Two people. Two crowbars. We’re deep into the night and we’ve been working on this project for way too long to give up anytime soon. Juggling a few things at once: keeping the noise down so we don’t wake up the neighborhood; making sure we’re on enough of a wavelength that one of us won’t bail out at any moment; trying desperately not to fuck up the material we’re working on. One tool finds some magic point of entry in between the timbers and we hammer it deeper. Some old, damp rags between the metal to cover the racket. Then in with the second crowbar, vertical this time in line with the grain of the wood. The idea is to keep it all intact – and pry the thing free. Little nudges of words and language surface as we’re working, more like sounds than words; affirm, negate, sigh. Words only go halfway to sending the message – it’s the tools that do the talking, sending signals through the strain of the material. The first crowbar starts to lift the wood and then we shuffle in sideways with the second, starting to find a rhythm for the task at hand. This is an innocent task.
As the fascists came around the corner on their way to the election meeting, we ambled out of the pub and into their ranks. The police who were herding the nazis didn’t care, as we looked pretty much like the rest of them; dodgy looking white guys, short hair, casual clothes, bomber jackets. The fash themselves weren’t too sure what was happening either – they must’ve thought we were pals to start with, but as the march made its way up the sunny street the muttered threats from our lot started to unsettle them. Just as we got to the venue, someone shouted “right, let’s have it!” and all hell broke loose. The ‘master race’ were decked left, right and centre. Lucozade bottles were a favoured weapon, as I remember; easy to carry, but the thick glass at the base made for a satisfying swing.
East London, 1990
My hands are filthy and I’m washing them properly for the first time in ages. Been living without a sink, but the street never lets you down if you care to look. It’s like Legoland but 100% rubbish. A bed frame, stripped of its fabric, stands upturned in the kitchen with a kid’s bath (a yellow plastic thing) resting on top. The water comes out of a pistol-shaped watering nozzle attached to some garden hose. The other end of that, softened with hot water, was forced onto the source (a copper stub in the wall) and secured with a twisted piece of a wire coat-hanger. The dirty water drains into a bucket underneath through a plastic pipe sealed in with putty. My hands are now their cleanest ever and the bucket is full. With unmatched satisfaction I use it to flush the toilet and join the others for dinner.
Needless to say, I find a real sink next time I’m out. I leave it behind – ours is just perfect.
Squatting in Stoke Newington, 2009
I’m not sure what gave me the audacity, that first day, to stop and film an arrest – maybe a combination of grief and anger at the most recent police killings in America, which had brought the UK’s police brutality to the front of my mind; a feeling of fear that there was a very real chance that the arrest I was witnessing could lead to violence against the arrestee; and on the (slightly) more positive side, feeling empowered by the work of groups such as LCAPSV and the Anti-Raids Network. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood (I was) and unable to ignore what I saw as police harassment of the young, black man they were holding – literally. During that arrest, I completely ignored the police, spoke only to the person they held, and filmed them until they left. Another time, filming a much more physically violent arrest in my area, I found myself screaming at the officers as I filmed them, even as I realised this was no help to the boy being arrested. It was the day after the death of Mzee Muhmammad in police custody – a lot of my yelling pertained to that. I don’t think I’m able to walk on by any longer – it would feel too much like allowing the police to go about their brutality unquestioned, almost like being an accessory to that, to a degree. I’m very aware intervening in this way is not a possibility for everyone or all the time, so I’m grateful to be able to do this. I hope by witnessing and amplifying these incidents, I can contribute towards forcing a greater degree of accountability from police, and make it less easy for them to perpetrate their daily violences.
I was so sick of seeing things that I couldn’t stand on the street – SWP posters, Fascist stickers. Obviously, they can be torn down, but sometimes that feels impotent. I’ve taken to always trying to carry a few basic things with me. I always have a marker pen on me these days, which I use to deface things, or add a hashtag or URL to useful counter-information, a little #ACAB here and there. I always need gaffer tape too and the more I carry it around the more uses I find for it – on stalls, at demos and so on. I also try to carry a few different flyers – things happen all the time, and a little bit of knowledge goes a long way and can sometimes help you overcome that initial hesitation to get stuck in. Anti Raids rights knowledge, stop and search cards, anything – It helps make the travel to and from work that more liberating, and the more I do things, the more confident I feel to do them again. It makes a difference.
