Review: Squatting ain’t dead, it just smells funny

George F looks over The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting and its tales of the huge movements of the 1970s-80s.


by Alexander Vasudevan
Verso, 2017
ISBN 978-1781687864 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1781687857 (hardback)
304pp


I am writing from within the dying hulk of the Pula Vida squat in the Bon Pastor district of Barcelona — the bailiffs are coming tomorrow.

It will be the third attempt to evict this vast industrial complex and return it to a state of tomb-like emptiness after more than two years of housing a lively and active community of punks, artists and workers. There will be breakfast, and this time I will exercise more caution in the morning than I did at the first resistance in May, when I accidentally mistook a line of ketamine for speed and spent the morning wobbling up and down the street trying to stop everything from melting.

Vasudevan’s radical history of squatting looks at self-help housing in a half-dozen European and North American locations across the post-war globe, yet can really only manage to sketch out the historical differences and geographical peculiarities between them. If anything, it manages to highlight the sheer scale of squatting and radical housing struggle by what it omits. Barcelona is one such omission. Despite remaining resolutely academic in tone and delivery, his obvious passion and belief in the transformative and radical potential of squatting still manages to shine through the series of documentary sketches.

“Squatting can be configured as violent and marginalising. It can also be a means to construct new practices of care and subversion. While, for some, it represented an artistic and creative retreat from the social struggles of the city, for others it pointed to different and more socially just ways of organising and sharing urban space. These contradictions may yield no easy answers, though they do point, however fleetingly, to how we might still come to know and live the city differently.”

I wonder if Vasudevan had ever taken up the boltcroppers and crowbar and headed out into the urban sprawl to seek shelter during his research. It seems unlikely. I couldn’t help a wry smile in the section on Amsterdam where he talks about the eviction of the De Strijd social centre in 2014 as I was there to witness scenes of chaos and violence as the anti-kraak squads smashed through the barricades and dragging out a half-dozen black-masked anarchists. This chapter in particular captured the militancy, the urgency, the guerrilla struggles of squatters in Amsterdam and Copenhagen in the ’80s, where pitched battles were fought in defence of housing, and in Holland a dominating and violent fringe emerged known as “the Political Wing of the Squatter’s Movement.” Vasudevan details how this militancy caused the movements to fragment and shatter over the diversity of tactics used and the escalating violence. It is a passion and style still present in the Barcelona scene, where the eviction of a social centre in 2016 resulted in several days of riots. In Copenhagen, the anarcho-punk squatters would barricade themselves into buildings and practice martial arts, waiting for the cops to break in, or would spirit away through tunnels built under roads.

Meanwhile in London, Vasudevan revisits the well-trodden ground of the Vigilantes – ex-servicemen and their families who squatted military bases across the UK in their tens of thousands, and covers the politics of the myriad of groups who occupied buildings as a tactic for self-determination, such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Republic of Freestonia in the ’70s. He skillfully outlines the ways in which the State has consistently operated to marginalize and neutralise the radical potential of occupied spaces, showing repeated patterns of legalisation into the modern co-operative movement, the designation of ‘good squatters’ on projects that bestowed the desired cultural capital on a new generation of ‘creative cities’, effectively weaponising squatters as a vanguard of gentrification, whilst violently purging of ‘bad squatters’ through evictions and criminalisation.

Vasudevan has many examples of the fortitude and bloody-minded stubborness of these generations of pioneering autonomads, and how the praxis of squatting nails the holy trinity of social change – saying ‘no’, creating alternatives and shifting consciousness. As he explains of the delightful grey area where those with loose concepts of property ownership slip, “squatter’s rights don’t exist on paper … but in the concrete action of opening up empty buildings , working on them and creating homes.” A call out for parity in words and deeds indeed.

Over ten years of squatting in London, through the criminalisation of residential squatting and the subsequent years of monthly evictions, we mastered the arts of barricades, roof-top occupations, and harsh language directed at the authorities, yet the culture of eviction resistance has more often than not tended towards defensive actions, rather than active aggression. Phone trees like the No Evictions London Squatter Network used to summon dozens of bodies to resistances, and for a while there was a dedicated Eviction Resistance squad, who’d rock up with a huge banner saying “Your Eviction Is My Eviction.” In the ’70s in London they had the Squatter’s Union, and to this day the Advisory Service For Squatters pens legal defenses and organises a monthly Practical Squatter’s night for newbies to form. Notable exceptions to the fluffy rule are some of the resistances of anarchist group Squatter and Homeless Autonomy, whose wonderful ‘Gentrification Is Class War’ banner earned them a visit from a TSG squad, who subsequently went ape-shit after being pelted with potato salad and smashed through the wall to get them out. Even then, one member climbed up in the rafters and refused to come down for eight hours. Some Brighton squatters covered a pitfall in their corridor with a rug that a copper subsequently fell into in his haste to evict, leading to trumped up charges of attempted murder. We’ve seen hoses pouring water out of windows on to sad and wet looking bailiffs while a loop of a baby-crying plays endlessly from an open window, reducing one officer to fits of apoplectic indignation. We’ve seen rains of debris and furniture spill from windows on to the scurrying forms of bailiffs.

