The Politics of the Crowbar: Squatting in London, 1968-present

(Elgin Avenue, 1975) (Aylesbury Estate, 2015)

This essay reviews the London squatting movement as a key radical social movement, redefining ownership of space and politicising housing. I aim to alter the framework through which one views squatting, from a binary between political and deprivation squatters to seeing all squatting as political as it challenges ownership of property and forces confrontation with the state.

I will compare my historical work on the squatting movement in London in the 1970s with the current occupation at the Aylesbury Estate in Elephant and Castle in order to draw out continuities within squatting and it discourses, and to stress that the political nature of squatting is inherent and therefore is equally applicable to different times and different occupations.

The modern squatters’ movement developed as a response to the housing crisis across the UK, particularly in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s.The movement quickly diversified beyond the initial aim for rehousing of families, and also in demographic makeup as many different sorts of people took to squatting. People squatted for many reasons, including inability to find affordable housing and as a base for political groups and projects. However, both participatory accounts and sociological studies suggest a false dichotomy between deprivation squatters and political squatters, which colours the subsequent evaluation of individual squatting actions

The binary polarises those who cannot afford to be housed by other means, and those who see squatting as a political action or as a useful base for other political actions. It refuses to acknowledge the radical act of occupation itself. Whether conscious or not, through reinforcing difference above unity, this binary undermines the solidarity within the movement, perception in the media, and the efficacy of campaigns. . I aim to critique this binary, and argue instead that squatting is always a political act. Instead of trying to fit actions into a narrow definition of ‘political’ or ‘non-political’ squatting I argue that the definition needs to be broadened, so that the remedying of housing need is no longer dismissed as being ‘non-political’ and so that ‘political’ squatters are not condemned altogether.

‘Some want to continue living ‘normal lives’, other to live ‘alternative’ lives, others to use squatting as a base for political action. Any squatting organisation needs to recognise this diversity or it will fall into the trap of saying there are good squatters and bad squatters. We must reject any attempts to create an internal class structure within the squatting movement…. Everyone has a right to a home.’

Advisory Service for Squatters Statement, 1974

 

Similarly, at the Aylesbury occupation the occupiers are careful not to limit the reasons for the occupation to any one purpose. Some squat for housing need, some identify as housing activists, most seem to fall somewhere between the two. But there is an awareness and effort to keep all these motivations working together rather than creating unnecessary divisions for the media to exploit.

The scholarly literature around squatting tends to replicate this unhelpful binary between political and non-political squatters. In his sociological study on the nature of squatting, Hans Pruijt lays out five configurations of squatting (Pruijt, 2013). The configurations included in separate categories ‘deprivation squatting’ and ‘political squatting’, with the even more polarising statement that ‘a squatting project can only belong to a single configuration.’ Even Colin Ward, who is well known for his anarchist approach towards housing, contends that ‘there has always been a distinction between squatting as a political demonstration… and squatting as a personal solution to a housing problem’ (Ward, 2002). As I go on to argue, the distinction is false as squatting forces a confrontation with the state, thus making it inherently political and politicising.

The discourse of ‘good/bad’ squatters, or use of moral arguments, only serves to delegitimise elements of a movement that one does not personally consider to be a ‘good enough reason’. This critique can and has led to persecution and repression of individuals or groups who do not fit the designated image of a ‘legitimate squatter’. This kind of analysis of the movement is overly simplistic and harmful, and this paper shall endeavour to offer a broader analysis of the political nature of squatting, and thus a legitimacy to every aspect of a diverse, yet radical, movement.

“You don’t need a degree in politics to know that property is the cornerstone of this society, property is power, and the need to own is what keeps us in line”

Hackney Community Defence Association, Squats ‘n’ Cops, 1992

In this section I outline the main thesis of my work:  squatting is inherently political as it represents a confrontation with the state.

I understand politics to be defined by a conflict over what is considered just. This conflict forms a political arena as it is explicitly between those within the status quo and those without. The framework that best articulates this understanding of politics is radical democratic theory. Unlike the varying liberal traditions that see politics as the striving for peace or consensus, where conflict is erased from the domain of politics, radical democratic theorists see conflict as central to politics (Mouffe, 1993, 2000). ‘The political’, Chantal Mouffe argues, ‘is the dimension of antagonism that is inherent in human relations’ (Mouffe, 2000). Mouffe argues that the presence of a conflictual us/them division is inherent within politics, and indeed, fundamental to the creation of a political sphere. Divisions and exclusions are ontologically central to the creation of any community. For a community to exist there must be those who exist outside of it. This necessarily creates conflict between those within the system and who view it as just, and those without, who don’t. In the context of squatting, there clearly exists an us/them division, and one that is explicitly between individuals and the state, or the agents of the state in the form of bailiffs or police. Squatting is radical because it poses a direct challenge to assumed rights of property and land. This challenge is radical because of the centrality of property ownership historically to state and class control.

