I thought I would never squat again. Leaving the smoke, the tube, the grit and determination behind, I had happily slipped back behind the veil of complacency and bowed my head, immersed in the daily grind and transfixed with the everyday. Stressed out with bills, family issues and frustration with the absolute futility of it all, those were secret memories I cherished, memories nobody here in this life could understand. Held close to my heart, they slipped out softly in my quiet moments and enveloped me slowly in their warmth, like a midsummer dawn. Or a big fart.
I remember the sheer insanity of squatting in London’s East End, the infamous Tower Hamlets, the feeling of freedom so sweet the smog of London tasted like the sweetest fresh air. The sun beamed hotter every day and the long nights stretched out forever. The acid, the parties, the music, the food – but the purpose. Most of all, the purpose. That feeling that what you did mattered. That security of knowing you were ALIVE. And not just alive, but one of many who understood. Who were also free. All on the same page, in the same boat, striving for the same end, fuelled by that same desperate desire to show others – LOOK! Life is here! Its this! Its community, its love and sharing and understanding and teamwork. Its not EastEnders and Council Tax and childcare and take-out fucking coffee.
I remember it, I remember it so well. And yet here I am – well and truly buried in exactly that life. I take my two year old on walks to the park where we feed the ducks cheerios and I carry a Styrofoam cup with ‘Bev’ scrawled on it because apparently being a barista requires fuck all listening skills whatsoever. I push a pram and obsess over how far my next lot of money will get me and whether to prioritise food or electricity if it really comes down to it. I remember so much, and I’ve forgotten everything.
Yesterday I saw an article about a group calling themselves the Love Activists who had squatted the Old Bank of England on Castle Street in Liverpool, right on the steps of the town hall. They were housing homeless people, feeding them and helping them wash clothes. The more I read the more that little spark was fed until burning with curiosity, I arrived on their doorstep. It was a beautiful old Grade A listed building with huge pillars and ornate balconies. Activists and residents smiled and waved from the open windows, as bemused businessmen and women peered up from the streets below. The sunshine was glorious, and the omen felt good. Huge banners swayed gently in the warm breeze; “WE NEED SANCTUARY.”
As I rounded the building I wondered who I might meet at the door, and what it would take for me to get inside. It had been a long time since I knocked on the door of a squat, but as it happened it opened as I got to it, and the familiar Vendetta mask peered out from behind the door. I was beckoned inside and as the bolts and bars slid into place behind me, I felt that old familiar itch to explore. Instinctively I threw my hood over my head and ventured up the spiralling stairs to the kitchen where I was beckoned in for coffee. Most of the people milling around turned out to be local people who had been sleeping on the streets and had come for the offer of a warm place to stay.
I was shown around the building by one guy who had just come out of prison two weeks before. He was staying in a hostel and had to report there as part of his license conditions, but he had thrown his heart and soul into the project and was a huge inspiration to me. He had been clean of heroin for sixteen months and was determined to keep fighting. I shared with him the tragic story of my amazing friend Gray who fought the same demons, but sadly lost his struggle.
I had been told the utilities had been registered so with running water the building was rolling along smoothly enough considering it had only been open for four days. It was an amazing accomplishment in such a short time. The building itself was a maze of rooms and corridors that seemed to stretch out endlessly, and round every corner was another face with another story to offer.
The people in this building were amazing, diverse and full of life. All had different stories and experiences, every one of them determined for something better. I felt ashamed of the apathy I had come to accept. I felt I had betrayed myself, and these people, for taking a step back from activism.
I left about 3pm and came back around 8pm after eating and getting together some clothes and shoes to donate. A meeting was called just as I arrived and a good half an hour later the combination of fifty activists and residents filled the room. With a lot of patience the old hand-up-to-speak routine was more or less implemented and a wide range of voices were heard.
There was discussion on what the space should be used for, what could be done about the graffiti inside and outside, a fire safety register, cleaning and key-holding rotas. Not a stone was left unturned, it appeared. The most interesting contribution was from a man named Peter, who looked very out of place in an expensive suit. Especially considering he couldn’t sit down in it.
Peter explained he was a lawyer who worked for a firm in the next street over. He had walked past the building and sympathised with the cause. Peter was an activist himself since the age of thirteen and had been involved in the Occupy Movement. He explained to us that there were homeless people who slept in the doorway of his office, and that he had spent the day debating with almost everyone who worked there the good we were doing for these people and the difference it was making. Peter told us that although he was initially met with a lot of resistance, and still got some, the majority had softened to his argument and his company now wanted to represent our case in court, for free, as a show of support.
Peters enthusiasm was undeniable, and it was exciting to be taken seriously by somebody who knew the legal system and the challenges we faced, but was still prepared to put his time and effort into the struggle. It made him one of us, and I loved him for it. Shortly after the larger meeting we held another, smaller, upstairs with just Peter, his friend Anna and the activists. We discussed a press release, witness statements and the importance of health and safety in the building as the three biggest immediate factors for the court hearing in five days time. Roles were assigned, though I didn’t volunteer, as I wasn’t yet sure what sort of time I would be able to commit with the baby and a new job, but I was looking forward to being involved and hoped there was a way I could really make myself useful.
It ended as soon as it began. I was working over the next three nights, and had the baby for the three after that and by the time I had chance to go down and make myself useful they had been to court and had been served a 24hr eviction notice. All of the homeless people had left the building, some hung around outside where a soup kitchen soldiered on for a few nights before being roughly dismantled by the good old boys in fluorescent yellow.
