Unicorn Grocery – 15 years of Fresh Food, Fairtrade & Organic Farming

In 2011, Unicorn Grocery, based in Chorlton, is celebrating 15 years of trade in organic, fairtrade, low-carbon and ethical produce.

Set up in 1996 by a small group of people interested in sustainable food, Unicorn Grocery has flourished over the years and now has a turnover of almost £4 million. Selling everything from local vegetables to Palestinian olive oil, the grocery has become a sustainable alternative to supermarkets. “I think what we wanted to do was to run a shop that sold the kind of things we wanted to buy,” states Debbie Clarke, an environmental campaigner who has worked at Unicorn for 10 years. “[A shop] that had an ethical outlook, that was sourcing things carefully in terms of provenance and nutrition.”

Inspired by a co-operative wholefood shop called Daily Bread in Cambridge, which is run on an ethical and Christian ethos, one of the founders of Unicorn Grocery, Adam York, decided to establish a similar grocery in Manchester. “Although he wasn’t a Christian, he saw value in the way that they were running things and also that it was replicable,” explains Debbie. “He took it on with a secular perspective and looked around for people who were interested in the project in Manchester. There were two people originally, which grew to six, and it took a couple of years planning for it and finding premises, money as well a doing a bit of market research to see if there was an appetite for it.” Finally, in 1996, the Unicorn Grocery Co-operative opened its doors to the public.

As a co-operative, most of the people that work at Unicorn own and run the business – everyone has a flat pay and makes an equal contribution in the running of the business. “I suppose there are loads of reasons why you would want to run a business as a co-op, some are political reasons such as having control in the hands of the workers to more practical reasons because it’s a really good business model,” states Debbie. “For example, the people that are making the decisions are the people that have to put everything into practice- there isn’t that chain of command where you have a distant head office which is barking orders at you when they have no idea how things work on the ground.”

This means that those stacking the shelves aren’t poorly paid workers but rather well-informed members of the co-op who know and understand the policies and ethics of the grocery. Even so, Debbie explains that they do have casual staff to give them a buffer for the fluctuations in how busy they are during the day, week and also the year. “We did try for a little being fully mutual, which means that everyone that worked there was a member, but it left us vulnerable to fluctuations so we have between 5-10% of our hours from casual staff although it’s not something that we want the business to be based around.”

As with all co-operatives, a certain level of compromise and creative tension is also inevitable. Unicorn embraces lots of principles such as vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, a focus on local food, fairtrade and organic growing but sometimes priorities need to be set and difficult decisions made. For example, Unicorn has decided not to have any boycotts in place and they don’t refuse to stock products from any country. Therefore they sell products from China, they occasionally sell products from Israel and they sell some fairtrade products from Zimbabwe as well as products from Iran.

“The question is that if we start cutting out products from countries would we stop selling things from the US?,” asks Debbie. “We don’t think that whole-scale boycotts of countries are the way to deal with poor human rights records or political activity. What we would try and do is focus on the products from those countries that we know are well sourced. For example, we work with an organisation called Kitchen Garden, which consists of small-scale organic farmers from Zimbabwe which we try to promote as part of our recommended range.” Unicorn also sells Palestinian olive oil from Zaytoun, a UK-based not-for-profit company which imports certified Fairtrade olive oil from Palestinian farmers.

“I think the interesting thing is that although we all have different perspectives, we have these guiding principles which say what – fundamentally – the ethics of the business trades on. Everyone respects those and although there are sometimes discussions about what to prioritize, generally we all come to a compromise and use [the guiding principles] to make a decision without causing too much conflict.”

And it’s these guiding principles that have allowed Unicorn to grow over the years. Debbie states there is no way that the shop would have grown to the size it has or accessed the number of customers that it does if they only sold local produce or only fairtrade. “We do compete with supermarkets on price and that’s part of our business model, but to do that you have to work out where that balance is,” says Debbie. Whilst Unicorn Grocery doesn’t air freight any of its stock, they do buy bananas, pineapples, tomatoes and oranges all year round because they accept that it’s what people want and there’s only so much you can do before people just go to Tesco instead. “We do try to focus on local food and push it where possible and we try to educate our customers about seasonality so we can sell seasonal veg from local growers,” adds Debbie.

In 2008, Unicorn bought 21 acres of land to improve their local supply of veg and cut their food miles. They have tenant growers who work the land with the support from Moss Brook Growers and funding from Making Local Food Work. “We did some crop trials in the first year, last year we did more small-scale crops and this year is the first year that has made it into major production. They were funded for the first couple of years but now they have to make it work financially- I’m sure they’ll manage it!”

Unicorn also works with the Kindling Trust which is working to develop a group of veg buyers called Manchester’s Veg People as well as the Glebelands Trust which is an urban market garden based in Sale. They also contribute to the annual Chorlton Food & Drink Festival which promotes the independent food and drink sector.

Indeed, there is a growing appreciation of local, fairtrade and organic food with lots of supermarkets now stocking such products. When I ask Debbie if this means more competition for Unicorn or more customers, she replies that it’s a bit of both. “The supermarkets may sell organic and fairtrade but their business models are inherently unsustainable. A lot of it is based on unfair trade and intensive and unsustainable agriculture so people are aware that we are still a better option. The landscape has changed a lot but over that fifteen year period, the pattern [for Unicorn] has very much been growth. Our turnover started off as something like a couple of thousands and now it’s approaching four million.”

Looking ahead to the future, Unicorn is hoping to build a commercial kitchen to expand on the current small kitchen they have behind they deli where salads are prepared and baked goods are made. “The great thing about that is that it also cuts food miles,” says Debbie. “Instead of bringing in products we can make them ourselves and we can also use gluts to make value-added goods. So if we have too many courgettes in, we can make use of them to make a couple of things.” The grocery is also planning to double-glaze all the windows and is working with the Carbon Co-op to install solar panels which will then sell electricity back to the grid. Clearly, the radical roots of Unicorn are still alive and will continue in the future. As Debbie states, “I hope that we will continue to be challenged to become more sustainable and that we in turn can encourage our customers to become more radical.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

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Abundance Manchester

Abundance Manchester was established in the summer of 2008 with the aim of collecting fruit from public trees and people’s gardens and redistributing it to people in need. The volunteer-run organisation now collects fruit from around 60 gardens every harvest and drops off the produce on bike trailers to a homeless shelter, a centre for destitute asylum seekers and the Salvation Army in south Manchester. Inspired by groups such as ‘Grow Sheffield’ which highlights the amount of food waste that occurs in an urban environment, the volunteers at Abundance Manchester also say their work illustrates the ways that environmental groups can help with social issues such as homelessness.

