Protest and Occupation Are Close Comrades: Life Will Always Flourish in Between the Cracks

With the recent occupation of the former Clapham Police station in response to the Police Bill, which seeks to further criminalise encampment and trespassing, Eleni Zachariou explores the intertwined histories of protest and occupation.

WORDS Eleni Zachariou

ILLUSTRATION Ciaran Walsh

On Monday 22nd March, a coalition of “squatters and autonomous activists” took to Instagram to announce that they had occupied the former Clapham Police station, demanding the withdrawal of the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and an end to gender-based violence, in light of the recent alleged murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a serving Met Police officer.

The occupation, which held significance for its proximity to the spot where Everard was last seen alive, came after the 13 March vigil for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common ended in the arrest of several attendees and a display of violent dispersal tactics by the very institution her alleged murderer had belonged to. This in turn sparked a series of protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill led by Sisters Uncut, a direct-action group formed in 2014 against the cuts to domestic violence services and other vital resources for marginalised people. However, come Monday 29 March, only a week after the occupation began, the court had issued a possession order and the group was forcibly evicted by bailiffs and police.

The containment of transgression is intrinsic to the way the law regulates the lives of marginalised people – in order to define itself as the norm, it must position someone as the other.

The police already wield the power afforded to them by the state too readily, and incidents of police violence are multiplicitous and frequent – while many of them go undocumented, unremarked, and unwitnessed, some are seen – as witnessed at the Clapham vigil recently, throughout the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020, and in the gross misconduct of the officers who took and shared photographs of the bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman at the scene of their murder. Yet, buried in the near 300-page Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is legislation that would broaden police powers, effectively allowing them to criminalise protests they deem a public nuisance, almost entirely at their own discretion.

The Bill also proposes a number of Acts that directly target marginalised communities, such as the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments and trespassing, which would disproportionately affect Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Instead of investing in site provision or sustainable alternatives with access to council-run resources, such as electricity and running water, the government has opted for an intensified punitive approach that threatens to push an entire community into the criminal justice system for the way they have historically always lived. This approach is far from new – the Dale Farm eviction in 2011 is a stark reminder that the state doesn’t want to protect those whose lives refuse to sit quietly within its borders. If anything, the containment of transgression is intrinsic to the way the law regulates the lives of marginalised people – in order to define itself as the norm, it must position someone as the other.

Occupation has long been used as a tool of protest, as to live in ways the law considers illegitimate is always to be in protest, in contention, or simply at odds with a state that seeks a compliant homogeneity.

It is by the very nature of, or rather in the foundations of, the construct of a coercive state apparatus to enact harm and violence on those who seek to live outside of it, or on those who do so by no choice of their own. It is important to remember that this is not to say we can simply ignore the law, or declare we refuse to acknowledge its power, because as individuals we can do little to resist it alone. Yet, we must also recognise there is room for, and a long history of, collective acts of resistance.

Protest and occupation are close comrades – their histories are fundamentally intertwined. Occupation has long been used as a tool of protest, as to live in ways the law considers illegitimate is always to be in protest, in contention, or simply at odds with a state that seeks a compliant homogeneity. Though the state may try to eradicate or make impossible alternative ways of living, they still happen – are happening, even as you read this – and with each eviction another space is reclaimed, as tenacious as life growing between the cracks in the pavement. Dissidence has never relied on the sanction of the state because it is born against it, antithetical to the power that would legitimise it. Thus, these acts are performed in spite of the state, not at its permission.

A need for safer housing

The squatting movements of the 20th Century were born from a need for housing. The years following the Second World War saw a rise in homelessness and, in 1946, some of the first mass organised squats. Moving forward to the late 1960s, Britain was still in a housing crisis. A combination of wartime damage and a commitment to slum clearance that originated with the Victorians meant that thousands of people were being relocated, put on council house waiting lists, or left homeless. In the 1970s Greater London, over 23,000 empty houses were awaiting demolition, 96% of which had been built before 1919 and were lacking necessary amenities such as a water supply, indoor toilet, or bath. However, by 1975, unlicensed squatting had become an established method of finding short term housing with an estimated 40-50,000 people squatting, reclaiming, and repairing thousands of these houses. This resurgence in squatting grew as a grassroots response to the government’s inadequacy in providing a liveable alternative to the crisis.

