Today in London anarchist history, 1999: the 121 Centre evicted, Brixton

It was twenty years ago today…

… the legendary 121 Centre was evicted in Brixton…

Squat centre, bookshop, black radical space, anarchist space… Over the 26 years of its life, the three-storey Edwardian building on the corner of Railton Road and Chaucer Road went through many incarnations…

After so many years the rollercoaster came to an end on 12th August 1999,when 121 was evicted by Lambeth Council, with the aid of 150 cops, some armed, after a six-month stand-off and 24-hour occupation.

One day we will write the full story of 121… there’s just so much else to do… For now, here’s a short and very incomplete history, written off the cuff last night, with some cut and paste from other things we have published… which we fully admit it inadequate and definitely biased. We worked there, see, played there, learned and got off our heads, discussed heavy shit, mates died there, other mates who shared all that with us are also gone now too. With all its many faults and downsides (how long have you got?), it is a part of us and we’re a part of it.

The first squatters to take over part of 121 Railton Road were Olive Morris and Liz Obi.

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. From 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 a black man the police were harassing, 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.

Liz Obi relates: “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.”

Olive breaking into the back of 121 makes the cover of the Squatters handbook…

The Women’s Centre at 207 Railton Road was a focus for a whole array of radical causes at this time. They helped well over 300 people to squat in the mid-70s.

“At that time a squatters’ movement was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris, was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.
This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.” (Gail Lewis, in interview, included in Talking Personal, Talking Political, originally published in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife, no 19, 1990. With a text on the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, it’s now available as a Past Tense pamphlet, Black Women Organising).

Olive Morris died in 1979, aged only 26, from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Check out a website dedicated to her memory

Railton Road then was a hub of life, known as ‘the frontline’ – home to the street culture that had migrated with the West Indian communities that had gradually come to represent the area’s majority population, and a squatting culture – or rather two. White and black squatting were not separate but had distinct qualities, mingling but quite different at their outer fringes, and sometimes hostile or frosty. The area was often filled with (mostly) young lack folk, out in all weathers… But many of the buildings, left empty after a Lambeth program of compulsory purchasing for a redevelopment that had never happened, were squatted, providing homes for thousands of people, black and white, local and from far afield, usually poor and/or working class, but not always. Other buildings became ‘blues’ clubs, shebeens in effect, self-organised clubs based around heavy reggae, toasting, cannabis… Others again became activist spaces, hosting feminism, lesbian and gay groups and communities, anarchists, leftist or every hue… From the late 60s to this century, this mixed ocean of cultures defined Brixton – along with police and authority’s response to it.

Because the cops hated the frontline, hated the West Indians – especially the young ones who didn’t look down and tug their forelock – and to a lesser extent, they also hated the radicals and white squatters, subversives all, uppity women, queers… Police activity on Railton Road and in wider Brixton tended to take the form of an occupying army, and not without reason: that’s how the cop brass saw it, how the plod on the ground also saw it, and how the locals saw it. Raids, repression and racism were endemic in the police, many of who were members of the rightwing National Front, especially the paramilitary Special patrol Group. Their invasion tactics and willingness to steam in would spark the Brixton riots in April 1981 and then a couple of re-runs that July, again in 1985… 1995… It helped the evolution of the British Black Panther Party and other black power groups, and a general sense of us and dem – cops against community. This has never entirely gone away, as the same dynamics keep cropping up. In the week we write this new Stop and Search powers are being drawn up – carbon copies of the ‘SUS’ laws that led to the 1981 uprising. There have periods of more softly softly approaches, but there’s a basic hostility and racism, that keeps bursting the PR bubbles.

Liz and Olive squatted 121 in 1973. Initially the leadership of the Black Panther Party in London 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…” (However, this ended badly with the building burned out in what was most likely a fascist arson attack)

After the Panthers fragmented and evolved into other projects, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, and then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group (based at 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to 121 in the late 1970s, and then a mile or so away to Stockwell Green).

Sabaar Books, a black bookshop run by a black radical collective, occupied the building for several years, then, in late 1980, moved to new premises down on nearby Coldharbour Lane, more central to Brixton (a move controversial to some other black radicals in itself, who denounced them for taking state funding and letting themselves be bought off.

So the building was empty again, but not for long.

Local anarchists had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address to get their mail. When Sabaar moved out, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre.

Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121, notably the occupation of Kilner house, in Pegasus Place (off Kennington Oval), in October 1980, where 50 squatters occupied empty flats in a mass action. As the Greater London Council planned to do up the flats & sell them off, the squatters had a lot of local support on the estate – soon there were 200 people living there. The squatters were kicked out in a mass eviction, on 9th January 1981.

During the April 1981 riot, the Anarchist Bookshop escaped trashing by rioters – as happened to most of the other businesses in the area – only to have its window staved in by the cops when they re-took the frontline. (The fact that there was a poster in 121’s window celebrating the riot in St Pauls, Bristol, the year before, is credited with its remaining intact).

Daft as ever, press, cops and council combined to accuse anarchist of fomenting the riots and being secretly behind the trouble. Given the tensions between blacks and whites, the actual size of Brixton’s anarchist community, and most anarchists’ basic attitude to secretly controlling social movements – this was laughable. But in the hysterical atmosphere after April ’81, white authority couldn’t believe black people could get together and organise an uprising. Hilarious and racist. Anarchists had been involved in the riots, like many other white radicals, but as participants side by side with their black neighbours.

As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at 121 received a hilarious visit. 3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’”” (From the 121 Daybook, June 9th,1981).

Anarchists around 121, together with local gays, lesbians, feminists and mostly white squatters, formed People Against Police Oppression in the wake of the April 81 riot, as white defendants from the riots had been excluded from support by the larger Brixton Defence Campaign. PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the additional plethora of left-party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. They sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people. But divisions around class and colour caused huge dissension in the wake of the uprising, which are detailed to some extent in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, and anarchist account of April 81.

Successive waves of police and council evictions and clearance programs would begin the development of central Brixton, to dismantle the culture that created the riots and the physical spaces that helped rioters defend and move around their manor. 121 survived this, while many other squats did get cleared and bulldozed, including many blues clubs. Locals squats where anarchist lived including the 121 collective, were targeted – for instance the squatted terrace of Effra Parade, just around the corner. There was a clever policy of divide and rule; street by street, the frontline was gradually reduced, buildings demolished or re-taken. Although often evicted squats would be left empty by the council, from a mix of lack of money, incompetence and uninhabitability, and then re-squatted, the program was in the long term successful – for a number of reasons which it would take too long to detail here (another time, because they are very instructive).

Over the next 18 years the erosion of the autonomous cultures that 121 had formed a part of, left the centre more and more out on its own, halfway out along the road to Herne Hill, with the movements that create it changing, settling down, into housing co-ops, ageing, moving out…

But the place was pretty much always a hive of subversive activity. To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take up a book. Just some of the most significant being

  • Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper – for several years in the mid 1980s the paper was bi-weekly, printed elsewhere but folded upstairs at 121. Years later you could find piles of one page from issues from a decade earlier;
  • the Anarchist Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for much of its existence), a support group for anarchist/other class struggle prisoners;
  • the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London, then to the US),
  • South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (which later evolved into the Solidarity Federation);
  • the London end of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp;
  • South Wales Miners Support Group, during the 1984-’85 Miners’ Strike;
  • Brixton Squatters Aid – which gave practical advice to would-be squatters, kept a regularly updated list of empty properties (we also kept a list of council-owned property in the borough, nicked during an occupation of a housing office… and BSA’s newspaper Crowbar, initially a freesheet duplicated onwaste paper, which became a rowdy class war type magazine that loved to wind up the police, council, lefties and pretty much everyone except the collective (having inherited this from another 121-linked project, the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…
  • anarcha-Feminist paper Feminaxe

Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, an anarchist based anti-poll tax group; ‘young women’s magazine’, the uproarious Shocking Pink (in its third collective by then), and radical women’s mag Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; Lesbian and Gay free sheet Pink Brick, the list goes on.

And hundreds more groups met there, debated, sold their propaganda in the bookshop, held benefits there, cooked communally… Thousands of people turned up there from all around the world looking for somewhere to live – South Americans on the run from rightwing death squads, Spaniards and Italians avoiding military service, eastern Europeans with firsthand experience of ‘state socialism’… Africans, Caribbeans, too… Though without any intention it was always mainly a place for whitey, odd and often fractious relationships arising (dudes and fucked up people often targeted the place hoping for an easy robbing of someone who they knew wouldn’t go to the cops).

And fascists also tried to burn the 121 down, at least twice…

As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The first Queeruption was held here…

The anarchist bookshop on the ground floor was famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk supposed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters!). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (I came from Sweden and you were closedetc), calls to revolt and general abuse.

Collective Meetings were sometimes held in the Hamilton Arms up Railton Road, in winter, when the gas ran out and the money was low.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which generally carried out in a viciously racist style, with a side-helping of anti-squatter violence… Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) – our postman told us the Branch were holding our mail, opening it at the depot, then forwarding it on to us. Hope you got Dullness Money Sgt…

In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived: “TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement and up to the roof

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of 121, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…

The 121 myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the squatters, as the basement was rapidly explored and put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dark, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999…

We know the police took an overt interest in 121. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in, as did some names people are suspicious of but have not yet been confirmed as definite police spies. We’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

There had been some desultory attempts to evict 121 in the early 1980s. The left-Labour clique controlling Lambeth Council may have hated the tory Thatcher government and entered into a battle over ratecapping – but they also hated anarchists, who kept on not doing what they were told by the central committee. Squatting had been tacitly tolerated at times in the 1970s, when the squatters were sometimes linked to young new Left Labour types, and some careful PR had helped squatters get licences, form housing co-ops… By the early 1980s this attitude had hardened, money was tight and council waiting lists were long, and the Brixton counter-culture had little interest in making deals in most cases. The riots added an impetus – squatting, both black and white, had provided the ‘footsoldiers’ of the uprising, and was clearly an obstacle to any kind of regeneration – at least as the council saw it. Even Ted Knight’s Socialist Organiser diktatoriat was basically interested in doing up the area and attracting money to the place (money they, their mates and those with an ear managed to often snaffle or divert – corruption was rife).

121 was an obvious target for eviction – they were literally advertising that the squatters network was run from there, they were sticking two fingers up to the Council (often in the pages of Crowbar) and laughing at the Leninier than thou pretensions of the leading councillors. But two court appearances foundered, partly due to good legal footwork from the 121 side, head-scratching fuckuppery from the council, and sheer apathy – at one point the council lawyer accepted an ‘undertaking’ that Crowbar would ‘leave the building’ (it changed its postal address but carried on as before) and the case was adjourned. However, in the 1981-85 period, the squatters claimed they had a verbal licence, or asked to pay rent (with a certain amount of crossed fingers…!), just to try to prolong the life of the place. Noone really thought it would last as long as it did. But these tentative negotiations over a possible licence or tenancy would do for us in the end…

In later years 121 had been often quite isolated from much of its surroundings, more so as the squatting scene that produced it declined into the 90s…

Since the 80s 121’s position had become in many ways more and more anomalous. When Brixton had been full of squatters, overflowing with alternative projects, 121 had been an important cog in this scene. By 1998 it was out on a limb; not that there weren’t still squatters in the area, but the strength of the eighties had been dissipated. The building had passed through several collectives, different groups with different agendas had introduced contrasting atmospheres. Although lots went on in the space, it was left behind from the social changes around it, and had little continuous involvement in community or social struggles since the Poll Tax, apart from resistance of anarcho-squatters around the 121 to their own evictions… some of us saw it declining, becoming an inward-looking social club for anarcho-punks. Not a bad thing in itself (if you like that sort of place), but irrelevant to the lives of most of the people living around it. It’s also worth pointing out that the streets around the old Frontline were increasingly dominated by the middle class that was taking over the area. You could sit there and watch people passing by, glancing at the shop, not even knowing what it was. The building was also in physical decline, the back wall was falling down, many repairs were too expensive to even contemplate. At times the physical decay and social isolation seemed like parallel metaphors for each other.

“The cafe nights could be great or dodgy depending who was in the kitchen. I remember one night when some crusty was serving. His hands were black! I think I gave it a swerve that night!”

The café had begun as a cheap communal meal, but evolved into a money-raising venture, cash for the bills, benefit meals for good causes… Hilariously, over the years, anarchist inflation took regular price of meals down from £3 in 1981 to 50p/pay whatever you want by 1999… We understand economics, see?

Its also true that in the early days the more class struggle/migrant oriented collective cooked meat regularly, though later it went veggie and then exclusively vegan. The food was variable, at best – some times excellent (is there truth in the rumour that Franco, later supremo of pizza chain Franco Manca, spun pizza in 121 in the early days?); other meals were inedible mush. For a long time veg was liberated from New Covent Garden market (in Nine Elms), from the skips for unsellable food – mostly it was fine, just a bit over ripe. Some people had little quality control however.

