On Revolutionary Activism

In our last article before 2018, RISE organiser Deborah Waters shares some thoughts on why “revolutionary” actions like the occupation of Glasgow’s 190 Trongate are important in a country where people are dying on the streets every year. She argues that mainstream criticisms of the radical left’s activism should be thoroughly dismissed…

Last week, RISE were dismissed as “too revolutionary” on a BBC Scotland phone-in. The subject had been homelessness in light of the Sleep in the Park event held in Edinburgh. But our own choice of action – a 24-hour occupation of an empty unit on Glasgow’s Trongate – had apparently been too extreme.

We’ve campaigned across Scotland for well over a year on the issues of housing and homelessness. We can see the increasingly visible effects it has on the most vulnerable people in our communities.  And so we wanted to be visible. We wanted the public to see and connect with what we were doing, and we wanted to connect with those forces who also seek a fairer Scotland for everybody.

In the early days of the campaign, talks were held. We met with the newly elected Glasgow City Council and sought advice from groups with years of experience in the field. Then, about a year ago, we started a weekly drop in service for the homeless and vulnerably housed in Glasgow.

Our protests over deaths in the streets and underfunded, overstretched services have received the anticipated response. People are rightfully angry because a fundamental tenet is being overlooked in our society: housing is a human right.

That doesn’t mean damp ridden, overpriced and fragile housing, but safe, warm and secure homes for young people, families, the elderly – all of us. We regularly quote the statistics on this because they starkly lay out what a disaster Thatcherism and the subsequent financial collapse was for ordinary people.

The housing crisis in Scotland is laid bare: in the last 17 years, rents have increased by 30%. Wages have increased by 2.4%. Over 748,000 Households are in fuel poverty. Officially, 10,873 households are in temporary accommodation (3,250 of these contain dependent children or expectant mothers). 6,041 children live in temporary accommodation. 70,000 households are overcrowded.

And there are 150,000 people on housing waiting lists in Scotland. Last year in Glasgow alone, there were 5,377 homeless applications made by households. Approximately 5,000 people sleep rough in Scotland in a year. And between May 2016 and March 2017 in Glasgow, 39 homeless people died. In one of the richest countries in the world, this is appalling and unacceptable.

Of course, good work is being done. Volunteer armies of people take to the streets most nights to offer blankets and food and give what support they can. But it isn’t enough. People are being squeezed from all sides. Jobs lack security and pay is lower. More and more of these jobs could be categorised as zero hours or bogus self-employment, with no sick pay, holiday pay or security.

Then you must factor in sanctions, delays in universal credit and the overtime that goes unpaid. You must factor in the cuts in funding to mental health and addiction services, the cuts to support for homeless people and the cuts to services for vulnerable, elderly and young people. When you’re poor, you’re isolated. It’s too easy to fall through the cracks when there when the services that could have helped just can’t cope and there isn’t a safety net left in place.

Homelessness is no accident: there’s a horrific inevitability to it. It means foodbanks, austerity and children in hostels. It means arrears evictions, waiting lists, rickets, humiliation and death on the streets.

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So, we campaign, we protest, and we reach out to help where we can, and yes, we occupy. Like so many others, we can’t watch what is happening every day and not be compelled to do something about it. We try to change things. We try to make a difference.

On the Sunday of the occupation, many people came by and stopped to talk and share their horror at what seems to be happening in their city. They brought food, blankets, clothes and shoes, but they also brought pent up anger and frustration. This is the anger that so motivated us. It’s why we aren’t put off by accusations of revolutionary ideals – in fact, we aspire to them.

Civil disobedience is a tool that hasn’t been used in Scotland for a long time. Its best use was arguably during the rent strikes of 1915, when thousands of ordinary people fought together for justice. I honestly think the time for people in communities to organise and mobilise has come again. It’s time for anger and direction action, for rent strikes and sit-ins.

Its best use I think was during the rent strikes of 1915 when there were thousands of ordinary people fighting for justice together. I’d like to think that the time has come again. For people in communities to organise and mobilise. Time for anger and direct action, for rent strikes and sit ins, and maybe cowping the occasional bailiff in the middens.

Expect to see more actions from us and expect people to continue to be angry. Expect us to keep fighting. Are we too revolutionary or too left wing? We’ll take it.

@FridayBaldwin