Hackney Counci’s Housing Department was haven to a host of dodgy dealings in the early 1990s. A number of staff were involved with handing over keys to vacant council flats for cash payments.
The same department had a dubious history – it was also embroiled in a scandal about racism in 1984, after which much seemed to have been done to improve things in that respect.
At least 40 council flats across the borough were fraudulently marked as uninhabitable by council staff and then offered to friends and acquaintances for cash payment. (Later estimates suggest 50 flats on Woodberry Down Estate alone). Rent on these flats was then collected by the same staff using bogus rent books.
Alongside this, housing benefit was fraudulently claimed by council staff for bed and breakfast accomodation that was not being used.
Squall magazine estimated that bent council staff had pocketed £20million from all this.
According to MP Diane Abbott, Hackney had “41,000 tenants, 8,000 people on the waiting list and 3,000 homeless.” in March 1991. As well as the highest number of (supposedly) “void” flats in the country…
How it was exposed by a squatter
Text below from Hackney Heckler #10 December 1991:
“Keys for cash” was exposed by a squatter living on Woodberry Down Estate, who was convinced the council were evicting squatters. on the estate illegally.
He became suspicious of the fact that once a tenant left a flat, notices appeared immediately on the doors with a named “Protected Intended Occupier” (PIO). ‘How often is the council efficient enough to fill an empty straight away?’ he asks himself. He then noticed what were meant to be council workers arriving to do up empty flats at 5am in the morning and leaving by 7am!
The only people who seemed to be getting housed were young single men. To find out for sure, he went to the area housing office saying he was the brother to one of those named as a PIO and asked for the keys to the flat. In this way he managed to get the keys and rent books to five flats on the estate!
He decided to contact Janet Jones the then Director of Housing. He told her what he knew, giving her copies of the false PlOs and rent books. She assured him she would look into the whole affair.
However it was obvious he knew too much. A few days later he was confronted in his local pub by three men who offered him £800 and a council flat for life if he returned the keys and rent books and kept his mouth shut. He refused.
At 3am that night they smashed their way into his flat. Rushing into the nearest room where his girlfriend was asleep, they attacked her with baseball bats, only stopping when the man they were after ran at them with a crowbar. The police and ambulance were called as the woman was badly injured in the attack. The police were far from sympathetic, no statement was taken with one of the officers saying “we know what’s going on here, and we can understand if you want to do something about it yourself.”
He tried to get back in touch with Janet Jones who never seemed to be prepared to talk with him. He finally managed to see her, and again told her all he knew including the attack on him and his girlfriend. She seemed very flustered and said she would look into it and contact him in a couple of days. The next thing he heard she had left her £50,000 a year post and was living in Brazil! He decided to tell all he knew to Liberal councillor Colin Beadle who duly contacted the police and media. So that is how the cat got out of the bag!
It is worth remembering that Hackney Council was extremely hostile to squatters in the late 1980s and 1990s – there a numerous references to them occupying housing that could be given to families and those supposedly more in need of the universal right to a roof over their heads. The council boasted of its huge initiative to evict over 3,000 people from all of its squatted properties by April 1992. (By 1993, there were an estimated 1,152 squatters in Hackney which is a serious reduction. We were still number one in the country though!)
Whilst the squatters were being presented as evil incarnate, council staff were trousering filthy lucre from letting out the very flats they were supposed to be allocating to those in need…
…and ultimately it was whistleblowing by a squatter that put a stop to the corruption!
What happened next?
I’ve not found comprehensive information abot this, but at least 13 staff were suspended and at least five were sacked after a council investigation costing £250,000.
The Hackney Heckler noted that management were treated very differently from frontline workers in the investigation:
A Mr D Evans, manager in the Hall lettings department was found to be pocketing £1,000s to supplement his bloated salary. According to the report “the police treated the matter as a normal case of theft, issuing the individual with a warning”! He later left his job with no disciplinary hearing, promising to pay back the cash.
Compare this to another case where a housing benefit worker claimed housing benefit from another borough by failing to disclose his employment. He was arrested and charged by the police and sacked by the council. A typical example of the police and council working together, protecting the fat cats at the top while those at the bottom carry the can.
Hackney heckler #10 December 1991
The hostile tone of the investigation was met with resistance from the staff – a hundred of them staged a walkout. This was followed by a one day strike of 500 staff members.
A number of families who may (or may not) have gained council flats in good faith were evicted.
The council then proposed a rent increase of £15 a week, presumably to try and recover some of the costs of all this.
In 1995 the acting CEO of the council stated that:
In the past five years the council has sacked 110 employees for fraud- related offences, and successfully prosecuted 24.
In the case of job fraud, an investigation of all staff who had joined the housing directorate in the previous two years was begun in November 1993. Of 352 employees investigated, 11 were subsequently dismissed, two resigned and one died who would have been sacked. Two are suspended pending disciplinary action.
Mike craig “ANOTHER VIEW; Hackney’s fraud squad” in the independent
There are a number of press cuttings about “cash for keys” below, which are all culled from the scrapbook of Hackney Community Defence Association for 1991, which Mark Metcalf has generously uploaded to his site.
The council outsourced its housing dept to Hackney Housing in 2006. This “Arms Length Management Organisation” was then rocked by a corruption scandal in 2015, before being taken back in-house. Seven staff were sacked and eight resigned. Throughout the 1990s and noughties a number of Hackney council estates were handed over to housing associations…
“Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague.”
Eleanor Crumblehulme (Library Assistant, University of British Columbia, Canada)
Hackney Library staff will be on strike on Tuesday and Thursday this week because of the Council’s plans to make 19 of them redundant. There will be pickets at Dalston CLR James Library, Dalston Lane and Hackney Central, Mare Street, so please go and show your support.
Libraries are more than bricks, mortar and books. I’ve generally found Hackney Library staff to be very helpful with my often quite esoteric queries and their curation has been spot on over the years. I’ve often stumbled across a random book which has made my day and their CD selection helped to keep me sane during a skint patch after my daughter was born some decades ago…
Whenever there is a financial crunch, libraries are the acceptable bit of public services the Council feels can be diminished or dispensed with. But people feel passionately about protecting these community assets, so there is always resistance. It’s important to remember that the libraries we have today only exist because of the struggles of previous generations.
Previously, in “the fight to save Hackney Libraries”
1988: 3 Libraries Occupied for 6 Months
In December 1987 the Council proposed to cut four libraries, two out of three reference libraries and the Schools Project Loan Service. After a series of protests, there was an occupation of three of the libraries planned for the chop on 11th of March. (Howard Road, Somerford Grove, Goldsmiths Row).
Meetings and cultural events were organised in the occupied premises and local estates were leafletted to raise awareness. Library staff continued to work in the occupied Libraries.
In June the Council took the occupiers to court. The hearing was preceded by a mass walk out of council staff which apparently “shut down every white collar intensive service”.