One incident relating to the skipping of veg at New Covent Garden – the security guards were always out to catch you, since taking food that has been thrown away still counts as stealing, breaking the capitalist ethos… Occasionally you’d get chased off; once or twice they’d call the police and you’d get nicked. one time out whole skipping crew was nicked on a Friday morning and held all day. In the spirit of the show must go on, some of us went down Brixton market, begged borrowed and skipped enough food for a passable meal, and put the cafe on anyway that evening. When the arrestees were let out, late in the afternoon – without charges – they were welcomed back not only with food and drink but a song written in their honour, a pisstake of an Irish rebel song about their brave attempt to liberate mouldy veg. A lovely evening in the end and tears of laughter. There were many such nights.

As well as days and nights where noone came. Or nights dealing with the nutters who were always attracted to free spaces, hard to deal with, damaged, or abusive.

All the debates and arguments – not just political differences but rows about the building’s upkeep. One problem with social or squatted centres is that you open them to be organising hubs for your actions, your movements, but alot of the time you end up working hard just to keep the space together, physically, pay for stuff, do building work. We learned how to plaster, do wiring, glazing, plumbing, rebuilt the kitchen, re-slated the roof; we could do little about the structural issues that were slowly causing the back wall to move away from the building… One image that stays with me is Irish Mike up to his knees in water in the basement, pumping out water that had flooded in from a burst pipe next door, two days before the ten-year party.

There was death and tragedy too. Mick Riddle died after falling down the stairs into the basement in February 1991, during a party to celebrate ten years of 121 as an anarchist space. The stairs were rickety and dangerous, but the coroner ruled that he had in fact collapsed due to alcohol poisoning and been in the wrong place. He died on the pavement as we waited for an ambulance.
Black Flag’s Leo Rosser killed himself… Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer died… Irish Billy, who used to live upstairs at 121 for a while – whatever happened to him…? Others moved away, succumbed to drugs, cancer, suicide.

The building’s energy dipped and rose, and the atmosphere changed tack several times. Always volunteer-run, with a high turnover, unpaid, with people turning up then moving on… Periods of stability and strategic approach would give way to occasional chaotic change. From a serious class struggle collective in the early days, through more agit-prop arty folk, to anarcho-punk… Sometimes these influences co-existed uneasily, sometimes one group would dominate. This process accelerated as Brixton changed socially.

The centre hosted regular film showings, from the political to the purely entertaining (including a pirate showing of Terminator 2 before it was out in the UK); a food co-op where members could by cheap wholefoods, a Reiki massage parlour for a while (?!?). We helped to put on national events like Stop the City, international events, from Queeruption to the 1994 International Infoshops Meeting, through to the Anarchy on the UK ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ festival in 1994. This last brought a whole new scene of local squatters to the area, who took 121 in a punkier direction again. Anarcho-punk gigs began to dominate that building, spilling out into what was by now almost quiet residential area, which didn’t endear us to the neighbours. For some of us who had built up 121 to try to move out to other communities and become a base for local class struggle again, this led to arguments and tensions. Now it seems daft, as 121 was never going to evolve back into something it had been fifteen years earlier – the area just wasn’t like that any more. Those of us who were involved in what we saw as local community activity sometimes got pissed off with 121 and stormed out to do things elsewhere… Other squatted spaces like Cooltan arose and formed a much more broader link to local scenes, but that is a story for a another time…

1997-99 saw the revival of the long-abandoned attempt to evict the 121. The Council may have felt when it failed to turn up in Court in ’85 that moves on 121 were still too risky, with it being on Railton Road; or maybe they just forgot to set their alarms that day. It was the legal position then that twelve years occupation of a squat in continuity, unevicted, meant that the owners lost their title and you got it – or that was the basic case – in reality this ‘adverse occupation’ law was much more complex, and nuanced, and not as clearcut as we thought.

For years we had not really believed they would ever bother, or had forgotten they owned the building (not unheard of in other cases), or had lost their own papers… Frustratingly some of our legal papers were lost due to stupidity (you know who you are! But it’s all water under the bridge now…)

In January 1999, after some 18 months of legal to and fro, 121 went to court; we claimed 12 years adverse occupation. We lost. In 1983-5 the 121ers had claimed they had a licence from the Council – the right thing to do at the time, to stave off immediate threat – but it turned out to be a no-no if you go for adverse occupation to show any recognition of the owner’s right to the place. The Council had restarted proceedings just 2 weeks before the 12 years after our last communication with them in which we recognised their title to the building, just by asking for a deal. But hey ho. What could we do? Squats don’t last forever.

Funnily enough, the threat to evict 121 galvanised the energy around the place, and we made a spirited last stand, barricading the building, entering into a 24-7 occupation, and producing rainforest-fulls of lively propaganda, including a weekly newssheet size revival of the old South London Stress. When bailiffs were rumouredly on their way in early February, 100 people blocked the street and launched a mini-street party (some of us being involved in Reclaim the Streets paying off); till the cops turned up, and persuaded us they’d called them off. We promptly dismantled the barricades – but went on the offensive, invaded the Town Hall and were dragged out of Council Leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office. We held a couple of small street parties, with bands, sound systems, campfires…

We made some productive links with several other campaigns against council cuts, notably disabled users of the Centre for Independent Living, who had occupied the centre when the Council announced planes to close it. The Centre provided support for disabled people living independently; Lambeth Social services Committee decided to cut the service, (an alleged consultation meeting was rigged, then moved to a room without wheelchair access!) and so on February 1st 99 the users took over the space. They were supported by activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network; the occupation continued for several weeks… There were also campaigns against plans to close 5 libraries, and campaigners against the closing of several primary schools, playcentres, special schools…. The long-running Tenants Corner Advice Centre in Oval Mansions (Kennington Oval) was evicted (along with the rest of the building, squatted or licensed; after many years and several court cases everyone was forced out. The block lay empty for several years, it has now been renovated.)

In contrast with many weary and cold days spent in 121 in recent years things were actually fun. We were out causing trouble almost daily again… invading the Firkin pub (bugged by he chain with the connivance of the local police), holding a street Drink-In in defiance of the anti-Drinking bylaw, harassing the council, and the Queen too when she turned up for some daft school ceremony.

A 121 street party in Chaucer Road down the side of the building, 1999

A lot of energy got spent, maybe too much too soon. In the end the Council waited 6 months, till many of those involved were exhausted, and then at 6.30 in the morning on the 12th of August, 150 cops, some armed, with a helicopter fluttering overhead, broke in and evicted the few people staying there at that time… The end of 121. Bit of a damp squib. So many people had been forced to leave Brixton, our response was subdued. Maybe we just accepted the inevitable.

Some of the ex-121 crowd were later involved in squatting a disused Button factory in Hardess Street in Loughborough Junction, mainly for punk gigs… though some actions were also organised there around June 18th I think.

Much more could e written… and will be. Send us your memories! And your gripes… But remember that an end-of-terrace ex-laundry can turn into something amazing for a while…

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Dedicated to

Olive Morris,
Leo Rosser,
Gerald ‘Fiddler’ Farthing,
Jill Allott,
Nikki Campbell,
Asti Albrecht,
Maggie Marmot,
Mick Riddle
Albert Meltzer
Katy Watson. true Brixtonites and 121ers all

no longer with us, and we miss them all.

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Today in London policing history, 2009: RampART social centre raided

As previously recounted on this blog, RampART social centre was a squatted activist space in East London.

The RampART collective were active during the G20 protests in London in 2009, the building serving as an information point meeting spaces and crashpad for people coming from out of town to protest against the G20.

On 2nd April, the day after the main demo/kettling/mini-riot in the City of London, Rampart was raided by police. This was generally done whenever there was a large-scale protest: social centres, squats and activist meeting places were raided, harassed, kept under surveillance. Though especially true of protests associated with the 21st century anti-capitalist campaigns against the ruling class ‘summit meetings’, if you look back in history, police have always targeted such spaces, going back to Reclaim the Streets, Stop the City, the anarchist and socialist clubs of the late nineteenth century… as far even as the Rotunda in the 1830s

During the raid, despite the occupants offering to cooperate with their search, the police fired a taser, assaulted five to six people, delivering punches and kicks to the head, throwing people down the stairs and into walls.

It was suspected that they didn’t have a proper warrant for the raid (they left the ramparters with a document that appeared incomplete.

This raid coincided with a very similar one on the Earl Street anti-G20 convergence space, which happened at almost the exactly the same time, with similar tactics and police violence.

A short timeline of the raid: 

“11.00 am

Police started searching anyone entering or leaving RampART under section 60.

11:15 am

A member of the RampART collective was searched on his way into the building and refused to give details. He was told repeatedly that he would be arrested if he didn’t give them the information.

12:15 pm

We could see that the police were escalating their presence (more of them, different uniforms, forming lines), and so one of us went outside to confer with them and to be amenable to their interest in Rampart. He told them that if they produced a warrant we would let them in through the front door, but he was ignored.

12:30 pm

The police raided the building, smashing in the door from the roof and the front door on the ground floor. We were raided by riot police (wearing black, padded uniforms, balaclavas, helmets and carrying riot shields and taser guns). The total police force at RampART seemed to be about 40-60 men and women.

Ground floor

The riot cops smashed the door and rushed in. Those of us in the hallway and stairs put up our hands and called out that we were not resisting. Alan was pushed down the stairs, (not far as he was only a few steps up) and then pushed to the wall before the hall doorway, with hands still up and saying “no one is resisting”. He then witnessed a tall young guy with long hair pushed hard down the stairs from the top of the halfway flight. He hit his head quite hard on the hardboard that was leaning against the wall adjacent to the front doorway. Alan called out for the police to take it easy (the young guy had given no resistance whatsoever). The riot cop in front of Alan then whacked him on head with his fist, not particularly hard, but hard enough to knock his spectacles off his head. He told the police officer that he would comply, that no one was resisting here. The riot cop on his other side then tried to knee him in the groin twice, but did not succeed, whilst Alan repeated the thing about non-resistance and his glasses. Still standing there, the riot cop to his left grabbed the back of Alan’s head and forced it forward, whilst the one in front tried to knee him in the face, all still with his right arm extended upwards holding his glasses.

The riot cop holding the back of his head then threw Alan through the main hall doorway and then again down onto the ground. Another guy with dreads who was standing in the main hall was thrown to the ground right next to Alan. Alan kept asking the riot cop arresting him to take his glasses to put them somewhere safe, but he seemed a bit confused by his behaviour and instead kneeled on his upper back and then the back of his neck. He lost grip of his glasses and was cuffed.

First floor

Police kicked in the door to Ben’s room and fired a taser gun at him. He dove out of the way. Two cops jumped on him, punched him in the face, kneed him in the back and kicked in the back of his head twice, all the while constantly shouting and screaming that he was “an anarchist cunt.” He was taken to the next door room where there were other people. An officer from the oracle unit num “hf 915” looked at them all and singled Ben out for arrest for criminal violence and damage.

Second floor

There were seven people on the second floor, five in one room and two others in another room. The room with five people was near the stairs to the roof. People were seated around a table having coffee. The police smashed down the door and a cop stormed in pointing a taser gun at us and screaming “get down!”, “get down!” Peter witnessed a cop punch Paolo on the left side of his face.

G asked “What is this for?” A police officer replied “For yesterday” (April 1 G20 protests) and then explained we were not under arrest but just detained. D was told that they were looking for “people involved in the incidents at Bishopsgate the day before” and that they had “intelligence” that they were in the building in Rampart Street.

At one point, D heard a cop radio that there were two women in the room. One female officer turned up and attended to one of the women. The other woman was guarded by a man but later searched by the woman.

All floors

Everyone was hand cuffed with a mix of plastic strap cuffs and actual handcuffs. The police asked for our details. We were detained for about 1.5 hours. It was scary and humiliating. The police “banter” throughout was derogatory. At one point, D caught snatches of a conversation in which they were implying that they were pleased that a demonstrator had died during the protests the previous day. We were filmed and photographed front and back, with attention to our footwear.

2.00 pm

Police leave RampART after arresting three to four people, all of whom were released 10-12 hours afterwards. Police confiscated their clothes. It appears as though no charges were laid as a result of this raid.

RampART was evicted later that year.

Here’s an account of policing of the G20

 

Today in London squatting history: RampART squat social centre evicted, Whitechapel, 2009.

“After over 5 years and many eviction scares it has finally happened… 3 people and a dog were inside when police attempted to chainsaw the door. They also had climbers going up to the roof conjuring up memories of the raid during the G20 in April. Police are blocking the entrance to all three roads leading to the social centre with vans and their bodies. They are handing out a piece of paper with a telephone number to call to get belongings out of the building.”

RampART (also variously known as rampART Social Centre, rampART creative centre and social space) was a squatted social centre in London’s East End, opened in May 2004 and (located at 15-17 Rampart Street, London E1 2LA). Originally squatted as a crash space for pople coming from outside London/from other countries to attend the 2004 European Social Forum events, the centre was established in a derelict building in Rampart Street which was previously used as an Islamic school for girls, then left empty for two years before being squatted along with the vacant houses in the block. The project was initiated by a mixture of artists, community groups and political activists. During the European Social Forum rampART accommodated over 50 European visitors as well as laying on free food and a range of entertainment, as well as hosting the Forum’s Home Education Forum and acted as homebase for the European Creative Forum and the Laboratory of Insurrectional Imagination.

