The mothers of the Focus E15 campaign are beacons of resistance for all of us fighting austerity. Since being served eviction notices in August 2013, they have organised demonstrations, council sit-ins and a hugely successful occupation of the Carpenters Estate. Joy Macready visited the campaign’s weekly Saturday stall outside Wilkos on the Broadway in Stratford E15 (12-2pm) to speak with Jasmin Stone, one of the mothers in the campaign and a socialist. This interview was originally published in the Screaming Violets magazine.
Joy Macready: How did the Focus E15 campaign begin?
Jasmin Stone: I am one of the mums that lived in the Focus E15 hostel in Stratford, East London. The hostel consisted of 210 flats: 181 for single residents and 29 for young mums. Everyone was under the age of 25 and received supported housing because they had suffered from domestic violence, grew up in social services care, etc – so very vulnerable people. In August 2013 I and 28 other mums were handed eviction notices. We were told to look for privately rented accommodation but private landlords wouldn’t accept us because we were on benefits and were all new mums with little babies. The council then offered us accommodation outside of London in Manchester, Hastings and Birmingham, hundreds of miles away from our support networks. So we got together, started to organise, fought back and demanded that we were all rehoused in council housing in the borough. Although we were placed in privately rented accommodation not council houses, it was still a victory in the sense we were all rehoused in the borough.
JM: How did the campaign escalate and lead to the occupation of the Carpenters Estate in September 2014?
Jasmin: The campaign was never about individual issues; we weren’t doing this for ourselves. Through our street stalls every week we realised that housing is such a big issue, one that affects most people. We connected with as many people as possible, encouraging them to get involved. We decided that on our one-year anniversary we wanted to make a big impact. We had already organised occupations of the council office and housing associations as well as demonstrations to fight off evictions etc. So we decided to occupy four homes on the Carpenters Estate to raise public awareness, get more people involved and encourage them to fight back. The main role of the campaign now is to inspire people to resist because the way a movement is built is through everyone standing up and fighting together. That is how we are going to win this fight to provide everyone with a decent home. A house should be a home, not an investment – this is one of the campaign’s key messages. Everyone should be entitled to a council home because housing is a basic human right. We are living in the fifth richest country in the world and we have homelessness – it is disgusting and wrong. Capitalism and gentrification are socially cleansing the working class. We are not going to stand for it – we need to fight.
JM: What was the council’s response to your demands?
Jasmin: Newham is a 100% Labour borough – and has been since 1965. Robin Wales, the Labour mayor, is a powerful man who thinks he can get away with what he is doing. When we first approached him in September 2013, we were scared women who thought we could rely on our elected representatives; most of us weren’t political at all. When we asked for his help, his response was that if you can’t afford to live in London, then get out. We immediately knew where our enemy was. But we didn’t let up the pressure – we spoke to the local councillors and Wales, demanding that they answer our questions and stop what they are doing because it is clearly social cleansing. Now we are getting locked out of public meetings – they no longer publish where Wales is speaking in public. I am sure it is because of the campaign: we turn up and make sure everyone knows what is happening. What they are doing is completely undemocratic because everyone has the right to speak and challenge those that supposedly represent us. They are trying to take away that right – but we won’t let them.
JM: What were the original demands of the campaign and did they change as it progressed?
Jasmin: Throughout the campaign the main demand continues to be social housing, not social cleansing. And we mean true social housing. They have changed the meaning so that social housing now means housing associations, but we firmly believe that social housing is council housing, i.e. rents at social rates. Obviously, one of the original demands was to rehouse the Focus E15 mothers, which we won. But we also demand the repopulation of the Carpenters Estate, which is just behind Stratford station. There are 450 empty council homes that have been empty for eight years. Our occupation forced the council to open 40 homes there. Well they said they would open 40 homes but under the Freedom of Information Act we found out that they have only opened 28 so far, so we are still putting pressure on to open the rest of the 40 but also open the other 410. We ask why are they empty? They are perfectly good homes.
JM: Did the council give a reason why?
Jasmin: The council said that they were derelict buildings marked for demolition, including the ones that are now being reopened because of the pressure we put on the council. So many people heard about the estate – thousands of people visited the occupation – that the council couldn’t deny that these homes existed. We showed people inside the flats – look how beautiful this home is, newly fitted kitchens and bathrooms. Now people are living in these homes – that man at the stall now lives in one of the homes we occupied. So we are demanding repopulation of the Carpenters Estate – and for the council to build more council homes!
JM: How did the campaign engage with the community?
Jasmin: One of the most important things is to make the Focus E15 campaign fun. People are happy, smiling and we are demonstrating and having a good time; we are a community, united together and really there for each other. We also make every event accessible for children, people with disabilities, etc. This is a movement we can build together and we need to make sure that everyone feels welcomed and that they can get involved. Also, because it began with the mothers in the hostel, it has always been very child-friendly – for example, we held a messy play demonstration and let the kids paint everywhere.
