Inside London’s Poshest Squat: Unedited Version
This is the unedited version of the Evening Standard article. We think this shows the issues faced with mainstream media propaganda. As you can see, the politics are there.
Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians.
Pop-up dining might not excite restaurant critics much any more, but my meal on Tuesday night comes as a pleasant surprise. I’m on the first floor of the Institute of Directors’ former building on Pall Mall eating a tasty spiced okra, spinach and tofu dish and rice. It’s BYO, so it’s lucky I had picked up four tins of Carlsberg on the way, and the bar of Bourneville I share out coincidentally fits the vegan menu and philosophy of this place. Most of the ingredients are “skipped” from supermarket bins and similar food will be taken round to local homeless people the next day. What the venue lacks in décor – there are no tables or chairs and harsh strip lighting – is made up for by my fellow diners, an engaging anarchist collective who have been squatting the building for a week.
There’s Joe, a callow young northerner in a red beanie and hoodie who says he spent time sleeping rough on a Darlington roundabout before coming to London and speaks carefully and articulately in rigorous academic analysis; Paul from Lincolnshire, a leading light of the group who jokes about decisions being taken by majority rule “as in a
federal monarchy” and greets me wearing a police cap (when I ask if it’s real, he takes it off and reveals an apparently genuine name-tag inside – but the luckless constable’s name is “WILL BURN”). There’s Aaron, white and with dreadlocks who reassessed his life after release from prison and having kids, and K, an “anarcho-primitivist” with a patch on his sweatshirt showing a hand grasping a carrot who with gentle ardour decries the rate at which species are dying out. Sylvie, a Goldsmith’s student says she’s been kicked out of her godparents’ south London home and admits she’s been struggling to keep up with essay writing alongside unsettled squatting life since she joined the crew a few weeks and buildings ago. Rav the chef is a Punjabi Londoner and a recent history graduate from SOAS whose mum used to squat in the Sixties. He has a youth worker’s relaxed enthusiasm and outlines the house rules for me – “no racism, no sexism, no homophobia; no hard drugs or writing on walls”.
From an older generation is Cato, black and with a Brummie accent, who grew up in care and has worked as a security guard and a gym instructor and been a photojournalist for 20 years. Wise-cracking Irishman Kevin – “the police put together two phones and an Irish
accent, and they think they’ve got al-Qaeda” – cites Al Capone and tells a story about coming across an assembly of freemasons; muscly spoken word performer Zeb has two kids and speaks passionately about the decay of working class communities from Paisley to St Anne’s in Nottingham which have only got worse over the last 20 years. As Tom, an activist of seven years’ standing who sees the work of “agents” everywhere, puts it, “We’re not affiliated with Class War but we like their posters”.
This is the 17th building the squatters have occupied, and they have offshoots in other places such as Sweets Way in Barnet where a housing protest is underway. They’ve come here from Ingestre Place in Soho, “opening” this building in a hurry as they thought they were going to be evicted. Before that they were in the NatWest bank at the bottom of
Charing Cross Road, reportedly sold to GreenCap investment company for a few pounds as a result of RBS’s travails, until police came and forced them out on Christmas Eve (“What a Scrooge thing to do!” says Cato) It’s a beautiful building with a central stone staircase spiralling to the ceiling with the cross section of a rounded quadrilateral. Paul beckons me over to see it, exclaiming “look at it this – bourgeois shit! Who can afford to rent a place like this?” The
group is well aware of the potential of being in landmark buildings. “I’d like to be taking mansions right now but we can’t unless it’s a
housing protest, and that’s a grey area” says Paul. “We figured out, it’s not what you’re doing, it’s the buildings you take that are
important. You can be in a huge building in Soho and no-one notices. It’s because we’re on Pall Mall and are putting out banners.”
At the bottom of the stairs is a leaflet table, organized by Joe, displaying rousing titles like Rebel City, Organise! and Angry Women
Win. The group currently is trading as the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarianism, or ANAL – “We are taking on the pseudo-seriousness of Left orthodoxy” says Tom. “I was going to translate it into German and use that acronym instead” – but is also toying with SHA, Squatter and Homeless Autonomy as a “snappy and
On the first night I was there we stand in the stairwell and talk, in the best traditions of university halls. Next door in the main space they’re playing Edward Snowden film Citizen Four. The squatters are amused at the press coverage – the Guardian “liberals” who they suspect don’t like the word anarchism very much, the mixed verdict of the Standard, some amazed how much of a “non-hatchet job it was”, others thinking it “condescending – but you might not see it”; annoyance at the Spectator for missing the point by claiming they had taken the “wrong building”: we’re squatters, we can’t just walk into the current IOD! Joe has some harsh words when it comes to the police – “In the Army, you’re taught you can’t understand [the enemy]. The police are employed to use violence against people in the same territory, in similar circumstances, which makes it all the more unforgivable. It’s difficult to describe people involved in public order policing as
human. There’s simply no point trying to convert cops.” The chat is punctuated by Don, another ex-con, who first emerges wearing an Irish tricolour and reappears at regular intervals to complain about the
light in his room being broken and to decry his colleagues’ “fucking supremacism”. Cato talks about his life, including the abuse he and schoolmates suffered, leading to a famous class action in which he was the only one not to participate as he was out of contact. Later he takes me upstairs to show me the room where the squatters have made banners and “we’ve appropriated from the building more banner-making material”, projector screens ready to be cut up. Some spray-paint has leached into the carpet where someone has forgotten to put some protection down, in contrast to the rest of the building which is neat and in good order. “There’s a generation gap – the young ones are totally indisciplined. They make the excuse they have mental health issues…
I’ve done the worst fucking shit. For six years, I was in a gang called the Townies. My life was stealing, fighting and dancing. If I let off, they’d be nothing left.” Later in the evening, I meet John – bearded, smart and media savvy, desperate for some publication to give squatting some serious, positive coverage. “There’s no-one looking at the causes, just the symptoms. There are tens of thousands of buildings in this country people don’t know they have access to. I feel so passionately about the issues, I’d give everything up to do the story”.
