventies is something I will return to later on.

After 1968 the emphasis among the new largely ex-student libertarian left centred on the following issues. First, autonomy – which is not the same as individualism, but meant to us taking control over your own life. Libertarians believed that people could act to change the quality of their own lives; they were more than just the passive tools of historical forces. There was a deep suspicion of any organisation that claimed to do things for or in the name of the people. ‘Power to the People’ was one of the slogans we were chanting, as we watched our friends arrested on demonstrations, or were hauled off ourselves. As we saw it, we were the people, up against the repressive forces of the state, in our attempt to change our lives now. This meant that we were slow to form any alliances with others in our struggle, whether it was to seek support from the organised labour movement or the organised left, or progressive forces in local authorities or the left of the Labour Party. We saw them all as intrinsically reformist and hostile to our attempts to control our own lives. This wasn’t inconsistent with their response to our activities.

Secondly, personal relations – you’ve got ‘to live your politics’. We argued that our social relations now must reflect or ‘prefigure’ the social relations we want to create after the revolution. We said that the desire to change your own life and the world about you now is an important part of building for socialism in the future. So we opposed the Leninist position that you couldn’t change anything under capitalism, you could only build an organisation to overthrow it. We thought that there would be little reason for people to join a revolutionary movement unless it brought an immediate improvement in the quality of their lives, as against those who believed that you could make a split between public politics and private life. We were critical of those who might participate in some form of socialist politics and yet remain authoritarian and uncritical of their relation to their wives or their children at home; or to others in their work situation. We had in mind, for instance, the male militant who left his wife at home to mind the children while he did his ‘political’ work. We wanted our political activity to make room for those with children, and also to include the children.

Thirdly, you organise around your own oppression. You begin from your position as a woman, a squatter, a claimant, etc. This was linked to attacks on the nuclear family. We read both Laing and Reich, and were quite certain that we could never return to the restricted and restricting lifestyle of our parents. We saw that oppression, the power of one person to dominate and control the life of another, could be as much a part of personal social relations as of economic social relations. This led to an emphasis on collective living, collective childcare, and the setting up of nurseries.(2) The family was seen as the producer of neurosis and ‘the policeman in the head’ which leads people to collaborate in their own oppression.

Fourthly, the rejection of vanguards and any hierarchy of struggle. We rejected the idea that the industrial working class must be the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. Libertarians argued that all areas of life were of importance to revolutionaries. The traditional left was seen as only concerned with people at the workplace, not in the community. But libertarians always argued that people who worked at home, minded the kids, etc., were doing as important work as that done in the factories. This was expressed theoretically In a rejection of the Trotskyist left’s permanent illusion that capitalism was on the point of collapse, saved only by props like the ‘permanent arms economy’, as IS used to suggest.(3) We felt this underestimated the role of the state in stabilising the economy, not just through economic measures such as investment policies but through the hegemony of state ideology, and ideas expressed at every level. We saw the capitalist state as far more resilient and flexible than much of the left had previously argued. So libertarians developed richer theories of the role of the state, and its hard and soft forces of repression, not just through the police and the army but via education, health, sex role conditioning, etc.(4)

Before most of the left we: emphasised work with youth. Though left groups did have their youth sections, libertarians were interested in practical work, setting up youth houses, youth newspapers, adventure playgrounds and free schools. This youth work was not only practical but also prefigurative in its stress on young people being able to experience a different situation and develop a sense of self-determination.(5)

We worked mainly in community politics, starting community papers, squatters’ and claimants’ groups, and trying to organise around housing. ‘Decent homes for all’ was the slogan we used, aiming in particular at the failure of local authorities to provide housing for single people.
The squatting movement, was reduced in strength as people could no longer bear to keep on moving, keep on facing the bailiffs, as they were bought off by councils with licensed short-life houses, and the number of empty houses declined. But it did nevertheless win certain limited victories. In Islington it eventually forced the council to change its policies and begin providing housing for single people: It introduced the notion of ‘shared singles’ to the housing bureaucracy, to add to their ‘family units’. (This can’t simply be dismissed as ‘reformism’ since struggles were not fought in a reformist way.)

This was the time of the ‘gentrification’ or middle-class take-over of working-class .housing in inner city boroughs like Islington. Landlords conspired with estate agents like Prebbles to ‘winkle’ tenants out of their homes. There was a campaign against Prebbles by the Islington Tenants Campaign which picketed Prebbles’ office for many months until a historic high court judgement against them ruled that all non-industrial pickets were illegal. We did extensive research on the activities of the big property sharks like Raine, Freshwater and Joe Levy; and how the housing system worked in general until we felt we could understand what was going on.

We resisted all notions of revolutionary leadership. Living our politics meant sharing skills and breaking down all authoritarian relations now. We emphasised the creative aspects of politics, that it should be fun, and not dreary. All bourgeois social relations around work, the family, ‘pleasure’, possessions and relationships were challenged. This was perhaps why we supported those most oppressed by bourgeois society, prisoners, the homeless, claimants, etc., and believed that you could only fight back if you shared the material situation of the most oppressed. ‘When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose’ the tough ones sang along with Dylan. But misery does not always equal militancy, and those most oppressed are sometimes so smashed that it’s hard for them to fight back at all.

Feminism

Many of these issues which I’ve described as central to libertarian thought were also central to feminist thought.

First, the autonomy of the women’s movement was the crucial issue for women. Though left groups saw this as divisive, we were aware that their programmes of formal equality for women could conceal the actual subordination of women in their own organisations. Women had to organise their own fight against male domination; it could not be done for them.

Secondly, feminists always emphasised the importance of the personal and the subjective, the need for a total politics. By this we meant a politics that saw the links between personal life and the oppression of women at home, and the exploitation of men and women in paid work. Women demanded changes in the social relations between men and women now. We wanted to help to break down the isolation of women in the home, and to begin to change ourselves. We had to change ourselves, because the whole ideology of sexism ensured that we had always seen ourselves, and were seen by men, in ways which made us feel inferior and allowed men to dominate us. We spoke of our sexuality being defined and controlled by men, as well as the suppression of women’s sexuality in most hetero-sexual relationships. We supported the demands of lesbians, and the importance of women exploring their own sexuality. We knew that women’s sexual passivity and sexual objectification by men was linked to our feelings of powerlessness.

Thirdly, as feminists we organised around our own oppression. We also criticised the nuclear family, seeing it as the seat of women’s oppression. But we were not simply concerned with the repressive ideological role of the family but saw ,it as the place where woman do unpaid work, thus creating the basis for our social subordination in general. We argued that the way in which domestic labour, childcare and work are organised today will all have to be changed before there can be any real liberation for women. We saw that the Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle had not proved itself an adequate theoretical tool to conceptualise these changes. While the traditional left was slow to realise the anti-capitalist nature of women’s liberation, feminists were able to show how it was the unpaid work done by women in reproducing labour power and servicing the workforce that was essential to capitalist social relations. ‘Women in labour, keep capital in power’ was one of the slogans painted on the wall at the first women’s liberation conference held in Oxford in 1970.

More thoroughly than the libertarians, women developed new theories of the welfare state.(6) Women as mothers came into contact with the state more directly than men, in the form of welfare, nursery provision, education and health services. So it was more urgent for us to analyse the control of the state over our lives. We were aware that it was the inadequacies of these social services that created the burden borne mainly by women today. And we were aware that the provision which was available to us was not what we wanted. For example, women took up many issues in the field of health care. We demanded control over our reproduction. We exposed the way that doctors, who are mainly men, treat women’s specific illnesses with contempt. We publicised the way millions of women are regularly prescribed tranquillisers and other drugs by doctors instead of them examining the social causes of many women’s problems. Indeed, feminists were able to establish that the medical profession saw femininity itself as in some way pathological.(7) The feelings of passivity, dependence and powerlessness, felt by most women today, are rightly seen by psychiatrists as opposed to mental health. But instead of these aspects of femininity being attributed to the oppressive socialisation of women, reinforced in everyday life, they are wrongly seen by most doctors as natural to women. These are only a few of many such issues.

Fourthly, the women’s movement also rejected ‘stageism‘-the idea that women’s liberation could be put off until after the revolution.(8) We argued that our struggle against male domination, or patriarchy, was as central as the struggle against class oppression.(9) We said that women’s oppression could not be reduced to class exploitation, that though interconnected with it, it pre-dated it and could continue after the smashing of capitalist class relations.

It was women who not only introduced many new issues into socialist politics, but also developed new forms of organisation – ones which would enable us all to participate more fully in revolutionary politics. We introduced consciousness-raising groups, where all women could learn that their misery, isolation and feelings of inferiority were not simply personal problems but common to nearly all women and the product of material and ideological conditions. We introduced the small group as a more supportive and equal way of discussing things and working together. We wanted the experiences of all women to be respected and the movement to grow on this basis rather than through following general principles. We criticised the formal public meetings of the labour movement and the left where inexperienced and less confident women (and men) felt unable to contribute.

We were opposed to all forms of leaderism, and struggled for equality in all our social relations, because we were aware that the forms of dominance and subordination we were fighting could easily remain invisible, as they had been before. We knew that our struggle began with the need for women to believe that what we could contribute was important and valuable. Through writing, poetry, music and film we began to create a new feminist culture, as a part of changing our consciousness and because we knew that men have dominated every aspect of our life, including all areas of culture. We worked locally in the community, at a time when most of the left, apart from the libertarian left, was not interested in this.

Many of these ideas on the form and nature of political activity and organisation can be illustrated by looking at some of the things which the women’s movement initiated in Islington in the early seventies. In August 1972, a group of women opened the first local women’s centre in York Way. This was one of the first women’s centres anywhere in England. The idea of having a centre was in itself different from the way in which most of the left organised. A leaflet from Essex Road Women’s Centre explained:

The Women’s Centre grew out of a need to meet and talk to other women about the particular problems that we all face. Many of us feel anxious that we alone are responsible for the problems we have-like loneliness if we’re stuck with our kids all day and can’t get out, finding a decent place to live, worrying about our health and our kids’ health, or worrying about work and keeping a home going as well.

By meeting and talking to other women we found that we are NOT alone in our problems. And when we find that we do share experiences, it’s not only a big relief, but it makes it easier to try and change things that need changing-whether it’s the planning of the street you live in, or whether it’s about contraception or childcare, schools, problems at work, etc. We think that women are in a really strong position to change things-because they are close to the root causes of the problems of day-to-day living, both in the house and at work.

So the idea of the centre was, firstly, as a place to meet and give real support to any women who were in some way trying to break out of their isolation, and, secondly, to allow us to build our confidence and strength that we as women could change things.

At York Way we began one of the first women’s health groups, taking up many of the ideas of the women’s health movement in the States, We were also active in the family allowance campaign, demanding that it be increased and paid directly to women. At about this time the Wages For Housework campaign Was started and began to demand wages for women working in the home. We agreed that it Was valuable to emphasise that domestic work is work, important work which is undervalued and invisible because it is unpaid. All this was a revelation to some people on the left.

We too saw woman’s unpaid domestic labour in the home as central to her oppression, and also central to the reproduction and maintenance of the workforce (labour power) and thus to the maintenance of the capitalist social formation. There was a theoretical debate here, though we were not all aware of it. Wages For Housework, following the analysis of Mariarosa Dalla Costa.(10) argued that women’s work at home was not only essential to capital as we said, but it also produced surplus value-that is, it directly added to the profits which capitalists could make out of their labour force. Because if there were no housewives male workers would have to pay someone to look after them, and thus would demand higher wages. We thought that this whole debate was perhaps not important, because whether or not housewives and other domestic workers produced surplus value, we were equally concerned to challenge the division of labour which consigned women to the home.

It was the pressures of housework, the double shift for ‘working’ women, and our general servicing role which were the major causes of women’s isolation and exploitation at home and at work, as well as of our low self-evaluation and status. So the Wages For Housework campaign seemed wrong at a practical level, because their solution would institutionalise the division of work in the family. (Then are now ideas to implement such a suggestion in Italy and Canada.) It also seemed wrong at a theoretical level being simply the other side of the economism of tradition a Trotskyism, which sees the only way to get power in that class struggle as that of fighting for more and more money through a wages offensive.

We began to argue generally for the Socialisation of housework, for more nurseries, playgrounds, and so on Here it wasn’t just that we widened the areas of political activity in which the left had been active, in order to include women’s needs. There was also the recognition of the need to have control over any gains we might make.

For instance, in the demand for nurseries, we didn’t just demand money from the state for more nurseries, but helped to create more community-based, non-authoritarian, non-sexist relations in the nurseries we helped to establish. Val Charlton describes this in her account of the Children’s Community Centre in North London which was opened in 1972 after feminists had successfully battled for council funding:

We are trying to break away from the traditional authoritarian mode of relating to children and are attempting to offer them as many choices as possible and as much independence as they can cope with. All activities are made available for children of both sexes but it’s not simply enough to treat all the children equally. The boys have frequently already learned their advantage and are quick to make capital of it. There has to be positive support in favour of the girls, who are generally already less adventurous.(11)

Also in 1972 a women’s Holloway Prison Support Group was set up, to campaign around women prisoners. We picketed Holloway Prison saying ‘Free our sisters, free ourselves.’ In 1973 we protested over the death through fire of Pat Cummings in Holloway Prison. We knew that most women are not in prison for crimes of violence. Petty crime, SS fraud, prostitution, etc., are the main reasons for women being sent to prison-often simply attempting to fulfil their social role of caring for their families on inadequate means. Yet, women prisoners are notoriously violent, mostly self-destructively violent – cutting themselves ip and smashing their cells. Used to providing the caring and affection for just a few people, women in prison face he possible break-up of their families and loss of their children. Women face this more than men because women end to support men more than men support women.

In this vulnerable position, official ideology can easily work to persuade the woman in prison that she is not so much ‘criminal’ as maladjusted or sick-another role which women in our society, through powerlessness and training into passivity, are more likely to accept. in line with this, we tried to expose the fraud behind the rebuilding of Holloway Prison as more of a hospital, creating even greater isolation for the women inside. Over 50 per cent of women in Holloway are on drugs, indeed drugs are the only provision which women can freely obtain in Holloway. The new Holloway Prison, which places even greater stress on the therapeutic rehabilitation of women, simply encourages them to blame themselves for the predominantly material problems which landed them in there in the first place.

But York Way was not a good site for a women’s centre. It closed in 1973, and in February 1974 we opened a new women’s centre in Essex Road. Many women’s groups, campaigns and activities started at that women’s centre. The most successful was probably the health group, which produced literature on women’s health, did pregnancy testing, provided a woman, doctor for advice sessions, learnt self-examination, took health classes with school children, collected information on doctors and their treatment of women, provided information on abortion facilities, and, more generally, argued for the importance of preventive health care rather than simply curative medicine. Less successfully, we wrote and distributed leaflets on housing conditions and the isolation of women at home with children. We supported women’s struggles for better housing, and some of us were active in squatting struggles.

By 1975 many campaigns were being co-ordinated by groups originating from the women’s centre. 1974 was the beginning of the various cuts campaigns against the ever-increasing public expenditure cuts. We began campaigning to prevent’ the closure of our local Liverpool Road Hospital, and fought hard for it to be kept open as a community health resource. Some of us were active in the Islington Nursery Action Group, visiting nurseries to help unionise workers and also successfully pressurising the Council, into abandoning its attempts to make cuts in nurseries, showing how the cuts hit women hardest.

The campaigns for ‘more and better services’ emerged at the same time as the government pressure for cuts. It was in November 1974 that the first government circular came demanding cuts. And that’s when a general cuts campaign started in Islington, with its first meeting held in December of that year, initiated by a group of militants, some inside and some outside the Labour Party. As a broad front campaign it was supported by community groups like the women’s centre, tenants’ groups, public sector workers and, in particular, by the many council-funded community service groups like law centres, Task Force and the Neighbourhood Forums. This was perhaps the first time that we got some relationship developing between the libertarian and feminist milieu and the labour movement. But at this time it was an uneasy alliance. It was never given my real support by the Trades Council, which even came out and attacked the campaign after it had held a day of action. This campaign did not last. Today with the left in a stronger position in Islington there is more hope for the new anti-cuts campaign which is being formed.