According to one account of rampART’s founding:

“Every social event or project, has as many versions as people participating in it.

My own personal version of Rampart Social Centre would be that it was born, together with many other squats in 2004, out of the need to house hundreds of attendants to he European Social Forum and adjacent alternatives.

The meetings for the preparation of said forum did acknowledge the need, and the problem of accommodating such a big number of people in the most expensive city in the UK, probably Europe.

But the possibility of housing them in squats was mercilessly laughed at in the ESF meetings.

Regardless, tens of anarchist and otherwise active activists set on occupying as many empty building as possible, as big and stable as possible. All the buildings squatted as a result had been empty for a very long time, left to rot by owners and developers in their speculation activities, because usually the hard bare land was higher market value than a whole building, especially if “too many” repairs are needed and the planning permission for demolition and new development had been granted.

The ESF was a success, and thousands of attendees were accommodated in legitimate and lawful accommodation while only a few hundred stayed in squats like Rampart. But it remains regarded today as an unreported odyssey, that with practically no owner resources, a whole non-hierarchical organisation managed to create accommodation for so many people for over a week.

The media never knew, or reported about this; it only focused over the money than the then London mayor was spending in the events and accommodating ‘lefties’ from all over europe.

Same as speculation and what it does to buildings and communities does not get reported.

In London’s most ‘desirable’ areas, buildings are left empty for years, roofs smashed to accelerate their decay, some times squatters gain entry to highlight the madness of having empty buildings and, at the same time, homeless people. They delay the process for two weeks, two months… then get evicted and the owners can continue with the destruction and subsequent sale to other business for more profit because it is their property, and they can do what they please with it.

So squats do not usually stay squatted for very long. The most exciting squat I remember was in Aberdeen Road, in 2001. Friend called ##ohf6Kie## talked about it thus: “I am amazed it is still there running, after two months. We are most used to one week, two weeks. We were all over the moon when Stoke Newington lasted for three weeks. But two months!”

So, three weeks after the end of the ESF, many squats that had been opened for the accommodation of events and punters had been evicted. All but Rampart.

Rampart survived many years and provided space and resources for many good noble social causes, like rooms for meetings, rooms for computers, even a video editing suite, a pirate radio station, and a whole hacklab – a room full of computers, all gathered from dumps and repaired and put back into use for workshops on how to produce documents, books, radio programmes and news … donated or saved from landfills.

They were many years, thanks to a building that, had it not been for the free dedication of a few, admittedly very privileged people, who could afford and chose to dedicate themselves full time to a project that did not make them any money nor friends, instead of working in paid jobs, it would have rotten until falling down in the pursuit of capitalist profit by the owner, who would rather wait for speculation to give them good money rather than let people use it in a context of rampant homelessness. Now it is the home of groups like Bicicology, the hacklab and ours, migrant support.”

[Nicked from here]

Within its first year, the building had hosted over 100 cultural and political events – placing the rampART firmly on the activist map of London. At this point the Whitechapel area was home to the London Activist Resource Centre and a renaissance of sorts was occurring at the long-running Freedom anarchist Bookshop nearby; rampART grew into both a local network of activist spaces, as well as being linked to wider networks across London and beyond…

The building underwent transformation from the moment it was opened – a partition wall on the top floor was removed to create a space large enough for banner painting and the once empty building was soon bursting at the seams with furniture and equipment collected from the street.

The centre was run as an autonomous space by an open collective, and was open to all to use on the basis of equality for all. Projects were run on an entirely voluntary basis by the people involved, in a spirit of co-operation, solidarity and mutual aid.

rampART’s constitution stated that:

“The rampART is run collectively. Any one is free to get involved or make proposals relating to use of the space by come along to one of the weekly meetings which are held Mondays after 6pm. We attempt to make all major decisions relating use of the space by building a consensus, both out of a desire to avoid hierarchies and also in recognition that decisions are more likely to be carried out when decided by consensus.”

The space and the projects based there were funded day-to-day by donations given by the users, or by raising funds through benefit events such as gigs, cafés or film nights.

rampART was open for five and a half years, hosting meetings, screenings, performances, exhibitions and benefit gigs. During that period the building and resources evolved to adapt to the demands of its users.

An account of rampART written during its existence recounts some of the practical work done to reshape the space:

“With meetings, rehearsals, workshops, film screenings, benefit gigs and other performances, the space was quickly put to good use and evolved. PeaceNews volunteers created a wheelchair accessible toilet and a ramp that could be placed at the entrance and windows on the ground floor were bricked for sound proofing after the weekly samba band practice led to a noise abatement order.

Different layout were tried in the hall and modular stage created. The kitchen was rearranged to make it a more practical space and a permanent serving area built. Further work on these improvements were put on hold when the local authorities started correspondence about health and safety inspections. A series of risk assessments and visits from the fire brigade followed, then emergency lighting, smoke alarms, extinguishers and safety notices sprung up around the building. The biggest job was the construction of a new fire exit as previously there had been only one exit from the whole building.

The highly effective sound proofing was seriously compromised by the new fire exit and a second noise abatement order was recently served despite the best efforts of the collective and most of the event organisers. Most of the complaints, however, related not to music from the building but noise and nuisance generated from people in street during and after events and this has proved to be a much harder problem to solve than soundproofing.

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

The need to keep noise off the street during events has led to work making the roof garden a more attractive place for people to go for a breath of fresh air or a cigarette. A covered area with seating has been built and railings set up around the edge but it remains to be seen whether this is a practical solution. Excessive noise from the roof is still likely to generate complaints and in the past, providing access to the roof during events has resulted in major damage to the tiled area of the roof when drunks have dislodged slates, creating leaks which have bought down the ceilings and destroyed equipment.

Attempting to encourage more events other than parties, the collective recently made the biggest changes to the building to date. Although there have been various large meetings and even weekend long gathering at the rampART (for example, the last few months has seen public meetings relating to DSEi and organising meetings and gatherings relating to both the No Border and Climate Camp), many people have commented that the rampART was too dark for such meetings. To address the problem walls on the first floor have now been removed to make a large, light and airy room about two thirds the size of the downstairs hall and good for meetings of up to 50 or 60 people.

The community served by the rampART has generally not been a local one, but a community of politically motivated people from around the capital and beyond. There have also been hundreds of guests from all over the world enjoying free crash space while attending events in London. For example, seventy Bolivians stayed earlier this summer.”

Some projects that ran from rampart included amateur theatre, art installations, acoustic concerts, weekly film nights including Indymedia London film festivals, eg the Caminos De Resistencia (Paths Of Resistance) and the Middle East Film Festival), poetry, photography exhibitions, political discussions and meetings, skill sharing and workshop including Samba, radio, juggling, banner making, computer skills training, screen printing…

Other resources included a Free shop, info library, media lab, wireless Internet, kitchen / café. rampART had a library of donated books, as well as a BookCrossing zone.

Other examples of what took place at rampART: the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army held training sessions at the centre; and the UK No Border network held a gathering at rampART from 10 to 11 October 2009, 7 days before the eventual eviction.

“Regular users include the samba band, the radical theory reading group, the womens cafe, food not bombs and the cinema collective. The 24/7 rampART radio stream that started with coverage of the European Social Forum has expired a long time ago, resurrected occasionally for live coverage of major mobilisation like the G8 or DSEi. Other radio collectives now use the space to broadcast their weekly live shows – Wireless FM which came from St Agnes Place and Dissident Island Disks.”

In November 2007 property developers planned to partially demolish the squatted houses next to the social centre and build three new properties at the back. rampART itself was under no immediate threat and regular activities continued as normal; however in December 2007 the centre received eviction papers. The date for eviction was set at 3 January 2008.

The day after the April 2009 G-20 London summit protests, which had seen the death of Ian Tomlinson, the rampART squat was raided by a large force of police, (240 according to one account) who pushed the occupants about, pointed tasers at people., and made a couple of arrests. [here’s an account of the raids there and at other centres the day after the G20.

Despite the  December 2007 possession order, the centre survived a year and a half, before finally evicted at 5:30am, October 15th, by 45 police, bailiffs and a priest(?!) chainsaw was used to enter the building. Climbers broke in through the roof, and a chainsaw was used to cut in downstairs.

After the eviction, the collective, still named “the rampART collective”, stayed together and temporarily moved to a new space in Walworth, South London where they continued to hold weekly meetings.

A rampART statement after the eviction:

“Priests and Chainsaws Revisited

At 5am on Thursday, 15th October, 2009, the rampART Creative Centre and Social Space was evicted by 45 police with chainsaws and, remarkably, a Church of England vicar. Three people and a dog were inside.

The eviction marks the end of nearly five and a half years of occupation, during which rampART has served as a landmark for the social centres movement in London and a venue for a diverse range of events including political meetings, workshops, info cafes, fundraising parties and the London Freeschool.

The eviction, significantly, happened on the same day that Non Commercial House, a freeshop operating out of a building in nearby Commercial Street, lost their case against eviction and a week after the collective occupying 2a Belgrade Road in Stoke Newington successfully defended the space from eviction by council bailiffs.

This may be a coincidence, but with the London Olympics less than three years away and in a time of crisis for a city that depends on financial services and tourism, it isn’t difficult to come to the conclusion that squatted properties are being targeted in a concerted scouring of the city, setting an example so others dare not even try.

Social centres are important and not only because they provide space for political organising, D-I-Y culture and free education outside of the institutional constraints that are increasingly limiting free expression and the development of cultural alternatives. Squatting draws attention both to the dimensions of homelessness in one of the world’s richest cities, and the consequences of rampant property speculation (in 2008, there were 100, 000 empty homes in London). It also draws attention to the lack of facilities where people with a diversity of interests can meet and socialise without paying
exorbitant prices and contributing to capitalist expansion, or fitting into paternalistic, box-ticking government agendas. More importantly perhaps, the occupation of commercial and government owned premises blocks the flow of capital which homogenises cities and their populations.

The free spaces of the city are increasingly few and increasingly under siege. This is why it is vital that we continue to organise and exploit the empty properties which the current recession has made available. rampART was sited in a part of London which has witnessed a history of struggle for autonomous expression and the rights of workers and exploited minorities. At a time when global capitalist expansion and the rise of neo-liberal ideology has destroyed the lives of many peoples around the world, it is essential that that struggle continues.

rampART was not just a building but a convergence of committed individuals and groups willing to give their time and energy to creatively demonstrating that it is possible to effect change. That energy has not dissipated. We will not be beaten. rampART is dead. Long live rampART.”

Something of rampART can still be seen at their old website

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London squatting history, 2006: ‘The Square’ Social Centre resists eviction.

‘The Square’ Social Centre, in the old University College London School of Slavonic Studies in the North West corner of Russell Square, Bloomsbury, flourished for several months from the winter of 2005 through to the following Summer. “When the Square was first occupied… everyone was overcome with excitement. The building was a dream – from its central position to its glorious fascia; from its large ground floor rooms to the labyrinthine former bar of a student’s union in the basement.” The Square was constantly teeming for the next few months, with packed out benefit gigs, parties, meetings, an info shop, offices and organising space for radical anti-authoritarian groups, as well as a friendly drop-in and coffee shop.

“The first months were immensely exciting. Every day, while the café was open, people would wander in, stunned and enquiring as to the present status of the building. As the situation was explained their eyes widened as they considered new horizons. In fact, all of our eyes were wide, then. Even the 40-person meetings, where people talked and talked in circles about politics, action, organisation and so on were just about bearable – and the discussions in little groups in the evenings were something else, magical conspiracies mapping our future.”

There were many and varied events, including meetings/reports back on the student riots in France, the London Zine Symposium, with stalls, talks, walks and bands; a Mayday Weekend, with talks and discussions on ‘The Future of Anarchism’, an excellent meeting with films and speakers from campaigners against deaths in custody and mobilisations for anti-war and anti-deportation demos and a remarkably successful meeting on ‘Radical Academics in the Neoliberal University’ which packed 100 people into the 80-capacity meeting room.

“What really occurred at the Square, though, was a community – a virtual community ordinarily spread all over London, all over the South East, but finding at the Square a physical space to come together. The building became a focal point for all sorts of groups, organised or otherwise, who – holding their meetings in the same building, rather than the pub – had a rare contact with each other, creating many friendships and challenging many assumptions. This hive of activity was also a space which proved extremely stimulating for those few kids who came in search of politics rather than a cheap party. It was frequented by members of anti-fascist group Antifa, Aufheben, the Anarchist Federation, the WOMBLES, the Industrial Workers of the World, a whole mess of punks and even the occasional insurrectionist. One could always find an interesting conversation.”

The Square faced an attempt to evict it, on Friday, June 23rd 2006. A call out was made to resist the eviction and to hold a Festival of Resistance, involving autonomous groups, social centres activists, live bands, DJs and participants from The Square.

On Friday, 23rd June, around 60-70 people followed the call for solidarity and to resist the eviction from the early morning. The building was festooned with an array of flags and banners, and the mood was light but determined. Apart from a couple of officers from Camden Council that eventually turned up, made some telephone calls and then left, no other form of ‘authority’ showed up or attempted eviction.

