Your gauntlet, Mr. Weatherley?

In a guest post, a Brighton squatter picks up the gauntlet laid down by Mike Weatherley MP when he challenged squatters to show him a ‘single property’ that has been improved by occupation. He did this, most recently, live on the BBC Politics Show. Being a member of Parliament, we must assume that Mike is merely ill-informed, labouring under a misapprehension, rather than being deliberately disingenuous; this should help set him straight…

In his usual dim-witted way, ‘Mad Mike’ Weatherley has been making fatuous comments regarding (unnamed) homelessness charities endorsing his campaign to criminalise squatters, all squatters being lifestylists or how Brighton police have never convicted squatters in eighteen years. All these remarks are either ill-informed or just plain wrong. There haven’t been any convictions, for example, because it’s not yet a criminal offence (although the police do often make sure to frame squatters for other alleged crimes).

But what really gets my goat is when Weatherley says “show me a squat which has been made better by the squatters” on his website  or on the BBC Politics Show (at 47minutes). Mike said he was laying down the gauntlet to squatter groups: here is one response.

Weatherley has been invited by the Squatters Network of Brighton to visit their infoshops. Oddly enough, he didn’t reply. Did the infoshops improve their locations? Well, I certainly think the current squat is better than a bankrupt shop and the previous one at Churchill Square is languishing empty still, after a joyful few weeks of use. But maybe Mike prefers emptiness.

The Brighton Unemployed Centre began thirty years ago as a squat. It’s now still in the same building, paying a peppercorn rent to the Council and supporting many unwaged people with a cheap cafe, a creche, welfare advice and other services. Does that one count, Mike?

Or what about the Lewes Road Community Garden, a reclaimed parking lot turned into a lovely permaculture project before being evicted for Tescos? There was lots of local support, but that must have passed Mike by as he rocked out to Alice Cooper in Hove, even if there was plenty of positive coverage in the Argus.

Away from Brighton, a great example of what squatters can do is Grow Heathrow, the derelict market garden that was occupied and brought back to life in Sipson. They opened up a successful community garden only to be rewarded with a heavy-handed raid by 40 police from the Tactical Support Group before the royal wedding. The squatters response was that they are “armed only with vegetables.” Unfortunately they may get evicted soon.

Or what about the Cooltan Arts Centre in Brixton? This inspirational social centre in an old dole office was occupied from 1992 to 1995, providing a cafe, rehearsal rooms, a venue and lots more. It was evicted, resquatted twice and then demolished. Now the site stands empty, almost twenty years on. Happy now, Mike?

I could go on, there’s so many places to choose from in the UK’s wonderful squatting heritage. Just sticking with London, there was the Spike Surplus project in Deptford. And the 491 Gallery in Leytonstone, where people cleared out a building full of junk and needles to set up an art gallery which is still going ten years later.

Enough for you yet, Mike? I could say more. I’ve only just started really. I didn’t mention Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham … I could start talking about all the fantastic projects I’ve come across in Europe, like Kunsthaus Tacheles, a huge art project in Berlin, or the Melkweg, a club in Amsterdam, or Can Masdeu, an old hospital outside Barcelona.

All these examples really are just the tip of the iceberg. All through the ages people have squatted places and improved them, providing shelter for those who need it, vital community functions for everyone and many other things besides. This is the real Big Society. But Weatherley is too stupid to look into the matter. He is merely making political capital out of this as an issue, in much the same way as Simon Kirby (MP for Brighton Kemptown and Peacehaven) is going to attack travellers this month.

Lifestyle politicians. Bah! Who needs ’em?