2007-02:Creating Common Ground (England)

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Creating Common Ground

A squatted community garden and a strategy for anti-capitalists.

By Gerrard Winstanley

In May this year, a few anarchists and other anti-capitalists based in Reading, UK, opened the squatted Common Ground Community Garden to the public for the first time, recieving support from all sides of their community, breaking an injunction in the process and now facing eviction. This is the story so far according to one person involved.

Some background, some inspiration and an idea:

Towards the end of 2006 I was heavily involved with Reading Grassroots Action (RGA), an anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian collective I had helped found two years earlier. Having taken part in various 'activist' mobilisations and activities, a few of us were beginning to reach a consensus on what we considered to be some of the strengths and faults of 'the movement', and were agreeing a rough idea of a direction forwards. Loosely speaking, this meant refocussing our activity towards issues in our local area, without abandoning international solidarity activity or losing the vibrant creativity and DIY direct-action mentality of the anti-capitalist movements of the late 90's and early 2000's. Also around this time, we were hatching a plan to open a squatted social centre in our town, inspired by the various radical social centres springing up around the UK. Being slow to get this off the ground however, we ended up squatting a small building as a temporary home instead.

So by October 2006, we were living in the former Womens Information Centre in the Katesgrove area of Reading. Having had their funding cut by Reading Borough Council the Womens Centre team moved out and this building joined its run-down & long-term derelict neighbours - all owned by the Council. Over the next month or so, the plan to open a social centre was dropped, as we realised that we just didnt have the organising capacity to run a space effectively. Living and working in Katesgrove however, we quickly discovered the total lack of any green or community space. Looking over our wall at the derelict gardens next door, with the stories of New York's community gardens and Zapatista land occupations in mind, I had an idea.

A community garden as a strategy for anti-capitalists?

This idea, to transform this derelict junkyard into a squatted community garden, did not sit in isolation in my mind. Instead I viewed it as possibly the first stage in a long-term strategy. For quite a while, I and some close comrades had been feeling like many UK anti-capitalists - including ourselves - were doing things out of habit, without considering the effects or effectiveness of these things, and certainly without these things being part of any cohesive long term plan. Over these few months, myself and another comrade developed what we consider to be a clear and concise strategy, mainly for ourselves but also applicable to others. Working backwards in our minds from the kind of world we would like to see, through what we considered to be the most likely way of this coming about (a mass 'movement of movements' forming around some commonality, namely a common enemy; capitalism), we identified four main objectives:

1. Recognise commonality between ourselves and others and facilitate the recognition of commonality between others.

2. Articulate and effectively communicate our analysis of society

3. Build collective confidence in ourselves and others.

4. Maintain our own organisations long-term.

It seemed to me that creating this community garden would be a (relatively) short/medium term activity that could fulfill these objectives to some extent. For our own group morale (and to fulfill objectives 3 and 4) I thought we needed to do something where we would feel successful and this project seemed like it couldnt fail to achieve this. If the garden lasted and was used by our community, it would be a great autonomous community project, self-organised and created through direct-action, and would hopefully be a positive way to introduce ourselves and our politics to our community. On the other hand, if the authorities tried to stop us or destroy the garden at any point, it would be easy to articulate ourselves and portray our politics as 'good' and the authorities as 'bad'. Eitherway, I felt we were onto a winner.

At the same time, I anticipated that it would go some way to fulfilling objective 1. Firstly, creating a space like this allows normally atomised people to get together socially and chat, in itself a good thing. However, because of the way the space has been created, it also means much of that conversation focusses on the politics involved. Reading is already a highly developed town, with an economy centred on the retail/consumer and high-technology sectors. In addition to this, development is rampant with new shopping centres, posh offices and luxury hotels and apartments seemingly appearing every day. This is also causing gentrification, as prices increase and long-term working-class residents are being pushed further and further out of the town. With shops, offices and luxury flats on one side, and victorian working-class housing and council estates on the other, our squat seemed to me to symbolise the 'border' between the 'developed, gentrified and consumerist Reading' and the Reading where ordinary people lived their lives. As it was pretty obvious that the Council planned to sell our space to developers for yet more posh apartments, I felt this would be a perfect space and project to open up communication between ourselves and our neighbours about these issues.

Struggling inside and outside: This is how we do it!

