Occupy Lancaster entered the building on Saturday. There is absolutely no evidence of forced entry. Our intentions were good: to renovate the property; and open it for public meetings, arts and crafts events, music and youth activities; the creation of a community garden/allotment space; and, to help replace the many services lost or threatened by government cuts. We imagined an, albeit temporary, cultural hub at the heart of Lancaster, run by the community for the community: something of which we could all be proud. By Sunday afternoon work was already well underway.
The Occupiers secured the building legally, and displayed notices of Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 on the exterior of the building. This notified any stakeholders of our legal protection. Section 6 is a law which preserves the rights of occupants against landlords or anyone acting on their behalf. In order to obtain the legal grounds to evict occupiers, the landlord is obliged to obtain an IPO (Interim or intending Possession Order) from a court, or to produce a written statement or certificate in terms of Section 12A (Criminal Law Act 1977, as inserted by Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994). It is an offence under criminal law to make a false statement or to obtain a written statement for the purposes of Section 12A. A person guilty of such an offence may receive a sentence of up to 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000. The same penalties apply to those using violence or the threat of violence to gain entry to a property without such legal process. Alternatively, the police need to provide irrefutable evidence of criminal damage or forced entry. The police informed us that they had been made aware that the building had been secured by us and, initially, seemed to accept our Section 6 rights. Local CPSOs and officers who had been on the scene at the hotel were good-humoured in nature, in keeping with their previously supportive role during the Occupation of Dalton Square (30 November – 24 December). One even gave recommendations on the planting of winter vegetables for our proposed Community Allotment.
However … how things changed! By 7pm, the vans had arrived. An estimated 40-50 police officers (a large number of whom revealed they had been drafted in from East Lancashire) surrounded the building, or patrolled the vicinity. Occupy Lancaster quickly nominated a legal observation team who were in dialogue with the commanding officer. We have records of the discussions. At approximately 8.15 pm, the commanding officer proposed that two police be permitted entry to the building to assess if there had been any criminal damage. Whilst this was still under discussion, the police set to work deploying a battering ram to break through the front door. It was a noisy and chaotic scene. Once they had gained entry, the police arrested the four occupants who were inside at the time. Previously, our local officers and CPSOs had neither prevented access or egress from the building, nor given any indication of what was to come. Up to 80 people observed the forceful eviction from the roadside. Video, photographic and audio evidence has since been made available to view online. Outraged by this perceived disproportionate use of force on a peaceful and legal occupation, a large group marched to the police station to appeal for the release of the now-known “Lancaster Four”. A tent was erected in the grounds of the police station and a peaceful vigil was maintained until 4am. Demonstrators were already back by 8am the same morning to offer support for the arrestees. As we write at 3pm, a large group remains outside the police station holding banners and informing passersby and members of the press, including national news agencies, of events the previous evening. 18 hours have passed and the arrestees have still not been released.
We have two major concerns: (a) no evidence of forced entry or criminal damage was produced by the police (as required by law), and (b) the police did not produce necessary documentation upon our request in order to legally validate their actions. Therefore, Occupy Lancaster has strong reasons to believe that the police themselves have failed to follow proper legal procedure. If we are correct, this has profound implications for civil society.
Occupy is a peaceful, nonviolent and inclusive movement which campaigns on issues of social and economic justice. Demonstrations have taken place in over 1000 cities across the world, from the financial heartlands of Wall Street to high schools in Chile, St Paul’s Cathedral to our very own Dalton Square. It saddens us to see the police, who are themselves innocent victims of the financial crisis, being ordered to use what we consider to be disproportionate force against peaceful protestors.
You may have seen that the police’s heavy-handed eviction has already received national news coverage from the Guardian and the BBC(1). Videos of the eviction have gone viral all over the world on YouTube. This story will not go away. The Independent Police Complaints Commission will be contacted. An experienced legal team is being assembled. We are currently considering our options. Meanwhile, a request will be made under the Freedom of Information Act to find out how much this police action has cost the taxpayer.
Next time you pass by a dilapidated, derelict, defunct and crumbling eyesore of a building like the Railton Hotel, or any building deliberately left to go to waste by absentee landlords and ladies, we hope you will consider … what could these buildings – with a bit of imagination and hard graft by the community - become?