Coinciding with the women’s liberation movement and a rise in radical feminism, this second wave of squatting was marked by a rise in squatting communities that were run by and for women. In Hackney, for example, single mothers, radical feminists, and lesbians formed a number of women’s squats that also operated as women’s centres, filling the void left by the lack and inadequacy of government services. These centres were a refuge for vulnerable women, women with children, women fleeing domestic abuse, queer women, and many others. By the very nature of its illegitimacy, squatted living didn’t necessitate the reproduction of the nuclear family and so, women could wrest some autonomy from the grips of a patriarchal culture. Not only did these communities allow them to live collectively, but women shared responsibility for childcare in a time when single mothers ran the risk of being deemed unfit and having their children taken by social services. They also made space for art, for activism and for work. They built homes for themselves. Because many of the houses didn’t have water or electricity, many women became plumbers and electricians, helping new squatters reconnect services to their house. In London, women’s communities spread across areas with well-established networks of squats, such as Camden, Islington, Chelsea, and Kensington, among others.

By the very nature of its illegitimacy, squatted living didn’t necessitate the reproduction of the nuclear family and so, women could wrest some autonomy from the grips of a patriarchal culture.

However, these communities were also targeted by authorities at a time when many women, such as single mothers, and especially lesbian single mothers, were beholden to a justice system that was not built to serve them. While the squats provided space for alternative living, out from under the thumb of coercive patriarchal structures, they were simultaneously besieged by it for the very act of living outside of its norms; and while the squats provided safer housing than local councils were providing at the time, they were tenuous in their occupation.

At the end of 1972, in Lambeth, South London, Olive Morris and Liz Obi found themselves without a home or sufficient money to rent one, at a time when there were around 13,000 people on the waiting list for council housing within the borough and thousands more living in overcrowded, outdated buildings, and slum-like conditions with failing plumbing, outside toilets, and pest infestations. So, following the example of a group of white women who had started a squat and a women’s centre at 207 Railton Road, they scouted a suitable property and settled in 121 Railton Road. Both women were arrested on numerous occasions but each time they returned to the squat and carried on. One notable attempted eviction led to Olive climbing up onto the roof of the house and staying there until the police left – an iconic photograph of her doing so became the cover of the 1979 edition of the Squatters Handbook. 

Although Olive and Liz eventually decided to move to another squat at 64 Railton Road for legal reasons, 121 Railton Road was still used as a meeting space and mailing address for organisations like the Brixton Black Panthers and Black Workers Movement, and also became a black advice centre and a bookshop named Sabaar. When the shop relocated further into Brixton,121 Railton Road became an anarchist centre. The space was used by various radical organisations, including the Anarchist Black Cross, Miners Strike Solidarity, Pink Brick, and the first ever queeruption gathering, among countless others. In fact, the property remained occupied until its final eviction in 1999, making it one of the longest squatted sites in the country.

Sex workers’ rights

In November 1982, the English Collective of Prostitutes occupied the Holy Cross Church in Kings Cross’ red-light district for 12 days to bring attention to rampant police racism and violence against sex workers. They were demanding an end to police threats, blackmail, harassment, and racism; an end to their children being put in care; an end to the arrest of boyfriends, husband, and sons instead of pimps and rapists; and immediate protection, welfare, and housing for women.

Over the course of the occupation, others joined the sex workers in the church – sex workers from outside of London, drug users, students, migrants, black women’s organisations, and members of the lesbian organisation Sappho. Men from Gays the Word bookshop also brought pans of hot food for the occupants and some women, who were mainly white and middle class, came from the Greenham Common peace camps where they had, perhaps for the first time, been exposed to the brutality of a police force that ordinarily protected them – much like many of the women at the Clapham Common Vigil only months ago. Even now, the state sanctioned violence wielded by the police is covert. While police violence against women is notorious, it is more often aimed at the most marginalised bodies – black women, trans women, sex workers, and migrant women – making it all too easy for middle-class white people to overlook this violence because it is the material conditions of their way of life and the nuclear heteronormative family that the police protect.

