Keep Digbeth Noisy
Open Mic 1
Open Mic 2
Zapatista 'R' us
Seedbombs in progress
the finished product
An abandoned warehouse on Warwick St. in Digbeth was the venue of three days of workshops, talks and discussion on diverse themes: from the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, to the Disability Rights Movement in the UK; from 12v power workshops, to 'seed bombs' and guerilla gardening; from public sector workplace organising, to bicycle repair. Hot food was served each day with music in the evening and spontaeous sculpture and painting popping up around the building throughout.
The impetus for this event happening was not from any single group, agenda or campaign, but a collaboration between different groups and individuals. The emphasis throughout was to encourage such collaboration and to promote a general 'lets do it ourselves' ethos. In retrospect it was a uniquely supportive synthesis of different needs, issues, traditions and innovations.
Whilst the space was timed to co-incide with the Europe-wide call out, the weekend highlighted a number of specific issues in Birmingham over accessible social housing, privitisation of public space and the gentrification of Digbeth.
For example, one group active in creating the space, the Disabled Activist Network, are currently campaigning in Brum on the issues of accessible social housing and the planned closure of day centres across the city, to be replaced by privatised 'services'. Members of that network felt strongly that they should not be campaigning to 'save' day centres given their reliance on the medical, 'paternalistic' model of dis/ability. Rather, the argument went, we should be campaigning for their replacement by something more along the social centres model. In synthesising these views, the freespace collective decided that while campaigning and working in the long term for an accessible and inclusive social centre, we could also respond to the call out and put on a temporary social centre for the weekend as a project to focus on.
We considered many buildings and open sites across the city of Birmingham, with various criteria in mind. We wanted easy public transport links, accessibility and a fairly central location. The groundswell of opposition to the Council's gentrification of Digbeth meant we quickly gravitated to Digbeth, despite the issues that might give us in terms of fulfilling some of our criteria, in particular finding a building in good nick. Given the problems gentrification is already causing the area, with music venues being intimidated by a very few of the inhabitants - abetted by Birmingham City Council - of the jerry-built yuppy flats they erect next door, we felt a responsibility to the area to try and add weight and texture to the exisiting campaign to 'Keep Digbeth Vibrant'. Council plans might be construed as insulting to the people of Digbeth, as they give the impression Digbeth is a run down, empty black hole of post-industrial misery, in dire need of rescuing by our ever so uncorrupt council and their friends in the construction industry. Digbeth, while not without an element of post-industrial misery is a vibrant community, and surely under no illusions about 'development'. The word means that which causes something to unfold; growth, and so let us be under no illusions that what is going on is 'development'. It is gentrification, the process of replacing the poor working community, replaced by exclusive 'luxury' flats that turn out to be crap build anyway. Social cleansing. Not just a question of competing 'lifestyles', this process is inherently political.
Links were made with the Keep Digbeth Vibrant/Noisy community and their support for the temporary autonomous zone cannot be over-valued. A website on the issue is http://www.keepdigbethvibrant.co.uk/
Of the weekend, one participant commented:
"It was a fantastic experience. It felt like a genuine, unmediated gathering of human beings - something which is quite alien in a culture where most, if not all, of our daily interactions with fellow sentient beings are via state or commercial mechanisms. It was a time and place where skills were learned and taught, ideas were exchanged, faces massaged, friends made, and much fun had.
"The support of the pub just down the road was invaluable - giving us access to toilets and clean water - and demonstrated that what we were doing was not about having a loud party or congratulating ourselves on how ultra-radical we are, but about supporting a cause that means something to the local community, as well as participating in a movement that spans the continent.
"It showed that we, the ordinary people of the world, have the power to create something worthwhile just by working together, even as our capitalist rulers try so hard to convince us that we don't.
"In our own small way, we have proved them wrong.
"Now we have to do it again. Again and again, except bigger, better and with more involvement from a wider range of people. The powers that rule our lives can do so only as long as enough of the population believes that they are indispensable. By taking direct action such as this, by letting it grow and letting it be seen - especially by people who would not currently consider themselves 'radical' - we can show that this is not so.
"No snowflake ever feels it is responsible for the avalanche, but get enough of them together and they are literally unstoppable."
There was no shortage of imagination and enterprise for autonomy. Plans were discussed to create an eco-friendy compost toilet in the building, to decrease our reliance on our friendly local pub. Unfortunately we did not have time to sort out all of the practicalities but we will be planning towards having compost toilets in our next space.
Events began on the Friday morning with a banner making workshop, with prepared banners displayed. People were also still focussed on clearing up the space and trying to work out if there was any possibility of mains electricity or running water. On discovering the existing mains supply was unworkable, the planned 12 volt lights and a sound system were set up running from leisure batteries ( which are similar to car batteries but far better suited to power domestic appliances).The batteries can be charged by solar panels or wind turbine, showing that you don't need mains electricity, being an unsustainable and wasteful source. This time around we cheated by charging the batteries down at the pub! But we will try and get hold of some solar panels for next time.
