Squall 6, Spring 1994, pg. 20.
On Friday February 18th, the Freedom Network announced the occupation of Artillery Mansions, 75 Victoria Street, SW1.
Initially, some 40 people squatted the building in an effort to draw attention to The Criminal Justice Bill and alternative proposals to deal with the ridiculous numbers of homeless people.
Artillery Mansions has been empty for 18 years and contains some 411 flats which could, theoretically, house over 1,000 people. It is only a few hundred yards from the Home Office, the Department of the Environment, Westminster City Hall and the Houses of Parliament; a more 'in your face' venue for a protest of this nature could not have been found. Colourful banners adorn the front of the building and the occupiers have received avalanches of vocal support from the local shop-keepers, resident's associations and passers-by as well as donations of food, blankets and sleeping bags.
The occupation of the building was carried out for several reasons:
1) To protest against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, Part 5 dealing with collective trespass.
2) To assist in publicising the Homeless Persons and Mutual Aid Bill being proposed by the Green Homelessness Campaign. This bill is an updated version of the Empty Property and Community Aid Bill which went before the House of Commons in 1987 and proposes that owners of long-term empty properties be legally obliged to let them to homeless people and families.
3) To remind the public that some of the instigators of the "disgraceful and unlawful" manipulation of council house sales in Westminster, still hold their positions in Westminster City Hall, situated just down the road.
4) To open up a shelter for people otherwise sleeping on the streets. The Department of Environment press office claim that there are only 200 rough sleepers in central London. A visit to Oxford Street, Victoria Street and the Strand, will show that there are far more than this. The occupation of Artillery Mansions is an Alternative Rough Sleepers Initiative, the rhetorical one offered by the Government being completely inadequate.
A planned press conference at 1.00pm on Friday 18th was, unfortunately, interrupted by police who, upon realising that the buildings had been occupied, sealed off the entrances to prevent further people from going in. An uneasy stalemate followed where journalists and photographers were left standing in the street while the Inspector at the scene awaited the arrival of his superior. One and a half hours later, and after an extensive guided tour of the building, Superintendent Crosby had been assured that the protest was indeed legitimate and agreed that the issue was a civil one to be worked out between the squatters and the owners of the buildings, an Iranian offshore company called Great Bear, licensed in Switzerland. Over the next 24 hours, police presence was stepped down and the occupiers were left to continue their action.
On Friday night, 20 rough sleepers were introduced to the space and invited to stay. "I've got a flat - I've got a flat - It's not very big but I've got a flat," Sean half said and half sang. Sean is in his late twenties and has been sleeping on the streets around Victoria for 10 months. At the time of writing the number of street-sleepers now with a roof over their heads has risen to 45.
The Freedom network is an umbrella group covering a wide variety of activists whose uniting factor is Part 5 of the Criminal Justice Bill. Groups such as the Green Party, Squash, anti-road protestors, festival organisers, Rainbow Tribe and travellers. Other actions protesting against the Bill are, we understand, being prepared.
The Freedom Network have made an appeal to interested parties to come down and assist in the running of the Mansions. "With so many empty flats and so much work to do in cleaning them up and making them habitable we really need as much support as we can get," said Richard as he cleaned a floor previously covered in toxic pigeon guano.
Carolyn, a Freedom Network spokeswoman who was one of the first to occupy the building, was enthusiastic about the potential for the building but angered by the profit-driven motives that have kept the buildings empty for so long: "There are over 800,000 empty properties in Britain and, according to Shelter, up to 2 million homeless people. The Government refuse to recognise the seriousness of the problem and, in fact, are intent on making it worse through criminalising squatting.
"The Government is involved in cultural cleansing. We are trying not only to highlight homelessness but the violation of our human rights."
The Freedom Network can be contacted on: 071 738 6721.
The Last Press Release - eviction of Artillery Mansions occupation in Westminster on April 22nd (1994) - Squall 7, Summer 1994
Rough Street Initiative 2 - two personal accounts of street-level attempts to help street homelessness - 2: Jim Carey on Artillery Mansions - Squall 11, Autumn 1995
Rutlander's Last Stand - eviction of the biggest squat in Britain, Rutland Park Mansions - Squall 6, Spring 1994