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.

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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