It started with the kind of generous idea only Scrooge himself would have a problem with. Having occupied London’s Cavell House, the vacant former RBS head office, the Love Activists, a collective of homeless radicals who combine the revolutionary eloquence of Tyler Durden with the constructive community spirit of Emmet from The Lego Movie, announced its plan to serve Christmas dinner for the estimated 6,000 street homeless in London.
On Christmas Eve, owners of the building, Greencap – a defunct Jersey-registered company – obtained an emergency possession order, which led to a dramatic eviction, ignoring a pending court case to decide the legal status of the occupation.
Images of core Love Activists, including Danny Freeman, balancing precariously on one of the building’s tiny balconies (see previous page) to buy time for their pro bono legal team to overturn the order, leads to a mass outpouring of support from the press and public, with even the Daily Mail supporting their efforts.
An out-of-hours judge agrees to review the case, finding in the Love Activists’ favour, but police employ delaying tactics to prevent the group re-entering the building. Instead, they pitch up on the pavement opposite and distribute public donations of food, clothes and sleeping bags until the new year. For them, eviction is an occupational inevitability. And this is only the beginning.
Love is the drug
Over the next month, I witness the Love Activists mastermind a string of audacious actions, from takeovers of high-profile buildings and impassioned addresses at Occupy Democracy rallies, to organising the March For Homes, which led 3,000 protestors to City Hall. It recently launched the True Love Campaign, to roll back apathy and promote a new model of representative democracy.
As Freeman explains, the name comes from one of the group’s defining principles; love being the force “that binds us, regardless of our differences”. The activists see harnessing positivity as a great social motivator: “There’s no limit to what we can achieve if we do this.”
The first achievement they’re aiming for is to provide an umbrella under which to unify the aims of a broad swathe of activists involved in housing, civil rights, privacy and sustainability issues to lobby parliament for real change, and to combat austerity’s entrenchment of inequality. It’s a fitting ambition for the 800th anniversary year of the Magna Carta.
The group’s tools are non-violent direct action and digital media. Events are organised and publicised via social media, and the Love Activists’ revolution will be livestreamed. During the time I spend following them, the group’s supporters were updated through a near-constant video link. Highlights included a bailiff snatching a phone from a protestor in Soho, and a senior police officer keeping important paperwork literally under his hat to prevent LAs from seeing whether it was really an eviction notice or a Bodean’s menu. But while they understand the value of a hashtag, the Love Activists also offer a real-world way for the disenfranchised to engage with issues they care about, beyond signing an e-petition. The TLC campaign has kicked off with a nationwide wave of street kitchens to feed the homeless, eviction resistance operations to house the needy and a March For The Homeless in London on 15 April.
And the momentum is growing – last week, Russell Brand invited 150 Londoners to a literal political party, with activists occupying the Sweets Way estate in Barnet, securing yet more attention – and Facebook likes – for the growing diaspora of radical squatters. They’re authority’s worst nightmare – articulate, organised, sensible and well-informed, with a better knowledge of the law than most police and bailiffs.
Game of chess
Less than two weeks after the eviction in Charing Cross, the Love Activists take over the defunct 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street. They reopen it as a community centre in protest of what they call the “social cleansing” ahead of Crossrail, London’s pending gentrification superhighway. It’s a fittingly countercultural send-off for a club that hosted formative gigs from the Stones and Sex Pistols.
The downstairs is littered with sleeping bags and barricading materials – from trollies full of ballast to old tyres – ready to be shifted into position at a moment’s notice. Elsewhere lies a pile of donated clothing, a library and spaces set aside for spoken word and music. However, a public order notice has specified that the building is not to be used for performances, so this is technically for ‘chess tournaments and yoga’.
A Hungarian Love Activist, also called Danny, tells me: “This part of social cleansing is killing culture. While developers push people out of London, they’re redesigning the face of it. I’d never want to live without culture – without a home, maybe, I could imagine that. But if I don’t have a cultural identity, I don’t exist as a person.”
The occupation is a sophisticated operation. Parkour practitioners scout the building for entry points; electricians and plumbers among the squatters reconnect essential services, while builders fix up the interior and build barricades. A network of spotters in radio contact keep an eye out for the approach of police and bailiffs, including their distance, direction and numbers.