Yet its a far cry from burning barricades of the Villa Road squats of Brixton in the ’70s, where bailiffs were greeted by a giant swinging boulder as gutters full of petrol were ignited. It lacks the white-knuckle audacity of murder-planks like those used in the Can Masdeu resistance, north of Barcelona, where two people balance each other over a multi-story drop sitting on planks balanced in windows. The M11 road protests constructed epic towers of scaffold rising like antennae from the roofs of there squats. The infamous and intricate interior barricades of the Orange Fence squat in Hackney were enough to summon the Special Evictions Unit from Scotland; the moat and portcullis of the Black Sheep in Deptford, or the massive steel door constructed in the Noah’s Ark social centre, all came undone through accident rather than forcing the bailiffs to smash through, typically them jumping in through an open door when someone left to go to work. When hundreds of bailiffs turned up to evict Tidemill Gardens, activists surrounded the police vans to de-arrest a colleague. The fences at the Aylsebury Estate were symbolically torn down by activists as the occupation drew to an end after 2 months. Our longest ever squat (11 months 2 weeks) confounded 2 successive batches of bailiffs with a ‘barriclid’ — two overlapping doors sealing off the stairwell, so poor bailiffs would spend two hours carving through the front door, only to rush in all sweaty and adrenaline pumped to find themselves sealed in a corridor with no exit.

The TV-bailiffs came to that one, sadly without their cameras, and were met by a swiftly responding mob of couriers and punks from the area, who proceeded to liberate a pair of giant crowbars from their owners and bloody a few bailiff noses. I’ve seen a few bailiffs bopped while carrying out their courtly dastardliness, as well savage violence from the security and goons they bring with them.

Years of poverty porn propaganda in the form of ‘The Sherriffs Are Coming’ has softened the ancient public hatred of bailiffs as class traitors, but we should remember that it always remains just below the surface. In Cable Street in the 30s, when bailiffs turned up to evict a known fascist from his home, the local anarchists prevented it, informing them that ‘they would decide what happens in their neighbourhood’.

The seizure of properties and their re-purposing as spaces of liberation ideology and collective organisation flies in the face of the logic of market capitalism, as does the defiance of the law and the authority of courts, judges, police and bailiffs. It is the frontline of the class war, where the powers of hierarchy come face-to-face with the resilience and collectivity of King Mob. “You couldn’t be an a-political squatter: the radical essence of squatting could no longer be denied by anyone, and slacking on the politics could be fatal to any given house.”

Fun fact: according to author Robert Neuwirth, there were over 1 billion (one in seven) squatters worldwide in 2004. If current trends continue, this will increase to two billion by 2030 (one in four), and 3 billion by 2050 (one in three). The number of squatters is only growing, as wealth and property are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Squatting is a direct challenge to the authorities of capital, contract and State. As the graffiti on Hackney Road circa 2011 said: “We do not ask. We do not demand. We take – Occupy.” Even if the numbers and scale of squatting in London is greatly diminished since the halcyon days of residential squtting, the fact that it still continues as a necessity and as an embodiment of disobedience is imperative, and the fact that such a movement existed, thrived and subsided only goes to show that another world of self-direction and autonomy is indeed possible.

Squatting ain’t dead – it just smells funny.

As anarchist historian Colin Ward said, squatting is the oldest form of land tenure, and certainly isn’t going away. Vasudevan has added another piece to the history that Ward himself penned a great deal of, yet as with so many well-meaning academics he holds squatting almost at arms length, like a weird-smelling boot, peering down into the piratical histories of those who would live otherwise. Despite the love and respect, I wonder how much he could really understand about squatting from his professorship in Oxford. It’s possible that he squatted in his youth. It leaves a certain distaste to have the histories of the squatting community, inseparable from the histories of struggle against domination, of class war, to be documented to us by someone who has clearly esconsed himself into the echelons of power as an academic and Grauniad journalist. Would Vasudevan crowbar a window to get out of the rain? Had he ever watched an army of bailiffs descend upon his home from the rooftops of Brixton whilst the sun rose? Had he studied the rudimentary physics of barricading? Or been awake five nights in a row climbing the vistas of Shoreditch looking for a place to live? Or awoken to a bailiff at the foot of his bed? Has he ever shit in a pizza box because the toilets were concreted up?

Maybe. I don’t really know him, and even if he did those may not have been the choices he would have made within his own squatted community. As the man said: “For squatters, the right to the city has always been a right to remake the city and transform it through hope, resistance and solidarity.”

UPDATE: The bailiffs came and were met with around 40 crusties from the local neighbourhoods, drinking coffee and eating a variety of dips that had been shipped from a nearby social centre that morning. They decided that was not the morning for eviction, and Pula Vida continues to house a community at the time of publishing.

~ George F.


George F’s newest book Good Times In Dystopia about the grimier side of Europe’s squatting scene is out on 13/12 from Zero Books. You can pre-order here.