Freedom from the flames
Sunday 10 February 2013
Angel Alley, a dark, smelly offshoot from London’s Whitechapel High Street overhung by a gaudy KFC sign, is the sort of place people pass by without noticing during the day and avoid at night.
The little cut-through to a small industrial area in the heart of Tower Hamlets is a favourite haunt of tour guides looking for a spot where they can chill their audience – a place where Jack The Ripper once stalked and anarchists still plot the destruction of capitalist society in their tottering, blackened fortress of Freedom Press.
Freedom itself is a clapped-out four-storey pile preserved, in the main, as a corner of east London eccentricity that most locals are only vaguely aware of but which is central to organised anarchism in the city.
The bookshop on the ground floor keeps bills paid while the rest of the building is opened as offices to groups such as the Advisory Service For Squatters, Corporate Watch and the Solidarity Federation or for talks, meetings and exhibitions on a huge variety of topics. Intentionally independent of other tendencies in the anarchist milieu, it provides a near-unique resource for libertarian socialist thinkers and activists.
On Friday February 1, someone tried to burn Freedom down.
Lifting up a shutter, they broke a window and poured a flammable liquid through before setting it on fire.
Although there were no injuries, more than 200 books were totally destroyed and hundreds more may have to be thrown out if their charred covers and ash-stained sides can’t find buyers.
Electrics were melted, the ceiling wrecked, the windows all but destroyed, shelving went up in smoke and firefighters arrived only minutes before the offices above would have caught fire, all but guaranteeing the destruction of the rest of the building. The Press archive, kept so historians could have an easily accessible resource, was singed and soaked and barely survived.
Freedom, which had run out of insurance only a week before, has been left with a bill that could potentially run into the tens of thousands of pounds.
Theories abound as to who did it, with many blaming the far-right – the Press was attacked twice in the 1990s by grumpy skinheads – but with police taking away CCTV recordings and saying little since then supporters can do little more than speculate.
The real story isn’t the fire or the culprits, however, it’s the response.
The news broke on social networks at around midday. Within hours hundreds of people had pushed the news on and the phones of Freedom collective members began to ring off the hook.
A callout for help was quickly prepared which also went viral and mainstream press sources began to pick up on the story, ensuring it would go well beyond anarchist circles.
The next day, Angel Alley filled with more people than it had ever seen before from across the left of the political spectrum. So many we could barely fit, hauling the books out, cleaning them, cleaning shelves, washing walls, sorting what could be saved, painting and getting in each others’ way.
Then, each day afterwards, more people came to keep the work going. Collective members who knew what needed doing gave volunteers a steer and left everyone to organise themselves.
On Monday the bookshop reopened in a limited sort of way. By the following Friday it was repainted and the books had all been cleaned and sorted. And now a collection of skilled volunteers are going over what needs to be done to make the bookshop better than it was before.
Online, hundreds of solidarity messages came through from all over the world, alongside promises of donations, fundraising events and other gestures of support, including a book of poetry which has had over 350 submissions at the time of writing and two separate music albums from Scribbo and Iron Column Records.
As a result of this astounding spirit of mutual aid the Press has now got the fighting chance that bewildered collective members had feared would be denied them as they stared at the burnt ruins of decades of hard work.
While the bookshop is not out of the woods yet and will need more donations to get back to business as usual, what has happened so far is a triumph.
To donate, you can send a cheque made out to “Freedom Press” to 84b Whitchapel High Street, London E1 7QX, or you can go online to freedompress.org.uk and buy books, followed by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to let them know it’s a donation.