How Not To Squat

July 22nd, 2013   Submitted by Gyorgy Furiosa

Squat

“The desire to change the world remains merely an abstract ideal or a political program unless it becomes the will to transform one’s own existence.” ~Wolfi Landstreicher, Logic of Submission

Squatting is a necessity. Anyone who has unwillingly slept more than a night under a bridge or in a park will tell you about the dangers and gradual degradation of mind, body and spirit caused by exposure.

Each time I resorted to squatting, in 2009 and again in 2011 for a similar amount of time, it was when I had returned from South East Asia and was trying to establish myself in London, teaching English as many hours a week as I could. London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, where renting even a tiny room is a minimum of 350 pounds a month, and finding a place can often involve deposits of up to twice that, plus a fee to an estate agent, plus bank clearance fees, plus plus plus. Essentially it is unfeasibly expensive to anyone who doesn’t have a cheeky thousand pounds knocking around, and you can only sleep on friends’ floors for so long.

We were a small crew of newbies, learning the squatting ropes the only way we knew how – through trial and error, learning by doing, progress through fuck-ups – clutching the copy of the Squatter’s Handbook (13th Edition) that I’d picked up at the Anarchist Bookfair like a crusty bible.

To kick things off, I had been to the Practical Squatter’s evening at the Infoshop – a long-running former squat turned legal – in the Elephant and Castle in South London. There I recruited a lively and lairy Estonian partner, Vassily. He was nearly a year in country, working as a doorman at some West End hotel, and had been living outside the North Circular Road in squats filled with rats and blocked toilets. Like so many seeking homes in London, he was ex-military, goose-stepping like a Nazi clown and waxing lyrical with sparkling eyes and a thick Russian accent. Though he never mentioned it directly, he made extra money as a cheap thrill for boy-hunting bourgeoisie in the backrooms of the hotel. He connected us with a Lithuanian student, also called Vassily, who had been couch-surfing and sleeping on the ever-circling night bus route N24, perpetually clutching his camera and tripod. Lithuanian Vassily had a funky little hair-cut and jam-jar glasses and his surname translated as something akin to ‘gremlin’.

Together we had set off on a month of fruitless urban rambling around East London, exploring the abundance of abandoned properties to be found there like vultures picking over a battlefield.  Of an estimated one million empty properties in the UK, perhaps a third are concentrated in the capital. Peering in through barricades and looking for the circle-slashed-with-lightning-arrow logo of the squat international daubed on windows and walls for hints of where to go, it was as if we were on some ill-defined treasure hunt.  I’d take long lunch breaks from my job and – bikeless – trek through acres of dilapidated warehouses, disused court houses, and ramshackle estates looking for tell-tale sheet-metal sealed doors, mythical open windows and elusive easy-ins. In one visit, we’d walked for miles in the rain and ended up on the fourth floor of the Ocean Estate, where my companion had guilelessly approached a swarthy looking fellow who was leaning on the railing to ask timidly:

“So, is many squats here?”

The man nodded.

“So, would anyone in the community mind if we moved in?”

Without missing a beat the stocky man had stood up straight and revealed his security-guard jacket and walkie.

“Yeah. Me.”

Shame-faced but howling with laughter at our idiocy we had beaten a retreat. As it grew dark that night we witnessed police patrols moving around the perimeters, hassling people drinking in the park and generally disturbing the peace – a timely reminder of who else was in the opposing team.

Eventually, after weeks of clueless searching, we attempted an abortive Halloween crack on a place Estonian Vassily had known about for a long time, driven by desperation to clamber up onto a roof in Old Street – an area now annexed by the achingly cool hipster ghetto of Shoreditch – at three in the morning to try to access a disused record store. Perhaps we were tempting fate, or perhaps we thought that on such a night the police and passersby would be too distracted by the macabre masquerade theatre of All Hallow’s Eve to notice two ghouls and a gremlin shopping for vinyl.

Meticulous in our planning, we pre-made the tape patch to put over the glass window to catch the shower of broken glass. We’d been shopping in little hardware stores to collect the necessary goodies for our trick-or-treat mission. Myself and Estonian Vassily scurried up through barb wire and tangled thorns to the little balcony by the back window. Behind us was a looming tower block, innumerable lights on and fully illuminating our actions, watching over us like the Panopticon. Ignoring our exposure as much as I could, I became ensnared in the barb wire, my glasses tumbling from my face to disappear in thorns. Taking deep, measured breaths, I unhooked myself, located my spectacles, and joined Vassily.