With my proposal accepted by RGA, for the next three months we worked on our occupied land, clearing rubbish, needles and weeds, landscaping our new garden, obtaining materials, painting, planting and constructing decking, benches and a childrens play area. As well as members of RGA, a few other people became very involved including my Mother and Grandmother, both anti-capitalists and keen gardeners. Part of my proposal concerned the 'professionalism' of this project, by this I mean creating something that would fit fairly conventional views of being 'nice looking' and high quality, and that would appeal to people used to profesional services. Many activists argue that this idea of professionalism is something that has no place in movements based on DIY principles. However, I argue that doing things ourselves doesnt mean doing them badly, and self-organisation, direct-action and autonomy are no excuses for not doing our best. And when part of the objective is to convince people that our methods 'work' it is important to not make everything look a mess or poor quality. With this in mind, a few people who were interested in 'designing' the garden got together once the weeds and junk were cleared, measured the garden and drew a proper design plan, proposing this to the rest of the group for agreement. Early on we also made the decision (controversial for a bunch of anti-authoritarians) to delegate somebody to be a recallable foreman for the project, to keep things moving to shedule and to a decent standard. However, this never happened, perhaps because of our squemishness about heirarchies, which in hindsight I feel was a mistake and a missed opportunity to experiment with different organisational forms.

Two major issues became apparant fairly quickly and to my mind were never satisfactorily sorted out. It is also important to note that whether or not these issues were problems in reality or wether it was simply the fact that some people felt they were a problem that caused disagreements, is still subjective. In essence the issues were about the 'quantity' of work each person was doing (and wether it was 'enough') and also about the 'quality' of this work. Involved in this were complex issues about informal heirarchies, collectivity and individuality, 'ownership of' and 'responsibility for' collective decisions and what commitment means. These issues are too complex to go into here, but suffice to say that at the time some of us didnt feel like the work was being shared fairly or that others were pulling their weight. Also, frequently we felt that some jobs were rushed or done badly. It didnt help that there were issues about the treatment of the squat we lived in, and even little jobs like tidying up were often left for others to do. As Ive said, whether these criticisms were fair or not is subjective and still being debated, and Im sure others involved would level criticisms at me, but for whatever reason none of us found a way to really deal with them properly. In the end between two and five people (depending on how you determine who is a 'member'), including myself, left RGA. Despite this, we all continued to work together, in my view slightly better than we had done for a while. One way of solving the 'quantity of work' issue was to hold full 'work weekends' where lots of us came along, and we collectively provided food and drink for the evening.

Despite many of us being strongly concerned about ecology, this was not really the central motive for creating the garden. This is largely due to the expectation that the garden would probably be destoyed by the authorities in the not too distant future, despite our intention to resist this. However, we definitely had in mind the lack of green space in our town and the diconnection we have with our natural environment. Also, for both financial and ecological reasons, much of the garden was created using stuff others were throwing away. We recieved things through the 'Freecycle' network as well as by finding things lying around the streets or in skips. We even managed to get all our fencing for free from a household who had just had theirs replaced. In itself though, this would never have been enough, or at least not in our timescale, and it is frustrating not being able to get on with the work until you get lucky and find the thing you need. So we also relied upon huge amounts of donations from family, friends and neighbours - particularly my Mum and Gran, our neighbours at the once squatted Rising Sun Arts Centre and another neighbour who saw one of our posters. Unnavoidable costs (£150 roughly) were funded out of the weekly subs (voluntarily £3.00) paid by RGA members.

Ignoring the authorities, engaging with the media, opening the garden and meeting our neighbours.

While most of the garden was finished fairly early and looking beautiful, we just managed to get the last areas finished, in a massive rush and with a healthy dose of good luck and good will from the Rising Sun, to a pretty decent standard the day before opening day. At the last minute (like usual!) we hung a banner on the fence, put up posters and distributed about 600 flyers door-to-door advertising our opening day on Saturday 19th May. Two days before this however, we were informed that the Council were taking out an injunction "preventing the opening day from taking place" and that they would be seeking a possesion order for the land and buildings. Our response was immediate - we distributed another 500 letters telling our neighbours about this and making it clear we would go ahead regardless, giving the same message to the local media and inviting all to defend the garden from owners who clearly hadnt given a damn for five years, and to stand up for the communities right to decide what happens in our area.