On Saturday 24th, around 400 people attended the concert in support of The Square, which featured live music in two stages and a couple of sound systems in the basement. A talk and film screening about repression in Mexico also took place in the evening, organised by Z.A.P.

Despite the June 23rd resistance initially forcing the bailiffs to back off, “on Sunday [25th], around 30 people including most of those who had had a sustained relationship with the space, came together to decide the term of the resistance that had begun on Friday. This gathering eventually came up with a dissolution communique of The Square Occupied Social Centre, which informs that “the space has now been passed on to a handful of residents who wished to remain and a few people who wanted to continue to run the place as a political and cultural venue”.

Many of the core group that had run the space were suffering slightly from “exhaustion – physical, emotional and political. People were just tired, and wanted a summer in the sun, not barricaded into a building. Others felt the social centre had drawn to its natural conclusion given the limits that had been placed upon it, and wanted summer for reflection and reformulation of the project. Still others were concerned that the symbolic weekend of resistance, which burnt so brightly, would be diluted by days and weeks of events for events’ sake.”

There had also been many of the usual tensions and difficulties familiar to any group running a squatted centre in these (possibly any?) times: the never-ending meetings attempting to hammer out a consensus, and the old chestnut of many users not clearing up after themselves (leaving it to the core collective), among them. Some among the main organisers felt, at the end, that a clearer initial definition of the space’s ideas aims and politics (rather than the open invitation to anyone to get involved) might have helped to both reduce some tedious debates about what the place was for, and keep out some of the assorted nutters and wishywashy ditherers who often consume much time and energy in such centres… Eternal questions, for those of us who’ve also been involved in keeping similar spaces going. Sometimes the high energy adrenaline-fuelled temporary spaces like the Square are more inspiring BECAUSE they don’t last very long. Squatted, or rented, or even bought, social or political centres, that survive for years can be dogged by a loss of inspiration, by boredom, when the business of keeping a physical space together can take the focus away from the reasons the place was founded. Long-term spaces do have their uses though…

All in all though the legacy of the Square was generally very positive, inspiring squatted spaces in London and elsewhere since. As the organisers said in their dissolution communique:

“This building has been sustenance for us, a place to socialise with like-minded people, a place in which to play, to party and conspire. That it was ending – for all of its flaws and tensions – made a lot of us take stock of what was being lost: and it was more than we had thought.

Something has passed from central London into our hearts. The red and black will not fly over Russell Square much longer but we carry them in exile…”

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London freethought history: the first stone of South Place Chapel laid, 1822

If you’ve ever been to a meeting, conference, concert, lecture, bookfair or debate, (or any one of a myriad of other events) at London’s Conway Hall… You might be interested in the history of the organisation that gave birth to it. Although Conway Hall as an institution itself dates back to the 1920s, the tangled skein of the South Place Ethical Society goes back nearly a century and a half before that…

The South Place Ethical Society evolved from its beginnings as a dissident Unitarian church congregation in 1787, known then as a non-conforming sect of the Philadelphians or Universalists. They had distinguished themselves by a refusal to accept the doctrine of sinners suffering punishment in an eternal hell. This marked the beginning of a long and winding development from universalism and unitarianism to humanism, the position which the Society had reached by the end of the nineteenth century.

By 1793 the society had its first premises in Bishopsgate. Their next doctrinal step was to reject the idea of the Trinity – this led to many of its members departing, in the first of several raucous schisms that was to hone its ideas…

In 1817 William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation.

Fox was a sometimes challenging minister, pushing the congregation and provoking them. After Richard Carlile was prosecuted and jailed for blasphemy for selling Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in 1819, Fox suggested that the chapel should have stood up to defend him.

Plans were put in motion for them to build their own premises, and a site was chosen at South Place, in Finsbury Square.

Having already raised over £600 towards the cost of the building, the Committee for Erecting a New Chapel looked to raise additional funds by asking for subscriptions from the congregation. Some gave relatively small amounts, such as John Mardon who contributed £1. Whereas others, such as E. Bricknell, who pledged £100, promised more significant contributions. In total £2117.2d.4s was raised through subscriptions.

In May 1822 the first stone was laid. Their Unitarian Chapel took two years to complete, and was opened in 1824. By a deed dated February 1, 1825, its chapel was to be held by trustees on trust to permit it to be used “for the public worship of one God even the Father and for instruction in the Christian religion,” as professed by the society.

Through the early decades of the nineteenth century, the chapel became known as “a radical gathering-place”. The Unitarian congregations, like the Quakers, supported female equality – under the leadership of Fox, the South Place chapel went further, opening its pulpit to activists such as Anna Wheeler, one of the first women to campaign for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke there in 1829 on “Rights of Women.”

In 1831, Fox bought the journal of the Unitarian Association, the Monthly Repository, of which he was already editor; he helped to transform it from a religious into a general radical journal. Under Fox’s editorship it published articles that gradually alienated the Unitarians, such as one advocating divorce (on the grounds of women’s rights) in 1833. Literary figures as luminary as Tennyson and Browning  contributed verse in the Repository, and regular authors included John Stuart Mill, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, Henry Crabb Robinson and a fearless iconoclast, William Bridges Adams, whose outspoken series of articles on marriage, divorce, and other social questions (along with those of Fox) split the South Place congregation again.

Among the causes with which Fox identified himself and the Society were the spread of popular education and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1847 he entered Parliament whilst remaining minister at South Place for several more years.

In later decades, the chapel moved away from Unitarianism, changing its name first to the South Place Religious Society, and after abandoning prayer in 1869, changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society.

The most famous of Fox’s successors running the chapel was an American, Moncure Conway, after whom the Society‘s present home is named. Conway, raised in Virginia in the US, had been an active anti-slavery activist, although he had two brothers serving in the Confederate army during the civil war, and came to England in 1863 on a speaking tour to raised support for the Union side.

Conway took over a minister at the South Place Chapel from 1864 until 1897, except for a break of seven years (from 1885 to 1892) during which he returned to America and wrote a famous biography of Thomas Paine. Conway abandoned theism after his son Emerson died in 1864. Under his leadership, the South Place Society continued to move toward a more humanistic Freethought. Moreover, women were allowed to preach at South Place Chapel, among them Annie Besant, secularist and socialist, who was a friend of Conway’s wife.

Conway and the South Place congregation continued to evolve further from the beliefs of the Unitarian Church. Conway remained the leader of South Place until 1886, when Stanton Coit took his place. Under Coit’s leadership South Place was renamed to the South Place Ethical Society. However Coit’s tenure ended in 1892 after a power struggle, and Conway resumed leadership until his death.

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women’s suffrage in Great Britain.

The Society occupied the Finsbury site for 102 years, until 1926, after which it moved to Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, a building which was opened in 1929. Today, a plaque commemorating the South Place chapel can be seen on the building at River Plate House (nos. 12–13) which stands on the original site.

Conway Hall has hosted more radical events than can possibly be ever counted…Campaigners exposing undercover police officers infiltrating campaigns for social change in the last fifty years generally reckon Conway Hall to be the most spied-on building in the UK – certainly a fair whack of the Special Demonstration Squad and other secret police units have passed though its doors. Nor to mention some of MI5 by all accounts… Hence an event at Conway Hall coming up in July: 50 Years of Resistance: Despite Police Surveillance

Conway Hall remains a venue for radical meetings and events…

More information about the building of Conway Hall 

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London gay history: the South London Gay Centre evicted, Brixton, 1976

In 1972, some transpontine activists in the Gay Liberation Front founded a South London branch, which initially met from 1972 in the Minet Library, North Brixton. Among their early actions was street theatre in drag, parading though Brixton market. After meetings at the Library, the GLFers often went to the Paulet Arms in Paulet Road round the corner for a drink, although the pub wouldn’t let them use the function room for discos (Fun fact: 25 years later the early planning meetings for the 1998 Brixton Reclaim the Streets party were also held in the Paulet)… Later the South London group met at the Hanover Arms in Stockwell, (where they WERE allowed to have socials upstairs!), at the crypt in St Matthews Church opposite the Town Hall, where they were once besieged and bottled by bigots; then at Oval House Theatre in Kennington… Later still at the Hamilton Arms in Railton Road (a lovely pub, another old hangout of yer past tense typist, where we sometimes held 121 Collective Centre meetings in the late 80s/early 90s, on days when the 121 was too cold to even sit in! – this pub is sadly now gone).

The GLFers also met at the Women’s Centre at 80 Railton Road. GLF socials and dances – attended by 100s of people – were held at the Surrey Halls in Stockwell and even at Lambeth Town Hall.

The GLF group was still active in 1974, doing a Gay community zap (action) against Tescos (not sure of the reason).

In 1973 or 74, three South London GLF members stood as GLF candidates for the Council elections; none got in; later Malcolm Greatbanks stood again in the second General Election of 1974. “Being against Parliamentary Democracy as a meaningless sham it was pointed out that we were just doing this for the free publicity.” Canvassers came in for a fair share of abuse, including a deliberate attempt to run one down – possibly by NFers, as the GLF had been active in opposing NF candidates in Brixton that year. At the Election count a number of GLF drag queens in feather boas livened up the evening!

The Railton Road ‘frontline’ was an alternative and rebellious hotchpotch at this time – along with the black street culture and numerous blues parties, squats, there was a constant sense of siege from police, sparking various confrontations. It was also diversely counter-cultural: there were two women’s centres on Railton Road, an Anarchist News Service, Squatters Groups, a Claimants’ Union for those on welfare benefits, the Brixton Advice Centre, Icebreakers (a gay liberation counselling group), the Black Panthers and Race Today Collective, black centres and bookshops… and a food cooperative, all on the frontline, or on nearby streets like Shakespeare Road and Atlantic Road.

However, Gays on the frontline often faced hostility, from some local blacks and some other local whites: GLF members were thrown out of two local pubs, the George (The George had also previously been prosecuted under the Race Relations Act for barring black people) for holding hands, and picketed the pubs over it.

In March 1972 GLF activists were thrown out of the Union Tavern in Camberwell New Road, for leafleting; the landlord’s son had punched one of the GLFers the previous day… (Not sure if any of this was purely homophobic, or anti-political – sometimes venues that were ok with gay events were quietist, wanting to avoid anything political or activist/lefty – or possibly rightwing-based? Especially interesting as The Union Tavern was hosting gay skinhead dances a couple of years before this time, late 1960s, I think: “Tuesday night was skinhead night and you could walk into the pub and there’d be a sea of crops. Fantastic! And everyone was gay! We’d dance to reggae all night, you know, the real Jamaican stuff, and all in rows, strict step. It was a right sight seeing all those skins dancing in rows. The atmosphere was electric.”

The South London Gay Centre

In May 1974, no 78 Railton Road, (next door to one branch of Brixton Women’s Centre at no 80) was squatted, giving birth to the South London Community Gay Centre.

“During the short period of its existence the Centre acted as a focal point bringing together gay people from many different backgrounds through social activities and political action.

The Gay Centre, as a self-determined group, also took its place among the other community based groups to challenge prejudice, discrimination, heterosexist attitudes and the complacency of officialdom.

There were many different activities at the Centre. A modern dance group was formed and run by Andreas Demetriou.

There was a wrestling group in the basement and, to counter the ‘macho’ posturing of the group, a sewing bee and knitting circle was formed in the upstairs front room run chiefly by Alistair Kerr and Malcolm Watson.”

The Centre was sneeringly described by a visiting reporter as “a shabby set of rooms”! Another visitor to the Squat said: “I was expecting some sort of brotherhood and it wasn’t like that. It was rather like… people who were all already close.” The Centre seems to have lasted till around 1976. The Centre applied for a council grant at one point, but were turned down… the Council was old school right wing Labour at this point, so being gay was deeply suspicious, and squatting in council property probably didn’t help. Some of the young New left labourites objected to their being turned down, including Norwood Councillor, soon to be infamous Lambeth would-be Lenin Ted Knight!

“There were weekly discos in the basement, individual counsellors and regular meetings of the Centre ‘collective’ to determine which campaigns and social events we would support and be involved in.

Discos were also organised at Lambeth Town Hall and an open day was held for members of the public to come and meet us.

Besides all of this there was a regular duty rota so that all the people who visited the Centre would be greeted and made welcome. The 1976 Gay Pride event was also organised by Brixton Gays.”

NB: Around this time, there was actually a black gay ‘blues’ club, on Railton Road, quite well known in the pre-Gay Liberation days, run by a Jamaican woman named Pearl (who was also mildly famous as a ‘naïve’ painter); although according to one source “there was little contact between black and white gays on the Frontline”, others remember things differently, that some ex GLFers did go to Pearl’s shebeen. “It wasn’t quite Queer Nation, but we did enjoy ourselves, in an environment that was free from the usual racism that was pretty much run of the mill prejudices encountered by black people on the gay scene at the time.” (Terry Stewart)

The Centre drew a number of people into the area, who squatted several back-to-back houses on Railton and Mayall Roads, (both very run down then, with lots of empties and knackered houses) with a shared garden in between them.