Unfortunately the anti-gentrification demo called for 2pm outside the Council House was something of a wash out, with a low turnout, perhaps a lesson in taking on too much. While the 'Stop selling Off Our City' banner was hung on the social centre's exterior, more banners were put up inside throught the course of the day.
Friday night's open mic session included a variety of songs about class, Birmingham, war and neo-colonialism from different singers, interspersed with poetry and musical improvisation The fun continued well into the night. Urban exploration occured, guided tours of the enormous building we found ourselves in being offered, and there were some frankly astonishing moments of physical comedy available which I won't go into too much detail, but imagine Buster Keaton in that Chaplin film where he gets caught up in the machine and you get the idea. It really was that good.
Saturday dawned, and after further work on the building and a breakfast, workshops began at 11am with a discussion of social centres, and numbers continued swelling. Bicycology arrived with their wonderful bike maintainance workshop, complete with infostand, participants sharing and learning thier maintainance skills. The Birmingham man who was involved in bike maintainance workshops in the run up to the West Midlands Climate Camp Neighborhood was particularly impressed with the skills, knowledge and teaching ability of the women from bicycology. Thanks to them for coming along.
After a very well recieved lunch - compliments to the chef - there was an exiting and engaging talk on the Zapatista movement by an artist and activist of Mexico, now resident in the UK. The talk covered amongst other things the history of the Zapatista rebellion, outlining the key goals of their resistance: control over land, direct political representation and the right to protect their language and culture. Broader themes were touched upon too, such as globalisation. After this there was an introduction to the Local Exchange Trading Scheme, or LETS as it operates in Birmingham, given by one of their key administrative workers.
The second afternoon session was taken up by two workshops. 12volt electricity, co-facilitated by three different people, began with a theoretical discussion, looking at the basics of electricity in non-technical language employing metaphor to get across the key concepts, as well as the engineering involved in setting up 12volt systems. This was followed by a hands-on practical session, getting people used to measuring voltages, wiring up lights and a look at the 12volt sound system. Workshop two was a talk on dis/ability rights; the concepts and the movement were covered in a way which participants reported opened their eyes to new ideas about the politics of 'disability'.
After dinner, the poi/fire spinning workshop/demonstration took place, which certainly looked good from where I was standing. Made the place come alive and was a welcome 'spectacle' to those not directly participating.
On Sunday the highly anticipated permaculture/transition towns workshop proved to be an engaging, radical and politicised discussion of the issues. Key points were about the nature of permaculture, it's history and relevance today, how it has changed as a concept and how we practice it everyday. There was a vision excercise in imagining what a permacultured post-transition world might be experientially from the moment we wake up. What will our homes look like, our breakfasts, the world outside our homes? On transition towns, after the basics were intoduced, key questions were how do we ensure the transition movement remains out of the hands of local business elites, and is non-hierarchical?
Sunday afternoon was taken up with two practical workshops and one discussion. While the stencil making conrtibuted to the ongoing spontaneous arts occuring througout the event, decorating the building, guerilla gardening consisted of making 'seedbombs', a radical 'no dig' approach to the practice. This labour intensive workshop was interrupted for around an hour by the talk on the forthcoming public sector strikes, and the state of industrial activism in the public sector in the city, which was a productive and certainly informative discussion. For those intersted in following up, there is a union organised rally in Victoria Square, Brum City Centre on Thursday 24th April, 12noon to coincide with a strike over pay cuts.
The 'What next?' discussion rounded off the event, discussing the next steps for brumfreespace, on Sunday evening after dinner. Anky, one participant said "The food was wonderful, thanx to "Food not Bombs"...really inspired my cooking, we got the water & lighting and sounds sorted really well I thought, we have so much energy and creativity amongst us!"
And a final perspective:
"One of the greatest strengths of the weekend was the diversity of people that it welcomed. This was the first time I had ever been involved in occupying a space, and it gave me the opportunity to get together with so many different people - to meet new people that I hadn't met before, and to celebrate the new friends that I had made since becoming involved in Freespace Brum in January. It's fair to say that each person who visited had particular interests, and the opportunity to listen, learn and discuss the various interests in a free social space that wasn't just interested in taking your money was really valuable. And it was fun too! We took an empty building and for a few days we gave it colour, life, music and community. In return, it gave us fun, celebration, education and the determination to bring something more permanent to Birmingham. Well done to everybody involved in setting it up and thanks to everybody who visited, promoted it and helped out. Particular thanks must to go to the amazing people from the Spotted Dog pub, all the speakers who gave their time to hold workshops (I managed to get to the LETS and Zapatista talks, both fantastic) and everybody who travelled from out of town to help us. Love to all, and here's to the future."
Frre Space Brum