The Big Rebuild: May update

Working on volunteer-led political projects, especially bricks and mortar ones, can often feel like an endless and thankless sort of task. Cashflow problems, lack of relevant expertise, high turnover of key organisers and sometimes feuds and scandals are just some of the pitfalls which periodically need dealing with, usually by people who have many other things to do.

84b Whitechapel High Street has seen its share of all the above since it was bought by the Vernon Richards-led Freedom Press in 1968, with the help of donations and a substantial bit of support from his family.

From the multi-decade feud Vero maintained with Albert Meltzer until the day he died in December 2001, to fascist bombings and the long, slow process transitioning to provide a home for many other groups on the libertarian left, Freedom has often felt like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back sort of process.

Our most spectacular example of this has been in recent years, since an attempted firebombing of Freedom bookshop in 2013 which only failed to put us down for the count after a wonderful rallying round of our friends and allies, some of whom we had no idea existed.

Freedom-part-painted.jpg
Freedom Bookshop the Monday after the fire, after the crowds had gone home, with a first coat of paint on part of the walls
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Freedom in October 2016

In a matter of months we were back on our feet, but it did force us to re-examine how we were doing things, and to consider sustainability in the long term.

At the time we were running a loss-making newspaper with an audience in the low hundreds, a bookshop which was perennially under-resourced, a publishing house that had thousands of books in boxes which stretched back 40 years and weren’t bringing in enough money to cover our costs.

And we also had the building to look after, which all involved agreed represented the most important part of Freedom at that time — a large physical space in the heart of London, with good transport links and owned outright by a dormant trust (so it could survive in the event the Collective didn’t).

The movement has nothing else like it, and unlike the publication of paper propaganda, it is near-irreplaceable as a physical asset for anarchists in the capital. Even before the fire we had opened the space to help the Advisory Service for Squatters, Corporate Watch, Haven and LCAP.

It was a huge amount of work and at most there was a dozen of us helping out at any one time — sometimes half that — none as a full-time role.

So over the following three years we changed how the place was running. We brought other building users in to have a direct democratic say in how it was run and to help organise it. We closed the newspaper as a monthly production, lifting a huge financial and labour-intensive burden off our shoulders and allowing us to focus on making everything else work.

Over that period we went from loss-making to breaking even for the first time in a decade. We now have a decent online shop (freedompress.org.uk), news site with near-daily updates about anarchist goings-on around the world (freedomnews.org.uk), we bring out these less frequent free journals for physical handout, and began publishing sustainable, short-run titles again.

But then in January 2016 we had another big shock. A survey from the Friends suggested we would need up to £50,000 to secure the building for the long term (works needed are listed on the right).

We had an immediate crisis. The trustees of the building were in favour of selling, as it seemed unlikely we would be able to raise the cash. The building users voted to stay, as it seemed unlikely we would be able to find somewhere suitable to move to and no-one wanted the value of the building to end up in an account somewhere to eventually drain away.

In the end it was decided to look for the money from the movement, and prioritise immediately essential works in year one. And in this, we have once again been humbled and delighted by our comrades from Britain and the wider world.

Since we formally opened our campaign to raise the first £13,000 of the rebuild cash needed last autumn we have raised £9,242, with more due to come in — all in solidarity from comrades, no loans, no grants. We’re already talking to people who know a bit about the construction trade (though if any project management help is on offer that is welcome!) and are confident that over the next few months we’ll hit our first set of targets.

We’ve still got a long road ahead of us, a lot of money to raise, but this sets us up to eventually achieve what had seemed impossible — spending our 50th year in the Freedom Building at 84b Whitechapel High Street making it fit and ready to stand for another 50.

Anarchist political projects can sometimes be hard work. They can burn us out, make us feel like we’ve wasted our time, even leave us embittered. But the legacy of the hundreds of people who have worked on maintaining Freedom as a voice of the Beautiful Idea, a nail house in the face of banks’ machinery chewing on Tower Hamlets’ working class neighbourhoods, is still there. A seed beneath the snow.
Our thanks to you all.

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