[ 23:13 thursday 7 october – haggerston road ]
following on from my previous post, the breakthrough in the krankenhouse’s search for a new building came with word that another group was planning to take over an abandoned courier warehouse in bermondsey for one night for a party. the krankenhouse group had been told that if they wanted to stay on afterwards and try to occupy the building they were welcome to do so. it sounded like the space was enormous, big enough to accommodate everyone from the group.
i arrived at the new space around 3am the night of the opening party with bertrand and a couple of other friends. the space was even bigger than i imagined, two vast open sheds with a two-storey office block attached on one side. by the time we arrived the police had already paid a visit and shut down the largest of the three sound systems. but the remaining two provided ample entertainment for the rest of the night. i cycled home at dawn.
as the party wound down a group of half a dozen krankenhousers established themselves with sleeping bags, water, an electric heater and canned food in one of the smaller rooms of the office block. i visited whenever i had a chance over the subsequent two weeks. the group’s primary objectives were to fend off any attempt by the building’s owner to regain possession of the building or any attempt by a rival group of squatter to displace them. just a few days after the party in the early hours of the morning an alarm was raised that some people were trying to break down one of the doors with a battering ram. the group rushed to defend the door and after a short skirmish they prevailed. that was the only serious attempt to disrupt the occupation.
on the day the crouch end building was evicted a steady convoy of refugees arrived at the new building with their belongings. by evening the floor of one of the sheds was covered with a patchwork of furniture, audio equipment, juggling kit and assorted bric a brac. for a few days people slept wherever they felt like throughout the office block but gradually pressure grew for a permanent allocation of rooms.
a couple of squat meetings were called where it was expected the question of rooms would be decided but each time it was put off. finally a day came when it couldn’t be avoided any longer. there was still a reluctance to broach such a contentious question but in the end one of the girls grasped the nettle and posed the question of how the allocation should be decided. several suggestions were made but it was rapidly agreed that the whole group should walk round the building looking at all the available rooms and people should put their names against a maximum of three rooms each. wherever a claim was uncontested the room would be allotted straight away. where claims were contested people would negotiate room by room until everyone had been assigned a place.
determining who gets which part of the building is the primary resource allocation question for any new squat. it’s an extremely complex problem and must be settled by a strong consensus if the squat is to be harmonious. if anyone feels resentful at the result or regards the process as unfair it can store up trouble for the whole community. as an ethnographer, and particularly as one with an insatiable interest in emergent collective decision-making, it was a great privilege to be permitted to be with the group during the process when this was decided.
it took an hour and a half for the group to make its way around the building, stopping at each room and discussing its pros and cons, then listing the people who wanted to make a bid for it. in some of the larger rooms various possibilities for sub-division were floated and a consensus needed to be reached on this before people could bid on parts of the space. there were a couple of heated moments when individuals sought to make a case that they had a particular right to a room they liked but otherwise the process was good-natured and slightly chaotic. the same girl who’d started the discussion took responsibility for making the list of rooms and bids. she also subtly defused the moments of aggro that cropped up. as the tour progressed i grew more and more impressed by her gentle shaping of the process.
after all the rooms had been inspected, all the sub-divisions had been agreed and everyone had put their names down against the rooms they wanted the group returned to the common room downstairs. with pleasing continuity this was the same room the advance group had lived in during the first weeks of occupation. people got themselves beers, settled down and the allocation process commenced. first the easy ones were apportioned, where only one person had made a bid. then the slightly trickier ones with two or three bidders. gradually the complexity increased and the trade-offs involved more steps. after a couple of hours i had to leave but i understand the process was still continuing two hours later. in the end only two people out of twenty-five felt unhappy with their lot, an amazing result from a process based entirely on consensus where there was no possibility for any person to impose a decision on anyone else. i think this experience did more to reaffirm my belief in democracy than anything i’ve witnessed before or since.
it was a joy seeing the community take root in the new space. such a huge blank canvas unleashed a surge of creativity and excitement in the group. by the end of march a bicycle stunt park had been constructed in one shed, a bar and lounge had been created from a twenty-five foot river boat in the other, the walls were decorated with artwork and smart graffiti. there were a couple of magical parties.
but the writing was already on the wall, hopes that agreement could be reached with the owner permitting the group to remain had come to nothing. it was clear eviction would come within a month and the tribe would have to move again.
slideshow and thumbnails below. the album is also on flickr.
: c :