“It’s such a simple idea, you take fruit from people who don’t want or need it and then you give it to people who do. Most people can’t believe it hasn’t been done sooner – everyone benefits,” beams Nicola Scott, a volunteer at Abundance Manchester. Passionate about growing food locally and organically, Nicola says that what drew her to Abundance was a realisation of the amount of food waste that occurs in people’s gardens: “People seem to just inherit these fruit trees or buy houses with existing trees and just don’t know what do with them…There are some people who really care about their trees but then you do get people who still go out and buy apples from their local supermarket even though they have an amazing apple tree growing in their backyard!”

Tackling Food Waste In The City

Once the organisation was set up, the core members set about tackling this issue of waste by advertising their project and asking people who had a glut of produce to contact them so that they could collect the extra fruit. Gradually, they built up a list of available fruit trees and so they started working on developing links with local charities and organisations who could make use of their harvest. “We had one volunteer at the time who worked with an asylum seeker project called The Boaz Trust – they help destitute asylum seekers who have no recourse to any funds at all, either because their asylum application has been rejected and they are going through the appeals process or they have just newly arrived in the UK. It was decided that they would be the key recipient.”

Since then, Abundance Manchester has worked with projects such as the Cornerstone in Hulme which helps homeless people, the Safestop Hostel which assists young homeless women as well as the Salvation Army. They have built up an e-list of 300 volunteers offering to pick fruit during the harvest season – which runs from late July to the end of October – and also to make chutneys and cook fruit pies for those organisations without a kitchen. As they rely on bike trailers to transport their goods, the projects focuses on small area in south Manchester which covers Didsbury, Chorlton, Withington, Whalley Range and Ladybarn. Despite this limitation, they often struggle with the logistics of carrying the abundant fruit they pick, “Sometimes we have so much we have to drop off the first lot at our base and come back for the rest- it’s amazing how much free food is available even in inner-city neighbourhoods,” says Nicola

‘It Doesn’t Look Like That At The Supermarket!’

It seems that hundreds of fruit trees across the city go unpicked because people think it’s not safe to eat fruit from the trees or they are not sure who the trees belong to. “People are so disassociated from where our food comes from that when the fruit has got blemishes – which are completely natural – they think well it mustn’t be safe to eat,” explains Nicola. “It’s a shame really, we’ve become so detached from our food, we expect it to be all shiny like it comes from the supermarket.”

The reluctance of people to pick from public trees is also an issue which Nicola thinks could be easily resolved with a couple of signs encouraging people to take the fruit at the time of harvest. “Last summer we found that there were loads of cherry trees in Moss Side, literally ten metres away from Princess Parkway and so we started picking the cherries in late June. We got loads of people coming out of their houses saying ‘What are you doing? ‘These are public trees, are you allowed to pick them?’ and we were like ‘Yeah, of course’ and eventually there were loads of people coming out to pick the trees.”

Growing With Asylum Seekers

As well as connecting people with the food available on their neighbourhoods, Abundance Manchester has also helped raise awareness of social issues such as homelessness and immigration amongst people who wouldn’t normally engage with such matters. “Working with Abundance meant that I got to find out more about asylum seekers through our workshops and they taught me stuff like how in Zimbabwe they use the young leaves of courgettes as spinach leaves,” says Nicola. “So you get all these cultural exchanges and I learnt about issues I normally wouldn’t be involved in.”

Nicola adds the fruit donors, who open their gardens to Abundance volunteers, also make links with socially marginalised people such as refugees and homeless people. “When we go to the richer areas of Manchester where we collect fruit, it’s very unlikely that these people will be in contact with destitute asylum seekers and I think sharing the food is a way for them to give and help other people.” Indeed, Nicola says that what Abundance Manchester wants to see in the future are more people and organisations with fruit trees taking their own initiative to link up to local groups and charities who could put the food to good use. “For example, the Hulme garden centre asked whether we would take their excess fruit but then we realised that there was a community café round the corner from them, so it made a lot more sense for them to just get together and work out a way to share the produce,” explains Nicola.

Sharing Food and Becoming Sustainable

In January 2009, Abundance Manchester acquired an allotment in West Didsbury which its now uses as a base to store fruit and as a drop-off point for those wanting to donate a glut in fruit or vegetables from their own allotments. The allotment also means that they can now host workshops encouraging locals to grow food in their own homes and gardens with limited resources, space and time. “I think with food price hikes as a result of climate change, we’re going to need to know how to be more self-sufficient and growing your own is a simple way to live more sustainably,” says Nicola. “It may not be for everyone, I understand that completely, but I think there are things that everyone can do like growing salad leaves and herbs in a container on their balcony.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Hulme Community Garden Centre – A Green Regeneration

After decades of social and economic decline, Hulme was regenerated in the 1990s with the demolition of problematic flats such as the Crescents and some improvements to social housing. However, the regeneration failed to create green spaces which were open to all so in 1998, four local residents came up with the idea of establishing a community garden centre. Richard Lockwood, Geraldine Wall, Andrew Stewart and Neil Francis got together to work on securing land for the garden and in April 2000 they opened Hulme Community Garden Centre on Old Birley Street just two miles from Manchester’s city centre. Whilst only one of the four founding members – Richard Lockwood – is still part of the project today, the ethos of sustainability and a belief in the role that green spaces can play in the well-being of the community still leads the organisation.

“What you have now is a very mature and established garden but originally it was a brownfield site – just a patch of wasteland,” explains Jamie Dickinson, the manager of the centre, as we sit in the garden. “The land is still council-owned and we basically pay a peppercorn rent because, in fairness, the council realise that we add value to the area and sees the benefit of what we do.” As well as selling cheap seeds and plants to green-fingered locals, the garden centre is a maze of trees, willow arches, allotments and classrooms where free workshops are held for local residents, school children and a wide range of socially excluded groups such as ex-drug users and those who have abused alcohol.

Jamie explains that the Centre has worked with over 200 organisations ranging from the usual green and environmentally focused groups to allotment societies, mental health agencies, housing associations and refugee support network. “What we’ve found is that access to green space and horticulture covers such a broad cross section of needs. On a basic level, there’s mental and physical well-being of just growing and planting… It can help people in so many ways, whether it’s exercise, being with nature, healthy living or even how it connects to people’s faith,” says Jamie.

A not-for-profit organisation, the Hulme Community Garden Centre employs ten members of staff and welcomes over 5,000 visitors every year, all of whom have access to free expert horticultural advice. “We get the yummy mummies of Chorlton, an 80-year old African Caribbean through to Iraqi refugees walking through our doors. It’s such a broad group of people and that’s the strength of what we do,” adds Jamie. “It’s not a passive space – I mean, yes, you can come here and just read a book or have a sandwich – but we actively work to help people and that’s what’s really important.”

