Final Note from the McKenzie Friend: Reflections on Community and Protest

I write this final note after a day of helping to put Friern Barnet Library in order to begin a new, exciting, dynamic and innovative chapter in its life. Tomorrow the Friern Barnet Community Library group (FBCL) will sign a licence with Barnet Council to run a community library and community centre from the premises. To track my note-taking throughout this saga of court hearings, see my first set of notes, my second set of notes and the witness statements in their entirety.

Friern Barnet Library, rightly, has obtained a reputation of being the library that refused to die – even as other similar libraries face closures across the country, and are fast becoming the symbol of the coalition government’s drastic and indiscriminate cuts to public services. The truth is that a library encapsulates much that is valuable and beautiful about humanity, and collective action. It encapsulates the significance that access to books, education and learning can have in narrowing an ever widening gap between the rich and poor in society. It also encapsulates a commitment to social justice and to community values – the first libraries were not state-provided but evolved out of mutuals and co-operatives; they stemmed from a community-based recognition that more could be achieved for those who struggled, who were on low incomes – collectively than individually.

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The library had been closed in April 2012, after a wave of protests by the Save Friern Barnet Library campaign (which had been running for over 2 years). The campaign group organised a number of innovative protests, staging a sit-in – their own ‘occupation’ – on the day of the closure of the library building. Between 5 April 2012 and September 2012 the building was left empty, and a promise of a new replacement ‘Landmark Library’ dangled in front of campaigners. That Landmark Library never appeared. On 5 September 2012 the Occupy movement reopened the library – prompting a chain of court hearings that culminated in a trial on the 18th/19th December 2012.

Many in the campaign know me as a ‘legal adviser’ – a McKenzie friend (I am not yet a qualified lawyer). This is my first significant court case – one that I feel so privileged to see through from 5th September up until now, where we have secured a concrete outcome for the community (a continuing library). From writing the defence, to drafting witness statements, to doing legal research on the Localism Act, chairing open meetings in the occupied library, to co-ordinating and working with the nine trustees of the new Friern Barnet Community Library, it’s been something of a rollercoaster ride lurching from one stop-point to another, sometimes without an end in sight. Much of this has involved just doing one’s best and trusting that eventually, insurmountable issues would resolve themselves. And by and large – they did. The final stage in my role as this McKenzie friend has included negotiating with the Council as advisor to the trustees in relation to the licence – again a strategic advisory role that had legal elements to it, but was not about legal expertise so much as finding a sensible solution for all parties.

I had not expected the court proceedings to last this long. I don’t think others did either – but that they lasted as long as they did is a testament to the perseverance of the campaigners. Friern Barnet Library to me is not just a local issue. It is symbolic of an awakening sense of community which has long been left dormant in Britain; a shift to a new culture and a new way of thinking about how human beings relate to each other. We have only to look at what made this campaign successful when so many others fell by the roadside to understand what is meant by this. The strength of this campaign comes from the fact that it has been deeply-rooted in the diverse communities that characterise Friern Barnet and its surroundings. Activists met in the library in order to save the library. They ran the library on a voluntary-basis – and their running the occupied library was in and of itself their protest against the council’s  closure itself.

When Occupy entered, they did so explicitly with the purpose of supporting the community in their protest. The community responded positively – so positively that the judge in the County Court had this to say during the Council’s protracted struggle to obtain a possession order against the occupiers;

  1. it is abundantly clear that the protest is still active and I am satisfied that the occupiers could make good use of the occupation in the future to promote their cause. I thus make a finding that the termination of the illegal occupancy will interfere with the defendant’s right of freedom of expression and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. ‘

and, where comparisons were drawn between a similar line of argument relied upon in the Occupy/St. Paul’s case,  (City of London Corporation v Samede) she said;

  1. In contrast to the St Paul’s protest there is no question of these defendants causing any breach of the peace or by putting local waste disposal systems under strain. To the contrary, the defendants have by all accounts been a welcome addition to the local community and there have been no complaints about their occupancy except possibly a report when the alarm went off after the protestors went into the building.
  2. The St Pauls protestors caused commercial damage to adjacent shops and businesses, restriction in their trade, no such complaint has been raised here. To the contrary, the positive activities at the library, including a wide-range of events have been well received by local residents. The local authority submit that the prejudice they will suffer by continued occupation relates not to these matters but to the future of this building and in particular the possible disposal of the building to a community group under the Localism Act’

The Court of Appeal declined to hear the case on appeal. So ultimately, Council might well have won in law but they had to jump through burning hoops in order to get a possession order which ordinarily should have been available summarily. To their credit, they ultimately opted not to enforce the possession order, instead granting a licence in exchange for a seamless transition over to the trustees of Friern Barnet Community Library.

The legal proceedings – including the fantastic pro bono work by Leigh Day and by Sarah Sackman who agreed to take up the case when I approached them months ago – have been instrumental, but not the only reason for the success of the campaign. Whilst the law is a fantastic way in which levers of social change and action can be achieved, it remains a tool and a platform. In this case, it gave voice and a platform to those who had been left voiceless by a Council that refused to listen. The  message was that the protest itself was the campaigners – and the campaigners’ alone. Our argument was that it was the community that was protesting – and the Council, a public body under the Human Rights Act 1998, had to be mindful of any infringement of those rights – that the burden shifted to the local authority to justify its infringement of those rights.

The energy that has surrounded the library in the last few weeks has been palpable – almost electric. Tomorrow’s licence-signing, farewell to the occupiers, and celebration will be the conclusion of what has been a story of conflict between Council and community.

I hope that it marks the beginning of a promising relationship between community and citizen.

It is with some sadness but also with some anticipation that I sign off this final note as FBL’s McKenzie friend,

(but most certainly not signing off as a friend)

Reema.