An article from Do or Die Issue 8. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 130-132.
All across the country empty buildings are being squatted, tea is being brewed and friendly subversion is being spread through Britain's shopping streets. The appeal of a squat cafe to active groups is clear: an autonomous zone is created in the heart of the community, serving as a space from which individuals involved in direct action can organise and also as an attempt at 'activist' involvement in their local community. The concept is simple - take a disused space somewhere with a fair number of passers-by and open it to the public, offering them tea and anarchy.
In early 1998, Leeds EF! picked up on the idea of opening a squat cafe. They took over an old pottery building owned by the College of Technology and named it 'The Cookbridge Street Cafe' ('cos it was on Cookbridge Street, surprise, surprise). They were evicted after only two weeks, so they had a second go, only to be chased out of their chosen building by thugs with baseball bats. No luck there! In Spring 1999, a collective of mostly new people occupied a church. A 'naming contest' resulted in its christening as 'A-Spire'.
There was the cafe, a library, a bike repair area, and workshops were held including rope climbing from the roof - the top of the spire was only accessible by rope! A wide range of groups from Kosovan refugees to Greenpeace held meetings there, and A-Spire also served as the gathering point for a Critical Mass bike action. Parties were put on that raised money for the cafe. Cookbridge Street was run more like a cafe, with orders taken for food and then brought to the tables; A-Spire was run more like a soup kitchen. Both lived off donations from the punters and, according to a collective member, at A-Spire this resulted in a loss of money. A-Spire had lots of response, though, being more 'on the main drag'.
The church is owned by the university, and after a few unsuccessful meetings with university officials, A-Spire prepared to resist eviction in case they wouldn't be able stay their intended four weeks. In the end, the one month stay was achieved without confrontation and the collective left the building, exhausted from the day-to-day running of a squat centre. They are intending to squat again, but in future at a more sustainable level of activity, opening only a few times a week.
Contact: Leeds EF!, c/o CRC, 16 Sholebroke Avenue, Leeds LS7 3HB
http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Parliament/3344/ (moved to http://www.a-spire.org.uk/ [21/7/02])
Eyeing up a beautiful old disused Victorian Magistrate's Court they knew was in disputed ownership, a group of mates squatted it with the intention to use the space for more than just living in. The building's physically separated private and public space seemed perfect for this, and they opened it as a cafe on Sundays. Everything's free at Citizen Smith; all the interior decoration and most of the food comes out of skips. Being in Holsdon, "not a very nice area, really", according to a collective member, the local response has been slow. "It's just word of mouth and trust built up over a period of time, no matter how nice you are, that can bring you into the community." In the meantime they moved onto a new premises in Kensal Green, but are considering buggering off to the countryside to grow vegetavles.
Contact: Old Community Centre, 161 College Road,
Kensal Green, London, NW10
Tel: 07931 980534
Christmas 1998 saw an ex-bookshop opened as a squat cafe in Norwich. A collective member recounts: "A recently formed group with varying levels of experience in activism thought it would be a good idea to do a squat centre as a form of outreach and as a group building exercise. We had quite a lot of meetings beforehand, to battle out issues that could arise and how we would deal with various things. This proved useful for dealing with all the hassle we got on on our first opening day, when we got every petty bureaucrat from cops to environmental health to the media turning up, summoned by an irritated neighbour." The cafe was run by rota, as most squat cafes are, with two collective members always there, even at night (no one lived there full-time). Tea, juice and vegan cake were available for a donation, and although the cafe wasn't always packed, the response was good. "We got to talk to people we wouldn't normally have gotten to speak to." The building was left after the agreed time of two and a half weeks, and the group will possibly squat again, despite the hard work involved.
Contact: Norfolk EF!, The Greenhouse 42-46, Bethel Street, Norwich, NR2 1NR
Squatting its first poxy little empty shop in Autumn 1996 and moving on through eight different buildings over the next two years, the Teapot experienced a wide range of horrors and successes. The first squats served more as a space for the counterculture to hang out, but after a while, a greater appeal to the general public was consciously aimed for. 'Nicer, cleaner' buildings were sought out and efforts were made to keep the cafe that way. Class War posters and anarchist literature didn't seem to be what intimidated potential punters, more so the countercultural aspects. Smelly dogs, loud music, cider and tie-dye wall hangings were thus purged, but not the politics. The cafe and library were open every day and most evenings saw a video showing, a discussion, a women-only night or a talk. In the long break after the last stint, the collective has moved on to other, less demanding projects whilst retaining the same name. Doing propaganda stalls at the local Sunday market, food stalls on a local shopping street and setting up as a mobile kitchen, "we realised that the Anarchist Teapot has actually changed a lot of Brighton peoples' perceptions of what anarchists are like."