The court awarded the council a repossession order. But this was not acted on until September, when a series of battles took place:
“The time of the eviction was obtained by the simple ruse of ringing the bailiff’s office and pretending to be from the Council. So when the bailiffs, and eventually, eight coppers turned up at Goldsmiths Row Library in Haggerston at about 7:50am on Friday 9th September they found a building filled with 50 people and a picket of 30 outside… they withdrew.”
“Promising to return in an hours time, they then cased Somerford Grove Library where there were about 100 people including TV crews… at this point the Council apparently called the operation off”
“Bookworm revolt” – direct action issue 52
Bailiffs returned to the libraries at 3am on Thursday 22nd September and smashed the doors in, evicting the occupiers. A protest took place later in the day at the Town Hall.
Two of the libraries were then reoccupied:
There was a third and final set of evictions on Friday 30th September at 1am, which resulted in two arrests. The three libraries were then permanently closed.
Thanks to Neil Transpontine for the scans from City Limits above. Other sources used:
The old Library that used to stand here was closed in the 1990s. It was squatted in late 1995 (or early 1996), by Hackney Squatters Collective (“with our usual finesse – crowbar through the window”… “hiding quietly while cops shone their torches though the big glass doors just after we cracked it”) who had previously run great squat centres in Mildmay Park, 67a Stoke Newington Road, and the Arch refugee squat (directly opposite the latter), and went on to occupy (and save from demolition) London Fields Lido. One of the soundest bunches of people you’re ever likely to meet.
One of the old collective offered some recollections: “The library was made use of by various groups from the local Finsbury Park Action Group to Class War. Most significant for us was Reclaim The Streets (who at the time we thought were a bunch of crazy hippies), however we would go on to become irresistably entwined.
While we continued our open cafe and bar social nights, Zapatista benefit gigs etc, Peter Kenyon (local Labour scumbag), sent out letters to the neighbourhood declaring that as soon as the squatters had been evicted he would ‘return’ the place to the community. Being a politician, he lied.”
Another recalled “late nights, drinking too much, good friends, Victor’s Spanish punk band rehearsing, games nights, xmas and birthday parties, cold (until we turned the gas on), repairing the roof, getting pissed off with people who just treated the place as a late night drinking club and repopulating the library with books from Middlesex Poly…
There was also a ceilidh held jointly with a local community group who wanted to see the library put back into use, though possibly not quite in the way that we were doing it…”
The Library was a great centre, the local campaigners that had tried to save the library and wanted it re-opened were mostly supportive, there were weekly cafes, regular events, benefits, meetings. Always a friendly atmosphere, kids everywhere… Accessible to all. It lasted about three and a half years, and was evicted by the council. Who then left it empty again despite local campaigns for the library to reopen. Bleuugh.
In 2008-9 the place was squatted again for a while, but later that year work began to demolish it and build housing.
I would recommend Past Tense’s London Rebel History Calendar 2023, which is available online and from all good radical bookshops in London.
Defending Hackney Libraries in the 21st Century
At the turn of the Century, Hackney Council bankrupted itself by purchasing a dysfunctional computer system (ITNet) for its housing benefit payments. To balance the books a huge sell off of community assets was planned including nurseries, council owned properties (most infamously Tony’s Cafe on Broadway Market) and of course several libraries, including Clapton. My recollection is that all the threatened libraries survived this particular battle.
Following the global financial crisis of 2008, the UK government launched a brutal austerity assault on public spending with severe cuts to local government budgets. In Hackney this resulted in yet another proposal to reduce library services which was opposed by Save Hackney Libraries. The campaign resulted in some significant concessions from the council.
This is probably just the tip of the iceberg – if you can remember other campaigns to save Hackney Libraries, please leave a comment.
And do what you can to support the current protests!
Bonus feature: Radical meetings at Hackney Libraries
There is a long history of Hackney Libraries hosting radical events too, with meetings by the Suffragettes and the Women’s Freedom League and radical communist theatre performances by Hackney Peoples Players being held at Stoke Newington Library alone in the early 20th Century alone.
It’s a mixed legacy though…
Also bad things…
If you wanted to be scab during the 1926 General Strike, the library was where to go:
Strikebreaking was enthusiastically encouraged by Hackney Borough Council, now no longer in Labour hands. Right from the start they issued a notice calling for volunteers to man essential services. An office was opened in the public library opposite the Town Hall where strikebreakers could sign on and this was kept open from 9am to 8pm.
In September 1981 a Council meeting was severely disrupted by Hackney Ethnic Minorities Library Consultative Committee who felt that they weren’t getting anywhere with the issues they were raising with the Council about inclusivity and removing racist and sexist material from the stock. (Hackney Peoples Press October 1981 – front page).
There was a marked improvement after this protest, and it is notable that in 1985 Dalston Library was renamed the CLR James Library in honour of the Trinidadian born writer and political activist Cyril Lionel Robert James. During the redevelopment of Dalston Square, there was some indignation that the relocated library would not retain the name, but sense prevailed. (On a more personal note, a lot of my self-education in black history was through books from Hackney Libraries).
Christine contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in a scan of Hackney Womens’ Paper – a publication she had been involved with producing in 1972. And of course I was!
The Paper includes invaluable first person accounts from women about their experiences at Hackney Hospital and some demands for better treatment and conditions:
Alongside this, there are some great insights into the paternalistic/patriarchal views of Doctors, and analysis and commentary on contraception, welfare provision, health & class and the effects of proposed Council rent increases on women. And some sharp asides on everyday life for women in the early 1970s:
I think it holds up really well in 2022.
The scan of Hackney Womens Paper #1 that Christine kindly provided has now been uploaded to archive.org so you can read it cover to cover for yourselves.
Christine also agreed to have a chat with me over Zoom about her time in Hackney. We talked about Hackney Womens Paper, communes, squatting, healthcare and a whole lot more…
How and when did you end up in Hackney?
I went to India overland in 1969 when I was 20, as many young people did those days. On the way back, I met two guys having breakfast in a railway station. We got talking, they were architecture students from Cambridge university who had dropped out, which was what I was also doing.
And they wanted to start a commune. It ended up being in Hackney, Hackney Wick. We bought a house in Hackney for something like £6,000 pounds. A four-story Victorian house with a big garden, near to Victoria Park.
We moved in there in the autumn of 1970 and lived there for a couple years or so. These were heady times. It started with six of us and a plan of sharing everything. Soon lots of other people were turning up, and coming to live in the house, going in and out of the house, having meetings. We had lots of radical ideas but only slowly asked ourselves “what exactly are we doing here?”
Well, that was going to be one of my questions. Was it already an overtly politicised thing, or just simply a convenient way to live – or was it both?