These houses became the nucleus for further political activity after the closure of the Centre but equally it grew, over time, as an experiment in new communal living arrangements for gay people with varying levels of success.

South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group

“The South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group, which later became the Brixton Faeries, produced several plays, sketches and street theatre performances. They were mostly unashamedly agit prop but later became more sophisticated with better characterisation and plotting. Beginning with a Gay Dragon paraded in a local street festival the group went on to perform sketches for local community groups.

The first play, ‘Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family’, was performed at the Centre and in a local school playground at a community event. The play attacked patriarchal values by showing the devastating effects on the wife and gay son of ‘rule by the father’ and the collusion of the male-dominated authorities in acquitting the father of murdering them (1975).

Next came ‘Out of it’ (1975/76) showing the relationship between patriarchal values, fascism and the extremes of christian morality and how they contributed to gay oppression. This was followed by ‘Minehead Revisited or The Warts that Dared to Speak their Name’.

A highly topical and controversial play at the time about the Jeremy Thorpe trial at the Old Bailey. As leader of the Liberal Party he had been accused of plotting to have a former male lover intimidated and even killed in order to keep him quiet about their affair (1977-80).

‘Tomorrow’s too Late’ was an anarchic blend of music, song and fantasy around gay activist groups and the banning of Gay News by WH Smith for carrying an advert about a paedophile group and later a poem by James Kirkup suggesting a homosexual relationship between Christ and a Roman soldier (1977-80). ‘Gents’ told the story of ‘cottaging’, that is, the reasons why men have sex with other men in public toilets.

The more respectable gays viewed cottaging as repulsive and giving ordinary, decent gay people a bad name. The police frequently arrested and charged men with ‘gross indecency’ often ruining their lives in terms of losing jobs and destroying relationships.

Brixton Faeries decided to expose the oppressive nature of police entrapment and to present cottaging in positive terms as an ideal fantasy even going so far as to suggest the local council attempting to stump up funding to ‘improve facilities’ (1978-80).

We also did Joint productions with various other groups such as Gay Sweatshop in ‘Radio Gay’ at the Oval House Community Centre.

Most of the productions were at fringe theatres or community centres and one performance of ‘Out of it’ was in front of the Young Communist League who were shocked to see two men kissing on stage.”

Many people who used the Centre were unemployed and could not afford to fund it. Infighting between different factions and lack of funding contributed to the demise of the Centre.”

However the final blow came when the Centre was evicted, on 21st April 1976, by police and bailiffs so that the private owners could take vacant possession of the property and sell it to Lambeth Council for redevelopment.

The building was however re-squatted, at least for a while:

“The Gay Centre did not close due to eviction. We re-squatted the next day !
It closed after the principal people involved gave up the struggle with those we rudely called “The Nerds” who took over but were so un-together that they failed to pay the electricity and phone bills and and within months, it had collapsed.”

This marked the end of the “first public and visible institution with a clear gay identity. With this closure the focus for political and social activity shifted from the Centre to the gay squats.”

From about 1972 on there had been a number of gay squats/communes in Railton and Mayall Roads, later there seem to have been 11 houses in a group, back to back with a big communal garden. They had discos in basements… “people would bring their own records… we just had a few coloured lights, although it could get quite randy down there. It was more Dante’s Inferno than ‘Disco Inferno’ “(Ian Townson). Apparently the attempt to establish a ‘common gay identity’ didn’t really work, and there were divisions, due to different class and backgrounds of the residents… often the splits came down to “love and peace and brown rice” versus “political activists”. Later several of these squats joined Brixton Housing Co-op, and were redeveloped into single person units.

“While this made for more secure accommodation and the shared garden was kept in tact it led to a more ‘privatised’ existence and some of the original elan and spirit was lost as a result.

However the gay households are all still there with more or less permanent inhabitants.

Gay people arrived at the squats for many different reasons. Some were desperately fleeing from oppressive situations in their lives. Others were glad to find the company of unashamedly out gay people rather than remain confused and isolated.

Some consciously saw this as an opportunity to attack ‘straight’ society through adopting an alternative lifestyle that challenged the prevailing norms of the patriarchal nuclear family and private property.

There were many visitors from overseas. Everything would be shared in common including sex partners and gender bending was encouraged to dissolve rigid categories of masculine men and feminine women. For others dressing in drag was a sheer pleasure and an opportunity for ingenious invention.

The ‘cultural desert’ in South London offered little social space in which to gather strength as ‘out’ gay people. The ‘straight’ gay scene was inhospitable, exploitative and a commercial rip off  (it is now gay-owned, exploitative and a commercial rip off).

With a common garden between the houses the back doors were often left open so that people could come and go in and out of each others squats.

The kitchen more often than not became the hub of food, conversation and play. In the shared garden people would gather to dine Al Fresco or play music or even rehearse for various theatre productions. Even just camp it up for the hell of it.”

Many of the Centre’s gay activists continued to be active in Brixton after the demise of the Centre. The National Gay News Defence Committee was originally based at 146 Mayall Road and then moved to 157 Railton Road. The group was set up when Mary Whitehouse, a right-wing moral crusader, prosecuted Gay News on a charge of blasphemous libel for carrying the notorious poem by James Kirkup, imagining Jesus having sex with a roman soldier…

“This happened at a time when there was also much police activity against gay people in different parts of the country on cottaging charges and the wrongful assumption that we were paedophiles.”

With the successful prosecution of Gay News the NGNDC became the Gay Activists’ Alliance, a late-70s attempt to repoliticise the gay scene and link gay liberation to other struggles; which continued with both national and international campaigns with many locally active groups.

There was also a gay socialist paper “Gay Noise’. Some ex-GLFers set up ‘Icebreakers’ in Brixton, this was a radical counselling group which helped many people to come to terms with their sexuality and come out. The idea had arisen from the GLF’s ‘Counter Psychiatry’ sub-group, which attempted to challenge psychiatry’s treatment of lesbians and gays as sick or mad.

“Also the fascist National Front was particularly active at this time; mostly against immigrants, black people and left-wing organisations but also several gay establishments had been attacked by them including the Vauxhall Tavern in South London.

In 1978 a massive Anti-Nazi League march came along Railton Road for a Rock Against Racism festival in Brockwell Park. We fully supported the demonstration and the marchers passed under a banner we had slung high across Railton Road saying: Brixton Gays Welcome Anti-Fascists.

Also there was Anita Bryant, the Florida Orange lady, who campaigned in the United States against gays. Her famous phrase was: ‘God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ and she became even more famous when an irate gay activist shoved a cream pie in her face in full view of television cameras.

Union Place Community Resource Centre in Brixton… encouraged us to go along and make posters, diaries, badges, calendars and banners for our campaigns. Ian Townson and Colm Clifford from the gay community became employees and Colm initiated ‘Homosexual Posters’ from there producing pictorial biographies of gay people and even gay Christmas cards.

Brixton Riots

A special mention should be made of the Brixton riots of 1981 which happened chiefly as a result of the racism and heavy-handed harassment of black people by the police. The riots were centred around Railton Road and when Brixton was burning we showed our solidarity with the oppressed by joining them on the streets.

We even took tables and chairs out onto the street in front of the gay squats for a celebration party – some people in drag – getting a mixed reception from people on the street. Some hostile, others indifferent, some amused.”

Two of the Brixton gay squatters were sent to prison for a couple of years for supplying petrol to the rioters for Molotov cocktails…

Many of the original gay squats survive as co-op houses in Railton and Mayall Roads, lots with their original residents.

Some of this post was nicked from here

(where there are lots of great pics of the Centre and other gay squats, and a great thread of comments from former South London GLF folk and Centre goers)

and from No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles: An oral history of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power.

But… there are some other accounts available now of gay lib and related skulduggery of the times…

here’s a previous post we did on Bethnal Rouge, another offshoot of the GLF

Today in queer history: acid-drag queen commune Bethnal Rouge opens, Bethnal Green, 1973

Bethnal Rouge was a gay bookshop/commune opened in 1973 by a group of ‘radical femme acid queens’ – a group of gender-nonconformist queers, who emerged from the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

The Bethnal Rouge collective had to some extent evolved from the loose group of radical drag queens that had coagulated as members of the GLF, some of who had been living communally since early 1972 in various parts of London.

London Gay Liberation Front had been born in late 1970 (inspired by GLF’s birth in New York) and had rapidly become a large and brilliantly confrontational movement in the capital, which spread throughout the country in the next couple of years. But it was always a diverse and to some extent fractious alliance. If gay men and lesbians had initially been united in fighting the massive social prejudice and violence against them all, divisions soon opened up, as the women’s liberation movement blossomed, and the male dominance in the ‘liberation’ front became a major issue. But other bones of contention was whether a class-based evolution was the first priority, as an immediate need that would help sort everyone’s sexual oppression out (er, eventually), and if liberation was what people were fighting for – for many was it acceptance and assimilation into straight society, recognised as gay but equal?

The GLF became gradually fragmented, between a number of fractions – groups aligned for a while who in time discovered political and social differences that in the end led them in different directions. Lesbians eventually got pissed off with male dominance in GLF; varying left, Marxist and anarchist influences produced their own splinters. The movement as a whole had also always united political action with a massive personal and sexual flowering that attracted both people interested only in their own sexual adventures and those who thought sexual adventures and living arrangements could be the basis of an overturning of heterosexual and homophobic social structures.

The queens who founded Bethnal Rouge had been among the faction called ‘Radical Feminists’ in frustration by their GLF critics, (confusingly this label was applied to the men in drag, and should not be confused with the more usual use of Radical Feminists). They had broadly allied with lesbians in GLF in opposition to the more ‘straight’ gay activists who dominated GLF meetings in the early days, but as GLF grew, sections split off and local groups proliferated, the ‘Radical Feminist’ drag queens came to be one of the most vocal and eventually dominant factions in GLF in London, though their confrontational all-out assault on hetero-capitalist society was not universally popular in the gay movement and could freak newcomers and tentative young gay folk somewhat…

“We didn’t take the label radfems. It got thrown at us one night in an argument … ‘You radical femme acid queens!’ … it was something from outside. We never used words like that. We would say ‘get a frock on dear’ whenever they were ranting away”. (Bette Bourne)”.

“It started with jellabas and kaftans and long hair and flowers … then we discovered glitter … and then nail varnish. Later, some of of us – a quarter of the men, I’d say, at some time or other – would get a nice new frock for the next Gay Lib dance. Then a few people began wearing it to meetings. It just evolved.” (Michael James)”.

It then became street theatre, notably the Miss Trial demo outside the Old Bailey in support of the women who were on trial for disrupting the Miss World contest, and then the disruption of the 1971 Christian Festival of Light. Some GLF queens wore drag because it felt right, some for fun and some for political reasons.

Generally the queens were living in communal squats and in poverty in Brixton and in Notting Hill, and wore drag all day every day. They aligned themselves with lesbians against the masculine gay men who were dominating the GLF meetings. When the women finally split from GLF in February 1972, the Rad Fems began to dominate at the All-London meetings at All Saints Hall in Powis Square.

However the RadFems also demonstrated against the launch of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, (mostly on the basis of what they saw as the middle class nature of the Spare Rib collective) which allowed The Sunday Times to run an article on the irony of feminist men telling women how they should behave. The fledging Gay News used this to disassociate from what they referred to as ‘fascists in frocks’. The initial issues of Gay News were hostile to GLF in general and even more so to the queens.

In July 1972 a group of the most radical drag queens were renting a house in Athlone Road, off Tulse Hill in Brixton, and got into a barney with some local somewhat homophobic kids from Tulse Hill School, who had attacked their house. This resulted in about 30 of the queens and friends ‘invading’ the school to hand out leaflets. Julian Hows, later a leading light of Bethnal Rouge, was an already out pupil, who had been suspended from Tulse Hill and had got involved with the commune.

From Brixton, the commune moved to the then slightly more gay-friendly Notting Hill, to set up in Colville Terrace and then nearby Colville Houses. The main GLF meetings had started to fall apart as various factions argued and moved off in different political directions. The queens had clashed with other groupings over their insistence on personal liberation, with a lifestyle-oriented, but confrontational, all out, in your face. This ended in head-on clashes with those who saw themselves as more practical, such as the GLF office collective.

“There was a very strong movement against monogamy, couples were really uncool. Because everybody wanted to have sex with everybody! But politically, we were breaking up the nuclear family and we were not going to have any ersatz nuclear families and 1 can’t bear gay weddings. 1 think it’s disgusting! All these silly queens imitating their oppressors. Please, do something original, what is this contract, is this a business? It’s like doing a deal with someone. I think it’s really naff. Really naff. One of the great things in the commune was, it was so taboo because it was so fatal. I mean, I’ve got an eighteen‑year relationship now and it’s very different from living with a group of people. It’s very powerful, but it’s not good in a group.” (Bette Bourne)

In March, the Colville commune moved into a new home – Bethnal Rouge.

A communique announcing the birth of Bethnal Rouge was written in red pen by someone with gorgeous handwriting and ended with a kiss in a similar coloured lipstick):

‘Dear Brothers + Sisters,

Bethnal Rouge, a commune of gay people, have taken over the former Agitprop bookshop. The shop will continue with the emphasis on gay’s, women’s + children’s books and periodicals. We open up on March 1st, our hours are Mon-Sat 11am-7pm. There’s plenty of room here for people to relax, chat and have coffee, so come on round.

Love Bethnal Rouge Collective

P.S. Tube: Bethnal Green (Central) Bus: No. 8″

The radical Agitprop bookshop had moved around various parts of London for a couple of years, most recently in Bethnal Green:

“… it was this bookshop cum warehouse and you walked into a kitchen which went into open plan East End camp with a built-in bar in tacky plastic. The place had originally been owned by one of the Krays’ bankers, who was serving twenty-five years in Maidstone, and Agitprop had been very nice to his wife, who they thought got a rough deal. It was the first house I ever lived with a wall safe and we kept looking at various places for hidden money, under the floorboards and so on.” (Julian Hows)

Agitprop had faced increasing police harassment and raids, as cops more and more cracked down on the capital’s underground, anarchist and fringe left scenes in the hunt for the group of bombers who used the name the Angry Brigade. Agitprop had been raided repeatedly, two of the collective members had been arrested on firearms charges and accused of being part of the Angry Brigade, two more were threatened with deportation. The collective decided to call it a day.

“Bethnal Rouge came about through Andrew Lumsden, Richard Chappell and Steven Bradbury, who hung around together. The three of them got the building from Agitprop, in the spring of 1973. Agitprop were giving up the lease on the building and wrote to various groups offering the premises. I brought the letter back to the commune and after we decided not to move there we passed it on to Andrew and Richard. The people who went to Bethnal Rouge included Steven, Matthew Dallaway, Michael Kennedy and Margaret.”(Stuart Feather).

Andrew Lumsden recalls: “The bathroom was filled with Peanuts cartoons from the Observer. It seemed rather endearing, this in the revolutionary Agitprop premises. They were rather large, we had a bookshop on the ground floor and the publishers were very easy going about supplying books on credit. We had a till by the door and we sold some, though it never made any particular profit. We were supposed to take it in turns to run the bookshop. We painted a mural at the far end of the ground floor and upstairs we turned the living room into the same as 7a (the previous commune at Colville Houses) – drapes and hangings everywhere, mattresses strewn around the floor, and various people came to live there and visit. We used to go to the local pub which was staggered by these drag queens turning up, but it was a standard cockney pub, they had a piano and they liked to have a singsong and quite a lot of the people in the commune were very good at sing songs, so that made us reasonably popular and we spent quite a lot of dole money on there, so that was all right… We even took the door off the loo because we didn’t believe in privacy, everything had to be done in public. I left eventually because of the heavy drug use in there. Lots of heavy straight men began coming round…”

The Bethnal Rougers lost little time ‘integrating’ into local life: “I managed the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop in Bethnal Green under a false name. I went along for a part-time job and became the manager in weeks because it was two queens who were brothers who were running it and took a shine to me. So we managed it and the rest of the staff left because they couldn’t cope with me, and the whole of Bethnal Rouge tried to manage it. We were making an awful lot of money because we were going across the road to Tesco’s and buying cases of chicken, cutting them up and using Colonel Sanders names to pull the punters.” (Julian Hows)

[Bethnal Rouge could clearly teach KFC of 2018 a bit about management and ensuring chicken supplies… Ed].

Life in the commune was generally chaotic, by all accounts, with people arriving and hanging around and departing constantly, and (presumably, though not mentioned) a fair amount of sex going on.

A special Bethnal Rouge issue of the GLF new-sheet in June 1973 contained a spoof, but clearly not completely inaccurate, diary of life in the commune-bookshop:

Doin’ the Bethnal Rouge

6am – we go to bed; except Nicole who gets up and Geoffrey who rises for his bath.

9am – forget to put the dustbins out, Michael turns off central heating. Open door to sunroof – going to be blazing hot day.

10am – 33 unknowns appear from bed for breakfast. Matthew makes station hotel breakfast for 85.

11am – man turns on hot water system; Lydia looks for her giro; Andrew can’t find the Wall Street Journal.

12am – forgotten to open the shop; huge queue – oh they’re waiting for the bus. Lydia quieter.

1.00– cocktails and California beachwear on roof; social security visitor expected; gramophone red hot.

2.00 – shop opened; thermostat mad for 4th week: can only have jot water if central heating at full blast; fat visitor melts.

3.00- we’ve forgotten to buy food for supper. Remember its early closing. [For you young’uns, in the 1970s Wednesday used to be early closing day, when shops would shut early. Like all shops. You were buggered if you had run out of milk.]

4.00- Michael turns off central heating. Lydia turns off SS visitor.

5.00- everybody awake. Man puts on hot water & accordingly central heating.

5.30 – the party continues. Somebody steals £50. Richard starts getting supper together from somewhere – Michael makes salad from unpaid bills.

6.00 – cocktails on the sun roof. Someone steals £40 & the green shield stamps. Gramophone explodes.

7.00 – guests arrive. Full meeting of commune efficiently deals in quarter of an hour with all practical and emotional problems.

8.00 – do bookstall at GLF meeting. The men state thinking about sex. Central heating explodes. One million for supper.

10.00 – somebody steals the furniture; we get thrown out of Tricky Dicky’s disco.

12pm – somebody steals Bethnal Rouge; we go to sleep in the dustbins’

(the following week somebody slyly added a missing footnote:

‘8pm – Margaret also thinks about sex – then does the washing up.’

If, like your editor here, you have spent time in the fun hinterland where squat lifestyle rebellion meets activism, you may fondly recognise the dynamics here… There’s no denying the fun to be had, but if you have also been there trying to run an anarchist bookshop with chaos, partying and infuriating dithering going off (and yes, also combined with the kind of technical issues with power, heating etc… if only we had had fucking central heating at our place however… some days it was too cold to open and we held meetings in the pub up Railton Road.)

The setting up of Bethnal Rouge coincided with the fragmentation of the main London Gay Liberation Front group, which had been slowly drifting apart for months, but now imploded. The queens, of whom Bethnal Rouge might be said to be the focal point, and the GLF office collective, based at the Housmans Bookshop, 5a Caledonian Road, represented two increasingly at odds poles in the gay activist scene.

The office collective felt they did all the real work and were ignored or unappreciated; some of he other folk hanging on in GLF thought the office collective were too allied to what they called ‘straight gays’, activists in name, but aspiring for a kind of respectable equality and a niche in hierarchical fucked-up old society. The queens didn’t want ‘equality’ and acceptance, they wanted to tear the whole structure down and were out to provoke and experiment with new forms of living. Bethnal Rouge and the office collective fought constantly in the weekly meetings (by now held at Conway Hall), through leaflets and the pages of the GLF newssheet. In August 1973, a leaflet was issued denouncing the office collective:

“It’s happened again. The MEN have: formed a GROUP…. Took over the CAPITOL (our office) – started to make rules for others than themselves… printed PROPAGANDA on a newssheet… took complete control of PUBLIC property… THE SAME OLD RITUAL… wot next? Forms in triplicate, secretaries, candidates for parliament???? … The office collective say ‘ALMOST’ anyone can join. I don’t want to ‘join’ anything, so apparently I can no longer use ‘our’ office… and of course ALL the GLF mail and expressed opinion is now to be answered by the MEN from the Stone Age, men who don’t sue their own minds, but copy all the mistakes MEN have made since the world began. I don’t want to stop them using OUR office, but I and perhaps others expect to be able to sue it as well without ‘joining’ anything.”

Whether this leaflet issued from a Bethnal Rouger or not, shortly after this, a proposal to move the GLF office to Bethnal Rouge was discussed at the end of September 1973, but nothing decided. The next morning the Bethnal Rougers took direct action, staging a raid on the office in Housmans, attempting to seize as much GLF material as they could, and a physical struggle ensued. Julian Hows, Stuart Feather and Richard Chappell of Bethnal Rouge were involved. Office collective worker (and longtime Housmans Bookshop worker) David ‘Max’ McLellan, (RIP you mad old tankie!), summed it up thus: “I remember fighting with Julian Hows over a pile of [GLF] manifestos. Julian lost.” However, the Rougers did apparently depart with lots of the office bumf…

The office collective’s view of the raid summed up the now crevassic difference of opinion now polarising gay activism; but also starkly illustrates two views of how you change the world. Which if we’re honest, both have something going for them:

‘And on the Third Day They Came’

Last Wednesday morning, Stuart Feather, Richard and half a dozen others arrived at the elegant and well appointed 5 Caledonian Road and loaded everything into a truck, including the worldly possessions of some of the members of the office collective, tore everything off the walls and generally caused as much indigestion as can be caused by that number of people at that time of the morning. Cherubim, hearken unto your fairy godmother, the place looked like Cinderella’s coach at two after midnight.

That, apart with getting foot and fist heavy with odd peaceful people standing around or offering oral objection, was what happened. Why is a much more difficult question to answer. At the all London meeting at the Conway Hall the previous evening the possibility of moving the office from 5 Caledonian Road had been discussed, but naturally, the all London meeting being the all London meeting, no decision had been taken. And indeed, 5 Caledonian Road does not exist only for the benefit of London, so presumably the forty five other GLFs should have had some say in the matter, but a small group of people in GLF have got themselves so liberated that they have now gone a complete circle and adopted the methods of our flat-footed brothers. [The cops, ed]. This incident is merely the cumulation of two months of bickering, internecine warfare, and general nastiness which has driven people away from the meetings at Conway Hall, wasted the efforts of the offive collective and of the Bethnal Rouge Commune so that nothing has been done to further the liberation of London at all, with the exception of two demos. Well you may ask brothers, where our communal head is at, I’ll tell you – it’s stuck between our legs, fist fucking.

In the middle of all this, why have an office at all? The process of liberation is a long and painful one which never finishes; there are people all over the country who are in various stages of the process. They need pamphlets, badges, information, contact, speakers, assurance and a voice to fill fantasies while they wank off into a public telephone booth. Laugh not, brother, for there you go. In addition, in London, there needs to be somewhere where posters can be made and stored, demos got together, and something done about turning London on. Finally there needs to be somewhere central for people all over the world to drop into when they find themselves in this big wicked city.

By whom can this function be filled? Bethnal Rouge commune is on London and has plenty of space; it has someone there almost all the time and has gay people who are trying to make a go of a totally new life style… On the other hand they are… so liberated that they can’t communicate with most of the human race, and most of the human race can’t communicate with them.

Unfortunately most gays are still members of the human race; you must remain within shouting distance of those you want to relate to. On the other hand, the office collective has been able to answer all mail, provide a reliable service as promised, pay off a lot of the debts, build up a certain amount of confidence, and pay the rent. …”

Not long after this the GLF office collective announced its effective divorce from London GLF and its re-organisation as the Gay Switchboard, which went on to do sterling work as a point of contact for gay folk from all over the place, and continues today…

Bethnal Rouge, in the meantime, claiming to be the true voice of the movement, in a ‘Court Circular’ dated October 3rd-9th, responded they had ‘not taken over the office but merely liberated it from the grip of male oppression’, branding the GLF Office Collective an ‘obscene parody of straight middleclass liberal do-gooders.’

Bethnal Rouge continued for a few months after these events.

In February 1974 Bethnal Rouge was invited by Goldsmiths College Gay Society to give a talk before their regular disco. “They were dressed for the occasion in their best Disco Diva Drag.” Whilst enjoying a pre-talk drink they were attacked by Group 4 Total Security, who worked for the College, and badly beaten up. When Lewisham police arrived sthe security told that Bethnal Rouge had come to the disco to cause trouble. One queen needed hospital treatment; another who was head butted and lost two front teeth. One was arrested and later that night thrown through a glass door in the police station. The rest escaped.

Shortly afterwards the commune was evicted from 248 Bethnal Green Road.

“And we got evicted from Bethnal Rouge and lived in Parfitt Street, in one of the few back to backs left in the East End.” (Julian Hows)

Parfett Street was one of the early streets that became fully squatted in London’s East End: some of its history can be read here

The Bethnal Rouge queens continued their struggle against ‘heteronormativity’ in their own many ways… Stuart Feather, Bette Bourne and Michael James became performers (Stuart later became a painter). Andrew Lumsden later became a tour guide and a painter. Julian Hows achieved minor celebrity when he insisted on wearing female uniform when working for London Underground. He is now an Aids survivor. Stephen Bradbury and Richard Chappell died of Aids in the early 1990s.

