It is an unlikely local institution, but a corner house in Easton has over the course of two decades become a cornerstone of a thriving activist scene that Bristol becomes more synonymous with every passing year.
The men and women of Kebele have much to be proud of. Next month it’s exactly 20 years since a group of activists started squatting a building on Robertson Road owned by Lloyds Bank. They soon saw the potential of the place – that it could be a local version of the sort of activist ‘social centre’ then popular in Europe. Naming themselves after an Amharic (an Ethiopian language) word for ‘community meeting place’, the group worked quickly to establish exactly that, with a cafe, library, bike workshop and regular discussion evenings – all elements of the project that are still going strong today.
So when Lloyds eventually gave them notice to quit the following year they were in a strong position to argue their case. “I think the bank were very wary of our high profile,” says Barry Cades who joined the collective when he moved to the city in 1998. “It wouldn’t have looked very good for them to turf out a community project that had already gained some momentum and strength.” Eventually in 1997 the bank sold the building to the group for the now-astonishing price of £19,000.
From the start anarchist ideas were central to Kebele. As Cades explains, this means a set up that runs along scrupulously democratic lines, without leaders. “We organise together, as equals. We make decisions on the basis of ‘consensus’ decision making because we think it more adequately provides solutions and allows us to arrive at decisions where everyone is happy.”
Meanwhile the actual day to day running of the organisation is done through a number of concentric collectives – the community co-op takes care of the day to day running of the building, with others looking after different aspects of the project – the cafe, the library, events etc. Whilst there is a core group of 30 or so, new volunteers are welcomed. “If anyone comes to Kebele and is seeking a route into get involved they can pick an area that they’d like to get involved with,” says Cades.
There have been a number of misconceptions about Kebele over the years – primarily that it’s insular and unwelcoming to outsiders. Barry feels that those criticisms are no longer warranted. “I think in the early days we didn’t always get it right. If we’re honest when we started we were regarded with a degree of suspicion. But over the years we have put a lot of work into making it a space that’s accessible to all.”
“Now when I go to Kebele I always see a different set of people there where as in the earlier days there were the same old faces. Some people may still have misconceptions based on 20 years ago but I think these days we have a great deal of respect in Bristol.”
And rightly so. Many social centres enjoy mayfly-like existences, so to keep a project like Kebele going for two decades is an immense achievement. “We’re in a very lucky position,” admits Cades. “Many social centres have to rent and from what you hear it’s quite a struggle to maintain these spaces.”
“I’d like to think we’ll still be here in 20 years’ time. Places like Kebele become even more important, not least as a base and a resource for organising ourselves and keep up the fight for a better world. Hopefully we’ll involved in that for a long while yet.”
For more information on Kebele, visit www.network23.org/kebele.