Inside is a varied crowd, from Girl With The Dragon Tattoo-esque types with Macbooks to former Scottish regiment servicemen, with day jobs such as graphic designers. Two things most have in common are a passion for social justice and
a fondness for smoking rollies.
As I tour the building, a sudden shout goes up. Bailiffs are approaching. Immediately, exits are barricaded. But the interim possession order has been improperly served, and after the activists point out the paperwork’s inconsistencies, the bailiffs are forced to back off. With the immediate danger over, the doors are briefly opened and I bravely leave the occupants to it.
Homes for all
Activist powerhouse and occupation coordinator Pete Phoenix has been active in the squatting community since the early Nineties. Squatting, he says, saved his life when he was made homeless at 19, and has saved countless people since.
“We’re the support network under the support network,” says Phoenix. “When people fall through the cracks, they come to the squats. There’s one and a half million empty buildings in the UK, and 102,000 people without homes. Nobody needs to be homeless. If the government can’t house people, give us 100 crowbars and we’ll house people.”
The night’s ‘chess tournament’ is a belter. Arena-filling troubadour Frank Turner plays to a packed crowd, though he’s barely audible over the voices singing his words back to him. The crowd aren’t just there for a secret gig, they’re obviously in tune with the spirit of the occupation. For attendees Seb and Anna, it’s a chance to support a cause close to their hearts.
“The creative industries are the greatest earner this country has,” says Seb. “We can give all the tax breaks in the world to get people to move their headquarters here, but I’m worried that London is being turned into Dubai, in that there’s not anything there. It’s fine if you are rich enough to move around the globe, but I’m from here – this is my city. What am I gonna do?”
Seb later volunteers his services to the squatters, and the following night his band, Those Unfortunates, play what turns out to be the last gig 12 Bar ever hosts. Police and bailiffs raid the premises the next morning.
Fight the power
Unbowed, the group embark on perhaps their most ambitious – and ultimately doomed – action: the takeover of the Curzon Plaza in Mayfair. A five-star hotel in its former life, they plan its new role as an activist university, with workshops in how to plan and carry out direct actions, and networking opportunities for protestors, civil-rights campaigners and pro-democracy enthusiasts.
I’m invited to the launch of the project. Hungarian Danny takes me on a tour of the building, finishing on the roof, with a spectacular view of central London’s rooftops. Then I spot a cluster of black-clad bodies creeping along a ledge outside a sixth-floor window.
They’re High-Court Enforcement officers, ie super-bailiffs. One of them smashes the window with a crowbar, and they move in. As I dash back towards the stairs, a nervous-looking officer living his own private Iranian embassy siege approaches, crowbar raised, and shouts, “Get down on the f*cking ground!” Perhaps realising he doesn’t have the authority to make such a request, he wanders off looking deflated as a more interpersonally-able squad leader walks up, shakes Danny’s hand and says, “Sorry guys, but I’m afraid we’re taking possession and you’re going to have to leave.”
It’s over already. Clearing the building takes just over an hour. Although the riot squad is present and the Met outnumbers the 18 squatters at least two to one, the mood among both squatters and police is good-natured. Besides, the Love Activists are already planning what comes next. It doesn’t take long: just last week, the activists took possession of its 17th building in five months.
It might seem easy for a generation most familiar with viewing grassroots activists as hapless Swampy clichés to write off the Love Activists as naive idealists. But the fact that its efforts are being met with such comedically macho overkill suggests that someone somewhere is worried about the group’s potential influence.
The authoritarian slapstick of the legal and civil response would be amusing if the stakes in the property crapshoot weren’t so high, and the dice weren’t so obviously loaded. Whether the loftier goals of democratic reform are realised remains to be seen a long way in the future, but in an election year, with everything to play for on all sides, they could become an effective focus for public protest.
If a collection of misfit fruitloops like Ukip can put immigration so firmly on the agenda, there’s no reason why well-intentioned activists backed by public support can’t make an issue of the housing crisis. And let’s face it, campaigning for a rent cap is a more mature way to register dissatisfaction with a remote political elite than a vote for Nigel Farage.