London: Autonomous Sports Clubs

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Forced evictions and brutal street murders in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, committed by a militarised police, have typified the ‘preparations’ for this year’s World Cup in Brazil, showing once again that sport cannot be detached from politics. The institution of international sport is an important vehicle for the violent neoliberal project.

But, sport has also allowed people a way to challenge all forms of oppression and hierarchy. In London, there have been a number of projects established: from self-organised, non-competitive training, to exhilarating fan experiences in the stands embodying antifascist, queer-feminist and anarchist politics. As sport becomes more and more commercialised, increasingly expensive, consistently reinforcing gender norms, and unashamedly involved in the destruction of working class homes and neighbourhoods (as World Cup, Olympics and Commonwealth Games ‘preparations’ have shown), people are organising their own radical and liberatory sports practices. These projects see radical politics practiced and discussed openly, and people come together to have fun and socialise. The projects, from the Old Spotted Dog – home to Clapton FC – to squatted gyms, are attracting more and more people and the number of projects across the city are growing as people become inspired and self-organised.

Antifa Football

Clapton FC have been the subject of much animated discussion amongst the radical left (well, those who are London based) over the last couple of months. Flare-wielding anti-fascists have made the old scaffold and corrugated iron structure their home, and afternoons and evenings have been filled with red smoke, Tyskie, chanting and an amazing atmosphere. Numerous eulogies have been blogged and tweeted from first time fans swelling the scaffold. As then manager Chris Wood said at celebrations after their last match of the season “your support has been the talk of the league”.

Clapton FC’s exponential growth has seen supporter numbers rise from only 14 two years ago to 246 at the penultimate match of the season against FC Romania. Andy, club secretary of Clapton FC from 1987-1992, is a fountain of knowledge on the club’s history, and is committed to its future. He tells me how concerns about the management of the club led to the establishment of the Friends of Clapton FC two years ago. The group picked up a couple of members partly through social networking, then “I got contacted by Rob [of the Clapton Ultras] who said to me, ‘I’ve been to the last couple of games and I’ve really enjoyed them, I’ll get a couple of mates down.’” Part of the attraction was that you could bring your own lager to the grounds. Attempts have been made to ban the cans once or twice, Andy says, but “at the end of the day the law is only the law if people are prepared to abide by it”. It turns out Rob has a lot of friends.

Andy is enthusiastic about the recent ‘anti-fascist stance’ the club has taken. Reaching a review of the present day of the club after going back as far as 1890 (when Clapton FC were the first English club to play in Europe, with a bit of a ‘toff’ fan base back then) he said: “2014 dilapidated ground, scaffold stand full of anti-fascists having a great time, and women starting the chants, cos it’s Clapton innit. I really can’t see why anyone would have a problem with that [anti-fascism], whatever political persuasion you’re from. More people come to Clapton because there is the party atmosphere, an antifascist atmosphere, it’s great because everyone is involved, children, men, and women. There’s one supporter in his 70s, with his sunhat on in the middle of the scaffold, his dad used to watch Clapton FC too, he said ‘it’s the best I’ve ever seen it’.”

The fans have received some threats over twitter from some EDL accounts, but again, this just swelled the antifa numbers as friends came out in support. Racism within the league, and of course beyond, saw the manager of Great Wakering Rovers post racist tweets about a Romanian and Bulgarian ex-pat team. Clapton responded to this by giving FC Romania a huge welcome when they visited the Old Spotted Dog, complete with smoke bombs in the Romanian flag colours. They lost 3-1 but as Andy pointed out, “It’s not about whether you win or you lose, they lost pretty comprehensively to FC Romania, everyone had a good time and that to my mind is what grassroots football at this level is about.”

As well as the preparations made for the FC Romania match, Andy describes other efforts the fans have made to bring Clapton FC into the community by raising money for a homeless player to attend the homeless world cup, and collecting non-perishable food to give to a Newham foodbank. Some of the Clapton Ultras will also be taking their banner down to support the Focus E15 mum’s March for Decent Housing on Saturday 5th July.

As well as anti-fascism and pyros, there’s another battle Andy and the fans are taking on – to reclaim their club from the current management, whose running of the club has seen little investment, either financially or emotionally. Andy describes his vision for a fan owned club where one person has one vote, then, “if the majority of people want to rename the club Clapton bumhole, then we’ll be renamed Clapton bumhole and everyone will be happier”.

Back down in south London, Dulwich Hamlet Football Club is also home to a militant fan base who wear their politics on their sleeves. Recently their supporters acted swiftly when it was revealed that the club had been using workfare. Fans immediately contacted the club to express their concerns that this exploitation was happening and the management issued a statement saying they had ended their involvement in the scheme. As one fan noted in their impassioned blog piece “in grubby material reality they [football clubs] are businesses, and as likely to be run badly or immorally as a supermarket or pawnbroker.” But the campaigning efforts of the fans show that we can demand that our sports clubs are not using forced unpaid labour, that this exploitation is not to be tolerated anywhere.

Another development in grassroots football is the establishment of a number of teams by the radical left. After this year’s squatter’s football people expressed an interest in playing together more regularly than the annual event, and a South London regular kickabout was established, open to all levels and genders or none. The Solidarity Federation too are starting up a Sports and Social Club with plans for football, walking, and more, whilst the Feminist Fightback FC have been training together every Sunday in Victoria Park for years now.

