Last Hours Header Image

Notice! This is an archive version of Last Hours. It is no longer maintained or updated. Emails, addresses etc. may not be up to date.

LAST HOURS
ARCHIVE


archive categories


A to Z of articles

Creating Common Ground

November 18th, 2008 · post by anon · Make a comment

Creating Common Ground: A squatted community garden as a strategy for anti-capitalists

In May 2007, anarchists and other anti-capitalists based in Reading opened the squatted Common Ground Community Garden to the public for the first time, receiving support from all sides of their community, breaking an injunction & defying an eviction side by side with other local people. This is article provides analysis of the project from one of the activists involved.

2183800798_c0cb32342e.jpg

Creating a space like a squatted community garden allows normally atomised people to get together socially and chat, in itself a good thing. However, because of the way the space has been created, it also means much of that conversation focuses on the politics involved. Reading is already a highly developed town, with an economy centred on the retail/consumer and high-technology sectors. In addition to this, development is rampant. The resultant gentrification causes price increases, and long-time working-class residents are being pushed further and further out of the town. In September 2006, some members of Reading Grassroots Action had already squatted a building as a base for our activity. With shops, offices and luxury flats on one side, and Victorian working-class housing and council estates on the other, our squat seemed to symbolise the ‘border’ between the ‘developed, gentrified and consumerist Reading’ and the Reading where ordinary people lived their lives. As it was pretty obvious that the Council planned to sell the open space next to us to developers for yet more expensive apartments, this seemed to be a perfect space and project to open up communication between ourselves and our neighbours about these issues. Inspiration from New York gave us our idea and work was started in January 2007.

Despite many of us being strongly concerned about ecology, this was not really the central motive for creating the garden. This is largely due to the expectation that the garden would probably be destroyed by the authorities in the not too distant future, despite our intention to resist this. However, we definitely had in mind the lack of green space in our town and the disconnection we have with our natural environment. Also, for both financial and ecological reasons, much of the garden was created using stuff others were throwing away. We received things through the ‘Freecycle’ network as well as by finding things lying around the streets or in skips. We even managed to get all our fencing for free from a household who had just had theirs replaced. In itself though, this would never have been enough, or at least not in our timescale, and it is frustrating not being able to get on with the work until you get lucky and find the thing you need. So we also relied upon donations from family, friends and neighbours and contributed some money ourselves. All in, the garden cost about £200.

While most of the garden was finished fairly early and looking beautiful, we just managed to get the last areas finished to a pretty decent standard the day before opening day. At the last minute (like usual!) we hung a banner on the fence, put up posters and distributed about 600 flyers door-to-door advertising our opening day on Saturday 19th May. Two days before this however, we were informed that the Council were taking out an injunction “preventing the opening day from taking place” and that they would be seeking a possession order for the land and buildings. Our response was immediate – we distributed another 500 letters telling our neighbours about this and making it clear we would go ahead regardless, giving the same message to the local media and inviting all to defend the garden from owners who clearly hadn’t given a damn for five years, and to stand up for the community’s right to decide what happens in our area.

Early on the opening day morning, pixies removed the front fence, opening the garden up onto the street fully. About midday, two security guards turned up to serve the Council’s injunction. After five minutes of being ignored they did the sensible thing and went and sat in their car. It’s got to be said, they were great and just stayed out of the way all day! Then we just waited for people to come along, and we weren’t disappointed – the response from the public was fantastic! Through the day, many neighbours came through the garden, breaking the law to show their support and looking amazed at the difference to the area. Rumours are, we even had one local cop show her support on our petition! Overall we had about 200 people through the garden at various times, as well as the same number of signatures on a petition (supporting the garden and demanding community control over the land) and £100 in the donation bucket. The celebration in the evening was great! About 100 people enjoyed a great BBQ and plenty of drinks late into the evening. The best thing was the diversity; activists and punks alongside neighbours aged 8 to 80! And the tunes were fantastic, again ranging from grey-haired country and bluegrass artists, to gravel voiced acoustic punk rock.

After the hungover tidy up, the garden was visited by many more neighbours over the next few months, all equally supportive. Through this project we made a conscious effort to engage well with the media. Feeling that it would be difficult to represent the garden in a negative light, we figured we had nothing to lose and much to gain and, looking back, this approach has been really successful. The local press have run great articles about the garden and the surrounding court cases, and a few locals have written letters in our favour to the media and the council. We’ve even been on television now, as ITN Thames-Valley and BBC South-East have run brilliant pieces, featuring the Council sounding a bit silly, our neighbours sounding great and allowing us to get across our points about the lack of green space, the high house prices and Council neglect versus our self-organisation and direct-action.

Even though the Council won a possession order and we faced eviction, that’s not the point! Positivity was high, and things weren’t over yet! The garden was still being opened everyday and we planned to resist the eviction, with community support we hoped. Although we stood little chance of winning in the long-term, to beat the first eviction attempt would strongly increase our collective confidence and maybe that of our community.

The conversations this project had allowed us to have with many of our neighbours has strongly encouraged us, and the garden has definitely been a space where people could at least begin to recognise commonality, and a common enemy. Certainly, a few people took the view that whilst we have done a great thing by improving land left as a junkyard and providing a green space for our community, property rights are sacred and that we should leave when the Council wanted to actually do something with the land. However, many more agreed outright with what we said, and it’s been great to see how widely held is the view that the council’s model of development – unaffordable flats, roads, expensive offices, hotels and shopping centres i.e. capitalist development, gentrification and speculation – is not what local people want or need. Even some of the people living in the posh flats over the road have agreed with us! Conversations about local democracy and community control have also been very positive and to hear a couple of our neighbours use the word ‘anarchist’ in a positive way was really nice.