The National Working Women’s Charter Campaign was also started at this time, holding its first delegate conference in October 1974. It was never very popular with us at Essex Road. This was because of the dominance of the organised left in the Charter and their wrangles over leadership, and also because it was very schematic, being simply a list of demands, and because it was concerned primarily with women in the workplace. Marxists had always argued that woman’s liberation would be achieved through her full participation in waged labour. In this way they were able to subordinate women’s struggles to class struggle. And it was also in this way that they were able to dismiss the importance of organising with housewives or the struggles of those many women marginal to the wage system, for example, prostitutes.

The Working Women’s Charter, a list of ten demands which would improve women’s situation in paid work, was originally put together by a subcommittee of the London Trades Council. It was seen by some women in left groups as an adequate basis for socialist feminists to organise from. Though the demands did include ones around contraception, abortion and nurseries it was not an adequate platform for the socialist feminist current of the women’s movement to base itself on. (And there have always been socialist feminists in the women’s movement despite the different setbacks we have faced in our attempts to organise ourselves. )

The Charter’s inadequacy stemmed from its orthodox reflection of the position that women’s oppression is due to her unequal share in class struggle. The demands did not even criticise the sexual division of labour, which is central to male domination. It is this sexual division of labour which ensures that even if women can go out to work they will in general have the lower-paid jobs and the lower-status jobs. The point is not just that women happen to be low paid, it is that they are overwhelmingly concentrated in ‘women’s jobs’. And these jobs which are available to women are low in pay and status precisely because they are ‘women’s’ jobs’.(12) The threat to male workers of more women entering a particular career, is that by their very presence in any large numbers, they lower the status of that work. The best-known example of this was the change over from male to female secretaries at the end of the nineteenth century.(13) So even at work women are oppressed as much by their sex as by their class position.

The Working Women’s Charter was basically a trade union response to feminism, and it was good to get some response, but it shared the inadequacies of trade unionism towards women. Some of us did however support the Working Women’s Charter activities, although in fact local Charter groups interpreted and used the Charter in quite different ways-in Islington, women were involved in the local Nursery Action Group, in the Liverpool Road Hospital Campaign, in attempts to unionise workers at Marks and Spencers and elsewhere, and organising a general meeting on women in Islington sponsored by the Trades Council. There were, however, many aspects of feminist struggle that the Charter could not incorporate. In 1975, the Working Women’s Charter was rejected by the Trades Union Congress conference. It had fallen between the two stools of feminist and labour movement politics, and in the end could not survive.

In 1975 a local NAC (National Abortion Campaign) group was formed to fight James Whites’s anti-abortion bill. NAC was also organised as a national campaign. But once again many women were suspicious of the national structure, saying that it was not feminist. They saw it as dominated politically by the International Marxist Group (IMG), and objected to its main focus for activities being that of lobbying MPs, seeing this as reformist. Feminists often felt that any national campaigning structure gave women in left groups an advantage over them, in terms of determining policy, as they were more experienced in that form of centrally organised politics. This has always been a problem in the women’s movement, and one of the causes of the deep tensions between women in left groups and nonaligned women, even in the socialist feminist current of the movement. Outside of left groups we moved more slowly, each of us puzzling over the pros and cons of particular tactics, particular slogans, etc., most of us frightened to push ourselves forward, and therefore hostile to those women who already seemed to have all the answers on the questions of tactics and organisation. Today I feel that, difficult as it is, we must all learn to overcome our fear of political differences and be prepared to argue through our politics.

But many women did become involved in local activity against the threatened restrictions on women’s access to abortion facilities, with stalls in the local market and elsewhere. We also organised colourful public protests against the Miss Islington beauty contest, describing the degradation, violence and restriction on women’s lives created by our status as sex objects for men. It· was especially when we challenged this area of men’s control over women, speaking of the daily rape and violence against women that we were most ridiculed in the local press and elsewhere. For it was here that we were most directly challenging the central ideology of male domination, a sexist ideology which not only attributes certain particular characteristics to women that enable men to dominate us, but also belittles and degrades those characteristics it sees as feminine.(14)

Together with the Arsenal Women’s Group and others we held a local conference to try to organise the women’s movement on. a local area basis. We were also actively involved in all the early socialist feminist initiatives at organising in the women’s liberation movement. Many consciousness-raising and study groups started at the centre, and a women’s self-help therapy group was formed, partly as a support for some women who had suffered severe emotional crises, but also because all the women involved saw mental health as an important issue. We saw that many of our deep anxieties and fears were a reaction to our powerlessness, and often because we could not receive any adequate nurturing from men. We were used to providing emotional support, but not to demanding and receiving it. This is behind the current emphasis on feminist therapy, and the creation of a Women’s Therapy Centre in Islington. We talked on women’s liberation at schools like Starcross, a local school for girls, and some women ran classes on women’s liberation for schoolgirls at the centre. A literacy class was set up for women. There was a group for women working in traditional men’s jobs, and, in fact, so many groups that I can’t remember them all.

But, despite all of the creativity and energy which originated from the women’s centre, it was always hard to keep it open to all women for more than a few hours a week, on Saturdays and Wednesday nights. And many women were only active in the centre for about a year, and would then drift off. It was often hard to get the new women who came along involved in the centre, and it was difficult to keep up any good communication between the different groups which did meet there.

Some of us wanted to obtain money for a paid worker at the centre in order to keep it open to co-ordinate and plan activities. But others rejected such an idea out of hand, believing it would be ‘selling out’ to obtain money from the local council or the state, paving the way to our co-option by them. Women also feared that a paid worker would create a hierarchical structure. The first point came from our analysis of the state, which led us to see social workers, for instance, as the repressive ‘soft cops’ of the system. There seemed to be a contradiction between our emphasis on self-help and collective activity and the idea of state funding. Wasn’t the role of the social worker or the state-funded service centre to prevent people taking collective direct action to solve their problems by holding out the false promise of there being some individual solutions for people’s problems? But weren’t we just unpaid radical social workers anyway?

At that time we were less aware of the radical potential for militancy in the state sector workers, living out the contradictions of trying to provide a service for human needs while employed by a state tied to the profitability of capitalism. Many of these workers are very frustrated by the futility of their attempts to meet their clients’ needs. Some social workers, for instance, were already referring people to squatting advisory centres and other groups committed to building struggles around particular issues. It is in the area of social services and the state that the threat to jobs through cuts and closures and rationalisation can be most easily linked to wider possibilities for anti-capitalist struggles, because they raise the question of people’s needs. Many health workers, teachers, etc., are aware that it is not just lack of resources that makes their jobs unsatisfactory. It is also the formal hierarchy and the rigid rules through which the state is organised that makes their jobs so difficult.

The current attack on the funding of so-called voluntary groups, for example, law centres, housing aid centres, and other radical advice centres is precisely because they have been able to provide the space for and have been effective in helping to organise struggles around people’s needs. The money that is being saved by such cuts is often quite negligible, the motivation for them is political. It may be true that these voluntary groups provided new jobs mainly, although not only, for the ‘radical professionals’, but I think that at Essex Road we were not as aware as we might have been of the contradictions over funding, and the possibilities of using it to ‘bite the hand that feeds you’.

With others I have thought more recently about some of these problems and think they need more analysis. The modern state is such a huge and complex organisation, the situation being quite different from that in 1917 Tsarist Russia, from which so much revolutionary strategy derives. Then the state’s role was purely repressive, defending the interests of the ruling class. But the modern state has been formed by the ongoing compromise between the working class movement channelled into reformist political strategy and the capitalist class. The state spreads its tentacles throughout society. Nationalisation, health care, education, care of the young and old, research, funding of the arts are some of the ways in which the modern state interpenetrates society in a way it never did before 1945.

For libertarians and many feminists, instances of the creeping hand of state control were everywhere, from community festivals to nurseries and old people’s homes. We tended to argue that the whole system was rotten, and it was useless to tinker with it. We were not wrong to emphasise the extent of this state control over our daily lives, but we were wrong to see the state in all its ramifications as a monolith, and not see that there could be contradictions in its development. This is particularly clear now that the Tory government is trying to sell off state services to the private sector as fast as it can – continuing the attacks on state welfare already initiated by’ the previous Labour government. Today it should be clearer that we must defend many existing state services, from the National Health Service (NHS) to school crossing patrols. It’s no longer simply a question of the overthrowing of the state, but of a strategy which fights for an expansion and transformation of the services it provides-not necessarily in a centralised form. This raises the whole issue of the nature of a socialist state, which we all need to think about, and which is crucial for us as women fighting the sexual division of labour which is basic to women’s oppression.

Today we need a more sophisticated analysis of reformism and the state, which, on the one hand, is not based on the traditional social democratic idea, and in a different way on the Leninist model, which sees socialism as nationalisation plus state planning, nor, on the other, one which turns its back on the need for struggle to expand state provision. This means a strategy which both defends the welfare institutions of the state when they are under attack while arguing the need to go beyond them. On a small scale this strategy can be illustrated by the 160 women’s aid ‘refuges that have been set up over the last few years to enable battered women to escape from violent husbands. The National Federation Of Women’s Aid was able to obtain local state funding for refuges while insisting that the refuges should be run by and for women and should encourage self-help and independence. Similar examples, as Sheila shows, can be given of nursery victories where funding was provided and the people who fought for it retained control over the nurseries.(16)

But to return to my story, when our women’s centre was forced to close in late 1976, we had sufficient anxieties over whether we were going about things in the right way that few tears were shed. One woman, involved from the start, said, ‘That’s good, now we can start again, and build up another women’s centre.’ But we never did. For the next three years there was no broad-based open women’s liberation group in Islington, though we did have a national Rape Crisis Centre, women’s refuges, a NAC group, and other groups organised around particular issues as well as women’s consciousness-raising and study groups. Today there is a new women’s centre in Islington, but there is little continuity between our old women’s centre and the new one which is being opened. It is as though things are all starting again from scratch and I’m not sure that any lessons have been learned, or could have been learned, from which this new group of women can begin. Those feminists who were active around Essex Road have not become involved in the new centre, most of them saying, ‘Oh no, not the same problems all over again.’

Feminism and the Left

Meanwhile, the traditional left was belatedly trying to catch up with the energy of the women’s liberation movement. In particular they were impressed by the 40,000-strong pro-abortion march of 1975. They weren’t laughing at the ‘women’s libbers’ any more, though of course they did say we were all middle class, or at least that’s what their middle-class leaders were saying. I don’t feel in a position to give a complete analysis of the left’s position on feminism, but I want to give my impressions of the main left groups, ignoring the smaller groups and those that choose to dismiss feminism altogether.

The reason I want to look at the revolutionary left is not to engage in any form of sectarianism, but because as socialist feminists we accept that women’s oppression is an integral part of the capitalist system. As I’ve said, the subordination of women through the division of labour centred on the family is central to the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist system of existing class relations of exploitation. But women’s oppression (like black oppression) is not simply just another aspect of class exploitation. All men do benefit from it, by having power over at least some women, however exploited they themselves may be. But we do realise that only a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society can overcome women’s oppression, class exploitation, and all forms of social domination. We know we must unite all those fighting their oppression with the struggle against class exploitation.

By the mid-seventies, most of the Communist Party (CP) had come officially to accept the need for an autonomous women’s movement. The CP argues that it wishes to make broad alliances with an autonomous women’s movement. Certain CP women have placed great emphasis on the importance of studying the ideology of women’s oppression, the ways in which women as well as men come to accept ideas of women’s inferiority and invisibility. They have also begun to theorise the role of the capitalist state as it organises reproduction and maintains women’s subordination in the interests of the ruling class. Much of the official contribution of CP feminists has tended to be more of a theoretical and intellectual one, though many CP women do actively support NAC, and other feminist initiatives.

The intellectual contribution of CP feminists is consistent with the direction of the CP as outlined in their publication the British Road to Socialism. This direction encourages an ideological offensive against capitalist domination while doing little to build any form of mass working-class resistance. Indeed the CP often finds itself in the position of having to curb actual militancy, which potentially threatens its broad alliances with reformist leaders of the labour movement. For example, in Islington through their control of the Trades Council they have consistently failed to offer any practical support to the most militant industrial struggles which have occurred in the borough. And again, on the whole issue of unemployment they have failed to respond in any practical way to the five occupations which have occurred against redundancies, the largest being the occupation of n when 300 people were made redundant. They were also opposed to the industrial action of the Tyndale teachers in 1976 who were eventually sacked after a campaign was launched against their progressive education methods, supported by the Labour right of the council. These alliances are part of the CP’s general acceptance of a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism in accordance with what is now called ‘Eurocommunism’.

Thus women CP members could be given the space to develop an ideological critique whilst having little impact on their parties overall political direction. The British Road to Socialism does often mention the importance of the women’s liberation movement. But the political contribution of the women’s movement or of other autonomous movements as they ·affect the actual potential for a real revolutionary unification of the working class is not discussed.

Indeed, in the final analysis the British Road to Socialism does not depart from orthodox Marxist analysis. And this is an analysis which overlooks the significance of existing divisions within the working class, and the demands of the women’s movement and of the black movement that the fight against their ‘oppression must be an essential part of the struggle for socialism.

So the CP support for the autonomous women’s movement does not seem to have served to educate its leadership when they write:

Only socialism can overcome the basic contradiction from which every aspect of the crisis flows. Socialism replaces private ownership by public ownership. The basic contradictions of society are removed. [My italics. British Road to Socialism, line 465.]

It seems that CP women have been allowed to do what they wanted, while the CP leadership did what it wanted. Though even this situation of tolerance for feminism has begun to change within the CP today. As the CP and other left groups begin to scent the long-awaited revival of industrial militancy, feminists in the party will be told not to obstruct the ‘turn to the class’.

The International Marxist Group (the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International), does appear to have a more consistent theory and practice in support of the need for an autonomous women’s movement.

Their weekly paper, Socialist Challenge, now takes the question of women’s oppression seriously. But while (‘(aiming to support the women’s liberation movement in its totality, there is still a strong tendency to reduce women’s oppression entirely to class oppression. For example, in 1978 a centre spread in Socialist Challenge which argued for women’s liberation made no analysis of women’s oppression as distinct from class exploitation. It gave no analysis of patriarchy.

The point about this is that while the IMG are prepared to accept women’s right to organise separately, they don’t seem to accept what we have to say on the limitations of orthodox Marxism.16 The way in which they want to integrate feminism and socialism is by adding on ‘women’s demands’ to their existing programme, adding on demands for nurseries, abortion facilities, etc. But again they do not seem to see the need for feminism to transform the whole nature of working-class politics and the left.

As feminists we argue that we are not simply fighting together with men against capitalism as a more exploited section of the class. We are also fighting against male domination now, which manifests itself in all aspects of life, both within and outside of the working class. (Black people of course have a similar theory about their oppression.) So women are central to the struggle against capitalist social relations not only in the workplace but also in the home. We are demanding that men change themselves, that they change their relations to women, and to children, and take on some of the nurturing and caring work which women have always done.

And this is the way in which we want to transform the nature of working-class politics, and overcome the divisions within the working class. It is presumably because of our talk about everyday life, about finding new, non-patriarchal and non-authoritarian ways of relating to and caring for each other that the women’s movement has been dismissed by certain leading members of the IMG as a ‘cultural movement’. The analysis is that because we are not simply making demands on the state, we are not making ‘political demands’. In 1977, John Ross, who sees the women’s movement as a social movement which can make political demands, stated that the issue of women’s rights to abortion only became political when it began to make demands on the state.I7 Such an analysis obviously would be rejected by most feminists.

So while the lMG has accepted the organisational autonomy of the women’s movement, and indeed have now set up women’s caucuses within their own organisation, I don’t think that they accept the political autonomy of feminism as adding a new dimension to the nature of class politics. The fact that we believe that women’s oppression cannot be understood simply within the Trotskyist analysis of ‘the historic interests of the working class’ does not necessarily mean that we as socialist feminists ignore the working class and fail to prove ourselves true revolutionary socialists. The fact that some of us may not have joined a revolutionary organisation which we feel has not adequately taken up and integrated the insights of feminism does not mean that we are not a part of the struggle to build one.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group in the Trotskyist tradition in Britain and one which has broken from many orthodox positions of Trotskyism, does not accept the need for an autonomous women’s movement at all. Their basic attitude to the women’s movement is determined by the way they see themselves as the only ‘real revolutionaries’. This means that for the SWP, fighting for women’s liberation, like building the class struggle, is one and the same thing as building the SWP. If you accept the need for a revolutionary socialist perspective, then you join the SWP, they say. So they reject the need for either the organisational or the political autonomy of the women’s movement.

