In Hackney, east London, two Georgian houses are under threat. The adjacent building is currently occupied by the group Everything4Everyone but is facing imminent eviction – and demolition. There is still no sign of the bailiffs, but helicopters frequently fly over, and cctv cameras keep a beady eye on the occupiers.
The buildings, which we have come to know as “the theatre”, are among the earliest ever built in Dalston Lane and are listed by Hackney Council as having special character and interest. Despite this, they want to demolish them. The reason? A state-of-the-art underground station is planned for next door. Property speculation in the area has rocketed, and it will continue to increase as construction of the station approaches. Add to this the London Olympics – to be celebrated down the road – and you get the picture. This pattern of council sell-offs and gentrification is not confined to Hackney. Typical gentrification attracts rich people to allegedly deprived areas, by closing down public services or small businesses that working class people use, and sees private developers build luxury flats in their place. It drives local people out of an area that they can no longer afford to live in, and where fewer public services are left on offer.
Making our voices heard
In Hackney the local residents do not want a state-of-the-art boxlike business or commercial centre. However, the wishes of the local community have been ignored and in one case even silenced, when the public were denied entry to a supposedly “public” council meeting. When people are denied the right to influence the decisions of their “democratic” officials and when they are met with a negative response from the police when trying to make their voices heard, they are left with two possible paths. One option is to turn to the courts and seek to force the public institutions to at least respect their own laws and guidelines. The environmental and community action company, Organisation for Promotion of Environmental Needs Limited, OPEN, took this path. The other option is to go and occupy the premises to prevent the demolition. This is what Everything4Everyone did.
We entered the building the night before the council was planning to come in and make the final preparations for demolition. They arrived in the morning, only to find that the theatre and adjacent buildings had been squatted. In response they did two things: they chased the squatters with their construction tools until they had to escape onto the roof, and they took us to court, but not to the county court – which is where usually Interim Possession Orders are issued – they went to the High Court. The difference would have been that, if the court had accepted their case and we had resisted the eviction, we would have faced six-month prison sentences. But the court didn’t accept the council’s case; council officers then managed to book a slot in the county court for two days later. While we waited for the eviction’s legal process to run its course, we repaired the building we had secured, rebuilt the staircase that the council had destroyed in order to make the building uninhabitable, and carried out other general repairs.
For two weeks one of us stayed on the roof of the theatre. Since then we have hosted Food Not Bombs events, guerrilla screenings at the square opposite, samba band sessions on the streets and, every Friday, we have been organising a cafe with open mic sessions. And now the final injunction that prevented the council from demolishing the buildings has just run out. We have never been short of people bringing us food or tools, but since we put out an alert via Indymedia the response has been massive. We had a special night of celebration on 20 October beginning in the square opposite with activities for kids, bike repair and samba workshops, and ending up inside the theatre itself for open mic jam and community cinema sessions.
Resistance in daily life
Resistance happens every day, not just with every eviction, not even with every occupation, but in our everyday lives. The group that came together to defend the theatre will not end here, even if we do get evicted. We are already planning to open another space like this one and make it available for the community like this one. Anyone wanting to participate should just turn up at the theatre or contact us by email (below). At the moment we are keeping the cafe open every day from 12 to 7pm, so this is a good time to visit and to talk with the people involve in the space.
See also: http://opendalston.blogspot.com/
(published in Peace News)