Wednesday 20th June, was supposed to be eviction day, the day when the council would take back control of our land and regain the ability to flog it off to the highest bidder, for development of yet more unaffordable prison block flats. However, it didn’t go according to their plan…

Council officials showed up early in the morning, about 9am. However, we were already busy barricading the building that has been our home for the last 9 months and our beautiful squatted garden. Reporters and television cameras showed up, taking interviews from us and our neighbours for local newspapers and regional television news. A mixture of activists and local neighbours held a picket out the front of the building, while others risked arrest to sit in the sunshine, defending the garden. The council officials made a fairly desperate offer of alternative land – rejected straight away – before disappearing for the rest of the day (they went on to offer this land to the Katesgrove Residents Association – KRA – (4), who we are now working with). So, for a while at least, we had won. In the evening we held a public BBQ and absolutely fantastic acoustic punk-rock show. Again, several neighbours stuck around all night having a drink and enjoying the music, and the tunes were amazing. Big thanks to the artists who travelled down to play for free!

Once again, the best thing about the day was experiencing how much community support this project had and still has. Lots of local residents visited during the day, telling us how much they love the garden and use it all the time. Some were even willing to risk arrest in the morning by staying in the garden past eviction time with us. Another neighbour told me in the evening how a Labour councillor canvassing the area had been desperate to get away when she passionately told him her feelings about the garden and the squatters who have made it. Some residents have even showed an interest in anti-capitalist/anarchist politics, including ex-Labour Party members who agreed all political parties are the same now and ‘this’ (i.e. community direct-action like the garden) is the only alternative.

In late July, the Council unsuccessfully attempted a second eviction and once again gardeners, neighbours and activists mobilised to defend the garden from eviction, defying the law and again seeing Council officials retreating empty handed (OK, so we also had a little help from the floods taking up the authorities’ time!). And in early August, despite intimidation as the Council threatened unnamed organisers with jail, several people enjoyed a community picnic and arts day in the garden, creating a brand new mozaic pathway.

Finally, in October 2007 we were evicted and the site closed down. Not to be deterred we briefly regained control of the site and buildings in November, before three activists were arrested and held for 8 hours for trying to re-open the garden, before the cops realised we were not doing anything illegal. Over the following months, we left the place along, until a callout for ‘global days of action for squats and autonomous spaces’ in April 2008 inspired us to carry on. Throughout March, we once again quietly worked to tidy up the space, and then announced our plan – a BBQ and music show at Common Ground – and our Plan B – if the authorities stop us, we’ll do the same thing right outside their offices! April 12th ended up being one of the most successful days in the garden, as the authorities totally bottled it and didn’t come anywhere near us, while a great day was had in the garden listening to tunes from the likes of Kelly Kemp, PJ & Gaby and Neil Sutherland.

Over the summer of 2008, we began working much closer with the residents association, and agreed that in the end a long term victory should ideally result from Common Ground. So, we (RGA and KRA) have been meeting with the council and viewing the sites on offer. Then the council announced it’s intention to demolish the buildings and site in October. At this point, it was agreed that with support somewhat decreased (a few months with the garden closed had made people think it was all over) and us itching to get stuck into new projects, we should agree a demolition date with the council, holding one last community event and continue to pursue legal longterm gardens.

So, on September 6th, we held our last event at Common Ground. This event was organised by more people, including other local activists and cultural workers, a local graffiti crew and the residents association. The garden was decorated with amazing graffiti murals, bands were booked, food cooked and the area postered. Despite driving rain in the morning, we managed to rig up some cover. In the end around 100 people ended up enjoying the BBQ and live music, with diverse tunes from folk and dub to the King Blues acoustic ska-punk. We had a couple of last local media articles, some of the best in fact, covering our politics much more fully than before.

And then it was over. Last month, the contractors moved in and demolished everything and we are sure that, with recession biting hard, the site will sit empty for a few more years. Meanwhile, the squatters that lived there have moved round the corner – it’s not as if there is a shortage of buildings! – and we still stay in touch. In RGA, we are working closely with the residents association to try and see at least one long-term community garden created in the area (getting the council to do anything is not exactly easy, and now we have lost our bargaining chip it is harder still – but we know we will succeed if the community wants us to). We are also about to launch a community survey with them to find out people’s priorities for the area. Beyond this, RGA are looking at following the direct-action casework model – using solidarity and direct-action to help people secure housing, repairs, benefits etc – pioneered by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and now being pursued very successfully by the London and Edinburgh Coalition’s Against Poverty (www.ocap.ca, www.lcap.org.uk and www.edinburghagainstpoverty.org.uk).

We did make some mistakes during the Common Ground project. We had some big internal fights, resulting from a lack of formal organisational structure, but to a large degree we solved this over time, experimenting with different structures and organisational methods, including our first experiences of electing officers (we had to elect a ‘foreman’ to make sure work got done, but we employed anarchist principles of mandated delegation and recall to maintain effective democracy). Externally, with hindsight, we also realise we didn’t put enough effort into chasing and retaining supporters and potential members. We gained two new members out of the project (though these just replaced others who moved away) but feel that had we put more effort into this, we could have gained several more, plus a large supporters list. However, we have definitely learned from these mistakes. Internally RGA now has a much more formal democratic structure and process and is becoming more organised all the time. At the same time we are studying other movements in order to learn from their mistakes as well as ours, avoid repeating them and hopefully be even more successful in the future. At the moment, we are particularly looking at the ’Organiser Model’ employed by unions in membership recruitment, retention and participation.

But overall, Common Ground was an incredibly successful project, and has set us up well in our neighbourhood for future organising and projects to build anti-capitalism. I certainly look back on it with enormous pride and extent heartfelt thanks to everybody who helped make it happen.

Comments OffThis entry belongs to the following categories: Articles · resistance