London: A new social centre under siege in Hackney

imc | 29.01.2008 | Free Spaces | Social Struggles | London

A new autonomous space in Hackney sustained two violent attacks this week as representatives of both Howen Estates Ltd., and the Hackney Metropolitan Police attempted to forcibly and illegally gain entry to the newly opened social centre.

At approximately 7:17pm on the evening of Tuesday 22 January, three people claiming to be the owners of the property attempted to kick in the front door and break into the building, refusing to engage in dialogue with the occupiers. No police officers were involved though within 11 minutes nearly 30 members of the local activist community had arrived at the premises to support the occupiers.

Purported representatives of Howen Estates, Ltd, returned on the morning of Wednesday 23 January at approximately 11:45am. They arrived in a large van, were equipped with a number of tools, and again tried to gain forcible entry to the building, ignoring and ridiculing the Section 6 Legal Warning posted on the door and the requests of the occupiers for dialogue and non-violence.


Having seriously damaged the street entrance to the building, the purported owners stopped only after police officers arrived at approximately 12:15pm. Police had been called by the occupiers to respond to the supposed owners’ contravention of Section 6, Criminal Law Act, 1977.


The occupiers attempted to open dialogue with the police, and met the officers at the building’s back entrance. There, they were accused by the officers and supposed owner of gluing a padlock on the building’s street entrance, and the officers demanded entry to the building to investigate.


After conferring with the owner, the officers also claimed they had called “the electricity company” and had proof that the occupiers had no account and were hence illegally abstracting electricity.


The occupiers had no knowledge of any glued padlock on the building. Furthermore, according to an email sent from Ashleigh Corbett, Energy Advisor for British Gas Business, an electricity account had been opened by the occupiers on 18 January 2008, with a one-year contract.


Regardless, officers maintained that they had evidence of illegal electricity abstraction, and proceeded to attempt forcible entry to the building making use of tools including a crowbar and a battering ram. After breaking through the back gate and entering the garden, officers began trying to break through the building’s back door.


Meanwhile, over twenty members of the local activist community gathered outside in support of the occupiers and officers closed the back gates, impeding witness photo and video documentation. In response, several activists scaled nearby walls to film officers as they illegally broke through the back entrance fire doors and began to dismantle the barricades constructed by the occupiers.


While the police discussed the situation, the occupiers overheard officers commenting on the accents of those inside the building and speculating on the possibility of “getting them” on immigration grounds.


The struggle over the remaining unstable and makeshift back barricades – built from doors, radiators, and scrap pieces of metal and wood – lasted over fifteen minutes, said the occupiers. In the final minutes, the barricades had tipped over and on top of the occupiers before they were able to push them back into place.


“I was scared of being crushed by the barricades and was surprised by the aggressiveness of the situation,” said one occupier.


Officers had become aware that supporters were filming their activities from nearby walls and rooftops and re-opened the back gates. Activist supporters repeatedly told the officers that their actions were illegal, that charges can and may be pressed against them, and that this is a civil matter – between the owners and the occupiers – and not a criminal matter.


“They [the police] appeared to loose confidence after we made it clear that we had evidence and were willing to press charges,” said one witness. “That’s why they left.”


Leaving the garden, the officers said “You’ve won this round, but we’ll come back. It could be tomorrow, it could be at two in the morning. We will get in, and you’ll all have to come in [to the station].”


Set to open to the public in early February, the as yet un-named autonomous space hopes to provide non-commercial social space for the community and to host activities such as: detainee support, a bike workshop, free language classes, a donations-only café, silk-screening and graffiti workshops, and much more.


For more information on the attacks or on future social centre activities and organizing, contact Joan at 07506095491.