On Monday, 29th October 2018, the occupiers of Tidemill Garden were evicted by heavy-handed bailiffs and security guards ordered by Lewisham Council. At 6am, a total of 120 bailiffs and security guards with balaclavas, as well as 3 local police officers to ‘prevent a breach of the peace’, arrived and without any warning or attempts at dialogue the handful of occupiers in the garden were forcefully evicted. Save Reginald Save Tidemill activist Damien Hughes, one of the 4 occupiers left in the garden at that time, narrates:
“It all happened so quickly. They came like a swat team, and in huge numbers. It was shocking to see so many uniformed security personnel in a wildlife park in London at that hour of the morning and acting with such aggression. There were about 50 pretty evenly spaced security guards lined up around the outer circle of the garden in yellow vests, plus some bailiffs in blue vests dotted here and there. Others were moving and standing in different formations in the back car park and the basketball court. The perimeter path outside of the garden also had a line of security men and women. Lights were flashing everywhere throughout the garden and the whole site, plus a bugle was sounding constantly by one of us, intermingled with the sounds of people shouting for help clearly being roughed up by the security/police. The sheer ferocity of the invading forces was quite violent and brutal, which managed to clear the garden quite quickly. So those 50 security guards in the Garden alone at 6.10am were for us four folks.”
Shortly after, one young woman who managed to climb the garden gates was dragged down by 6 men, putting her at risk of serious injury. Another young woman managed to climb to the top of a large tree and remained there for at least 7 hours despite attempts to get her down too. As the day unfolded, more police arrived, surrounding the garden with a solid line of police officers, security guards and bailiffs to keep protesters out, allowing the bailiffs in the garden to aggressively destroy all the lovingly-built structures such as sheds, tree houses, a memory board and other things without disturbance. A few youngsters who were brave enough to try and get into the garden to stop its destruction were pushed to the floor. The nail in the coffin came when a 7’ bailiff pushed Diann Gerson, a grandmother with a fractured shoulder and an arm in a visible sling, to the floor. Diann is a resident of Reginald House and wanted to go home when she was pushed to the ground. Bruised and in pain, she ended up in A&E to check whether her already fractured shoulder had been damaged more in the assault. She has since been advised to report the assault to the police. The police where there! They did nothing! Although many police officers seemed uneasy about their role in this whole fiasco (many didn’t actually seem to know what it was all about, and when protesters told them the whole story, many officers seemed sympathetic to the protesters’ cause and intentions), the police’s failure to interfere with these assaults, justified by ‘I’m just doing what we’ve been told to do’, is not going to help in restoring faith in the idea that the police is there to protect citizens in need.
As usually happens after such events that inconvenience the authorities, the narrative that is cooked up afterwards is that of vilifying protesters and campaigners, portraying them as the aggressors and those breaching the peace. Media reports are usually guilty of this too, but all the media reports that have covered the eviction (whether in support of the campaign or not), that I have seen, have expressed shock and surprise at such a heavy and aggressive presence of bailiffs, security and police to deal with people who are simply trying to save a much-loved community wildlife garden. Despite the many available videos and images online that evidence the reports, members of the local authority are denying the heavy-handedness of the bailiffs and attempt to shift the focus on a handful of people whose appearance helps to reinforce common stereotypes they already have. Comments such as “shouty masked people who live we know not where, who act with violence, block roads and jump on people’s cars after getting lagered up in the pub” (Paul Maslin on Twitter) are typical when speaking of protesters and activists, but the irony is that this description is actually much more fitting of the bailiffs on that day, who were masked (and in much larger numbers than masked protesters), shouted at anybody coming near them, do not live locally, acted with violence, blocked entry to a community garden and might have also had a beer in a pub at the end of the day. The comment on drinking is very telling though; the fact that a couple of people had a can of Lager in their hand is an easy excuse. I suppose somebody in smart-casual wear drinking a £6-pint in a bar in the middle of the day is okay, but a protester trying to keep themselves warm with a drink when spending a whole day in the cold to fight for social justice is despicable! I also found other comments from local residents on social media very surprising, such as “jackals from fringe parties and outside the area who have sniffed a chance to get some publicity”. To clarify things: the woman attempting to climb the fence lives locally and has been a vital part of the campaign for a long time. The woman in the tree and the other three masked protesters also live locally and have been vital for the success of the campaign. The idea that they were out for some publicity for themselves is just ridiculous considering that they are masked, thus hiding their identity. In fact, they have been supporting the campaign without the need to congratulate themselves publicly. And anyway, does it matter whether they are local? Surely what matters is a common belief in a fairer society and more sustainable future. As another person on social media commented: I don’t need to live in the Brazilian rain forest to fight against its destruction!
Did some campaigners shout out their emotions? Of course they did! Who wouldn’t when faced with angry and shouty security guards and cruel injustice! But this focus on a handful of masked people and describing them as violent because they attempted to climb trees and fences, as opposed to focusing on a whole army of bailiffs, security and police, many of whom were masked and violent, is laughable. Whilst some campaigners acknowledge the presence of police officers who were sympathetic and understanding, the opposition to the campaign totally denies the presence of over 100 unmasked protesters who congregated with the 5 masked protesters to campaign peacefully to save a wildlife garden. There are no reports of the amazing community spirit so typical of Deptford on that day, with people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds coming together to save this beautiful space, of the people dancing, singing, playing music, cheering and providing support for each other. There is no mention of the two elderly ladies standing there for 8 hours crying their eyes out having to watch their much-loved green space being closed down in front of their eyes; there is no mention of residents of the townhouses opposite the garden allowing campaigners to use their front porches and toilets; there is no mention of the fiddle-player and the drummer who kept the girl in the tree motivated to stay in the tree for so long; there is no mention of locals who were detained from joining the protest due to work-commitments but who popped by to bring food and drink; there is no mention of Captain Rizz’s moving speech to police officers about what the garden means to him; there is no mention of former strangers joining up to fight for common beliefs; there is no mention of the hugs and support people have provided for each other; there is no mention of the fact that this day was only the culmination of a 4-year peaceful and considered campaign NOT against the building of social housing but merely FOR sparing a small community garden and existing council block in the process of building social homes. Joe Dromey says the eviction needn’t have happened if occupiers had left the garden when instructed to do so. However, the occupation needn’t have happened had the local council listened to and worked with the campaigners. To repeat: campaigners have never opposed the building of social homes or the development of the site, hence the engagement with a local architect who drew up alternative plans that spare the garden and Reginald House. They have only ever opposed the destruction of these valuable community assets that mean so much to them. If this had been taken into consideration in the planning application, neither the occupation nor the eviction would have needed to happen. But if councillors think green spaces only have value if they look like Kew Gardens or the hanging gardens of Babylon (as expressed by Paul Bell on BBC News), how can one even begin a dialogue about the value of community.
What I witnessed on the day of the eviction is what I have witnessed throughout the campaign and among campaigners: love, compassion, creativity, hope, friendship and a belief in a fairer society; community spirit like I have never witnessed anywhere else. At the beginning of this year, I created a Memory board (see image below) whose contents were thankfully saved the night before the eviction (the structure it was attached to was unnecessarily destroyed by bailiffs during the eviction). It showed images taken of the garden since the 1990s and invited comments by garden users, who have noted down some memorable stories and their feelings for the garden. I am including these here to pay tribute to what Tidemill Wildlife Garden means to people.