Introduction – Anarchists in action. Squatting in Ilford, E. London.
In 1968-69 I was one of many anarchists involved in squatting in Ilford and in the long battle with Redbridge Council (Ilford). What follows is just a look back at that. It is not an attempt at any sort of history. It is just a very brief and selective summary of the situation during a part of a long struggle. My experience during this time is one of the factors that has made me take the position I do in the main article.
In essence squatting was part of the anarchist direct action campaign for more and better housing, with greater control of it in people’s own hands. We were squatting because of the increasing number of empty houses in London, coupled with the increasing number of homeless people. Under Redbridge Council there were more and more houses which were due to stand empty for ten years or more, before being demolished for a new car park or offices. When squatting started in Ilford, Redbridge council reacted hysterically. As a wide generalisation they attacked us in five ways :-
1) Brute Force. Squads of ‘bailiffs’ attacking at 4-6 am and throwing squatters out after beating them up, and then wrecking furniture and gutting the house.
2) Preventative Vandalism. Gutting empty houses so they could not be squatted in, as well as boarding them up.
3) Propaganda. Putting forward in the local and national press, the wildest accusations against squatters – that we destroyed property, jumped the housing queue, we were less than human, and believed in violence and anarchy.
4) Minor Harassment. Such as persuading the electricity, gas and water boards to cut their supplies off.
5) The Law. Obtaining eviction orders, injunctions, etc. and bringing charges of assault, ABH, GBH, against us.
By the end of the campaign, we were responding to their attacks in about six different ways, as follows :-
1) Brute Force. Getting together all the comrades who were prepared to fight and maintaining 24 hour guards on squatted houses.
2) Defence Work. Making houses more defendable, one of them was a mini-fortress.
3) Building Works. Rebuilding gutted houses to make them habitable for new squats.
4) Propaganda. The town hall was covered with slogans, a banner was even put up over the top of the town hall one night. A daily news sheet was put out to the streets surrounding the squatted houses. Constant news and letters were sent to the local paper until it contained more pro-squatting material than anti-squatting. Street theatre and processions were held.
5) Minor Harassment. Every opportunity was taken to publicly embarrass the local councillors and the council, culminating in a violent attack on the whole council during a council meeting in which the whole council fled for their lives and the mayor was nearly strangled with his chain of office. (There then followed a running battle with the police, while the victorious forces of liberation beat a strategic withdrawal to their own fortress one street away),
6) The Law. Every attempt by the council to use the law against us was opposed, all charges denied, and we started bringing more and more counter charges against them. At the end of the day we probably had as much success in the courts as they did. But the ammunition that our legal moves provided the propaganda machine was enormous.
[Photo, caption: Redbridge Town Hall with a banner on the top saying “Brute force doesn’t cure homelessness.”]
[Photo, caption “More slogans on the town hall – with their author”]
Squatting is still with us today, so there is no doubt that the anarchist movement won a major victory on the streets of Ilford, Fulham etc. It was not as complete a victory as it might have been, but that is another story my children. In the beginning it was a disaster. The people who first tried to squat very rapidly became worse off than ever – homeless, their furniture smashed, two of them in hospital, and the council trying to take their children into care. And of course charges of assault and breach of the peace against them.
Against all the odds we turned defeat into victory. And looking back (although I did not think so at the time) I think this was due not to any one tactic, but to the combination. All the things we were doing interlinked. For instance the legal games that were played (bitterly attacked by me and others at the time) had some very important effects which contributed to the general success. Firstly, they caused the legal moves made by the council to be largely ineffective. This seems to have led to them making moves which were illegal and hasty. This improved our position – we were indignant! It confused the council and caused a split in their ranks, it confused the liberals, the press, and the tv., who didn’t know who to support and ended up supporting us, the squatters, more than the local council, and it confused the police, who at one point retreated into a neutral inactivity which culminated in their standing on the pavement in a line, watching squatters and bailiffs fighting it out at 5.00 am in the morning. The police being violently sworn at and insulted by local people in night clothes and dressing gowns, and then having at last to intervene on the squatters side, because the bailiffs in desperation had set fire to the house, having been completely routed in the fighting.
At the time, this six-point attack we were making on the council was causing great divisions amongst ourselves. No one person supported all the things we were doing. There were endless arguments about which of them was the RIGHT thing to do. People doing other things were attacked, at the least for wasting time and not doing anything, at worst for being counter-revolutionary, and supposedly harming the movement.
Take for example the defence works at one house. These created a fortress from which we worked. It was a house with no ground floor. Behind the front door was a 10 foot drop to the basement, there was no staircase, access to the lived-in part on the first floor was by rope ladder. The garden was crossed by pits and barbed wire, which made it dangerous to run across, especially at night or early morning. It proved to be an excellent position, being successfully defended by seven men and women against fifteen bailiffs, who attempted a surprise attack early one morning. A bloody encounter in which some of them went to hospital, but I don’t think any of us were even scratched.
