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I Watched Anti-Austerity Activists Start a Squat in a London Pub

Bearing witness to the birth of a new rebel HQ.

by Michael Segalov
18 June 2015, 4:00pm

In the early hours of this morning, housing and education activists occupied a London pub in the lead up to a big anti-austerity demonstration that's happening on Saturday. The Elephant and Castle pub, which is unsurprisingly located in Elephant and Castle, is now in the hands of the campaigners, who say the building will be opened up today. The plan is to use it as a social centre – a space for talks, meetings, events and political organising, as well as a community centre for those in the area.

The "End Austerity Now" demonstration looks set to see thousands march through London on Saturday. It's not uncommon for radical activists to squat a building in the run up to big demos to use as an HQ. It looks like this time it's no different.

I saw the building get occupied this morning. I arrived in a quiet South London street, just after midnight. All I knew at this point was that some kind of activism was happening involving a building "right at the heart of London's gentrification programme", and that I was invited to tag along.

Turning up to the street I had been told to meet at, I found myself unnervingly alone. I had been given a number to ring when I arrived, but nobody was picking up. Before I could get too paranoid that this was all some elaborate practical joke at my expense or a police sting, the front door opened of a house opposite and I was ushered inside.

I'd expected to be greeted by the usual crusty-squatter archetypes, but I found myself surrounded by mostly students, egged on by a spurt of occupations across the city earlier this year.

The first order of business was how they would announce the opening of the social centre to the world. "The difference between this space and a squat is that we want people to know about this," said one of the activists, who wanted to go public as soon as possible. "Squatters often want to keep a place under the radar, so they can live there for as long as they can, but we want to open the doors and get people in there."

As the meeting progressed, the target of the action became clear. Why the Elephant and Castle pub? "Because it was a pub for like, 250 years, and now it's turning into a Foxtons. And fuck Foxtons," someone said. I guess it sucks for Foxtons PR people that they've become a byword for crappy gentrification. At a recent demonstration in Brixton, activists smashed the façade of the local shop. Now a new branch was being occupied before it's even been built. These guys just can't catch a break.

Elephant and Castle – the area – is currently at the centre of a £1.5 billion regeneration project, which has been criticised for turning the place into a gentrification theme park and kicking the locals out of their homes in the process.

Like many others up and down the UK, the Elephant and Castle pub has had its last orders. Every week, 31 pubs closed their doors for the final time in 2014, ripping the heart out of communities. Unlike most of those, which will close because of being ripped off by parasitic "pubcos" or bought by asset strippers, the Elephant and Castle lost its license in March, after one drinker was stabbed in the head with a pen.

A banner inside the pub reads, "Rent strike now"

The group numbered off, splitting into groups to work out who would do what. From what I could gather, each team was in charge of securing one of the pub's entrances. "There might be movement sensors inside," one of the guys explained. "If they go off, don't panic."

A number was read out to text if there were any issues and a legal notice – explaining to any passing cops or bailiffs that the squatters would have some legal rights to stay in the building once inside – was handed out.

As we headed out there were some final words of advice. "It's not criminal, what we're doing, it just might be a bit unlawful." I couldn't tell if it was meant to be reassuring or not. Since September 2012, squatting in a residential property has become a criminal offence, but squatting commercial buildings is still just a civil offence. You can't get arrested for it, although the police might still try to get you for aggravated trespass, criminal damage, using violence to secure entry or a whole load of Public Order offences.

It was well past 1:30AM when we finally headed off to Elephant. After about 20 minutes of waiting outside a Nandos, sleeping bags in tow, the teams split up, and I stood with some studenty types who were keeping an eye out for cops.

As we waited, I asked a guy who was sweeping up the street, who happened to live nearby, what he made of the changes in the area. He, like old ex-punters from the pub that was being taken over, was pretty jaded.

"You know what? It just doesn't surprise me anymore," he said. "They kicked me out my house, you know, and say the place needs redevelopment. The same people pay me, but not enough so I can live here. It's an active choice, they don't give a shit what it costs, in people or cold hard cash."

Time passed and we kicked out feet. A car pulled over and the activists wondered if it was the police. Instead it was a guy in red shorts, who vomited out of his taxi onto the ground next to us.

By about 3AM, it was time to make a move. A couple of the guys jumped over some bamboo fencing into the beer garden. Everyone else waited outside, waiting for a signal. There were some loud bangs from inside – the pub had been "cracked". But at first there was no call to run in after them.

I decided to check out what was going on, so scaled the fence into the garden. Somebody waved at me through the darkness, and after hopping over another fence I was by a side door. I beelined for the entrance, but a man in a vest called down from a neighbouring flat window. "I'll give you ten seconds to get the fuck out of here, or I'm calling the police. GO."

I scarpered, heading back through a private car park to join the other waiting activists.

The cops didn't show up and about 20 minutes later, a shout to come inside came over the fence. This time we headed to a different gate, quickly made our way through it and into the pub.

Once inside, people started putting bike locks on the doors and sticking legal notices up on windows. The water was found to be working to the relief of a woman who desperately needed a slash, and the still-working lights were dimly lit.

Just after 4AM, the police arrived – a van and a car. They looked through the windows, had a chat with someone who popped outside, before driving off, apparently saying, the owners would have to take the occupants to court before they could do anything, "and that could take months."

Before I left, I asked one of the activists what the point of the occupation was. "Obviously there's a big national anti-austerity demo on Saturday, but we are not the kind of activists who treat a march like this as the be all and end all of our activity," she said. "Opening up a space in parallel to this march means that hopefully we can generate some excitement about a whole set of alternative forms of resistance. "

So far those alternative forms of resistance are scheduled to include a meeting about student debt, some talks by London's lefty academics, a social and a craft afternoon.

As Britain's unruly left plots what the Daily Mail described as a "summer of thuggery" resisting the government, it seems like a whole load of tactics are going to be used to supplement bigger events like the anti-austerity march on Saturday. I can think of worse ones than hanging out in a pub.

@MikeSegalov

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