The first flare shocks the police, who rush up the steps of Hackney Town Hall, through the smoke already filling the air, towards the woman holding a metal canister aloft, still belching bright purple.
As they near her, however, five more women set off their flares. At this, the police’s fear of escalation is palpable, and they back off to a safe distance. Sisters Uncut are protesting again.
“We’re here today,” explains Grace Jones, an activist with the East End branch of the group, “to make Philip Glanville, the Mayor of Hackney, listen to our demands. He’s broken promises that we put together whilst having a meeting with him.”
Around 200 people, mostly women, stand on the chilly Valentine’s Day night clutching bright-red heart-shaped balloons and hand-written letters to the Mayor, which they plan to post through the Town Hall letterbox. During a particularly powerful few minutes, three activists read out a list of names, remembering every person who has died from domestic violence in the last year.
Sisters Uncut are activists taking direct action to oppose cuts to domestic violence services. In Hackney, they’re currently focused on urging the Council to use its empty homes to provide shelter for survivors of domestic violence.
— Sisters Uncut (@SistersUncut) February 14, 2017
East End Sisters – the local branch of the group – have been here before. Last July, they poured onto the Town Hall steps as a preface to their most drastic action to date: the occupation of an empty flat in Homerton. From this position of strength, they were able to secure promises from Philip Glanville, promises which they now say he has broken.
Jones lists them for me. “Fill all empty units in Marian Court by December 2016. That’s been broken.
“Commission research on the introduction of hostels in Hackney to safely house women and non-binary people. That’s been broken.
“Place survivors of domestic violence solely in hostels or self-contained accommodation where he would ensure all staff would be properly trained. He has broken all these promises.”
According to 2015 data from the charity Women’s Aid, more than two-thirds (66.1 per cent) of referrals to refuges in the UK as a whole were declined. Of these rejected referrals, more than a third were due to lack of available bed space.
Statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), show that 1,000 London households were made homeless in 2015 due to a violent relationship breakdown with their partner. This figure has remained fairly constant since 2005, but in the same period the number of London households in hostels, a statistic which includes women’s refuges, dropped by 40 per cent.
At the same time, there has been a significant rise in the number of homeless households in London being housed in B&Bs, exactly the kind of accommodation that Sisters Uncut argue is unsuitable for survivors of domestic abuse.
Hackney has been hit especially hard, with figures obtained by the Hackney Post showing that funding for domestic violence refuges has been cut by 45 per cent since 2010.
For Sisters Uncut, the issue of housing is inseparable from the issue of domestic violence, and their central demand relates to Marian Court, an estate in Homerton and the location of the flat they occupied last year. Many properties on the estate lie empty.
Of course, it is not simply a matter of moving families in. Many of the occupied flats, let alone the empty ones, are reportedly in need of serious renovation.
“The people that Sisters Uncut work for,” continues Jones, “are women and non-binary people fleeing domestic violence. In Marian Court there are vulnerable families, who in the past few years have been moved from hostel to hostel, refuge to refuge, living with men, having to share accommodation with men, living with mice next to cockroaches and we asked Hackney Council to make sure that in Hackney, vulnerable families are not put into these situations.”
Hackney Council is not ignoring these problems. Indeed, it plans to regenerate the entire estate. According to Jones, this will just create more problems.
“Architects are getting the job to demolish Marian court, so all families are living in temporary accommodation. These families have been moved around for the past few years. There’s a family there with a son who’s got a heart condition. They’ve got multiple letters from Great Ormond Street hospital saying that this child must be moved from Marian court.
“When we met Philip Glanville he said that they’d immediately move this family because the child was in danger. That family, to this day, is still living in Marian Court.”
Sisters Uncut oppose the demolition of the estate, but also argue that if it must go ahead, properties slated for demolition should be temporarily filled by survivors of domestic violence. They also insist the estate is far from ideal accommodation for people in such circumstances, and demand the provision of trained staff and purpose-built hostels. The Mayor, for his part, insists that he is taking this problem seriously, and that progress has been made on each of his promises.
The Mayor’s response
“Some of these changes take time,” he wrote in a blog post, “and I’m frustrated that we haven’t been able to make as much progress as I’d have liked. But our commitment remains absolute – we will do everything we can to improve the domestic violence services we provide and make sure that anyone experiencing abuse knows that when they are ready, we are here to support them.”
Glanville, however, has not addressed the direct accusation that he originally promised to fill all empty units in Marian Court by December 2016 and the blog’s confrontational tone is unlikely to foster reconciliation. He accuses Sisters Uncut of lying, and complains about the group’s tactics, attacking their protests, which, he says, “have caused thousands of pounds worth of damage to the Town Hall”.
The Hackney Post have since contacted Mr Glanville for further comment, but the mayor’s office insisted they have nothing more to add.
Samir Jeraj of the Green Party, who ran against Glanville for Mayor of Hackney last year, told me, “It’s deeply disappointing, especially when we consider how many women die from domestic abuse every week. I just don’t understand why he would make a promise that he couldn’t keep, or wouldn’t keep.
“Why weren’t there ongoing conversations? It’s really disappointing that we’ve got to this stage where we’re having to protest on the Town Hall steps.”
One woman climbs those steps to tell the crowd, “When I was nine, my best friend’s mum was murdered by her dad on the estate I grew up on. When someone is going to hurt you that much, the thing that can really protect you is having a safe house.”
Hackney Council won’t reveal how many empty properties it has on its books. Ironically, this is because they’re afraid that it will make it easier for people to squat in them. However, in response to a recent Freedom of Information Request, the Council revealed that it owns 1,047 empty residential properties, 867 of which have been empty for six months or more.
Grace Jones isn’t sure whether their protest will persuade Philip Glanville to take them seriously. Will they have to occupy another flat? “I don’t know, Luke! Maybe!” she says with a laugh, and leaves me to join her friends, who are dancing to Beyoncé in the moonlight and the purple smoke.