I had the hammer, and clutched it in one hand as we crouched on the roof together.

“On three. 1 … 2 …”

I smacked it against the pane.

It bounced off like it was a rubber mallet.

Instead of the glass, it was our nerves that broke and we scrambled down to join the Lithuanian look-out we had left at the front. We were wired, half-drunk from the Halloween party we had dropped into earlier, and railing between terror and exhilaration at what we were attempting. The streets remained free of police cars, the night air empty of klaxons and the war-cries of Babylon. In fact, all we could hear was the low-pulse of nearby trendybars and the occasionally whooping mating cry of distant hipsters. Rallying ourselves, we went back for the second attempt.

This time, Vassily shattered the glass covered in gaffer tape and with adrenaline pounding in my ears I surged through the access as the Estonian would later describe, ‘like a bear’.

Inside, we activated headtorches and began to try and find our way through the debris. There was shit, stuff and matter everywhere, a barbarian ravaged Aladdin’s cave of modern consumerism – stairs twisting up and down into infinity, secret passages within rooms that may have been cupboards, and a bewildering labyrinthine network of tiny rooms and cubicles filled with a perplexing amount of washing machines, boxes of mildewed magazines, peeling plaster, 1970s detergent adverts hanging off the walls. Upstairs, the roof was caving in and bare copper piping was exposed like old innards. Most disconcerting of all, from somewhere inside the building, the dolorous murmur of a television was ruminating like a judge rehearsing his verdict before court.

Hindsight dictates that it was probably left on by the warden to distract and deter would-be squatters just like us. Reason dictates that we could have stayed calm, found the TV, and taken the building. Simple common sense suggests that if we had persevered, we could have taken the building, despite its collapsing state. The hard part was surely over. But we were blessed with neither hindsight, reason or sense at that juncture, only images of irate owners and combatative security guards ready to leap out at us. It was the first experience of the shock that sets in with this kind of activity – a deactivation of basic logic functions to be replaced with animalistic instincts of survival – all intelligence flushed out by adrenaline and fear. We were as naïve as school kids.

Instead of keeping to the plan, we began fitting bolts in a fit of panic to interior doors, trying to lock out the TV noise and protect ourselves, the remnants of our scheme to secure the building diminishing to a frantic scurry to block out whatever was producing that haunting chatter. Suddenly a vicious whir and deafening musical bomb detonated in my pocket: the Lithuanian was calling from outside, carrying a tripod and camera to masquerade as a film student if anyone was to pass. On the phone, he reported:

“There’s woman looking in through the windows downstairs.”

We froze. Trapped. Rigid. The battery was running low on the phone. We’d dropped the screwdrivers all over the floor, screws scattering. For tense minutes we struggled to breath in the dust-choked air.

The phone blasted again, mingling with a warning signal of low battery.

“OK. She’s going away.”

Me and Vassily looked at each other. The wordless signal was given.

Abort. Abort. Abort.

We scrambled, packing up half of what we’d brought, leaving a bolt hanging off the inside of a door, and practically fell off the back-wall into the welcoming arms of the alleyway. Grabbing the Lithuanian, we fled deeper into the late night chaos of Old Street – goblins and Vikings and witches and warlocks whooping and wailing around Shoreditch. The woman was driving around the streets in a Volvo, stalking past us like a shark circling as we tried to saunter to safety.

Taking shelter in some back-road, we were sat slumped around the camera and tripod, blinking disbelief and trying to reset our pulses. A tart looking Spanish girl approached us, all Latin sass and unflinchingly flirtatious eyes, sitting for a moment on the curb so I could get a good look at her stocking tops beneath the microskirt that clung to her hips.

“So, you have a camera? Are you making a films?”

My heart rate had hardly calmed down. We struggled to make conversation with her. I looked from Estonian to Lithuanian, and realized with grim horror that I was the loquacious one of our trio, the frigging ringleader. Slipping into my teaching mode, having been working at an English language school in Waterloo only the Friday before, I tried the classics of intra-lingual communication: name, origin and intention. She was a student somewhere in the city, most recently of Zaragoza, Christina by name. As the small-talk petered out, bewildering trite after the misadventure we’d just embarked upon. She seemed to have something on her mind, which she eventually blurted out:

“Are you guys porn-stars?”

