“To become independent, to become autonomous, can also mean to learn how to fight in the streets, to take over empty buildings, to never work, to love ourselves and each other like crazy and steal from shops.”
Invisible Committee, the coming insurrection
“Ontologies of the present demand archaeoliges of the future, not forecasts of the past’.
Fredric Jameson, a singular modernity
“We have no idea what we’re doing! And it’s great!”
Overheard at Radical Bank
The trial of ‘Persons Unknown vs. Barclays’ took place at 10:30am, Tuesday 16th June, at William St. Country Court, Brighton. The result was that the building that stands on the corner of 1 Preston Road, known as Radical Bank, has been forcibly evicted of all those staying therein. What does this information amount to? Well, it meant then that about fiftieth or so hired thugs, backed-up by police, came with specialised siege equipment and stormed the building. Everyone was sleeping and as intended they caught us by. Hardline responses to squatting are of course the norm, especially so in the case of ‘social centres’. Unlimited resources are poured into shutting them down while their in their infancy. Yet this particular case is of interest: Something vital happened here that has yet to be understood. It’s before time to trace the conception of Radical Bank, through to its future.
Incursions and insurrections: my first day
Radical Bank was born from a demonstration on Saturday the 6th June. A march of people coalesced in the name of causes such as anti-austerity and free education. Rather than fizzling out the protest had ended with the occupation of a disused branch of Barclays, that was left to rot since January 2015. Like a lot of people, I was tired of just talking politics, of asking for things to be different, tired of appealing to the morality of our exploiters. In intrepid curiosity I headed down there on Sunday evening to see what was going on.
When I arrived at the old bank there seemed to be no way in. I walked around and saw someone perched high up on a wall at the back of the building. They were dressed in blue dungarees and looked down at me with laughing eyes, but before I could make much of them they called out ‘did I want the ladder lowered down?’, and upon my nodding preceded to pass it to me. Once up over the wall I followed a passage down a few flight of stairs, to find the huge main room on the ground floor. About fifty people sat in a large circle, taking it in turns to talk. It became clear they were anything but a homogenous group; all sorts of backgrounds and political persuasions found some representation. I couldn’t tell if everyone was already well acquainted or if this was a group of strangers, overjoyed to meet, while aware of their own histories and beliefs. The atmosphere was a fluctuating warm, nervous and excited friendliness.
Practice and Purpose: Emergence of a Social Centre
The main reason for this general assembly was everyone sharing ideas for what to do with the squatted building, as well as planning practical things like how to get running water. All the ideas were feeding into the concept of the social centre. A lot of us were unaware of the social centre tradition that predominately emanates form mainland Europe, but that also has precedents in the U.K.  It would be a space for many different projects, ranging from functional purposes such as being a food bank, but also to craft and nurture an environment where revolutionary kinds of thinking, planning and organisation could take place.
I was real hyped about these propositions, one of the reasons was I just read Assata Shakur’s autobiography, and I day dreamed about opening a kind of kitchen where people could eat without paying just like the black panthers did for their community. Also, I’m currently a student, and sick and tired of a university system seemingly a machine designed to produce anxiety, profit, and alienation. For me modern University is not the place where great change can emanate from if it ever really was? I concur with the statement in the undercommons:  the only possible relationship today to the university is a criminal one. Why enter the University in the first place when we can ‘steal’ all we like about it and make our own somewhere else? Learning can take place within this framework of people living and eating together, in a maintained space with anyone who wanted to be involved, for anyone to use. Of course, there are plenty of examples of such attempts!
Reconstruction of the commons
Towards the end of the general assembly it was decided it was imperative, and hopefully would be fun, to name the building. A few possibilities were suggested; for instance, ‘bank of love’, to which someone asserted ‘compassion imagery is damaging to our cause, we’re not a charity!’ and almost everyone openly concurred. Someone said off-handedly, ‘why not “Radical Bank?”’ This was met with several bursts of enthusiasm from around the room, and without even needing to put it to consensus, this is what it was called from that moment on. The rest of that evening was spent establishing water, electricity, and crucially, our own security. This was a incredibly busy and enriching time and just by helping out building maintenance in any way I could increased my knowledge of squatting rapidly.
