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Power and solidarity at the grassroots

In an age of professionalization, both of politicians and of activists, the journey of self-taught politicization of the Focus E15 mothers is a remarkable one – and an example of genuine, grass-roots politics in Britain. 

Victoria Lupton
10 October 2014

“Even in school you’re never taught to talk up. People are isolated and scared to say anything because they think other people don’t care… But as soon as you become a fighter, there’s no turning back.”

After a week of sunshine on Carpenters Estate, it’s starting to drizzle. The two women in front of me sit together, hugging the blanket wrapped over their two pairs of shoulders. I am speaking to Jasmin Stone and Sam Middleton, leaders in the Focus E15 Mothers campaign, named after the Stratford hostel from which Newham Council in London threatened to evict them along with 27 other mothers a year ago.

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Housing on the Carpenters Estate. Photo: author

Two weeks have passed since Focus E15 opened up a nearby block of four boarded-up council apartments to the public, and when I interview them they are preparing to leave voluntarily in two days.

In an age of professionalization, both of politicians and of activists, their journey of self-taught politicization over the past months is a remarkable one – and a precious example of genuine, grass-roots politics.

Fifteen months ago, when Sam and Jasmin met at Focus E15 hostel, they were two of tens of thousands of people in Newham waiting for somewhere to live. Uninterested in politics – “we literally didn’t know anything about anything,” says Jasmin – they had never voted and would not have thought of following the news. Both born in Newham General Hospital, their lives, families and friends were in Stratford. Jasmin’s daughter was nearing a year old, and Sam was pregnant with her first child.

Then in August 2013, everything changed. Their housing association served all 29 mothers eviction notices to leave Focus by 20th October. They tried to find housing themselves but were refused everywhere because of their financial situation. The only remaining option, they were told, if they wanted to keep their housing benefits, was to accept any housing offered to them by the authorities within 24 hours of the offer. Given that Newham Council had declared chronic property shortages in the borough, this would in practice mean housing outside of Newham, possibly well outside – “people were being offered places in Manchester, Hastings or Birmingham”.

The cherry on the cake was Sam’s due date of the 19th October – the day before their eviction date.

In the face of impending separation from their family and friends, Jasmin and Sam began to push the other mothers in the hostel to get involved. “I felt like I had nothing to lose because I was already being evicted. It was scary, but it was scarier to think that we would be a four-hour drive away from our family. We did this for our kids – we wanted our babies to know their grandparents.”

“The council was saying to us, “we could get you a lovely place by the seaside!”” Jasmin tells me. “We would say, “it’s lovely at the seaside but I’m sorry, for as long as anyone can remember my whole family has been in Newham.””

They wrote letters to the council, called meetings with the mothers, questioned the housing association and council and finally wrote a petition demanding to be rehoused in Newham. None of this got them far – then one Saturday they happened upon a revolutionary communist campaign group’s market stall in Stratford and “asked for some advice on how to start off a campaign – and from there we set up our own market stall.” Since then, thousands of people have signed the petition and supported them on various actions leading up to the Open House at Carpenters last week.

There is a short interlude as we are offered bacon sandwiches and tea. Sam protests that the tea tastes bad and is affectionately chided by Jasmin – “Sam, you’re such a diva!” – and I feel, sitting on the living room floor with the sound of a hoover next door, that I’ve entered a family home. Indeed, Sam tells me that Jasmin’s daughter doesn’t want to leave: “I don’t want to go Mummy’s house, I want to stay home.” This is the great strength of the campaign: that its leaders address a range of issues that can seem insurmountably huge – regeneration, gentrification, privatization – from an intensely personal position, motivated by family, friends, home rather than by pre-formed policy decisions.

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Sam and Jasmin. Photo: author

Jasmin explains this: “at the beginning, we thought we were fighting for ourselves to stay near our family. Then we started meeting more and more people, and we thought: “we can’t just let this happen, everybody’s got to get together.””

