Latest updates on current situation: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2014/06/517039.html
Fundraising appeal: http://www.gofundme.com/aonxpo
Yorkley Court Website: http://yorkleycourt.wordpress.com/
At 5 am on Monday June 22nd the people living in Yorkley Court Community Farm faced an eviction attempt. A private security firm accompanied by police officers attempted to drive them from the woodland, farmhouse and fields where they have been growing food, keeping animals and trying to get legal recognition as guardians of the land. As I write they remain behind barricades, defending their home.
I first heard of Yorkley Court in the early Summer of 2012 when my friend L told me that she was living with a small group of people in a disused MOD site in the Forest of Dean. L and I had met years before when she was working as a software developer and we had discovered a shared interest in photography, politics and issues of sustainability, which led to many evenings of drinking and energised discussion. Having left her job in order to focus her energies and intellect on finding more sustainable and satisfying ways of living, L joined up with a group of similarly minded individuals in the forest.
Soon after they moved onto the site in Yorkley, L invited me to come and visit with my camera. (see my first blog entry about this visit here), I was just starting out on my nomadic life - Yorkley Court was the first community I visited - and I was still trying to figure out the practicalities of carrying camera, batteries, lenses, memory card, tripod, charger, laptop, hard-drive, and all the other stuff I needed in a reasonably sturdy and waterproof way. I arrived with an unwieldy reinforced camera/laptop bag that weighed a ton and would hold nothing else, and a big purple shoulder bag that somehow managed to also be very heavy even though I was sure there wasn't that much stuff in it. The smiling young woman who met me at the station and guided me through the 4 km uphill walk to the site watched me struggle for a while as we walked, before quietly taking my stupid purple bag and swinging it onto her back like a rucksack. She carried it for the rest of the journey. I felt like an idiot.
On our way she took me to see the view from the little playground on Primrose Hill. The land drops away in front of you from up here and the lazy blue of the River Severn winds it's way slowly across the landscape, decorated by the bridges, punctuated by towns and enveloped in the rolling green hills of the South West. We sat in the late afternoon sun and admired this scene for a little, then we headed in among the trees, following muddy paths to the site.
On arrival I was welcomed by everyone, invited to sit by the fire and offered a cup of tea. In that first week I spent there I was made to feel completely accepted by the community. I started to get to know the people there and I now count some of them among my good friends. The community's range of backgrounds and skills included IT, philosophy, sustainable architecture, teaching, gardening, engineering and social care. The site consisted of a concrete courtyard; a large hangar; a small, simple building of corrugated iron and concrete; a three-sided concrete shed; and lots of trees, bushes, brambles and birdsong. The land which makes up Yorkley Court Farm is bigger than this compound, and covers fields and a beautiful old farmhouse, but when they first arrived, the community stuck to creating a survivable environment on this smaller site.
This was no mean task. At that stage there was no drinking water on site, no electricity, no power tools, no drains, no central heating. Drinking water was collected from a spring several kilometers away and supplemented by a local couple who gave the residents access to their backyard tap. Rain water was collected for washing - this at least was plentiful as it rained almost continuously for their first six weeks on site. There were about ten people living there at this stage.
Living was hard. Food was collected from the skips of local supermarkets and supplemented by some of the wage-earners on site. The plans to grow food was complicated by concerns about possible contamination of the soil and the stream from the compound's previous incarnation as an M.O.D storage facility. The whole site was covered in huge brambles which needed clearing and the ground was boggy with clinging mud. Getting clean and dry was almost impossible.
To make a cup of tea in Yorkley Court the first step is to go out and chop some firewood with a saw and an axe. Entertainment is provided by conversation, musical instruments, day-to-day living activities, and the forest. Food is an effort to produce and is wolfed down gratefully by muddy people with hungry bellies and tired limbs. And in this environment progress has been made.
