A group of domestic violence activists has occupied a flat in Hackney to protest the demise of council housing

Image: Oonagh Cousins, courtesy of Sisters Uncut.

We know – we were practically born knowing  that there isn’t enough housing in London. The Independent found in 2015 that tens of thousands of families seeking council accommodation have been moved out of London entirely, because there simply isn’t enough space.

And yet, in one single borough, over 1,000 council flats are currently standing empty. In Hackney, 18 estates are up for “regeneration” (which usually means demolition), and as they wait to be regenerated, the council is emptying them out. So Sisters Uncut, a group which campaigns against domestic violence cuts, have decided to put just one of them to good use. On Saturday 9 July they marched from Hackney Town hall and occupied a flat on the ground floor of the Marion Court estate in Hackney.

The flat is nice. Really nice. The walls are fully plastered, and the group have replaced the missing carpets and installed curtains adorned with the green and purple Sisters Uncut logo.The campaigners tell me that their next door neighbour’s flat is in worse condition; and yet, feet away, this flat was standing completely empty. I wondered if they had to break in to start the occupation, but no – the door was simply unlocked. 

“All we did was clean, put some carpets down, and bring in furniture which was donated or we found on Freecycle,” one of the Sisters (the activists generally prefer to remain anonymous) tells me.

A list of requested donations in the occupied flat. Image: author's own.

The flat’s good condition is part of the key message of the occupation: there is unused, good-quality, well-sized housing scattered all over London. “Someone now living on this estate was moved out to Basildon while she was doing her GCSEs, and eventually moved back here,” one Sister tells me. “This is a beautiful, three bedroom flat lying empty. To say there are no properties for her to live in while she does her studies is an outrageous lie.”

Sisters Uncut are here for two reasons. First, they want to use the otherwise wasted space as a community centre for the local area, which they’ll keep open “as long as possible”. People can drop by whenever they like for a chat, to donate food or other supplies, or come for the children’s breakfast club between 7 and 9 every morning. “We’re also holding housing workshops this week where people can learn their housing rights,” one sister tells me.  


But they’re also here to make a statement. The group have four key demands for Hackney council, which are inspired by their work for victims of domestic violence, but also gesture at the housing crisis as a whole: no more council flats to be lost as part of regeneration projects; women fleeing domestic violence to be housed in refuges or self-contained properties, not B&Bs; fill the borough’s 1047 empty council properties immediately; and refuse to implement the Housing Act (which would allow for rent rises and further evictions). Philip Glanville, Hackney’s deputy mayor, has agreed to speak to the group about their demands, though hasn’t confirmed yet when.

In the 1970s, over 40 per cent of Brits live in council housing; now that proportion is just 8 per cent. Put simply, Sisters Uncut want protection for council homes, not least because a better system could save the lives and livelihoods of those trying to flee abusive relationsips. It may sound old fashioned," one tells me, "but we just want proper council housing. That's what works." 

While the problems around maintaining council housing in an increasingly expensive city may seem intractable, the Sisters argue that they are not – and practical solutions are available. Empty properties should be used, and one Sister suggests that the council should have tried building more expensive “penthouse” apartments on top of existing council blocks, or built more housing on the gaps between blocks, to make money. “At the moment, we’re seeing zero creative solutions”, she says.

These problems are endemic across a city which has a questionable definition of “affordable housing” (80 per cent of market rates), and which often allows developers to dodge even measly affordable housing minumums by paying off councils. So why did the group choose Hackney?

“There are lots of empty homes here,” one Sister says. But another adds: “Hackney was home to the riots. Since then, the council just hasn’t been listening to the local people. We have an Olympic legacy of nothing.

The only legacy is seeing our communities socially cleansed out.”

Follow Sisters Uncut for more information on the occupation here.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.