JM: How are decisions made within the campaign?
Jasmin: The campaign has a public meeting once a month and also a strategy group meeting, which has 12 dedicated people who have been involved in the campaign for a long time. At the strategy meetings, we discuss things like emails and share out the workload, such as social media and research. Whatever is discussed in that meeting is then discussed at the public meeting. Our structure is open and democratic, so that people can come into the group at any time.
JM: What would you say have been your biggest victories so far?
Jasmin: The first was the 29 mums being rehoused – that was just amazing because it showed us that it is possible to fight back and win. Another big victory was making the council open 40 homes on the Carpenters Estate that were empty for up to eight years – this directly resulted from our occupation of the four homes on the estate. We have also had many individual victories, such as people coming to the street stall – which is the heart of the campaign – to get involved. We help to resist evictions and stop the bailiffs getting in. Many people who were being sent away are now being rehoused in London, and people that were homeless are now in accommodation. It takes a lot of hard work with individual cases but it is definitely worth it. Just raising awareness is the biggest victory of all because more people are resisting and more campaigns are growing. It makes us so happy to see new campaigns opening up.
JM: What does the campaign plan for the future?
Jasmin: We are going to keep fighting because it isn’t just about housing – it is education, healthcare, everything. We need socialism. We need to completely change the system because there is no party that represents working class people. In the long run we need a democratic system that represents the people – so the fight continues.
JM: The campaign sits in the shadow of Canary Wharf where all the banks are paying out billions in fines for market manipulation, etc – yet where is this money going? It should be going into housing, education, healthcare, etc.
Jasmin: Exactly. We are living in a racist, imperialist, capitalist country that oppresses other countries. The way the UK loans money to other countries is similar to the way that a payday loan shop extends a loan to a working class person. So if you go to a payday loan shop to get an extension for a month, it becomes impossible to pay the money back because you can barely cover your monthly expenses. If on the other hand, a rich person buying a car can easily get a loan and know they will have enough money to pay off the loan the next month, so that the interest doesn’t build up. This is what happens at an international level too. The UK loans other countries money and then takes their oil, resources and people’s labour to get the money back – with interest. It is wrong. Britain and the US are the biggest murderers in the world. Because we live in these countries, we need to fight back against the source of the world’s oppression.
JM: Is the Focus E15 campaign linking up with other campaigns around the country?
Jasmin: Yes we do our best to go along to other campaign meetings, events and demonstrations because it is so important to have everyone united as one.
JM: When you woke up on 8 May and heard the election results, what was your reaction?
Jasmin: It didn’t bother me in the slightest because for me there is no difference – the Tories or Labour. They are both racist, capitalist parties and support austerity. I didn’t – and wouldn’t – vote. I think we need to completely change the whole system. For example, why do elected representatives get paid £80 thousand a year? I just came back from Cuba where elected people get paid the amount that they were paid in their previous job. In addition, the people have the right to recall their representatives if they don’t carry out what the people want. In this country they can promise whatever gets them elected and then do whatever they like during their term in office. We need to have the right to recall; we need to make sure that they aren’t getting paid stupid amounts of money. People should be fighting for humanity, not for money. These parties campaign for privatisation and oppress working class people and other countries.
JM: Has the campaign received support from the left?
Jasmin: Yes many socialist groups have come down and supported the campaign. And all support is welcome. For example, when us mums were in the hostel, we started our own petition and went out onto the streets with copies of it with us. We met some people from the Revolutionary Communist Group (Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!) who were giving out leaflets against the bedroom tax and they invited us to join their street stall. Every week we have been on the streets, giving out leaflets and this is our communal spot now.
JM: Have the trade unions got involved and lent support?
Jasmin: Many trade unions seem to only offer conditional financial support, but we have never been about funding. We have a donation page where we get donations for leaflets and sound systems etc, so we don’t need financial support. The main support we need is trade unionists on the streets and taking direct action.
JM: What are your top tips for campaign building?
Jasmin: To have no shame [laughs]. Make sure to keep it fun and say how you feel. The main thing is to talk to as many people as possible. Sit on the bus and talk to the person next to you, talk to your neighbours. The problem is that people aren’t speaking to each other. We need to build a united community and the only way we are going to do that is by speaking to our neighbours. In the hostel us mums never spoke to each other because when we moved in we were told that everyone here has been put here for a reason – so keep yourself to yourself. We felt intimidated by each other but as soon as we started speaking to each other we realised how much in common we have. We need to open our eyes and speak to the people around us, communicate and share information.
Find out more about the Focus E15 campaign here: http://focuse15.org/ or visit their streets every week on Stratford Broadway outside Wilkos from 12-2. Come along, get involved and fight back!