| Squatters Estate
Justice? Brighton's Campaign in Defiance of the Criminal
"DO YOU KNOW
WHO WE ARE?"
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
AT THE SQUATTERS ESTATE AGENCY
It's February 26th (1996)
and Shelter have just announced "National Homelessness Week" - where
you can wear a badge or send a postcard - all to aid the homeless.
Realising that throw-away campaigns like this don't help, and fed
up with the fact that despite a huge homelessness problem squatters
in Brighton are being seriously harassed, Justice? reveal plans
to open a Squatters Estate Agency. A place to drop in, have a cup
of tea and find a home. A place where you can go for squatting advice
and subversive literature. With pictures of empty properties in
the window complete with handy hints: "Three bedrooms, nice garden,
window open at rear."
Justice? weren't new
to Squatting. Most people in Brighton could remember "The Courthouse",
our most famous and long-lived home (still boarded up and derelict).
But we'd also had short spells in an old jeans shop, the Council's
old housing advice centre, and a bingo hall. In all these places
lists of empty properties were available (the SchLETS), along with
practical advice for would be D.I.Y. Homeowners.
And so it came to pass...
The Estate Agency was planned, plotted and schemed - a few faxes
sent off to local TV, newspapers and radio. BOOM! All hell breaks
loose, and suddenly the whole idea becomes a media monster. Radio
1, 2, 3, 4. The Mail, Independent, Telegraph, Newsnight, Meridian,
Central - all jockey for a position on the story. It goes international
as media from Canada, Australia, Russia, Germany, Belgium and the
USA cover the story.
Local politicians weren't
so keen, as Tories and New Labour queued up to slag off the idea
that people were actually getting off their knees and doing something
practical about homelessness. Tory MP Sir Derek Spencer said "We
need this in Brighton like a hole in the head." This was swiftly
dealt with by a Justice? spokesperson countering with "Brighton
needs Sir Derek Spencer like a hole in the head."
New Labour's Brighton
Council leader Steve Bassam (himself an ex-squatter) showed his
true colours by stating that there was no need for such action,
and that there was "adequate legislation" to deal with homelessness!
"WE NEED THIS SORT
OF THING IN BRIGHTON LIKE A HOLE IN THE HEAD!" - Derek Spencer
MP (Brighton Pavilion)
Originally there were
plans to have the agency at an established squat that was facing
eviction the same week. A couple of phone calls were made to the
County Council and it looked like the building was secured for a
time by trying to apply through the housing co-op mechanism. This
got trashed however when the BBC found out the location and filmed
through the windows, broadcasting the same day. After an interview
with the Big Breakfast, bailiffs turned up and the verbal agreement
with the Council was suddenly null and void. Eight people were made
homeless. Cheers. Enter Operation Argus: a meeting was held and
a hand-picked team of crack Direct Action commandos swung into action.
A building cracked and secured under the very noses of a CCTV camera.
The press were still
relentless, as what most thought of as a prank had become real.
The opening day was incredible. There was more media than punters.
The interviews didn't seem to stop all day, and all but the most
hardened media gateaux got a bit sick of mikes and cameras. A mock
ceremony in front of the Agency was staged, a couple of custard
pies were stuck into a certain face and the ribbon was cut. We were
"NO POLICE, BAILIFFS
OR ARGUS REPORTERS!"
It came as no surprise
when we got our court date to be evicted. An Eviction Notice was
served on the Estate Agents within hours of opening. Christine Simpson,
the chair of the Housing Committee said that we were causing harm
by offering people temporary, unstable accommodation (so they would
have been better off sleeping rough waiting to be housed by the
Council then?) She had promised in a public meeting a few months
earlier not to evict anyone unless they were causing a nuisance
or the building was needed for something. Strange how quickly things
Brighton Council had
managed to fly the eviction through the courts in less than 24 hours.
Amazing what they can do when they try. But really it didn't matter,
we were cramming a hell of a lot into that short time. The Advisory
Service for Squatters came down and did a talk on the new squatting
laws, a SchLIVE was performed, and the regular Justice? meeting
was held there.
A BBC film crew doing
a documentary on the DiY culture in Brighton decided to do a little
experiment and invite some people with differing opinions than us
for a civilised debate on the issues. They didn't tell us that the
people they invited were some of the most bigoted individuals we
had ever met, who refused to even sit down and chat with us, but
instead wandered around aggressively demanding where we were from
and why didn't we go back there. Apparently we had no right to complain
about homelessness if we weren't born and bred in Brighton, and
we were encouraging homeless people to move down here!