I guess it was different for different people. Basically, we were idealistic, some were more politicised than others. We all knew there was definitely something not working with society and the world as it was. So much injustice and inequality. I can’t remember exactly the basis of the politics at that time, it was fairly eclectic but we definitely thought that we could live together and share everything and there was a political aspect to that. I’d never particularly thought of myself as political – but I used to hang out with some ‘anarchists’ when I was at university…
There was “flower power” and there were hippies. Actually, where I first became more politically aware was through Civil Rights movement in the US and then the Vietnam War and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher – reading his poems in Peace News. When you are, 17, 18, 19, there’s sort of real energy, where you really see the suffering and want to do something, help people, see a change….
I had been to a Bob Dylan concert in 1964 when I was 14 and what he was singing really touched me and changed my life in a way. So I was political, but it wasn’t like I was a ‘Marxist’ or a “this” or a “that”. What did we call ourselves? I don’t know, libertarians maybe. And by the 70’s, the women’s movement was also coming up – “consciousness raising” groups!
Were those groups held in your commune?
No, that tended to be something that the women from the house went and did with other groups of women. But we held women’s meetings at the commune too. Interestingly, looking back, we had this idealistic naivety, to think that we could just all go in and share everything. We’d all had fairly middle-class backgrounds and didn’t know what was hitting us [laughs]. It went right up against our habits.
So, doing it became quite difficult, I guess? In the way that communal living throws up all sorts of psychological, economic and political issues. You said you stayed there for a couple of years. Is that why you left?
No, that wasn’t why I left. It was why it was psychologically difficult. We had lots of great times too. There was a wonderful big round handmade table, we used to cook meals together, we renovated the house, grew vegetables, there was always something happening, people coming and going. I moved on because I wanted to focus more on community action.
There was another similar commune nearby, in Grosvenor Avenue, which was much more politically orientated. Some of the guys there had also been in Cambridge with the people that I was with. It was the same tendency you might say.
Absolutely. I saw a talk recently by some of the Grosvenor Avenue people. Some of them disrupted the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall in 1970…
And I remember watching it on telly knowing it was going to happen. It was incredible.
So maybe that leads us onto the context of producing Hackney Women’s Paper. It sounds like it was a natural reaction to the experiences people were having. But in a way, putting something out there – putting pen to paper and printing things is a bit of a step up from what might be a quite insular communal world? So how did it come about and how was it received?
Just to say one other thing about the atmosphere of those times. There had been a Dustmen strike in Hackney and one night we got word “the people in the flats have put all the rubbish out on the road”. So we headed straight down to Cassland Road and there’s lots of people around and there was loads of the rubbish that had accumulated blocking the road. To get the Council to deal with it, you know? So, there was that sort of energy around, fighting back, not taking it lying down. Of course, the working-class tradition in England is just remarkable. So well organised over many years. I think the Women’s Paper also came out of that.
There were three or four women living in the community who were interested in taking more community action and what galvanised us was the experience of our friend who had her baby in Hackney Hospital. She did have a really hard time, especially because she was unmarried and was French.
And so to begin with, we just researched, we went around the flats knocking on people’s doors and saying, “have you had a baby in Hackney Hospital?” – a mixture of courage and naivety! And so, we collected a lot of these stories and we put them together in the paper.
And actually, I read it all today, which I hadn’t done for years. The first time I tried to read it recently, I thought “oh, I can’t look at this language. I can’t go there.” But I quite enjoyed it today, really.
The interesting thing is over the last 10, 15 years, I’ve worked in a place we call the spiritual care center. It’s a place for people who are living with illness or facing dying can come and find spiritual and emotional support. And I also helped run workshops with nurses and carers to explore how to offer that sort of support. So that was interesting, because I’d not made the link, that I’ve always been interested in this.
I can’t remember all the details of putting the paper together, there were three of us, three of our names are on it. I remember we worked together well, each offering different skills and ideas, and we had some fun with the cartoons. I think the front page is great and actually there’s a lot of humour there and the cartoons are all pretty good. They go in there – at the right sort of level.
It stands up really well, I think. I was really surprised when I saw it because I’m a massive Hackney radical history nerd and I hadn’t heard about it.
You wouldn’t have heard of it. I mean, it was number one, but there was never a number two.
Do you remember roughly how many you produced?
I imagine hundreds rather than thousands?
Yes, absolutely. We knew guys who had a printing press so they did it for us. I think this came out before Hackney Gutter Press?
Yes there were things like Hackney & Stoke Newington People’s Paper that I think became Hackney People’s Press. But certainly, most of the ones that had quite a big distribution seemed to be a couple years later…
At the time that we were putting this together, my address is given as is 96 Eleanor Road [Hackney Central / just north of London Fields]. And that was a squat. I moved out the commune into a house squat in early 1972. So actually, [the paper] must have come out in early 1972.
So that was exciting, opening up an empty house, putting on a new lock and moving in.
Lots of empty houses to break into, presumably?
Yes there were. I actually found an article today from October ’72, when Hackney Council took us and the women next door to court to try and evict us. Our neighbours were West Indian, extended families, lots of children. The women were the strong ones, there were men living there as well of course, but the women were holding it together. In fact, it was these women who showed us how to get into the house. Amazing. So, we ended up living next door.
When we went to the court, we all went together. We took all the kids, 14 adults and eight kids. And we all went to court and we fought it. What happened was the judge granted the eviction order, but said it couldn’t be enacted until the council actually needed the house.
And I think that was the first time that had happened. I’m not sure. It says in the article that there was a Councilor involved, but I don’t remember him at all. I thought we did it all ourselves!
We weren’t a housing cooperative or anything at that time. We just wanted to stay in the houses. There are some great quotes in the article:
“And people are just saying, we’d like to stay here until the places are needed. We don’t want to be moving into substandard accommodation. We’re angry at the situation. The council leave many houses empty. People around here are glad to be involved because we cleaned up the rubbish and discouraged rats and mice.”
And we had sort of testimonials from a lot of neighbours saying that we were great neighbours and everything. So that’s a bit of a diversion from the paper…
But that’s the interesting thing for me – that it isn’t just the paper, it’s the wider social context that produces it. By today’s standard, it’s quite an alternative lifestyle and then the paper springs out of that. I was going ask about how it was received – how much tension there would’ve been with men?
Yes, we were looking for an alternative life style. There wasn’t a lot of tension with the men. In the house, they supported us but also left us to it…
Actually, looking back and seeing what’s happening now, in many ways there have been very positive changes, and there’s a much greater awareness. But these days, I sometimes feel for the young men, it can be hard on them to ‘get it right’ and they come in for a lot of criticism. I can see real paradoxes in where this has got to now, you know?
At the time, there were guys like Roger. [When you sent the link to me] I thought, “is this tongue in cheek?” But I think it was probably just too much psychedelics!
My impression is that there was that very druggy hippy current and the political one. And at a point they had to break part and be different things…
I think there was a whole spectrum, from very stoned or trippy to hardline left-wing groups, So at the extremes they were very different, but there was also overlap, people found where they wanted to be and also moved around.
Coming back to the Women’s Paper, after printing I think we took them around shops and left them there. We also just gave them away. I mean, it said two pence but I’m sure that we weren’t busy collecting the 2p’s. There were quite a lot of other things going on at that time.
