London Needs Social Centres (RampArt Collective)

In a time of political crisis, we need effective bases from which to mobilise effective resistance but why is London one of the few large cities in Europe which currently doesn’t have a thriving social centres movement despite the fact that squatting in England is still legal?

With Mayday less than a week away, and a General Election following shortly after, the signs of any coordinated opposition to the ruling regime (in whatever colours it presents itself), in London at least, seem to be very thin on the ground. Aside from the usual high profile events in public places on Mayday itself, there is very little high visibility demonstration of resistance at a local level and, perhaps more importantly, no social centres providing a base from which to organise.

Approximately three weeks ago, a group of people connected with the rampART collective opened a space in East London with the intention of providing living space for five people and using the remainder of the building as a social centre. Last Friday, during the opening night cafe, the owner attempted an illegal eviction which was successfully resisted. So far, so business-as-usual. The events the following day, however, while being boringly familiar to some who have been involved in squatting and managing social centres for some time, raise some serious questions about the meaning of squatting as a political activity.

A call was put out for people to turn up at 2pm on the Saturday when the owner had promised/threatened to return and we were well prepared to defend the building. However, one of the residents took it upon himself to contact the owner beforehand and negotiate for the five residents to stay with the provision that he would get rid of the ‘troublemakers’. Not all the other residents were complicit and, in fact, were not consulted.

This was almost a carbon copy of the events that led to the collective voluntarily leaving the Lift ‘n’ Hoist building in Elephant and Castle. In that case, we were invited by two of the people already occupying the building (with the agreement, we thought, of the other residents) to set up a social centre in the basement and first floor but someone who moved in a few weeks later, again, contacted the owner and negotiated terms that precluded the operation of a social centre in the space. They were evicted four weeks later.

Although we are well aware of the problems faced by people who need to secure living space in a city where alternatives to squatting are, for many, impossible, we are also becoming increasingly aware that, for others, squatting is a lifestyle choice and, it seems, a chance to exercise power in a situation where people, because they are homeless, are vulnerable to manipulation.

We have perhaps been naïve in believing that everyone who agrees (or appears to agree) to live in a social centre shares our political views. But we also necessarily have to trust that anyone who approaches us or gets involved understands what we stand for and supports our project to challenge the commodification of public space, expose the inequalities which lead to homelessness in the first place and provide accommodation, not only for living but for the free exchange of ideas and skills, as well as for political projects and fundraising. These things can’t happen if we become exclusive and constantly suspicious but they can’t happen either if divisive tactics are used against us.

We know that our recent experiences are not unique to us or to our particular project. They are, perhaps, symptomatic of the culture of competitive individualism which we are committed to fighting. But having to deal with people’s personal agendas is tiring and depressing and deflects energy from the urgent project of establishing viable movements for change.

Many of us have been made welcome and been invited to participate in the social centres which exist in many European cities but, currently, we feel as if we cannot offer similar hospitality in London or establish effective networks outside the country. The recent ‘Social Centres in a Time of Crisis’ meeting in Leeds seemed to us to demonstrate a dissipation of political commitment and capitulation to dominant agendas rather than a real force of resistance. Despite, or perhaps because of this we are more committed than ever to continuing the fight. We will not be beaten. and, once we have found a new building from which to operate, we will call a public meeting to discuss what people want from social centres and how we can best serve the interests of the many active social movements who are mobilising against politics-as-usual. Meanwhile, please leave a comment or email rampartATmutualaidDOTcom.

Originally posted at:, 27 April 2010.

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