Thursday, July 28, 2005

Three Crazy Days

Sunday 24th July: He Was Innocent
the Vigil for Jean Charles de Menezes

We got down to Stockwell tube around 10:30 in the morning. The crowd was a strange mix of 30-40 people: some familiar faces from the South London scene; a number of Brazilians, grieved and angry, wearing yellow and green; a Palestinian guy with a megaphone. And other people, just ordinary people, who seemed shocked.

The hot fumes coming from the tube station were mixing with the drizzle, giving that particular smell of the London underground. Even after three years in London, this smell brings me the exciting news that I am abroad, in a strange and foreign land: the exotic England of my childhood, of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Poppins.

I looked at the ticket barriers. I kept trying to imagine him jumping them. Tube barriers are quite high, it’s not very easy. He must have been desperate. He was running for his life.

We stood there in the drizzle, with small candles that tried to burn not very successfully. Someone hanged his picture on the wall. A few cops were standing near by. Their faces were indifferent. Some of them chatted and laughed. It didn’t seem like they’re feeling too bad about what happened.

There was a pile of bags in the corner. “Whose bags are these? Please carry your bags with you” said the police. Nobody responded. “If you don’t take your bags we might have to evacuate this place”. Some people came and took their bags, whinging. It pissed me off. Leaving unattended bags right now is just stupid and disrespectful. Bombs are going off. People are scared. Don’t you understand? Things have changed.

I saw a number of TV crews: Brazilian, Arab. But no major British one – Sky TV, BBC – where were they? Are they not interested? Don’t they understand the consequences?

The Palestinian guy started a rant on the megaphone, about unfair coverage of the Palestinian issue on the BBC. After 10 minutes of this I had enough.

At home, I put on Berry Sakharof’s L’autre. I started preparing the stuffed vine leaves. Berry sang:

The barrier will break

the word will mediate

the enemy is a friend

that you’ve forsaken

So have no fear

and don’t just stand there and stare

No, you’re not alone

Face the other

and discover yourself

Face the other

de Menezes last moments flashed in my imagination, like in a movie, and I saw the Stockwell tube barriers again in front of my eyes. A wave of emotion ebbed inside me, overwhelming me with sadness and grief. I did not expect this to affect me so much. I didn't know this man, and I come from a place where civilians are killed all the time. But I found this story horrifying.

* * *

To reiterate the facts of the matter: a man was followed from an apartment bloc by plainclothes police, on the bus, and only when he entered the tube station, they started chasing him, and gunned him down on the floor of the tube. It’s not clear yet if he understood they were police. Did they identify themselves properly? Did he understand? I have my doubts. Apparently his visa ran out so he had reasons to fear the police. But this is no reason for execution. And suppose he had been a bomber - why did they allow him to get all the way from his house to the tube itself? That’s not really reassuring. Their behaviour seems amateurish and panicky.

In 11 years of suicide bombing in Israel, I could not think of a single case like this. Of course innocent Palestinians get shot all the time in the West Bank and Gaza. But a man chased on public transport and shot… there were many cases where security recognized suicide bombers and tried to disarm them – by physical force. A few bombings were prevented this way, but most suicide bombers will set off the bomb immediately when challenged – and then the security guys are almost always killed. If de Menezes had been a bomber, he would have set it off as well.

The closet thing to this in Palestine/Israel is the assassinations policy, the ‘targeted killings’ of hundreds of Palestinian suspects by the Israeli Army; a policy which the UK condemned in the past. And this can serve as a warning: because about a THIRD of the people killed in ‘targeted killings’ are innocent civilians who had nothing to do with bombers – neighbours, bystanders etc. This is seen by many (including myself) as a war crime (the Israeli Civil Rights Association petitioned to the Israeli high court to stop this, but the court – as usual - dodged the question). Is this the way the UK wants to go?

What really scares me is the British public’s apathetic response. The ‘Shoot to Kill’ policy was endorsed by Ken Livingstone, the ‘Liberty’ civil rights group and the Guardian, to name a few. But the consequences are horrifying: it gives the police a license to shoot practically anyone – say, if you look like one of the suspects caught on CCTV, and you’re carrying a bag. No need of warnings even. How is it that a society with tradition of vigilant protection of civil liberties – from ‘right of way’ public footpaths to the staunch opposition of ID cards – can put up with this insane policy? The only explanation is an atmosphere of panic and fear.

* * *

But there were other things on my mind: we might be facing imminent eviction. The house owners warned us that we will be served with eviction papers on Monday.