We’d laughed, still numb and stunned, but to this day I wonder what would have become of that evening if we’d had a little more guile, a little less naivete about us. Army Vassily had the build of a crack-addict porn star to be sure, a high side parting splitting prep-boy hair down the line of his skull. Perhaps we could have followed her home to her nearby studio and made an impromptu skin-flick – two on one whilst the Lithuanian earned extra credit for his course at St. Martin’s.

But we were just three homeless muggles trying to get a home-of-our-own, not suave-ass sexual adventurers on the make. Eventually, she tired of our lack of innovation in her evening’s entertainment, and abandoned us on our street corner to ponder our meek ineptitude. Instead of becoming squatters, or even porn stars, we remained just homeless bums on a Saturday night in London. Defeated, we went our separate ways to slip back into whatever couches, floor spaces or increasingly impatient friends’ places could keep us off the streets that night.

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34 Responses to “How Not To Squat”

  1. MAMNo Gravatar says:

    If you’re homeless and get caught squating they throw you in jail right? So either way you have a place to sleep…

    • Martin BrockNo Gravatar says:

      Considering the cost of jailing someone, a network of spartan hostels, accessible without all the legal procedure, seems a more cost effective solution.

      • MAMNo Gravatar says:

        Something like the Tolnedran Hostels in David Eddings Belgarath and Mallorean series?

        I could go for something like that.

        • RagnarNo Gravatar says:

          Those were good books. Pure escapism, but very enjoyable. Here in San Diego, there are a couple of youth/student hostels, and the downtown YMCA, which will rent you a grimy, spartan, furnished room VERY cheaply, especially compared with the general market of rents available.

    • RagnarNo Gravatar says:

      Ha! You’ve never spent a night in jail, have you? I’ve done it a couple times, and believe me, no sleep was had, by anyone. It is (at least here in California) a deliberately refrigerated, stainless-steel box, all cold, hard surfaces, overcrowded, noisy, and dangerous. In the unlikely event one was able to get to sleep, they would render themselves defenseless against any manner of attack.

      • Gyorgy FuriosaNo Gravatar says:

        Thanks for pointing that out Ragnar … jails are absolutely hideous places, and hostels generally comparable to them from my experience.

  2. Gyorgy FuriosaNo Gravatar says:

    @MAM Your response comes from a viewpoint that homelessness should be considered a crime, and an ignorance of what jail is like as an institution.

    @Martin Brock A network of hostels does exist in the UK but the conditions are appalling – rife with drugs and alcohol and related violence – they are also only temporary solutions to a much bigger problem. Squatting as a method of housing oneself allows dignity and self-ownership, whereas dependency on hostels serves only to institutionalise dependency on services other provide.

  3. MAMNo Gravatar says:

    @MAM Your response comes from a viewpoint that homelessness should be considered a crime, and an ignorance of what jail is like as an institution.

    1. I don’t think homelessness should be considered a crime. And if I were given a choice; sleep on the street or secure and squat a building you can bet your ass I’d squat. I haven’t thought about the ethics of squatting but I know I’d rather be immoral and alive than moral and dead.

    2. I don’t like cages.

    “Squatting as a method of housing oneself allows dignity and self-ownership, whereas dependency on hostels serves only to institutionalise dependency on services other provide.”

    My question is who built the place you’re squatting in? Someone provided you with a building. If you squat on someone’s land you’re either there without their permission or they are allowing you on their land, hence they are providing you with a place to sleep.

    If you’re homeless you probably depend on other people for stuff all the time.

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      Squatting in abandoned homes or commercial buildings is completely ethical by anarcho-capitalist standards. If it weren’t for the state it wouldn’t be called squatting…. it would be called homesteading.

      • MAMNo Gravatar says:

        Some people might call that theft. Somebody is going to claim a plot of land with buildings on it. So when does the land claim expire? A day after the man leaves the property for somewhere else? The moment? A month? A year? Ten years?

        Does a claim expire if an owner walks the property line, or has someone walk the property line for him?

        • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

          All good questions.

          I’ve said before that there is no such thing as property, only claims. You only own what you can defend.

          That being said, right now the only entity that will “evict” a “squatter” is the state police, which as you well know is paid for by people who do not want said services.

          In other words, if an individual abandoned a building, which later got homesteaded by somebody else, and that individual wanted to reclaim their property, they would have to contact their defense agency which they paid for, and which is NOT subsidized by other people who do not want the services of said defense agency.

          Ultimately, though, I think what would happen is peaceful arbitration between the defense agency of the individual who abandoned the property and the individual who homesteaded the property. Who would get what would be totally up the that arbitration for that specific case. There is no “right” or “wrong,” only what they decide upon.

          • MAMNo Gravatar says:

            I think you have the right of it sir.

          • RanDominoNo Gravatar says:

            FYI, this makes you not a capitalist. You can go ahead and get rid of that yellow now; you’re welcome.

            • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

              The definition of “capitalism” is quite varied. By my definition, I’m a capitalist. By your definition, if I’m not a capitalist, what am I?

              • RanDominoNo Gravatar says:

                If you don’t believe in title-based property, you’re not a capitalist. The exact type of anti-capitalist would require more information, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess “mutualist”.

                • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

                  I’m not sure what your definition of “title-based property” is, but I do believe in deeds, and that these deeds would be registered with voluntarily contracted defense agencies, so that if a dispute arises, said defense agency would help defend or arbitrate the dispute.

                  The problem I have with the state is that they claim a monopoly of title defense. In other words, all property not registered with the state is not considered valid, which of course is ridiculous. It’s quite possible to have legitimately claimed property that isn’t defended by any state, voluntary defense agency, or individual.

                  • RanDominoNo Gravatar says:

                    Any deed/title system would inevitably turn into a unitarian regime since property disputes would be resolved through reconciliation (either voluntary or forceful). AKA a State. Therefore to believe in title is to disavow Anarchism. Anarchy or Capitalism- can’t have both.

                    The only way to coherently handle property in an Anarchist economy/society is to reject the logic of title and instead respect use-based property; that is, it is your property because you use it as opposed to the other way around. Unused property (which does not mean “when you go on vacation for a week”; that’s just disingenuous as everyone understands that such property is still in “use”) is immediately considered abandoned, and available for homesteading- this is how humans are actually hardwired. The moderating agent is the community- this is how society actually works.

                    “Voluntary contracted defense agencies” are nothing but gangs of mercenaries and thugs; don’t try to sugar-coat it: It may be “possible to have legitimately claimed property that isn’t defended” but it would swiftly be conquered by the unscrupulous- including ‘legitimately claimed property’ which is *insufficiently* defended but honestly owned and inhabited; sucks to be them? There’s nothing Anarchist about a system which doesn’t account for that. This is why we Anarchists are so disgusted by you so-called “anarcho-capitalists”- Anarchism has never meant simply being against the State, but also being ORGANIZED to resist all tyrants and would-be tyrants. That’s what the circle-A means ffs- it’s an “A” for “Anarchy” superimposed on an “O” for “Organization”!

                    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

                      By your definition a gang of thugs would be a bunch of guys that come to the rescue of a girl getting raped.

                      There’s a big difference between defense and offense. If I contract a bunch of thugs to go rape and pillage, then that’s a gang. If I contract a bunch of big guys to defend me and my property for me, that’s a defense agency.

                    • RanDominoNo Gravatar says:

                      Under capitalism, which encourages and justifies engineered situations in which people must sell themselves into obedience of any orders, right or wrong, what prevents the former? To call the system “capitalism” condones it. The difference between “defense” and “offense” becomes “what you can get away with”. But people who carry out mutual aid without requirement of compensation will not participate in unjust acts.

                    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

                      Altruism is fine and dandy. But it’s not enough. It’s not altruism that the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker produce and sell their goods. It’s the profit motive.

                      It doesn’t follow that the profit motive is okay for butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, but not for security guards, et al.

                • Gyorgy FuriosaNo Gravatar says:

                  Didn’t I read somewhere that anarchy is the perfect form of capitalism, and capitalism (true, free market capitalism) is the perfect form of anarchy?

