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London Belongs to Us

by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

Ayo Akingbade's Jitterbug offers a glimpse into the daily life of Afeni, a smart teenager and it's her perspective that guides us through the film.

There is something amiss, a sense of foreboding, difficult to shake, but we push it aside happily distracted by Afeni, content and floating through a sun-drenched corner of Hackney, East London, dressed in her school uniform, rucksack full with textbooks and dreams of becoming first in her school to attend Cambridge University. She is at ease even as the streets she's known all her life subtly change.

For Afeni this is home. Making her way to school, a runner collides with her, she is briefly surprised but remains in her reveries, walking past the upmarket coffee shop, which is right next to the greasy spoon, that's been there for decades serving up cooked breakfasts and home-cooked meals for lunch and tea. The familiar markers of Afeni's Hackney remain: ethnic food shops, the barbers, the people – diverse, chaotic, the leafy green estates, bright spacious council homes built for the wellbeing of all.

Jitterbug touches upon the 'regeneration' of a housing estate, seen from the perspective of one family. This is by now a familiar story: the demolition of council estates without consent or input from the people who live there, the sudden relocation of families, miles from communities they rely on, new homes built but priced beyond the reach of the average worker. Afeni's response is the natural one, it's why there is always a story of resistance.

Where people's homes are threatened, communities fight back.

A decade ago, on a grey wet autumn evening I sat with Adrian, the last man on the Heygate Estate, a south London housing estate earmarked for demolition. The bulldozers arrived, his neighbours long since evicted, yet Adrian refused to leave to his home. He showed me a letter threatening court action from Southwark council. They accused him of "encroachment, nuisance, criminal damage and unlawful gardening." He had been seen "watering plants with a water hose", they said. Except what they had seen was the spontaneous community that had grown around Adrian's protest for a home; as the uninhabited estate grew wild, so did patches of soil ripe for growing food and plants. Mini allotments where tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, mustard leaves, cabbages and courgettes flourished. A local carpenter built a table, chairs, a pizza oven just outside Adrian's front door. On mild evenings the space became a place of rich discussion and debate. From displacement and eviction, Adrian had stumbled upon on a new source of home and community.

There are the formal networks of support, the housing lawyers, clinging on even as a decade of austerity and now the pandemic threatens the essential work they do. Late one Friday night in 2014, I received a call from Nathaniel, a legal aid lawyer with Hackney Law Centre. We'd been in touch because I'd been documenting the impact of government cuts to social welfare support and legal aid. "We have got tenants in low paying jobs from abroad, all cleaners, in relatively cheap but completely unregulated accommodation," he said. "It is not uncommon for landlords one way or another to evict these people whether through the courts, or not through the courts, and often giving them no notice at all. You have got people who just don’t know their rights." In Jitterbug, when Afeni's family learn of the estate demolition, her father admits a kind of helplessness that comes with simply not knowing your rights. He says

"We are at the bottom of the totem. Bottom of the food chain."

That night in Hackney, Nathaniel was trying to help more than a dozen Spanish-speaking residents who had been unlawfully evicted from their home in Stamford Hill, a three-storey terrace house sectioned into 22 rooms. Each room was home to a family, couple or single person. The landlord sent high court sheriffs round, who gave them 15 minutes to leave. After a night on the streets, some of the residents found their way to the law centre and Nathaniel's office, where he was able to seek an interim injunction against the eviction. Once strangers, locked away in their too-small rooms, the tenants saw each other for the first time and together began to clean the house, which had been vandalised during the eviction. Former social worker and cleaner Diego said:

"I imagined London to be a city that welcomed you, but it's the opposite. I think London is becoming a city only for rich people."

There have been times when people have found no recourse in the law. Jitterbug echoes the policy landscape of 2015, when the government introduced a national housing policy that would ultimately reduce the rights of council tenants, further restrict the supply of subsidised housing and encourage local authorities to demolish council estates. People took to the streets – unions, housing associations, tenants groups, students marched together across the country.

On a small housing estate in Homerton, already chosen for demolition, a group of feminist activists reclaimed an empty council home. During the summer of 2016, they turned the council flat into a new home, a welcoming community space for women and non-binary people and their children, to rest, eat, learn and play together. They shared their political message, fill every empty home in the borough, housing is a right. Locals agreed and joined them. Together they urged Hackney council to resist the national government’s housing bill and improve and renovate perfectly decent council estates rather than demolish them.

The success or failure of every act of resistance weighs heavy, but there is hope in remembering. The odds are stacked against Afeni, just as they were for Adrian, Nathaniel and the feminists in Homerton. They stand against the might of government and local authorities pursuing housing policies that ignore the needs of the majority and enrich a powerful minority. Against this backdrop, Jitterbug reminds us how easily community, housing, a place to call home, can be snatched away. Afeni's world before the eviction news is almost carefree, light, her anxieties and educational aspirations symbolise structural problems she will face, but right now, these dont crush her. The destruction of her home might. Unexpectedly though, there is a spark of hope.

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is an independent journalist. Her work has been twice shortlisted for The Orwell Prize for political writing and her reporting (as part of a UK-wide investigation on the treatment of migrant women fleeing domestic violence) won a Refugee Council award and a Write to End Violence Against Women award. She co-edits Shine A Light, an award-winning investigative journalism and storytelling project, is writer-in-residence at human rights magazine Lacuna, and is a Stuart Hall foundation fellow.