I’m very excited to share this guest post from activist author Liam Barrington-Bush. Many activists across the UK left have been despairing since last week’s election result, and discussing ‘what next’ endlessly in pubs, workplaces and on social media. One recurrent theme people seem to agree on is the need to organise in communities and build power at the grassroots. This is exactly what Liam has been doing – I hope you find his story as inspiring as I have.
Tucked away in the North London borough of Barnet, a revolution is brewing. As housing campaigns have sprung up across the capital, the families – and children – of the Sweets Way estate have fought back against the so-called ‘regeneration’ of their estate and have maintained the longest-running housing occupation in London since the start of the housing crisis.
I first heard about Sweets Way in mid-February, when someone Tweeted me about the mass evictions playing out at the former-MOD barracks, to make way for the first phase of a private ‘redevelopment.’ Shortly after, I cycled up to Barnet to meet a few other housing activists from Barnet Housing Action, and the dozen or so families left on the estate, following the initial purge.
The atmosphere was tense, with some expecting bailiffs that morning. Images of lives thrown into chaos scattered the extensive greenspaces of Sweets Way. Clothing, broken furniture, children’s toys and other remnants of lives uprooted too quickly, appeared as glimpses into the stories of the now-former residents of the estate. Tears flowed freely, as families met in the common areas that cold February morning, preparing for their community to be wrenched apart by the forces of the free market.
Meanwhile, a few of us shared stories from Focus E15, the New Era estate, and Our West Hendon with those gathered. Though there is never a template for this kind of organising, highlighting that others have actually come together and fought against social cleansing seemed to spark a powder keg of built up resentment about the mistreatment Sweets Way families had been subjected to.
An hour later, families were pushing their ways through security into the Barnet Homes offices across the road, blockading the front doors, with kids, home from school for half-term, at the frontlines. Everyone there managed to secure meetings with senior staff at Barnet Homes that same afternoon, and less than three weeks and two cramped gatherings in residents’ living rooms later, we were occupying 60 Sweets Way together.
In the time since, Sweets Way Resists has organised on four main fronts (though none of these truly capture the breadth and depth of what has happened):
1) Radical case work: Families and supporters actively advocating for one another in meetings and engagements with Barnet Council, inspired by Focus E15 in Newham and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL)
2) Media campaigning: Carrying out stunts and public actions to draw attention to the social cleansing of Sweets Way, Barnet, and London as a whole, targeting both Barnet Council and private developers, Annington Properties
3) Local awareness raising: Running a weekly street stall inspired by the backbone of the Focus E15 campaign
4) Occupation: Maintaining a community house where families and supporters come and go, highlighting the quality of houses slated for demolition in the development plans, while using the space to organise events and actions
We have achieved change on several fronts, in a very short time. This has ranged from getting individual families rehoused in better accommodation and garnering extensive media coverage of the issues, to forcing those responsible for the situation into the public spotlight, and inspiring the emergence of other housing campaigns further afield.
What has made all of this possible is a culture of mutual support and collective resistance. The issues faced by families have been utterly crushing at times, with council and developer intimidation regularly bringing people close to break-down.
However, being there for one another and realising the power of collective action to change the story playing out has kept everyone going, through the dark days and nights in recent months. We have practically and emotionally supported one another through trauma, and become collectively and individually stronger through the process.
For me, as a relative outsider who has become thoroughly immersed in the day-to-day realities of life at Sweets Way, the collective response to the recent election stands as a symbol of what we have been able to create together.
After waking up on May 8th to a torrent of misery and despair on Facebook and Twitter, I went to the occupied community house for the seventh birthday of Daniel, a child recently evicted from the estate. What was most notable there, was the absence of any real concern about the election. There was a magician, karaoke, discussions of campaign tactics, parents, kids, occupation rotas, and cake, but not a lot of talk about ‘politics,’ per se.
A few comments were made about Tory bastards, but it was hardly the abysmal front page news my Facebook feed had suggested. Of course the fight ahead will be a monumentally hard one, but at Sweets Way the election was not the crippling loss so many elsewhere perceived it to be.
This is because we have been creating our own power at Sweets Way. It is not a power that was fazed by election results, but one that has emerged in spite of politicians, and which will continue to grow without them.
This is the Sweets Way revolution. It is knowing that democracy is not about which posh white men hold public office, but about what we do to shape our lives together in the places we live. You’re always welcome to join us!
The Sweets Way community house is located at 76 Oakleigh Road North, Barnet, N20 9EZ. You can follow the campaign online at sweetswayresists.wordpress.com and sign a petition calling on Annington homes to stop the evictions and the demolition here.
Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator and author. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades
If you’re interested in getting involved with some grassroots campaigning but don’t know where to begin, there are lots of meetings and events in the wake of the election where you can meet others and find out what is going on near you.
The People’s Assembly Against Austerity is organising meetings and demonstrations across the UK: http://www.thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/local_calendar.
In London, The Brick Lane Debates are hosting a Radical Left General Assembly on Saturday 23rd May 1-7pm.
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