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Closed to corporate corruption - open to ideas

Harvest Forestry Squat In Opposition To The Sainsburys Development At Brighton Train Station

Straight into the mouth of the beast - demo at nearby Sainsbury's supermarket, London Rd, Brighton, April 2002

It's early ... 6.30am. I wake up and try to stretch - but find myself tightly cocooned in a sleeping bag. My eyes slowly open - above me a double barn door, big enough to drive a truck through, stands barricaded shut. Scaffold bars brace rigid horizontals across the entrance. Buttresses of timber bite down hard on either side of me, immovable right angles dug into the concrete floor. I have camped up so close that I may as well be built into the barricade - as an early warning system - just in case it kicks off at dawn.

But it is not the heavy pounding of police sledge hammers or the splintering crack of crow bars that has woken me - not today. Today it is the silent shafts of sunlight that have pierced our fortifications, squeezing in between and under our defences with a cool morning breeze.

Taking a deep breath I sit up, rub the dust out of my eyes and think about breakfast. I struggle from the snug confines of my sleeping bag and wander over to the kitchen.

The room I'm in is a large windowless single space, rectangular, with a high pitched corrugated roof. The sunshine pours into the building through wide sky lights that run the entire length of the ridge. The rough brick work has recently been painted white, giving the confines of the four walls an extra sense of air and light. I guess the building is at least a hundred years old and despite its bright atmosphere it has some telling scars. One corner has a crack as big as your fist that runs like lightening from the ceiling to the floor. The rafters, though still solid enough to keep the roof up, have at some point in the past been charred black by fire. The building has survived much - but how much longer can it hold out against the world's most virulent and aggressive foe - the corporate bulldozers?

I fumble with the dodgy connection on the kettle. My companions on the night shift are all still sound asleep after a long night of 'setting the world to rights'. They lie on makeshift beds, decoratively draped in the vivid patterns of charity-shop blankets. The lack of sleep does not bother me, in fact I have an irrepressible excitement in the base of my stomach - we are, after all, under siege. The water boils and I swill it round an empty coffee jar and drink the reassuringly bitter liquid in small appreciative sips.

The building that we are barricaded into is on the southeastern corner of a vast 13 acre site that is earmarked for development. It is adjacent to the Brighton mainline train station, right slap bang in the centre of our busy little city. Along its southern edge is a mix of second hand car dealers and garages. The western edge adjoins the high plateau of the station car park and the lower eastern side borders the ironically named "New England Street". It is a bleak and characterless road, itself the repeated victim of previous 'developments' - prefab high-rises, multi-story car parks, and cramped brick blocks of housing.

There is no northern edge, as the land continues along the route of an abandoned railway track that disappears up a thickly wooded path. This is a hidden world, where the secret people go to do their secret deeds. A landscape of disturbed earth, burnt out vehicles, broken glass and tangled undergrowth. Inhabited, as the wreckage would suggest, by arsonists, bag snatchers, joyriders, and junkies. But there is a wild beauty about the place, as with an overgrown cemetery, a place of return, where nature, red clawed, takes back her own.

Vipers and foxes haunt the shadows and hawks can sometimes be seen hunting from the surrounding tower blocks. Rare plants grow in the shade of the Ivy and Elder making it an officially designated conservation area.

Back behind the barricade, I make myself comfortable and begin to sketch out this article. Outside the rush hour traffic has begun to rumble by. The clean morning air thickens with exhaust and great tides of nine-to-fivers flow up hill to the station. Time for some background information...

The Poison

When the railways were privatised hundreds of miles of land - including this site - was given away to Railtrack to 'sweeten the deal'. Land that was by rights one of the country's greatest remaining public assets. Railtrack, (or the company that was formally called Railtrack), now wants to cut to the cash and run.

Our local council, in league with Railtrack, QED (the builders) and Sainsbury's, plan to develop the site into yet another large Sainsbury's superstore complex, (we already have three!) with car park, hotels and associated new roads. There has been no legitimate community consultation process and two proposals for a supermarket have already been officially scrapped.

There are many reasons given by residents for opposing the plan: It would damage the local economy by prioritising outside corporate interests over local traders and producers. There would be a severe detrimental impact to the environment and to health and safety caused by bringing more traffic into the already congested city centre. It is irrelevant to local issues such as the need for affordable housing - Brighton is currently suffering a housing crisis with "...house prices rising faster than nearly everywhere else in the country...the city has one of the highest levels of rough sleeping, higher than average unemployment and lower than average incomes." [1] (yet business interests call this a property "boom"). Brighton is in dire need of free community space and there is an urgent need for facilities for young people to get them off the streets without it costing them money - especially given that "levels of substance misuse and crime are all well above the national average" [2]. It disregards Brighton's unique architectural and artistic character. It will destroy a wildlife corridor. It threatens the thriving Sunday second-hand market. And the whole scheme depends upon the "development option", a highly controversial 'arrangement' which gives exclusive rights to the land to Sainsbury's, making a mockery of the democratic process as it excludes all other alternatives.

