Staff at Freedom Press, London’s oldest anarchist publisher and bookshop, woke last Friday to the news that someone had tried to burn their shop down in the early hours of the morning.
Founded in 1886, Freedom has been at the heart of radical East London for over a century, featuring on walking tours and seemingly, from my time spent in the shop, serving as the first stop-off point for every European crusty looking for a squat to stay in or a protest to rage at.
The shop sits just off Whitechapel High Street, down Angel Alley – wedged between an art gallery and a KFC. If you need to pick up something by Bakunin, Chomsky or the utterly bonkers John Zerzan then this is where you go, past the linoprint heads of Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin and close the door after you because it’s always cold in there.
At around 5AM Friday morning an arsonist entered Angel Alley, smashed a window, poured accelerant into the shop and sent the books, pamphlets and irreplaceable archives of Freedom newspaper up in flames.
That night I went inside the building with one of the shop’s most dedicated activists, Andy. It smelled awful, there was soot across the roof and charred books sat in piles. There was no structural damage to the building but Freedom has no insurance and were already mired in the financial shit. Looking at the horrific mess, I thought the shop would have to close for months, but this morning they’re back open for business.
Before you joke about anarchists owning a building, or organising a clean-up, read up on the rich history of working class self-organisation the movement draws on. At its height in 1930s Spain, anarchists ran collectivised hospitals and operated Spain’s most popular daily newspaper.
Freedom volunteer Rob Ray explained how he felt when he heard about the attempt to burn the building down: “It's a really weird set of feelings – sick to the stomach hoping no one had been hurt, relief that the place was empty of people that night – it's often not – and that the fire didn't go any further than it did. Then sickness again, when you realise how bad the damage is.
“My first political education came through the pages of Mutual Aid, Anarchy in Action and Freedom newspaper, those piles of ash and soot-stained jumbles of letters represent the opening of new worlds to me. Almost every book that didn't burn got covered in a layer of hot ash. Sorting through them yesterday it was a wrench every time one had to be thrown on the 'no' pile.”
The building is not just home to a bookshop; upstairs, London Coalition Against Poverty, the Advisory Service for Squatters, Solidarity Federation and Corporate Watch all share offices. There’s even a functioning toilet.
Obviously high on the agenda for the anarchists is figuring out who wants to firebomb them. Combat 18 carried out a similar attack on the shop 20 years ago. At the time, in March 93, C18 were the violent wing of the (already quite violent) BNP, formed to defend the fascists from Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), a group who were beating the far-right out of their strongholds across London.
The consensus now is that the arsonists are almost definitely from the far-right, either looking for a soft target or hoping to settle old scores. Nearby Brick Lane was dominated by neo-Nazis in the late 70s and 80s, with regular BNP and National Front paper sales. AFA took the fight to the streets in the early 90s, taking back Islington before moving east across London. The BNP were forced to fight to defend their pitch, and lost.
Lying among the charred books strewn across the floor were a number of copies of Beating The Fascists, a history of AFA recently published by Freedom Press. The book is an uncomfortably violent read, detailing how half-bricks were used to convince young BNP members to pack it in.
The last time I stopped by the shop they had just been posted a copy of an ultra-nationalist magazine reviewing the book. Its admission of the ruthless tactics used to defeat the right had clearly touched some nerves. Embarrassed has-beens from Combat 18 could have come back to settle old scores, just last week they hosted a secret gig in London.
Speaking to anarchists in a nearby pub, many feared the arsonists could be linked to the fantasist group England’s Golden Dawn, a new far-right splinter group making big noises on Facebook, made up of the usual EDL rejects. No groups have acknowledged the attack took place, although one Casuals United organiser did post to her Facebook about the attack, stating “what goes around comes around”.
Less likely possibilities include some of the more fringe wings of the anarchist movement. One post on Indymedia tried to claim Freedom were “cop collaborators” as a justification for the attack. The collective have made efforts in recent years to sideline anti-social elements within the anarchist scene.
Insurrectionary anarchists have been waging a war of words online, and even setting things on fire in Bristol, but Freedom was where I first bought Alfredo Bonanno’s insurrectionist bible From Riot to Insurrection, it seems unlikely even the most disgruntled radicals would shit on their own doorstep like this.
Speaking to Andy at the shop, he insists that it must have been the far-right and says there could have been any number of motivations. The CCTV at the entrance to the alley may reveal more, although understandably the anarchists don’t have much faith in the police to solve this case.
Hanging around in the dark alley beside the shop on Friday night, a well-dressed elderly man comes to inspect the damage, telling me he draws cartoons for Freedom newspaper. Minutes later, a local woman comes to ask how she could help. Shopkeepers come out to sympathise with Andy and the art gallery next door assures me that the anarchists make brilliant neighbours.
The next day almost a hundred people cram into the tiny lane to clean books, scrub walls and get the shop back in shape. Melted clocks and charred books, initially upsetting sights for supporters, are now being sold off as souvenirs. People across the world have offered their support and promised donations as solidarity messages pour in. The arsonists not only failed to destroy the shop – they have made it more popular than ever.
The shop is now taking donations of books and money, or you can pop down to browse the remaining stock.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack