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Radical Bankers gather in their social centre in an abandoned bank. Photo: The Source Brighton.

Radical Bankers gather in their 'social centre' squat in an abandoned branch of Barclays in Brighton. Photo: Almudena Serpis.

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Anti-austerity movement revives radical urban squatting

Almudena Serpis

24th June 2015

Long a feature of British urban life, domestic squatting has now been criminalised, writes Almudena Serpis. But suddenly two social centres have come to life in a squatted bank in Brighton, and a long abandoned pub in London, reviving the rebellious spirit of the squatting movement, and promulgating a radical anti-austerity message that evokes the struggles in Greece, Spain and beyond.

The Radical Bank and the Elephant and Castle Social Centre are examples of attempts to revive squatting as a political weapon of self-organisation outside the boundaries of legality.

Last week a Barclay's bank in central Brighton underwent a jaw-dropping metamorphosis.

Huge colourful paper lanterns filled the main entrance where once customers gathered patiently waiting in line to manage their cash.

Since then people from all walks of life begun moving enthusiastically around the run down building transforming it into a place of solidarity, where money seemed unnecessary. They called it The Radical Bank.

In one corner, a group prepared food on a stove which a passer-by had just donated. Others cleaned the building to the sound of music from a tiny radio. "It was dead filthy. See what you can actually make out of an abandoned pit?" said one of the Radical Bank's members.

The place did feel homely and had been thoroughly fixed up. In the main room there were carpets on the floor, decorations and a tea area.

The walls were filled with activism - lists of workshops such as first aid and digital security, proposals of talks on subjects like immigration and the Palestinian struggle, a collective agreement of rules, which included a non alcohol or drugs policy - it's a reflection of what the people involved wanted to construct, a bank of ideas and creation.

"We wanted to make it into a social centre, challenge the current logic out there and offer people a place where they can feel safe, debate and organise activities. Despite it being illegal, we think it's right", says a Radical Banker.

An offshoot of Brighton's anti-austerity movement

Radical Bank was squatted after an anti-austerity demonstration flooded Brighton streets on the 6th of June. Bank branches such as these one have been closed down unable to compete with online banking services, and so they are left empty whilst there is a strong need for homes and social spaces. This branch was abandoned around a year ago.

But the dream for change abruptly ended last Friday when bailiffs stormed into the building at 7.30 and proceeded to evict those inside. "We woke up to the sound of intense banging which resonated through the whole building as they were forcing their entry, we knew it was over", said a member of the collective.

Despite the eviction, Radical Bankers are still pursing their objective of creating social change. On Saturday they visited a new squatted social centre in London 'the Elephant and Castle Social Centre', which opened its doors for the first time this weekend.

Like them, they were offering a free vegan barbecue and looking for people to hold workshops in the space. This new centre is a 250 year old pub which was abandoned for over a year. Now history repeats itself and all over the walls you can see political struggle manifesting itself.

Though estimates vary, several campaigning groups have stated that there are over 1.5 million empty properties in the UK and around 112,000 rough sleepers. But it is not only the issue about housing and homelessness that is tackled here.

A powerful means of political resistance

The squatting movement in Europe has long been a movement of political resistance, although in the UK it was more focused on providing housing for those in need, says Miguel Martinez from SqEk, Squatting Europe Collective: "Squatting is a strong political movement although in England it was less politicised."

He explains that squatting in the UK begun just after the Second World War when around 45,000 to 50,000 soldiers squatted their homes. Then in the 60's it became a movement of protest for affordable housing.

Squatted housing normalised throughout the 70's and 80's and the movement became quite marginalised. Later on in the 90's it flourished as a protest tool along the anti-globalisation movement, which swept across England around that time.

Squatting residential properties in the UK became illegal in September 2012, forcing those in need to the streets or to squat commercial buildings not suited for living, as this action remains legal. "What has happened is that the vulnerable have been criminalised", says a member of the Advisory Service for Squatters based in London.

It's illegalisation has come at a later time than in most European countries. For example, in Spain it was made illegal in 1996 and in the Netherlands in 2010, but despite the ban on squatting people continue to squat and its political implications change to adapt to their legal status.

The Radical Bank and the Elephant & Castle Social Centre are examples of attempts to revive squatting as a political weapon of self-organisation outside the boundaries of legality.

The Free Food Fridge

In the middle of the room a semicircle of chairs, cushions and sofas was constantly maintained to hold the daily general meetings where everything was decided in a collective way. After these long meetings at the Radical Bank someone made food from the left overs of nearby supermarkets, which were collected at night.

"It's the art of skipping", says a Radical Banker, adding that has never been any food shortage - whatever food was left over was put outside the main entrance in what they called the 'Radical Fridge', for anyone to take home. Even after the eviction, it's still standing at Preston Circus Junction in Brighton.

"In the UK 15 million tonnes of food is wasted every year", says Adam from the Real Junk Food Project, which helped organised a big event hosted by the Radical Bank on Sunday. This project works with supermarket, wholesales and farms, gathering their left over food to make healthy nutritious meals. "Most of the food is absolutely fine to eat, we feed approximately 1,600 people a month with the food we collect."

But not only food was managed communally, life was shared with people taking turns for watching, cleaning, getting involved in the media, mediation and legal teams and maintaining the building in good shape, all on a voluntary basis. "It is hard work, but we believe that another kind of organisation is possible, which is not money driven", says a member.

Everything you found inside the building, from the cleaning materials to the furniture, had been donated or found in the street. Like in most squats people build their homes and projects from the crumbs left behind from the capitalist dream.

Human rights? The 'right to property' trumps all the others

Around 40 members of the collective filled the court room last week, waiting for an adjournment so they could seek legal aid to be able to represent them. The judge declined their wishes despite them being informed of the hearing just five days in advance, and so eviction came sooner than expected.

Without a solicitor they prepared a defence appealing mainly to article 8 of the 1998 Human Rights Act, which guarantees the right to private and family life and can be interpreted as a right to shelter or housing. This clashes with Article 1 of the same Act, which is the right to property.

They failed - as did another squat at 16 Grosvenor Street, Mayfair, London, which tried a similar legal defence just a few weeks earlier. "The protection of property rights is always above the right for people to organise and live decently", said Radical Banker after the hearing.

"This building has been left empty and will continue to do so. We are doing a lot of good here, but according to law it is better to leave it empty, to rot. Nobody should let this happen."

As the RB puts it in a blog post, "it's hilarious that the Convention of Human Rights begins with a protection of property. Most people don't have any property: it's not part of the life experience of most humans, so it's not a right most people ever exercise in a real way. The most obvious case of the law being written by the rich, white man that I've seen thus far."

The Radical Bank received no notice of when the eviction would take place, as it is often the case to avoid confrontation. The eviction was carried out without any major disturbance as squatters were taken by surprise at early hours in the morning whilst they were asleep.

Despite this, according to the recent report 'Home Not Jails' by the campaigning organisation Squash (Squatters Action for Secure Homes), "evictions are becoming more frequent, violent and outside the bounds of the law".

For some, the shadow of what was once a huge political movement in the UK is still a good place to hide. Those who have been let down by the current socio-economical and political system rely on such movements of resistance, which are part of an international echo from a voice which is screaming for change.

 


 

Almudena Serpis is an activist and journalist who has worked in numerous magazines, newspapers and websites in Madrid, London and Amsterdam, and on assignments with the Ecologist Film Unit. Her research and investigations evolve around social movements, feminism and ecology. She is also a trained nutritionist.

Facebook: The Radical Bank, Elephant & Castle Social Centre.

 

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