Tuesday 24 October 2017

A Barnet Hero is in the press

Take your mind back five years. At that time, Barnet Council were not boasting that they "had not closed libraries, unlike evil Brent Council" (ed note: I added the word evil). No tweets like this back then

The reason? The Barnet Tories were at war with the local community in Friern Barnet, where they had closed the library. This happened on the 6th April. The Library was closed, a symbolic occupation took place and the local community realised they'd been shafted. The doors were shut and it seemed like all hope was lost. Then something extraordinary happened. On the same day, the Barnet Eye announced we were opening a "peoples library" on the village green outside. We invited residents to bring books and open our own library. To my utter amazement, over 400 people turned up, all bearing books. It was a truly memorable day and one of the proudest days of my life, to see such a spontaneous and joyous event occur. The event gave hope to the campaigners. As a result of the success, throughout the summer, pop up libraries were regularly held and a stock of books started to be built up. I stepped back, as the local community rightly wanted to run the campaign. The success was unprecendented. On the 22nd May, we even had the One Show come down and film the story. As the summer wore on, the people of Friern Barnet made their feelings clear and the council made it clear that they were not interested in listening.

As the summer wore on, I was wondering how the momentum of the campaign could be maintained. Despite bad press, national TV coverage and a regular library outside the library, Barnet Council were not in the least bit inclined to listen to the voters who elected them. On the 5th September, the story took a dramatic turn. We broke the story that the library had been occupied. We made our way straight there and spoke to "Dave".  Initially the occupiers stated that they were protesting against the changes to laws in squatting, which were brought in by Finchley MP Mike Freer. Once the occupiers were brought up to speed, they soon fell in behind the campaign to reopen the library.

Around this time I first met Pete Phoenix, veteran social campaigner. The Barnet Eye met Pete and explained the full history of the Peoples library. The Save Friern Barnet Library campaign came down and had a chat. At first, they were worried that getting involved with the occupiers may damage their relationship with the council. They quickly realised that as Barnet were not behaving in good faith, the occupiers offered the best opportunity to save the library. By the 9th, everyone had pulled together. The Occupiers received an email from the council, offering to engage with them and explore the possibility of opening a library. The Barnet Eye arrived to film the momentus coming together of Occupiers, residents and campaigners. Pete Phoenix read the council's email and we filmed it.

As the people's library had built a stock of books, it was a simple matter of restocking the shelves, and putting together a rota. Barnet had initially engaged in talks, but then in an act of bad faith, changed tack and started eviction proceedings. This despite implying that the occupiers had a license. Sadly for the Barnet Tories, they completely botched the legal arguments.

By February 2013 the council had capitulated. The Library was reopened as a volunteer run library. Not ideal, but at least there is still a library on the site. Pete Phoenix was the key figure amongst a whole slate of heroes.

I assumed that with the victory, we'd waved bye bye to Pete Phoenix. He had other projects and protest to fight. Then the Bohemia in Finchley closed. The owners, Antic, closed the doors and the fine building closed. Shortly after, I got an excited call from Helen Michael to say that Pete Phoenix had turned up with a group of occupiers and reopened it. I immediately went along and offered my services to help Pete put live music on. The occupiers asked the owners to grant them a licence to use the premises until it could be re let. Rather stupidly, the owners refused and there was a violent eviction. Wheras Pete and his group sought to protect and cherish the building, a new group moved in after, who trashed it and did tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. The good news was that Pete's protest put it on the map and it has been reborn as the Bohemia N12. There is beer brewed on site and live music.

Pete and the rest of the occupiers more recently have played a pivotal role in the protests against the redevelopment of Sweets Way, where local residents  in social housingwere booted out out to allow a developer to put up an estate for more well heeled people. They have also been active in protests against the gentrification of the Dollis Valley. Sadly Barnet seems to have become gentrification central, our biggest export being social housing tenants.

Through all of these struggles I developed a huge respect for Pete and recognised a man who was very much prepared to stand for his principles. I consider him a friend. Therefore I was chuffed to see this tweet earlier today.

The Guardian devoted  a whole two page spread to Pete today. I was delighted and it made my journey to work a pleasure. I immediately decided that I would contribute this blog, to remind our local readers just how much we owe Pete and his occupy colleagues. As I started putting this blog together, I started re-reading the blogs. The Friern Barnet library story is a truly amazing tale. I've not been back to the library since the handover. It is amazing to think that for nine months, it was the focal point of all things good in the local Barnet political scene and many friendships and alliances were forged there. I saw people I'd never dreamed of cooperating and working together. Rabbi's, retired accountants, councillors, council officials all sitting in a circle in a meeting chaired by an anarchist from Occupy.

It is perhaps ironic that the library that the Barnet Tories closed is the one which they then decided was the model for the rest of the service (volunteer run at arms length). The man who tried to shut it, Ex Councillor Robert Rams was booted out at the next council election. On the day that the library trustees took the keys, I wrote the following
I am proud that I have played some small part in saving Friern Barnet Library. I am proud to be recognised as one of the Famous Five Barnet Bloggers. We have facilitated change in this leafy suburban paradise. Today is yet another victory for the causes we support, but not because the keys to the library changed hands today. It is a victory because the community packed out the library and they have shown that they cannot be ignored. That is the real victory today

There is a council election next year. I sincerely hope that today's story in the Guardian reminds people just how dishonest and untrustworthy the Barnet Tories can be when they think no one is looking. So let's all put our glasses together for Pete Phoenix, who showed sleepy Barnet the power of direct action.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ironically Friern Barnet Library was probably the model for the new partnership libraries!