A little over a month ago, I was arrested for the first time. I had spent four days living with five other people in one of the two towers of Buckingham Pallets, a structure built in Euston Square Gardens to defend the park and trees from being destroyed for a temporary taxi rank. Under the structure, nine people were living in a tunnel.
Until the Battle for Euston, I’d been involved in environmental activism in the (comparatively) safe context of an Extinction Rebellion samba band. As a neurodivergent and transmasculine person, I’d been hesitant to risk arrest at a protest because both queer and disabled people face discrimination from police. But I knew I had to do something to take a stand against HS2 paving over our park.
Since I study culture, I’m horrified by HS2’s destruction of community and cultural spaces as well as natural spaces. We all know that HS2 is causing irreparable damage to our countryside and that it will never be carbon neutral. We know it’s spending over £100 billion that could be used to improve existing public transport, insulate homes, and invest into the environment. The harm HS2 does to our culture is discussed less often.
HS2 silenced 400 years of history when they decided to build over a 17th century farmhouse that had been visited by Queen Elizabeth I. That farmhouse was also a family home that the owners could no longer afford to defend after a long battle. That’s only one of many places where HS2 has knocked down historical houses that were still homes. In the Chilterns, HS2 destroyed part of Grim’s Ditch, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. There’s at least a three places I know of where HS2 has desecrated more recent graves and memorials, St James’s Gardens very close to me in Euston, one in Birmingham, and Wendover Memorial Woodland where HS2 cut down trees planted in memory of sick and disabled children.
We’ve been confronted by so many casualty lists of HS2, though, that it can feel distant until it becomes personal. I’m a member of the XR samba community in London, part of a family of samba-inspired percussion groups that began in the late 90s with Reclaim the Streets and Rhythms of Resistance. Last summer, the Camden XR drummers decided that we wanted to hold outdoor practices in Euston Square Gardens, where we could safely socially distance. Euston Square Gardens was a great place for this, because it was noisy – we wouldn’t be disturbing people or urban wildlife any more than the traffic. It was fantastic while it lasted. Our mental health benefitted from regular exercise in the sun, passers-by stopped to watch, and we supported various London demonstrations throughout the summer. As well as XR demonstrations, we supported anti-racism actions and a march for fair pay for NHS workers. I learned to lead bands there – for a shy trans kid who couldn’t even shout at a protest a year or so before, that was a massive achievement. I conducted interviews there for my Masters dissertation, and what I did in that space contributed to my decision to study London samba activism for my MPhil/PhD, which I’m starting this September.
The battle to save Camden’s community spaces and homes started a long time before activists created the Euston camp in September. It could go on for a lot longer, as HS2 wants to turn Camden into a building site until 2036. Other campaigns to stop HS2 have been active for over 10 years. I only got involved a few months ago, through the campaign to save Euston Square. We drummed at demonstrations held in the square, and I visited the camp with other XR samba folk to work on Buckingham Pallets. It was a supportive community environment and an extended household that I eventually became part of. I was concerned about COVID-19, but took precautions and remained healthy, as did everyone else involved in the occupation. I think that defending community spaces is essential. I don’t think that an unnecessary and unpopular overdevelopment project is.
On the morning when the bailiffs came, I’d stayed the night and was outside chopping wood, with my coat on the woodpile next to me. I never had the chance to grab that coat. I decided to stay in the tower because I needed to make the statement that, as a Camden resident, I couldn’t accept that my park was going to be flattened for a temporary taxi rank. There were dozens more reasons – I couldn’t stop thinking about people who’d lost their houses, woodlands that had been sliced through, and peaceful protesters who’d been abused. I hoped that the people in the tunnel would be left alone as long as we were on the roof. But mainly, it was selfish. I can’t meet my friends in a taxi rank.
I’ve always been somewhat of a loner. Part of that is just how I am, and I’m not interested in “fixing” it. But part of it is because of mistreatment in my childhood, leaving me with the assumption that I’m not welcome anywhere. I’d expected to really struggle with being stuck with five people in limited space, but I never felt that. It wasn’t luxury accommodation, but we looked after each other and the support we received was wonderful. People threw food to us over the fence (which turned into a game of catch with satsumas once), and we tried to throw some on to the people on platforms constructed to protect the trees when bailiffs tried to starve them out. Members of the XR samba community visited us most nights. I hadn’t bought a drum with me, but tried joining in from the roof with a rusty bucket on a couple of nights! It was interesting to hear XR samba from outside the band, and it’s helped me appreciate why folks find it so inspiring. Once I’d left the structure, I came back to drum for the tunnellers.
Bailiffs and police on HS2 sites are notorious for committing violence against peaceful protesters. I witnessed several incidents where I was worried about the safety of my friends, including when one of us was dragged off the structure. Of course, bailiffs don’t socially distance at all, and I never saw one sanitising their hands. When they started dismantling the tower around us, they didn’t care about dropping debris on the 73-year-old lady who was with us, and forced her hand away when she tried to support herself. I thought my specs were going to be broken at one point, but I wasn’t harmed. I’d expected that I might face discrimination due to being trans and visibly gender-nonconforming, and that did happen. The police couldn’t decide what gender I was, and never chose to ask me, resulting in delays and awkwardness. I was glad to get back to my friends, but I was fine and I’m even more committed to defending my community.
The far-right and, unfortunately, a lot of people in our government don’t want to acknowledge that the British culture that gets immortalised in statues and school textbooks is the culture of a tiny group of elites who gained their status through exploiting others, particularly Black and working class people. They think that recognising this is a threat to our whole culture. However, our culture isn’t a static thing that we derive from what the ruling classes did in the past. It’s something that everyone recreates every day in our relationship with our communities, our landscapes, and our varied histories.
Profit-focused development projects that aim to make money first and justify themselves second, like HS2, threaten our culture much more than taking down a few statues. They choose what parts of our culture to destroy based on what’s not making money, which means that free, spontaneous, and community or family culture is sacrificed first. HS2 hates our music, our parks, our children’s books, and the weird things left by people who lived here before we did.
As important as it is to recognise the damage that HS2 and similar projects are doing in the UK, it’s only one small part of the story. Overdevelopment is happening all over the world, particularly to land that’s central to the livelihood and culture of indigenous and marginalised people, and it’s been happening for a long time. Attacks on community and culture demoralise folk and cause division that makes it harder to unite against social and environmental injustice – or even to understand why that justice is needed. I think the next few years will be crucial to whether we can reverse this trend, or Earth will become unable to support the ecosystems and societies that we’ve got today. That’s not an exaggeration.