Yesterday I visited Friern Barnet Library, camera in hand, to meet the new residents. They have offered to help host a community library until such time as a more permanent solution has been agreed. Yesterday they threw the doors open and met the locals. Whatever preconceptions you may have of them, I think it is fair to say they are honest, decent and intelligent people. They have expressed a keeness to work with local groups to achieve a satisfactory solution to the issue of reopening Friern Barnet Library and have allowed local people to use this public building for the first time since April.
During my visit, they read out a letter from Barnet Council, which rather bizarrely offers them another building to open a community library in. Sadly, this is Friary House, which has already been deemed unsuitable.
Here is one of the members of the group, Phoenix, reading out the letter from the council
I am a firm believer in direct action and protest. I also think that it is criminal to let public buildings stand empty. One interesting twist was to find out that the group are squatters displaced by the law Mike Freer helped to get passed which banned squatters from private dwellings. The unintended side effect is that these displaced people are now taking over empty public buildings. The irony that they are now on Mike Freers doorstep was wasted on no one. I asked if it was coincidental. One of the group replied that Mr Freer will be seeing a lot more squatting in public buildings in and around Finchley as a result of his stance.
I must say that as a volunteer at The Passage, a day centre for homeless people, I have many friends who are homeless who visit our centre for food, shelter and support. There are thousands upon thousands of people in London with "no fixed abode". As a rich society, which spends trillions of pounds on weapons and wars, I find it disgusting that we cannot provide permanent and secure shelter for everyone in our city who needs it. I spent half an hour talking to Phoenix about how he came to end up involved with Friern Library. It may shock you to know that I found a man who is responsible and intelligent. He also is a great organiser and very media savvy. His views about his fellow man are compassionate and caring. When we talk about the homeless and people who are squatting, many people fail to understand that these are not positive choices people make, because they want to disrupt society or other peoples happiness. They are often desperate situations people find themselves in because their lives have not worked out well.
A couple of other things truly astonished me about the library occupation. Firstly the council had left the heating on in the building. This meant that they are still paying for electricity. They also left all the keys in the building. This made it far easier for Phoenix and the other occupiers to get access. It shocks me that since April, this ghost library has been sitting there, a refuge warmed at our expense whilst thousands slept in the open air and cold. I am glad that at least someone is getting a good nights sleep now, courtesy of my tax.
I would suggest that anyone who has any preconceptions about squatters and why they find themselves in that position have a chat with Phoenix and the rest of the team. You may not agree with their actions, but you may change your views of why they are driven to such measures.