Fire Attack at The Freedom Press
“a copy of William Blake burnt by fascists”
Last Friday at 5:30am, CCTV at the Whitechapel Gallery recorded two men break the metal shutter next door at The Freedom Press in Angel Alley and pour a flammable liquid inside, before setting it alight and leaving in a waiting car. Although the attack was premeditated, it came out of the blue and at present there is no confirmation of who was responsible. Yet the target is one with a powerful resonance as Britain’s oldest radical bookshop and the historic focus for free thought in the East End.
The Freedom Press was founded in 1886 by Peter Kropotkin, the Russian revolutionary, and Charlotte Wilson, the well-to-do British anarchist who resigned from the Fabian Society when she and William Morris were dissatisfied with the direction it was taking.
Freedom, the anarchist newspaper first published by Kropotkin and Wilson, is still produced from Whitechapel with every issue containing this policy statement, “Anarchists work towards a society of mutual aid and voluntary co-operation. We reject all government and economic repression. This newspaper, published continuously since 1936, exists to explain anarchism more widely and show that only in an anarchist society can human freedom thrive.” Hardly the provocation to such violence as was enacted last week.
Curious to see the damage for myself and discover the outcome of the attack, I walked down Brick Lane to visit Angel Alley. Entering the blackened bookshop where the bitter smell of the smoke prevailed, I climbed up to the first floor and discovered Max Reeves of The Freedom Press opening charred archive boxes. “Once the embers had died down, we put out a call to have a clear-up on Sunday and well over a hundred people from the local community turned up,” he explained to me,“We carried the books out and cleaned up the shop.”
Max believes the attack came from members of a far-right minority. “It’s not the first time we have been targeted by fascists, in 1993 a neo-Nazi group fire-bombed the shop,” he revealed, “It might be disheartening, if it were not for the flood of well-wishing and offers of help we have received from all over the world. Disparate groups in the radical hinterland have laid aside their differences and come together in solidarity.”
Nobody was injured in the attack and, although smoke permeated everywhere, only a portion of the building was damaged. Salvaged books have been stacked on the top floor while the burnt ones were piled out in Angel Alley as rubbish, where people quickly began to collect them as souvenirs. “It’s symbolic, it’s a proper Nazi book burning and each of the damaged books has now become a cherished artifact.” Max asserted, holding up a blackened paperback with a flourish, “This is a copy of William Blake burnt by fascists.”
“If the intention was to further divide people, this attack failed because it has achieved the opposite.” he assured me with unassailable confidence. The Freedom Press bookshop reopens for business today.
Photographs copyright © Max Reeves
The Freedom Press is appealing for donations of books to sell in aid of repairs to the fire damage. If you have some books to contribute contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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