‘Class struggle is a form of warfare, and in warfare there has to be a single leadership,’ says Chris Harman from the central committee of the SWP, echoing Lenin, in What is to be Done? in 1902. So the need for any organisational independence of women is rejected. Women’s oppression is derived from capitalist exploitation, he argues, so they reject the need for a political independence for women organising.(18)

When the SWP comes to write about the women’s movement, all that I have ever found are jibes about it being middle class. Thus Anna Paczuska, one of the SWP’s leading writers on women’s politics, dismisses the 1979 socialist feminist conference like this:

All we’ve got is a movement of middle class women, many in their thirties, polishing their memories for the glossy magazines, complacently surrounded by mortgages and monthly subscriptions to Which magazine … The movement is dying on its feet or rather in its Habitat armchairs. It is being choked to death by respectability, nostalgia and direct aid from the state and the Establishment. [Socialist Worker, 7 April 1979.]

The term ‘middle class’ is one of the favourite terms of abuse used by the SWP. Of course, they never bother to define the contemporary working class, or the position, for instance, of teachers. For the SWP, teachers are working class when they are in the SWP or are attending union meetings, but middle class when they attend a women’s liberation conference. I think that many workers would be surprised and insulted to learn that they have never had mortgages, magazines or comfortable furniture. It is true that we do need to distinguish a person’s class origin from their class perspective, but the SWP certainly makes’ no attempt to do so. As they are aware when it suits them, there is a real need to develop a new understanding of the working class which includes proletarianised white collar sectors such as teachers, technicians, etc. So why resort to mere hypocrisy?

In this piece and many others which have appeared in Socialist Worker the weekly paper of the SWP, and elsewhere, Anna shows herself to be not just ambivalent about but quite blatantly hostile towards the women’s movement. She is concerned to dismiss us and our activities altogether.

In a more recent article in which she is referring to the three of us writing this book, she comments:

They do not believe that the working class has the capacity or the creativity to win the struggle for women’s liberation. They have no trust so they separate off their struggles for themselves. [Socialist Worker, 18 August 1979.]

Here Anna is illustrating the SWP position, which I have referred to as the orthodox Marxist position, which takes no account of divisions within the class as barriers to class unity. Against this position, we argue that a strong and independent women’s movement, which seeks to understand and organise itself around the struggles of women, is a political necessity for changing the nature of the left and, more importantly, overcoming the divisions within the class and society.

Moreover statements made by Anna should not be seen as the voice of an individual-they represent the views on women of an overwhelming majority on the male-dominated Central Committee of the SWP. However, within Women’s Voice, the women’s magazine and organisation started by SWP members, the situation is more complex. The Central Committee of the SWP want Women’s Voice to be a ‘periphery organisation’ of the SWP, organising with working-class women, primarily in the workplace, in order to draw ‘the best of them’ into the SWP. However, many SWP women in Women’s Voice are opposed to this position. They want a greater degree of independence for Women’s Voice as a sister organisation of the SWP, and they do want to give more importance to women’s struggles against all aspects of their oppression. Unfortunately, however, many of them still continue to dismiss the women’s movement as middle class and reformist, unorganised and unable to relate to working class women. It was this sort of attitude which led them a few years ago to organise a separate abortion demonstration after the official NAC one.

Contrary to this view, I believe that there are many women in the socialist feminist current of the women’s movement who do also want to locate their politics in the current situation and build a working-class base to the women’s movement. The SWP is not alone in holding this perspective, though they have perhaps done more about it. Although we may not get many working-class women along to our conferences and local meetings, many of the initiatives of the women’s movement in Women’s Aid, rape crisis centres, nursery campaigns, cuts campaigns like the one to defend the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in London, and others, clearly do involve working-class women. The women’s movement did mobilise in defence of the Trico women on strike for equal pay, and the Grunwick strikers who were demanding union recognition. Many feminists have been active in trades councils and tenants’ associations. We don’t deny that we have problems in developing a working-class orientation, but we think that it is politically wrong for Women’s Voice to dismiss the importance of the women’s movement and to deny what they have learned from it. Even the success of their new Women’s Voice magazine came after it began to model itself more closely on the women’s liberation magazine, Spare Rib, borrowing many ideas from that publication.

I also cannot accept the degree of workplace orientation of Women’s Voice which leads them still to accept a priority of struggle which places many of women’s central struggles against male domination at the periphery. Thus Lindsey German writes of women’s movement initiatives:

Working class women are related to in most areas where they are weakest (in battered wives’ homes or rape crisis centres) rather than where women are strongest (in unions and tenants’ associations) … [Socialist Review, November 1978.]

And ‘Reclaim the Night’ demonstrations, against the harassment and violence which women daily face in the streets, are referred to as ‘a “soft” issue’. There is an argument for considering where women are strongest. But in fact women are not strong in unions today, and are not getting any stronger, even, if their membership is rising numerically. We believe that the only way women in unions will get stronger is if they are supported from the outside by a strong women’s movement. It’s a dialectical process, which the SWP in spite of its Marxism, seem unable to see. Of course, ‘Reclaim the Night’ and NAC are helped by support from women in trade unions, and women in trade unions are helped by the support they can get from the women’s movement.

While Women’s Voice has shown itself at times to be effective in mobilising support for women’s struggles, I think the priority which they place on recruiting to the SWP, and the fact that they accept the identification of joining their party with holding a revolutionary perspective, means that Women’s Voice could not itself become the focus for building a mass women’s movement.

What we have got to get right in the women’s movement, to confront the left and the labour movement, is the interplay between sex and class oppression. Not only are they both central, but they feed off each other. And they are not reducible either one to the other. Whereas the orthodox Marxist analysis puts class before sex, and Lindsey German writes: ‘The fundamental division is not between the sexes, but between those who produced the wealth in society and those who rob them of it’ (Socialist Review, September 1979) there are also ‘revolutionary feminists’ who put sex before class. They say: ‘Women’s revolution is the revolution. Sex struggle is the struggle .. .’(19) This is not the place to develop a critique of revolutionary feminism. Though I see a political theory which seems to write off half of humanity as a biological enemy as absurd. However, some of the issues revolutionary feminists have emphasised, those of rape, pornography and male violence against women are central to feminism and need to be taken up by socialist feminists and the socialist movement as a whole.

But I would argue now that it is not sufficient simply to talk of organising around your own oppression, as libertarians and revolutionary feminists have done. For instance, although we are all oppressed as women, it is not true that we are all oppressed in the same way, even as women. Black and working-class women are oppressed in distinct ways, and we need to understand this in order to build solidarity amongst women. Without a more general perspective we won’t be a part of many of the most important anti-capitalist struggles today, struggles which involve women obviously, black struggles, anti-imperialist struggles, and the growth of the new working-class offensive that is needed in this period of ferocious Tory attacks on the working class. Feminists do need a socialist perspective, but a Marxism which does not base itself on feminism, which does not recognise that the division within the working class and society as a whole necessitates a strong and autonomous women’s movement, is not what we call ‘socialist’. It will not liberate women.

Socialism in One Borough

The main left groups did not seem to have found adequate ways of integrating Marxism and feminism in their theory or practice. But by the mid-seventies it was also becoming increasingly clear to me that there were problems and limitations in the political perspectives of many of us active simply within the women’s movement. Most of us did believe that full women’s liberation depended on the destruction of all hierarchical relations, of class, race, and sex. ‘There will be no women’s liberation without revolution. There will be no revolution without women’s liberation.’ The women’s. movement alone, however, didn’t seem to equip most of us with a full interpretation of modern capitalism, and the way things were moving in the struggle against it, both nationally and internationally.

A split remained between women’s politics which produced a clear understanding of personal relations and personal oppression in everyday life, and the politics of the left groups which seemed more able to produce an understanding of the world as a totality. This in turn reflects, of course, the traditional division between women’s concern about people and their feelings and men’s concern about practical matters and the big wide world. We could always take up the subjective side of struggles, but in some areas could not always go further than this. This was one of the reasons why towards the end of 1974 I started shifting my energies more towards a local political paper, the Islington Gutter Press. This was a libertarian socialist and feminist paper which some of the women who set up the women’s centre had also worked on.

It was our inability at Essex Road to get working-class women involved, as well as the fact that women who had established the centre were no longer enthusiastic about it, that led me to seek new political initiatives. But it had been the writings of, and the discussion in, the women’s movement that enabled me to get a clearer theoretical perspective on the world, or at least a real understanding of women’s subordinate place in it. Our activities at Essex Road did increase our confidence that we could contribute politically, and so we became more confident both emotionally and theoretically. I think this point is made more generally by the American socialist feminist Linda Gordon when she writes …

…once people do connect deeply felt personal problems to larger political structures, they often go on to make political sense out of the whole society rather quickly. This is- not merely hypothetical; many women in the last decade moved rapidly from complaints about sexual relationships to feminism to socialism.(20)

Working on the Gutter Press gave us an understanding of the area we lived in. It took us several years to get to grips with the complexities of the local political scene. We began to understand some of the workings of the local state, and how local authority finance worked. We made more contact with local men and women. We learned more about housing problems in the borough, the various struggles for better services, the inactivity of the Islington Trades Council, and the activity of the small Labour left in trying to get more progressive policies adopted inside a Labour council.

We tried to make the links between the different struggles and activities we were reporting on; for better housing, and against the abuses of private landlords and property boom speculators, against the decline of local industry, for better education and for more space for youth, against racism, against sexism, against all welfare cuts and for control over services. We were not parochial in our approach to these issues, but always tried to place them ‘in a global perspective’ declaring ourselves interested ‘in what went on, in Hackney, in Haringey or even Haiphong’.

We had remained independent of any of the left groups because we didn’t want them to tell us what to do. We thought they were all authoritarian, hierarchical and male dominated. Though, of course, similar problems of professionalism and male’ domination cropped up continuously-on the paper. More importantly, we also knew that apart from Big Flame they. did not take seriously our politics which emphasised local work and attempts to organise on an area basis, which differed from their focus on industrial activity or particular national campaigns.(21) We believed, and rightly I think, that their emphasis on recruitment and party building, and their reliance on launching national campaigns, could interfere with our attempts at sustained local organising in a way which was open and sensitive to the particular activities and needs of all those engaged in any form of resistance or struggle. But we did also worry about becoming isolated as a small group producing a local socialist paper but not being accountable to any wider socialist grouping.

In May 1978, the Gutter Press organised a local socialist conference, partly to overcome our own feelings of isolation, and our own failure to grow as a collective and get more people directly involved in the paper. We also wanted to see if there were ways in which the paper could become more efficient in its attempt to provide support for and link different areas of struggle, by becoming more accountable to a larger grouping of socialists with a similar political perspective to ours. We wrote that we wanted, ‘to help stimulate enduring organisational links bridging the community and industrial struggles … We feel that it is possible to. create greater co-ordination and support between people involved in local struggles. In the absence of a militant Trades Council, which could do just such a job, we are looking for new possibilities of co-ordination.’ (Gutter Press leaflet, March 1978.) At the conference, which was attended by 150 people, we found that there were a large number of people, inside and outside of left groups, and inside and outside of the Labour Party, who were keen to set up a socialist centre in Islington. This socialist centre now meets weekly in a local pub, and is supported by most of the left, in particular by individuals in the Labour Party, the CP, the IMG, and Big Flame as well as by most socialist feminists and many non-aligned socialists.

The centre has organised many very well-attended and successful meetings, on Ireland, on feminism, on racism and on fascism, on struggles internationally and nationally, as well as attempts to understand the local situation in more detail and provide entertainment and pleasure. Evenings are planned to fit in with wider struggles; for example, a meeting on Ireland before or after a big Irish demonstration. It has therefore provided a useful base for meeting other local militants. It has increased the possibilities for more regular joint work when struggles arise, as well as providing political education, and entertainment which strengthens the growth of an alternative socialist and feminist culture. I think it was the consistent work done by the Gutter Press in establishing contacts and trust between militants that made the centre a real possibility in Islington. The paper collective has also now expanded, and become politically more diverse.

The socialist centre has therefore, in part, served to validate attempts made originally by those outside of the traditional left to find new ways of organising. It is true, though, that at present the centre serves better as a focus for co-operation and discussion between the left than as a place for extending our base further within the working class. Some of us are hopeful that the support that we can give to people in struggle will begin to overcome this problem. Others are less worried about it. In fact, one of the most interesting, or perhaps most distressing, aspects of the centre is how clearly it often defines and separates the two groups of people, those most concerned with creating left alternatives and those most concerned with class struggle. Nevertheless, most of us still feel that the centre does create real possibilities for strengthening co-operation amongst socialists and feminists, as well as a way to reach out to working-class women and men in the area. This does not mean that. we reject more traditional forms of political work centred on the workplace and the unions.

Some Conclusions

In this last section I want to return to some of the problems created by the way we organised in the women’s movement and the libertarian left. As I have illustrated, we always emphasised the importance of local activity and tended to under-emphasise, and were suspicious of, national organisation·. In national structures we felt women, in particular, couldn’t overcome the problems of male domination and leaderism and feel able to contribute their own experiences. This of course contrasts with the traditional revolutionary left who tend to have an overemphasis on national and international politics and to dismiss attempts at local organising as mere localism. The national organisation which the women’s movement has achieved is only around particular struggles, for example, NAC, Women’s Aid or WARF (Women against Racism and Fascism). But this leaves us with problems, even in linking up these particular struggles. How do we arrive at any overall perspectives, decide which activities to get involved in and evaluate the results of our work?

I think the final collapse of the Essex Road Women’s Centre and our failure to replace it are linked to the general problems which can occur for any loose network of small local groups. It’s not easy to work out where you are going on your own as a small group, or to work out where you have succeeded and where you have failed. It’s difficult for other people in other places to learn from your experiences, and for you to learn from them. We could have benefited from more regular exchange of experiences from other groups, comparing and contrasting our activities.

The problem of not really operating within an experience sharing and learning process is a difficult one. At a recent conference on women’s centres in July 1979 all the old debates and conflicts came up, as though for the first time. Were women acting as unpaid social workers? Should men ever be allowed in? Should centres be funded? Why was it hard to reach working-class women, and was this important?

Resolving the conflicts seemed to be as hard as ever. There was no agreement on how the centres fitted in to an overall strategy for achieving liberation. These recurring conflicts do seem to be a strong argument for some form of national organisation. Though it is also true that national organisations can be slow to learn if they rely on old formulas and dogma seen as universally valid, instead of learning from new movements. For instance, issues like sexism, racism, national autonomy, and energy policies are all ones which the revolutionary left has been slow to take up. But the women’s movement does need some way of assessing its past effectiveness, and using this to develop future directions in less random ways.

At Essex Road we did learn that it was hard to extend our politics outside of ourselves, and to relate to local working-class women, but we never really knew what to do about this. It is not an easy problem to solve. But if you are trying to involve working-class women, you sometimes need to take up issues which don’t relate only to women, for example nurseries, housing, etc. Though you can carry a feminist perspective into these issues, you will need to go outside of your women’s group to do this, extending the base of your activity. Our lack of structure perhaps made it difficult for working-class women who were outside of our friendship networks, to know how to get involved. I know of one woman who used to walk past our women’s centre every day before she had fled from her violent husband, and never dared to come in. She now works at a women’s refuge, but in those days, not knowing who we were, it would have been difficult for her to have looked to us for support.

This is linked to another problem. Women correctly realised the importance of including a struggle around personal relations within the struggle for socialism, and argued that without this many women would not become involved at all. ‘The personal is political’ was a central slogan of the women’s movement. But this slogan did come to be interpreted in a very vague way, as though it meant that whatever you do, your actions have political significance. I don’t think that this was the idea behind the slogan. What it did assert was that there is a connection between how you choose to live and relate to people and the struggle for social change.(22) This was all the more obvious to women in that our training into inferiority and passivity made it even more difficult for us to struggle or to feel a part of a male-dominated left. We had to create new supportive structures if we were to feel confident enough that what we said and did in our struggle against patriarchy and capitalism was important. Women said that how we relate to each other in everyday life is a part of the struggle for socialism, and in this way socialism can begin to grow within capitalism itself, but the struggle against oppression remains to be fought and won.

