Deporting, imprisoning, or otherwise ‘silencing’ activists that become too much of a nuisance is something we usually associate with despotic third world regimes, authoritarian emerging superpowers and paranoid one-party states, but it’s happening right here in the UK in 2015. When anyone falls victim to this abuse of state power it needs to be opposed by all those who want to carry on living in a democratic society; just the fact that these abuses are happening is worrying in itself, but when it happens to a friend it’s even more disturbing.
Hungarian-born 34-year-old Daniel Gardonyi has spent the last 4 years fighting austerity and social cleansing in London, successfully organising neighbourhoods in North and Central London and helping put on spectacular events to bring the community together. We worked together on many of these projects, and shared some of our finest moments and most difficult times.
He lives in perpetual protest on the Sweet’s Way Estate in Barnet, just one of many communities to fall victim to social cleansing in London. Now, after resisting the eviction of Mostofa, the last original resident on the estate, the Home Office has served Daniel a letter threatening deportation, despite having no criminal charges against him.
Daniel is something of a local hero, well knit into the big woolly jumper of the Barnet community where he resides. We first met and briefly lived together in the aftermath of Occupy LSX, but it was in Barnet that we first seriously worked together, sleeping on the floor of a once-abandoned library by night, stocking shelves and stamping books by day.
The historic Friern Barnet library was shut down as part of the council’s austerity regime. The shelves lay bare, and the building was set to be flogged off to Tesco when a motley assortment of activists well versed in squatting law occupied the building. Danny was there almost from day one. Gradually, the local community, who had thought their beloved library gone for good, came to trust us, and every day they came for meetings, poetry readings, concerts and even a Q and A session with Will Self. Not to mention, lovely books.
After five months the council relented. They eventually revealed that they had ‘found’ the money from ‘somewhere’, and the library could officially reopen. Now, it’s run by a trust made up of locals, and it’s one of the most used libraries in the borough.
I credit Danny for a lot of the library’s success. It was impossible for the initially wary Barneteers not to warm to his relaxed and humorous manner, and without their energy, tenacity and committed involvement the shelves would now be stacked with Tesco bread, butter, and bacon, not books.
On the back of this success some of those living in the library formed a group that was at times variously known as Occupy Barnet, the Library Defenders, Barnet Bohemians and the Cat Hill Eco Warriors. Over the following years we would run community actions such as the ARC social centre, the hugely popular Our Bohemia, the Cat Hill Environmental protection camp in Enfield, the 12 Bar occupation in Soho, as well as an encamped protest outside the constituency office of Conservative MP Mike Freer.
And as the horrific knock-on effects of austerity became clear, Danny and the Barnet Bohemians would focus more and more on halting social cleansing in London.
Daniel has been protesting the social cleansing of London at Sweets Way since March. It’s just one of the many estate resistances that have happened across the city in recent years. Focus E15, Aylesbury Estate, Our West Hendon, New Era and the Guiness Trust Estate occupation, just to name a few, have all seen local residents and activists stand up against planned eviction.
The Sweets Way saga began when the MOD decided to sell the flats at the estate for £400 each to Guy Hands, the millionaire owner of Annington Homes. Not satisfied with this bargain bucket of a deal, nor of using tax avoidance lawyers to screw the British public out of millions of pounds, Guy Hands announced that he intended to knock down the perfectly good estate, evict its residents and build luxury flats in its place.
When the evictions began, well-known Jesus impersonator Russell Brand came for a sleepover. Whilst he kept the media busy and the vast crowds entertained, Occupy Barnet was busy doing the legwork and reopening those homes.
Over the following months the residents were all either evicted or left, all except Mostofa, a disabled father of four whose offer of rehousing by the council did not meet his need for wheelchair access. And as Mostofa dug in, Danny and others continued their work on the flats, building what would become the Sweetstopia microstate. The flats, whose interiors had been previously smashed up by the council, were renovated by the occupiers, and some became show-homes to demonstrate what could be achieved by an engaged community free from the yoke of corporate control.