As well its role in the wider community, the centre has become an education hub, promoting the importance of growing food and biodiversity and wildlife habitats. Schools and college groups visit the centre regularly and although Jamie states that they don’t focus on any age group in their community outreach, he admits that it’s important to get people into healthy living and sustainability sooner in their lives. “This centre was founded on principles of sustainability,” says Jamie. “I read the various documents that were submitted to funders before this place opened and what you see all the way through it is the principle of sustainability, maybe not in those terms but you see the three Rs again and again… Recycle, compost, growing organic- all these things are now what we would class as sustainability and they were the ethos at the centre of this place which we still follow.” In fact, on my way in to find Jamie I witness a local resident quiz the staff (who seemed very knowledgeable) on everything from the best organic feeds to the best season to grow your own ginger.

When I ask Jamie if he thinks growing our own food in an urban landscape is important, he replies, “Well, I don’t mean to sound dramatic but it’s a matter of life and death. Growing food and being green is a big part of what we’re about and people are going to have to learn how to do it because otherwise they ain’t going to eat! In terms of sustainability, local food is going to be the only food and so we want to skill as many people to do that as we possible can. It’s not that we bully or hector people about this – we don’t feel that’s our role or how we will educate and improve people’s lives – we’ve just have to show and explain.”

Indeed, the garden centre was recently granted permission to take over a council-owned car park right next door, again on a peppercorn rate on a ten-year lease, to expand the garden. On May 15th 2011, a community discussion and design day was held to gather ideas about what to do with the acre of land they have acquired. “We invited all the community and I mean ALL the community – we leafleted every house and flat, we contacted every organisation we work with, we told everyone – so that the local community could come in and say ‘well, this is what we want’,” says Jamie.

The main requests put forward by the locals includes things like renewable energy generation, wind turbines, community allotments, a performance space and green workshop where they could make things out of wood without using any energy. Many gardeners also pointed out that they would like more space for growing food. “We are a community organisation, and we need people to give us our mandate to go forward,” explains Jamie, “At the end of the community design day we had a clear idea of what people want to see and the nice part was that it was what we thought should be there in the first place, which means that we’re getting something right!”

Looking into the future, the Hulme Community Garden Centre faces the same problem that many voluntary organisations are now struggling with: funding. Or to be more precise, long-term funding which allows an organisation to plan ahead, develop and exist without the threat of financial ruin. “We’ve been lucky because we did get a pot of funding for five years in 2007 which has been a springboard and helped us get from 3 staff to ten and do stuff like put up the green roof, refit the classroom and the staffroom and plan to eco-retrofit the shop,” says Jamie. “We’ve also done what lots of other organisations do, which is build our resilience by selling things…We sell plants and seeds and that, hopefully, means we’ll always have something to fall back on to help keep this community garden open.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Leaf Street: Radical gardening in the city

The Leaf Street Community Garden in Hulme was set up in 2000 when local residents from the Bentley House (‘Redbricks’) estate decided to transform a grassed-over pathway between two rows of three-storey flats into a communal garden. After a 72-hour permaculture course and community consultation, the layout of the community garden was decided and locals got on with making the garden a reality. Although they have faced opposition from the council, which has threatened to turf over the garden on a couple of occasions, as well as leadership issues, the garden remains an example of successful radical gardening in Manchester.

In 1999, residents in Hulme decided to transform a wide pathway on Leaf Street into a community garden which grows food and also provides an open space for neighbours to meet and interact. Based on permaculture principles which take wildlife, food and people into consideration, the locals dug up the pathway and started planting trees and herbs with very little funding. Mick Chesterman, a local volunteer at the garden, states that at the time the local authorities weren’t very helpful and insisted that the project secure written consent from 80% of the residents living in the vicinity.

Even so, locals led by Angus Soutar, ‘Jungle’ Jen, and Rob Squires got on with their plans and planted (what they insist is) the world’s largest herb spiral, made using reclaimed railway sleepers, raised vegetable beds between wood-chipped pathways, fruit trees and shrubs as well as art sculptures. Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton provided a small grant to help pay for the fruit trees but other than that, the garden came together due to the efforts of the locals.

Over the years, however, the garden began to lose direction and in 2002, it was decided to raise funds to employ a project co-ordinator for the garden who would take the lead and help organise volunteers more effectively. This lead to a shift in focus away from growing food to creating an environment where locals can socialise and supporting biodiversity and wildlife. As Mick notes, “We wanted to take a low maintenance approach to gardening. We’re not afraid of it being messy and creating a natural habitat where food is grown, birds and insects are supported and opening up a space for the community to enjoy.”

However, in 2008 the council reportedly showed concern over the appearance of the garden and so volunteers helped to get it back in order. Leaf Street works with volunteers from the local Hulme Community Garden Centre and has also developed an uneasy alliance with the housing association which controls the surrounding estate.

The issue of land and land ownership is a contentious issue at the heart of radical gardening and especially ‘guerrilla gardening’ where activists plant on abandoned land without permission. However, Leaf Street Community Garden is an example of action taken for the community’s benefit that was later positively acknowledged by the landlords themselves. “Leaf Street was built by people just taking it and doing it literally without the will of their landlord,” says Mick. “And actually ten years down the road, it’s become an asset to the landlords and they’re now really happy it’s happened.

“So just because you’re experiencing resistance doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t just go out and do it. In the same way that direct action maybe against the law but morally justified, it’s the same for radical gardening. I mean you may not have direct consent but you’re in the right and once you’ve done it you can’t really argue against it.”

This radical background is reflected in the volunteers’ strong sense of ownership of the garden which has meant they have found it hard to work with established organisations such as housing associations. “I mean we do get a lot out of it but at the same time the garden has a strong sense of identity and we’re reluctant to give that up,” remarked Mick. Radical gardeners have also noted that housing associations, some of which own huge quantities of empty land, could do more to support and encourage community gardens.

Community and radical gardens have recently witnessed a resurgence due to the role that they play in building resilient communities that are able to deal with the impacts of climate change. Moving away from a dependence on supermarkets and food that is flown from all over the world by growing food locally is an aspiration of many climate activists. And despite the move away from growing food, the Leaf Street Community garden still grows pears, apples, plums, berries, squashes and pumpkins.

Taking a wider perspective, Mick states that working with the community garden is a ‘coping mechanism’ that allows him to deal with the enormity of climate change. “It’s very easy to get quite apocalyptic about the changes that are going to happen so being able to grow my own food locally and work with my neighbours is one way of dealing with climate change positively and constructively.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Sustainability and Spirituality: Levenshulme’s Eco-Mosque

In 2003 the Muslim Bohra community of Levenshulme started thinking about replacing their makeshift prayer hall – a former Maternity & Child Welfare Centre in an old Methodist chapel – with a brand new mosque. However, fitted with solar panels, recycled wood, reclaimed stone, under-floor heating and other energy saving measures this wasn’t your average mosque, but an eco-mosque.