Because we do say, [in the paper] “if anyone has been bothered by this, please come and contact us.” But I don’t remember many people coming. I remember the contact with people more from going around and talking and collecting the stories.
And actually, all the stuff about doctors – it’s interesting again, how things have changed over the last 50 years. But there was a bit at the end, I thought, “wow, were we really writing that then?”.
Do you know this book called Being Mortal by Atul Gawande? It’s a tough read but very good. Basically, it’s about how we’re all going to die, and how people aren’t treated according to what they actually need or want. And particularly around death and dying, because dying is seen as a bit of a failure of the hospital system. Doctors don’t like people to die so there’s all these heroic measures for keeping people alive these days.
And there is an article in the paper saying “we’re being treated not for what we need, but what for others need.” So that’s interesting – 50 years ago, we were writing things like that.
My impression of being a man who’s gone through the birth of our daughter, in Homerton Hospital is that there was still some way to go. But it was described in the paper as being like going to a factory. And from my perspective, in the year 2000, you could see that there was at least a little bit of sensitivity around the parents’ needs and different ways of doing stuff.
Yes, back then the hospital structures were more regimented so it became a bit factory like. Nurses were told ‘You are here to do a job so get on with it’ Today there is a lot more acknowledgement of the need for sensitivity, but staff are still overworked and underpaid which makes this hard to maintain. In 1970’s nurses were also fighting back, looking for better wages and working conditions.
Sometimes when I speak to people that are a lot younger than me, they seem to feel that things are just terrible – it’s gonna be the end of the world – we’re all doomed. And I think we do need to tease out the things that have got better. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
Things have got better and they’ve got worse. I live in Ireland now, in Southern Ireland. I was talking to someone today who was involved in a similar movement, at the same sort of time but in Ireland. It was different in Ireland. They were fighting for the right to buy contraception, you know?
And we were saying that we really thought the world was going to come to an end at the beginning of 1980s, we thought capitalism would collapse and that would be it. So we didn’t look for long term jobs. We didn’t get careers. We really thought it was going to happen. Then slowly but surely, we realised “oh, maybe this isn’t happening”.
But it makes me think of how it is for people today, because these days we think “climate change, it’s got to be the end.” Not denying that the situation is very serious, but who knows what solutions will come. My generation thought – nuclear war, we’d wipe all ourselves out. When I was a teenager main thing was CND. There had been two major world wars in that century already. So, in my childhood, my grandparents talked about the first world war. My parents and their friends talked about the second world war. And now there was nuclear weapons. So that radicalised us. And that’s what was making us look for alternatives. You could say it was a revolutionary time.
I really can’t tell you much more about what happened with the paper, only it was very formative for me! And obviously I ended up carrying these views with me.
I did think of myself as a Marxist for a while, after the paper. We had been busy being active, squatting and working in the ‘Claimants Union’ supporting people to get what they were entitled to, sometimes harassing people working at the social security office. Also helping people to open up houses and squat, all of that. We aspired to be ‘revolutionaries’, so at a certain point we started to study Marx and other communist writers, to learn and understand more about the history and dynamics of class struggle.
Some of the guys from the other commune, were more politically oriented than we were and we started meeting together. Interestingly enough, I only realised afterwards that one of them, his parents were in the Communist Party. It was quite male dominated. I remember saying very little. I bought into it a lot. It was Marxism but with quite a lot of influence from Wilhelm Reich? [Sex-positive psychotherapist and communist].
We called ourselves, but never publicly, The East London Anti Rents Group! We talked, but we didn’t really take much action. This was like ’74, ’75 and there was a bit of a feeling like “it’s not 1968 anymore”. That energy was gone and I think Margaret Thatcher was already around. And so, it was falling apart, in a way.
Sometimes people have their radical youth and then edge away from it, but still retain some of the values. Especially if you’ve been involved with something quite intense, like squatting and communal living and being a Marxist. So I guess that’s the question: what happened then? Would you still call yourself a Marxist and where did you end up? I don’t want create an idealised version of you that just exists in squats in the early 1970s…
I’d love to show you where I ended up. [Christine turns her camera around and shows me a lovely view out of her window of the sea.]
[laughs] OK that does look quite good!
I love showing it to people. It’s an amazing place, but very windy. In 1977, I moved to Ireland. Because the group disbanded and it seemed the revolution wasn’t happening, I actually worked in Hackney Hospital for a while in the laundry and I delivered glue around shoe factories and I did meals on wheels, different stuff working around in Hackney.
And, my Mum died suddenly around that time. I was quite young and that threw me into a lot of grief and I decided wanted to move out London.
I drove around England and in a Morris Traveler [iconic 1970s mini-van with wooden window frames] trying to work out where to go. And then someone suggested I went on holiday to Ireland. So I came to Ireland and – there’s space here, you know? At that time, there was something like 4 million people in the whole of Ireland. And there were 8 million people in London or something [laughs]. And things just fell into place for me. I got a job, I found a place to live. I moved to Dublin to begin with.
I’d been doing Tai Chi and I got interested in Buddhism, which is something that quite a lot of the political people did. It’s a bit like the Gandhi quote: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”. And there was always an element of that with the Wilhelm Reich stuff, that we carry the political structures within us. There was a level of trying to work with that within ourselves already.
Reich said that there could be issues around hyper political activists and their character armour and repression and things like that…
A certain level of it could be very male dominated. Which is probably why there had to be a women’s movement at that time. Because the men articulated and the women…
…did the typing and washing up?
Yeah. Cooked cherry pies and all these things. I couldn’t type!
So this is where I’ve ended up. I helped to found a Buddhist Retreat Centre in the West of Ireland. Which is now building the first Buddhist Temple in Ireland. And we built this spiritual care center, which is quite unique. Though again, it was a little bit, “what are we doing here?”
We started off thinking we were going to build a hospice two hours’ drive from the nearest big hospital, on the edge of a cliff. It was a new thing. We were saying in Hackney Womens’ Paper that there’s need for spiritual, emotional, care and this is what we were trying to offer. Particularly for people who are facing death or facing an illness that might lead to their death.
So that’s what I’ve been doing, but it’s still being invented… this [is now an issue] for the next generation.
Yeah I think “dignity in dying” is going to be a huge issue as opposed to keeping everyone alive for as long as possible regardless of the situation…
I think, these days there’s a certain denial of death, partly because of our expectations of modern medicine. So within the hospitals, there’s not an acceptance of death in a certain way. So, people are heroically kept alive over a prolonged time. I worked for a while as a hospital chaplain in Cork and I remember one woman, she was 86 and she just had major heart surgery. And when I was talking to her, she said “I can’t believe God didn’t take me”.
I recently heard someone say “we need to die because it makes space for other people on the planet, so more human beings can enjoy this planet”. My generation’s been incredibly fortunate actually, just for starters, better pensions than ever before. But there’s a quite lot of us… so it’s a drain on the younger people who are keeping it together, always paradox.