When the developers inevitably justify their actions with the cry "but we create new jobs!", they fail to mention that these will be at the lowest end of the pay spectrum, in one of the lowest paid parts of Britain [3]. Corporate Watch has this to add: "On average, the British Retail Planning Forum discovered in 1998 that every time a large supermarket opens, 276 jobs are lost. The New Economics Foundation has estimated that 50,000 spent by shoppers in an independent local store creates one job, whereas it takes 250,000 to do the same in a supermarket. This figure is also due to small local businesses employing other local small businesses as suppliers and for repair work, which supermarkets, for all their claims to support local communities, barely do at all.

Finding locally produced food in supermarkets is unusual, and even if it is labelled 'local', is still likely to have travelled the length and breadth of the country before reaching the nearest supermarket to the place where it was produced (See SchNEWS 283). Almost all food sold in supermarkets is transported to distribution depots around the country before being distributed back to supermarkets. Sainsbury's, for example, has only 12 depots that distribute chilled goods. Besides, the 'Just in Time' delivery system, by which products are rushed to superstores as and when they are needed, means that trucks often travel only half full with only a couple of items. Besides the pollution implications of air and road freight, there are animal welfare and disease control implications". [4]

Why should our local environment and economy be forced to struggle or to go under, while outside corporations bleed it dry? And why has our "democratically elected" council put the interests of global monoculture before those of its local community? - Time for some direct action!

The Antidote

As an antidote to this pernicious plan to corporatise our city further, a group of local residents has got together to do something about the situation. Already a group called BUDD (Brighton Urban Design and Development) and the Green Party have campaigned hard against the superstore proposals, but there has been little direct action. So last year in May, the ball was set rolling by a day long occupation of the site. The event was aptly called "The May Bug Ball" and was initiated by the collaboration of CRU (Community Response Unit) and SPOR. It included such unlicensed delights as a costumed carnival procession with samba bands and a snarling carnival Dragon. A Maypole (complete with pixies), a wind and solar powered sound system, a kid's disco, a live music stage and the deeply satisfying sight of 50 police officers - who had repeatedly tried to shut us down with threats of violence - being drummed off site by 800 protesters full of the Beltane magic.

Exactly a year later the second wave of resistance is in full swing. This building (at the time of writing) has been occupied now for 3 months. In that time we have transformed it from an empty shell to a buzzing community centre and social space. Until Sainsbury's took us to court, (more of this later), we were open daily with a comprehensive exhibition about the proposed development, as well as displays about community-sensitive and sustainable alternatives. We ran creative workshops, including blacksmithing - using the building's built in forge, screen printing, a gallery, a cafe and coffee shop, a cinema, kid's activities - including discos for the local kids run by the kids themselves, a bookshop and info station, and local performance groups were able to build props and stage rehearsals.

We have also regularly picketed the nearby branch of Sainsbury's, given out information about the proposals and had a couple of "in-store" skirmishes with the twelve metre carnival dragon. On the first demo we had hand-painted a banner that turned the company's 'catch phrase' back upon itself, it read: "Sainsbury's - making life taste bitter". A security guard took it upon himself to defend the company's honour - punched a demonstrator and tried to knock another from a ladder, he then snatched the banner and refused to give it back.

Understandably irritated that the local community was not only saying no to the superstore proposal but actively countering it, Sainbury's then took us to court to seek repossession. We turned up to defend ourselves and won an adjournment on a point of high cunning (many thanks to our legal friends and the Advisory Service for Squatters for advice). This gave us more time and the satisfaction of arguing through a legal defence that worked. At the next hearing Sainsbury's and their team of lawyers were not going to be caught out again and managed to prepare a case that won them the right to immediate repossession. We had a week or so before it came into force, a week in which we drew up action plans and ideas for tactical antics. Tat gathering runs went out all over town, skips were emptied of timber and scrapyards plundered for steel. We went on fund raising missions, organised benefit nights and hunted out the talents that could advise us on all things from using welding equipment to legal advice on resisting arrest.*

Day and night the building became a hive of activity. The blacksmith's forge was fired up and the hammer and anvil were put to work - from glowing red iron bars, bolts and fittings were wrought. A team worked 'till dawn welding a reinforced superstructure into and around the door. Across the night bursts of fierce acrid light cut and fused the steel into solid immovable shapes. Cascades of molten sparks sprayed from the angle grinder and the pungent smell of burnt metal and ozone hung heavily in the air. Outside walls were daubed with messages of defiance and a banner was slung across the door that simply read "RESIST!"

