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A Trip to the Ocean

This is a guest post by luckyjimm 

Earlier this week I watched squatters crack open a flat on what was once one of the most deprived estates in Britain and, infamously, the cheapest place to buy heroin in Europe. The Ocean Estate in Stepney was built between 1949 and 1975 and is made up of at least 40 buildings and some 1700 flats. The estate is over half Bengali. In 2001, Tony Blair promised £56 million for its regeneration, but the project stalled and builders withdrew their bids because development would cost a missing £200 million. Because of this impasse, squatters have moved in.

Tower Hamlets council lacks the money to buy back privately owned flats, or is having trouble finding alternative accommodation for residents. When flats are vacated the council try to make them uninhabitable by ripping out the plumbing and electrics, removing the front doors and boarding them up with metal Sytex sheeting. But all these obstacles can be overcome by squatters who see the council’s inefficiencies may allow them to keep a flat for a year or two. Also sometimes heroin addicts break into flats to shoot up. 

To prevent this, the estate is now patrolled twenty- four hours by security guards. A couple of weeks ago the police arrested a would-be squatter as he tried to break into an empty flat. Other flats are evicted by court order. But to show they had not given in, the squatters called for a large crowd to gather and overwhelm security whilst a chosen flat was secured. 

Perhaps forty people gathered at one of the existing squats. The plan was to unfurl a banner from the walkway which would provide cover while the first-floor flat was cracked. Cards were handed round giving advice on what to do in case of arrest. There was talk of the security guards attacking with dogs. The squatters would form a solid block, hold up a pallet box and try to hold their ground. 

I didn’t feel particularly comfortable with my plummy voice amongst grizzled old Class War types and Eastern European anarchists. To general disinterest I declared I’d be happiest observing from a safe distance, and squeezed my way downstairs to watch from the ground. The banner was unfurled and the “crackers” set to work ripping the Sytex metal sheet from the doorway. Within minutes four security vans had swerved up, alerted by a New Age lady with a loudhailer. The burly guards ran up the stairs and tried to push their way through, but their dogs were unexpectedly and thankfully elsewhere. There was much pushing and shoving, with the squatters filming the action. 

Down on the ground, I did my best to blend in with the crowd of twenty Bengali teenagers who’d quickly gathered at the sign of trouble and who I’d heard had recently fought a group of disrespectful ketamine-addled Spanish squatters.. I gather that ten years ago these kids would have been taking or dealing smack – hey, I didn’t spend the last fortnight watching The Wire for nothing. One of them asked me what was going on, and when I told him replied “Why don’t they get a job and pay rent like normal people?”

Several families had come out to watch the commotion. I listened in as a “legal observer” declared to a bearded middle-aged man that he was working class and had “deep respect for the Bengali community”. “It’s not about being Bengali” the man replied. “It’s that this estate is our home.” He said he’d lived on the estate ten years, and was waiting to be rehoused in Newham. He didn’t mind the quiet squatters, but didn’t like those who held loud parties. He had to work to pay his rent, so why shouldn’t they? And some of them weren’t even British, he said. Or, as someone else once put it, life is hard enough even when you belong here. At this the legal observer accused the Bengali man of racism, whilst Polish squatters squabbled with Polish security guards.

By now two community police officers arrived, but the squatters had already secured the flat with a new front door and a Section 6 notice. Soon people would move in, perhaps from one of the flats evicted earlier in the day. The security guards stood by their vans swearing into their mobile phones. The police spoke to all parties and drove off without making any arrests. For now, the squatters had won.