Early Saturday morning, pixies removed the front fence, opening the garden up onto the street fully. About midday, two Polish security guards turned up to serve the Council's injunction. After five minutes of being ignored they did the sensible thing and went and sat in their car. It's got to be said, they were great and just stayed out of the way all day, so a big thanks to them! Then we just waited for people to come along, and we werent dissapointed - the response from the public was fantastic! Through the day, many neighbours came through the garden, breaking the law to show their support and looking amazed at the difference to the area. Rumours are, we even had one local cop show her support on our petition! Overall we had about 200 people through the garden at various times, as well as the same number of signatures on a petition (supporting the garden and demanding community control over the land) and £100 in the donation bucket. The celebration in the evening was great! About 100 people enjoyed a great BBQ and plenty of alcohol late into the evening. The best thing was the diversity; activists and punks alongside neighbours aged 8 to 80! And the tunes were fantastic, again ranging from grey-haired country and bluegrass artists, to gravel voiced acoustic punkrock. Singing along with my middle-aged neighbours "Instead of war lets have a beer!" to acoustic punks PJ Sheppard and Gaby was class, and the blues version of Marley's 'Redemption Song' wasnt bad either!

After the hungover tidy up, the garden has been visited by many more neighbours over the last few weeks, all equally supportive. Thorugh this project we made a conscious effort to engage well with the media. Feeling that it would be difficult to represent the garden in a negative light, we figured we had nothing to lose and much to gain and, looking back, this approach has been really sucessful. The local press have run great articles about the garden and the surrounding court cases, and a few locals have written letters in our favour to the media and the council. We've even been on television now, as ITN Thames-Valley and BBC South-East have run brilliant pieces, featuring the Council sounding a bit silly, our neighbours sounding great and allowing us to get across our points about the lack of green space, the high house prices and Council neglect versus our self-organisation and direct-action.

So, what now? Do we win?

At the moment, the future for the garden doesn't look particularly great. Despite the judges assertion that we have all kinds of moral arguments on our side and had "done very well", she recently granted the Council an extended injunction making it illegal to open the garden until December 2007, by which time I guess they hope to have developed the site into something none of us want or could afford. The Council have also won a possesion order, meaning we will face eviction very soon - a rumoured date is 20th June. But really, that's not the point! Positivity is high, and things arent over yet! The garden is still being opened everyday and we plan to resist the eviction, with community support I hope. Although we stand little chance of winning in the long-term, to beat the first evicton attempt would strongly increase our collective confidence and maybe that of our community. If this happens, we are also looking at the possibility to hold a neighbourhood assembly to decide the future of the land, and then fight for that future. While mainly symbolic, this would be a good introduction for both us and our neighbours to this kind of radical grassroots democratic politics, and might hopefully happen again in more substantive forms in the not too distant future.

The conversations this project has allowed us to have with many of our neighbours has strongly encouraged me, and the garden has definitely been a space where people can at least begin to recognise commonality, and a common enemy. Certainly, a few people take the view that whilst we have done a great thing by improving land left as a junkyard and providing a green space for our community, property rights are sacred and that we should leave when the Council wants to actually do something with the land. However, many more have agreed outright with what I have said to them, and its been great to see how widely held is the view that the council's model of development - unaffordable flats, roads, posh offices, hotels and shopping centres i.e. capitalist development, gentrification and speculation - is not what local people want or need. Even some of the people living in the posh flats over the road have agreed with us! Conversations about local democracy and community control have also been very positive and to hear a couple of our neighbours use the word 'anarchist' in a positive way is really nice

Despite all the internal difficulties we have been through and continue to struggle with, I would say that this has been the most succesful anti-capitalist initiative I have ever been involved with, and it absolutely fulfilled the objectives I thought it would to some extent. On the face of things it might seem like the initiative wasnt so good for the maintanence of our organisation, as some of us ended up leaving the collective. However, to me this doesnt go deep enough. At this point I have the impression that everybody involved feels the same kind of pride and success, and that this positivity will continue for some time to come. People are already debating even more demanding projects, such as social centres and creating concrete links with other local struggles against developers or the Council. Some of this might be a little over-ambitious and based on being a little 'high' from this project, but I certainly dont think thats a bad thing in the UK movements where many activists currently feel a little deflated and are setting sights low. Personally speaking I have every intention of continuing along the lines laid out in our strategy, working in Katesgrove with similar projects and trying to fulfill the objectives more each time. A message to everbody: Break down fences and get together - we've all got Common Ground!