A street in south London was left a mess of scorched debris and broken glass yesterday as police and bailiffs battled with squatters among DIY barricades and burning wheelie-bins.
At 6.30AM – when anyone with the luxury of not having their home torn away from them was still getting up for work – the residents of Brixton's Rushcroft Road were preparing to defend their homes from a platoon of bailiffs. The heavies had been sent down by the council to kick out a community who'd been living there for 32 years.
When I first arrived, I spotted a group of bailiffs in jumpsuits and helmets psyching themselves up by standing around and filming anyone who approached them. They were to spend a large part of the day being asked how they sleep at night. In fact, you imagine this is a large part of the bailiff's existence, it must be wearying to be hounded with such mundane and relentless questions: "How do you sleep at night?" "How much are they paying you?" "Where's your wife and kids gone?"
That said, their job does involve kicking people out of their homes and onto the street, so y'know, fuck them and their cold, broken souls.
The squatters, for their part, had conjured up a number of ingenious ways to let the bailiffs know they weren't welcome.
The properties were some of the last "shortlife" housing cooperatives in existence – the buildings technically owned by the council but lived in and maintained rent-free for over 30 years after a series of housing policy screw ups in the 70s left the council unable to afford the maintenance. Now, with the cost of housing skyrocketing and austerity chomping into everyone's budgets, the council are arguing that it needs to sell half of the properties to raise some cash and turn the other half into council-owned social housing.
Weirdly, the buildings' residents aren't too sympathetic to this idea. Why, they wonder, should the council use their homes to balance the books after ignoring their existence for three decades? There's also the issue that the cash injection from the sale of the buildings will inevitably be coming directly from the kind of braying yuppie interlopers (they're always braying) who have already done a fine job of pricing the local working class out of the area.
As bailiffs and residents had an awkward stand-off – a bit like the beginning of a school disco, if school discos ended in people setting mattresses on fire instead of puking up stolen Dooley's – Richard (straw hat) invited me into his flat to have a look around.
It was pretty much exactly what your mum thinks a squat looks like; vaguely reminiscent of a normal house but "decorated" by someone who has no reason to worry about getting a deposit back.
This is John, whose nap I rudely interrupted as he attempted to sleep off the stress of the morning's preparations. "I've lived in this flat now for the last six years," he told me. "I used to live in the one above, but I moved in here after the old man that used to live here almost burned himself to death falling asleep with a cigarette. I saved his life, so he gave me his keys and the rest is history. I'm sad about what's happening here today. Brixton feels a long way from when I first moved here and I don't think I can afford to live here any more, so I'm going travelling."
Outside, council workers were walking around and being given a hard time by residents and their supporters.
The squats were dotted along the street and the various buildings had taken their defences to different levels of sturdiness. This group of residents had opted for the "hurl a bunch of shit in a pile and set in on fire" defence.
In fact, many had decided this was the best way method of preventing the police and bailiffs from getting the devil's work done.
One by one, the squats were cleared by the helmeted bailiffs. While, admittedly, they all looked a bit like beginners at a rock climbing centre, one advantage of being a bailiff is that it's seemingly OK to assault people in broad daylight while standing right next to a police officer.
The irony of all this is that Lambeth isn't just any council, it's the flagship for the co-operative council movement – a Labour Party attempt to sound a bit nicer and less authoritarian. The movement's rhetoric about bottom-up decision making and grassroots empowerment sounds pretty seductive, but it's a hard dream to buy into when you're watching a bailiff sent by said council strangle a man to make sure he gets the fuck out of his home forever.
Call me cynical, but I just wasn't convinced that that guy in the shades gasping for air felt like he'd been empowered by a meaningful consultation process.
People were forced to pack up their entire lives in short order, leading to an onslaught of genuinely heart-breaking scenes like the one above.
In one of the lulls, I asked someone who had been evicted what kind of a community it had been while the squats were occupied. "Most people had jobs and were getting on with their lives, feeding their families," he told me. "Even when there were a few drunks, they were respectable – they kept it to themselves, you know."
Whenever people weren't being brutalised, they took the opportunity to give the bailiffs a hard time about what terrible human beings they are. So terrible that even Michael McIntyre wouldn't perform for them, as one man deftly pointed out.
“Thanks for showing up how horrible Lambeth Council are," shouted one man. "They’re cunts!"
“They’re fucking cunts,” added someone else. Because sometimes “cunts” just doesn’t quite cut the vitriolic mustard.
As the final building prepared its defences, I was invited in to take a look. In my limited experience of witnessing makeshift buttresses, I've seen more robust structures than a set of drawers precariously balanced on top of a mattress, but I didn't feel I was in any position to start cussing up their valiant effort against the council's hired goons.
And, as it turned out, using a mattress was far more effective than I'd have thought, sending the bailiff's battering ram bouncing back into him after he'd shattered the door's glass panel.
Nevertheless, the defences flopped over before long, like a sad, deflated bouncy castle. They were in.
I wandered back outside, where a man was being arrested as he shouted, "Homes, not bombs! Homes, not bombs!"
Unfortunately, it seemed that nobody had told him that Lambeth council are going to sell the buildings to development companies who are going to turn them into homes, not bombs. It's just a shame that they can't think of a better way to raise money than throwing dozens of people out of their homes and breaking up a 30-year-old community in the process.
As for the bailiffs, well, what can you say? It's tough to find work these days.
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