Archiving Ambivalence: Fight For the Aylesbury

Document entitled ‘Fight for the Aylesbury – We’re in Occupation’, held by MayDay Rooms archive
Document entitled ‘Fight for the Aylesbury – Squat The Lot’, held by MayDay Rooms archive


The above documents are held by the activist social movement archive Mayday Rooms. They are held within a collection of material archived from the three-month occupation of empty sections of the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark by squatters protesting a) council plans to displace residents, b) social cleansing in general, c) the lack of social housing, d) the housing crisis, e) precarious, insecure labour and f) the attrition of the welfare state. The wilfully unspecifiable ‘random anarchists’ occupied a series of empty buildings in the Aylesbury between January and April 2015, playing a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse with the council who poured damningly extensive resources into trying to remove them, while allowing the basic infrastructure of the estate, which was still home to hundreds of people, to break down and rot.

The squatters’ occupation was intended both as an expression of solidarity with the tenants facing eviction in the Aylesbury, as well as a form of direct action to repurpose empty buildings as homes in the midst of a housing crisis which was affecting them too, though in different ways. In this latter aim, the occupiers were ‘successful’ for the few months they were able to resist eviction. But what about the former?

Activist political culture invests a great deal in the transformative potential of solidarity in and of itself – the reproduction and expression of relationships between strangers who have shared material interests in the long run, despite varying experiences of the effects of systemic inequality in the present. Those relationships are, like all relationships, inevitably marked by ambivalence – good intentions don’t work out, people disappoint each other, get distracted, change their minds. Ambivalence, however, is not easily contained by the standard form of the activist archive, which, where oral histories or other more subjective archival forms are unavailable, upholds collective memories of a notably intimate form of politics through the preservation of the material ephemera it leaves behind. In this case, these are almost exclusively forms of public address (flyers, posters, graffiti), which succumb somewhat to a pressure to present to the world a united front, glossing over the complexity of the relationships between the various actors involved. This post explores traces of anxiety or uncertainty in Mayday Rooms’ ‘Fight for the Aylesbury’ collection and considers the need to animate ambivalence in the activist archive more broadly.

Document entitled ‘Fight for the Aylesbury – Occupation Poster’, held by MayDay Rooms archive

The Aylesbury Estate is a 1960s social housing estate in the London borough of Southwark, just off Walworth Road. It once contained 2,700 homes but by 2015 it was rapidly being emptied of its council tenants in line with a ‘regeneration’ scheme overseen by Southwark Council. The estate was set for demolition in the same manner as the nearby Heygate Estate, where tenants were evicted gradually between 2011 and 2014. As with the Heygate, it was the council tenants who were the first to be displaced, leaving the semi-deserted estate still inhabited by a significant number of leaseholders who had purchased their council flats through right-to-buy, and were thus not so easy to budge. To empty the Aylesbury for demolition, the council went through a process of requesting approval for ‘Compulsory Purchase Orders’, whereby leaseholders would be forced to accept the purchase of their properties at rates significantly below their market value (as had been the case with the leaseholders in the Heygate). This process, which has been met with consistent resistance, is still underway today, seven years later. There are still around 200 leaseholders in residence, even as demolition and building works have begun on other parts of the site.

On January 31st, 2015, a thousands-strong March For Homes demonstration took place, protesting the government’s handling of and contribution to the housing crisis in London. Within the demonstration, between 100-200 squatters, who had come to form a ‘squatters bloc’, split from the main protest march. They made their way to Walworth to occupy sections of the Aylesbury, which, in large part through the activism of the existing tenants, had become a relatively high-profile symbol of neoliberal housing injustice. The squatters would go on to maintain occupations across different parts of the estate for three months. Multiple attempted evictions took place over the course of this period, and many of them became violent. Other activists and socially engaged students came out in solidarity to resist the evictions and rally around the squat occupation, which increasingly insisted on its inseparability from the concurrent (but slower, less immediate) process of eviction of the tenants of the estate.

For some years prior to the occupation (and consistently since), residents of the Aylesbury had been campaigning against the regeneration of their estate, forming a community activist group, Aylesbury Leaseholders Action Group. The three-month occupation in 2015, which was not initiated by ALAG, is a short episode that is part of a longer story about activist responses and resistance to the housing crisis. This crisis is the context, cause, and consequence of the social cleansing protocols played out by Southwark Council. There’s something slightly uncomfortable about engaging with the occupation as a single event, because it’s not clear how it sits in relation to the longer, slower (and, to my mind, indisputably more important) work of the residents of the estate. It remains uncertain how much the occupation ultimately contributed to preventing the demolition of the Aylesbury, and to what extent it can be understood as a valuable political act from which activists can learn without falling into a binary of idealisation or dismissal.

The occupiers used the squatted buildings as housing. They also made some fledgling attempts to use the physical space as well as the newly formed and gathered collective as a resource for something like a community centre – the collection at Mayday Rooms holds, for example, records of crafting workshops encouraging local people to make comic books about the housing crisis. Public meetings and assemblies were held, and amidst the records of all this, there is also a yellowed flyer for an occupiers and tenants 5-a-side football tournament. Looking through the scraps of saved and gathered material, it’s clear they were trying to form the basis of a new social form founded on solidarity, and it’s important that, despite the ultimate insufficiency of these efforts, it isn’t remembered as having been done in vain. It is nonetheless true, though, that there was only one such comic book workshop, and the football tournament didn’t turn into anything ongoing – didn’t happen again – in part because of the insecurity of the occupation and the work required to stay one step ahead of the council, but also, inevitably, because the work of building community infrastructures like that – building relationships and establishing trust and mutual investment in a version of shared space that is equally magnetising to all parties – is hard.