Over the ten years since 1968, however, there has been a complex development in the often overlapping areas of libertarianism and feminism. It does seem that many libertarians have overstressed the prefigurative lifestyle element. This has led many of them to retreat from public political activity and class politics into rustic bliss, or mysticism, or whole foods or ghetto-ised co-ops. But these forms of retreat are not options which are open to many people; in particular, working-class people do not have the freedom to choose them. They are more trapped within the capital-labour relationship, both at home and at work, as they do what they must to support themselves and their families. But this withdrawal from consumer and urban life does have deep roots in English socialism (Carpenter, Owen, etc.) and it does maintain a visionary strand in the socialist movement that we can ill do without. It exists most clearly today in what is known as the ‘communes movement’. Some parts of the women’s movement have shown the same tendency, which others have characterised as ‘cultural feminism’, on the analogy of cultural nationalism.(23) Perhaps it is also possible to talk of a ‘cultural libertarianism’. These politics do show us the possibilities of new and better ways to live, but exactly how they relate to the building of a combative feminist and socialist movement is something that remains ambiguous both historically and in the present.

The preoccupation more with lifestyles than with building the women’s movement increased -in Islington once the women’s centre had closed. Because then it became less clear how women could help build a movement which was open to all women in their struggle for liberation. Women in their different groups, whether women’s groups or mixed groups or campaigns, found it more difficult to get support from each other. We became more isolated and have difficulty in responding to specific feminist issues as they arise. In Islington there are now moves from one local study group to change this, by organising open discussions on women’s liberation locally. Obviously in many areas socialist feminist groups are working towards a similar goal. Nevertheless, I think it’s true to say that at least some women have lost some of the confidence they had in the early seventies in the struggle to build the women’s movement and have become even more suspicious of any overt political work.

Part of the problem is related to the general crisis of the profitability of capitalism, and the defeats of the working class. As I said at the beginning, the early seventies was still a period of economic boom. In these conditions it was clear that militancy did payoff. In many places people were able to fight for, and win, particular struggles, whether it was setting up a nursery, the funding of a youth project, improved housing conditions, or the establishment of a workers’ co-operative, such as the women’s co-operative at the shoe factory in Fakenham, Norfolk. People could feel more optimistic about the possibility of changing their lives collectively, and feel that it was worth the effort of trying to do so.

In the women’s movement we did seem to be winning some of the things we fought for in the early seventies, even if in a deformed way. For instance the demands for women’s liberation did seem to get rid of some of the more superficial forms of women’s oppression. It is now becoming more and more acceptable that sexual discrimination in jobs, pubs and clubs is wrong, and its days may well be numbered. Though it is still clear that, despite equal pay, the relative position of women to men in the workforce, as the most exploited wage earners, was not changing very fast-in fact it has got worse since April 1978.(24)

But the economic recession of 1975 began to undermine the earlier forms of militancy, both in the workplace and the community. The ruling class – at first through a Labour government, and now with a Tory government – has been able to launch a general offensive against working-class organisation. So we began to see unemployment rise, the thorough-going dismantling of welfare services, increasingly restrictive and racist immigration policies, and the continuous expansion of state repression, seen daily in Northern Ireland but also used against any large-scale industrial or oppositional militancy whether at Grunwick, or in the housing struggles of Huntley Street in London, or in the anti-fascist demonstrations at Southall.

In this situation industrial militancy was on the retreat, forced back into more sectoral and negotiating tactics, as each group of workers tried to have themselves declared a ‘special case’. In this way they hoped to fight off the attacks on their living standards caused first of all through the ‘social contract’ (government-imposed limits on wage increases) and state expenditure cuts. Today, under the Tories, the workforce is being further disciplined primarily by the threat of unemployment as the state cuts its public spending even more drastically and reduces its subsidies to industry. This means that both in the workplace and the community, victories, whether local or national, have become much more difficult and there is an increasing demoralisation amongst militants in all sections of struggle. So it is also becoming clearer that there cannot be local victories against the forms oppression is taking; for example, cuts in the NHS are nationwide. This is the reasoning behind the creation of national organisations such as ‘Fightback’ in the area of health care, campaigning both against all hospital closures and cutbacks and against low pay as well as for better services in general.

This means that it is forms of organisation which have national and international perspectives and links which seem to be even more necessary for successful struggles today. It’s also true that, more urgently than ever, the current period demands that we ally with the traditional institutions of the labour movement. We need to understand the possibilities and the limitations of these institutions. The tendency in the past of libertarians and some feminists to by-pass these institutions (trades councils, union branches, etc.), which perhaps was never really justified, is quite definitely not possible today .. There is always the danger that these forms of national organisation and these alliances can lead to a dismissal of the dimensions of struggle which libertarians and feminists brought into the political arena. A sense of urgency Can create a stronger pressure on the left to push aside the significance of the more personal areas of struggle. This danger will now be with us for a long time. And so the split between feminists and the traditional left remains, despite the attempts on both sides to build new bridges.

What I am wanting to focus on in this last section are three main problems which need a lot more thought. First, the relation between feminism and personal politics, and left groups and the general political situation. Secondly, the relation between local organising and national organising, and how this relates to the conflict between libertarians and feminists and the traditional left in the Current situation. Thirdly, how we move on to a perspective for building socialism which can incorporate both feminists’ politics and the new ideas and ways of organising which have emerged over the last ten years.

The problem for both libertarians and feminists, focusing on the importance of local work and the need to build local organisations, is how to create a larger socialist and feminist movement. A movement, built from the base up, which could mobilise enough people to fight and win, not just anyone struggle – difficult as this is-but strengthen us so that the experience of each struggle is not lost but contributes to the next. Libertarians tried building a network of local groups to link up experiences and activity. There were three national conferences in 1973 and 1974. But there wasn’t the political will to maintain any national organisation at that time. The libertarian rejection of vanguards meant that we could not really accept the necessity for any politically coherent central organisation. But, we cannot assume that links will just happen spontaneously as they are needed.

Today the women’s movement also finds it difficult to take political initiatives, except in very specific areas such as fighting off attacks on women’s access to abortion. Yet right now we face an enormous ideological attack on all our recent gains. Women are under attack not just in our struggle for equal pay, for more nurseries and better health care (now all threatened by Tory cuts), but attacks on even more basic things, such as the threat to women’s right to maternity leave. This amounts to an attack on women’s rights to waged work at all, if we have young children. Thus we increasingly hear, as was argued recently in the House of Lords, that ‘unemployment could be solved at a stroke, if women went back to the home’. As a way out of the economic crisis, the ruling class! is seeking to strengthen the ideology of sexism to justify its attacks on the working class in general, and women in particular, thus revealing more clearly than ever the links between sex oppression and class exploitation.

In this deteriorating situation, it’s going to be harder for the women’s movement not to feel politically marginal, unless we can find ways of making alliances with all those in struggle, both women and men, to co-ordinate actions to defend women’s interests. We are not well organised in the women’s movement. Although the socialist feminist current is trying to organise regional networks, and has been quite successful in some areas, it has been less successful in others. The useful national socialist feminist newsletter Scarlet Women has not yet managed to serve as a co-ordinating focus. We know that socialist feminists are not a minority in the women’s movement-over a thousand women attended our last two conferences. But in the coming period we do need the support not just of a strong and autonomous women’s movement but of the general perspectives and priorities of the socialist feminist current within it. The structures we agreed to build at our last conference mean that we must put a lot more energy into developing our regional socialist feminist organisations, and use them to co-ordinate the different campaigns we are involved in.(25) This would enable Scarlet Women to be more effective as a national co-ordinator.

I think we are also going to have to go beyond a criticism of the left and labour movement forms of politics, however correct we are to say that they have failed to take up the issues of feminism except in a tokenistic way. We do have to relate to both the left and the labour movement, but only by insisting that they learn from what we have to say as feminists. The left will have to understand and criticise the way in which working-class organisations through the labour movement have consistently failed to fight women’s oppression. A wages offensive, for instance, is of little use to women unless it also recognises the need for more nurseries, for a shorter working week, and actively seeks to change women’s position both at home and in the workforce. We need to argue, for example, that the struggle for a shorter working week is a crucial struggle for women because it allows men to share in the childcare and housework. A recent article in Red Rag makes this point as follows:

Implicit in our strivings of the last years has been an adaptation to the world of work, rather than an adaptation of that world to one that allows time for children, leisure, politics … (26)

This means that we insist that the labour movement takes into account the needs of women not just as waged workers, but also as housewives and consumers. At the same time we must strengthen our ideological offensive against the acceptance of separate spheres fo’r women and men on which our subordination rests.

For women who want to be active in left politics outside of the women’s movement, I think it is also true that male domination, elitism and passivity can exist in unstructured local groups and sectoral campaigns as well as in national organisations. People who are less confident, and less experienced at organising, or who have less time, will find it harder to participate effectively in such groups. I have found that sometimes it can be even harder to combat ‘leaderism’ within the small group, as interactions are more likely to be seen in purely individual and personal terms, rather than as political manifestations. Nevertheless, we do need to find alternatives to the old structures of organising used by the left and the labour movement, of large meetings and platform speakers which clearly silence people and do not encourage any sort of mass involvement.

There is no easy solution to the problem of creating new political structures which overcome rather than reproduce existing hierarchies of sex, class and race. For this reason most feminists could not take seriously any national organisation which did not actively support the autonomy of groups to organise against their particular oppression, which did not realise that it had as much to learn from as to teach those in struggle, or one which ignored what women have said about how to organise, using truly egalitarian and supportive structures which build the confidence and participation of all involved. Alongside the need to organise in workplaces, I do think it’s important to build up open and active local, organisations which can increase left unity, and can be easier for people to participate in. I have in mind the sort of structures which have been developed in socialist feminist groups, community papers, socialist centres, and other community resource centres, which are different from those characteristically used by the left.

But for me today as someone wanting to be active both within and outside of the women’s movement, local organisations are no longer sufficient. I also want to be a part of an organisation which is trying to build upon and generalise from different situations, and thus develop overall strategies. I don’t think that it is possible to build a single unified revolutionary organisation in Britain in 1979, or that anyone left organisation has all the answers. But revolutionary groups do have a vital role in helping to build the widest possible support for all areas of struggle, and the widest possible unity on the left.

What possibilities are there for combining socialist and feminist politics in a national organisation which is not subject to the degeneration, splits and paranoias which plague all the left groups? Could such an organisation work out a supportive practice in relation to the autonomous groups and activities which occur all around the country? We will not all agree on the answers. My own way to find out has been to join Big Flame, a group which in its theory and practice seems to put the class struggle before its own organisational development, which recognises the need to fully support and help to build the autonomous organisations of women and other oppressed groups, and in general strives for a vision of socialism which includes a theory of personal politics. Time will tell whether I was right.

NOTES

  1. It would be hard to draw up a list, but some of the most important books for us were Marx: Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology; Marcuse: Eros and Civilisation and One Dimensional Man; Laing: The Divided Self; Reich: The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Vaneigem: The Revolution of Everyday Life. Henri Lefebvre, in The Explosion-Marxism and the French Upheaval attempts to give an account of what led up to the ideas and actions of May 1968.
  2. See the discussion on libertarianism and personal life ‘Coming Down to Earth’, Paul Holt, in Revolutionary Socialism, no. 4, Autumn 1979.
  3. This theory was outlined by Michael Kidron in Capitalism and Theory, Pluto Press, 1974.
  4. This relates, as many people will know, to Althusser’s now famous essay on ideology, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy, New Left Books, 1971, in which he argues that class relations are produced through two kinds of interrelated state institutions, the ‘repressive state apparatuses’ (the police, etc.) and the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (in particular the education system which slots a person into their class position through a process whose operation is disguised from that person). Some Marxists today point out that Althusser is only a modern and vulgar variant of earlier Marxists like Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Back in the thirties Gramsci was writing in his Prison Notebooks of the importance of ‘civil society’, referring to those institutions like the family and the media, which are not directly controlled by the state, but nevertheless play a crucial role in maintaining existing class relations and the capitalist state.
  5. An attempt to do youth work in the local community in Islington from the base of a libertarian squatters’ group, is colourfully described in Knuckle Sandwich by David Robins and Philip Cohen, Penguin, 1978.
  6. For example, Elisabeth Wilson, ‘Women and the Welfare State’, Red Rag, pamphlet no. 2,1974.
  7. This is well illustrated by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in For Her Own Good, Pluto Press, 1979.
  8. This concept is used by Barbara Ehrenreich in her excellent speech on socialist feminism in Socialist Revolution, no. 26, October-December 1975.
  9. Patriarchy has been defined by Heidi Hartman as ‘the systemic dominance of men over women’, referring to the social structure and all the social relations through which men dominate women. (‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union’ in Capital and Class, no. 8, Summer 1979.) There is a debate over the usefulness of this concept, because some people feel it does not explain the way in which women’s subordination, though universal, is different in different societies. I do find the concept useful, but for a fuller discussion see R. Mcdonough and R. Harrison, ‘Patriarchy and Relations of Production’ in Kuhn and Wolpe, Feminism and Materialism, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), and Z. Eisenstein, ‘Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism’ in Eisenstein, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1978, and P. Atkinson: ‘The Problem with Patriarchy’ in Achilles Heel, no. 2.
  10. Mariarosa Dalla Costa, ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’ in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, M. Dalla Costa and S. James (Falling Wall Press, 1973). For a fuller discussion of this debate see Jean Gardiner, ‘Women’s Domestic Labour’, New Left Review, no. 89, 1975.
  11. Valerie Charlton, ‘The Patter of Tiny Contradictions’, Red Rag, no. 5, 1973.
  12. See Mandy Snell ‘The Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts: Their Impact on the Workplace’, Feminist Review, no. 1, 1979.
  13. See Mary Kathleen Benet Secretary: An Enquiry into the Female Ghetto, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972.
  14. Despite some claims to the contrary, radical and revolutionary feminists were not the only ones to talk about rape and violence against women. Though it is true that recently they have perhaps been the main impetus behind some of the large demonstrations on these issues.
  15. Similar victories of this sort over a nursery, play space and other community facilities are described in Jan O’Malley: The Politics of Community Action, Spokesman, 1977.
  16. The limitations of orthodox Marxism in its analysis of women’s oppression has been discussed elsewhere, for example, in Rosalind Delmar’s, ‘Looking Again at Engel’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” “ in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Women, Penguin, 1976 and Heidi Hartman, ibid.
  17. John Ross, ‘Capitalism, politics and personal life’ in Socialist Woman, Summer 1977.
  18. This account of the SWP’s present position on women’s politics and what is described as ‘the crisis’ in Women’s Voice is obtained in part from detailed discussions with SWP comrades.
  19. From the ‘Revolutionary Feminist statement’ to the Birmingham Women’s Liberation Conference, 1977.
  20. From ‘Sex, Family and the New Right’ in Radical America, Winter 1977/78.
  21. Judging from the impact of the first edition of Beyond the Fragments in the Trotskyist press, where this section on local organising was completely ignored in almost all the reviews, the ·situation has not changed very much. I had hoped that it might have.
  22. Barbara Ehrenreich makes this point when discussing the importance of developing political morality, ‘Toward a Political Morality’, Liberation, July-August 1977.
  23. See Brooke, ‘The Retreat to Cultural Feminism’, Feminist Revolution, 1975.
  24. See ‘Equal Pay: Why the Acts Don’t Work’, Jenny Earle and Julia Phillips, Spare Rib, no. 86, September 1979.
  25. A discussion of the points of agreement which were reached at the Socialist Feminist Conference in March 1979 can be found in Scarlet Women, July 1979.
  26. B. Campbell and V. Charlton, ‘Work to Rule’ in Red Rag, January 1979.

 

Spotlight on London’s squatted streets: Villa Road, Brixton

Villa Road, Brixton, was once one of the UK’s most famous squatted streets; many of the houses that remain in the road today are part of housing co-ops which trace their origin to the squats of the 1970s.

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

In response the local Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Imaginative depiction of ‘Brixton Towers’ plan for the Villa Road area

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, (part of Coldharbour Lane was to have been turned into an urban motorway under the Ringway plans…)

Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had  ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised, and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this target was never met.

By the early 70s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough. Villa Road became a centre of both.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness. Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups – one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organising in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help. Tenants’ groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees, with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

The demolition of squats in Brixton Road, early 1970s.