Opened in 2008, the new building was the culmination of a lot of hard work, curiosity and a belief that it is possible to create a mosque which positively impacts both the community and the environment. At the time, the mosque’s opening was reported in both the local press and amongst international Muslim and environmental publications. Mustafa Abdulhussein, vice-president of the mosque, told the Manchester Evening News at the time of the mosque’s opening that “We had been using the building as a makeshift mosque for many years, then about five years ago we started thinking about building a new structure. The eco-element arises out of what a mosque is meant to be. It is meant to be friendly in every aspect, which includes being friendly to the environment. We should set an example and having eco-friendly features makes those congregating there aware of the issues. It hasn’t really been any more costly than if we were to do it any other way and there is a much greater gain to be had with a mosque which creates its own energy.”

He also added that “The building is two completely different architectural styles – one side is inspired by modern Mancunian architecture, with glass and zinc, and the Mecca-facing side uses traditional materials like stone.”

In 2010, Abdulhussein told Manchester Radical History’s Arwa Aburawa that initially green concerns were not on the agenda when the mosque was being built. “It started off with us saying that we should have some solar panels as green buildings are encouraged and we had to have some green aspects by law. So I looked into it and got more interested with the green aspects and although I wouldn’t call the mosque completely eco- it’s really a step towards a fully eco mosque.”

Learning To Care For The Environment

The new mosque was fitted with solar panels, under-floor heating which is efficient as most of the congregation sit on the floor, infra-red sensitive taps so water isn’t wasted and energy-efficient lighting. The eco-mosque was also built using sustainable wood, reclaimed stone and an energy-efficient glass façade with allows natural light in. Abdulhussein explained, “the glass retains the heat in the cold and in summer it creates an environment which requires less heating. When I started I was not aware that such glass even existed!”

In fact, it has been a learning curve for all the community, which is discovering the ‘green’ aspects of Islam. “All the issues that are important today such as the issue of global warming and polluting- all these aspects are very much within Islam’s concerns, in fact there are imperative, a requirement for us to think about,” explains Abdulhussein. “A lot of these things don’t get taught about any more although I’ve noticed that in the last twenty years there has been a change and Muslims (like any other ethnic or religious groups) are also learning to think about environmental issues.”

Abdulhussein also noticed that the younger members of the congregation had particularly embraced the green aspects of the mosque as it showed that their faith recognised modern day issues. The concept of ‘Khalifa’ or stewardship is rooted in Islamic thought and states that mankind has a responsibility to protect the whole of humanity and the planet. However, Abdulhussein admits that it it still up to the Muslim community to take environmental awareness seriously. “To be frank Muslims have a lot to worry about, the political agenda is dominating the Muslim world and issues that ought to be at the forefront of our thoughts are pushed to one side. It all depends on how seriously imams take the issue,” he says.

Building Bridges Between Communities

The eco-mosque in Levenshulme, which is known as ‘Al-Markaz Al-Najmi’ mosque, has also been praised for helping to build bridges between different communities. “When a mosque is built in an area the standard reaction is ‘not another mosque’, there are concerns about parking and disruption,” says Abdulhussein. “So when we decided to build the mosque we wanted it to be different because if the community can’t get behind it then what’s the point of building a mosque? If we want to build a house of worship then it has to benefit the entire area- that was our aim from the beginning… For example, we try to make sure that the mosque parking never disturbs the neighbours- we police it ourselves. We make sure that the neighbours have our number in case there is a problem of any kind and what we have found is that in return they look after our mosque. When we have trespassers in the mosque surrounds who are not meant to be there we tend to get residents ringing us up to tell us- they look after us in many ways.”

In 2010, the Bohra community also donated over £50,000 to Levenshulme Inspire, a local community centre also based in a former church, which will include a stylish café, social housing apartments and space for clubs and local groups to meet. Inspire was due to open in October 2010. Abdulhussein explains that this is just part of the Muslim community’s contribution to the locality and its future development. In fact, he adds that all mosques should be integrated with their communities and also positively contribute to their environment. “I really do feel that if there was some organisation in Manchester which could influence the building and design of mosques then they really should encourage them to bring in some of the measures that we did- both in terms of eco-friendliness and community-friendliness,” he emphasises.

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Protesting Manchester Airport’s second runway

An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 82-86.

Life on the Battle Star: A Personal Account

This interview was gently extracted from a war-torn activist three days after the eviction of the last tree at Flywood camp at Manchester Airport. There were still tunnel systems being occupied, and other tree houses have gone up since. This follows one person’s experience of one of the most successfully defended tree houses from the beginning to the end of the Battle Star Galactica.

Good evening from Captain Battlestar, who is totally nameless and will put on a silly accent throughout this interview.

The Campaign Builds

Could you give us the background to the campaign?

The second runway had been on the cards for 25 years. After the public enquiry finished in 1994 Earth First! types joined up with activists from the Green Party and Friends of the Earth, forming the RunWay Coalition. We had meetings but it didn’t start to escalate until ’96.

In May ’96 we all walked the route of the runway. 20 of us went up to where Flywood would be a year later, and took photos of what turned out to be my tree. We went down through the willows and everything was so wild we had to slash a path through the undergrowth and into the meadow. We just thought Wow, it was totally awesome. We realised the main way to get people involved was to get them to experience the place. More & more walks were done with more and more people.

One night in late ’96 I got a phone call saying that the decision whether or not to build it would be announced the next day. We thought, shit we haven’t got anything ready, no tree houses rigged up. Their security were already patrolling the sites looking for protesters. So a couple of us decided to go for it. We tatted some tarps and some ply wood and joists and planned a night mission to move in. We had rekied the site in disguise as dog walkers with barber jackets and found the most strategic point. That then became Flywood. At 7pm on Saturday the advance party of 5 climbers ran across the road carrying polyprop and climbing gear and disappeared off into the woods. An hour later the tat van turned up and managed to crash through the gates, unload and get 30 people on site, all without being spotted. We managed to set up a ground camp with a tree house 70 foot up all between 7 p.m. to 7 am.

The next morning, sitting in the bow of my tree watching the birds play, I saw a police car pass without even noticing us. We had thought they were on the ball – so we took the camp the night before runway walk. At midday 100 people turned up. The first thing the police knew about our camp was on the 3 o’clock news. Lots turned up and the camp came together really fast after that.

The A30 camp was being evicted 2 days before we moved in so while they were going down we were going up. It was a really nice feeling. They could not stop us. A few weeks later the A30 refugees turned up en masse. It all came together so beautifully. Within a week we had another camp set up – Zion Tree – a 100 year old beech. We got many locals from North West moving there, many of them giving up their jobs.

Could you paint a picture of what type of ecology and landscape is being destroyed?

Most of the site was in the beautiful Bolin Valley. The woodland was called Hux Bank Wood which stretched from Zion Tree to Fly Wood down to River Rats. The whole valley was a grade A site of biological importance, just one down from a S.S.S.I. There are hundreds and hundreds of mature trees. The river meandering through the valley is to be encased in a massive concrete tube and, along with the rest of the valley, buried under rubble from a Derbyshire quarry. The whole thing is 4 million cubic metres- as large as the cutting at Twyford. The runway is around 300 hundred metres wide. All the woodland in that valley is to be completely annihilated, it is the removal of an entire landscape.