It sounds like you have done your bit, though! I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, Christine.
Gender balance seems to have been a serious issue for Hackney communes in 1972. I have previously posted a similar notice from the same year by a gay collective in nearby Abersham Road E8. The difference is that Abersham Rd notice explicitly mentioned “we are into smashing our male patriarchy” whereas this would not appear to be a concern for Roger (and/or “the gang”).
For me this speaks to a clash of subcultures – on the one hand the hedonist druggies of 86 Sandringham Road. On the other the hard-edged feminist political milieu that would host figures like the Angry Brigade, Astrid Proll and Dalston Men’s Group. The hedonist faction is less well documented, for obvious reasons… I’d love to speak to Roger and the gang about their time in Hackney if they are still around.
The obituary above appeared in Direct Action vol 7 #3, in March 1966. Direct Action was the newspaper of the Syndicalist Workers Federation, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation which operated from 1950 until the late 1970s. The SWF then became the Direct Action Movement before changing into the Solidarity Federation in 1994 – an organisation which is still active today.
Who was he? Everything starts with an “E.”
It’s easy to understand that a Jewish immigrant revolutionary might want to keep their personal details secret. Googling “E. Michaels” produces some good results in the anarchist archives, but that is only half of the story…
Fortunately there is only one “E. Michaels” listed in the death records for Hackney for 1966:
Was born in Plock, central Poland on 25 Sep 1890 (near enough to 1891 listed above?)
Emigrated to England at the age of ten in 1900.
Married Rosie Kitman (3 Apr 1892 – 14 Jan 1963) at Mile End in 1914.
Had four children (including Harry, as in the Freedom clipping above, which is reassuring)
Worked as a Tailors Presser.
Died 12 Feb 1966.
This seems to fit quite well with what we know from the obituaries above and the sort of lives that radical Jewish anarchists would be leading at this time. But I’m not an expert, so if any historians or genealogists out there have spotted any errors, let me know!
Update: a comrade has kindly supplied a passport photo of the handsome Michaels.
Anarchy in the East End!
Most of comrade Michaels’ political activity seems to have been in the East End of London in the first half of the 20th Century. He was involved with setting up a “free school” at 62 Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel, which also hosted The Worker’s Friend Club and the East London Anarchist Group. He was also the secretary of the prisoner support group the Anarchist Red Cross and is listed as a donor in a few issues of the London anarchist newspaper Freedom in the 1910s.
According to census data he lived at the following addresses too:
1911: 25 Hungerford Street, Commercial Road
1921: 73 Sutton Street
1939: 163 Jubilee Street E1
But what about Hackney, eh?
Michaels seems to have remained active up until his death. Sparrows Nest Archive has scans of some his letters from 1958 to 1964. Most of these are addressed to Ken Hawkes, the national secretary of the Syndicalist Workers Federation. Many of them mention meetings at Circle House, 13 Sylvester Path, E8. I’ve written about the Workers Circle and Jewish radicals in Hackneypreviously.
Michaels’ letters are largely administrative – donations, exchanges of publications, details of meetings etc. But the letterheads are invaluable:
Firstly, they tell us that Michaels was the Honorary Secretary of the Jewish radical organisations Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Voice of Labour) and Rudolf Rocker Publishing Committee. (Rocker was a German Gentile who became heavily involved with the Jewish anarchist movement).
Secondly, the letters show us where Michaels lived in Hackney. (This is my assumption, based on the nature of the addresses listed and that meetings etc seemed to take place at Circle House and not those on the letterheads). So it looks like Michaels lived at 12 Cranwich Road in Stamford Hill during the 1950s and then moved to “Morley House” N16 in 1961. Which no longer exists…
But! According to this useful blog, Morley House was one of the council blocks at the east end of Cazenove Road, Stoke Newington and was renamed Nelson Mandela House in 1984. There is a quote from Mandela on the side of it which can be seen here.
A diversion down Cazenove Road
According to Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, Morley House was built in 1937-1938 “with a meanly detailed exterior, although the planning of the individual flats was generous at the time”.
Fourteen years after Emanuel Michaels’ death, the flats and exterior would see further anarchistic action.
Hackney Peoples Press reported that Morley House was due for renovation, which meant that:
“All the council tenants were moved out between 1978 and autumn 1979, and the estate was left almost completely empty.”
Perhaps inevitably some tenacious local people seized this opportunity:
“In November 1979 the first squatters started to move in, even though vandalism and thieving had reduced the building to a dilapidated eyesore.
By February 1980 approximately 80 flats were occupied and some residents approached Hackney Community Housing Resource Centre to ask about licensing the house. (A licence to occupy premises does not imply tenancy as such but makes the occupation authorised by the Council.)
They suggested a direct approach to the Council, and three Council Officers were invited to visit the estate and talk to same of the residents. These officers submitted a report to the Housing Management Committee on 31st March this year, and suggested the granting of a license through Hackney Community Housing (HCH). The Committee however, rejected the recommendations and decided to evict the residents – offering the property to HCH as short term housing instead.”
What followed was a bit of a standoff, with the Council refusing to back down and the squatters getting more organised:
“They held weekly meetings, formed themselves into an Association, cleared up rubbish, and met a number of councillors to discuss the matter. They also formally presented a deputation to the Housing Management Committee asking once again for a licence.”
That all probably seems pretty amazing to people who’ve tried squatting recently, but even in 1980, this was simply delaying the inevitable:
Six months later, the Council’s heavy squad made the 200 squatters homeless:
“Following two dramatic dawn raids by police the Morley House squat in Cazenove Road has had all its electricity and gas supplies cut off. At least 25 people were arrested, mainly on charges relating to the stealing of gas and electricity, but the police indiscriminately smashed through the doors of all the tenants on two of the blocks on the estate.
The first raid took place on 14 January and was made by a large number of police, accompanied by police dogs and gas board officials. The police carried no warrants and yet made extensive searches for drugs and stolen goods. Many doors were broken down in the raid, while others had 6-inch nails driven into their hinges to prevent tenants from re-entering their flats. Whilst searching the rooms the police took many photographs, presumably to be used later in evidence.
Using the excuse that many of the tenants were not paying for gas, the supplies to the estate were cut off, although electric cooking rings were brought in by the Gas Board for those who complained that they were in fact paying their gas bills. But in the early hours of the following morning, the police arrived again, this time with Electricity Board officials, and electricity supplies were cut off under the pretext that all the wiring on the estate was in a dangerous condition.
As a result of these raids about half of the 150 people who lived in the squat have been intimidated into leaving. Speaking to residents of Morley House HPP has discovered that these raids follow several months of police harassment. It is estimated that some 50% of the residents had been picked up by the police prior to the raids. Morley House has been a licensed squat for over one year. In that time Gas and Electricity officials have visited the estate several times, but have not ordered any repairs.”