Squatted Gyms

Just behind Camden High Street on Arlington Road is the old Mornington Gym with stained glass windows built back in the 1930s. It was squatted in January this year and named Le Squat Sportif. The gym had been empty for two years after being sold off by Camden council and now faces a future as luxury flats. But in the mean time, the squatters living there have opened up the large rooms and sports hall for use by the local community, running a variety of classes free of charge. Leon James, one of the squatters living there, describes how they were inspired by the space when they entered and wanted to open it up for others to use: “As soon as we moved in here, we were like – that looks like a tango hall”. After two years of dormancy, the gym is back up and running with classes including queer tango, self defence and women’s self defence, yoga, and hula hooping. The collective have also hosted a number of benefit nights and a cabaret for International Women’s day.

The classes were organised by people simply approaching the collective wanting to offer their time and skills in the space. Of the gym classes, the hula hooping class is the most popular with an average of 40 people taking part in the workshop, practicing moves and ending with a jam “where everyone’s just enjoying being in the space together”. They have also seen the tango classes build over time. “It’s not typically a squatter’s extra curricular activity, but now we’ve got a nice mix of squatters and people from the local community who come.”

The gym collective does not brand itself or its activities as explicitly anarchist or anti-fascist, Leon explains, “but if people speak to us, they’d get a good idea of our values and ideologies and lots of people have been encouraged to come and say hello from the Camden New Journal piece.” As the blurb for the queer tango classes explain: “we always teach both roles, as we believe, the tango exceeds aspects related to gender or sex”. He describes the differences between regular gyms where it is a very individualising experience, people just doing their thing, to this space where people are encouraged to stick around and socialise after the classes. Of course, that the classes are completely free is an important difference too. People can organise events such as their Brazil solidarity football tournament without worrying about pitch hire. “Squats allow you this freedom to experiment…to create spaces where you can challenge society’s norms, see what works, see what doesn’t work, whether it’s about sport, art or anything else”, Leon said.

After writing a letter to the developers explaining their project they received no reply. The developers are currently struggling with the council over planning permission so for the meantime, the gym, the gigs, and cabaret is still running. You can sign up to their mailing list here to keep up to date with the events.

Anti-Fascist Kick Boxing Gym

Another squatted gym in London has been running regular muay thai kick boxing classes for over a year now, following in the tradition of squatted anti-fascist boxing gyms in Italy and Greece, and the UK’s own now evicted Keep Fit Comrade. More secretive than Le Squat Sportif because the space is a home rather than a social centre, and because by keeping it within the squatters network, they can ensure that “pretty good people turn up…so people never say ‘man up’ you don’t have to have that conversation…” explains Bob, who has been organising and running the classes since the start. The sessions here started for a number of reasons, he explains: people wanted a place to train and get fit and to learn practical fighting skills that may come in useful when coming into contact with bailiffs or fascists. But, he stresses, this is not an anti-fascist cell, rather, “the group shares an anti-fascist stance, and have that as an underlying political base from which we train… we’re anti-fascists who train together in a supportive, friendly environment and when we end up fighting bailiffs or fascists, it might be useful hopefully.” The deeply sexist culture and body-fascism of regular boxing, muay thai and gym spaces was also another reason for the sessions.

The gym still has wall-length mirrors from its previous life as a commercial gym, although the walls are now painted with a brightly-coloured polka-dotted ACAB, a policeman being eaten by an octopus, and a huge squat-anarcha-queer-feminist symbol.

The classes see around 20 people meet each week to train together in a safe, supportive and respectful environment. The classes are led by one of the more experienced people, with this changing every so often to allow others to share their skills and different approaches. Being self-organised and horizontal, people are free to make suggestions on how the classes are run. Although kicking and punching each other, they are encouraged to ‘look after each other’. This sort of care, mutual respect and encouragement, good communication, and relaxed atmosphere being key to practicing a traditionally competitive sport differently. Whilst these are some of the ways in which the group try to do things differently, putting anti-fascist principles into practice, Bob notes that this is an open question that they are forever working on. People’s regular attendance has meant that the group has developed together and, Bob points out, is a “continual tacit endorsement that it’s going quite well”. The classes are all free, with people chipping in if they can to pay for equipment; this makes the sport possible for those who cannot afford £10 for a one hour class that most gyms charge. After the class the group have a meal together that someone in the group has prepared, with relaxing and socialising lasting late into the evening.

London’s radical left has seen an upsurge of interest in sports for fitness and socialising over the past months. Whilst there has always been an engagement, it seems that more and more people are embracing autonomous, self-organised sports in their lives with the number of projects and those involved in them increasing. All of the projects discussed here are located on the edges of rapidly gentrifying areas, making the urgency and significance of such politics strongly felt by all who participate: it’s not just about play but survival. There have been calls for the left in this period of crisis to focus on collective social reproduction. These projects are about exactly that, about our well-being, fun, and socialising. As we rage against work, and all forms of exploitation, our demand and desire for leisure time plays a central part in this.

[Source: Occupied Times, June 20, 2014.]