Anarchists Have Nearly Defeated the 'Poor Doors' On a London Block of Flats
Twenty weeks of protest against segregated entrances for rich and poor tenants has forced the building's owners into talks with the Class War activist group.
In a city that wears inequality on its sleeves, there are few symbols of social stratification quite as powerful as London's "poor doors": separate front doors installed in mixed income developments so that rich private tenants don't have to condescend to bumping into less well off social tenants in the hallway.
At One Commercial Street, a block of new, luxury flats just next to Aldgate East station, this separation of the rich from the poor has been a source of almost constant resistance.
For the past 20 weeks, every Wednesday between 6PM and 7PM, a group of locals from the anarchist action group Class War have stood outside the slick glass carbuncle with a banner promising to "devastate the avenues where the wealthy live" – a nod to a 1915 quote from firebrand Chicago anarchist Lucy Parsons.
One week they occupied the foyer of the "rich doors"; on another they stood outside the development and torched an effigy of Boris Johnson. It's been a dogged, rowdy, and relentless protest and it seems to have worked.
After 18 weeks of picketing, the building's Cheshire-based developer Redrow decided to sell its stake in the building. Whether this was down to the anarchists outside is hard to say. But only a week later Taylor McWilliams the executive director of the new owners – Hondo Enterprises – agreed to meet with the protestors.
"When we found out they'd brought the freehold we contacted them and asked if they were prepared to sit down and negotiate with us," says Stan one of the activists that went to the meeting. "Surprisingly they said yes. They're going to take away what we said, talk to the other interested parties and try and get it sorted."
As a good-will gesture, Class War have now offered a temporary truce. Standing outside the glass building, one protestor is holding a sign saying "so long and thanks for all the fish. The others are kicking a ball around, trying to further the "armistice spirit" by goading the concierge staff into a game of football. They might not have achieved, as one of their activists Ian Bone described on his website, "a revolutionary Soviet in Commercial Street", but there's a sense of victory here.
And it came at a good time too. After burning the Boris Johnson effigy on Guy Fawkes night, things started to get pretty heated at the weekly demos. Two people were arrested that night, and this week a line of police are standing outside the porch, blocking the entrance and forcing all the tenants – social and private alike – to enter through the side door. It's a major disruption for everyone, but Class War promise it'll be the last until a decision is made.
"This is the last poor door [protest] we'll be having for a while," says Lisa Mackenzie, a Class War activist and researcher at the London School of Economics. "The owner wants to solve the problem so hopefully after tonight we won't have to come back."
Picking a fight over a door might seem like a trivial choice. But for the activists that have been turning up every week it's a particularly symbolic act of injustice. "It's wider than housing," Mackenzie tells me. "It's about the way communities and people's homes are being treated like gold bars. This is how the rich elites are seeing London and property right now, and poor doors are symbolic of that."
It's hard not to feel a sense of horror standing outside One Commercial Street, a tremendously ugly glass-clad tower in an area supposed to be on the fringes of the City.
Here, the so-called "poor door" has been fitted down the back of a drab, dimly-lit alleyway, out of view from the plush marble lobby, sofas, and chandeliers that face the main road.
The developers building these doors claim that separating the tenants is a practical necessity, rather than an act of class snobbery. The concierge service, they say, is expensive and not something the social tenants will need or want. To avoid the possibility of one set of tenants subsidising the other, they build two separate entrances. But the activists don't agree.
"I think it's ludicrous," Stan says. "Why should they pay for the concierge? Why do they need one in the first place? This is East London, a traditional working class area for immigrant communities. They should be free to come and go as they please – it's their house."
The poor door protests have been something of a revelation for Class War, a rag-bag group that first appeared in the 1980s but lay quiet for years. Over the last few weeks their activists have chased Ian Duncan Smith around his constituency in Chingford, paid a hostile visit to the £7 million home of mansion tax critic Griff Rhys Jones, and set up an election campaign for May 2015.
"I'm standing in Bethnal Green," says Scott McDowell, one of the hopeful candidates. "I've known about class war since the 80s but I got involved during the poor door demos. Since the Tories came in there's been so much social and economic segregation. Poor areas are becoming rich and middle class and we have nowhere to go. I want to give the poor people a voice."
Marina Pepper is another recent recruit. She knows the group don't stand a chance of winning, but the possibility of pissing off Ian Duncan Smith seemed like too good an opportunity to turn down.
"I'm standing against him in Chingford and Woodford Green," she tells me. "He has a constituency that would vote for a dead donkey if it has a blue rosette attached to its bridle. But he's the most inefficient, meanest, nastiest politician in the UK. If I can take away some of his votes I'll be happy."
As rents soar, wages fall and benefits get cut, something seems to have snapped in London. Housing protest groups like the Focus E15 mums and New Era For All are inspiring a surge in grassroots protest challenging the idea that displacement is a natural or inevitable process.
Like Class War, these two groups have also been winning. Just two weeks ago, after a colourful protest and a stream of publicity, the family firm of Richard Benyon, the richest MP in the country, pulled out of the New Era Estate. A few months earlier the Focus E15 mums also won the right to be housed locally after Newham council had threatened to send them out of London, away from their families and friends. For Class War linking up with these groups is the next step.
"We want to come together with these different groups," Mackenzie says, "We're trying to get more organised and bring out the idea that working class people can fight back and be agents of change. This is why we're standing for Parliament. Nobody thinks we're going to get enough votes even to keep our deposits but what we are doing is challenging and subverting the system."
Even with these loftier ambitions, they won't be losing sight of the poor doors. Nobody really knows how long the ceasefire on Whitechapel Road is likely to hold but if the poor doors remain, Class War will be back.
"If nothing happens or we don't get the answer we're looking for we'll return and in greater numbers," Stan says. "People are starting to get tired of being pushed around and fucked over."
And it's not just in Aldgate that developers should look out. The Prince's Park development in Kentish Town has been segregating its doors. And a new development in East Croydon – also owned by Redrow – is looking to install them.
"Our message to property developers in London is that this is not the BoJo free market free city that you think it is," Mackenzie says. "If you come and devastate people's communities, we will fight back."
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