FELICITY COLLIER tells the story of Bristol Sisters Uncut and their fight against gentrification
FEMINIST activist group Bristol Sisters Uncut formed a year ago in order to campaign against cuts to domestic violence services in the city.
The group occupied a disused library building on the Cheltenham Road in Bristol for 10 days last month. As services are cut, Bristol Sisters saw an opportunity to create a safe public space in the Montpelier area.
The library had been shut down since February and was set to be sold off and become “luxury flats,” which the activists objected to as it would see a community space become a profit-making venture, only benefitting greedy developers and the privileged few who can afford to buy the flats.
If they could occupy the space and block the sale of the site, they would be able to create a much needed community space that is inclusive for women, non-binary and trans people.
The group settled in and workshops and events were quickly organised, including everything from women’s self-defence and power tool courses to clown workshops and music practice.
The building was decorated with signs like: “How can she leave if she has nowhere to go?”
Some of the women involved in the occupation were homeless, underlining the point that women have nowhere safe to go.
The idea, the activists said, was to mobilise people to take action against this sort of gentrification that sees the erosion of public spaces, social services and precious community buildings.
The group said: “There are currently only 63 beds in refuges in Bristol and survivors often get stuck there for months at a time while waiting for a new home.
“There is a desperate need for more housing and supportive spaces for survivors and yet the council continues to sell off public buildings to private developers with only profits in mind.”
Much to the injustice of the women who created the space and the women who need it, the group were called to court in recent weeks and within a day bailiffs moved in.
Women took to the roof with fire extinguishers and flares and banged pots and pans. One local newspaper reported that women were “forcibly” removed from the roof.
Within four hours, the developers had ordered the demolition crew in and the building was lost.
But Bristol Sisters plan to fight on and create more vital spaces for women that don’t currently exist.
Polly, who experienced the space and attended some of the Sisters’ workshops, told the Star: “I thought that the message that they were sending by repurposing the space for community use was really important.”
Curious to meet the people involved, she attended a clown workshop, describing it as “one of the most liberating and amusing things I’ve done.”
“I think that was largely due to the unique space and the Sisters being so welcoming.”
She also attended a DIY punk band workshop. She said: “It was wonderful to try new things and meet like-minded people in a safe space, which I felt took on an almost sacred feel due to the magic of the work that was being done there.
“I felt so connected to the community, in a way that I hadn’t previously experienced. I really felt free to try things that I wouldn’t perhaps have considered I was capable of, or entitled to.”
Polly found out about the occupation through Facebook. She is co-founder of Female Empowerment Network Bristol (FEN) and uses social media to keep up to date with local women’s activist groups.
She co-founded FEN with Carly, who single-handedly organised the Bristol Women’s March in January in a matter of 48 hours. The group was formed to connect and empower local women and girls.
“We are putting on discussions, socials and other events, and forming a bunch of ‘feminist superheroes’ to share skills and experience with the community,” she explained.
“Meeting so many like-minded and enthusiastic people through the women’s march and FEN has given me the affirmation and confidence to be involved with activism in a way that I previously felt I perhaps didn’t belong to,” she said.
“When I saw that Sisters Uncut was holding a clowning workshop at the library, I thought, why not? I wanted to show solidarity and was also curious to meet the people involved and see if there was anything FEN could do to help.”
She added: “The library was open to all women, trans and non-binary people, which felt right, considering their message about the lack of accommodation and support for women fleeing domestic abuse.
“I also feel that the way in which they used what had previously been a community space, to empower, educate and liberate women, trans and non-binary in the community was both inspired and inspiring.
“Austerity has meant that we are sadly losing so many public services and spaces. I’m becoming increasingly more aware and concerned that many people, particularly the vulnerable, don’t have anywhere to go.”
Polly was upset to read about the eviction of Sisters Uncut.
“I knew it probably couldn’t last for long when up against a corporate property development company. But it did feel as though it was cut short.
“I would have liked for them to have had more time to continue with their planned forthcoming events, and for more people in the community to experience what they were creating.
“I’m also concerned about those for whom the library was their only residence — people have now been made homeless and the way in which they were evicted seemed rather brutal.”
But the attention that the Sisters drew to the housing crisis and the struggles of women trying to leave domestic abuse has had an affect.
“In that respect, they have certainly been successful in delivering a strong message, and shown the positive impact of direct action.
“I know that they will continue their work elsewhere, and I shall be there to support them.”