Obviously they’d got bored of being stood round a bank in the freezing cold and had decided to give themselves something to do. A reporter from the Echo scurried round, popping under and over the raucous like a ferret snapping shots as he went, cheered on for one particularly good angle of a poor woman who was arrested seemingly for dropping some books.
The Echo had loved the activists at the start. They were there almost every day, in and out. They had plugged them to the masses, but as the order came and the activists didn’t go they became disillusioned and began what has materialised today as some sort of smear campaign. I thought back to that meeting with the activists and Peter, our saving grace. What had happened? I read in the paper that the activists had requested an adjournment in order to give them time to find legal representation. They had had a lawyer sat there in the room, offering his services, what had happened?
To tell the truth I don’t know exactly what happened to Peter, all I remember is that meeting. He explained that the heart of Liverpool was there to be won, as it always had been.
He gave us some home truths about what we needed to do:
– We had to paint over all the graffiti. How or why this was ever allowed to happen I do not know, but the two main defences I got were ‘don’t you decorate your home when you move into it?’ and ‘it was one bad egg who was asked to leave.’ You have to understand that this place was being sold as a refuge for the homeless, a safe haven for those is need. The people there did a good job of looking after these people, there is no doubt about that, so much more could have been done if only someone had thought of a plan. My answers to those arguments are 1, yes I do decorate my house, I tend not to scrawl expletives in three foot letters in my living room though, fucks up my feng shui, and 2, that is simply bullshit.
– We had to make every attempt to make the building fit to pass fire safety regulations. The scale of this task surely should have alerted even the dimmest members that this building was not fit for purpose. This is a Grade A listed building. They are heavily protected – this is the very reason it was chosen, as two fingers to austerity and the Tories and it was great and it made us feel better. But any political ideology was lost, because they had told people it was a homeless shelter, and it was very obviously unfit to be one.
– We had to make a press release, which was to focus on the good we were doing for the people there, collecting witness statements etc. Members of the group refuted this, with suggestions ranging from ‘lets all go to court in pig masks’ to ‘lets stick it to the bankers.’ Everybody was missing the point. They were there for the people.
And so the notice came through. 10-20 officers surrounded the bank and the siege began. I don’t use that word lightly because there did come a point when a concerted effort was made to starve them out by refusing them access to fresh water or food. Every now and then a flurry of activity, the call would go out for a show of support in the face of an imminent eviction. I would do my best to reassure people that with no High Court warrant the police wouldn’t be entering the building and it was highly unlikely to happen there and then. But it pissed me off that when I first arrived I had said to people, I have done this before – I can help you, and had been shrugged off. I had spoken to people about the Advisory Service for Squatters and they assured me it was still running – why STILL had nobody contacted them for advice?
It ended finally, as they all do, with more of a fizzle than a bang. The black flag waved from the balcony, the banners now limp and weathered, the Love Activists flag atop the mast looked tired and weak. The eviction went ahead with police forcing the door, and the activists were unconditionally bailed until August. There was not much news was made of it at the time, it just seemed to tail off. One or two of the homeless people I believe were found new accommodation, but out of the sixty that once slept there most were back on the streets. They had great stories and loved the adventure, but in the end it was just something else that promised help and failed them, because they were not equipped or prepared for the task.
A few weeks later they moved to the docks where those grandiose cruise ships, The Three Queens were set to attract a lot of tourism. They set up camp with tents and again, fed the hungry and provided community. A few weeks later they moved again to a bar called Mello Mello, which had previously been run by activists, and I did chuckle when I read about it, wondering if they ever needed to change the locks getting in. Either way, it again seemed opportunistic and badly planned.
I walked home, recognising the same sting of years ago – the bubble pops, reality comes crashing into view. The world has not been changed by your brief burst of anger. I walked down Stanley road, looked out past the tobacco warehouses and recycling plants down onto the bleak Mersey, where smoke stacks, strewn through the industrial maze, belched out the sour smell of factory waste and huge wind turbines lumbered slowly around as the sun sank low on the horizon. The sun bounced off the railway, the whole track glowed bronze in the soft dying of it.
I walked past rows and rows of disused shops and empty houses, I walked past closed community centres and care homes. I thought to myself, why aren’t they squatting here? Why are they taking those people to the town hall, where they are most vulnerable?
They are us, they should be brought into our communities and sheltered on our turf. We know the banks are theirs, we’ve always known, its never been a secret. But the schools, the hospitals, the clinics, the community centres, the football clubs, the trains, the buses, the cafes and libraries they are OURS. They have always been ours, and we should be taking them and using them for their purpose. We should be saying NO – we need this, it is ours and we are taking it. You cannot have it, we can prove so easily that it MAKES sense for us to be here.
The activists left, went back to their own cities or on to pastures new. They left a new small group behind giving the old rinse and repeat, but the bulk moved on, and I believe the reason is excitement. It is exciting to fight for what you believe is right, it makes you feel that something, that sense of meaning that I remember so well. But when you just jump from fix to fix, what sort of trail are you leaving behind?
It is time to be realistic. I would say to every activist I meet, go home. Go home and knock on your neighbours doors. Find what you need together, go out into your streets and take it, because it is yours. You don’t have to have a flare and a face mask, you work hard day in and day out for the right to life and so many in this country are starving and dying under this corrupt agenda. Help yourself, help each other.
One day I will walk down my street and the place will feel alive again, instead of this haunting spectre of poverty and deprivation. We have nothing to lose, my neighbours and me, nothing they can take from us now – they have our future in a vice.
We must save ourselves, and each other. That wont happen in the Bank of England on the steps of City Hall. It will happen at home, in our communities – because that’s what we should be strengthening and protecting.