The world of squats is a wonder of our age, principally because of the life choices made by the squatters.
This was demonstrated to me by Squatney Wick in 2013, and again today on my privileged visit to Cat Hill Forest Protection Camp. For both visits my invitation came from Phoenix, the saviour with his Occupy colleagues of Friern Barnet Community Library, which they reopened in September 2012 and which formed the plot for the documentary film A Polite Revolution, which received its world premiere in the fantastic world of Squatney Wick.
Today’s invitation followed ANY QUESTIONS at Friern Barnet Community Library on 18 July, after which Phoenix, one of the panellists, agreed to a meeting of minds at Cat Hill to progress ideas for reigniting in Friern Barnet the spirit of enthusiasm which the Occupy members had brought to the library in 2012 during their period of five months when they inspired the local community to follow their example and bring life to the library which Barnet Council had closed.
So I arrived outside the locked gate to the old site of the Middlesex University Cat Hill Campus. The buildings had been demolished in preparation for a massive housing development by London and Quadrant Housing Trust. Inside the gates were the squatters – among them Donny Vortex, Daniel Gardonyi and Petra Rakoczi who had come with Phoenix to ANY QUESTIONS. They were in an earnest discussion with a police constable, which I could see through the wire grille of the tall locked gate.
With me outside the gate were some members of the Cat Hill residents community who, I soon learned, had been waging a war for four years with the developers in protest against the threat of, as they described it,
“one of London’s last ancient forests, under threat of being destroyed to build luxury housing.”
The earnest discussion within the gates was because the policeman was asking the squatters to leave the site, despite their protestations that a court judge had given them leave to stay. One of the local residents telephoned his solicitor and asked him to come round quickly to acquaint the policeman of the legal rights of the squatters. The police constable, realizing that his bluff was being answered by coherent argument, became less aggressive, and Donny was allowed out of the gate. He and I sat down in a more relaxed manner and mapped out plans for the squatters to liaise with the library activists in meeting local schools in projects for the schoolchildren to research the background to the reopening of their local library.
The situation of the police threat to the camp precipitated the camp leaders then to call an immediate Peace Assembly. Here the tale really took off. I was privileged to receive an insight into how activists can and do change societies, by the power of determination and reasoned argument.
The Peace Assembly was convened at the camp of the squatters, in the wood behind the building site where the developers were laying the foundations for building what was designed to become a massive housing development. The residents led me through a gap in the fence, through this wood, and we arrived at the camp. Here veterans of Occupy camps from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, and of anti-fracking camps at Balcombe, calmly showed me what they had created at Cat Hill. A vision of a brave new world.
For three months they had cultivated the land; planted thriving allotments of vegetables and majestic sunflowers; planned how the settlement would blossom into
Community garden allotments,
a centre for workshops, classes, lectures, concerts, theatre and cinema, art studios, and youth and community activities.
I met and chatted to “Anon”, a “war artist” who showed me on his phone his sketches of the camp over their three-month occupancy. His anonymity was preserved by his face being covered by a mask and dark glasses. His manner was totally relaxed.
But the Peace Assembly needed to be started.
We sat in a circle in the wood. I had attended similar gatherings before. Phoenix had facilitated four Think Tanks in Friern Barnet Community Library in September 2012, at which he had calmly and methodically invited representatives of Barnet Council to explain to residents of Friern Barnet how the Council wished the community might run the library there. These Think Tanks had been so constructive that the Council, alarmed at the prospect of being persuaded to cede the running of the library to the community, had instead instituted proceedings for the eviction of the squatters. The eviction was averted by the Court direction to Barnet Council to negotiate a lease with representatives of the community, and the keys to the library under these conditions were ceremoniously passed from the squatters to the Council, and from them to the community trustees.
We sat in a circle in the wood, twenty of us.
From 6pm till 8pm.
The facilitator calmly explained how the debate would proceed. A piece of wood, held by each speaker in turn, would give that speaker the right to explain his or her thoughts without interruption. The piece of wood would then be passed to the next person in the circle, and this process could be repeated for a further round of contributions. We adhered to these rules and listened to each other.
The group was composed of a wide variety of members, with a wide variety of agendas and aspirations. The key to the proceedings was a joint respect shown to each other, which increased both our knowledge of these agendas and thereby our tolerance of a range of ideas and possible courses of action.
There had clearly, it became apparent, been tensions among the disparate elements in the camp. What was wonderful was that these tensions, by being discussed in an orderly, disciplined and tolerant manner, were released by the process of debate and dialogue.
The idealists who had set up the camp and planted and watered the seeds on the allotment.
The residents who had FOR FOUR YEARS mounted a campaign against the L and Q plans for a massive housing development on the Middlesex University woodland site.
Nick, the bearded sage with visions of how the project would become a cultural centre for the community.
The Hungarians, veterans of squats at St Paul’s Cathedral, Friern Barnet Library and The Bohemia pub, whose recently offered expertise and enthusiasm had rekindled the activism of the camp.
Thus were the tensions discussed, and plans formulated for action.
1 Respect and tolerance for one another.
2 Realisation of the strengths of the squatters and the weaknesses of the developers.
3 Strengths of the squatters:
Ability to harness the national media for publicity,
The judge’s ruling that occupation of the land was legal.
4 Weaknesses of L and Q:
The actions of the police were a bluff and unsupported by legal documents.
5 A strategy was needed for future action:
Lock the front gate,
Keep the developers out for a day by non-violent action,
Harness the views of a legal team,
Prepare for the day of action – harness media contacts, film the event from a helicopter.
Nick’s vision for Cat Hill to be built as an Eco-village began to be a realistic plan for the future. An alternative to global warming and a way forward for mankind.