Over the last two years structures grew, adapted and sometimes disappeared. Problems were explored, solutions were discovered. Mistakes were made and learned from. Workshops, work days, and film screenings were run, and connections made with the local population. Animals and new people gradually joined the community And in the back of all of this the birds sang, the trees rustled in the wind, the moon waxed and waned, the sun rose and fell.
When I last visited Yorkley Court the kitchen was warm and cosy with a big wood-burning stove. The solar powered pump and filter were providing drinking water on tap. Plants were flourishing in the poly-tunnel and in numerous little gardens all across the site. A community garden was being developed in the top field where the pigs were enjoying their new, improved pig-pen. The chickens were looking fat and providing lots of eggs. Willow fences marked out paths between the unique and beautiful structures that many of the community had built for themselves as their homes. The farmhouse no longer felt like a dead, abandoned thing. The overgrown fields were being cropped by the goats and the horses. A carpentry workshop had been set up behind the barn, an office on the top floor of the farmhouse. A number of the residents have become skilled at making their own tool handles and fence posts.
This land is in the middle of a legal mess. No one seems to have evidence of legitimate ownership over this site and many people claim a right to it. Before the community occupied it, the farmhouse (which is a listed building and apparently featured in the domesday book) had been empty for years and was in danger of collapse. Along with their day-to-day work of sustaining themselves and developing the space, the people of Yorkley Court Community Farm have been negotiating with the local council, the police, the planning permission department at the district council and the land registry office to get their position on this land formalised. Some of the decisions from these formal processes are expected in the next couple of months.
It seems dubious and worrying that the police came on Monday morning. Yorkley Court Community Farm have not received an eviction notice, they had no warning of this action and it was not backed by a court order. This therefore appears to be an illegal eviction attempt. The police were accompanying bailiffs from a private security firm who eventually backed away when the residents refused to leave and when they questioned the legal authority of the documents the bailiffs were presenting.
The people on this site are peaceful. They care about the land and they try to live in a way that nurtures their environment as well as themselves. They are currently appealing for public support in their battle to physically defend their site while they continue their legal struggle to become the official guardians of the land. They need people to visit the site and show their support and also to bring them food.
I am deeply grateful for the peace, friendship and acceptance that I have experienced here over the last two years. Coming back to the forest always feels like coming home. Our country will be the poorer if we can't find space in it for projects like this.
Latest updates on current situation: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2014/06/517039.html
Fundraising appeal: http://www.gofundme.com/aonxpo
Yorkley Court Website: http://yorkleycourt.wordpress.com/
In The Bearpit
In the last two weeks I have been dealing with theft and vandalism at my exhibition in the Bearpit. My lack of funds and the very public nature of the show have pushed me into being quite creative in my responses to this constantly changing situation, and I have found that these problems have actually provided me with an opportunity to improve and evolve the display.
These themes of destruction, evolution and constant change have also been running through the news coming from Spain in the last two weeks and have been reminding me that my problems are only little and easily solvable.
So what's been happening in Spain?
Kings, flags and historians.
Well the main news to grip the headlines this week has been the decision by King Juan Carlos 1 to celebrate his 76th birthday by abdicating the throne in favour of his son Crown Prince Felipe who he described as "the incarnation of stability". (ref 1) The third European monarch to abdicate since April last year, Juan Carlos explained that "A new generation must be at the forefront".
The reign of Juan Carlos 1 is a little contentious, he is seen by many as a heroic defender of democracy. This approach is typified by the blurb on Amazon for historian Paul Preston's book about the king (2):
"Handed over to the Franco regime as a young boy, Juan Carlos was raised according to authoritarian traditions designed to make him a cornerstone of the dictatorship. How then did he later emerge as an emphatic defender of the democracy that began to form after Franco's death?"
