By Sam Siva
The Circust Street DIY Squatted Social Centre is an occupation set up in an unused University of Brighton building on Circus Street. Circus Street has been the focus of a “regeneration project” in the city of Brighton and Hove, spearheaded by development conglomerate U+I, a company that has been behind gentrifying parts of Lambeth, Lewisham, Manchester, Dublin and Hayes.
After the eviction of the homeless occupation outside St. Peter’s Church that had been protesting Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO), activists from this site, the Alternative Students Union and others set up this new occupation. PSPO in Brighton has targeted the homeless population most overtly, threatening a fine of £75 for inhabiting a structure in certain zones throughout the city. The interpretation of “structure” has ranged from sleeping bags to living in a vehicle. As well as fighting against this legislation, the groups who had organised this occupation have also received support from Solidarity Federation (SolFed) and Precarious Workers Brighton. Occupying a building that was once part of the University of Brighton’s campus was an act of solidarity for the struggle that many precarious workers of the university recognise.
I visited the occupation Wednesday 26th April, the evening before their court hearing. Upon entering I felt a welcoming atmosphere. On the ground floor, people were painting pallets and there was a make-shift art exhibition set up by University of Brighton students. The rooms were plastered with anti-capitalist, anti-fascist and radical messages preaching love, respect and calls for direct action. Empowering graffiti covered the walls and led up the stairs to the residential areas, living spaces and social spaces where people were sat around chatting or having meetings. Everyone was approachable. There was an energy of solidarity, activity and engagement. The inhabitants varied in ages, genders, political leaning and employment. From people who had been living in the streets, hostels, or part of the homeless camp, to anarchist service workers, students and artists. The diversity was palpable.
The space had truly transformed. Comparing rooms that hadn’t been renovated yet to those which had become sleeping quarters, you could see the love and effort put in by residents. Floors were stripped and repainted, broken glass, doors and wood removed and reused. A complete reutilisation of something that would just be demolished in weeks to come only to be replaced by trendy apartments.
On Tuesday 2nd May, police, security and university management broke into the squat and tore people from their beds in an eviction. On the 26th April, I had the opportunity to sit down with a couple of the activists who had set up the squat.
R: We are the Circus Street DIY Squatted Social Centre which is a bit of a mouthful at times, but I think it covers everything that we’re about.
S: Who are the main organising groups behind it?
R: We call ourselves the Autonomous Collective because we think that best describes who we are. We are a group of people, we are all ages, all genders, all races, we came together. We have students, full-time workers, we have people in various different kinds of employment, we have homeless people, people who have been sleeping in the streets, people who’ve been living in hostels, people with mental health issues. We have a whole range of people here, everyone who could be here is here. We all came together. Initially it was obviously just a few of us in the first few days but it quickly escalated into lots of different groups coming together. We’ve had a lot of support from the Alt SU – the Alternative Student Union – they’ve been doing a lot of really good stuff and they’ve been doing that in solidarity with Precarious Workers. Precarious Workers are – it says it on the tin – they are people who work in precarious jobs, and they’ve been fighting the pay cuts that some of their members have been receiving. For us, the most positive thing that has come out of the squat and will come out of the squat has been that there are all these groups, Brighton Anti-Fascists, SolFed, Precarious Workers, Alt-SU, we’ve all been operating and although we have been in communication with each other, it has been difficult when you’re all bound by capitalism, when you’re all bound by the things that make the problems that we’re all fighting against. It becomes difficult to find meeting places that are all large enough for us, it becomes difficult to find discrete places that we don’t want always want other people to see, things become very difficult because the fact that we are activists. It’s actually really difficult to get all these groups together because everyone has other commitments and there just isn’t the space. What we thought was so positive about this is that all of these groups have come together. Not just in a strictly political way either, we’ve become friends. The important thing that came from this space is that all of these groups who needed to work together but hadn’t quite figured out how, suddenly had somewhere we could all be and could all be in communication. That was really awesome. The waves of people that we’ve had in and out of here and the discussions that we’ve had have been so productive.
S: Are there any apolitical residents and do you ever feel that there are some residents that feel not included or separate, or has everyone banded together behind the shared cause of preserving the space?
G: Everyone has come together in quite a big way. We’ve had rough sleepers, and travellers, and all sorts of other people involved who wouldn’t necessarily agree 100% with all of our politics, with all of the politics of the more anarchist people who have been involved in the occupation.
S: How do you negotiate through disagreements?
G: There hasn’t really been any issues. We’ve all collectively decided on things. This is essentially a commune in which we’ve all been living. We’ve come together as a commune to discuss any issues, we’ve set rules collectively, and because everyone has been involved in the discussion there’s nothing you can say against those rules that everybody agreed on to make sure it’s a safe space for everybody that’s here.
S: So how do you collectively make decisions?
R: We have house meetings.
S: Do you use votes or another method?
R: Personally, I find voting arbitrary. I feel that if we are all in a room together and there’s a conversation, a dialogue going on and people feel safe in the space – which from what I can gather is that most people feel safe in the space, they feel safe and able to say “oh, no, maybe I disagree with that.” And we do have disagreements. I think voting can oversimplify quite nuanced things that may need to be discussed.
S: So is it through discussions and mediation?
R: Mostly. It hasn’t been “okay, there’s this problem that half the group feels one way and half feel another way, so let’s vote and split it down the middle” it’s been more about how can we negotiate around that and fit in everyone’s needs and everyone’s wants and what’s best for the space all together.
G: Anarchy in action. This is exactly it. Ruling ourselves without extracting value from anybody else.
S: How do you define and create a safe space?