In Villa Road, just north of Brixton’s town centre, empty houses cleared for the Brixton Towers plan had been gradually squatted between 1973 and 1976. The houses had in many cases been gutted or smashed up by the council as they became empty, or had been squatted, to be rendered totally unliveable in, in an attempt to deter squatters from moving in or staying. This was a policy used across the borough. In some cases this got highly dangerous: squatted houses in Wiltshire Road (which adjoins Villa Road) were smashed with a wrecking ball while an old woman was still living in the neighbouring basement, while squatters were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in Lambeth Housing Department thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

However sabotage of houses didn’t deter people moving into Villa Road:

“We would go along perhaps late at night and get in the houses and get the electricity sorted out and then help the people to clear out the houses and make them habitable really. When we moved into the houses, they had had council wreckers in them who had broken a lot of the fabric of the houses. They broke the toilets and they poured concrete down them. The broke a lot of the windows, they tore up floorboards and pulled down ceilings. And we all set to fix them, and when I look back on it, the sort of things we did were quite astounding. Because they had poured concrete down the drains, it meant that you had to dig up the connection to the main sewers out in the street. We just used to dig up the whole lot and connect it up to the mains. What do you remember about that house, 39, when you got there?
-How terribly filthy… it was, and…
-No floorboards…
-No, no floorboards.
-There was an old guy who had shell-shock, caught him living there.
-That’s right.
-The basement was full of excrement,
-because he had mental health problems.

-It needed a lot of cleaning up. We went out skipping
– skipping was going round and looking in the skips that were on the streets and… collecting whatever it was you needed. So that was, you know… There were two activities, skipping and wooding. Wooding was going out and reclaiming all the wood from the houses that were being demolished, and, you know, you basically built your environment. In winter, the ice was on the inside of the windows. Heating was like one bar, one of those long fires mainly for bathrooms, I think. We used to cook on that as well, beans on toast – total fire hazard. The wiring was totally bent and, you know, illegal, the gas was. It was, you know… I remember seeing a huge rat coming up from the basement at one time. Yeah, it was pretty rough.”  

As houses were slowly renovated, Villa Road became home to several hundred people, residents who created lots of alternative projects: An informal economy evolved, though partly subsidised by the various DHSS giro payments of residents (some of who used to drive the van the good quarter mile to the dole office or post office to sign on or cash in, by some accounts!) The communal arrangements included a food co-op, (based on vegetables skipped from New Covent Garden market in Nine Elms), a ‘pay what you can’ street café, a medical service run by Patrick and Maureen Day, who were both qualified GPs (‘Check up for

Villa Road graffiti, 1977.

the price of a smoke’, and an adventure playground for kids A women’s group formed c.1975-6; a musical collective was set up around the same time (at least 3 bands formed here too) The street had its own newspaper, the Villain, edited by squatting activist (and now transport guru, cycling advocate, and Labour Party politician) Christian Wollmar…

As with elsewhere in the squatting movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, though a core of the original group that kicked of the occupation of the street included a number of   white, middle class graduates, some of who had been to Oxford and Cambridge universities.   Politically, there was an early contingent from left groups like the International Marxist Group, though spiced with a typically 70s hotchpotch of new age therapies and, er, cults…

No 31 Villa Road, was, for a while, the base for the more IMG-oriented types.

“There were two influences on us. One was obviously Marx. We were Marxists, we saw ourselves as Marxists. We were in things like Marxist reading groups and we studied Marx. But we were also influenced by people like Laing and Cooper and were into the death of the nuclear family. This rejection of the nuclear family was born of an intellectual analysis which saw the family as an essential unit of a capitalist society. We felt it was necessary – or should be possible – to have supportive, economically viable, emotionally rewarding relationships, familial sexual relationships, with people without creating, or commodifying as we like to call it, commodifying the family unit. We had a lot of theories around the family unit being the building block of capitalism. These beliefs made life complicated at the squatters’ resource centre that Paul helped to run. If people within a sexual relationship had or wanted… to have an intimate physical relationship, whether it was sexual or not, with other people, then that had to be acknowledged and it had to both be acknowledged by both partners, but also allowed to happen. It was agonising, because you were supposed to say it before you do it, not just come back and say, “Oh, by the way, I’ve bonked Bill.” You would…have to explore the feelings you had, the pressures – emotional and sexual – on you and the other person with the group or with the people it directly impacted on before you did the deed. I mean, I don’t know anybody who like thought they want to get married. I certainly didn’t think I wanted to get married and I consider myself proud never to have got married. And it is quite different again now, but, yeah, I mean, nuclear family… a lot of us had come from pretty unpleasant nuclear families. And that does open up ideas for how you might live. It seemed that the nuclear family was really in crisis. And…you know, the idea of a stable couple having children was not really part of most people’s experience in that particular kind of sub society, you know. And it also implied a degree of isolation from others. I mean, there was a great collectivist vibe at that time. How you live together was very much open to question, and I think we…partly just out of necessity, but we tended to live in communes, and that seemed as if that was the way that that could work more generally in society.”

No 12, however, became the base for the ‘Primal screamers’… Jenny James was a follower of both communist sexologist Wilhelm Reich, and Californian psychotherapist Arthur Janov, who had developed a therapy known as primal scream, in the course of which patients relived the trauma of their own birth.
Despite having no formal training, Jenny set up a primal therapy commune in Donegal in Ireland. At the same time, she established a sister commune in a squat at number 12 Villa Road.

‘Villa Trek’ cartoon, spoofing Star Trek

“The idea was that therapy should not be the preserve of the moneyed bourgeoisie, but should be available free of charge to anybody. I was called the black sheep of the… Oh, I’d brought the therapy movement into disrepute. This came from the big, posh therapy centres. What it boiled down to was I wasn’t asking money. Anyone can do therapy if they go through things themselves. They don’t need some posh training. It was just a question of human empathy and, of course, knowing yourself really well, being honest with yourself. And so I just opened the doors. It was primal scream and it did involve…screaming. Letting… Which was… Sorry, I’m not laughing at that. It was very genuinely felt. It was about letting out your inner anguish. Um, it was noisy. SHE SCREAMS That’s what I say to you! Ah…! It is extremely organic and well worked out. Nothing’s false. It is something that comes out. When things do really come out from very far down in the body, they can sound quite animal-like.”

They can be quite scary. What wasn’t nice was that they were all naked while they were doing it. When you’re six, and there’s a big group of people rolling round the floor naked, you’re thinking, “What is going on here?” There was my friend’s mum – she was the one that did it – Babs. You just think, “It’s so strange,” cos you’re playing out in the garden, you pop in for a drink, and someone’s in the kitchen naked.”

From a Villa Road songsheet

“Our one-to-one sessions were extraordinary and incredibly valuable. I wouldn’t ever regret any of that or want it to be any different. Um, but the downside was the group. Living… The thing was, we’re all there, we’re all feeling really vulnerable. We’re all looking for ourselves. We’re all looking for friends and support and home and family and answers. So everybody was vulnerable and everybody was at different stages of this exploration, this journey. And there was no account taken of that in any structured way or in any way really. Throughout the years, what would happen is, now and then, some of the stronger characters would actually cross the metaphorical line. They’d cross the line, come in, get involved. We had a lot of lovely-looking women in our commune. -They’d form relationships. They’d start to look at it.
-So was that what drew them in?
-The women?
-I would say that was probably obviously a first hook, if you like. But then they’d see and it was very interesting what we do. They’d see that and they’d see that it worked. They’d get interested. It was a deeper way of living. I remember that, um, the primal screamers… The story was… I think it was probably true, too. ..that the primal screamers sort of sent vixens out onto the street to seduce the handsome boys who were on the left, and to get them to scream instead of, you know, agitate or something. I don’t think it was that organised. It sounds a bit of a conspiracy theory to me.
– You weren’t lured in by a woman?
– I was lured in by a woman, actually. So, you never know, do you? I don’t think she was acting on orders. I think she just fancied me. It always reminded me of that film, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in that one would wake up and discover that somebody else from the street had been captured by the primal scream.”

Other women formed a women’s group: “I think over time we had several different Marxist reading groups going on. The one I remember in Villa Road, the one I remember going to, was an all women’s Marxist reading group. Through that, I think we started to think about redefining our role as women. We were doing consciousness raising. We would go away for weekends and have weekends away and stuff. We did things like…we had a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was fantastic. Women learned about how to have orgasms through Spare Rib and vibrators, which was absolutely fantastic. And, um, I think, yeah, that was brilliant. We read books, sort of Marxist books, I suppose. We did self-examination, which was quite popular in those days.
-What does that mean?
-You know, when you examine… I remember one meeting that we had a speculum, because Maureen’s a doctor. So she could have them, and we examined ourselves and learnt about our bodies. Which bit of your body? You’re getting me so embarrassed! We, you know, we tried to find out where our cervixes were, which was a journey in itself. Do you remember examining your cervix? No, I didn’t do any of that. But, yes, that was going on. Lots of use of mirrors.”  

Some on Villa Road saw their inner world as the route to changing society. Luise Eichenbaum had come to London from New York as a trained psychotherapist, attracted by British feminist writing. From her squat in Villa Road, she set up the Women’s Therapy Centre with Susie Orbach, believing that therapy could be harnessed to left-wing goals. “For me, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy absolutely came right out of my political activity, because, as a feminist, we really understood that in order to change one’s self, you couldn’t just say, “I no longer want to be this person, the person I was raised to be, “the little girl raised to be a certain kind of feminine character, “who defers to people, who is submissive, who feels insecure, who doesn’t feel entitled and so on.” We knew that we no longer wanted to be that person, and so, if one wanted to change deeply, we had to look to the unconscious. I think people came to see that bringing change wasn’t just about changing physical social aspects of society. I think people started to recognise that change actually maybe has a psychological dimension, an internal dimension, as well.” 

To some extent, the Villa Road community attempted to govern itself outside the scope of the law beyond:

“Would you ever have called the police?
-No.
-What did you do instead?
-Well, where there were instances of theft and so on within the street, then those were dealt with at street meetings. One incident I remember, we jailed the guy for a week, I believe. Everyone was losing their stereos and, um… we eventually managed to catch this young, black guy, who was, I think, 15 at the time. And, um, so…he said that he had been thrown out of home, that he had nowhere to go and he was stealing all this stuff so that he could survive. And so in typical Villa Road fashion, we held a street meeting, emergency street meeting, what to do about him. And we decided that we would give him a home, give him somewhere to live and we would give him money. And so he lived with us then.”

As with other squatted streets of the era, the leftist political slant of many occupants led them into taking part in solidarity action with other struggles that were going on. Villa Road residents regularly joined picket lines at strikes like Grunwick, marched in support of striking firefighters…

In response to tenants’ campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Road, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

“The barricades came about because… the, um, Lambeth Council wanted to demolish the whole of Villa Road. This had been their long-term plan. They couldn’t do it because we were living in the houses. But they, I think, probably served eviction orders on us and we decided that we were going to stay, and so, we thought, “Well, we’ll barricade ourselves in. “The bailiffs will come, but if they can’t get into the houses, they can’t evict us.” So that was another form of direct action. We would scour Lambeth, looking for wood, sheets of corrugated iron, barbed wire. There were a lot of building sites that went short of things in those days! And the ingenuity of people to get all these materials together was phenomenal. The barricade in front of 7 and 9 Villa Road was very beautiful, because we painted it. It was a carefully tended barricade. “Victory Villa” was the big sort of slogan. “Property is theft.” That was another of the slogans on the barricades. We were all into that. … The first thing I and the two chaps who moved in with me began to do was to sort out the barricades on our house. We had, um… It was like triple barricades of corrugated sheets and joists, and then more corrugated sheets, then joists and props, all put together with six-inch nails. Then on top of the barricade was barbed wire and a gutter, the plan being that we would fill the gutter with petrol and have bits of burning tyre, so we would have a sheet of flame to meet the bailiffs, before they could even get to the house itself. And we also had this huge, great, big wooden ball, like, um, on the ball and chain, but this was made of wood with big six-inch nails stuck in it, on the end of a rope, that you could swing and it would lazily move in front of the house as another disincentive to come anywhere near us.”

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ previous support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre, and for an unemployed building workers march. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor terrace in Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

In November 1976, the Villa Roaders launched an ‘Agitvan’ to tour the streets of the Borough spreading the word about life in Villa Road… These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy.  When Lambeth Council attempted to push through its demolition policy by destroying the squatted street at St Agnes Place in January 1977, Villa Roaders went off to support the occupants:

“Very early in the morning, we found out that the council were moving in bulldozers, there were large busloads of police turning up at the end of the street, and all the rest of it. We all shot off down there. Quite a lot of the residents had already climbed up onto the roofs, basically saying, “If you’re going to knock the house down, you’ll have to knock us down with them!” Got all the council workers digging up the pipes, down at the front. They filled the drains with cement, and took out water and gas pipes. They really went to town to make sure they were uninhabitable. In this picture, you can see a protester. He’s one of the squatters who tied a rope round his waist… There was a few of them. ..and actually walked across the top of this, what’s left of the main framework of the house. We, together with the lawyers from the Law Centre, managed to get an emergency High Court injunction by midday or one o’clock that day, forcing the council to withdraw their equipment, ‘and to leave us alone.’ St Agnes Place was saved, and the council was publicly and humiliatingly defeated. Lambeth Council had to rethink its approach.”

Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…

Villa Road was still under threat – in fact the barricades stayed up for another two years…

The following account of the battle to save Villa Road was nicked from Squatting: the Real Story, published in 1979.

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Victory Villa Challenging the planners in South London

(Squatting: the Real Story, Chapter 12) by Nick Anning and Jill Simpson

The Planners’ Plan

The area around Villa Road is still rather quaintly labelled ‘Angell Town’ on the maps; a legacy of a past which includes the old manorial estate of Stockwell and the eccentric landowner John Angell who died in 1784.

To those who live here now, this is part of Brixton in the London Borough of Lambeth with the market and the Victoria Line tube station a few minutes walk away.

Planners’ vision for central Brixton, late 1960s

But the change wrought in just a few years by Lambeth Council’s planners has been far more radical than that gradual transformation. The majority of houses which stood in 1965 have been demolished and Villa Road too, would have disappeared if the planners had had their way. The fact that most of it still stands is the result of a protracted battle between the squatter community and the Council’s bureaucrats and councillors.

The origins of this battle can be found in The Brixton Plan, an intriguing document produced by Lambeth in 1969, and in the events that led up to its publication. Indeed, Villa Road’s very existence as a squatter community arises from the Plan, its initial shortcomings, its lack of flexibility in the face of economic changes and the refusal of leading Lambeth councillors and planners to engage in meaningful consultation. Their intransigence in refusing to admit that the plans might be wrong or open to revision was a further contributing factor.

The Plan had its roots in the optimistic climate of Harold Wilson’s first government in the early sixties. The Greater London Council (GLC) asked the recently enlarged London boroughs to draw up community plans in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies. Lambeth responded eagerly to this prompting, only too anxious to establish itself as one of the more enterprising inner London boroughs.

The scale and scope of its redevelopment plan was tremendously ambitious. Lambeth was to be transformed into an even more splendid memorial to the planners’ megalomania than neighbouring Croydon with Brixton as its showcase. Brixton town centre was to be completely rebuilt, incorporating a huge transport interchange complex where a six-lane highway, motorway box, main line railway and underground intersected.

Brixton’s social mix was to completely change with middle-class commuters flocking south of the Thames, to bring renewed prosperity and to rejuvenate business and commerce. Ravenseft, the property company which gave nearby Elephant and Castle its unloved redevelopment, expressed interest in the plan for Brixton. Tarmac, the road building firm, was given permission to build an office block on condition it helped to fund a new leisure centre. The Inner London Education Authority talked of new schools and a new site for South West London College. The dream seemed possible.

The plan would involve demolishing the fading bastions of Brixton’s Victorian and Edwardian splendour, epitomised by the very name Villa Road. These houses were to be replaced with modern homes for the working class of Lambeth. Angell Town was zoned for residential use, Brixton Road was to become a six-lane expressway and three proposed new housing developments (Brixton Town Centre, Myatts Fields and Stock-well Park Estate) would completely remove old Angell Town from the map. About 400 houses were to be demolished and their occupants ‘decanted’. Some low rise, high density modern estates were to be constructed but at the core of the plan was the construction of five 52 storey tower blocks. Brixton Towers was the apt name chosen for this development which, at 600 feet high, was to be the highest housing scheme outside Chicago. A large park was planned, in line with the GLC’s recommendations, to serve the 6,000 residents of the new estates. The scheme was a tribute to the planners’ megalomania.

The aim seems to have been to establish pools of high density council housing with limited access, restricting traffic to major perimeter roads where a facade of rehabilitated properties would give a false respectability to a disembowelled interior. Stockwell Park Estate, the first of the three estates to be completed, has already proved the disastrous nature of this type of development. Completed in 1971, it has suffered from dampness, lack of repairs and vandalism. For several years, its purpose-built garages remained unused and, until recently, it had a reputation as a ‘sink estate’ for so-called ‘problem families’.