Before I came to England, I thought the verb ‘to serve’ meant to provide something politely. Like serving a main dish with salad. But here I realized that you ‘serve’ also eviction notice.

In our case it was going to be a PIO – an especially nasty procedure that requires the occupiers to vacate immediately, or within 24 hours. It’s not used very often: the eviction process usually takes between 10 days to three months; on average it’s six weeks.

But the owners, after telling us we could stay ‘as long as we wished’, informed us that their solicitor had advised them to use this blitz eviction. They refused to negotiate. We had to wait for the legal papers before we could do anything. And anyway, I had more important things to think about: I was cooking for 80 people the next day, in the benefit café for Emergency Medical Aid for Civilian Victims in Iraq, something which I was preparing for all week.

Monday 25th July: Benefit Café, Papers and Champagne

9.30am: I start cooking at the Bonnington Cafe. I've cooked there before, but not for so many people. And this time I'm the main chef. I’m stressed, about cooking, about the night. It takes my mind off the eviction.

This is the information sheet that we put on all the tables:

Medical Aid for Civilian Victims in Iraq

This night has been organized as a benefit night, to raise money towards medical aid for civilian victims in Iraq.

The Emergency Aid for Civilian Victims was started as a grassroots campaign by a group of Iraqis in Jordan and Baghdad in October 2004, aiming to send medical supplies to hospitals in Iraq, to treat the many civilians victims hurt as a result of the war and the occupation. The first batches were sent to the area of Falluja, in the aftermath of the devastating attack on this city. A recent batch was sent to hospitals treating the victims of a suicide attack on a petrol station.

This campaign is organized and run by volunteers who buy the supplies and ship them. This means that practically 97% of the money donated is used to buy medications.

The horrible experiences of the last two weeks in London are a daily reality for Iraqis in the last three years, since the start of the war. We feel it is important at this time reach out to civilian victims in Iraq who are paying the price of a senseless war, the ongoing occupation, and the civil strife.

For more information see – the website of Raed Jarrar, who initiated this campaign.

The menu:

1pm: news come from the house: the PIO documents have arrived. We have to vacate within 24 hours. E + G took house documents and cycled to ASS, the Advisory Service for Squatters, to seek legal advice. We keep cooking.

: S comes from the house. ‘Bad news, ASS think the papers are legit. We have no case and we should leave’.

‘No way. ’ I can’t believe it. ‘Can you finish making this salad? I’ll go and call them’.

On the phone to ASS. I explain the situation again. The guy is not sure. ‘Let me check it again’ he says. He then finds the subsection of the law which might save our case. I write down the exact wording. ‘It might work. Give it a try’.

‘What happens if we choose to resist?’

‘Well, in this case the police will probably arrest you all.’

I go back to the café. I cook for another hour, and then sit down with the friends who have come.

10.30pm: The night is nearly over, and it’s been successful. We raised £375. I managed to chill out a bit and chat with friends. Suddenly S calls me outside. ‘Would you like to come and talk with Nigella and Larry (the house owners that are evicting us) over a glass of wine? They’re here’.

S, Pete and me stand in the entrance to the café. Nigella and Larry are there. They’re tipsy. ‘I just feel so uncomfortable about the whole thing. I’m so sorry. I wanted to say I’m so sorry. And I’m not saying this because I had a drink’ she says. Larry's giving me a glass of French champagne. I look in dismay.

‘How can we help?’ she says. ‘We can’t give you more time. But is there any way we can help?’

‘The skips are coming on Wednesday’ he says. ‘You will be out until 1pm tomorrow. We can’t allow you to stay’.

‘Can we vacate the house and stay in the yard for a few weeks?’

‘No, that’s impossible’.

‘Then there’s nothing you can do’.

‘We might be able to store your stuff’ she says.

‘But we have no room’ he says ‘and we’re doing the carpets next week’.

‘I just hate this animosity’ she says. ‘We’re not bad people. We don’t want to do it. We like squatters’.

The whole situation is extremely bizarre. I don’t know what to say.

‘What if we manage to stay tomorrow?’ I ask.

‘You won’t. No way. The police have been informed. It’s all legal. Unless you come up with something our solicitor hadn’t thought about. But we have the poshest solicitor’.

Finally, it’s Pete who finds the right words, in his succinct and eloquent way: ‘It’s alright’ he says, waving his hand over his face. ‘Whatever happens, it’s not personal. It’s just law. Law and business. It’s not personal.’

Larry leaves.

‘And if you really have no place to stay, you can come stay in our house’ She half-whispers. ‘But then he might divorce me’.