Some of the fundamental arguments that produced Bethnal Rouge continue today, and have, if anything, gained topicality. The question of an acceptable gay culture that is benignly tolerated and smiled upon by ‘straight’ capitalist society, versus a subversive sexuality that undermines not only imposed gender roles and toxic and oppressive masculinity, but exists as part of wide movements to radically alter social and economic relations – today we live with the result of the victory of the former tendency. The influence of the radical queens who created Bethnal Rouge, as with much of the most starkly innovative theorising and experimenting of the era, has become sidelined, somewhat, in comparison to the ‘straight’ gay activism that the queens railed against. Ironically though, much of what passes for mainstream gay culture has become completely de-politicised, bound up with consumerism and craving for ‘acceptance’ and ‘normality’, when compared to the GLF era. This is of course to some extent inevitable, for social movements fighting for change: that the early flowering against hostile ‘norms’ produced radical positions, which tend to slowly fade as wider society is actually forced to accommodate the change. GLF and its ilk helped create the change that made their protests less urgent, over decades. But its also true that movements are rarely homogenous, and common interests can unite people with widely varying views or needs, which break under stress, or sometimes split as some achieve partial victories, while others in the wide movement do not. Before the Bethnal Rouge/office collective split, the first divisions in GLF emerged as lesbians protested against domination of the organisation by gay men who they saw as fundamentally seeking gains for themselves without really caring about gay women much.

Drag, of course, was as old as the hills – but even the subversive political drag had mostly dissipated in its impact by the 1990s, reclaimed by the old music hall dynamic: fun, in itself, but hardly threatening socially.

Now, with the strange permutations of queer culture and the resolution-based posturing of much of post-millennial politics, men dressing as women is often labelled as ‘cultural appropriation’ – unless you are declaring yourself as transgender, men shouldn’t be dressing in dresses. Student Unions have denounced and passed resolutions against the very idea.

For those of us coming into radical movements in the 1980s, influenced by 70s feminism, gay liberation, as well as class, race, and our own backgrounds, many of those I grew to work with felt most at home with the ideas of the radical feminists – both the drag queens and the lesbians. Gender, the expectations of behaviour and the social relations that it implied, were a social construct, born and reinforced in the power relations of men over women, but with the layered complications of class, masculinity and femininity, sexuality mixed in… we fell in behind the aim of the Bethnal Rouge queens – we wanted to help dismantle the whole social structure that imposed gender on us all. Freeing us all from power of men over women, but also from the stereotypes and narratives of what men and women do, look like, behave like, and ARE. Most of us still do (from the fleeting conversations I still have with old mates). Among other aims.

Times have moved on, as they tend to do.

These days, men who dressed and acted as the radical queens did would, like as not, be expected to be part of the transgender movement, in one form or another. Though this might or might not in reality reflect their actual aims. There is a strand of historical looking back that retrospectively classes many gay rebels and especially transvestites as effectively transgender… in some cases there’s a basis for that, in others without real historical justification. Often making modern assumptions for social situations that are utterly unlike our own, seeking ancestors in the past who reflect out own experience in our own times. This is a basic misunderstanding of both the nature of social change, and the vitality of the DIFFERENCE between us and those who we look to/inspire us in history. Our experiences and views are different partly BECAUSE of them and their struggles.

Transgender politics is obviously central to current hot debate. Major questions exist as to whether gender is either an inherent trait in us, fundamental to us as a person, despite the biological sex we are born into – or a socially conditioned set of attitudes, reflexes and assumptions, based in the power relations of patriarchy, capitalism and race supremacy, which we have imposed on us, more or less successfully, and which we resist and subvert…

Some of the GLF queens reputedly did transition and become women – others remained fiercely gay men, who dressed in drag to undermine the whole hetero-normative caboodle. Which represents the true tradition? Does such a thing exist?

Like the Mormons, you can try to baptise you ancestors in your image – they may refuse to stay dead and co-operative, however.

I would have liked to write more on these issues and how the history intersects with the now – but at some point you have to just post (time’s tight, and I’m supposed to be doing Proper Work etc), but comments and angry denunciations welcome. On a postcard.

Much of this post was taken from No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power. But other sources are out there.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s squatting history, 2013: the 491 Gallery closes. Leytonstone.

The 491 Gallery now lies in a pile of rubble between Grove Green Road and the M11 Link Road…. …but for 12 years it ran as a squatted social centre and multi-disciplinary gallery in Leytonstone, Northeast London. Taking its name from its street number, 491 Grove Green Road was home to a community-led art organisation between 2001 to 2013, and served as an exhibition space for a diverse range of artists of different origins working in varied media. It contained a range of art and music studios, which were used to host workshops, classes and musical rehearsals. 491 was subsequently demolished in 2016.

The building was originally a factory – at one point making safes. (During its 2016 demolition the workers carrying out the heavy roof beams found there was still an enormous safe inside.) It was later used as a storage space and warehouse for materials being used to construct the M11 Link Road, the A12 that cut through Leytonstone and the surrounding areas. Hundreds of houses were demolished to make way for this road, despite mass squatting of the emptied buildings, and fierce resistance, including the famous stand at Claremont Road.

Unlike the rest of the surrounding buildings, 491 and a few neighbouring houses were not subject to compulsory purchase orders and demolition for the A12 site. When in late 2000 the building was abandoned, it became occupied by a group of homeless drug users, who remained in it for some six months. Within a month of their leaving, the building was reoccupied by a group of artists, who spent the next several years turning it into a community space. They found human shit, drug works, and swastikas daubed on the walls, along with a collection of bags and purses thrown into the backyard by muggers who dumped them there after emptying them. The squatters set about clearing up the mounds of rubble outside, cleaned and painted the inside and, once the repairs were complete, threw open the doors and invited the local community to use the space for artistic and environmental endeavours.

The neighbouring building, formerly houses, was also occupied, and named Vertigo, after the film by Alfred Hitchcock, a famous resident of Leytonstone.

The 491 Gallery and Vertigo collectively collaborated on hosting regular exhibitions and offered studio space for musicians to use. They were maintained largely through small donations made by the public. Transport for London, the 491 building’s legal owner at the time, agreed to allow the continued use of the building, although no formal arrangement was made with the occupants. The owner of the Vertigo building allowed its use for an annual peppercorn rent of £1. The Gallery regularly hosted art exhibitions, themed events and film screenings, such as a Transition Towns screening of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

Following a fire in 2008, the Vertigo building was rebuilt throughout by its residents, and in 2009 was decorated with an exterior mural of Hitchcock to add to the artistic tributes in the local area. Local artists as well as those from further afield exhibited art in the 491 gallery. Those who could afford paid a modest fee that subsidised those who couldn’t afford to pay to display. The building hosted conferences, concerts, art exhibitions, film screenings, concerts and dramatic performances, and offer workshops in everything from life drawing to comedy, sculpting, yoga, technology, and photography; and had the area’s only music rehearsal studio for bands.

As one local commented after the demolition: “This kind of squatted social space links back to the London I knew when I first came to live here in 1989 and is slowly fading away. There are groups that still operate social spaces, sometimes in conjunction with the property owners using meanwhile leases, but they are necessarily temporary without time to grow roots into the community. The 491 Gallery was a real presence in the Leytonstone community and it’s very sad to see it go to be replaced with yet another uniform block of flats.”

There is more on 491 including lots of pictures at: http://491gallery.org/main.html

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London squatting history: Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog evicted, 2007

“On the 10th March 2007, we climbed a high ladder and entered the empty building at 190-192 Warham Street in Camberwell, South London. It took five minutes to put life back into a building that had been left empty for 9 months.”

Camberwell, South London, has played host to a number of squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres over the last few decades.

We aren’t going to talk here about the old Dickie Dirts store (squatted four times for planning Stop the City, gigs and more), the Labour Club, Groove Park, the old Muesli Factory, Area 7, Crawford Street, and later the Ratstar, the Library House… Just some of the ones we can recall…

One squatted space in Camberwell several of your past tense mob were involved in was briefly in existence from March to August 2007, at 190-192 Warham Street, off Camberwell New Road, opposite the union Tavern (and also opposite the site of the old Duke of York pub, once used for meetings by a local group of the National Union of the Working Classes in the early 1830s).

The old Good Food Cafe in Warham Street was squatted in march 2007, by a group of mainly anarchist rebels and troublemakers living locally, some who had been involved in many alternative, radical and activists projects for years (including longer-running squats and social centres such as Brixton’s 121 Centre, 56a Infoshop, use Your Loaf in Deptford…) plus some folk who had been around slightly less time. Your typist had previously known the place as a greasy café – very greasy. Also very small. It had closed down the previous year, and lay empty and unused.
After months eyeing it up but having no time, some of us jumped the tracks and climbed in through an upstairs window using a ladder.

“As we descended the stairs, we began to put a reality to the dream we had all dreamed as we watched the building sit lifeless for all those months. We dreamed of opening up the dead lifeless space and bringing in living bodies. Bodies that could talk, have ideas, disagree, learn how to fix up and build a living space. Bodies that could share the space and enjoy it and extend an open invitation to others to be part of the new life in the building. Bodies to cook and eat together. To get drunk on what possibilities we can create here.

What’s the point of a fridge without any food in it? What’s the point of a bowl without any soup in it? Exactly, So, what’s the point of a building without anybody in it? Well, actually we know the answer to that one. It looks like this: Make £££££££. Well we choose another answer. Our answer: Make life. Surely that must be the point.”

On first sight the place did look unusable:

“The water pipes were open leaving water to run through two floors. Everything was soaked and stained with mould. The toilets and shower were smashed. The wiring was ripped out and walls were smashed.

No-one cared about the place. There was only one thing they cared about. Standing in midst of the debris that early Saturday morning, we almost turned back. We almost abandoned our dream.

We breathed in mould and looked at each other for a number of minutes. In silence. But we are dreamers…and what is the point of a dream that cannot be turned into something real?”

The chairs and tables, though, were still there from the old caff, and those with a sharp eye and long squatting nous reckoned it could be turned around with a couple of days work.

“With a passion we put our backs into the work. Others soon got involved and we fixed up the building. We brought fresh air and human warmth back inside. It’s a work in progress. There are always two questions – What needs doing? What can you do? Actually, there is a third more vital question: Are you enjoying yourself?”

The downstairs was quickly done up, replumbed and rewired, painted, and opened up, soon to host weekly cafes, a bar, film nights, benefits, meetings, parties, booksales and discussions… (the building also housed several people upstairs.)

A large argumentative collective ran the space: so quarrelsome among ourselves that Monday night weekly meetings sometimes lasted 3 hours, as we berated each other about every single detail of running the centre… While many of us knew each other, some didn’t – but the arguments came more from different ideas about what a space was, the politics behind it. Direct democracy in action, painful but absolutely consistent, and a really useful experience in how you get things done when your ideas can be almost diametrically opposed. Disagreements ran as basic as the name of the place: some of us called it the Camberwell Squatted Centre, some wanted to call it a Social Centre but others had no time for that term. Some called it Black Frog, for what reason I can’t now recall (of there was one). We never did settle on a name and the building lived under several aliases; appropriate, in a way, as it also focused diverse ideas of what the place was, what it was for. Ideas that clashed, as we argued, but also ended up complementing each other. Sure there was a lot of argument – there was also a lot of love, which brought people together in interesting and inspiring ways, helped to create new openings. Possibly the fact that a core of us had spent a chunk of the previous 15-20 years or so involved in one squat centre or another, or hanging out at others, helped us avoid some of the traps ’twas easy to fall into… although another advantage was the sheer smallness of the space. You literally couldn’t do loads of things, like having huge parties, gigs etc, that often caused aggro in squatted spaces…

We organised events, showing films every week, cooking food and holding bars, discos, discussions, history nights, workshops for various skills. Hundreds of people came down, both locals and from further afield, and many widely varying happenings followed. Some weeks we could have a totally different crowd in every night. We showed ‘The Brixton Tapes’ about the 1981 Brixton Riot, and had to turn large numbers away, as we could only fit so many in. We had talks from activists from as far afield as South Africa – from land squatting movement Abahlali base Mjondolo: “Richard Pithouse who did the talk on that day made some good connections about occupation, land and squatting etc. That was a particularly meaningful event and encounter for me – to bring such connections between two different but engaged land / housing battles but esp to hear about the self-managed politics of Abahlali.”

The space rang to live music from local session gods the No Frills Band, as well as from visiting Australian folks…

We held language classes, swapped seedlings, hosted Indymedia training, shared basic plumbing skills, heard talks on Camberwell radical history and underground Lambeth, on German anti-capitalist fascism and queer slang… The very dodgy old white nationalist geezers who lived opposite very likely took the pictures of us that ended up on some ultra-right website…

We lent the space to the Brixton Ritzy cinema workers to hold a social after their first strike over crap wages and conditions. (A struggle still going on ten years later). Novelty of novelties, we tried to have a varied decent selection of beers on offer… When Mayday came around instead of joining the leftie ramble through central London we held our own Mayday march to Kennington Park and erected a maypole there and danced around it… among much more…

“Early on, we had the unfortunate presence of two policemen inside the place with all their usual prejudices: squatters are junkies, squatters are all unemployed, squatters are this, squatters are that. They made it clear that they thought we were just rats. But who cares what they think!