At the same time these defence works made the place hell to live in; sent three people to hospital (outpatients), one for walking through the front door, one for falling down the ladder while drunk, and one trying to make an effective smoke bomb; and took up a lot of time which meant that less was done repairing other houses, which was very important to the propaganda war; showing us to be creating housing, while it was the council who destroyed it.
[Photo caption ‘The cover Anarchy 102, August 1969 Bailiffs attacking a squat at 6.0 am – and failing’]
We were at each other’s throats the whole time, constantly putting down those who did not see our tactics as the most important and wasting their time doing unimportant things like drinking tea with a reporter.
At the end, fighting broke out between us, a house was surrendered and retaken (by a flying squad of squatters from the other side of London) and some people have not spoken to each other again to this day.
AND NOW TO THE POINT… A number of major divisions have split the anarchist movement over the last 15 years. The ones which come most strongly to mind are over the class war and sexism.
Both of these produced very similar style of arguments (with the words changed) and similar results.
The class war advocates put forward that class was the major division within society, that the class war was the decisive struggle, all others being side-shows, and that all our efforts should be directed to that end.
The feminists came along a few years later to say that sex is the major division in society, that the struggle against male domination is the decisive struggle, that all others are side-shows, if not intrinsically counter-revolutionary and that all our efforts should be directed to that end.
All through these discussions one or two people were saying that they felt that the nuclear family was the origin of all our problems and that only by destruction of that could we advance, while others were saying that the school and educational system were where it was at; then suddenly hash and H and then LSD were going to usher in the new dawn.
I feel it is about time that we all recognised that the society we live in is divided. Divided not in one or two ways, but in dozens of ways. All these divisions cause conflicts and tensions. Most of these divisions are important. Individually these divisions are not equally important. Individually we see society in a different way, and it is different aspects of society which oppress each one of us most. At the moment because I find one aspect of this society more oppressive than the rest and you find another more oppressive, we are at each others throats. It is as though we are separated by a wall, one side painted blue and the other green. We both agree that the wall must be destroyed, but at the moment we are fighting each other over what colour the wall is.
The reason why I say that things look good for the anarchist movement, while others say that things have never looked worse and that it is the extreme right who are on the up and up, is only due to our standing and looking at life from two different positions. It is not that one of us is blind or stupid, or ‘intrinsically counter-revolutionary.’ We are looking at the same events from two different angles. Each view is as true as the other. This is easy to say, but hard to believe. Take for example MW’s article in this issue, and what he says about the strength of the NF.  None of what he says fits in with what I see around me. I see only small turn outs of a few thousand, despite massive publicity, I find almost no support for them locally. I can see them only as a small, isolated group, who are remarkable only for their failure to make an impact despite all the favourable circumstances going for them today. So what can I conclude about MW’s analysis. That it is crazy? That he is blind? It is nonsense to be ignored? Yes! Those are my initial reactions. But it is just an extreme example of the same world viewed from a different position. His view is probably no more true or false than mine.
[M.C.Escher drawing, caption: “It all depends on how you look at it. M.C.Escher”]
What is true of our views of society, is true of our ideas on tactics. From our different viewpoints we see different things needing to be done. Time and again we put more effort into destroying each other’s ideas than into destroying the state.
If we look back to what I was saying about Ilford, our strength was the number of different ways in which we were fighting. Our main weakness was the amount of time and energy we were spending arguing among ourselves. We should keep discussing tactics amongst ourselves, what I’m against is the self-destructive arguments that endlessly go on amongst us. As the issues become more important, heated words turn to blows, as they did at Ilford.
CONCLUSIONS. In the article, ‘What is to be done?’ in Anarchy 23, I said (among other things) that the anarchist movement needs to be built upon respect. In some ways I’m saying the same thing in a different way.
First, I’m saying society looks different according to where you are standing. So different that at times we don’t seem to be even looking at the same things – but we are! So the bickering over which view is ‘correct’ should stop. Instead we should listen to how society looks from these different positions, and accept it. To deny someone’s view of society may in theory be harmless enough, in practice it is almost a denial of the person concerned (which is why these arguments get so heated and become so personal).
[M.C. Escher drawing, caption “It’s amazing all the different things you can get to fit together if you try. (and you can draw like M.C.Escher)”]
Secondly, I’m saying that almost all the different tactics we discuss are good ones. A great tactic is the use of all these tactics at once, as happened by accident at Ilford. All the different tactics and activities that people suggest at meetings and conferences, should not be seen as competing with each other, but as complements.
1 The lagging of consciousness Anarchy Magazine No.26  p7-11 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/95x7j5
2 See ‘Tis the worst economic crisis … (or, What is to be done) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/kkwjq8
From: Anarchy Magazine No.26  p1-4.
In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 93-94, March 2018 [Double issue]