I hope that Emanuel would have approved of the squatters, but you never know. It’s interesting that the block was subsequently renamed Mandela House – Hackney Council in the 1980s was eager to promote social struggles thousands of miles away, but renaming the block after Emanuel Michaels or celebrating the courageous battle of the squatters was off-limits…
If anyone reading this has more information about either Emanuel Michaels or the Morley House occupation, please do leave a comment or drop me an email.
The following piece appears in the book It Ain’t Half Racist Mum: Fighting racism in the media edited by Phil Cohen & Carl Gardner and published by Comedia/CARM 1982.
It’s a remarkable account of a young black female reporter of working at the paper at the time, and what she had to overcome.
Since this was published, Juliet has worked in a wide range of senior roles including Education Careers Manager at Hackney Learning Trust and with a huge number of local community and voluntary organisations. Her Linkedin profile will tell you more. She tweets at @julietshares
Two tokens in one: the only black and the only woman reporter… Juliet Alexander interviewed
Juliet Alexander was a reporter on the Hackney Gazette in East London for five years. At her initial interview the editor said that taking her on meant that he was killing two minorities in one. He was joking. She is interviewed by Geoffrey Sheridan.
I started at 18, when most people in the office were young, left of centre, and anti-racist. Being black didn’t affect what I did at the beginning — that was in 1975. Being a junior reporter meant that I had to do all the crap that was going. Even after I had been on the paper for a few years, if a kid drowned or something like that, I was the one who went to see the family to get a picture of the kid. That was mainly because I was female. Yet in an area that is a quarter black there was no way I could cover all the black stories. And there was no reason why I should go out on those stories, with a few exceptions.
An obvious case was Maurice Hope, the light middleweight world champion, from Antigua. A reporter went out to interview him, and he couldn’t understand a word that Maurice said. His mother had an even heavier accent. So I was taken along. Maurice was anti-white before he won the world championship and the white press had ignored him. He said in the interview that the Hackney Gazette was the only paper that had given him any publicity, apart from the West Indian World.
Some blacks would only deal with me, such as Eddie Grant, who set up the first black recording studio, and Pastor Morris, who does the Finsbury Park Carnival. I covered news from the estates and word went round like wild fire that Juliet did housing stories, so there were lots of blacks there, but whites, too. They found it hard to separate the fact that I was a reporter from the fact that I was black, which is as it should be, I think.
Before I went on to the Gazette there had been trouble at Dalston police station. A black youth had his head flushed down the loo. It was felt it might do the police some good if they got to know a black person in a different way. I probably did very good PR work on behalf of black people. The only blacks the police met were those they arrested. Meeting a black person on professional terms was as much an experience for them as it was for me.
Sexism and racism
In fact their attitude was of a bunch of men to a woman, rather than to a black. They were incredibly sexist in some cases, and began with the attitude: ‘This silly little girl can’t do her job, so we’ll go out of our way to help her.’ Realising that not all blacks wear woolly caps, there was a slight shift in their thinking. With another reporter they’d say: ‘Two niggers were picked up for mugging an old lady.’ With me it was: ‘Two muggers were picked up…’ But sometimes they’d say ‘mugger’ meaning ‘nigger’. It was ingrained.
Racism came from outside the office, not inside. This man called Sid rang up one day complaining about blacks vandalising his estate.‘He didn’t mind blacks,’ he said, but it was obvious he did. That’s what a lot of people who rang up said. ‘I’m not racist, but…’ I told Sid his experience was really awful — I was doing my middle-class Tory lady bit. I invited him over to the paper and met him at reception. He recognised my voice, dropped his head in his hands, and called himself ‘Sid the Shit’. We had a long talk. There was one of those phone calls every day.
The paper’s policy led to abusive phone calls. We followed the NUJ policy of not putting in someone’s colour unless it was material to the story, such as a black musician where his colour is part of the description of what he does. We would never put emotive terms into the headline or the introduction of an article. The North London branch of the NUJ was very militant and backed the union’s guidelines. The editor agreed with that. But if it was common knowledge that someone was black — if the evening papers had said so — we’d get abusive phone calls wanting to know why we didn’t call ‘a spade a spade’.
Striking against racism
We had a walk-out over racism. During the Greater London Council elections in 1977 a reporter noticed that an advert for a National Front meeting was due to go into the paper. The management said they couldn’t remove it. It was an immediate decision to go out on strike. I was doing the front-page lead article that day. I put it in my bag and walked out. We were out for three days, and picked up a hell of a lot of signatures supporting our action. We normally completely ignored NF meetings. The only time we mentioned them was in unfavourable terms — who they’d beaten up that week. In elections we gave details of all the candidates except the NF’s. We simply said they were standing two candidates, or however many it was.
Before I went to the Gazette it had given coverage to Derek Day — a leading NF member — and to tenants in Hoxton, which was a fascist base. Things changed a bit. When Day’s address was published in the paper, because his son was involved in a court case, he came down to the office, distressed the receptionist, and demanded to see the editor. I volunteered to go down. He was ranting and raving. He came up to me, nose to nose. ‘I’m Derek Day,’ he yelled. `I’m racist and proud of it.’ He described the Gazette in unglowing terms, tore the paper in shreds, and threw it over me. I thanked him for his comment and excused myself.
As far as the NF was concerned, we were a ‘Nigger-loving Commie rag’, which is what they sprayed on the building. When flags were put up for the Jubilee, someone came into the office to lower them. ‘We had no right to fly the British flag,’ we were told.
(Juliet Alexander left the Hackney Gazette to work on the BBC Radio London programme Black Londoners. She now works in TV in the Midlands.)
Some new notes
1. Geoffrey Sheridan who interviewed Juliet also has Hackney Radical History connections. He was son of a tailor, and Communist party member and grew up in Stamford Hill. He was a member of the International Marxist Group and wrote for a number of radical and socialist publications, From 1987 until his death in the year 2000, he worked in business planning for Hackney council. Guardian obituary here.
2. The legendary Coach House Recording Studios, founded in 1972 and based at 81 Osbaldeston Road, London N16.
3. Derrick Day was a notorious racist thug and National Front member. He was in charge of security at the NF’s headquarters Excalibur House in Shoreditch in the late 1970s. Veteran anti-fascist Martin Lux described him thus:
“Times were much harder then and a lot of the NF were very hard, violent people. You just have to look at the head of the Hoxton NF back then, Derrick Day, a fuckin gorilla with a face covered with razor cuts.”
It should go without saying that it would be remarkably brave for a young black woman working as a junior reporter, to volunteer to meet a ranting and raving fascist bully. Derrick Day died in 1995 during a protest against live animal exports in Brightlingsea, where he then lived. It’s unclear whether he had recanted his support for violent white supremacy later in life.
“Sisters: There is a collective/Commune/Household, of gay people living in Hackney and we want some sisters to come and live with us. We are into smashing our male chauvenism and giving up our privileges as men over women. You do not have to be gay, just full of good energy and love, and if this society has fucked you up, maybe we will be able to work it out together. At the moment there are five men and we want about four more people….. please contact The People, 4 Abersham Road, Hackney, London, E8.”