How many people from the surrounding communities were actively involved?

Virtually everybody there was from the North West, apart from the usual rent-a-mob, which was the beauty of it. We got a few from Wigan and surrounding towns. It’s not so much that there were so many locals involved but that they were new to protesting. They were defending their own land.

There was an established campaign in Mobley next door, a little town that will be right at the end of the proposed runway. One vet said after the decision was made he would start knitting a balaclava. During the eviction they organised that every Saturday they’d hold a vigil by the main gates. On the Saturday that the Battlestar came down there were 400 of them. One of the women from Mobley came up in the first week saying she was just a housewife but what could she do. After telling her there was no such thing she made a wish list which she took around the village. She collected tat every day in her vehicle and the villagers made up sealed eviction stashes with games and drinks and things. It was really amazing – they were thoroughly behind us.

We heard that ‘defencing’ often ended up quite full on?

The security started putting up fences between the camps with razor wire. You could lose your finger on it. We started resisting, they started arresting us. Soon the security started conniving with the police to help beat us so we pixied at night generally just snipping it and taking it back to camp for building material. Cliff Richard camp was mainly constructed out of the fence.

One night a large group went out to the fence and started to tear it down. Some people who were heading off down the valley looking for a lost child bumped into the police who were arriving to deal with the fence trashers. One copper got out of the car, pulled out his truncheon and just started attacking people, with no warning, laying into people with his baton; the result being broken knuckles from trying to block the blows, broken ribs, missing teeth, battered heads. The people acted in self defence. The police Land Rover ended up getting some of its lights and windows smashed in. As a result the police withdrew, the security withdrew and the fences were left unguarded, 100 metres was removed that night, flattened and destroyed.

On another night police starting laying into people and arrests were made for ‘violent disorder’, ‘riot’ which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, and ‘using a dangerous dog as a weapon’. One person who was rescued from the police had broken ribs. He was jumped on by cops waving their batons on the way to hospital. Inside the hospital they surrounding him saying “do you want some”, then they quick-cuffed & dragged him off. Some are on remand now but as usual the police’s statements are cocking up so they should be out soon.

Tell us about the tree house you lived in – BattleStar Galactica. What tactics did you use to actually keep your tree house pig-proof.

The logical process was: (A) get rid of the cherry picker. That was done with a system of tunnels strategically surrounding the trees making the ground unstable for heavy machinery on one side, and with a steep bank on the other side that was too high for the Cherry Pickers. (B) make it climber-proof – this was quite difficult, because the little bastards climb everywhere! However if you have a tree house wall which is six feet or more and the edge of it is covered in barbed wire, and grease, and razor fence, and there’s someone there who’s not going to let you over it, it is virtually impossible to climb round it. So that was the starting point: to make the scab-proof “battle” platform.

We lashed these big brackets onto the tree, built the frame, boarded it, and then we covered the top-side in razor fence, which meant that they couldn’t chain-saw or saw through it. There was a coil of barbed wire on the underside of the platform, on the top, and right round the edge, so that you couldn’t get hold of the thing. It was hideously difficult to get round it, even with no one on it, but of course with eight people running around on it, saying “No, you’re not coming up”, and being very strong and resisting them, basically they were stuffed. Then just to make it a little bit more fun, we decided to actually stop them being able to get up the trunk full-stop. So at a height of about twelve feet above the ground, we put coils of barbed wire, like you’d see on top of a prison. Then we thought, tree-surgeons with their spiky boots will just spike up it, but the only thing that can stop spikes is metal. So we got some corrugated sheet, and nailed that on the tree, then greased it just to make it even more unpleasant.

And then just to make it a little bit more unpleasant, I put another 10-15 feet of coiled barbed wire, this time vertically down the trunk, stapled on quite firmly, before I realised that I may have just put a set of hand-holds up the tree. So we stopped there and put another seven feet collar at the top, then greased that. The main thing with the collars is to make sure that they’re really thoroughly nailed on – you need to put a helluva lot of nails in, which people do not like doing to trees, unfortunately. But we decided that we’d rather kill one tree and save a wood than not do it and just inevitably lose. A gas bottle was hung amongst the coils of barbed wire, untethered so it was just sat there- a deterrent.

I had a sun-lounger on the top, for sitting in the sun and having breakfast on. And then came along two activists who pitched a ridge tent on top it. So there was a two man tent on top of a sun lounger on top of a razor wire covered tree house 65 foot up. This was ridiculous! That is when it became a proper shanty town.

How long were you up in the trees for?

Well I moved in and lived up there until I got taken out. The evictions started on the Tuesday and nine-days later they hit Flywood. Once we were under proper eviction it was three and a half days until me and #### were down.

The Eviction

Can you describe how the eviction started?

At 3.45am, an advance guard of Manchester cops bolt-cropper’d their way into Zion camp under the cover of aircraft noise – people heard them and went over to investigate. They were met by a large number of balaclava’d, riot-helmeted, baton-wielding men-in-black, who charged down a path after them. They beat the campaigners on the back of the head, and when they were either knocked to the ground or got on the ground, they sat on them and told them not to say a word. People up in Zion Tree couldn’t see what was happening, but knew something was. They shouted “Are you alright?”, and no one could reply coz they were gonna get their fucking heads kicked in.

Less than quarter of an hour later they hit Zion and Jimi Hendrix, which was where this journalist was – he was in a bender just before the main camp – they smacked him across the face and it split quite nastily – there was a lot of blood. It was a big mistake to start whacking HTV journalists across the face, because it just backs up the stories of violence against us.

Largely as a result they didn’t go into any of the camps in quite the same full-on manner. The original raiders, about ten people, went in there absolutely psyched to attack people. If ten anti-roads activists went piling into somewhere wearing ballies, wielding sticks, they’d all be done for riot, getting eight years each. The whole thing is totally one-sided and ridiculous.

What was the media pen?

Well they fenced us off relatively early on. When they did the Zion, Jimmy and Garlic evictions, journalists were taken to a bit of field by the airport and from there you could see very little. They were deliberately being kept away from good shots. This was part of the whole strategy of the eviction, which was to control and limit the number of people that could see what was going on. It is ironic in a way coz in terms of the state it was one of the safest and most non-violent evictions to date. So, as other people could tell you from Newbury, you’ve got a private eviction here, and they could quite easily have trashed us.

On the whole, there was no violent resistance. We didn’t need to, because the climbers moved so slowly. They weren’t interested in rushing. It took nine days to get through four tree camps, none of which in their own right were particularly difficult. They just went really slowly, and generally pretty carefully. Which doesn’t justify it at all, but it neutralises your anger.

