Here are some notes from our recent trip to Edinburgh to meet Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty. The first is a short version, the article below has a bit more detail.
We headed up to Edinburgh this week to meet with the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty folk. A group who we had read and heard lots about but hadn’t seen in action IRL.
The group has been running for decades, giving solidarity for low income people in their city. After being evicted from their first home in the 90s, the group re-occupied the space numerous times before the council gave up and let them have it for two years. Once the lease had run out, they found themselves threatened with eviction again and were under siege for 6 months (in what has been dubbed an Italian style social centre – in both countries squatting is completely illegal), until being violently evicted by police. Their home since 1997 has been the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh, a small, beautiful, and homey space.
From here they run a weekly drop in session for benefit claimants, low-paid workers, and those with debt or housing issues. Run largely as a one-to-one advice session, there is still a sense of collectivity and solidarity as people talk with one another while they wait, exchanging nightmare stories and survival tactics, and most importantly, empathy. With no help to be found elsewhere, sitting down with someone to fill out yet another dreaded DWP form is inherently radical, breaking the feeling of isolation and hopelessness.
ECAP also have a buddy system to accompany people to ATOS and Job Centre appointments, providing safety in numbers, strengthening claimants positions, and sharing ways to get through the brutal processes laid before them.
Larger direct actions the group have used to fight for claimants rights include occupying A4e to demand their right for claimants to have someone accompany them to interviews and a mass visit to a local councillor with a woman who had been hounded from her home by Edinburgh city council over the bedroom tax. The group have also held numerous pickets and occupations of workfare stores.
Walking around ACE, the area is covered in their brilliant posters, creating a strong feeling of solidarity in the streets, reassuring people that they do not have to struggle alone, but that welfare is a collective issue and will be exposed and acted upon in this way. The group also hold regular leafletting sessions outside Job Centres.
Meeting and talking with these folk about their actions was really valuable and enjoyable. With more claimants action groups getting going, it’s great to make these links and share ideas and information.
Breaking: We just heard this morning that Bristol are setting up a claimants group as well! Woo!
We’d heard tales of A4e occupations to overturn sanctions and read inspiring anti-workfare action reports from Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty and so asked if we could visit them to share stories, ideas, and sanction smashing tips. As we try and get our own south London welfare action groups going and with the welfare system getting more and more brutal and unbearable we thought chatting with these folk would be helpful.
There is plenty to be inspired by in London and elsewhere, simply take a read of this LCAP booklet and a one off JSA and ESA skillshare at the Eileen house squat months back, but the ECAP group have decades of experience in direct action, solidarity, and support for low income people and we were keen to hear and learn about how they do things.
There were plenty of great stories to be heard. Back in the 90s the council stopped funding for an unemployed workers centre and tried to close it down. The person who had been employed to work there locked out the unemployed people from their own centre and so they found a way back in and refused to leave. The paid worker came back and removed the computers and photocopiers and locked it up again. The determined group found a way back in again and were able to remain there as the lease was for 2 years. After the lease was up, the council tried to kick them out, resulting in a 6 month siege (inspired by the prolific Italian social centres – in both countries squatting is completely illegal) and violent eviction by the police, arresting 20 people. Since 1997 ECAP has been running from the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh, a beautiful and homey space with tonnes of interesting literature and other stuff (an old photo in the toilet with a massive banner drop ‘No way JSA’ – old skool resistance!). Every Tuesday since 1997 they have held their advice and support session for people with benefit, housing, or debt issues. In the last two years these sessions have seen more people visit partly as word about them gets out and partly due to the impacts of welfare cuts.
We sat in on a Tuesday session which was busy from start to finish. People sign up to be advisors for each session, usually there are 5-6 people there to run it, and people can drop in between the hours of 12pm-3pm to speak with the advisors. Advisors will consult and talk with other advisors when helping someone, and claimants get chatting with one another whilst they wait, so there is a sense of collectivity and a sharing of knowledge and ideas. But at times, it did also feel a little like a one-to-one advice service. We asked if there was a way to make it more collective to break down an ‘advisor’ ‘client’ separation and hierarchy which can happen (indeed, one advisor noted the power differentials that may exist from the start between someone who has the free time to volunteer there and those who may be in a vulnerable situation). Turning it into a larger meeting for people to make collective decisions would mean they wouldn’t leave until 10pm because of the number of people they see, but they did suggest that perhaps there were ways of working in small groups. This would also mean that several advisors would get to know one claimants case and this would help create better continuity – so if one advisor isn’t there one week, others will be up to speed. Working in smaller groups would also emphasise the knowledge and experience that claimants too have of the system so that advice sharing is not just one way.
Sitting down filling out a dreaded form with someone is radical. It combats the immense fear and alienation of doing it alone. As someone at the space said, “there is no help anywhere, this is the only place there is”.
One man told us how he’d been helped by ECAP and was now helping others by attending ATOS and job centre interviews with people. This is another really important thing that ECAP do – providing buddies for appointments in order to provide support and make challenges. He took a bundle of ECAP posters to stick around his neighbourhood. Around ACE we’d seen them fly postered everywhere (they have an active fanbase who flypost their brilliant posters over the city, despite the warnings carried on them that they are not for fly postering). Including one of our favourite ever posters. As the man pointed out “we need this solidarity in the streets” and that’s exactly how it feels when you walk down the street spotting them. The group also show solidarity with claimants with regular leafletting sessions outside Job Centres.
As well as advice sessions and buddies, ECAP also take collective direct action. When A4e refused to let claimants have somebody accompany them to their appointments, ECAP used a combination of legal and direct action. They continued to accompany one person to his A4e interviews and so A4e sanctioned the person for not attending their appointment. ECAP escalated and occupied the offices as a group, handing out leaflets, until the police removed them. A4e backed down.
In the Monday evening ECAP organising meeting, we also heard about how the group had visited on mass a local councillors surgery to support a woman who had been hounded from her home by the council demanding the bedroom tax she should have been exempt from. “He’s afraid of large groups” someone remarked. Hearing of this sort of community mobilisation and solidarity is really heartening. We also got to speak about the Boycott Workfare campaign and discuss ideas about workfare campaigning and what we can do about the post-Work Programme ‘hit squads’ in which claimants are subjected to even more vicious weekly interviews. It was really enjoyable and valuable to discuss and share our workfare ideas (for example calls for more Job Centre occupations) and activities and make stronger links with other folk outside of London. We also got to share our respective propaganda. We took up a bundle of Occupied Times anti-work issues which went down really well and we collected some of their leaflets on Universal Jobs Match and their brilliant posters.
We also learnt of a dog in Italy that would always chase after the police trying to bite them. Did they train it to do that we asked. “The owners said the dog did it autonomously!”
Breaking: We just heard this morning that Bristol are setting up a claimants group as well! Woo!
Our anarcho-adventures in Scotland also included catching the film All Cats Are Brilliant as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. The drama follows a young woman’s life in Athens as she tries to deal with her partner’s imprisonment, pressurising parents, her work as an artist and babysitter, walking her dog Durruti. We weren’t quite sure what to make of the film (and we were curious about what the packed cinema thought of it too – cos they didn’t look like an ACAB sort of crowd…) – was it appropriating anarchist politics because this is ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ or was it a faithful attempt to portray anarchist ideas and struggles, the brutal clampdown by the state on anarchists and the very personal toll this takes. Was it critiquing problematic aspects of the anarchist community – there were certainly some bad gender dynamics, the isolation Electra felt within the radical ‘community’ – or was it simply repeating them…There were some really nice scenes in the film as well as a couple of cringe points to it, so we left with mixed feelings.