He is also credited with helping Spain to survive an attempted military coup in 1981 that could have crushed the burgeoning democracy and thrown the country back into military rule. Paul Preston is a globally respected expert on the Spanish Civil War and his book 'The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge' (3) is possibly the best, and most depressing history book I have ever read. On Monday (June 2), in response to news of Juan Carlo's resignation, he appeared on Newsnight to explain the King's history:
"I don't want to say that he made democracy, because he didn't, the pressure for democracy came from the Spanish people. But what he did in terms of neutralising the army in the course of 1976, to make it possible for there to be the transactions and negotiations that brought about what was actually quite a limited transition in the first instance, that was immensley courageous. And then after the first elections in 1977, over the next four years he acted as a sort of fireman of democracy, and until the defeat of the coup in 1981, he was absolutely the key man. And I think it's fair to say that without him there would have very likely been bloodshed. So despite the errors, despite the ending of a glorious reign, I think history will treat him very benevolently."
So this is the historic legacy of the man. Unfortunately, a history of good actions will only get you so far. The young people of the country who were born during his reign don't care so much about what he did for democracy 35 years ago. They look around them now at an impossibly corrupt political system; a broken economy that shows no sign of picking up; impossibly high youth unemployment; and austerity measures that seem to be targeted at the poor, the sick and the vulnerable; and they feel they have a right to demand better from their political rulers.
The announcement of Juan Carlo's abdication saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets in Madrid and Barcelona, calling for the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of Spain's third republic (the second republic being the one that was destroyed by Franco's mercenaries in 1936).
The protesters in the streets waved the red, yellow and purple tricolour flag of the second republic. In a brilliant article about the abdication journalist Dan Hancox explains (4):
"It was once a symbol of antifascism, and since 2008 has been raised up once again, but this time, against austerity, against capitalism in general, against a right-wing government refusing to continue excavating Franco's mass graves – and against an entire political settlement mired in corruption and complacent self-interest...
Beyond the hated bureaucratic monoliths of Spain's two main parties, in the interstices of the political mainstream, lies the fizzing possibility of a true popular resistance, and sovereignty."
Over 100,000 people so far have signed the petition calling for an end to the Spanish monarchy (5) and an opinion poll published in January by the conservative paper El Mundo, and carried out by Sigma Dos suggested that just under 50% of Spaniards supported the monarchy (6).
Discussing the claims that Juan Carlos 1 played a pivotal role in establishing Spanish democracy, Dan Hancox states:
"It is true that Juan Carlos I is credited even by many on the Spanish left for helping shepherd the country to democracy after Franco died in 1975; he helped steer Spain away from an autocratic or military succession – 'Francoism without Franco' – in the late 1970s. But written out of this week's blithe histories is the fact the Spanish 70s were a time of mass popular protest and increasingly brave strike action (beginning even before Franco's death). In this sense, genuflecting to a royal because he had the decency – or perhaps, just the sense of realpolitik – to bow to the will of the people, seems to miss the point of the will of the people." (4 again)
As if all this wasn't exciting enough, last week saw a fiery battle played out on the streets of Barcelona between the political powers and 'the will of the people'.
The sweet smell of burning barricades
The authorities knew it was going to be difficult, but in the end they decided to press ahead with the eviction and demolition of Can Vies last week. In the low-income neighbourhood of Sants in Barcelona, Can Vies has been running as a popular social centre since it was first squatted in 1997.
You can get a sense of the place from this amazing video they made to celebrate their sixteenth birthday last year:
Accordingly, last Monday May 26th, the police came to evict the squatters. The residents of Can Vies - some of whom grew up in this building - resisted bravely and it took the police six hours to get them out. Throughout the day people were coming out to protest the eviction and by the evening hundreds of protesters were on the street in support of the squatters. Over the course of the night various people received beatings by the riot police and by Tuesday the number of protesters had grown as people came out to support Can Vies and to protest against police violence.
Tuesday rolled around and the demolition work began, despite the efforts of growing numbers of protesters to protect the building. By the end of the working day Can Vies stood half demolished and the protester numbers had swelled considerably. As the people of Barcelona are never inclined to sit quietly, singing protest songs and hoping that the political leaders will take their views into account, the machinery that had been left on the site of the half demolished building was soon in flames, as was a tv van and various barricades that had appeared in nearby streets. The police came out in force and attempted to squash the protest with tear gas, sound grenades, rubber bullets and yet more baton beatings. In retrospect this may have been unwise.
