Wembley's tent city

How a battle to save a football ground and stop an academy school prompted teachers and other citize

What happens when an “International Children’s Charity” funded by multi-billion pound hedge fund speculators, wants to a build new academy school in some of London’s poorest boroughs?

Well maybe you get a situation like that in London's North Brent, where teachers, parents, trade unionists and local residents have come together to occupy the Wembley Park Sports Ground – the proposed site of the contentious Wembley Academy.

In March 2007, the anti-academy protestors moved onto the Sports Ground and pitched their tents just before Easter Break, in a secret “midnight swoop” that followed months of quiet preparation.

Their occupation opposes the construction of the privately-run Academy on the neighbourhood’s football pitch – also the site of a community hall, several local businesses and a children’s nursery.

Over the years the sports ground has hosted everything from secondary school football tournaments through weddings and funeral receptions, to celebrations of Malawi’s Independence Day.

Local kids from the estates are frequent visitors to the pitch, taking advantage of its low-cost fees – £1 a session. “It’s affordable football in the shadow of Wembley Stadium,” explains Mark Brown, a local resident who went to school in Brent.

The Wembley occupation represents one of the longest and most bitter protests against the accelerating privatization of the UK education system. Between eight and twelve people live on the site full-time, with dozens of supporters and part-time residents. Thousands of people have passed through. At its best, the “Tent City” has had thirty tents, three tree-houses and a garden.

The Tent City protestors object to the construction of a private academy on several levels. Academies are publicly-funded private schools – the vast majority of the funding comes from local taxpayers, while the corporate sponsor has full control over the school’s management and “vision”. And they’re very expensive – their construction costs around £10 million more than that of state schools.

Residents fear that local state schools will suffer in the shadow of the expensive new academy. Two local schools – Wembley Primary and Preston Park Primary have already received unusually low enrolments for September 2008. Because schools are given funding based on their numbers of students, these low enrolments could spell financial crisis for the area’s state schools as the council heavily promotes the new private academy.

The story of the Wembley Academy began when Lord Levy approached the then Labour controlled Brent Council and persuaded them to accept an academy in the borough. But when the sports ground was selected as the site – a spill-over from the growing “Wembley regeneration” – local residents responded with immediate opposition.

As a result, in the last election, the Lib Dems and the Tories signed an agreement not to allow an academy to be built on the sports ground. When the Lib Dems went back on their election promises, dedication to local grassroots opposition began to replace faith in the council. After months of attending community forums, circulating petitions, writing letters and calling local councillors, it became clear to Wembley teachers and parents that their concerns were being ignored.

Tent City, UK

The occupation began as an expression of frustration. “We had no other tactics left,” explains Hank Roberts, a full-time representative for the National Union of Teachers, “we’d gone to every forum, and we couldn’t get them to take a vote on the Academy. For us, direct action was a tactic borne of the failure of democratic process.”

Roberts was a teacher and the head of Geography at Wembley’s Copland Community School for 20 years. He has been at the Tent City since day one.

“It’s a unique situation where the teachers themselves have taken direct action,” explains Brown “It hasn’t been the typical Rent-a-Mob activist crew. It’s completely grassroots.”

Within a week of the Sports Ground’s occupation by local Wembley teachers and residents, the Academy’s initial sponsor – Andrew Rosenfeld – backed out. Soon after, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) recommended the ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) children’s charity as the new sponsor, calling them “an ideal partner for the council.” ARK is currently the sponsor of five other academies under development in London – in the boroughs of Southwark, Westminster, Lambeth, and Hammersmith and Fulham.

The protestors took down their tents in September 2007, after it appeared that Brent Council had granted its current tenants a year’s extension on their lease – hence postponing the Academy’s construction. The Tent City returned the last week of June 2008, when the council notified local businesses that they must shut down operations and vacate the area by the 31st of July. “We decided to move back on so they can’t start work,” said Jean Roberts, a part-time teacher from Hammersmith who has been living at the site.

After the protestors moved back on site, the sports ground was visited by surveyors and workers instructed to build an entrance gate. Using what they call “non-violent physical resistance,” the protestors pushed them off the land.

“Non-violent direct action is what’s appropriate here,” says Hank Roberts. “But if we had a 10,000-strong mob of people here, saying that they would defend the land by any means necessary, that’d be a different story.”

The Wembley Park Action Group formed in June 2007, as an umbrella group to coordinate the protests. They have over a thousand names on their petition against the Academy. Support has flooded in from community groups, sports ground users, trade unions, and hundreds of individual parents and local residents. A neighbourhood Wembley football club has renamed itself the “Tent City FC”. And when Wembley Primary was approached by ARK with requests to use the school’s classrooms, the teachers refused and threatened to ballot for strike action.

Meanwhile, as the anti-privatisation movement in Wembley is gaining in strength, the Council has proceeded to criminalise the protest. On June 15, 2008 the Borough of Brent won a Possession Order against the Tent City. The Willesden County Court also ordered an injunction against Hank Roberts on the grounds of trespass, requiring him to ask the Council for permission to visit the Sports Ground in the future. Bailiffs arrived at the Tent City last night at 6:00pm, to be confronted by over one-hundred protestors who refused to vacate the site. Teachers scaled the community hall and pitched a tent on its roof. Unable to evict the demonstrators, the bailiffs left.

“It was a great victory. So far, so good,” says Roberts. “And I have no intention of complying with the injunction. If I wind up in prison, it will be good publicity for the anti-privatisation movement.”

The militancy and determination of the Wembley protestors mirrors a maturing frustration with local politics, and growing discontent with the creeping privatisation of Britain’s public services.

And in Brent, at least, the battle continues.

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.