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Fabric one year on: Flora Williamson speaks out on death and rape threats after Farringdon nightclub closure

PUBLISHED: 08:09 07 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:09 07 September 2017

Cllr Flora Williamson in the Islington Town Hall chamber, where the Fabric closure decision was delivered one year ago today. Picture: Polly Hancock

Cllr Flora Williamson in the Islington Town Hall chamber, where the Fabric closure decision was delivered one year ago today. Picture: Polly Hancock

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One year ago today, Islington Council shut Farringdon nightclub Fabric. The councillor who delivered the decision, Flora Williamson, suffered horrific abuse in the ensuing storm. She speaks out on the saga for the first time with the Gazette.

150,000 people signed a petition to 150,000 people signed a petition to "save" Fabric, in Charterhouse Street, when Islington Council called a meeting to review its licence in August last year. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA

One year ago today, Cllr Flora Williamson delivered the decision to shut Fabric, Farringdon’s world famous nightclub.

She knew the fallout was going to be huge when the sheer amount of angry emails literally broke her phone.

Cllr Williamson is chair of Islington Council’s licensing committee. After a six-and-a-half hour town hall meeting, it decided to close the club after two teenagers died that summer from MDMA taken at the venue. In her summary, Cllr Williamson criticised “drug culture” at the club (which has since re-opened with strict controls).

At that point, 150,000 people had signed a petition to “save” Fabric from closure. And Cllr Williamson, 33, bore the brunt of horrific abuse.

“My sister was reading all the messages to my Twitter account,” she recalls, “getting more and more upset. I didn’t read any of them – but then a rape threat came through.”

It read: “Feminist ho wanna fill my elephant knob in your gob. Your decision to shut the club has made me come over all rapey.”

Cllr Williamson, elected in 2014, continues: “The police said that if someone was making a rape threat on Twitter, then there would be worse on my email. I had to sit down and sift through 600 of them – the level of anger was that high. I had to get a friend to help me, telling her: ‘I’ve got a really fun job for you!’

“There were about 50 really offensive emails, while 300 were outright aggressive. Some of the misogyny was spectacular. There were some graphics of my face on cocks. The rest were reasonably thoughtful.”

Among the “really offensive” emails was a death threat. It read: “Please note you have received an official death threat.”

Cllr Flora Williamson. Picture: Polly Hancock Cllr Flora Williamson. Picture: Polly Hancock

It impacted her work as a Tollington ward councillor. She had an advice surgery the next night – and the police insisted on being present.

“My day job employer even had to beef up its security,” Cllr Williamson adds. “When you get those threats, you just don’t know. Rationally, you are sure it’s just some spotty teenager in a bedroom. But this was not long after the Jo Cox murder. Do you brush it off or take it seriously?

“It made me really nervous. I was going through shock. I was jumpy. Councillors don’t get the same protection as MPs. If someone stops being able to accept that another person has a different point of view, it’s really worrying. The hardest part was talking to my mum, who read the rape threat. She was really upset.

“I was still getting abuse until the council reached the compromise with Fabric in November [to re-open]. And to Fabric’s massive credit, the manager apologised to me and agreed to ban for life anyone who abused me or any council staff.

“I still feel it [the anxiety] now. I can’t help it. But I always take the view that diamonds form under pressure, and this has shaped me. And I wouldn’t want anyone to be put off becoming a councillor. It can be frustrating, but it’s also brilliant.”

Though she suffered threats against her safety, Cllr Williamson said the messages “questioning my integrity” annoyed her most.

“I was at a wedding in the Peak District the weekend before, and all I was doing was reading those licensing papers. I spent every waking hour reading them so I could go to that meeting and make a fair decision.

“We were talking about two teenagers who died at the club in a short space of time. But as a committee, if you take away a licence, you know you’re impacting people’s livelihood. It’s not something you take lightly.”

The question has to be asked: did she consider stepping down? “Never,” comes the immediate reply. “I’m incredibly stubborn. It made me even more determined to carry on as licensing chair. I was not going to be bullied out.”

Sebastian Clark-Darby arrives at Blackfriars Crown Court in October last year. He was jailed for sending a death threat to Cllr Williamson's email account. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Sebastian Clark-Darby arrives at Blackfriars Crown Court in October last year. He was jailed for sending a death threat to Cllr Williamson's email account. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA

‘Swallowed up in the hype’

Of the hundreds of people who sent abusive messages to Cllr Williamson, two were convicted.

One was convicted drug dealer Sebastian Clark-Darby, who emailed the death threat from his work computer.

Clark-Darby, of Newport Pagnell, had become “swallowed up in all the hype”, according to his defence lawyer Gero Di Piazza.

He admitted sending communication of offensive nature and was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment at Blackfriars Crown Court last October.

Small-time music producer Jacob Townsend was given a four-week suspended sentence for the rape threat last September.

He admitted one count of sending a grossly offensive tweet with intent to cause distress at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court.

The hearing heard Townsend had never even set foot in Fabric.

Cllr Williamson said of the two convictions: “It disrupts democracy if councillors are put off making decisions.”

Cllr Flora Williamson in the Islington Town Hall chamber, where the Fabric closure decision was delivered one year ago today. Picture: Polly Hancock Cllr Flora Williamson in the Islington Town Hall chamber, where the Fabric closure decision was delivered one year ago today. Picture: Polly Hancock

‘Some people take it too far’

Cllr Williamson thinks abuse of councillors is becoming more widespread.

She said: “I would say every Islington councillor [there are 48] has suffered abuse, particularly if they are on Twitter.

“One of my colleagues had it over the Archway gyratory. You understand passion – I actively encourage it. But some take it too far.”

Cllr Williamson wasn’t the only one to suffer abuse in the wake of the Fabric decision.

“Gary Poole and Asima Shaikh [her colleagues on the licensing committee] and lots of other council staff also got it. And even councillors who had nothing to do with the decision.”

The Gazette asked the town hall for figures on the number of complaints made by councillors over abuse, but received no response.

But a spokesman said: “We offer training to councillors and have an internal reporting procedure to record any incidents of concern. Support is available from our legal team and political group offices as needed, who can also review whether action is required to prevent similar events reoccurring. All suspected criminal acts are reported to the police.

“All councillors have also been briefed by the Met Police on how to exercise their public duties safely.”

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