London mums evicted – but not beaten

England
Housing
Activism
Carpenters Estate

Liam Barrington-Bush under a Creative Commons Licence

On 7 October, under threat of physical eviction from Newham Council, I helped the last members involved in the occupation of four vacant flats on the Carpenters Estate to remove their belongings from the building. The Focus E15 mums, whose story has spread across the country like wildfire since they took over the flats just over two weeks ago, had known this day was coming. But there was still a feeling of sadness as this makeshift community left 80-86 Doran Walk and watched contracted security guards reoccupy the block and seal it up to prevent others in need from calling the flats their homes.

More conservative voices have decried the illegality of the occupation, pinning blame for their situation squarely on the mums, rather than an out-of-control free market which has priced out large swathes of its intended ‘customers.’ In practice, this has meant that untold numbers of people – like those kicked-out of Focus E15 last year – have been forced into the indignities of couch surfing, rodent-infested private rentals, and even rough sleeping.

This is unacceptable at the best of times, and is morally criminal at a time when community members estimate that the Carpenters Estate alone has at least 400 unoccupied flats within its boundaries, shuttered and rotting, just as 80-86 Doran Walk will be after this week’s eviction. While the mums – and a few others who had also been evicted from the Focus E15 hostel last year – are no longer living on the Carpenters Estate, they have offered lessons to others around the country who have found themselves living through the housing crisis. They have reminded us – among other important lessons – that unjust laws can’t stop us from coming together to meet our collective needs. When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. Or simply necessity.

This is being shown in factory occupations in Argentina, Italy, Greece and France, where ex-employees are taking collective control over bankrupt factories and running them without bosses. It is being shown in resistance to mining and fossil fuel extraction by both indigenous peoples and settlers up and down the Americas, where communities are keeping their land and water from being poisoned by companies that have the ‘legal rights’ to do what they want to them. And it is being shown in East London, where being forced to live in inhumane conditions is not being accepted as an inevitability when perfectly good homes sit empty.

When we break laws like these, we often end up building the communities that help us weather the kinds of storms that invariably lie ahead. There’s very little that brings people together quite like constructively breaking a law that is obviously corrupt, ridiculous and/or morally bankrupt. In our disobedience, we remind ourselves what we are capable of achieving together, while gradually undermining the wider legitimacy of the law to govern ours or others’ lives... and we tend to make friends along the way!

A two-week squat is hardly the answer to the complex and multi-layered set of issues that have culminated in London’s current housing mess, but it does offer a set of tools that can be adapted and adopted in borough after borough, empty estate after empty estate. These tools can help us to address immediate needs, build local community, and make the case for new relationships to government, to the market, and to each other. This hint at a new kind of housing and a new kind of politics may have shown its early shoots in E15, but it is well within the reach of the rest of us to help it grow in our own post codes.

The Focus E15 mums will keep up pressure on Newham Council via community outreach on Stratford Broadway every Saturday, 12-2pm. There will be a public meeting where next steps will be discussed at 6:30pm on 20 October in E15. Watch the Focus E15 Facebook page for details.

Liam Barrington-Bush Tweets as @hackofalltrades.

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