Tony Gibson was a registered conscientious objector during World War two. He worked initially at an ambulance station in London before heading off for agricultural work in South Wales. Tony made his way back to London in March 1945 (about six months before the end of the war):
“Then I got my cards from South Wales and obtained employment as a carpenter in a firm repairing the bomb-blasted houses in Hackney, East London.
Here again pacifist and anarchist contacts stood me in good stead, for the building firm belonged to pacifists, and most of its workers were Conscientious Objectors of one kind or another – Christian pacifists, members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, anarchists, fringe Trotskyists, and a few deserters from the forces who lived precarious lives without proper identity documents. When inspectors came round, the foreman told these latter characters to make themselves scarce for a while, since they didn’t appear on the firm’s books.
We even had one genuine Fascist, a mild little man who admired Mussolini (who had recently been killed). This fellow had a bad time in arguments with his work-mates, and was threatened with violence to drive him off the job, until a brawny young socialist declared that he would be his protector: ‘A man is entitled to his opinions, however daft'”
Tony Gibson – Burgess Hill School: A Personal Account
I thought this was a really interesting insight into the various strands of radical thought that were floating around in Hackney during the war. Anarchists are often seen as a chaotic destructive force, but this is a good example of one rebuilding people’s homes after they’d been destroyed by the Luftwaffe. This ties in with the hundreds of anarchist squatters in Hackney who would repair and redecorate derelict houses after the war right up to the 1990s.
Tony’s account above is the preamble to a longer piece about his work as a handyman at Burgess Hill Free School in Hampstead which was set up on anarchist-ish principles. This was published in the anarchist journal The Raven in 1987 and can be read on Libcom.
Whilst working as a labourer in Hackney, Gibson was also one of the temporary editorial team of the anarchist newspaper War Commentary, when most of the regular staff were imprisoned in 1945. He went on to some prominence in the field of psychology and remained an anarchist until his death in 2001. Libcom has also republished a Guardian obituary for him with more details of his life.
On 20th July 1994 a lobby of Hackney Council, held by trades union and community groups to protest at the Criminal Justice Bill and the Council’s plan to use the new powers to evict tenants and squatters, was attacked by riot police of the Territorial Support Group. Officers were seen head-butting, punching and kicking protesters, before arresting seven people, some of whom they injured badly.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
What was the Criminal Justice Act?
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was incredibly wide-ranging and repressive (although it did also include lowering the age of consent for “homosexual acts” to 18). The legislation curtailed arrestees’ right to silence, increased police stop and search powers and infamously clamped down on the ability of squatters, hunt saboteurs and ravers to organise.
In May 1994, Hackney Homeless Festival in Clissold Park had concluded peacefully, but revellers were attacked by the TSG afterwards outside the nearby Robinson Crusoe pub (now the Clissold Tavern). Alongside this, there was the day to day harassment of residents by the notoriously bent Stoke Newington police – and a general climate of cracking down on squatting.
All this meant that the demo was pretty lively:
A large demonstration outside Hackney Town Hall on July 20th ended up as a brief occupation inside. Over 250 squatters and supporters gathered to protest against the council’s ‘para-municipal’ eviction squad, the Tenancy Audit Team, and the worryingly right-wing (Labour) Chair of Housing, Simon Matthews. The occupation and disruption of the first full council meeting since the local elections, was broken up by the police, who violently intervened to eject the occupiers.
Hackneyed Hypocrisy – Squall magazine
DefendThe Hackney 7
Those arrested now face serious charges, which could involve heavy fines or imprisonment. Those with the worst injuries have been charged with assaulting the police. All are denying the charges against them.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
The contact address for the Hackney 7 Defence Campaign was the Colin Roach Centre. The charges included criminal damage (to the town hall doors) and obstruction. The Council wouldn’t leave it there though:
The response of Hackney Council to this attack has been to support the police. In an unprecedented move the Council took out injunctions against those arrested which banned them from council property and a named squat in the borough. This blanket ban would prevent the defendants from using public toilets or housing benefit offices, without written permission.
Likewise, those who work in Hackney would be unable to go to offices of their unions without written permission, or they too would be risking arrest.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
The defendants successfully challenged the Council’s injunctions in court and that part of the case collapsed.
Two of those arrested worked for the Council – one was a teacher and the other worked for Hackney Independent Living Team (HILT) – and was also an active trade unionist. The Council applied political pressure to get these workers sacked before the charges got to court. The police also gave out information to HILT and the media about the arrests, breaching confidentiality.
It appears that John McArthur, the HILT worker, was sacked and I can’t find anything to suggest he was reinstated. It looks like he continued to play an active role in trade union matters in North London, later writing about his experiences with striking JJ Fast Foods workers in Tottenham.
The seriousness of the charges and Council’s victimisation was slightly lightened by the tragic/comic events of another protest later in the year:
Hackney 7 Trial
The trials of the seven people nicked on the Hackney Town Hall demo are now complete. They were arrested during the picket against attacks on squatters and tenants in the borough, and against the then impending Crimjustbill.
The bad news is one bind-over, one conditional discharge and one pleading guilty. The other four got off in exciting courtroom dramas. The cases against Ronnie and Mervyn ended, after a long and fairly positive week of disproving the cops’ stories, when one of our barristers collapsed, and the prosecution decided they couldn’t handle a retrial.
In the other case Simon got off when the magistrate disagreed that the four punches shown on video were ‘reasonable’ restraint as PC Moore claimed, and the prosecution gave up over Jake after the other police witness couldn’t explain his complete invisibility. Countercharges for assault, perjury and conspiracy are planned.
“Hackney Seven Results” – ContraFlow
Simon had been charged with assaulting a police officer, but video footage taken by activists at the protest showed that the reverse was true:
In two cases the judge recommended that video evidence of assaults by members of the Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group (riot squad) be passed on to the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are not holding our breath.
“Council Conspires With Police To Sack Union Activist” – Public Services Workers’ Network
According to the Anarchist Communist Federation, some of the defendants were issued with fines of “up to £3,300”.
The Criminal Justice Act became law on 3rd November 1994. The Labour Party abstained.
For squatters this is a simple extension of the logic of turning empty buildings into homes. Here are people in a strange country with very simple and urgent needs: somewhere to live and something to eat. Here is a borough with a record for keeping properties empty and here are some activists willing to crack a few buildings. Simple.
82-90 Stoke Newington Road was a Magistrate’s Court from 1889. Barbara Windsor may have attended with Ronnie Kray when he was done for receiving stolen goods. The court would naturally be one arena where the oppression of working class residents of North London played out and it is gratifying to see that it was also a site of resistance to this:
The building is now St John’s Court (flats). As Alan Denney notes – a large “Police Court” sign was removed before the conversion, as presumably state-sadism is not a good selling point. St Johns Court is now a listed building. A one-bed flat can be rented there for £1,321 a month at the time of writing.