Mostofa’s eviction came on the 25 September, by which time a good number of housing refugees had come to open up buildings on the estate. A concrete wall and a lookout tower had been raised to protect Sweetstopia. That morning, Mostofa awoke to loud bangs and shouts, and moments later broken glass rained down on his bed. He was dragged away by bailiffs. Four people were arrested for resisting this act of unmitigated barbarity, among them Daniel.
While he was at the police station, Daniel was handed a letter informing him of the Home Office’s intention to deport him.
‘Operation Nexus‘ is presented to the public as a way of kicking out ‘high harm’ and repeat offenders who come from other parts of the world. We’re talking mafia, murderous psychos, drug kingpins and sexual predators.
Danny doesn’t exactly fit that description.
He is however, a thorn in the side of the Conservatives and a well-known face in the fightback against austerity.
Until now they’ve had no idea what to do with him because he always conducts himself in a law-abiding and peaceful way. Even the police warm to him, as he’s usually prepared to talk and be friendly with them. His attitude is that they are workers too, and we are fighting so that they can be properly funded and keep their jobs.
Together, we’ve repeatedly held police to account and reminded them what they’re supposed to turn up for, to keep people safe, protect their freedoms and ensure equality under the law; not to take the side of the government, the corporation, or the property owners but the side of the people.
It’s for these reasons that, until recently, he has never been arrested in the UK or Hungary.
Judging by the apathetic media response to such freedom-loving proposals as scrapping the human rights act, you’d think that democracy was going out of fashion.
The Home Office, in a Ministry of Truth-style outburst, revealed that the definition of an extremist is an individual engaged in precisely the sort of activity that David Cameron and Theresa May get away with on a daily basis, namely:
The vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.
What of Theresa May’s plans to ban state-defined ‘extremists’ from speaking publicly on the basis of their views, what is that if not anti-democratic and intolerant? Look at how Osborne falls over himself to impress the authoritarian Chinese government – to the point of raiding the home of a Tiananmen Square survivor and arresting Tibetan activists during the Chinese Premier’s visit. Yes, right here in England.
Then there’s the mountain of disparagement laid upon the fully democratic election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader, not to mention the veneration of the Queen as unelected toff-in-chief, or the sick re-writing of the electoral register with 1.9 million fewer voters (wondering now if I’m one of those struck from the register). And the list goes on: treating activists as criminals, putting them on ‘sex offender’ style lists, undercover police, cutting legal aid so that fair trials become so only for those who can afford it, and more, much more, too many things both large and small to mention them all in an article, too many for a book.
Deporting protesters like Danny is just one strand in the rope that swings menacingly from the gallows, awaiting the neck of British democracy. Don’t let the hangman take us without a struggle.
But why should we care about activists, protest, free speech or democracy, anyway?
In countries where there is no democracy whatsoever, dissidents who disagree with the government’s actions (like these happy people) either keep quiet, or they get silenced. They either live in fear or flee for their lives, or they take to the mountains and return with guns.
Syria is an example of a country where the needs of the population and their right to express them were not only ignored, but heavily repressed. People protested, and the state opened fire. There was no chance to have a debate, to put pressure on the government, to talk, to listen. So now people express their views through armed struggle, bombs and bullets. Their only choice is no choice at all, between an endless civil war and a life of oppression and hardship under Assad.
We have a third choice; democracy.
I’m not talking about a once-in-a-while voting ritual, but a diverse ecosystem of democratic participation through party membership, pressure groups, protest, debate within a truly open media, neighborhood assemblies, public initiated referendums, participative budgeting, student-run universities and digital democracy. It is imperative that we not only halt the long, dark slide into oppression, but that we say:
“More democracy, better democracy, more engaging, more co-operative and more principled democracy.”
Danny is standing up for our freedoms. He was arrested because he felt so strongly about people being evicted from their homes and forced out of the city that he was prepared to spend years of his life fighting against it. It’s not an easy life, it’s full of risk and uncertainty, devoid of the comforts many of us take for granted. And he is doing it for others, to help make the world a better place.
We need to stand up for Daniel. In so doing, we stand up for ourselves.
Featured image via Drift Report video Welcome to Sweetstopia.