Locked On

Then at midnight on Thursday 9th May 2002 the court order took effect - any that chose to disobey were now open to criminal charges. The barricade was locked into position and simultaneously our first press release went out.

The effect was instant, with the radio and TV calling us up at 5AM the following morning to arrange interviews and footage of the lock-ons. Some of us were barricaded inside, some formed a human chain across the outside, others unfurled banners from the roof. The bailiffs decided to play it cool and sent an undercover officer down to survey the situation. He kept his distance from the activity around the barricade - the sight of people being D-locked round the neck must have made him nervous - an eagle-eyed camera man spotted him and managed to gently squeeze him for information. He said that the bailiffs were undermanned for the job and would have to come back next week with reinforcements and the police.

Sure enough come Monday morning the eviction gang arrived with a crew of builders tooled up with crowbars.

They wandered around searching for a way over the high, barbed wired, perimeter wall. One finally managed to climb up and have a quick peek - but he soon jumped back down defeated. They huffed and they puffed through the cracks in the door but they couldn't blow it down. A police helicopter then arrived and began low sweeps of the area, presumably taking reconnaissance photos of the roof top and surrounding land. Finding no chink in our armour it flew back to its empty nest. After hissing through the door "We shall return..." the rest of the boys in blue (and fluorescent-acid-yellow) left, leaving the "law" unenforced and Sainsbury's still locked out.

So far they haven't come back, but there have been some intriguing developments...

All that next week we were getting prime time news coverage on TV, radio and in the local paper. It was then that the developers approached us and asked if we'd consider "going away" if they paid us - as they wanted to "avoid a scrap in public". Of course we declined and sent a clear message back - it's not money that makes the world go round but a force of nature!

Unable to shift us, Sainsbury's PR department got to work trying to soften up the opposition elsewhere. The very next weekend, at a local workers co-operative open day, they managed to pay 1000 to the event organisers to hang a large banner across the public park. By associating themselves with well respected environmental groups they perhaps thought that they could influence public opinion. Sainsbury's are no strangers to the mass manipulation of consensus, after all they are not, as the event organiser who excepted their cheque, put it - "our local shop" but one of Britain's most powerful corporations. Last year Lord Sainsbury (Sainsbury's largest share holder while being the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation and big time funder of GMO research - no conflict of interest there!) gave the Labour Party its single biggest "donation", (a total of 6 million in the last two years) [5]. The company runs controversial "cash for schools" campaigns (28 million in the past 6 years) [6], and high profile media advertising daily. This particular PR stunt however, backfired and the banner was immediately "subvertised" to replace the banner we had lost to the violent security guard at that recent supermarket action.

There is a coded knock on the door - the day shift has arrived with fresh supplies. My sleeping companions stir, and breakfast is prepared. We continue our impassioned conversations from the night before and it's decided that now's the time to come out from behind the barricade and strike while the iron's still hot...

Watch this space - or liberate your own.

Amanita Muscaria

Supermarkets are part of the problem - not the solution!

.For more info check: www.solarcity.co.uk/BUDD

. If you live in the Brighton area and object to the proposed development write to the Planning officer, Paul Vidler, and your MP and tell 'em what you think

. Boycott Sainsbury's and all other supermarkets and large food manufacturers. Spend your money in locally owned shops where the profit stays in the area.

. Support small, independent suppliers, processors and retailers.

. Support local farmers by using their farm shops, Organic box schemes, going to farmers markets.

. Encourage small retailers to stock locally produced food.

. Help set up new methods of distribution locally, eg. co-operatives for marketing local produce locally, delivery schemes.

. Buy imported goods only when they cannot be grown in this country

. Lobby for more help for farmers to convert to organic production.

. Grow your own vegetables.

. Take an interest in where your food comes from and what is in it.

* If you would like to help the campaign you can get a "BARRICADE" t-shirt from: info@spor.org.uk

Foot Notes:
[1] Brighton and Hove Council Housing Strategy Report 2001/2002
[2] ibid
[3] The average gross weekly income in Great Britain is 400.00 , the average for the South East is 423.00, in Brighton it is only 352.40. Source, NES table E15 1999
[4]www.corporatewatch.org.uk Company profiles-Food & Supermarkets-Sector Overview.htm