South London, 2016
We had ‘inherited’ a dormant account with a wholefoods wholesaler, run from an established squat in Stamford Hill – and when that was evicted, moved on to the replacement house we’d been making habitable while anticipating eviction. Monthly order delivered, paying cash on delivery. Wholefoods, soya milk, etc., eco cleaning and sanitary products. Started small with prepacks, and as it expanded and users became better able to budget for monthly orders we were able to start buying some items in bulk and weighing out/splitting down. Eventually about 20 mostly doley/squatter households plugged in. Usual thing, only some of the users got involved with helping out, and you always had to hope/believe those that didn’t were doing other useful things for the movement instead.
‘Pig Trough Food Co-op’ Hackney, late 80s
Auto-reduction: winding back electricity meters with ‘black boxes’ in advance of reading dates to make bills more affordable. A black box was a plastic box from an electronics hobbyist shop into which was fixed a transformer taken from a large non-working television set with a few wires attached – one fitted with a crocodile clip which would first be attached to an earth point, and two which would be pushed up alongside the cables going into the bottom of the meter to make contact and then held in place with clothes pegs. If the wires were inserted the wrong way round the meter would spin forwards faster, right way round it would spin backwards. Unlike other forms of tampering, such as drilling a tiny hole in the underside of the meter to push a pin up against the wheel of the meter to stop it turning, using a black box left no visual evidence, but new designs of meters incorporated clutch mechanisms making it impossible.
‘Illegal Abstraction’ Hackney, late 80s
Hackney Squatters Aid: a bunch of us on a rota basis, two per evening giving weekly advice sessions from a public building, possibly The Old Fire Station but I can no longer remember. As a kind of local branch of ASS (Advisory Service for Squatters) with them to fall back on for more technical/legal resource; advantage of having better local knowledge re empties and their histories. Particularly trying to spread squatting to those in housing need from e.g. the Turkish/Kurdish refugee community.
Hackney, early 90s
Another noise demo. Another pair of hands at the window. Then they’re gone, probably pulled back by the guards. Most people don’t even know about these places. But they exist, like open wounds on the map of Britain. A place of suffering, of injustice, but also of struggle. Can’t count the times I’ve banged on their overwhelming fences anymore. Now I bang again, startled by my own fantasies of these centres burning down. As violently as the everyday violence they inflict on their prisoners. In one hour or so I’ll be back on the train or bus home, whereas the people on the other side of the fence remain in their cells. Their only ‘crime’ is migration. ‘Freedom, Hurriya, Azadi!’ The shouting around me sparks more daydreaming: one day I’ll tell my friends and family about the times when these racist detention centres used to exist.
Colnbrook IRC & Harmondsworth IRC, 2016
Obviously, the SWP shouldn’t be welcome anywhere, but they insist on turning up, so why not combine challenging them and telling them to fuck off with using their resources for better means? Here’s how to get as many free placards as you want to use yourself:
High up on the moors, the sweep of the horizon was almost dizzying. A trip to disrupt the so-called ‘Glorious Twelfth’, start of the grouse shooting season, certainly got us away from the dense intensity of Thatcher era urban politics. Animal rights were a core part of the scene then. Besides, our mate John had a minibus and was willing to make the journey to Yorkshire. That particular day, one hunt supporter was getting particularly pushy, trying to clear us off the moor. With youthful enthusiasm I decided to be as uncooperative as possible. Next thing I know, he opens his hunting jacket, flashes a warrant card at me and then, before I could react, grabbed me in a headlock while telling me I was under arrest. Turns out he was CID. To this day I don’t know if he was deployed to protect the toffs or doing it as a favour. Luckily John stepped in. John was tough, level-headed and always on the front line; undemonstrative but effective. He got me out of the headlock and downhill away from the cop. Later he helped another activist ‘misplace’ a whole load of shotgun cartridges from under the noses of the shooters.
Ironic footnote: years later, it was revealed that ‘John’ was in fact an undercover office of the Special Demonstration Squad and a central character in the spycops scandal.
Yorkshire, late eighties
Read Part 2