I started off my week with meeting some queer, feminist squatters living just up the street from my school. It was so lovely to find folks to whom I strongly relate. They invited me out to a sober, queer dance night. At first I was a little skeptical, it sounded awkward. Usually people don’t dance until they’ve had some drinks. But I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to connect with queer community and this party was actually great. People danced and there was plenty of social space to have all sorts of coherent, intellectual conversations. It also didn’t feel like a meat-market. Which, for being a person who was there to just make friends, was really nice. I had a really good time hanging out with them, met all sorts of people whom I’m delighted exist in the world, and learned a lot.
My new friends filled me in on all sorts of interesting facts about the long history and politics of squatting in London. It was legal, until very recently, to squat in abandoned homes. Many of the homes in London sit empty for years (owned by wealthy investors, but uninhabited) while housing costs skyrocket out of reach for more and more poor people. So there are groups that find these homes and open them up for people who need them. Many squats around the city have lasted for years. Now that the laws have changed, squats are more likely to be temporary housing. After a 5 month legal battle, my new friends are facing the final stage of their eviction tomorrow morning. I hope the Bailiff is not too rough with them.
In my classes this week, we’ve gone on some exciting tours. First we went to the Churchill War Rooms. I enjoy WWII history, so this was an interesting treat. They left the underground bunker war rooms just as they were at the end of the war (although some rooms had to be reconstructed with photographs). I love displays like that. There’s so much you can intuit about a situation based on the setup and contents of a room.
Next, we went on a radical history tour of Brixton. Brixton is the famous, traditionally black/West Indian neighborhood. On the tour we got to see the flashpoint of the Brixton Uprising in the ’80s, C.L.R. James house, Black Panther house, Windrush Plaza, headquarters of Race Today and other neighborhood newspapers, squats, Anarchist infoshop, etc. and then we got to sample some Caribbean cuisine. It was a lot of history to take in. So many inspiring and heartbreaking stories. As if to make her point, just as the tour guide was telling us about “sus laws,” plain clothed police popped out of an unmarked vehicle and accosted two young black men who were just walking down the street. It was a surreal and awful moment.
Then we went to the Black Cultural Archives for a presentation. Our presenter filled us in on a lot of the historical political details that our tour guide didn’t have time for. We got to hold in our hands the very pamphlets, booklets, posters, zines, and newsletters that helped to inspire people to organize and fight for civil rights in London. I especially appreciated reading the community papers. It was their history, in action, in their words; a captured historical moment frozen in time. We got to discuss the government policies and other components of racism in British society in more depth. I love being this close to history.
This is the best thing about London. There is thousands of years of fascinating history everywhere. I’ve barely scratched the surface. Yet the wealth of information is overwhelming. Also, the people are unafraid to discuss a broad variety of politics. Often Leftist politics are included in history. In the U.S., anything resembling Communism is taboo and erased from the story. Whereas here, it is just another ideology among many. Although some ideas haven’t quite caught on here yet.
For example queer theory and identity. In the U.S., among GBLT communities, queer is fast becoming the norm, and most people under 25 now have no idea that queer was ever an insult. But not here. This was a challenge for me when I started at the youth center on Wednesday. When I shared my identity as queer, many of my colleagues didn’t know what I was saying. I was happy to explain and several of my peers were very excited about these ideas. Hopefully, I can help queer concepts to take flight across the pond and foster the normalization of more inclusive GBLTQIQAP communities.
However, I should say that the identity confusion did not by any means spoil the experience! In fact, I’m very happy with my placement. The director is very funny, witty, and collaborative. I suspect we’ll get along famously. The experience I’m getting here will be incredibly valuable. On my first day I got to just jump in and start providing support/affirmation to young people, and I’m going through a full training course too. I believe at the end of the training, I’ll have some minor level of youth work certification. Though I still need to learn more about the system over here to understand what that means exactly. Anyway, it’s all tremendously useful, and my work so far is really enjoyable. The young people at the center were wonderful!