                  Individuals able to make free arrangements, unimpeded by the State, with whoever they like? The significant point for me here is that our accepted standards and assumptions need to be challenged – just because someone is using a building that you ‘own’ should not be automatically assumed to be a bad thing.

                  “Squatting is the oldest mode of tenure in the world, and we are all descended from squatters. This is as true of the Queen … as it is of all the ultimate recipients of stolen land, for to regard our planet as a commodity offends every conceivable principle of natural rights.”
                  ~ Colin Ward

        • Gyorgy FuriosaNo Gravatar says:

          “Libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but… in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private… Much of that property is stolen. Much is of dubious title. All of it is deeply intertwined with an immoral, coercive state system.”

          ~ Karl Hess

  4. Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

    It seems to be that academics and philosophers all seem to allow absolute property rights to break down in lifeboat scenarios. Most would steal to eat. Seems to me squatting is a lifeboat scenario.

    • MAMNo Gravatar says:

      What are absolute property rights?

      Property isn’t even a right, it’s a construct.

      You only have what you can defend… So then would that imply that your property is what you are defending, and if you don’t defend it (walk the line often enough) it isn’t your property? I don’t know.

      It all seems rather arbitrary to me.

  5. ShawnNo Gravatar says:

    Hmm. Don’t we consider ourselves to “own” something – that is, to have the *superior* claim to its command and control – by virtue of either having produced it ourselves, or to have acquired it via fair trade with the original owner? If that is the case, if I acquire a building (and, presumably, the land it rests on) through an equitable exchange with the party who had ownership of it before me, then it seems I have ultimate decision making ability over its use from the point forward. It’s a bit difficult (in my mind, anyway) to treat land and buildings the same as movable property, eg, leaving your sofa on the curb…does the fact that I don’t stop by my empty building every day mean that I’ve given up control of it? It could be that I have some *future* use planned for it, and it’s not feasible, for whatever reason, for me to check in every day to make sure no one has *taken* it. The fact I acquired it through fair exchange with the prior owner makes it *mine*. I suppose all of that does, in fact, come down to me saying I have a claim on it (rather than a “property right”) but I’d expect that any *fair* society that I’m living in to “back me up” and come to my defence in a situation such as squatting. Having said that, if I were ever in a situation where I wasn’t currently using a particular piece of property, I’d rather let a tenant live there for *free* as long as they were caring for it and not allowing others to destroy it in my absence, as opposed to just willy nilly anyone can do whatever the hell they want with it, but I don’t see that in anyway giving them any sort of claim to the property.

  6. thorax232No Gravatar says:

    Very fun story, thanks for the share.

  7. KarlNo Gravatar says:

    We were a small crew of newbies, learning the shoot-all-squattors-on-sight ropes the only way we knew how – through trial and error, learning by doing, progress through fuck-ups

    • Gyorgy FuriosaNo Gravatar says:

      This comment is a great example of a fundamental problem with society – that the sacred right of property is held to be of more importance than a human life itself. We are raised in a hegemony to believe that the defense of what one owns (our things, our property, our country) is of greater value than the life of another human being, whatever there situation might be.

      • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

        I’m of the opinion that not all human life has value. In fact, I’d say that a lot of humans are of negative value.

        That being said, I would be willing to take a life in defense of my property, depending on the circumstances.

        • Gyorgy FuriosaNo Gravatar says:

          Agreed – but I would advocate conflict as a last resort, and potential collaboration as a first. The assumption is always that squatters in your property is a bad thing and undesirable, without many people ever having had experienced the situation directly.

  8. KarlNo Gravatar says:

    >>> In other words, all property not registered with the state is not considered valid

    No, that’s wrong. Thanks for playing. Go back to your mom’s basement now. This ideology is for humans who DID learn how to read Wikipedia. A registered deed is NOT = an adjudicated “quiet title”.

    A deed registered with the state is only considered to be Prima Facie ==evidence== of rightful ownership. Ie, that evidence may be CONTESTED in court to attain an ADJUDICATION.

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      Really? And what happens when you don’t pay property taxes? That’s right, it’s not considered valid and they come and take it. Sounds to me like you’re the one who needs to do some reading, buddy.

  9. CollinNo Gravatar says:

    Haha. Always taking care of business Mr. King.

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