The next evening I was still in Radical Bank. I found myself suddenly very involved all its many goings-on, and it was a huge rush. A team had been co-ordinated at a general meeting to decide how to handle media, how to convey what messages there were. To begin with this was basically just an exciting and friendly discussion group who wrote collectively. We made sure to pay close attention to each word we used in our initial press release: for example, saying we’d taken the bank because it’s already rightfully ours. We wanted to keep tight reigns on how the nascent movement was represented. We worked hard to represent broadly the feeling of the countless people involved. On Tuesday morning, we were at first over-joyed to see the the front page of the Argus read -‘Austerity protesters occupy former bank’, to be in a newspaper felt like a huge recognition. On actually reading it other reactions happened: no mention of the name rad bank, instead “bank of love”’. On reflection we were obviously uncomfortable with people seeing that article and thinking of us in those terms. For sure, action and cohesiveness more important than nitpicking, but it was our first important lesson in co-optation and it shouldn’t be forgotten.
Some of us pushed for a space to exclusively talk about theory. On the evening of Tuesday June 9th this finally came about. We found ourselves saying very firmly who we were and what we wanted, and voraciously defending our lack of a leader, our horizontal organisation. This discussion helped reaffirm and clarify what a lot of us believe (though some were frustrated with the lack of action discussed) several incidents since confirmed for us that everyone involved should get an idea of the thinking behind some of our informal reasonings. Even though, simply working, and sharing with people in mutual respect without much sleep or time for reflection has taught me more about authority, communication, experience, co-optation, friendship, physical attraction, hardship, tragedy and personal history, and most importantly my own limitations and strengths than could years of private study.
Over the the densely packed week of my working for in Radical Bank I underwent a huge change. My usual anxiety washed away to be replaced by all new difficulties and concerns, but about practical stuff, and caring for others, a being-in-the-world I hadn’t really experienced before. I think it was the rare combination of dignified work, and instant cohesive group friendships. People visited every day. We hoped that as well as showing them around what had been done with the place – all the renovation and transformations – people were finding out how easy it is to open and maintain their own squats, that they can do anything with, as long as in some kind of group. Despite been around for a little over a week we had an official open day on Sunday 14th June. It was what everything had been leading up to, a chance for a celebration of what had been done, and to invite others to become involved.
“A bank is not an island”
Our first open day was everything we had hoped it would be. Around 700 people passed through our doors in a handful of hours, bringing together so many who normally would be isolated from one another. We hosted various workshops throughout the day on essential subjects. We curated various film exhibitions from local artists and activists. We were able to provide free vegan food all day. It was a positive, uplifting and productive day for both those who have been previously involved with the Radical Bank and those experiencing it for the first time.
Some intense and important conversations I had that day included discussions about the ‘issue of homelessness’. In the beginning we’d partially justified our project by talking about the 1.5 million empty buildings in this country, which aligned our project with the plight of all those who are refused a warm and safe place to stay at night by diktat of private property. We adamantly never claimed to speak for those without places to live, or to be an open squat, but we did have have large building with all the amenities where people anyone could stay, within certain discretionary limits, including agreeing to the compact we had all made. The building for some was fulfilling the role of a shelter, which meant ensuring comfortable lives of those already staying there. Having several people live here who didn’t have anywhere else to stay brought with it infinite complexities, not least our own prejudice.
“If justice happens in a court, it’s an oversight!”
Compiling a defence democratically, and with a large group of people who are decidedly not law experts, was lengthy. Added to that was the problem that without adequate time between the notice of court we had to defend ourselves with what we could scrabble together for Tuesday morning. After talking to every sympathetic solicitor we could find, it seemed the only defence we had was a moral one, and that certainly we couldn’t win, but that it was possible to push for an adjournment.
A defence statement was outlined, exploring the political dimensions of our occupation of the building. We framed our actions as in response to Barclays global malpractice. If you scratch even a little at the service of Barclays you find comic levels of interplanetary evil. We argued our Case should be thoroughly considered in its devastating implications for social justice and human rights. That the prospective eviction would violate of several articles of those human rights. That the property has become a political space of protest. We pleaded with the court to recognise that the site now also serves as housing for many “vulnerable” people. In contrast, we provided extensive evidence of our ‘good character’ and our vested efforts to renovate and maintain the property. We asked for an adjournment simply to make a proper defence, with actual solicitors. -This rough argument was complete transformed by legal professionals who gave us hours and hours of their time for our hopeless case. Of course, the magistrate effectively told us the human right of private property trumps our defence, case closed.