But… between the building being a court and becoming ‘luxury” flats, it was put to better use…
1996 was the last gasp of John Major’s Conservative government before New Labour were elected in the following year. On February 5th 1996 the Tories cut off benefits to asylum seekers who did not apply for asylum at the port of entry, and to those who lost their application but were awaiting an appeal.
Contrary to the bullshit spouted about asylum seekers “taking our jobs”, they were actually legally prevented from working. As London freesheet ContraFlow put it:
With no possibility to work legally, and now no way of getting any other money, increasing numbers will be left to starve, in the hope that they’ll return to wherever they had to flee from, unless we do something about it. Because of this situation, and the fact that the Refugee Council, who had money to open a hostel, hadn’t, a large squat was opened up in Hackney as an emergency shelter, and to highlight the situation, a squat called ARCH – Autonomous Refugee Centre Hackney.
The building was the old Magistrates Court in Stoke Newington Road, empty for years and with steel doors and windows but with an open window on the first floor that had been tempting the locals for ages.
According to anarchist magazine Black Flag, ARCH “was set up by local squatters, The Refugee Support Group from the Colin Roach Centre and others” and was supported by “local Kurdish and Turkish Groups, some churches and local shops”
Squatters’ magazine Squall interviewed some of the organisers:
Chris Locke of ARCH explains: “We wanted to provide homes for refugees affected by the Social Security changes. On the way we found lots of other stuff to do; ranging from getting decent solicitors for people to finding them clothes and food.” Warren, another member of ARCH, states the group’s intention to create alternative solutions: “We understand these people are alienated, some come from war zones and oppressive regimes to the big city. Providing bedding, conversation and a good meal is enough to give the basis of what they need; the dignity to keep their sanity and keep on living.”
ContraFlow went into more detail on the logistics:
The first mistake was going in before checking who owned it – it was assumed that as it was still for sale it still belonged to the state, which would’ve made it appropriate and make procedings predictable.
In fact it had been bought by Harinbrook Properties, a small property company connected to Eugena, a building outfit, who liked to pose as security guards, bailiffs and anything else. They tried three illegal evictions, which were foiled by physical force, with great assistance from the local Turkish and Kurdish community, and the cops. The cops only tried once to force their way in, but were eventually convinced that their legal position was rather dubious.
All this made the situation rather stressful and tiring, as 24-hour watches were kept until the owners finally decided to go to court.
After ARCH was evicted, Squall spoke to some of the people that needed its help:
Meanwhile in a Stoke Newington pub, two ARCH volunteers stroll in with a couple of young refugees; Varben from Kosovo in former Yugoslavia and Antonio from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.
Antonio, a doctor from Cabinda, tells his story: “I left because of the civil war. I was afraid I would be killed. I had many problems because I was treating people from all the different parties who are at war. Some parties didn’t like me helping all sides but I am a doctor, I must help anyone who needs it. They put me in prison for a long time. Then I escaped and came here.” Antonio had no idea he had to apply for asylum as soon as he arrived and is currently waiting for the Home Office to process his asylum application. On average this takes nine months.
Varben hitch-hiked to England in a lorry from Macedonia: “When I got to London I slept out on the streets at Victoria Station for three days. I met an African who told me to go to the Home Office.” Varben says there were at least ten other refugees sleeping at Victoria whilst he was there: “I don’t know what happened to them, they didn’t speak English.” The Refugee Council referred him to a hostel for five days and then on to a church. He believes that squatting is a logical solution: “Why have houses empty? Why have people sleeping in the church?” He is looking forward to an English course organised for him by ARCH and the Churches Refugee Network. He too awaits a Home Office decision.
The ARCH crew eventually squatted a house for refugees further north in Stoke Newington. I vaguely recall from a radical history walk a few years back that this was somewhere around Manor Road/Lordship Park?
Before that, there were some lessons learnt and some reflections to be had, as ContraFlow put it:
The second mistake was thinking that the problem of accomodation could be dealt with separately to all the other problems faced by refugees. It was assumed that other groups and networks would step in and take over all the social work stuff, but the first refugee showed that it wasn’t so easy, and that being in a strange country with a strange language makes it pretty damned hard to do anything for yourself, apart from whatever stresses and depression you might bring with.
Anyway, a few people found themselves taking on a whole lot of social work, and running around finding groups that might be able to help out. After three weeks the centre was evicted and plans to move on to a new place immediately were postponed to give time to work out what was actually needed next, and because the squat centre, where some of those involved lived and which was generally used as a base, was also being evicted.
But work continued, with a local church network and community groups, sorting out places for people to stay as well as working on other aspects of the struggle, and support for those refugees who found their way to the network.
The Refugee Council, who had been desperately calling for churches to make space available, stopped referring refugees to the church network because of their connection with ARCH, but the churches remained supportive, and a house was eventually opened up. which is now housing a number of refugees, and one non-refugee for support. Many contacts were made, and networks are being organised around London to try to open up houses and centres in other areas, but it isn’t easy.
One of the vague ideas behind ARCH was that it would take off and become autonomous, that space would be created for refugees to take up their own fight. It hasn’t happened yet. partly because of the low numbers involved so far, and because it will always be easier for activists, who will always have to be around, to give support. The skills are out there, to find and provide what’s needed, if we can bring them together.
This isn’t just another benefit attack to be tagged on to our fight against the JSA. It’s not just another attack on housing adding to homelessness. It’s an attack on the ability of ordinary people like us to escape unbearable conditions created by the global (but still hierarchical) squeeze on our conditions, by local states’ attacks on behalf of global, asylum seeking capital. If money is going to zap around the world looking for cheaper labour and better investments, it can’t allow us to wander off looking for higher wages and better conditions. At best we’ll be allowed to be guestworkers, with our families and the costs of reproduction left behind, and with no rights to settle, organise.
This is an attack on London and its beautiful cosmopolitan mix of cultures and people, an attack on the communities here and on our history of refuge and struggle. In a way it’s a last chance for us to act locally and globally at the same time, to carry out direct actions that make us part of the world instead of just acting against increasingly localised political structures, with occasional solidarity actions to protest at the nastiness of other states. It is also a chance for us (the vast majority of ContraFlow readers, and writers) to break of our ghetto of our European “alternative” scene, and discover the world that is collected together in our cities.
For me ARCH is an inspiring example of practical solidarity being provided to those most in need by people with scant resources. For all its problems, this was direct action at its best. Since 1996 the pace of gentrification in Hackney has accelerated to the point where there are very few empty properties and this increase in value has been reflected in some changes to the law on squatting too. Nevertheless squatting is still happening, but generally in a less open manner. The veterans at the Advisory Service for Squatters are still doing a excellent work in difficult circumstances.
The support mechanism for migrants in the borough have been professionalised and there are obvious advantages to that, although I am sure that the constant worries about funding and simply not having the resources to do what needs to be done must be very stressful: Hackney Migrant Centre is seeking donations and volunteers.