In the heady climate of the sixties, this type of ‘macroplanning’ was taken as approved by the ballot box and by public enquiries. It was assumed that the professional planners ‘knew best’ and the majority of Lambeth’s 300,000 population were unaware of, let alone consulted about, the far-reaching nature of these plans.

First stirrings

In 1967 Lambeth Council obtained a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on the Angell Town area, despite a number of objections at the public enquiry. The familiar pattern of blight set in. Residents, promised rehousing in the imminent future, no longer maintained their houses as they were soon to be demolished. Tenants in multi-occupied houses found it increasingly difficult to press the Council for repairs and maintenance, and tried to obtain immediate rehousing. The long years of Labour dominance in Lambeth were interrupted with three years of Tory rule but this was of little consequence to the monolithic plan. It drew support from Conservatives and Labour alike, although a radical caucus in the Labour Party known as the ‘Norwood Group’ began to voice misgivings during Labour’s spell in opposition. By the time Labour regained control in 1971, Angell Town was a depressed and demoralised area, as voting figures for the ward in local elections showed. Though staunchly Labour, turn-out in Angell Ward has been the lowest of all Lambeth’s 20 wards since 1971, averaging only about 25 per cent of the electorate.

The newly returned Labour administration of 1971 contained a sizeable left-wing influence through the Norwood Group and had high hopes of cutting back the massive 14,000 waiting list for council homes. However by now they were prisoners of processes originating with the Plan. Population counts in clearance areas were proving inaccurate, mainly because live-in landlords, multi-occupiers and extended families were reluctant, through fear of public health regulations, to give full details of the number of people in their houses. As ‘decanting’ took place from development areas, more and more people began to find themselves ineligible for rehousing, or were given offers of accommodation unsuitable for their needs. Most houses were boarded up or gutted, adding to blight. Homelessness grew rapidly.

Despite the Labour Group’s optimism, the building programme slowed down. Lambeth’s target of 1,000 new homes per year from 1971-8 was never met. Many people, particularly Labour Party members, began to realise that sweeping clearance programmes destroyed large numbers of houses in good condition as well as unfit ones. With a tighter economic climate and a Conservative Government opposed to municipalisation in office, some of the steam had already gone out of Lambeth’s redevelopment plans by 1971, only two years after the publication of The Brixton Plan.

The neighbourhood council

The Norwood Group of councillors both paralleled and reflected the upsurge of radical, libertarian and revolutionary politics in Brixton during the early seventies. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people in the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised.

The St John’s Street Group was one of several street groups set up in 1972 under the wing of the Neighbourhood Council. Its membership included residents of both Villa Road and St John’s Crescent as the two streets were suffering from blight arising out of the same plans. Most of the immediate area was scheduled to be pulled down to form part of the new Angell Park. Villa Road tenants wanted rehousing while those in neighbouring St John’s Crescent were campaigning about the poor state of repair of their properties. The Street Group began a series of direct actions (eg a rent strike and the dumping of uncollected rubbish at the nearby area housing office) to put pressure on the Council. As a result, many Villa Road tenants were rehoused and their houses boarded up. Most also had their services cut off and drains sealed with concrete to discourage squatting. More sensibly, a few of the houses were allocated on licence to Lambeth Self-Help, a short-life housing group whose office was round the corner in Brixton Road.

Squatters enter the fray

Some of the Neighbourhood Council activists moved into No 20 Villa Road, one of the houses handed over to Lambeth Self-Help, in early 1973. That summer another house in Villa Road was squatted. No 20 became the centre of St John’s Street Group activity, providing an important point of contact with the Neighbourhood Council, Lambeth Self-Help and unofficial squatters. In 1974, other houses on Villa Road were squatted, mainly by groups of homeless single people. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity which was to be the strength of the Villa Road community. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda.

Meanwhile, the Labour Council was moving to the right and a strong anti-squatter consensus had begun to emerge, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chairperson of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters. Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In fact, the autumn of 1974 saw the formation of All Lambeth Squatters, a militant body representing most of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

The rightward-leaning Council took all the teeth out of the Neighbourhood Councils and the one in Angell Ward, torn by internal disputes, ceased to function by the end of 1973. That was not to say that the issue of redevelopment for Angell Town was not still of major interest to the local residents. The Brixton Towers project had been dropped, throwing into question the whole plan. Furthermore, the programme of rehousing and demolition was proceeding slower than expected forcing the Council to consider its short-term plans for the area. It came up with the idea of a ‘temporary open space’ which was to involve the demolition of Villa Road and St John’s Crescent.

According to a Council brochure published in June 1974, this open space was to be the forerunner of a larger Angell Park with play and recreation facilities. Walkways linking the park to smaller areas of open space (‘green fingers’) alongside Brixton Road were to be built and a footbridge over that busy road was to link it with the densely populated Stockwell Park Estate.

The justification for the plan was that the high density of housing proposed for the nearby Myatts Fields South and Brixton Town Centre North estates required open space of the local park variety within a quarter of a mile radius. What was not publicly admitted was that the construction of these estates would involve a much smaller increase in the area’s population than had been originally envisaged. Instead of 3,000, the figure was now admitted to be nearer 800, hardly enough to justify the creation of a park that would involve the demolition of much good housing. In any case, money for the open space, let alone the park, was not to be available until autumn 1976, and in June 1974 housing officials declared that the Council would not require Villa Road houses until summer 1976.

Arguably, this amounted to a legal licence to occupy the houses. Probably the Council would have had little further trouble from the Villa Road squatters had it not been for two factors: the continuous programme of wrecking and vandalising houses in the vicinity and the Council leadership’s adherence to a hardline policy on squatting and homelessness. The combination of these two factors increased militant opposition to the Council’s politicians and bureaucrats which culminated in a full-scale confrontation in the summer of 1976.

A week of action in September 1974 led to more houses being squatted and saw the first meetings of the Villa Road Street Group (not to be confused with the by-then defunct St John’s Street Group). The members of the Group had come together fairly randomly and their demands were naturally different. For instance, there were Lambeth Self-Help members for whom rehousing was top priority; single people who demanded the principle of rehousing but wished to develop creative alternatives; and students and foreigners who were in desperate need of accommodation but whose transient presence or precarious legal status kept them outside the housing struggle which was taking place around them.

By the end of 1974, 15 houses in Villa Road and one in Brixton Road (No 315) had been squatted by Street Group members who now numbered – about a hundred. Like in other squatted streets common interests drew people together and gave the street its own identity. The Street Group became a focus for the organisation of social as well as political activities. For instance, in the summer of 1975, a street carnival attracted over 1,000 people. A cafe, food co-operative, band and news-sheet (Villain) were further activities of the now-thriving street.

But it was a community living under a permanent threat and a stark reminder of that was the eviction of No 315 Brixton Road in April 1975. The house along with two others which were too badly vandalised to have been squatted, were pulled down as part of the Council’s preparation for the footbridge linking the proposed park with the Stockwell Park Estate. The dust had hardly settled after the demolition when the Council announced the cancellation of the footbridge plan. The site was left unused for five years and then grassed over.

Events like this tended to harden the opposition to the Council in the Street Group. Another five houses had been squatted during 1975, including those with serious faults which needed a lot of sustained work like re-roofing, plumbing, rewiring and unblocking drains.

The population of the street was now approaching 200. Three houses in St John’s Crescent which had been emptied in preparation for demolition were taken over with the help of the departing tenants. Several other houses in the Crescent and Brixton Road were wrecked and demolished by the Council, still intent on implementing its temporary open space plan.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing – like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees – with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys – like more gutting. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within the Labour Party from the Norwood Group and from homeless people and squatters.

In a sense, Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were the testing grounds for this new policy. Although the Council had agreed to meet Villa Road Street Group representatives in February, its position was unyielding. Twenty-one of the 32 houses in Villa Road were to be demolished within four months and the street would be closed off for open space. Moreover, the Council told the Street Group that when the houses were evicted, families would be referred to the Council’s homeless families unit but single people would just have to ‘make their own arrangements’. The future of the remaining 11 houses was less certain as they were earmarked for a junior school that, even in 1976, was unlikely ever to be built.

The Trades Council Inquiry

It was clear that the Street Group could not fight the Council without outside support. There was already considerable local dissatisfaction with the Council for its failure to change the plans for the area and the Street Group, in an attempt to harness available support, organised a public meeting in April 1976 to discuss courses of action. At the meeting, which was well-attended, it was decided to initiate a Trades Council Inquiry into local housing and recreational needs. This idea was supported by a wide range of people and groups including the vicar of St John’s Church which overlooks Villa Road and the ward Labour Party. A committee including two Street Group representatives was set up to collect evidence and prepare a report.

The Trades Council Inquiry report was to be presented to a public meeting of 200 people at St. John’s School two months later. Lambeth’s Chief Planning Officer, its Deputy Director of Housing and an alderman came to hear their critics and see the meeting vote overwhelmingly in favour of the report’s recommendations. These were:

  • No more demolitions, wreckings or evictions.
  • Smaller, more easily supervised playspaces should be created from existing empty sites, rather than clinging stubbornly to a plan for one large park.
  • Money saved by stopping evictions, wreckings and demolition should be spent on repairs on nearby estates or rehabilitation of older property.
  • The Council should recognise the strong community in the area and take that as the starting point for allowing active participation by local people in the planning process.

The Council’s representatives made no concession to these views except to suggest rather insultingly that the report might be admissible for discussion as a ‘local petition’. They firmly rejected the meeting’s recommendation that the Trades Council Report should be considered at the next Council meeting.

Whilst the Inquiry had been collecting its evidence, there had been a further series of confrontations between squatters and wreckers. The Trades Council had passed a resolution blacking the wrecking of good houses and the Council was forced to find non-union labour to do its dirty work. The squatters managed to take over one house in Brixton Road before it was wrecked (No 321) but another (No 325) was gutted by workmen under police protection. The culmination of these battles between squatters and wreckers was to be at St. Agnes Place in January 1977, an action which attracted widespread national publicity.

Both these wreckings and the Inquiry attracted local press coverage and support for the squatters widened. Several Norwood councillors, prompted by a letter from the Street Group, began to give active support as well as inside information on the Council’s position. Links with the local labour movement were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

To the barricades

With careful timing, the Council made its initial response to the Inquiry’s report the day after it was released when all the houses occupied by the Street Group (except those on the school site) received county court summonses for possession. The court cases were scheduled for 30 June, a couple of weeks away, and the Street Group’s response was immediate: a defence committee was organised to barricade all threatened houses, coordinate a legal defence, publicise the campaign, set up an early warning system and much more.

benefit poster for Villa Road defence campaign

At the court hearing, the judge criticised the Council for its sloppy preparation and only eight out of fifteen possession orders were granted. Although this was a partial victory, the barricades obviously had to remain. The Street Group embarked on a series of militant actions with support from other Lambeth squatters aimed at forcing the Council to reconsider the Trades Council Inquiry’s findings which it had rejected at a heavily-picketed meeting and at getting the Council to offer rehousing to Villa Road squatters. First, the Lambeth Housing Advice Centre was occupied for an afternoon in July and, a month later, following the breakdown of negotiations, the Planning Advice Centre received the same treatment. This did not prevent the planning and housing committees from formally rejecting the Trades Council Report but both occupations achieved their primary objective in getting Lambeth round the negotiating table. The Street Group’s initial position was for rehousing as a community but as the talks continued, it was decided to agree to consider individual rehousing. Staying in Villa Road on a permanent basis was not an option considered seriously by either side at this stage. After the second occupation and a survey of empty property in the borough by the squatters, the Council representatives said they might be prepared to look for individual properties for rehousing. The Street Group’s minimum demand was rehousing for 120 people knowing full well that any offer of rehousing would breach both the squatting and homelessness policies.

In October, the Council made an offer of 17 houses to the Street Group but the houses were in such a bad condition that the sincerity of its motives could clearly be questioned. The Street Group had no option but to reject them despite the strain that living behind barricades was causing. The defences could never be made impregnable and the difficulties of living permanently under the threat of immediate eviction was too much for many people who left, sometimes to unthreatened houses up the street. They were generally replaced by even more determined opponents of the Council and morale in the street was further boosted by the occupation of the remaining tenanted and licensed houses in the threatened part of the street whose occupants were all rehoused.

After the rejection of the offer, no further word came from the Council though it seemed clear that it was reluctant at this stage to send in the bailiffs. A war of attrition set in, marked by two interesting developments.

First, a sympathetic councillor was selected to stand in the by-election of November 1976 caused by the death of an Angell Ward councillor. The selection was a success for the Street Group’s members in the ward Labour Party whose votes were decisive. It was a rebuff for the Council’s leader whose nominee failed to win selection and helped to chip away the right’s narrow majority within the Labour Group, contributing directly to the leftward movement that eventually put the Norwood Group with a left-wing leader in power at the local elections of May 1978.

Secondly, in October, the Department of the Environment (DOE) held a public inquiry over the Council’s application to close Villa Road. Several local organisations, including the Street Group, presented evidence against closure. An inquiry which should have been over in a day stretched to ten. Each point was strongly contested since the Street Group realised that if the Council was unable to close Villa Road its plan for the park would need drastic modification. The DOE inspector promised to make his report a matter of urgency.

The turning point

As the Council still did not have possession orders on all the houses, it now restarted court proceedings against all the squatted houses (except those on the school site) – this time in the High Court. The Street Group hurriedly drew up a detailed legal defence, arguing a general licence on the grounds that official negotiations with the Council had never been formally terminated. Villa Road’s case was strengthened by statements from two Lambeth councillors. The hearing opened in January 1977, marked by a picket, street theatre and live music outside the High Court.

Judging by its legal representatives’ response at the preliminary hearing, the Council had not anticipated any legal defence and the case was adjourned twice. The Council’s reason for going to the High Court instead of the county court was that a High Court order for possession allows the police to assist directly in carrying out the eviction. A county court order did not give the police power to intervene except to guard against a possible ‘breach of the peace.’ Events at nearby St. Agnes Place in January had set an ugly precedent and showed the Council was now prepared for full scale battles with squatters. Over 250 police had arrived at dawn in St Agnes Place to preside over the demolition with a ball and chain of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters.

In the event, the St Agnes Place affair put Lambeth Council at a moral disadvantage and had an important effect on events in Villa Road. Labour Group leader David Stimpson had staked his hardline reputation on an outright confrontation but the failure to demolish all the houses and the resulting bad publicity put his political future in doubt. To make matters worse for Stimpson, the DOE inspector’s report on the public inquiry into the closure of Villa Road was published around the same time. It ruled against the Council: Villa Road had to stay open until revised plans for Brixton Town Centre North were devised ‘in consultation with all interested parties’.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers, had pulled out the previous summer. With the unfavourable report from the DOE inspector and news that the construction of the school planned for the top end of Villa Road was to be deferred indefinitely, the planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969.

By the time the High Court hearing resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise. The judge encouraged the Council and the Street Group to settle out of court as, in the end, the granting of a possession order was inevitable. After some hard bargaining, the Street Group got a three months stay of execution to 3 June 1977 and costs of £50 awarded against it, a considerable saving on the estimated £7,000 the case had cost Lambeth.

June 3 passed uneventfully as did the first anniversary of the erection of the barricades. Indeed, they were to stay up almost another year until in March 1978 the squatters felt confident enough of the Council’s intentions to take them down. No attempt had ever been made to breach them.

With the DOE inspector’s decision not to close the road and the absence of revised plans for the area, the possibility now emerged that the fate of the two sides of the street could be different. The south side (12 houses) backed onto a triangle, two-thirds of which was already demolished for the open space. On the other hand, the north side (20 houses) backed onto a new council estate and its demolition would add little space to the park area even assuming that permission to close Villa Road were obtained. Therefore, the Street Group decided to accept demolition of the south side provided that everyone was rehoused, and to push for the houses on the north side to be retained and rehabilitated, ideally as a housing co-op for the existing squatters. Negotiations were resumed on this basis and Lambeth kept talking: clearly, it didn’t want a repeat of the St Agnes Place disaster.