Cheap food and tea were
constantly on the go and the writing of the SchNEWS transferred
to the Agency with a wicked attack on the local rag. The Evening
Argus ran a whole series of articles attempting to blame the Agency
for any break-ins in the whole country. Or so it seemed. It was
therefore decided that it was time for our love-hate relationship
with the Argus to end. All Argus journalists were banned from the
Estate Agents, and Justice? refused to talk to them. Oh what joy
to escort one of the journalists off the premises as they pleaded
to be let in, saying that we needed them to cover our story, or
we would get no publicity Yeah, right. With 3 journalists from national
papers, and 2 film crews inside that argument didn't hold much water.
And so a new sign above
the front door was erected - "No police, bailiffs or Argus reporters".
"GIVE US OUR DOOR
The syndrome known as
activist burn-out had hit everyone by then. Fuelled by the media,
the Agency had much longer opening hours than we had planned for,
and the threat of the bailiffs meant that many of us were up each
day at 6am waiting in case they arrived (lazy dole scroungers, eh?)
Early Friday they came. About 6 or 7 bored looking bailiffs, a policeman
acting as an observer and a very worried looking council official
turned up at ridiculous o' clock. Inside both doors had been sealed
and barricaded. About 20 of us were there when the bailiffs piled
in. They concentrated mostly on the main entrance door, wedging
in chocks to prise it open. But fast as the chocks were put in they
were knocked out again. A couple of buckets of water from the upstairs
window gave them much pause for thought (local Tories later said
that it was full of urine and excrement - well okay we may drink
a lot of cider, but even we couldn't fill that much.)
The cameras rolled. The
journalists scribbled. They tried a new approach. The plan was to
actually remove the door itself, and this nearly worked. For a time
it was a battle for the door as it swung inside and out. Everyone
started shouting "give us our door hack!" and for some reason, they
did! Perhaps they were knackered, or more likely the build-up of
shoppers had increased - and the Council don't usually like to be
seen doing such things in public. Whatever, they disappeared. Once
again it proved that defiance works. We knew they'd be coming back
but the fact that we'd antagonised Brighton bailiffs to the extent
that they'd had to earn their money for a change, and they went
off with their tails between their legs was a top feeling.
SQUATTING IS STILL
The Squatters Estate
Agency remained active until Tuesday morning, ten days after it
had opened. The previous night it was decided to leave whilst we
were ahead. We tidied up, recycled the empties and left via the
upstairs window. Downstairs a formidable barricade was left at the
front door. The bailiffs turned up at 8 in the evening, and smashed
their way in to be confronted with an empty shop devoid of people.
"NEVER MIND THE MEDIA,
DID YOU ACTUALLY HOUSE PEOPLE?"
One of the more touching
moments happened when a man walked in saying his friend had just
died and did we want to let his house, as it was empty. At the same
time a young couple walked in with a child saying they were homeless.
We introduced them to each other, and off they went to sort it out.
A lot of people found homes or at the very least somewhere to crash.
To be truthful, we did
make a couple of honest mistakes, as two properties were advertised
that were inhabited. This gives some indication of the state of
some of the properties in the town - one was awful; an old couple
living in squalor upstairs in a boarded-up shop. As soon as we found
out our mistakes the properties were immediately removed from the
list, and we took the owners a hunch of flowers.
What had started out
as a small Brighton protest had stretched around the country and
across the seas.
Rather than being manipulated
by the media, we had set our agenda, and got the message across
that homelessness was a major problem, and that despite the Criminal
Justice Act, squatting was still legal in England and Wales, and
a practical solution to sleeping rough.
The fact that so many
supported and helped us dispelled the tidal wave of misinformation
and myths about squatters ten-fold.
Most importantly we showed
that homeless people no longer have to see themselves as passive
victims waiting for patronising handouts from the state, but can
get out there, and find themselves somewhere to live, instead of
rotting on some Council waiting list.
SQUATTING IS STILL
LEGAL, NECESSARY AND FREE!
For more details on
squatting, contact the Advisory Service for Squatters at 2 St. Paul's
Rd. London N1 Tel. 0171 359 8814