In an uncredited, undated 5-page essay entitled ‘The Need for a Different Representation of the Housing Struggle’), as well as other printed essays and statements held in the archive, the squatters draw comparisons between their own occupation and the occupation led by Focus E15 of the Carpenters Estate in Newham.

Extract from a document entitled ‘Regeneration Is Violence’, held at the MayDay Rooms Archives

Focus E15’s occupation of Carpenter’s Estate in Newham was a different thing to what went down at Aylesbury.  Making this comparison reveals quite a significant naivete. While I don’t think this naivete is wilful, it’s important to contradict its oversight of the differences between the two occupations. Focus E15’s was led by residents who had already been organising in their estate for years to resist eviction and campaign for their right to stay in their homes. Their use of the established direct action tactic of occupation was one strategy among many deployed in their longer plan, which continues to this day. Because of the established community ties upon which Focus E15’s occupation was founded, the occupied building on the Carpenter’s Estate was able to host daily workshops, gigs, and comedy nights for two weeks, as well as functioning as a social centre for locals. The Aylesbury occupation, by contrast, was the work of squatters and activists who were not residents of the estate, not directly connected to the ongoing campaign led by ALAG, and who did not consult with the residents before occupying parts of it. A common slogan for the occupation was ‘REPOPULATE THE AYLESBURY ESTATE’ – but repopulate it with who? How could the reoccupation of the buildings by outsiders be meaningfully different from the in-process gentrification that essentially will soon do the same thing, albeit with chrome bannisters, houseplants and Nespresso rather than ladders, sleeping bags and bin-salvaged pitta bread? I respect the intentions of the squatters, and do not want to dismiss the meaning of their actions, so I’m not asking this question rhetorically, I’m really asking. Activist archives like that held by Mayday Rooms offer us the valuable opportunity for us to learn from the mistakes of the past rather than idealising the imperfections.

In reality, a politics that relies on the transformative potential of relationship-building must contend with the constant ambivalence that characterises actually existing relationships between people in their everyday lives. The archive of the occupation at Aylesbury does bear traces of doubt and ambivalence about the relationship between the squatters and the residents, but it remains unspoken and unmetabolised. Consider the scanned page below:

Document entitled ’Aylesbury Various – Solidarity with the Squatters of the Aylesbury Estate’, held at MayDay Rooms archive

The poster has a few millimetres of empty white paper around the edges. In this margin, on the upper edge, someone has written by hand in biro, “WHAT ABOUT THE TENANTS STRUGGLE?”. There is no record of who wrote this, and when: was it a note-to-self of the person who saved it, or intentionally addressed to others who might have seen it at the time, and now, in the page’s memorialisation within the archive? The accusation in this  question – that the occupiers and the tenants are separate groups –  echoes the standard attack line made at the time and since by the council in briefings to the local press (“The squatters do not represent the residents of the Aylesbury and are risking the delivery of the very homes they claim to be campaigning for.”) This more intimate, informal expression of the same sentiments – suspicion, frustration, distrust – is different, however, because it belies a sense of this same tension from someone closer to the action. The document, as it stands, seems to carry a certain level of optimism that this doesn’t merit defacement even as it’s clear that it’s not enough. What it expresses is ambivalence.

The public address of the activism of the squatters in capital-O Occupation is at odds with the private, undocumented (and thus not archived) occupation of the tenants, whose acts of resistance began before and continued through the Occupation (having little to no other choice). The archive does not contain any record of life in the tenant-occupied flats during the long period that Spring, when the violent evictions caused havoc on the estate, and the security fences put up by the council to contain the squatters ended up ‘caging’ the tenants, too, causing them major inconvenience entering and exiting their homes. Anecdotally, as someone who has some experience of housing organising and activism, I find it hard to imagine that people weren’t at least a little p*ssed off at least some of the time. The archive contains traces of reports that the tenants didn’t mind at all, refuting the accusations of division from the council, yet we can’t know what it was actually like at the football tournament that day in February, nor what it felt like in the room while the comic book workshop was taking place. What did people think about their new temporary neighbours? How did they feel the squatters’ presence related to their own? Did they feel welcome? Did they feel welcoming? The archive contains no record of anyone’s personal story; there is no record of conversations that might have been had in stairwells, or on the grass; nothing to bear a trace of the unspoken affects that shifted and jostled the tenants and the squatters alike over the course of those three months. How might we go about animating the intersubjective ambivalence, contradiction and complexity of this historical moment in the context of the activist archive?

Ambivalence is evidence not of failure, but of desire, attachment, longing, not just for political change but for assurance that it’s worth trying again and again to induce it. We need to be better at holding onto, archiving, collectively remembering and metabolising these attempts, so that we can learn what our ambivalence can teach us. Records of the three-month period of the Aylesbury occupation show the potential for different kinds of collective subjectivity across various degrees of working-class difference and relative privilege to be generated; they also ought to teach us some important lessons about what is hard, what doesn’t work, and the necessity of engaging with the inconsistency that defines social attachments that last a long time.

George Lynch is a first year PhD student at the University of Manchester. Her thesis uses the work of the late queer theorist Lauren Berlant to explore contemporary left wing political cultures in the UK. It uses queer theories of intimacy to explore political fantasies of a more intimate sociality between strangers, with a focus on the methods and practices employed by grassroots unions, community organising, and contemporary abolitionism.

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