OKasional café is reincarnated

Andrew Parkinson

The Government has recently announced they are to criminalise squatting, with a maximum penalty of £5000 and a year’s imprisonment for those convicted. The plans were announced in response to the “occupy” movement in which protestors have been camping in cities across the UK, including outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London as part of “Occupy London Stock Exchange”. Squatting has always been a pressing issue for government, but the new laws could threaten the livelihoods of many.

 

Following these proposed changes to legislation, I visited the OKasional Cafe in Fallowfield; a disused nursing home which has recently been taken over by squatters to create a temporary social centre.

 

‘We’re on our third week now,’ I was told by ‘Trky’ at the OK Cafe after being asked how long the squat had been operational for. ‘The OK Cafe usually only runs for three weeks, but this time it’s going to run for four. It’s going so well and been so beautiful. Hundreds of people are around it and they keep coming back. It’s really touching.’

 

The first OKasional Cafe was opened in 1998 on Peter Street near Deansgate following the Airport Protests as a venue where people could discuss socio-political concerns in a communal environment. There have since been numerous similar squats around Manchester.

 

The sense of community is the first thing you notice about the OK Cafe: there’s a chef who tells us that he’s ‘seen people cook here for fifty to sixty people’; there’s a group of people playing Scrabble in the lounge area; there are community leaflets and banners pinned to the walls; people come in and out of the building freely.

 

‘This collective is constantly growing,’ says Trky. ‘It started between twelve to fifteen people and now there’s over thirty people that are all involved who are making sure this happens for everyone.’

 

‘That’s why I love it so much: because we’re all doing what we do best, which is being nice to each other and to humanity.’

 

I am given a tour of the house by Mikey, who hands us a leaflet detailing the Cafe’s  community programmes. There are three events scheduled every day, from a ‘Polyamory and Communication in Relationships’ workshop on the Monday to a lecture on ‘The Loiterers Resistance on Psychogeography’ on the Sunday. The first room he takes us to is a large area used for workshops and screenings, with a ‘Resist the Squat Ban’ flag pinned to the wall and a mural painted for someone in the collective who had recently passed away.

 

He then takes me to another room where there’s a pile of clothes which people are allowed to take for free. ‘This is a flea shop where people can come in and help themselves if anyone needs clothes for any reason,’ says Mikey. ‘People can do repair work on things. You’ve got your banners, you’ve got your sewing machines…’ He even tells us that they have workshops in the room where people can learn how to build their own sound-systems.

 

The place takes on a whole new dimension when he shows me the basement area. After struggling to find the light in the pitch black darkness, he flicks the switch and a large venue space is illuminated. ‘This room gets used once a week when we have a party. We get bands, DJs… We’ve had a couple of raves down here.’

 

As he walked us around the exterior of the huge Victorian ex-nursing home, I asked him about the Cafe’s ideology and purpose.

 

‘We fundraise for direct action,’ he says. ‘We also discuss strategies, how we feel about all these problems that keep popping up in the world. We had a strategy meeting last night to discuss council cuts, the rolling back of the benefits system, NHS cuts and the anti-squatting law.’

 

I ask him how he feels about this proposed change to legislation which could leave thousands of homeless people across the UK imprisoned.

 

‘If it’s been six months and the landlord hasn’t done anything to the inside of a house then why shouldn’t someone live there?’

 

‘There are empty buildings and homeless people, yet the solution is really simple.’

 

‘We proposed amendments (to the law). One was voted on in the commons and we got 26 votes against.’

 

‘I can’t believe that so many MPs voted against the amendments. I mean these are supposed to be representing the people and they’re just not. We went to a surgery with one MP and he seemed very positive, though when it came to the actual vote he went against the amendments that we put forward.’

 

When he takes me back inside the lounge area, I ask Mikey about intimidation towards the squatting community.

 

‘You get a lot of this where people try to intimidate squatters because sometimes it works. Sometimes people will leave. If there’s a small group of people who are vulnerable then they’re going to leave. You’re not going to hang about to see what happens.’

 

This is one reason why the sense of community is so important, but it’s not all about strength in numbers. Mikey tells me ‘We don’t just let anyone stop. You’ve got to the meetings; you’ve got to get involved.’

 

This restoration of the OKasional Cafe could be the last due to the proposed changes in legislation and, by the time this article goes to print, many of its inhabitants could be faced with homelessness and a very uncertain future. Although this squat is based on communal, environmental and political values, there are some up and down the country which house vulnerable people who simply have nowhere else to go, and others in which people have taken advantage of occupying a property when they have no right or need to do so. It’s clear that the government’s plans to criminalise squatting is a myopic answer to the far more complex problem of homelessness, and will do little to help thousands of vulnerable people across the UK.

995 words.

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