Wednesday night saw 7,000 people marching through the streets of Barcelona in support of Can Vies and in protest against police violence and solidarity marches had popped up in other cities across Spain. Thursday rolled round and for the fourth night Sants was a neighbourhood of burning barricades, projectiles and beatings. The protesters were chanting "Whoever sows poverty, will reap anger" (7)
By this time the protests had reached the international media. On Thursday May 29th the Guardian described the unrest:
"While Can Vies has proved the flashpoint, the intensity and rapid spread of the violence reflects widespread anger and despair, especially among young people, who see little future for themselves and are bearing the brunt of austerity policies. Above all the crisis and popular resistance has centred on property, first with the housing bubble and since then with the policy of evicting anyone who cannot keep up with their mortgage payments. Centres such as Can Vies – and many more that have sprung up during the crisis – have functioned as help providers for those hardest hit."
On Friday, fearful of watching the whole city descend into violence and chaos, the authorities announced that Can Vies would not be demolished (8). This allowed them to avoid the horrible truth that all their machinery had been destroyed and that the cost of clearing this site, as well as the actions on the streets had spiraled madly out of control.
Protesters had planned symbolic rebuilding day for Saturday May 31st. In the end it became a victory party, an actual work day of site clearance and rebuilding and one more chance to cock a snook at the authorities:
"Soon a human chain was organised, half a kilometer long, and we began sending a pile of rubble direct to the local Sants barrio town hall!" (9)
This week the Can Vies facebook page offers messages of thanks, hope and solidarity and sets out a timetable of social activities this week to continue rebuilding.
"The fraternity that has been breathed in the last two days working together has kindled a flame of hope in our hearts that we want to keep alive; we can rebuild Can Vies and we want to do it by your side" (10)
While I was writing this blog I received a phone call informing me that someone has smashed open the picture frames in my exhibition again, and stolen the last two big colour pictures from their boards. So tomorrow I will be going back down to the bearpit to see what can be done. If the Spanish people can face all their challenges with hope and creativity I have a duty to face my much smaller problems in the same way.
1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-27662301 Juan Carlos 1 abdicates
2 http://www.amazon.com/Juan-Carlos-Steering-Dictatorship-Democracy/dp/B001PIHV0I - Paul Preston book about Juan Carlos 1
3 http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Spanish_Civil_War.html?id=2vioVIdend4C - Paul Preston, 'The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge'
4 http://opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/dan-hancox/king-is-dead - Dan Hancox on the abdication
5 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2647087/Thousands-anti-monarchist-protesters-streets-Spain-calling-republic-King-Juan-Carlos-abdicates-39-years.html - Daily Mail online puts number of signatories at 113,000
6 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/04/world/europe/spain-abdication.html?_r=0 - NYT reports on popularity of Monarchy in Spain
7 http://revolution-news.com/can-vies/ a day by day account of the protests plus some interesting videos
8 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/10865311/Squat-demolition-called-off-after-four-nights-of-rioting-in-Barcelona.html - telegraph reports announcement to halt demolition
9 http://inquiringminds.cc/can-vies-re-occupied-rebuilding-begins-31-maymorning - an on the ground account of Saturdays celebrations.
10 https://www.facebook.com/CSACanVies?ref=ts&fref=ts Can Vies facebook page (it's in catalan)
photo of flag waving protesters from Daily Mail http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2647087/Thousands-anti-monarchist-protesters-streets-Spain-calling-republic-King-Juan-Carlos-abdicates-39-years.html
Photo of burning digger by Júlia Reds https://twitter.com/JuliaReds18?original_referer=http%3A%2F%2Frevolution-news.com%2Fcan-vies%2F&tw_i=471407958350639104&tw_p=tweetembed
Protester gives the finger http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/riots-barcelona-squatters-are-evicted-can-vies-building-sants-1450402