When they came to the Battlestar they didn’t even attempt to climb up into it, but one of the first things they did was to ring bark it. They took out a section of bark about three or four inches right round, this kills the tree. I think it was done as a bit of a sick joke, to wind us all up. They saw us as a challenge, and it did shake us up. We lost our cool. Basically it was “bollocks” to fluffy – you start sawing into our tree, we’re gonna get a bit hardcore. In the end we all calmed down, but something that we’ll all remember is the moment when the chain saw guy took a 24 inch chain saw to our tree and we didn’t actually know what he’s was going to do with it. Imagine he said, “You’re not going to believe this!” and then started cutting into the tree, basically we thought that he was going to cut a wedge out of it. Or cut it in some seriously destabilising way to scare us off. If it had been a bluff it wouldn’t have worked because we’d all have stayed up no matter what.

Beyond Battlestar there were the twigs, and the branches at the very top. One of our crew, who’s a bit of a nutter, came up with an idea. He tied a set of hangman’s nooses to the very top of the branches, you could just about get to them but it was pretty dangerous. People from below wouldn’t be able to get to the nooses to cut them, and they wouldn’t be able to get a harness on the person in the noose and in theory they wouldn’t be able to pull you off because it would hang you. And it did work, as I found out! I did it. They did attempt to scare me, trying to get me to think they were gonna come and get me anyway. The boss climber, Richard Turner, reassured me that the branch the noose was tied to would snap like a carrot before it hanged me. This wasn’t very reassuring, coz if the branch snapped like a carrot I’d fall 50-60 feet to the ground and die. But in the end, either they decided to back down anyway, or they were bluffing- it was just too much for them. Most of the time I was in the noose and they were below me, I was in front of the Press Association and the BBC, saying, “Get the fucking camera to the other side of the bank, coz I’m about to die and I want it to be on telly!”

And how did they actually evict you in the end?

The Battlestar really worked- it delayed them and meant that they had to bring in a cherry picker rather than simply use climbers. They came up late on a Sunday after we’d been sitting down on the platform chilling out in the sun carving chess-pieces. I sussed what they were up to – that they were clearing trees to bring a cherry-picker in, and I saw that they were building a bridge. But I couldn’t really believe they were going to come in that late on a Sunday. Then we saw a bulldozer and Chief Climber Richard Turner said, “You’d better pack your bags. Are you coming down?”. It was late on a Sunday, all the Sheriff’s men had gone. There was no press, no cameras, the police evidence gatherers had gone. There were nine of us up there. So everybody apart from about two or three of us went down to the battle platform and sat with all the tat and got ready to resist. A cherry picker delivered bailiffs to the platform but it still took the state the best part of an hour to dismantle the three platforms, and throw everything out, and thoroughly smash everything up. One person went down with them which left eight of us up a bare tree, with no platforms. I had a hammock and a rucksack, but no one else had their stuff with them. However we’d managed to salvage most of the bedding, biscuits, chocolate, alcohol and a spliff – all the essentials!

Then the climbers went home, and wished us an uncomfortable night, and ++++ absailed out of the tree and got arrested – she didn’t want to stay. We had a bit of a meeting, and four of the remaining seven decided to try and build overnight an escape walkway system. It would have been quite amusing defending the tree for six days, causing them real grief, and then in the night just disappearing. They’d come back the next day to find an empty tree. I wasn’t into it at all, I was going to stay until the end, because that’s what I’d psyched myself up for over the last few months. But other people were really into the idea. So four tried, but unfortunately they believed a bailiff who promised them safe passage off the site. They came down and got nicked.

So they went, and that left three of us up there. At this stage in the eviction the climbers could have started using the battle platform as a staging point. So me and **** destroyed it. We slung a hammock up the top of a tree, put in loads of bedding and fell asleep. When the bailiffs came in the morning, they couldn’t believe we were all cozy, with food and alcohol cradled in the branches. With the entire tree so difficult to climb they realised they’d have to go off and get a cherry-picker. Every morning we took down the hammock – we wanted to hold out for at least seven days. **** came down without resisting; **** took the remaining bedding and food across neighbouring walkways to a sycamore tree.

When the cherry-pickers came, I took my harness off and waved it at them from the branches. I had my rucksack full of food and my hammock and climbed to the very top branch. I just kept climbing. The bailiff was saying, “The tree’s coming down today,” and I kept saying, “No, the tree’s not coming down today!”. He was going psychotic. Fortunately the cherry-pickers couldn’t reach me, and they knew they couldn’t reason with me not wanting to risk the thirty-foot drop with a noose round my neck. They decided to back off.

After a while they brought in a bulldozer to raise the level of the ground around the tree, after four hours the cherry-picker was back. With the extra couple of feet, they could reach us. So after much deliberation, I shot across the walkway to the sycamore, where I hoped they couldn’t reach me. But they could. I was totally fucked after all this. Traumatised. I don’t think I could go through that again. My energy was completely sapped, and therewas four in the cherrypicker basket so resistance was pretty mch futil. So I absailed it down.

Tell us about the Battlestar crew?

The original plan was to have about five people up there, but people kept coming up, wanting to join the Battlestar. So we built the sister-ship, the Pentagon, which was good coz it meant we had an extra tree defended, extra space and extra shit for the bailiffs to deal with. We had a really good crew: most of us knew each other, so we tended to get on pretty well. We had a similar approach in many ways, but diverse backgrounds. We had a teacher, some dole activists, some professional climbers, long-standing campaigners that had been to Newbury and so on. Most people, like me, hadn’t been in a tree eviction before. Basically it was one big happy family, with no stereotyped roles, sexism or whatever. We all grouped together for comfort, and gave each other strength. We made most decisions as a group, and got people to decide for themselves what they wanted to do. Since our eviction we all gone separate ways. We had all our different campaigns, so some went off to Lyminge, others to Sherwood Forest and so on.

To the Future

What message would you like to give to other campaigns?

Don’t put a noose round your neck unless you’re fucking insane! There’s a lot to be said for thinking, planning – rather than just throwing yourself into the first idea that comes to your head. Tactical thinking. Get to know the people and the area you’re working with. Make sure your house is big, so you can have plenty of food and supplies. Before you even start thinking about building, look at the terrain, the landscape, at other trees. If you’re the first there, it’s worth spending a week looking into how to deal with different types of eviction. Like in a clump of trees, where you can defend each other. Battlestar was at the hub of a group of four trees. Each of those had a Battlestar-type platform. So you can have a network of trees, all interconnected. The stronger the community, the more difficult it becomes for them to get you.

Another important issue to deal with on campaigns is the macho, lairy, male, aggressive brew-crew culture. At first there was no problem. There were as many women as men, and Flywood was the vegan camp, with a pretty sorted community. But later on, the percentage of men got higher, and things got rather alpha-male. Sorted people started leaving, and less experienced people started taking over. In the end there were only three people left at Flywood ground camp, and it became really lairy, scaring away locals. This puts people off getting involved. It has to be nipped in the bud.