The divergence of other activist groups and causes gave the sex workers a sense of solidarity to propel them forward.

In the immediate aftermath of the Holy Cross Church occupation, there were gains – press coverage had raised awareness and afforded the sex workers previously unseen exposure. The divergence of other activist groups and causes gave the sex workers a sense of solidarity to propel them forward. However, the monitor commissioned to oversee the police in Kings Cross in the wake of the occupation failed to capture the data on arrest numbers, and the subsequent report omitted all mention of the church occupation. Selma James, who was the first spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes said that: “Making us invisible was not an oversight…What we are witnessing before our very eyes is the process whereby women’s struggle is hidden from history and transformed into an industry, jobs for the girls.” 

James’ words echo through time, resembling in the contemporary commodification of sex work on Onlyfans, and the exploitation of the platform by celebrities who make millions, celebrated on the mainstream stage for their empowerment and independence, in comparison with the sex workers who still face stigma, violence and punishment, and are unprotected by the law in the UK. While selling sex is legal in UK in 2021, many of the steps that enable one to do so are criminalised. Now, the same Bill that plans to increase criminalisation of unauthorised occupation also seeks to bring into UK law the Nordic Model – this would criminalise the purchase of sexual services, thus putting sex workers at an even greater risk of violence. Since the 1982 church occupation – nearly 40 years ago – some of the same women are still fighting, some have died, and many others have joined the ongoing fight for sex worker freedom and wider freedom from police violence for all.

Occupation as protest today

Sisters Uncut have followed in the footsteps of the 70’s women’s centre squats ever since their formation, reclaiming numerous buildings in protest of the severe inadequacy of government services for women in need. On 26 June 2016, they occupied 285 Rye Lane in protest of Southwark Council’s abysmal domestic violence resources, and welcomed people to take part in workshops and talks, provided creches, and gave the community a space to gather and discuss the housing crisis in the borough. Sisters Uncut also occupied the empty Holloway Prison visitors centre on 27 May 2017, demanding that the space be used to support local domestic violence survivors in response to the Conservative Government budget cuts that had decimated services in the UK. In 2019, women’s aid estimated that refuges are being forced to turn away two thirds of women seeking safety, with women who do not speak English – often disproportionately migrant women – being more likely to be refused due to language barriers. Aisha Streetson, an activist for Sisters Uncut, said that they were “reclaiming the former prison, a site of violence, to demand that public land is used for public good”, adding that ”prisons are an inhumane response to social problems faced by vulnerable women” for which “the government should provide a better answer.”

The parallels in these occupations, despite the decades separating them, are tangible. Over a period of more than half a century, people have been occupying, reclaiming, and taking up the space they need to try and make a liveable life when the state has left them with little to no other option – the reality of this being that the material conditions of resources and people’s access to housing are not equally distributed. While it may be tempting to brush these problems aside as a government incompetence, these inequalities are, in fact, part of the structures the state and its institutions rely on to operate. Rather than allowing ourselves to feel hopeless that we are still fighting the problems that people were fighting 50 years ago, we must recognise that these recorded acts of resistance are proof that life will always flourish in between the cracks.

They are proof that other ways of living, ones that service the needs of the community – the needs of the many instead of luxury for a few – are entirely possible, if not more sustainable.

The intertwined histories of protest and occupation also teach us that the state will never provide space for other worlds to flourish and, when they do, it will desperately try to regulate and suppress any threat that might reveal that the current system was not inevitable, nor is it eternal. If these histories are proof that alternative forms of living are viable under the scrutiny of repressive institutions, then imagine what might be possible in a world without them. The answer here, as always, is uncertain and speculative – but imagining is the first step to enacting change, the second being to fight for it. In the words of Assata Shakur, screamed in solidarity by thousands of protesters across the UK these past months: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom.” While state legislation will never lead to emancipation, we must continue to oppose those laws that threaten our freedom further and to imagine a world free from restrictions on our ability to create safe spaces for ourselves and for our communities.

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