There are still ‘Persons Unknown’: we are dispersed have friends and contacts all over. We have joy, and our ties to each other. Radical Bank was a singular building, but the idea that anyone can take space and and try make a working alternative model for a different world, no one has ever successfully silenced this. For just one example, as of my writing this, 24th June 2015 the Elephant & Castle Social Centre flourishes, nearly a week old. We all learned a valuable lesson in court: if we engage with them on their own terms, we’ll only lose.
In the end is the beginning
We’re already surrounded by the stuff of utopia and dystopia in events and situations that make up our impossible times. How do can we respond to the collapse around us?
This was written still recovering from a tiny amount of sleep this last month. I’m still thinking about Assata Shakurs book, as it was the last thing I read, and like Assata’s my own writing has inevitably become an act erasure, and absence, for reasons of respect, affection, and security. There is so much I wish to tell you, but I want to protect and respect the friend’s associated with this place beyond the building we lived in: this cause.
Instead I’ll leave you with something else, to take or leave, as you wish. For a while I’d been reading the work of Denise Reiley, and thinking about the nexus of home, care and politics, and trying to express that in my own writing. I include here a poem written days before I first visited the building that was to be Radical Bank, and a poem I wrote 2 days after we were evicted, a time of roughly only two weeks! They are, and this is, and will be: a break with older forms, some broken pieces. Now for the archeologies of the future.
Poem from Two Days Before the Founding of Radical Bank
Connections must be made by apprentice joiners – knot tying – Trying another… remember that perfumed-jacket schtick “poets were always considered plumbers in his house, as they are the person that comes round to read the metre.” Well, I laughed -as well as hating it- especially as I never could be-fucked-to-read-or-even-be-bothered-to-begin-to grasp-what-metre-is-
_if I’m something then I’m using a trick with false pennies and magnets, a broken crank = get free electricity for life, and, like the invisible powering so many bulbs, but why? I’m a gender-nonspecific electricity stealer, freaking out anytime someone tries to:-
Use a poem to think class
Use a poem to think work
Use a poem to think suffering
Use a poem to think paranoia
Use a poem to think sexual compulsion
Use a poem to think gender O-pression to think Race O-pression to think torture and harm
a poem to think obsessive negative thinking fluctuating between wanting to harm your family and curiosity à you’ll always remember you used to hear voices of uncertain departure points and
Why do we need several worlds apart reprimanding themselves for shared laughter? Teachers are an Objective capital O
heads placed on backs in grotesque impossible contortions
that nearly… that bliss… that we are forced to accept… but condemnation is– because necessity is—because Crisis Ordinariness— just like a lower case I i refuse to admit then there is anything to my name
Poem from Two Days after the Eviction of Radical Bank
-Unofficial Communique #3 –
The thick mesh of all that is regulatory, all our reasoning
Forming the compact: we all agree to share
We (?) all agree we
live and work with each other
this huge building both not our and ours
They must stop taking advantage of us
We must develop modes of closure: silencing the aggressive, the…
No matter how uncomfortable
in all it’s forms, things must be talked openly
in an ideal world our communicative grid would make meetings superfluous
Things arrive before we know we need them, everyone gets on with tasks, people come and work and leave
Fun is a vital need!
Distrust all journalists, at/least/because/how/could anyone who hasn’t been living and working Here portray here, because agenda.
This about space & place, but that can move, gather
We won’t let them make us think we’re powerlessness anymore
That we squatted a bank is a happy accident – And that is what we have paid the banks for. We gave them everything, keeping only precarities.
We gave them unprecedented access to political power.
—The worst crisis of capitalism in generations became became a retraction of what little we’d been bought with.
What on earth really happened here?
I call for—
 ‘Autonomy in the city? Reflections on the social centres movement in the UK’, Stuart Hodkinson and Paul Chatterton