The Voyage of The Black Frog, being some brief tales of the Camberwell Squatted Centre.
Written in a rush by one person from the Black Frog crew, alright?
I don’t think it is at all possible to summarise the journey we all took when we opened up, pulled together and ran a squatted centre in Camberwell, South London. What can be hastily written of something both practical but also emotional? What can be said can only be to encourage others to take a similar voyage so that where we are filled with local centres and the possibilities that are opened up by opening up dead spaces.
We climbed up a high ladder on March 10th 2007 to access an open window of an empty building that we had been watching for a few months. It was an old local caff that stretched across two shop fronts with flats above. Descending through dark and damp rooms we made it to the bottom, a former café now playing its empty part in the process of land and property speculation. We knew the owners of the place were a dodgy offshore firm registered in the Virgin Islands. What we didn’t know was the comedy of errors we were about to play a role in. If only there was space to tell of the police evicting Sean Davey, a guy who claimed all along to be the ‘owner’ who got himself locked in with us after barging in quite unannounced. How rude! Space needed to tell of his appearance in court, without a pen or legal advice, of adjournments and mystery witnesses from Geneva! Space to detail his frequent appearances and disappearances depending on who was asking of him, cops, judges, squatters etc.
But who cares about ownership or owners when for almost six months the building truly felt like our own. The group of folks who came together as the Black Frog Collective were a mixed group of local squatters, ex-squatters, renters, radicals, dreamers and mouthy bastards. We didn’t always get along, in fact some of the weekly building meetings caused us to suspect we might actually lose the will to live. Two hours, three hours, debates about minute details, political lines, ‘policies’, personality clashes, differences. But we began to see this as a beautiful part of the place for none of us are perfectly formed human beings free from flaws, imperfections and insecurities. If we have learned that freedom must be taken and experimented with, then the voyage of The Black Frog took us all into uncharted dangerous but beautiful waters. We learned that we must speak freely to each other and that this was something that has been knocked out of us for fear of the consequences. What we found was that speaking freely strengthens affinity more than it dissolves it.
Part of what makes a squatted space great is the learning process that goes with it. Some of us had a lot of experience of both squatting and what we as individuals and a group wanted to achieve. For a few other people, this was to be something completely new to anything they had experienced before. The more experienced people did not dominate nor give off a cynical air of ‘been there, done that, didn’t work’. The less experienced folks did not necessarily have a ‘we can do it all and smash the state’ attitude. What we had was a collective effort where everyone began to inspire everyone else by listening, talking, watching, learning, pitching in.
In our five and half months, we ran a weekly bar and vegan café often themed around food or some political struggle. Each week was something different and fun, from free films once a week – documentaries and feature films seriously dug out of the woodwork to keep us inspired (Raise The Rates, Work Slowly, Rize, The Gleaners, Occupying Nothingness, Amandla! and so on) – to workshops on bike wheel building, sticker making, seed swapping, Polish and Spanish lessons, practical squatting. Events like a mini-radical bookfair, a haircuts for all afternoon, decorating days, talks on Iceland, Palestine, Underground Lambeth, Camberwell radical history and G8 anti-fascism. One week might see a rocking No Frills Band supporting the Brixton Ritzy strikers who came and cooked and talked about the strike or a rump-shaking Electro Rebel disco caff where the hardcore got fresh to early hip-hop jams. We did put on a few shows like Ghost Mice, I Made This Mistake, PJ + Gaby, Music for One, Butchers Boy but we tried to steer clear of making the place too gig oriented, the space being small but also it being a squatted place for all .i.e not everyone digs punk rock.
his is an important point was we tried to keep the place as accessible to any and anyone as possible. In fact, we kept the front door open on event nights despite it being a little bit risky. We just felt that we would deal with anything untoward, as and when it came up or later by discussion with the folks concerned. In the same vein, we held an Open Day in May, inviting local people in for cakes and to see what was possible resulting in two new fresh faced Black Frog crew.
Oh there is something inevitable about squatting and that is the free rude awakening you can get at 4am one Thursday morning on 30th August after losing legal ‘possession’ of the place. The Black Frog residents were turfed out by bailiffs in the end, as is the end of most squatting centre stories. What can we say? There just isn’t space here to go into everything that feels like it should be said. How can we answer those great questions that came up: Are you free to do whatever you like in a free space? Why do people make a dogma out of the number of ‘local’ people coming in, or worse, what some activists call ‘normal’ people? Is it a social centre or a squatted centre? Words on a page cannot do justice to what we felt and lived at the Black Frog and we all know there’s no justice in the world.
Face to face is better, so maybe we will have these discussions at the next Black Frog. See you there! Or better still squat your own place and we will pop round for a cuppa!
For more details (of the past and the future centre), our website has a load of photos, texts and stuff on it.