Get On Down & Get Involved

This was one person’s story, but hundreds participated in the Manchester Airport evictions, up trees, down tunnels, and on the ground. More camps are being set up and as we go to print there is still someone in the tunnel system. You can be involved in the next stage of the camapign. This was just the beginning.

This article first appeared in issue 6 (1997) of Do Or Die: Voices from the Ecological Resistance, a periodical associated with movements such as Earth First! and anti-roads campaigns from 1992 to 2003. The editorial collective of Do Or Die puts no restriction on non-commercial use of material from their publications.

Okasional Cafes

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, anarchists and environmental activists in Manchester organised a series of squatted cafe-social centres around the city, under the name Okasional Cafe. This article is based on interviews with two people – both of whom wished to remain anonymous – who were involved in organising several of the cafes and running events in them.

The first Okasional Cafe, in 1998, was supposed to be in a former kebab takeaway on Peter Street, near the junction with Deansgate, on the site now occupied by Bar 38.

“There was a big row of Victorian shop buildings and a takeaway called, I think, the Topkapi Palace, which had already closed down in preparation for being demolished as part of the redevelopment plans for the huge warehouses behind and Great Northern Square,” recalls one of the people involved in looking at this initial site. “Four of us went in to recce it, which involved a small person having to go through a hole in the brickwork where there had been a heating vent, and letting the others in. It was perfect – the big industrial-scale catering cookers were still there, which would have been great for events. But it stank from the barrels of kebab fat too…”

In the event, the organising group decided that this site wasn’t suitable because the demolition date for the buildings was imminent and, although the organisers were anticipating having to fight eviction orders, they didn’t want this to be the focus of their activity, or for scared developers to take aggressive action to evict them. The second choice of venue was the former Temperance Movement building on Oxford Road in South Manchester, immediately opposite the Manchester University Students’ Union, now Kro Bar.

At this point, the Riotous Assembly open radical activist meetings had not yet started, so the recce teams for both sites had been recruited at the Earth First! meetings which at that time still took place in the Friends Meeting House in Manchester city centre.

“I remember meeting the people who were going to turn it into the pub,” says one participant. “The head of what is now the Kro empire, I remember him saying, well the weekend you moved in we were planning on moving in as well, but we thought well, we can take a bit more time. His brother, who was on the dole, was helping him with the building work, and they had a month’s less rent to pay so they weren’t bothered.”

As one interviewee recalls, the cafes were meant to be “a point where social and political activity could go on reasonably freely and workshops and film showings could happen, but also secondly that it was supposed to be an access point for new people who might not come to a meeting but would be comfortable coming and having a cup of tea and a piece of cake and picking up some leaflets and then might come back again for something else a few days later and actually speak to somebody about getting involved.”

Another interviewee emphasised that “about people having an access point for ‘our’ ways of working – ie anarchist – and forms of actual direct action. I remember it definitely as being for both those purposes, and also that there were actions actually happening at the same time, so people could go to the cafe, hear about an action, go to a meeting about it and get comfortable with the idea and then actually go along on an action and get involved, as well as providing a space for people who were already involved to meet together and have that contact. It’s also in my head as a post-Manchester Airport protest camp thing – lots of people had moved to Manchester, had been active and the EF! Meetings were too big and unwieldy and some people had the idea that everything in the meetings had to be agreed by everyone and others thought they were a forum, a place to go to where you could say, we’re doing this anyone want to get involved?”

“For me,” he continued, “the reason Okasional Cafe came round was that it was a physical point of contact, because people had had the experience of living on protest camps at the Airport together, and that was really important, and there was nowhere for people to meet and spend time together. I was completely sold on the model of squatting a place, holding it for a month, saying ‘we’re going to be here for a month’, not trying to do it for longer or make it a permanent place, not trying to say we’ll keep it for longer but put that burst of energy into it for that month and then do other things the rest of the time, rather than having a permanent centre…”

The first Okasional Cafes were not simply spaces where people could come and talk, but had well-organised schedules of events, including political meetings, exhibitions, film showings and fundraising parties. A distinctive logo was designed, probably by a resident of the ‘Redbricks’ estate in Hulme, and in the weeks preceding the squatting of a new cafe several waves of publicity would take place, starting with the logo being fly-posted around town, followed by posters bearing the words ‘it’s coming’ and then after the building have been occupied posters and bookmark-format leaflets with the address and workshop timetable would be distributed in cafes, pubs, bookstores and ‘alternative’ shops like those in Afflecks Palace.

“I’m not sure I can imagine such organised publicity happening now,” commented one participant. “people rely too much on the internet, they think that when they’ve put something on Facebook they’ve publicised, whereas actually they’ve just told a load of people they’re already in touch with, and they think they can advertise something the day before, instead of having to put in some work to really get word out.”

Okasional Cafes around Manchester

After the success of the initial Okasional Cafe on Oxford Road, a number of other squat cafes took place across South and Central Manchester over the next four years. Sites for these included an old canal keeper’s cottage on Dale Street in the Northern Quarter, a second one at Kro, one on Birch Grove in Rusholme and two at the Hacienda, one of which was a fundraiser for the massive J18 anti-capitalist protests which took place in London in June 1999.

There was also an abortive attempt to hold an Okasional Cafe in St Peter’s House, opposite the Peace Gardens and Central Library. “It was in November one year,” says a participant, “and people hadn’t really thought about the issues around that but it was just before the 11th and the police really cracked down on it because they thought it was an anti-war protest in time for the Armistice Day commemorations, which it wasn’t. So they just smashed their way in through the plate glass windows, using the fact that there was a back staircase which was shared with another building as a legal pretext for evicting the squat.

The Charles Street Okasional Cafe

Another site used was a former auction house on Charles Street, just off Oxford Road next to the BBC. One memorable event held there was a showing of the film Injustice, about the struggles for justice by families of people – mainly black men like Shiji Lapite and Roger Sylvester, but also including Harry Stanley and women like Joy Gardner and Sarah Thomas – who had died in police custody.

The Police Federation had tried to take legal action to prevent the film, which called for the prosecution of several serving police officers, from being screened. Venues were harassed and threatened with having their licenses revoked, and cinemas were told by police lawyers that they might face expensive libel suits. So when the Cornerhouse Cinema on Oxford Road was intimidated into cancelling a showing, people involved with the Charles St cafe, just round the corner, stepped in to offer an alternative.

“But we managed to prime one of the directors, Tariq Mehmood, who lives in Rusholme, so that when they reached the end of their talk and had to tell the audience that they couldn’t show the film there, they announced that the people who had just stood up could lead them to a venue where they could see it.”

The Cornerhouse cinema, according to one of the people involved in the Okasional Cafe screening, event loaned chairs to allow enough audience members to go to the alternative screening, and some of the box office staff had made significant efforts to deliver the coded message to people buying tickets for the event that although the event had been formally cancelled, something else might be afoot…

The Charles Street Okasional Cafe was also the scene for exhibitions giving ongoing information about the mass protests – and police brutality – which took place at the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001. But, despite some of the good events which went on at Charles St, it was also an example of some of the things that could go wrong with such an enterprise.