The Carpenters flats opened by Focus E15 are clean, light and comfortable, with a fitting view of Anish Kapoor’s Olympic folly. Declared unliveable and “falling into disrepair” but clearly structurally sound and ready for use – electrics, water supply and all – they eloquently counter Newham Council’s statement of the lack of social housing stock in the borough. Awaiting demolition as the council attempts to sell the land to developers, up to 600 homes have been empty for up to eight years on Carpenters estate, with the council refusing the share information on plans for its redevelopment.

The mothers claim that the authorities’ response to their campaign has been evasive and disrespectful in equal parts: “the housing association and the council passed the blame to each other,” says Jasmin, as Sam adds, “we’ve been locked out of the council, we’ve been manhandled, we’ve been left till last so that nobody hears us…”

Ultimately the women originally threatened with eviction from Focus E15 – all 29 of them – were told their eviction was a mistake. Jasmin and Sam were the first to be offered rehousing: “because we were so vocal in the campaign we didn’t get offered anything outside of Newham. The first place I was offered was in Plaistow – I had to move in March this year to keep my benefits.” Jasmin was moved to housing within Stratford.

The offer of accommodation in Newham was a major victory – “everyone we told said it gave them hope that they could do something” – but by the time the mothers moved, it was clear to both women that they were not ready to stop campaigning. Not only were the houses they had moved to private rentals – that is, “falling apart, really small, converted and re-converted conversions for £950 a month paid to private landlords and covered by housing benefits” – but by this time they had met thousands of people with similar stories.

“It was like waking up to this world that was so corrupt,” says Jasmin, “and we hadn’t even realised what was going on. The number of people I met standing on the street asking people to sign the petition – I was like, wow, every other person has a serious, upsetting story.” Their campaign connected particularly with those hit by the bedroom tax: “We met a 91 year old woman, she worked until she was 65 years old and she lived in a two-bedroom house all her life. Because she had a spare bedroom she got done for the bedroom tax, and they sent her to Milton Keynes. How can you do that to a 91 year old?”

As with any campaign, it’s fascinating to see who is milling around Carpenters: a gentle jazz pianist whose friend happened to tell him about it; a Bolivian activist who came to London from Palestine this summer; a sprinkling of communist campaigners in Palestine football shirts discussing ISIS and the Peshmerga; a local dad who has helped himself abundantly from the free shop and inquires in wonder whether the speakers that are blasting out Eurythmics are also up for grabs. (They’re not.)

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Activities at Carpenters. Photo: author

As Jasmin and Sam are at pains to emphasise, many groups have supported the mothers throughout. But where Focus E15 shines a light is not only on a vital social problem, but on a path out of the apathy and political opportunism that seem to surround us today.

Their campaign follows a familiar narrative: as Jasmin puts it, “London is for the rich and we’re all going to be pushed out to the outskirts of the country.” Yet these young women – the type of women that governments so often seem able to forget – have not only asserted a formidable political voice, but moved beyond campaigning for their own predicament towards a wider political movement.

“These days, no one acts up on something until it happens to them, that’s what it was like with us,” Sam admits. “At the beginning we were blind to what was happening, but now – even if we were to be given a permanent council house and ten million pounds, we’d still carry on. There are so many people whose voices need to be expressed and if they can’t do it, we’ll help them.”

“Solidarity is the way forward,” agrees Jasmin. “If one person is shouting at the top of their lungs, they’re not going to get heard. If ten thousand people are shouting at the top of their lungs, something has got to be done.”

And for the future? Both women would like to find work once their children are old enough – Jasmin in childcare, Sam in graphic design – although right now, both think of the campaign as their full-time job. There is the clear sense that whilst they are happy to be leaving on their own terms, everyone involved in the Carpenters Open House is sad that it’s coming to an end. “We’ve made so many friends on this estate,” says Sam, “our greatest support has been from the community here – we’ve even had some people say they don’t want us to go and ask us to set up tents outside! But we’ll still do our street stall from 12 till 2 every Saturday.”

Our interview is on a Saturday and as we’re wrapping up, Jasmin anxiously looks at the time – “we have to get to our stall!” They gulp down their tea, and head out of Carpenters to continue the fight.

                                                                                                                                                        

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