We say good night and go back into the Cafe.
'What was that about?' I ask S.
'They must have been drinking to celebrate our eviction, and then they started feeling bad about it'.

Tuesday 26th July: PIPI fights the PIO

6am: I wake up, my head buzzing with legal words and sentences. Somebody would have to talk with the police, and this time it’s me. I think I’m ready for this. I feel unusually whole and focussed. I have a long bath, get dressed, and take our vegetable compost bin to the compost in the community garden. Then I sit down to write a letter to the Sergeant dealing with our case (we’ve been given the name by the owners). I work through a few drafts until I’m happy with it. My hands are shaking but somehow my mind keeps calm. I think about packing an emergency backpack – with my laptop and library books – in case we have to leave. But that would be to admit defeat. I decide not to.

9.30am: I wake up E and ask her if she wants to come with me to the police. She’s happy to do it. We set off on our bikes to Oval Police station, but we can’t find it. We end up at another station. The sergeant is not there, but they get him on the phone. The receptionist hands me the phone.

When you live in a squat, there always comes a time when you have to talk with owners or the police. Sometimes it’s confrontational, other times it’s negotiation, but you have to do it to protect your home. I always shy from doing the talking. I don't like it and usually let S do it. S is very good at it. I’m not: I don’t feel confident enough. I know I give up too quickly. My assertiveness is lacking. I think slowly and I’m no good in coming up with good arguments on the spot.

But on Tuesday morning I knew I had no choice. If I didn’t do it, we would be on the street in three hours.

Sergeant Britney?


I’m from Vine Lodge, in Vauxhall, we are threatened with eviction today, I think you know the details.


We believe this eviction is illegal.

When you’re inside these legal squatting stories, the details are fascinating. However if it’s not your story the details can get very technical, tedious and boring. So I won’t go into that. The English property law is like a strange game. Sometimes it makes sense, other times it’s quite arbitrary. I’ve been playing this game a few years now.

Very briefly, the 24 hour procedure was made for cases such as when people go on holiday and their house gets squatted, or when tenants are just about to move in and the house gets squatted. Our case was different because we were here for three months and we had verbal agreement from the previous and current owners that we can stay. So legally, we had a license, and we were not squatting. We couldn’t be kicked out in such short notice. I explained this on the phone. He said he will check the legal situation and get back to me.

At home, I found everybody in the kitchen. V+C came round to give us moral and emotional support. C was sitting on the armchair with Pipi in his lap. I think she came to give us moral support as well.

Pipi used to live in Vine Lodge. Now she’s more like a neighbourhood cat. Each night she chooses another house to sleep in. She’s a bit of a slut. Almost everybody loves her, lets her in and feed her. When we just moved in she would come everyday and mieaou on the kitchen window sill until we let her in. She’s not been here for a while. Maybe she felt we were facing eviction and came back.

A note was slipped through the door.


-Go inside a safe building

-Stay inside until you are advised to do otherwise

-Tune into local radio or TV for more information

If you find yourself in the middle of an emergency, your common sense and instincts will usually tell you what to do. However, it is important to:

-Make sure 999 has been called if people are injured or if there is a threat to life

-Do not put yourself or others in danger

-Follow the advice of the emergency services

-Try to remain calm and think before action, and try to reassure others

Together we are safe, together we are strong

Lambeth Council and the Metropolitan Police

Indeed, invaluable advice. Go in, Stay in, Tune in. In the 1960s it was ‘Turn on, Tune in, Drop out’. But things have changed.

Three years ago, I heard a program on Radio 4 about the Foot and Mouth epidemic. It broke out in the UK in the year 2000 and was dealt with complete incompetence by the authorities. They ended up having to slaughter half the animals in the country and close the countryside off for the whole summer. I then realized that in a real emergency, they would probably not have a clue what to do, and will totally lose it. As we see right now. And these are just a few suicide bombers. I don’t want to think of a more serious attack.

In the meantime we had our own little emergency to deal with. And it wasn’t clear if we could ‘stay in’ for much longer. Will the police let us stay? Or will they just decide to enforce the eviction?

2.30 pm: after three more phone calls, a number of faxes sent, the police sergeant informed me that they were not going to do anything about it. ‘I have my doubts about the situation and I don’t want to be doing anything illegal. Anyway, I’ve spent too much time on this, and we’ve got more important things to do, as you can imagine’.

It took me a few hours to realize: we’re safe, for the time being. The owners might have the poshest lawyers, but we’ve won the day. We won’t stay here for more than a few weeks; but that’s all we wanted. We defended our home, we didn’t let them throw us to the street.

It takes me another day for the adrenaline rush to pass.

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