R: That’s kind of the initial rules, you’ll see when you walk through the door. I can’t remember exactly which order. It’s no racism, no homophobia, no sexism and no fascism. So we are a safe space but we are not a safe space for fascists or racists. That is a thing that is a problem we all have with the dialogue at the moment is that everyone wants a safe space for everyone. At the end of the day you cannot provide a safe space for those who don’t want to provide a safe space for others. Overall, you just figure it out as you go along. You get people in the same room. Everything is case-by-case and nothing works by blanket laying rules down. We have basic rules which are just about respecting other people’s existence.
G: No drinking between opening hours.
R: Yeah, no drinking during opening hours is a big one. And that obviously is not about controlling other people’s habits. It’s just about creating a safe space again, because often people may go too far with drink and that can create an unsafe environment. So we try to reserve that when it’s just residents in the building so that it doesn’t put anyone else in any kind of awkward position.
S: How do you open up to potential residents?
R: We did agree a process for that. The small group that were initially here invited a few people we knew to come along and help with occupying the space. Then we came to a kind of agreement that if someone wanted to live here and become a resident it would be necessary for them to come during the day – the opening times – because we’ve had incidents when we’ve all been in bed about to go to bed at one in the morning and people are calling us and trying to get in, so there had to be rules set after those incidents. The agreement that was come to by the group at large is that new residents would come during the day, they would be met by at least two to three of the original residents, and that there would have to be a general consensus that people who were already residing in the house felt comfortable with this person coming into the residence. The way we portray to people interested in becoming residents is that it isn’t personal, we all want to be safe, happy and for this to go smoothly.
S: It needs to be a unanimous rather than a top-down decision.
R: Exactly. We want anyone who wants to be a resident here to be able to be a resident here if that goes with the dynamic of the group – and that isn’t meant in an exclusionary way. But, for example, if someone was a racist, not that they’d want to be a resident here but if they did, that wouldn’t work. Everything up until now has been negotiation and mediating and discussions and trying to figure things out. That’s all you can do really, we have such a short amount of time in the space.
G: When the entire state apparatus is against you and that it exists to protect private property. We’re up against the council and the university.
S: And Circus Street is part of a ‘regeneration project’.
R: ‘Regeneration’ is a nice word for gentrification.
S: I love saying ‘regeneration’ because it’s like “oh wow, they’re being positive about this all”. I was looking into the company that’s behind it, U+I, and they’ve been behind a lot of gentrification projects in London and across the Southeast. It’s pretty daunting however, there appears to be very little that has happened here other than a few construction sites. But what is your opinion?
R: I think it’s easy to not see the changes that have happened in Brighton because they have been small and they have been gradual. I’ve lived here my entire life. My parents used to do political squatting in Brighton about 15 to 20 years ago and last night we watched two documentaries on squats in Brighton. One was in the 90s and one was in the early noughties. I personally noticed a huge difference in the way Brighton looked. Brighton has been very gentrified. It’s just that it creeps in from the sides.
S: So do you see this Circus Street project as a continuation of the same?
R: Massively so.
G: A continuation of what we’re seeing across the Southeast.
R: Once they’ve set up a bunch of shops and fancy, middle-class un-affordable flats here. You look outside this building, it’s surrounded by council flats. Some of them aren’t council flats anymore because they were bought in the right-to-buy scheme. This is the area I grew up in, this whole area is council houses and working-class. They were safe and now it’ll just be this [new] complex. How long will the people living in this complex want the council houses around before wanting to knock them down and re-do that bit of town? But no one who lives there will be able to afford it.
G: When the property goes up, when the development goes up, and suddenly the whole value of those houses shoot up and developers see those buildings as potential capital investments and then the entire area – just like we’re seeing London, people who have been living in their council estates for generations are being kicked out because the council has sold off their homes to private developers.
S: How long have you been occupying this space?
R: We’ve been here two weeks today. Two weeks is when we first started using the building.
S: I’ve read that the occupation was from April 5th, or is that completely misreading the articles?
G: It’s because some of us were also involved in the homeless occupation at St. Peter’s. That started April 2nd. That was going for two weeks as well. Hopefully we can hold on to this for a little bit longer.
R: I think, even if we don’t though, we have a lot of people who were at the Radical Bank of Brighton, we have a lot people who are keen to be involved in politics but don’t really know how, and what we’ve realised by coming here is that having a space. People don’t realise how important having space is. Just having a room, a building you can be in and do things in, having that space inspires and leads to so much more shit.
S: You have a court hearing Thursday [27th April], what is your plan? What would you like your supporters to do?
G: We need to show the council and the university that the community supports what we’re doing, that the community supports the space being used. From housing people who have no home, for giving people skills that they didn’t have before and for just generally giving people a space to be free – people who aren’t fucking up the building, who aren’t playing music late into the night and bothering neighbours – show that people support that rather than just having an empty building.
S: Referring to what you have just said, have you had any conflict with neighbours, police, or any authority?
G: No, none at all. Here, what we’ve done with this – is we’ve cooperated, we’ve all worked together to the mutual benefit of everybody. Nobody has extracted any value from anybody. We’ve just existed and we’ve co-existed and that is what anarchy actually is. This is what anarchist ideas are really about – coexisting in harmony as a community and nobody extracting any value from anybody.
S: What projects have you hosted and do you have any coming up soon?
G: Some Brighton students came in and displayed their art because this is a free space for them to display their art and their passion. If anybody want to put on any kind of workshop, do any kind of show, give a talk, anything, we’re always happy to facilitate that. We don’t know how long this space will exist but, don’t worry we’re not going to go anywhere very quickly. If it’s not here, it will be somewhere else in Brighton and Hove because, firstly the PSPO is still in force. There are still people sleeping on the streets who could be housed in empty buildings and the university has still refused to recognise the 70% cut in pay and demotions. So we’re not going anywhere until our demands are met by those in charge. And even after that, who knows. I feel that this is an incredibly positive thing for the entire community.