A new Council

The first tangible gain for the Street Group came in March 1978, when two short-life houses were offered to people being rehoused from the south side. But the most important event came two months later, when a new left-Labour Council was elected with Ted Knight, a ‘self confessed marxist’ and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chairperson respectively. It was a significant victory in that it represented as radical a shift in policy as a victory by the Tories – in the other direction, of course. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Lambeth housing department officials now pressed for the demolition of houses on the south side, to make way for the new Angell Park, and suggested that all Villa Road Street Group members join Lambeth Self-Help Housing. It appeared that a new atmosphere of negotiation was being created but the same housing department officers did the negotiating and the Plan had not been totally abandoned. Eventually the Street Group agreed, very reluctantly, to the south side of Villa Road being vacated, with all occupants being rehoused in property with at least 18 months life. Demolition was to begin on 24 July 1978 and the fourth annual Villa Road carnival was made spectacular by one of the vacated houses on the south side being burnt down as a defiant gesture of protest. All the houses accepted for rehousing were in the borough, though some were in Norwood, several miles away.

The Street Group, left to its own devices, requested details of the Council’s plans for the rehabilitation of Villa Road north side. It’s main aim was to keep the north side houses. Inspired by the growth of housing co-ops in other areas, the Street Group decided to propose a co-op for Villa Road. In January 1979 an ‘outline proposal’ was sent to the housing directorate suggesting four possible types of co-op but with an expressed preference for a management co-op. In this type of co-op, the Council continues to own the property whilst handing over responsibilities for rent collection, maintenance and management to the co-op. Rehabilitation is financed either by local or central government. It was felt that other types of co-op involving the sale of council housing stock were politically unacceptable.

The co-op proposals were presented to the housing committee in April 1979 and formal approval was given for the chairman to continue negotiations with the Street Group for setting up a co-op. The climate had certainly changed and although squatting was still regarded as a ‘problem’, the Council now negotiated rather than evicted, at least with large groups. Lambeth officers were reluctant to embark on this scheme which was entirely new to the borough and instead suggested a joint management/ownership co-op. Houses in Villa Road would form the management wing, and the ownership branch would be in a nearby Housing Action Area. This was to ensure that four or five houses in Villa Road could be used to accommodate large families from Lambeth’s waiting list. It seemed ironic that Lambeth was now short of large houses when the previous administration had operated a policy of systematic demolition of such houses. The planning machine had done a complete U-turn.

The Street Group now had to change its tactics. Instead of militant campaigns with barricades and regular occupations of council offices, it had to get down to the nitty gritty of filling in forms to register as a friendly society and as a co-op, finding a development agent (Solon Housing Association was eventually selected) and working out detailed costings for the rehabilitation. It was no longer a matter

Remaining houses on the north side of Villa Road, early 1980s

of just saving the houses, it was a question of getting the long-term best deal for Street Group members and Lambeth’s homeless.

After Solon had submitted detailed costings in January 1980 (it worked out at about £7,000 per bed space), the housing committee agreed, the following month, to support Villa Road’s application to the Housing Corporation (a quango through which government money is channelled to housing associations and co-ops) for funding to rehabilitate the houses. Lambeth would grant Villa Road a 40 year lease. The recommendations were not passed without dissent. Some of the old anti-squatting brigade were still on the committee, intent on eviction without rehousing for Villa Road squatters. But Street Group members now no longer had to live day to day under threat of eviction – they could dream of still living in Villa Road and collecting their pensions.

Not everything was different. Two houses on the corner of Villa Road, Nos 64 and 66 Wiltshire Road were demolished in April 1980. They had been squatted in October 1976 following an unsuccessful wrecking attempt by the Council. They had provided housing for some 20 people for three and a half years and were now being pulled down to make way for the Angell Park play centre scheduled to start in June 1980. Yet three months later, not a brick had been laid. At least now Lambeth offered all the occupants short-life or permanent rehousing.

The first scheme was rejected by the Housing Corporation but a different plan was submitted in July 1980 involving the conversion of the houses to accommodate 12 or 13 people each, rather more than the number already living there. Conversion costs were appreciably lower (under £4,500 per bed space) and the scheme had, in the words of the manager of the housing advice centre, ‘top priority’ from the Council with support from both council officers and councillors.

Victory Villa?

The change in relationship between Villa Road, a squatted street in Lambeth, and the local council between 1974 and 1980 from a harsh anti-squatting policy to negotiations for a housing co-op could not have been more dramatic. But what else has been achieved by six years of squatting in Villa Road? The squatters arrived late in Angell Town and it would be nice to imagine that had they arrived earlier, they would have posed an even greater challenge to the lunacies of the planners. But, in the event the achievements of the squatters have been significant, both for themselves and for the immediate community:

  • Homes have been provided for the equivalent of 1,000 people for a year in houses which would otherwise have been gutted or demolished.
  • About 25 people have obtained two year licences and 15 have obtained council tenancies from Lambeth.
  • About 160 people are in the process of obtaining permanent housing as a co-op, remaining together as a community. Working with Solon’s architects, they will be able to have a considerable measure of control over the rehabilitation of the houses, retaining many of the collective arrangements and physical adaptations which have developed over the years.
    • Twenty elegant 19th century houses have been saved from demolition and a useful street prevented from being closed.
  • Control of Lambeth Council has significantly shifted partly thanks to the Villa Road squatters.

And, less tangibly, although few people stayed in Villa Road for all the six years of struggle, a cohesive street community was created which many people enjoyed living in. Squatters in Villa Road, like those in other streets in Lambeth which won concessions from the Council (St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road) challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats and won. That was the real victory in Villa Road.

What happened in Villa Road could have happened just as easily in other blighted streets in Lambeth or elsewhere. The squatters organisation, their use of direct action and their insistence that planning and housing are two sides of the same coin challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats. Villa Road’s real victory was to prove that plans are not inviolable, and that people can affect and be directly involved in planning processes that determine their living conditions. Considering what Villa Road was up against, that is no small achievement.

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Some of those moved from the demolished ‘south side’ houses in Villa Road were rehoused in council-owned shortlife property – including the flats in mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road, next to the Library in central Brixton. They would face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth Council and then and London & Quadrant Housing Association (after the flats were off-loaded onto L&Q)… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. However, many of the flats cleared of short-lifers were then squatted again – a mass eviction of 75 squatters took place as late as 2013.

The houses on the north side of Villa Road mostly remained, becoming a housing co-op which survives  – although many of the original residents moved out gradually, lots of other ex-squatters, subversives and other ne-er-do-wells have passed through since then…

In 2006, the BBC screened one episode of a series called Lefties which interviewed ex-Villa Road residents, you can watch it on youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Erp2utEgZp4

Some of the above info was gleaned from the transcripts from this program.

Read a slightly longer account of the growth of squatting in Brixton, with more details on the Brixton Plan.

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past tense’s series of articles on
Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981:

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

 

 

Today in London’s educational history, 1972: a Schools Action Union strike and demonstration

The Schools Action Union (SAU) was a children-led movement that existed between 1969 and 1974, and made significant gains in shifting the corporal punishment debate in Britain.

The SAU was formed on 4 Jan 1969 at a meeting attended by members of the Free Schools Campaign, Secondary School Students Union and various regional groups.

The Schools Action Union evolved from a broad and varied range of protests around education. One of these, in March 1968, saw hundreds of pupils from the Myles Platting Secondary Modern school in Manchester stage a school strike in response to the excessive use of the tawse, a pronged leather strap. Soon after, students from the strike formed the Manchester Union of Secondary Students. Other groups that emerged, partly inspired by these events, included the Swansea Union of Progressive Students, the Bristol Sixth Form Alliance, and the Cardiff Union of Secondary Schools.

Among the original founding members of the SAU, Tricia Jaffe had been in Paris during the period of civil unrest in May 1968 and established links with members of Comites d’Action Lyceens. This inspired her to become active in the Free Schools Campaign (FSC) in October 1968, and she organised an FSC conference in January 1969. The conference achieved a lot of TV and press publicity, as well as attracting threats of an attack by the far-right National Front. However, the conference opened up divisions between those who wanted an apolitical educational movement (which the FSC continued as), or an overtly radical political grouping – thus the Schools Action Union emerged.

The SAU’s founding demands were:

  1. Control of the schools by students and staff
  2. Freedom of speech and assembly
  3. The outlawing of corporal punishment
  4. The abolition of school uniforms
  5. Co-educational comprehensive schools
  6. More pay for teachers

The SAU wanted radical change, and (unlike the FSC), chose to make links with other political movements.

At this point the SAU apparently described itself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Liberal broad front”, subsequently it has generally been described as ‘extreme Maoist in nature’.

On 2 March 1979, the SAU held a demonstration attended by 700 people at the Department for Education and County Hall, London, headquarters of the Inner London Educational Authority (ILEA – then in charge of education in the capital, but since abolished).

An article by a SAU Executive Committee member set out their early thinking:
“Most school students, and some teachers too, can imagine why people at British schools are organising, through the SAU and other groups, to flight for their interests. The educational mill is frequently a very unpleasant experience. In schools young people are subjected to petty viciousness, intolerance and general academic bullying. Some schools are more liberal than others but everywhere power in the school is concentrated in the hands of one man or woman. At best students and staff have some sort of collective ’advisory’ capacity. In these circumstances change comes very slowly, especially as the undemocratic school boards often contain very backward elements in the community.

So in face of this hierarchy of academic bullshit, school students and teachers have begun to create groups dedicated to struggle within and outside schools for various programmes. About a year ago in North London schools branches of the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation were set up. About the same time in South London the Free Schools Campaign began activity and from members of these groups, other smaller groups and individuals in London and School Unions in Manchester, Scotland, South Wales, Leicester and the rest of the country a national conference took place in January. Then a London conference was held and the Schools’ Action Union has crystallised out with about twenty affiliated branches throughout Britain.

In London our struggle is led by an elected Executive Committee and the London Union has set up area branches and branches in individual schools.

[Our] demands [as set out above] should not be taken as final, all the work of the Union is open to debate and criticism. It should be pointed out that the demand for ’coeducational comprehensive schools’ is no blank cheque for many of the schools that masquerade under that name are class and sex discriminatory, elitist and quite reactionary and anti-human institutions. However gathering different sexes and social strata under one roof is a step forward to a decent educational system which serves the people.

How does the Union intend to fight for its demands, demands that we consider reflect the ideas of hundreds of thousands of young people? At the moment we are developing our organisation. Our aim is to have groups throughout the schools which can carry out a propaganda work and lead the bulk of students at their schools to fight unitedly by any means possible – meetings, strikes and sit-ins for instance, all of which have occurred in schools up and down the country.”   

The SAU made attempts to forge unity with teachers: “Far from being against our teachers, we want and need the support of most of them against their authoritarian and disciplinarian colleagues and superiors.” When teachers went out on strike in November 20, 1969, London SAU printed and distributed its own leaflets supporting the dispute and a SAU contingent joined the teachers’ demonstration.

The creation of a universal comprehensive education was one of the SAU’s central aims. An early SAU action involved a provocative invasion of Dulwich College (a posh selective school in South London) in June 1969, to test how its ‘open’ its ‘Open Day’ really was.

The Union also called a strike for the last day of the Christmas term in 1969. Five school students at Kingsdale School (in Alleyn Park, Dulwich) were expelled after this 1969 SAU Christmas strike.

Among SAU’s regular early activities, the organisation put on Guerrilla Theatre performances, ran “teach-in socials with films,” eg, on July 4, 1969, the attendees watched films on the May revolution, the Chicago riots, and the Hornsey Arts College occupation. The Union published two magazines, Vanguard and Rebel, each sold for a three pence fortnightly subscription fee. Other regional journals were also published: Pupil Power (Liverpool), Slug (Manchester), Red Herring (Hemel Hempstead), as well as Intercourse (focussed on Secondary Schools).

SAU members regularly distributed the controversial Little Red Schoolbook, which was censored under the Obscene Publications Act, and a member of the SAU wrote in the now-infamous “SchoolKids” edition of Oz magazine, which was subject to an obscenity trial in 1971.

The SAU’s contacts with other left groups increased after they collected enough funds to rent an office at 160 North Gower Street, near Euston Station. This was conveniently located next door to “radical information agency” Agitprop. Contact with Agitprop helped the SAU to learn and improve printing and publishing techniques, as well as contributing to developments in political thinking… The SAU also developed close links with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which had been established in Britain in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion in America; the GLF partly funded the SAU’s publishing costs for a while.

By the summer of 1969, the SAU had twenty-seven branches across the country. It had also held three national conferences — two in Birmingham and one in London — and conducted numerous strikes across the country. Numbers are probably not a full measure of the Union’s influence, but as an example, the SAU claimed 500 members in late 1970, mostly in London.

The SAU backed a 1970 National Council for Civil Liberties campaign opposing compulsory religious education and corporal punishment in schools.

Later that year, a planned SAU ‘Living School’ at the London School of Economics (LSE) had to be relocated after a Conservative Party peer raised the prospect in the House of Lords, asking why the LSE was promoting ‘subversive activities’. According to Socialist and feminist Sheila Rowbotham, who was involved in setting up the event, it was an attempt to link up the SAU with working class apprentices who had been radicalised by events since 1968, and was intended as an ‘anti-authoritarian project’ with no set timetable, including poetry, songs, acting, films and fun… Banned by LSE Director Walter Adams, the meeting was re-located to Conway Hall, where attendees were shown films, attended lectures and received instruction on the manufacture of silk screen posters. There was fierce argument about whether those attending should all march off to storm the LSE, but in the end only a small minority left with this aim (unclear what happened after that?!) A Communist Party trade union official giving a lecture on Marxism was booed by SAU members, described by Sheila Rowbotham as “either anarchical or incipient Maoists, or a bit of both”… this room apparently blocked up a whole room in the tower at Conway Hall for hours…

In its earliest phase, the SAU membership had been mostly based among older, more middle-class pupils, including many from grammar schools (despite its original emergence from protests based in secondary modern and comprehensive schools). Its base apparently evolved, as the Conservatives under Edward Heath won the June 1970 general election, and began to implement policies aimed at restricting strikes, curbing the power of organised workers, and enforcing new anti-trade union legislation. As unemployment rose and resistance to the tory agenda grew, an influx of working-class members began to shift the SAU towards a more class-based politics. The SAU profile also rose, and in a climate of mass protest, their actions were often featured in the media cheek by jowl with reports on miners and dockers’ strikes. This was usually accompanied by suggestions that they were puppets controlled behind the scenes by leftwing adults, secretly funded by Soviet money, etc…

SAU activity seems to have been more sustained in London than elsewhere. (But this could probably be researched). In 1972, prominent activists in the organisation included Stephen Finch (a pupil at Rutherford Comprehensive School, Marylebone) and Simon Steyne (a 16 year old sixth-former at Forest Hill Comprehensive School in south-east London), with Liza Dresner acting as national spokesperson. Leftwing actor and playwright  Colin Welland (a former secondary school teacher) met Liza Dresner on the set of David Frost’s chat show and subsequently made a substantial donation to the SAU, which helped pay the rent on its North Gower Street offices.
Another ex-member of the national committee, Steve Wilson, commented  “A girl called Loulla Ephimou and a number of other members of North London’s Greek community, people like me, idealistic teachers and so on were members”…

The SAU’s activities reached a high point in the school strikes in May 1972.

On the 4th May 1972 about 200 boys aged between 11 and 16, put down their pencils and rulers at Quinton Kynaston School on the Finchley Road, near St John’s Wood, in north London. It was the start of a protest about unpleasant school dinners, caning, and the conformity of school uniforms. The boys swarmed over the school wall and not knowing really what to do next decided to all go home.

“I remember hiding on a roof in the back streets in St Johns Wood.
We stormed out from Quinton Kynaston School, one of the kid’s Christian Rabbi pushed the ice cream van over,
We heard a police car coming so we climbed up onto a roof and sat there for a while. when we thought it was all clear we climbed down. A copper crabbed me, my two school mates took off, I was marched back to school.” (Geoffrey Phillips)

A few days later 18 year old Steve ‘Ginger’ Finch, a pupil from Rutherford Comprehensive School in Marylebone, organised a small group of pupils from his school and nearby Sarah Siddons Girls’ School. The rally of about 60 school children met initially at Paddington Green but then started out on an eight mile march to enlist support from other schools, demanding the abolition of caning, slippering and school uniforms, and the introduction of passes to leave school at lunchtime.

Stephen Finch on SAU demo

This strike initially did seem to win some concessions from Rutherford’s headmaster, who announced a day or two later that that the demands were being seriously considered.