Contact: Box B, 21 Little Preston Street, Brighton BN1 2HQ
[IMAGE] A-Spire's Spire
In Autumn 1998, Worthing Friends of the Earth were inspired by the Brighton squat cafes to open one themselves in the quiet streets of Worthing. After the eviction of the first centre, another two followed - not including an attempt at cracking a building and ending up being chased around town by an irate good citizen. The collective is made up of several people with families. Because the day-to-day running of a squat cafe demands more commitment and time, the collective have gone on to do regular tea and infostalls in town instead, taking furniture and tea outdoors to create 'front rooms' in the street or squatting the bandstand in the town centre for a day.
Contact: PO Box 4144, Worthing, West Sussex, BN14 7NZ. email@example.com
"The Rainbow Centre has been open for 15 years. It was originally the HQ for CND stuff back in the '80s and now consists of a library, DTP room, offices and is home to Veggies catering campaign and generally used and abused by lots of other groups. We opened the Circle A Cafe in the Rainbow Centre because it wasn't being used by the public. It was becoming really insular and wasn't attracting any new interested people. We thought that the cafe could act as an easily approached gateway to the rest of the centre and would probably attract potentially interested peole in, while making some extra money to keep the centre open or channel into the chosen campaigns of the volunteers who did shifts.
Although the cafe's not an official squat (we pay rent), the whole building's been condemned, so we reckon that entitles us to cool squat status. We wanted it to have an air of anarchy rather than servitude, so we put up big signs telling customers that it's a voluntarily run cafe and to do their own washing up if it looks busy. We formed a cafe collective which is basically a group of people who do one shift a week. On a shift you serve food (mostly vegan junk food), clean up and answer the telephone. We have meetings once a month to slag each other off and moan. The constant problem is not having enough volunteers to keep it open every day. People tend to do shifts for a few months and then get fucked off with it and never come back. I don't think any of us really think that the cafe is a particularly effective way of getting more people involved with activism, but it is a good way to introduce people to the concept of anarchy. Our customers range from activists, people with kids, Big Issue vendors and farmers, to businessmen, elderly people and students.
To sum the cafe up: It's an anarchist pure vegetarian greasy spoon cafe pushing crap music and dodgy propaganda to the riffraff that walk through the door. We do it because we've got the best eco-anarchist resource centre in the country to keep open, we're addicted to free tea, we've got lousy taste, and we're too stubborn to stop."
Contact: The Rainbow Centre, 182 Mansfield Road, Nottingham NG1 3HW
The first OKasional Cafe was initiated by Manchester EF! in January 1998. This ran for a month, then there was a break, then another one was opened for a month in July, which moved straight on to another one which was evicted in September 1998. Eventually, they re-squatted the original building next to the university.
They squatted buildings "which had important points to be made about their use" as one collective member put it. The squats were intended mainly to get political ideas across through socialising, as political groups in Manchester were quite inaccessible. They also tried to use the media to attract attention, appearing on BBC TV and in the papers, which some say worked for them. Contact: Manchester EF!, Dept. 29, 255 Wilmslow Road, Manchester M14 5LW
As one Manchester squatter said: "You learn so much in such a short time about so many things, from DIY through to networking. I think every town should have a squat centre. They build up a lot of excitement, and it's a positive action that speaks for itself, you're doing something on your own terms."
Including non-squatted autonomous social centres:
Autonomous Centre of
17 West Montgomery Place, Edinburgh EH7 5HA, 0131 557 6242
Kebele Community Centre
14 Robertson Road, Eastville, Bristol BS5 6JY, firstname.lastname@example.org, 0117 939 9469
121 Railton Road, Brixton, London SE24, 0171 274 6655
1 in 12 Club
21-23 Albion Street, Bradford BD1 2LY, 01274 734160