Next day there is excitement about the “Blockupy” movement which has marched on the new HQ of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt – pictures of burning police cars and activists scaling a skyscraper. “wish i was one of them” posts one of the squatters on Facebook. You could fly there in time for the end of the demo, someone remarks. K is eating a tasty-looking iced pastry. Paul and Joe eagerly scan the collective’s Facebook page at one of two laptops set up in the main ground floor space – they now have 500 Likes, up from 200 when they moved in they
I wander up to the front of the building, far from where the squatters are set up and see the impressively barricaded front door which I had dopily pressed the bell to the previous night. Passers-by look at the posters in the windows or up at the banners and flags with a mixture of expressions. I wave at a girl with blue hair; she smiles back ecstatically. “She’s obviously with us, with that hairstyle” says
Cato. “But they all turn into the establishment”. He has harsh words for the political classes across the party divide, making an honourable exception for Peter Hain. “It’s like it used to be with records – you’ve got two people looking at each other, wondering if it’s safe to dance. You want to ask, aren’t you feeling it? You’ve got to feel the music first. You have all these people saying, I used to squat, I used to be an activist. What’s this “used to be”? If you want
to be a middle-class activist, with all the comforts of life, you can – but there’s a way of doing it better. The problem nowadays is being sold everything”.
People start arriving. One young woman who trained in architecture at the Bartlett is making a documentary about housing; she’s just been interviewing people living in canal boats where lack of moorings and increasing charges are fast removing one affordable alternative to renting. She’s come with a black jazz vocalist from Austin, Texas with a affable manner and an impressive chest tattoo who has been in town three weeks – people pitch in with recommendations of musicians and
nights he should find out about. I go off in search of mushrooms, chickpeas and broccoli for a vegan food run to the homeless – when I get back, a guy on a mobility scooter with speech difficulties is drawing up to the back of the building. “How do I get in to the
occupation?”, he asks with a great effort of will. I tell him how long the protesters have been there and how nice I’ve found them. “Good. Awesome” he says. The lift arrives to take him in, but it turns out there’s a corner in the passageway too sharp for him to negotiate.
We go up to a meeting room – Room 101, amusingly enough – for a talk by Adam of the Anarchist Federation. A black piece of fabric marked with an anarchist symbol hangs artfully above the fireplace and we sprawl
ourselves on the luxurious corporate carpet. Adam has a background in anti-fascist organising and is scathing about the political factions who he used to associate with: “the Trotskyite and Marxist Left had their experiment and failed, they should be dead”. He rebuts the view of anarchism as innately disorganised and quotes Italian anarchist
Malatesta that “organisation, far from creating authority, is the only use for it”. Cato comes up to warn that the cops are paying a visit
and a couple of people go down; meanwhile plenty of guests arrive to bolster the numbers. The debate that follows bears only passing
relevance to the talk but gets everyone quite lively. Paul chides the room, “If we don’t fill the [political] space, the Green Party will”;
“they’re all scabs the Green Party”, adds Joe. There’s a range of views on whether anarchism contradicts family structures – a visiting Frenchman thinks the best moments in personal relationships are those based on equality and people having their own space, “anarchist moments”; someone else thinks families are a bastion against the market; Joe cites Engels on the idea of family as a means of suppressing the working class; Rav refers to the benefits of an extended family under one roof. One of the girls curls up as if
exhausted with her head on Paul’s knees and he holds her tenderly. Tom wants to know what happened to the thousands of students involved in the 2010 anti-fees protests – have they all become willing wage-slaves – and others voice their doubts about the Occupy movement, how strange it was that Zuccotti Park sparked so many imitators and the disconnect between Occupy participants and the grassroots. A visitor who has come
to give a workshop about squatting acknowledges the symbolism of a mass gathering in a square but says that “you have to keep meeting somewhere else, you have to keep it alive after the square”.
What do the Pall Mall squatters hope to achieve? After “pumping the building full of dissidents” – and perhaps a visit from Russell Brand – Tom wants to see more marches on the real seat of power in the land, MI6, and hopes for an occupation of Speakers’ Corner. For Paul, “we’ll stick a big middle finger up at society, and show them what we’re capable of”. Mission accomplished is “when we get people off Facebook or the sofa and into tackling the problems we’re facing”. Rav isn’t
alone in feeling that for all the publicity there’s a limit to “five-star squatting” in the West End – “people don’t have the time and money to get involved”, and by contrast “the housing [protesters] really got it right” with their choice of target; he wants squatters to decentralize and open social centres in local communities, not forgetting a spirit of fun. Joe says he’s wary of talking too much about the future – “I think we’re going to lose”, but unlike the
vanguardist Marxists, he has faith in the radicalism of the underlying social fabric – “people are born into these struggles, they’ve known nothing else. People have been resisting forever”. “Having the idea and resisting could be the success”, somebody volunteers at the Anarchist Federation meeting.
The squatters have their court date on Monday and may have to move on again shortly afterwards. There’s a desire among some Conservative MPs and others to extend the squatting ban to industrial and commercial properties. But with housing costs in London an ever-more critical issue, huge numbers of buildings remaining empty and no prospect of things changing soon on either front, the opportunity for squatters like the Pall Mall anarchists is ripe indeed.