That these actions initially looked like they might achieve some immediate success inspired SAU members and other pupils to launch a series of small protests in schools across London and SE England, and to call a strike and demo for the following week, on 10 May.

Despite an instruction by the Inner London Education Authority to schools to treat any strikers as truants, on Wednesday May 10 1972, around 1500 schoolkids assembled at Speakers’ Corner  and marched to London’s County Hall, handing in a letter demanding an end to corporal punishment and school uniforms, the right to publish school magazines without censorship and to organise student meeting during lunch breaks and after school on school premises, the right to join student unions and engage in political activity, including strikes (among other demands). Simon Steyne also spoke of his support for the abolition of head teachers, who he called dictators.

Attempts were definitely made in some schools to prevent kids joining: “Earlier that day we heard that the girls at Sarah Siddons had been locked into their classrooms so that they could not join the demonstration. I don’t remember how we got into the building but I do remember us setting off the fire alarm so the doors were unlocked.” (Tal)

Allegedly this photo show a Paddington schoolgirl leaving to join the demo on May 10th

Stephen Finch was unable to take part in the 10th May actions, as he was still being held by police, having being arrested the week before. Several thousand pupils were involved in the wider school strike on the 10th. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling called the strike “the ultimate in absurd demonstration”.

ILEA’s dismissive reaction only spurred further SAU action. A delegate meeting of 60 SAU activists, held on May 14th, called for a national General Strike in schools, and announced another demo for May 17th. This time, ILEA played it more cautiously, suggesting schools take a “broadly liberal attitude” to pupils going absent for the day, and advised making “a clear distinction between taking normal and proper steps to deal with breaches of discipline, including truancy, and giving due consideration to the legitimate views of pupils”. Which is interesting tactics. ILEA may have decided a laissez-faire approach would allow the movement to fire up then fizzle out, or may have thought they could split kids taking political action from general non-political ‘troublemakers’. Not sure.

In any case, on May 17, 1972, ten thousand school children went on strike. Somewhere upwards of a thousand, some as young as 11, assembled at Trafalgar Square and once again marched on County Hall. Central London came to a standstill as police struggled to contain crowds marching through the streets with banners reading “No To The Cane.”

Unwilling to let the children occupy Trafalgar Square as the SAU had intended, the police blocked off the Square and fighting resulted; the cops dispersed the children across London in large groups, arresting many of the organisers and demonstrators in the process. 24 pupils were arrested, one 14-year-old girl was injured.

Striking schoolkids rush into Trafalgar Square, 17 May 1972

The anarchist newspaper Freedom reported on this demo, though the writer’s position on what they saw as the limited reformist politics of the SAU and other groups demands was critical, (they also assert that the demo overflowed what they saw as the organisers’ restrictions):

“WEDNESDAY, May 17. the second schoolkids’ demonstration was held in London. Whereas the first demonstration was allowed to march to County Hall to present petitions and state grievances, police tactics, such as sealing off both Trafalgar Square and County Hall, prevented any rally. As it was at about 10.45 driving in with vans and cars. I saw two people wearing blue blazers and caps (but probably not schoolkids) who were arrested for taking the numbers of policemen who acted in a very arrogant dominating way, and dearly terrified some younger children. After regrouping at St. Martin’s Church, the march moved off to rally in Hyde Park. The police then found that by fragmenting the groups an incoherent rabble wandering across roads, down back streets and through the parks had been created. About 22 other arrests followed with children and adults held. Keith Nathan of N.E. London ORA [Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists] is one of those busted and appeared in court on Thursday. Of course the newspapers and television were bloody bigots over the whole affair. Both TV news said less than 1,000 turned up and newspapers using police counts suddenly cut the march figure from 4.000 to 700 at the whim of Scotland Yard Press Office. The old ‘gymslip rebels’ ‘truant revolutionary’ bit was laid on as thick as was palatable to that particular audience but very few carried anything of the disciplinary and educational inadequacies which caused these demonstrations. The Guardian and Telegraph however did tell us of intimidation of kids by teachers and headmasters before the march, and of one scheme where boys will have to clock-in at school and carry a stamped card home for their parents. Kids able to run through central London and confront a mass of police will surely not be dissuaded by such ham-fisted attempts by headmasters. It is illegal to suggest what children should do to Kuper, a headmaster who said he would cane or expel any ‘truants’. A rather distasteful aspect of the march was the blatant use of it for propaganda from political groups. The IS group ‘Rebel’ had a leaflet out which wanted a ‘genuinely comprehensive schools system’. YCL called on kids to join NUSS (National Union of School Students) which in turn wants ‘democratic comprehensive’ schools. SAU ran out a simplistic leaflet which went no further than to challenge present-day rules and call for ‘rules made and kept by the whole school’, S. London ORA joined in with an organisation called SMACK (Schools Mass Action Collective for Kids). Predictably this leaflet was the most coherent, far-reaching and interesting issue. However I do not like the idea of selling ready-made union-type organisations to kids. I think ORA would be well advised to issue instead longer, detailed and more explanatory leaflets, which I know kids really would appreciate more than the farcical demonstration groups. As it was, most children refused to follow the SAU organisers’ plans. A very frustrated group of SAU stewards was seen by me outside Green Park Tube at 12.15 pm. as the kids ran rampant up to Hyde Park. If SAU want these demonstrations to degenerate into a kind of trades union pilgrimage from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, they are doing the right things. More solidarity and less political salesmen might well produce more effective action.”

Another account of the demo relates the event started with confusion with half of the pupils marching to Hyde Park and half marching along the South Bank to County Hal chanting “attack the pigs,” and “we want a riot.”

I went to St Pauls Way School in Bow, east London. I don’t know how we found out about this strike but one of the hardnuts in the 3rd year rallied us at morning break. We marched towards the front gate and the head (AJ Davenport) met us there – he told us to ‘f*ck off then!’ – so we did. we made our way to Stepney Green School and shouted for them to join us and a fair amount did! We made our way to Hyde Park by jumping the tube but all got split up. I was fed up walking around by then and made my way home.”
(Gary Wood ) – but not sure if this refers to the May 10th or 17th demo…

The publicity resulting from the May 17th demo helped spread a small wave of school protests around the country; it also aroused lots of general support for the protestors’ aims, especially in reaction to hysterical press nonsense condemning the demonstration and strikes.

But SAU activists came under pressure from school authorities. The children who skipped school and joined the SAU’s marches were targeted by the schools and exposed in the hostile press. The SAU regularly held campaigns that called for the reinstatement of excluded students, suspended or expelled for “truancy.” Activists were often subjected to the cane, or to suspension of expulsion. The response had its impact on membership, as pressure at school and often led pupils to back off from involvement. In schools in Westminster and Forest Hill, however, mass petitions were apparently able to forestall victimisations of activists (possibly this refers to the schools Steyne and Finch attended respectively? see above).

The accusation that the SAU was controlled by adult subversives with a sinister agenda led to surveillance and infiltration, not just by the press (a tabloid reporter attended meetings undercover, and another paper allegedly sponsored a burglary of the North Gower Street offices), but also by the state. The SAU suspected some organised surveillance at the time, but like many activists and campaigners subjected to infiltration, were unable to prove anything.

De-classified files released in 2007 apparently show that Edward Heath’s government employed the security services to infiltrate, monitor, and to uncover adult supporters of the SAU. Heath was presented with a dossier of information about the SAU shortly after the demonstration on May 17, having requested detailed information about the event the day before. His concern was that “when a similar development occurred in France in 1968, it caused a good many problems and proved very difficult to get under control.”

Heath asked for “special attention at particular schools, to try to isolate the ringleaders of the militancy.” The tories were especially worried that working-class children were becoming radicalised. Margaret Thatcher, then education secretary, was  “reassured by a report from a serviceman who had infiltrated an SAU meeting and suggested that “the leaders spoke with Cockney accents and spoke illogically. It seemed there were a number of middle-class kids who were dressing badly to look working class.” Arf.

The files reveal that surveillance made much of the links SAU activists had to leftwing groups, Agitprop, the GLF etc.

Some ex-SAU activists had differing views on the organisation, its effectiveness, the impact of the strike and demos, and what caused people to join:

“I went over the wall at Quintin in 1972 and through some rabble rousing girls I knew from St Marylebone girls school quickly got involved with the organisers in Golders Green. We were given Chairman Mao lapel badges and a little red book to quote from and sent out to organise.

At boy’s schools at that time we weren’t too concerned about caning, school dinners, and uniforms but we felt repressed and let down by the promises not kept.

Powerful militant young women turning up at your school was all the encouragement needed for 12-14 year old boys to bunk off and get involved!

To be honest, I think it started off as wanting to have a bit of a laugh at someone else’s expense for a change, we liked the idea of having a bit of self-determination which grew into something more profound. As a kid growing up in London in the 60′s you played in the streets – but by the early 70′s this was no longer the case. The innocent pastime had come to an end and on the marches for once we outnumbered the coppers! A last hurrah to kids owning the streets.

It was all very innocent, nobody screwed, took drugs, got violent, or burnt anything down.” (Bill)

The local activity of SAU groups or cells within schools was probably more significant for most of those involved than the demos mentioned above. A glance at one page of Vanguard gives an insight into some of the day to day activity taking place in schools, and of evangelical expeditions to spread the word between schools (including Harrow!):

School Reports

St Clement Danes
The trouble at St Clement Danes has arisen for two reasons. 1) because the constitutional approach was slow and unsuccessful. 2) because Badcock’s regime became too much to near passively.
Two suspensions over length of hair, and a compete rejection of our six proposals in the Autumn term started the situation ticking, while four expulsions on doubtful grounds kept it going during Spring. But the summer saw the A-levels, and the most stupid piece of authoritarianism for a long time. Badcock walked into the Art exam and told a boy to get his hair cut before the next day or have his paper destroyed. The boy was leaving the following week anyway, so he didn’t return to school, and his exam paper survived. This incident prompted two letters from ‘pupils of St Clement Danes’ to Dr, Badcock calling on him to publicly apologise or resign, one to the governors suggesting that they take some disciplinary action, and one from SAU to Badcock deploring his action. Meanwhile a school council had been called for, and was supported by most of the students, but was interrupted by later events.
An SAU member was summoned to the headmaster, and told that he was ‘not welcome’ at the school, as he wrote on a ‘confidential’ application for careers advice that he believed that the questions asked were rubbish, and could have no relevance to his future job. He was then sent home: SAU called a meeting attended by 250, which decided on a walk-out but it was blocked by teachers, prefects and barred gates.
Another scapegoat was made ‘not welcome’ at the school for inciting a ‘disturbance/riot’, and informing the press. other charges were dropped. The other boy was allowed back providing he wrote a letter resigning from SAU disclosing the names of other sympathisers, and denouncing the aims of SAU.
Next day, the headmaster gave the sixth form a lecture on ‘sixth-form anarchists’., a list of whom had been drawn up, and threatened to ‘pounce on them’. The next day, the scapegoat’s parents withdrew him from the school to avoid further victimisation. 
That Friday the SAU arrived gave out 500 leaflets, and tried to give Badcock a letter, which he refused. We were then moved by the fuzz, brought by Badcock.
Before we finish, a warning, Syph (we know you read Vanguard) St Clement Danes SAU will reawaken in September to fight on.

Tulse Hill
Tulse Hill Boys’ School has 1800 students: perhaps it is because of these very large numbers that the authorities there feel they have to protect themselves and their system with extreme violence, but whatever their reasons, it is certainly used.
For this reason several of the boys contacted SAU and worked out a plan of action, which started off at the end of last term with the distribution of 1000 leaflets attacking the ‘education’ system which relies on terror to preserve itself. There was immediate response, and the hard core of 12 members of SAU at the school were contacted by many of their fellow students. SAU is underground at present, but with the large-scale support won so far, the authorities had better watch out this term…
F.I. (Tulse Hill Boys’ SAU)

Harrow
‘Harrow’, someone said, ‘Harrow the public school, what about that.’ ‘Yeah, sure.’
So on Saturday about a dozen of us marched  – up the Hill past dizzy shoppers and waited and waited. 
A trickle of boys was drawn into discussion and swelled into a large crowd. ‘Can you all come back on Thursday?’ pleaded a boatered guy with Che in one pocket and fags in the other, ‘cos we have all this crazy parade in full regalia.’ Afterwards we were invited inside for a chat.
On Thursday 26 of us dutifully arrived with a special Harrovian leaflet and an escort of bright-eyed cameramen, to talk and talk, and found plenty of agreement, even on the injustice of privilege and the need for a social revolution.
A local reporter covered the event and compiled a list of pupil grievances, we made several contacts and demystified the ‘other half’. 

HAS ANYTHING HAPPENED AT YOUR SCHOOL? Anything that should be done and got away with anything you’ve done to try to get the rights and freedoms due to you, any struggles still going on. WRITE TO US – WE’LL ALMOST CERTAINLY PUBLISH IT.”
(from Vanguard, SAU mag, not sure what date).

Some SAU ‘branches’ may have taken more direct action… An interesting comment (found on a thread published elsewhere about the SAU demonstrations):

“the public side of the SAU was always on a loser. The clandestine side, though smaller in scale, was *much* more effective.

The SAU cell at St. Dunstan’s College (SDC) in Catford ran a 2-year covert operation of espionage and sabotage against the school establishment in general and R. R. Pedley, the HM, in particular. Actions by cell members – notably the 1970 Speech Day operation – destroyed Pedley’s standing within his own profession, which added much to the stress that brought his death in 1973 – two years after the cell members left.

There is also some circumstantial evidence consistent with the view that Philip Cooper, Head of Music at SDC, (d. 29/10/71) was poisoned by an unknown pupil who had access to the technical assets that the SDC SAU cell had collected (among them keys to every door and cupboard in the school).

If the SDC SAU cell had focussed on public demos, we would soon have been crushed. Acting covertly was much more successful – so much so that our security was never broken throughout our operations.

Pedley was one of the most vicious of all public school heads. Helping him to an early death by destroying his professional reputation was one of the SAUs greatest but least-known achievements. As for Cooper, since he was a predatory sado-masochistic paedophile, if it was an SDC SAU cell member who took him out, that trumps anything else that the SAU ever did.

As it was the security of the cell was never broken”
(Olwen Morgan)

Others flagged up that the much-touted links to adult leftist groups did have some substance:

“I had been in the SUA for a while by May 1972. Is there anyone who remembers the place we used to meet in Acre Lane, Brixton? The SAU was a kind of youth wing of an organisation whose name I have forgotten which was recruiting young ‘cadres’. Their newspaper’s banner featured the profiles of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. They were also very enthusiastic about Enver Hoxha and his Albanian regime. My father, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist who had left the Communist Party after the invasion of Hungary could barely stand to see me selling the paper with a picture of ‘that man’ (Stalin) on its cover.

I agree with much of the analysis of the SAU and the wider scholchidren’s revolt in this article – we were part of a genuine grassroots movement and had our own ideas. But there were adults in the background who had their own agenda.” (Tal)

[Typist’s note: I wonder if ‘the place we used to meet in Acre Lane’ is the Mao Memorial Centre, formerly based at 140 Acre Lane, Brixton, an offshoot of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) and dominated by Ara Balakrishnan, ‘Comrade Bala’, arrested in 2013 on suspicion of assault, false imprisonment and immigration offences (Later sentenced to 23 years in prison by the Southwark crown court on 29 January 2016].

Some local authorities reacted to the May 1072 demos by introducing concessions in pupil representation, ILEA itself paid lip service to listening to pupils’ concerns. In the wake of the targeted SAU campaign throughout 1972, the Inner London Education Authority eventually defied pressure from the teaching unions and announced that by 1974, corporal punishment would be banned in all inner-London primary schools. ILEA gradually phased out corporal punishment for all ages in the late 1970s, several years before it was banned nationally in 1986.

Although the SAU fizzled out in 1974, they had forced the corporal punishment issue firmly into public debates on children’s rights. The ban on corporal punishment in London’s primary schools is perhaps their most recognisable achievement.

Many of the SAU’s other demands remain unfulfilled or at best partially conceded…

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This post was edited together from several sources including:

Another Nickel in the Machine

marxists.org

No to the Cane

Children, Welfare and the State, edited by Barry Goldson, Michael Lavalette, Jim McKechnie

Worth reading also:

Sheila Rowbotham, Promise of a Dream

An account of some radicals engagement with rebellious schoolkids in a North London school, 1969

The 1985 School Strikes

Schoolkids rebel against the 2003 Gulf War