Amongst the catalogue of errors that right-wing economist Milton Friedman made in his life was the use of the term “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Yesterday he was proved wrong. Upper Street in South Islington is a strange place. Every other shop is a swanky restaurant, and those in between sell designer brands, the sort of thing that not only people can’t afford but that there’s no real reason for them to want. And plonked right in the middle there’s a squat. Walkabout, a nasty chain bar closed down three months ago, and the building has been squatted for two months. With their eviction imminent, the squatters and some friends decided to open it up for a day as a café, serving free food, tea, coffee, and lemonade to anyone passing by, with all of the food coming from skips and bins on supermarkets.
Opening up at midday (or just a little after that) we were concerned no-one would come in. Two massive pots of soup had been cooked, we had a giant basket of bread, and a big bowl of salad, all alongside all sorts of cakes and pastries Sainsbury’s had kindly decided to throw away, but as soon as the doors were opened, and a “squatabout free café” sign had been put outside, people began to pour in. All sorts of people ranging from young hippies, to old men in suits, to people who just wanted to sit down and have a coffee while reading the paper. What was really interesting, though, was that so many people were resistant to the idea of everything being free. Many people didn’t even want to come in because they were distrustful of the idea of free food. One man, ater having a coffee and a piece of cake, gave us a pound and said “this is symbolic.” I thought to myself that it was symbolic of everything we disagree with: of having to pay for food, to pay for a community experience. Nonetheless, the money (people randomly donated about £20 throughout the day) will be used for essentials for the squatters such as toile paper, which you can’t get out of skips.
We sat outside on a couch we’d put out in the street and watched the people go past, encouraged them to go in. One woman who must have been in her 80s said to us “I should have come here, I just spent £3 on a coffee!” People were intrigued, joined us, chatted to us, enjoyed the soup. At one point a whole group of school kids came in, they were happy with the possibility of free food, but left pretty promptly when they were told that it had come from bins. Other people stayed for hours, strummed on guitars, sang, read books and newspapers. I did rather a lot of knitting.
And what was interesting is that given the large amount of negative publicity that this squat had in the local press a couple of weeks back, we received very little hostility. People thought it was a great use of the space, people were glad that what was once a really nasty bar, and what would have been an empty building was used in this way. The police didn’t even bother to visit, which was uncharacteristically kind of them. The politics of the entire project, without being explicitly political, was extremely radical. The ideas, in this most commercialised high street, that things didn’t have to cost money, that food didn’t have to go to waste, and that our bonds with other humans did not have to supervene on each of our relationships with the market and capital were new and exciting. The free café was free beyond the price of the food.