“My take on what happened.” says one participant, who had been involved in many of the other cafes, “was that a lot of people were involved who nowadays would be curating slightly alternative art galleries or working for the World Development Movement or the Big Issue, but then, because it was the exciting ‘in’ thing they were there. But for the first part of the Charles St cafe, the people putting most time in were people who had less long-term experience or hadn’t made the same connections so the way it was organised was messier and events weren’t publicised. There were also problems because the site was near an all-night Spar and a big homeless hostel, and some people turned up from a protest came and stayed and behaved like arseholes, so there were social problems being dealt with by people with very little experience.”

The solution was to close the squat down for a week, regroup the organising committee and remodel the space. The main room was painted white to give it a completely different feel from the previous dark space, and the cafe was re-opened for several more weeks before it was finally evicted. “The eviction was,” says one of the people involved, “one of those classic developer things where they come to court and say they want to use the building for such-and-such and work will start straight away and the judge says ok, kick them out, and now eight years later it’s still empty, and there is still as Okasional Cafe sign over the door…”

Decentralised organising

As one interviewee who was involved in organising several of the Okasional cafes recalls, the networks and personal connections which had grown up during the protest camps at Manchester Airport were still in place during this era. “Although people were campaigning on different issues it tended to feel more like they were part of the same thing than it seems to now,” he says. “Animal rights people or whoever might be doing their thing, but a lot of the allocating work and responsibilities happened because various different people with different skills were involved. In terms of anarchist forms of organising there were weekly meetings at the cafe which set up the events for the week after and sometimes there were more regular meetings if there were other issues that came up.”

The tension between weekly and more regular meetings was, he says, “interesting, in that the people with most time and the people who were living there to hold the squat sometimes acquired more power than others. So some people were arguing that it’s more democratic to have weekly meetings because more people can actually come to them.”

Tactically, different methods were used to actually initiate the occupation of the squatted buildings. For the Hacienda events, many of the first groups of people to enter the building were asked to meet at a fairly public site in Hulme and then led away in small groups, under cover of darkness and sometimes through the gardens of squat sympathisers on a nearby estate. As a result, the police failed to notice that the crowd they were monitoring was actually slowly dispersing.

At most of the other Okasional Cafes, a small group would crack the squat in advance in order to take legal control, and then other members of the organising group would collect a larger selection of people who’d gathered at a publicly advertised meeting point and bring them to help with preparing the venue – cleaning, decorating and if necessary connecting water and electricity. “It was a balance of recognising that you have to keep some things secret for them to work, while making the process as open and participatory as possible,” commented one person who was involved in a number of the cafes. “And because we had the networks from the Airport protests and other direct action and free party scenes we knew who to get in touch with if we needed the water and gas and electrics to be turned back on. A lot of that was the result of lessons from 1990s direct action and Reclaim the Street.”

Decision-making processes about how the cafes would be run were also decentralised, bringing in a range of experiences, ages and backgrounds. “I remember in the first OK Cafe there was a No Smoking room,” recalls one participant. “When that was first brought up some people were like, Noooo! But for me that was an example of the difference between two simplified versions of anarchism – the more individualistic, which I think is called Sternerite, and the more collectivist or community-based – ‘I can do what I like’ vs ‘I can do what I like but understand its impacts on other people.’ So there were lots of debates, and in the end there were No Smoking times and room in Okasional Cafes.”

Over the course of the various cafes, many lessons were also learned about the kind of events, activities and messages participants wanted to use the sites for. “The first one was around the time of an election, and it was also near a church,” recalled one person. “Someone put a big cross up outside with a politician hanging from it and labelled it ‘use your cross wisely, crucify a politician.’ And there were things like free stalls and also what became People’s Kitchen, ie experimenting with cheap meals and food by donation. That was quite hard, because especially being in a student area you felt you were putting in lots of effort to feed lazy students who’d got enough money anyway. So it shifted, became really nice set meals with candlelight or poetry performances but also with a suggested donation. Soft drinks would be free or donations but alcohol was a set price because there was a sense that if people wanted to spend money on alcohol it should be a fundraiser. There were also party night which were fundraisers too, and usually they were donations on the door and some people would just ask casually and people would put a few coppers in, but some more savvy ones would say ‘three quid, three quid’ as people came in and a well-run night at the Kro site could easily raise a thousand pounds. People lost that ability with some of the later cafes, especially the Kickstart ones that were done by a different group of people later on, people involved in residential squatting in Whalley Range, because they just weren’t as organised and people would nick the money and they didn’t really have a sense of how to replicate some of the really creative stuff we were doing at OK Cafes.”

To evict or not to evict?

In almost all cases the OK Cafe squats were time-limited, held for just a month and then handed back to their owners. They were also largely in commercial or public buildings rather than residential ones. One exception was the sixth squat, on Birch Grove in Rusholme in 2000, which – with the approval of the house’s owner – became a residential squat for at least six months after the Okasional Cafe there closed down.

Even though it had become a residential squat, the Birch Grove site did remain a hub for some direct action activity, serving as the meeting point for groups of Manchester activists who went to the Close Campsfield noise demonstration and actions against the asylum seeker detention centre in Oxfordshire.

In some other cases the landlords of squatted properties were less co-operative, although the reputation of the protesters occupying the buildings sometimes meant that evictions weren’t carried out. “With the first Okasional Cafe,” a participant remembers, “people remembered us from the Airport, where people felt they had to power to say to a landlord, ‘yes you can take us to court and get an order and evict us, but we’re going to resist, you’ll need bailiffs. Ask the Under-Sheriff of Lancashire, Andy Wilson, he’ll tell you that we’re going to be really expensive.’ It’s in your interest and our interest to negotiate – give us a month. And landlords would go, OK. At the Kro Bar site, Andy Wilson came along and people pretended to have been in tunnels and had dirt on their faces and head torches and he just backed off and from then on we had the reputation with other landlords that – take them to court, but negotiate with them.”

The one exception to this rule was the Hacienda squat. The police had succeeded in having the superclub closed down and, as one participant thinks, saw its re-opening as a challenge. They evicted it quickly and at times brutally, and were therefore furious when it was then re-squatted a second time – giving rise to graffiti in one of the rooms reading The People 1: Police 0 which was them amended to The People 2: Police 0. A number of people arrested in the first eviction successfully sued Greater Manchester Police for wrongful arrest. “The second time,” recalls one interviewee, “only once we we had negotiated our way outside did we see that there were lines of riot cops with battering rams all lined up by the walls, where we couldn’t see them from the inside. There was also a moment where, while they were using quite a lot of violence to clear the area, we saw one riot cop who was well known for being very big and violent whack someone across the back with the truncheon, and the person he’d hit getting out his badge and saying ‘I’m undercover!’ And that was great to watch…”

Article by Sarah Irving