‘Why can’t you live like normal people?’, they asked. But what is normal in these days? Speculating on a ruined building whilst others are homeless or can’t afford a decent place? Does it seem normal surviving another round of the working week? Labouring – commuting – shopping – resting – back to work. Some money but no time. A little time but no real enthusiasm. A two week holiday as some kind of escape. Yes, this is the normality of ourselves too! It was at this end point of the policeman’s questioning, that one bright burning spirit amongst us replied: ‘We are dreamers…’ and the words hung there, in silence, with nothing else needing to be added. Neither seeking approval nor apologising for what we are, this was a moment that we could have almost let go of but instead our good friend had let something loose amongst us all. Something that remains in the air. It pervades the building. It inspires. It fixes. It rebels.

As dreamers, we try to refuse what passes for being ‘normal’ because no-one is ‘normal’. We try to make alternatives to the daily grind. We try to open up escape routes here, now. Everyone knows that this grind cannot continue. We are all looking for a way out. For us, it cannot be an individual solution as we are all in this together. So the dream we dream is a collective one.

None of us wish any longer to slump exhausted in front of TV because that’s all our body can do at that point. None of us wish any longer to drink ourselves senseless in lonely isolation. None of us wish to feel any longer the crushing despair of the lives we are supposed to lead in 21st century London. None of us wish any longer to substitute our passions and our dreams or our desires for things, objects or trinkets. No more!

We are no longer interested in the decisions made elsewhere by waste of space politicians because we have our own decisions to make. We are no longer interested in the lives of rich celebrities because we have our own lives to be interested in.

In less than two weeks, we have created a beautiful living breathing alive space once more. What else could we do? We put in floorboards. We dried out rooms for people to sleep soundly in. We scraped off mould and put up paint. We built a kitchen. Built a café space. Put in toilets. Put in sinks. Put in ideas. We might have exhausted ourselves, some of us working 9-5, some of us working precariously but we always found more energy to keep building. What we discovered (once again), is that far from there being a scarcity of energy, knowledge, ideas, there is always a beautiful surplus available when we make our own decisions. We didn’t need a shop-bought plan nor a foreman. There was no book to tell us what to do. There was only our imagination and the fantastic possibilities that dreamers tend come up with.

We know that one day, near or far, we will be forced out of here and the building will once again be sealed off from light fresh air we bring in. We know that but it does not stop us working hard for the dream. Here now. And again. And again…And…

As one of our posters says: ‘As everyone knows, the dream is dead. The dream, the desire, the hope for a better world. And yet we are dreamers. We too should be dead, then. But if we are not mistaken…HERE WE ARE’.

But it is very much an open dream. Be here too. It is every dreamer’s space. Be occupied! This has been your invitation.”

It turned out that the building was owned by some small-scale property developers, and bizarrely they included, or were being fronted for, by a guy some of us knew vaguely, him having been the landlord of two Brixton pubs a number of the local squatters/musicians had drunk in/played in, Brady’s and the Queen. A wheeler and dealer, someone we thought we could maybe make some kind of temporary arrangement with. Before we could approach him the place was invaded by him and a couple of crap heavies, and a stand-off took place inside and outside, turning into an argument. When the cops turned up they reluctantly told the owners they’d have to go to court to get us out. Some negotiations took pace a few days later but came to nothing. So we just carried on as usual, making the best of the place while it lasted.

So after holding them off physically we were taken to court and lost, but carried on using the space as long as we could.

The Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog/Warham Street was eventually evicted early in the morning on 30th August, 2007:

Oh there is something inevitable about squatting and that is the free rude awakening you can get at 4am one Thursday morning on 30th August after losing legal ‘possession’ of the place. So yeah the Black Frog residents were turfed out by bailiffs in the end, as is the end of most squatting centre stories. What can we say? There just isn’t space here to go into everything that feels like it should be said. How can we answer those great questions that came up: Are you free to do whatever you like in a free space? Why do people make a dogma out of the number of ‘local’ people coming in, or worse, what some activists call ‘normal’ people? (ho ho ho). Is it a social centre or a centre? Words on a page cannot do justice to what we felt and lived at the Black Frog and we all know there’s no justice in the world.”

The building was smashed up to prevent us going back in; eventually, though planning permission for their grotesque flat and shop complex was repeatedly knocked back, a new block of flats sprouted on the site.

All in all it was a fun and mind-expanding experience for the people who ran and frequented the space, re-invigorating some people’s energy for collective rebelliousness and putting us in contact with others locally who felt like us. Unlike some previous squatted social spaces the Black Frog/Squat Centre very open, wide in its appeal, welcoming and broad-ranging in what went down there.

So it only lasted five months – it was an intense ride, and some of us were knackered afterwards. Sometimes a short sharp burst can be useful. Some of the folk involved went on to be involved in other squatted centres that followed in the area, notably the Library House. In some ways Warham Street signalled a renaissance in political squatting in that part of South London which had been quiet for a while.

Its also worth mentioning “the solidarity extended to us from Abahlali after their visit. They were very moved by seeing the images of the shack dwellers we put in the walls for their visit.”

They sent a message after hearing of our eviction:

“Solidarity from Abahlali base Mjondolo   05.09.2007 18:59 Abahlali baseMjondolo would like to extend solidarity to the Camberwell Comrades. Qina!   We acknoweldge and respect what you have done and understand your pain at this time. Keep up your courage.  

Message from S bu Zikode to Activists in London The time has come for poor people all over the world to define themselves before someone else defines them, thinks for them and acts for them. Do not allow others to define you. We are pleading to University intellectuals and NGOs to give us a chance to have a platform for our own creativity, our own politics. Our politics is not a politics that originates from institutions of higher learning. It originates from our lives and experiences. We are asking the academic intellectuals and NGOs for a work space to think and discuss – not for them to think and speak for us. We are not prepared to hear from anyone on a point of order. Not government, not NGOs. No one.”

We like to think we built something of our own. We remember it fondly, anyway. As the graffiti which quickly went up on the empty shopfront for the eviction read: “Missing You…”

“Face to face is better, so maybe we will have these discussions at the next Black Frog…see you there! Or better still squat your own place and we will pop round for a cuppa!!

We fix. We build. We occupy. TOGETHER.”

Above quotes are usually excerpts from ‘Yes We Are Dreamers’, a text written by one of our number for a social centres round up.

and another related text

And a related text with some critical observations on social centres and their relationships to ‘non-activists’ and our own history

Here’s more on the radical history of Camberwell

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s squatting history: Institute For Autonomy social centre evicted, Bloomsbury, 2005.

In 2004-5, no 78 Gower Street, Bloomsbury, London, was squatted and became the Institute for Autonomy, an anti-capitalist social centre.

Created in a disused university building that had lain empty for over 5 years. Officially opening on Saturday 19th March, 2005, the Institute for Autonomy aimed to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. It was organised by open assemblies, and effectively run by a collective made up of University of London students and other assorted refugees from the Grand Banks Social Centre, which had run in Tufnell park the previous year. The ‘Institute’ located close to the university/student area, became used by a variety of political groups as well as hosting various projects (hacklab, screen printing, photolab, infoshop/bookstall) held a cafe three times a week offering top-quality food attracting workers, students and lecturers from around the area. It also housed upwards of 15 people and provided housing for people who were on their way to attend the anti-G8 actions in Gleneagles.

Below we reprint the Institute’s Opening Statement:

The Institute for Autonomy is a newly occupied social centre in central London. Created in a disused university building in a city where house & rent prices continue to climb far out of the reach of the majority, it has lain empty and forgotten for over 5 years.

The Institute for Autonomy aims to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. We are a collective of people of different backgrounds and experiences: some of us have participated in similar projects, some of us are students; none of us can find a place in this society to live our lives with dignity.

We believe capitalist society is based on the principles of greed, egoism, individualism and competition – and like it or not, we are all part of this machine.

In these modern times our fantastical means of communication drive us apart. We are losing the art of society: first we lost our local bakeries to the supermarkets, and with them our local communities (and our health) – now, we rush home from work and, with a frantic series of keystrokes destroy one more opportunity to free ourselves from the prison of efficiency. We are becoming robots at the service of money and fake dreams.

It’s vital for us to create space where a different reality can be experienced, where new paths can be walked, along which can emerge common action, interest and identity amongst people. We organise both the space and our work in open assemblies where, in a rejection of this society where our ‘superiors’ tell us what to do, we practice horizontal and direct democracy. When ideas are discussed openly, we are recreated as real actors in our lives – we use our differences to make any idea a better idea. We aim to create a self-organised space where people aren’t judged by their ability to consume or to produce; where really human discussion and action can take place.

It is more and more clear how unsustainable capitalism is. The scream of nature is louder than ever; animals are facing extinction all over the world; and we are facing a bleak, uncertain future. Wars, wars against wars, wars against our food, wars against the environment, and wars against those who seek to resist.

We believe the process towards autonomy will not protect us from the current situation, but will create a path within the capitalist world which will help us to learn, reflect and develop real relationships between human beings based on solidarity, honesty, respect, initiative and dignity.

We think it is necessary to create and experience moments of autonomy and freedom in our daily lives, in order that we have the tools to begin posing serious alternatives to capitalism and start creating a new world in the shell of the old.

We hold an open meeting every Monday at 8pm to discuss our progress, and for new projects and events to be proposed.

Infoshop and Library

We have set up an infoshop where people can come and pick up leaflets and literature on radical events, thought, movements and struggles. You can find out about squatting, the Zapatistas, the history of Anarchism and environmentalism. Lots of groups have left their literature, and books and pamphlets are for sale at pretty much cost price. There is also a library for people to read in the building, while enjoying a cup of coffee… contributions of books are welcomed!

Art Project: Printing Workshop/ design / banner making.

We will be having weekly screen-printing workshops starting on Sunday 20th March, where people will be encouraged to make their own designs and print on different materials, including T-shirts. Instead of expensive corporate logos we can have our own say on our clothes, and recycle old clothes by making them a lot more interesting. Workshops will welcome artistic people as well as those with no artistic background because it’s very easy to practice anti-copyright by just cutting and pasting any design off the web or anywhere else – so you don’t need talent, just ideas and energy. Anyone wanting to make their designs on the computer (photoshop or illustrator) can be given design support, and then they can print the designs they have made on the computer to the screen and then onto the t-shirt/jacket. We can print colorful posters and leaflets as well if people are committed to consistent printing and a bit of hard work.

Precarity/Info-Sharing

From 6pm – Fortnightly on Tuesdays, starting 15th March… CALLING ALL…. WAGE SLAVES, INSECURE TEMPS, WORK REFUSERS, EXPLOITED MIGRANTS, NO HOME / SQUATTED HOME / RENTED HOME.

Maybe your boss decided not to pay you, maybe you are getting evicted, maybe your benefit claim is being refused, maybe you have an urgent problem or just a feeling that life could be better if we work to change it together… Come for food and coffee, and to talk about insecurity in our lives and how we can take action together to solve them. Come to share information, advice and to meet people.

For the last few months in London a group has been meeting and discussing their precarious situations and lives. Increasingly we are balanced on a cliff edge: we have no job security, no state benefit, no guaranteed shelter, food: all aspects of life in this system are unstable.

That is the aim of the powerful – that we will do as we are told, constantly controlled by the fear that we will end up homeless and hungry. We want to build an alternative, build our own security, by knowing we will have the support of each other.

Solidarity Kitchen

We are an all-volunteer, not-for-profit cooking collective. We seek to provide cheap, vegan and organic meals as an alternative to the pesticide-ridden, genetically modified and expensive supermarket produce and in opposition to the rampant exploitation of animals and the environment.

We are currently open 3 lunchtimes a week at the Gower Street location. The Kitchen will be open between the hours of 12 and 3 pm, the same time as the Cafeteria Rebelde, which serves organic coffee in direct solidarity with the autonomous Zapatista communities of Chiapas in Mexico. The Infoshop will also be open, providing radical reading material. So come down, try the food, meet new friends or volunteer to help to place our health back into our own hands.  We are also available to be approached to cook for political events, demonstrations and direct actions that we feel affinity for.

Cafeteria Rebelde

In 1983, the EZLN the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was formed in the mountains of Chiapas in order to combat the crushing poverty of the regions indigenous communities. The EZLN has worked closely with the communities in order to build a new society from the bottom up where the Maya people can organise autonomously. After more then 20 year the Zapatista are practising a level of autonomy they never dream of, autonomous education and health care are a concrete project now in their territories. They also organise themselves in co-operative and create direct solidarity networks to sell their coffee avoiding market constrains.

Our project aims to support autonomous communities in resistance in Chiapas and also to undermine the rules of the neo-liberal market.

The cafeteria will be open during events in the “Institute for Autonomy”…”

The Institute signified a move for the mostly Wombles-based squat centres of Tufnell Park of 2004, merging with student activists at central London colleges… it was to be succeeded by the larger squat in Russell Square, ‘The Square’, and formed part of a chain with the later Bloomsbury activists involved in uni occupations, supporting workers, eg cleaners at the Universities, and opposing cuts…

The Institute was evicted on 7th July 2005, after it had effectively been abandoned, as most of those involved and a sizable contingent of its regular users had decamped to Scotland to besiege the G8 Summit of the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations. As it was reclaimed by bailiffs, bombs were going off around central London, as Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers attempted to spread terror in the city…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Check out the text of a past tense radical history walk around Bloomsbury, including some other local rebellious sites…