Why We Occupy

On Sunday, RISE activists occupied 190 Trongate in Glasgow to raise awareness about the lack of housing and send the message that homelessness is both unacceptable and avoidable. One RISE activist writes on why occupation is a useful political tactic and encourages others to consider doing the same in their local communities....

Glasgow residents may have seen the ‘Notices of Proceedings’ RISE activists have been placing on empty buildings. The notice states that RISE believe the selected properties are part of a land banking scheme in which rich owners sit on property and land, letting it become derelict over years (or even decades) until the price goes up or they force the development planning they want.

Across Glasgow, there are swathes of empty buildings doing nothing except decaying. All the while, every community in the city is crying out for public housing and public facilities. It poses the question in this period of global recession: who’s going to bring life to our communities, high streets and cities? Many of these buildings could be regenerated and converted to provide decent public housing. We really could clear our homelessness waiting lists.

Are we really going to rely on tax avoiding property companies and shareholders, who hide out in Caribbean tax havens until the coast is clear and the price is right? Who then get to build yet another hotel, casino or ‘luxury’ student apartment block? Well, obviously not. RISE activists carried through the first of their ‘Notice of Proceedings’ actions by occupying the old bank premises at 190 Trongate on Sunday morning.

At this stage, it was a 24-hour occupation to get the ball rolling and the experience under our belt. Homeless folk and charities dropped by to offer support, along with other left wing/socialist activists and some SNP and SSP members.

But, the bulk of the support came from the public. We had a stall outside and could hardly find a minute to even tweet a photo because so many people were stopping to offer support. I explained we were doing two things: starting a political campaign to encourage people to take ownership of these buildings in their community through occupation, and demanding they be transferred to community ownership down the line.

Secondly, we were asking for support for a daytime drop-in at The SPACE in London Road, which provides warm food and company for homeless people. This was set up by Sean Baillie, now a RISE organiser, and is run by Deborah Waters, now also a RISE organiser.

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The support was amazing: the humanity of the folk in Glasgow continually makes me smile and cry in equal measure. I was handed £20 donations from three different people, along with many smaller donations. As word went out on social media, people turned up with donations, food, cakes, guitars, banjos, a kazoo, a welcome heater and even a disco-lights speaker system. This city is no stranger to successful direct action.

An impromptu open mic session got underway around 8pm. Local singer-songwriter Declan Welsh struck the first chord, while Chris Fear played Mrs Barbour’s Army on the banjo. Plenty more people turned up: former MSP Rosie Kane brought her kazoo and her patter, and writer and emcee Loki came along too.

Is this all just symbolism or are we serious? As part of a community campaign, I’ve previously occupied a school and a community centre to contest council cuts. In my case, we won one, lost one, but I know plenty of other people who have done the same.

Let’s imagine that instead of trying to simply stop closures, we occupy to open vacant buildings in the community. We use them for social events, gigs, education workshops and so on. In other words: we turn them into autonomous community centres. Why couldn’t they be transferred to community ownership?

When the government first decided to launch PFI schemes, they needed a private ownership model for schools, hospitals and college buildings. So, they simply made one up – not a strong one as models of ownership go – and they bound it in law.

Initially, these ‘special purpose vehicles’ were made up of builders, bankers and city investors. Years later, we have less than a clue who the real owners of these public buildings are, but they’re still raking in our money.

We can do much better than that. There are many different models of community ownership. And if the people of Eigg can own and run and entire island, I’m certain our communities could more than cope with owning and running a few empty buildings.

Look around your area and ask yourself: “How long has that building been empty? Who even owns it? What could we do with it if the community owned it? Is it time we occupied it?” RISE hereby given notice.

Below: RISE Organiser Deborah Waters talks about why the occupation was held.