If the conflict is inherent in the act then it is not necessary for individuals to feel themselves to be political players in order for their actions to be political acts. ‘Any distinction that can serve as a marker of collective identity and difference will acquire political quality if it has the power, in a concrete situation, to sort people into two opposing groups that are willing, if necessary, to fight against each other’ (Schmitt, 1932, 2007). In the context of squatting, squatters acknowledge the potential need to barricade, to resist, and to go to war against the powers that seek to make them homeless, whether or not they recognise the political nature of this resistance. Gramsci writes of the conflict that can arise between a person’s conscious thoughts and the implicit values embedded in their actions, particularly under capitalism (Lears, 1985). If a person is barricading every day this suggest a resistance to the actions of the state against squatting, even if they are not able to articulate this.

In most European countries squatting is considered a violation of private property rights. As Victoria Blitz on the incoming criminalisation in 2012 framed the argument: ‘the problem for the government is that squatting is more radical than this: inherent in its actual practice is the contestation of private property rights’. By contesting property and land ownership squatting is challenging the legitimacy of traditional forms of domination and the basis of capitalist structures. Property has been used as a tool of repression of the lower classes since feudal times, when ownership of land was first established and tied to ones societal status. Property asserts individual rights over collective need, best exemplified in the enclosures of common lands in the 15th to 19th centuries. Squatting is essentially the expropriation of private property for collective benefit, reclaiming land for public good. By challenging property a squatter is challenging hegemonic forms of domination and historic state control.

Squatting necessitates the setting of one’s self against the state. An early example of state aggression came in 1969, when Redbridge council sought to quash the rising tide of squatters through several means. First, it turned towards the courts. When it lost through the courts, council workers smashed up empty properties. When this failed to deter the squatters, the council hired thugs to attack the squatters, leading to one woman being hit so badly in the stomach that she lost her baby. This direct attack on ordinary civilians by the state showed how the state was prepared to use any means, legal and physical, to deter squatters. We see a similar thing occurring at Aylesbury. First, they tried to deter the squatters by gutting the properties, then, when that didn’t deter us, they attempted to impose a lockdown and prevent access, when that failed, they imposed a twenty four hour guard, which remains to this day impotently watching us enter and leave. The council is prepared to use every means possible to evict the squatters, to win the battle they have inadvertently thrown us into.

This is a war that, once squatting, squatters can not choose whether to engage in. Jim Radford of the Family Squatting Advisory Service (FSAS) emphasised this when he stated that their practical purpose was to alleviate housing need, but that ‘to this end we were prepared to work, organise, negotiate, and, if necessary, fight’ (Wates & Wolmar, 1980). This clearly suggests that he did not see fighting as a metaphor for the process of negotiation but as a real, physical possibility, due to the conflict squatters were engaged in. The violence of the state was present in every preventative measure squatters made during this period of severe housing shortage. Taking squatters to court was a violence, wrecking properties was a violence, and hiring policemen and ‘heavies’ to evict squatters by force was yet another all-out act of violence.

Active engagement in this conflict often occurred regardless of intent as one was forced to defend one’s squat against bailiffs, ‘heavies’, and other agents of repression. Resistance was one of the ways in which squatting politicised those who engaged with it. The action of squatting helped develop the political consciousness that contributed to other actions undertaken whilst squatting. In short, actions informed consciousness, which informed actions.

‘It seems to me that the most revolutionary thing in the world is to demonstrate to the disenfranchised, alienated and therefore apathetic majority of people that they can act and win, and that they can run their own lives without rulers, politicians and their ilk.’

Ron Bailey, The Squatters, 1973

Simply living in a squat and facing the daily repression by the state and landlords politicises many people. Experiences of solidarity and collective action make many people realise their own capacity for self-determination and control over their own lives. Squatters turn up to each other’s evictions, help build each other’s barricades, and promise each other aid when needed. One example of solidarity was Elgin Avenue’s system of guaranteeing help rehousing anyone who helped resist an eviction (Piers Corbyn interview, 2010). This meant that people who might have otherwise been inclined to keep to themselves had an incentive to get involved with the movement, and directly experienced the benefits and security of working together against a common enemy. Another is the many supporters that turned up after Aylesbury’s twitter call-out during the aggressive eviction in which people were subject to violence by the police. As they grow to realise that the state and its agents are not necessarily on their side, many people experience a political awakening. Solidarity meant self-determination for many people for the first time, which often led to a reconceptualization of one’s place in society, rights and autonomy.

Part of the collective action that squatting entails is realising that ‘the authorities’ are not there to protect squatters, and are in fact what the squatters are resisting. Consequently, people organised themselves to regain a sense of control over their own lives. According to Nick Wates, the Tolmers Square campaign gave ‘those involved a greater confidence in their ability to do things for themselves, and to take on the authorities’ (Wates, 1976). By engaging in struggle, one’s desire to engage in that struggle and understanding of the struggle increases.

Self-determination was often realised through experiences of mutual aid and collective action, a necessary feature of squat survival. At the Aylesbury, the people that stayed after the eviction and kept the occupation going knew each other through no basis other than affinity and a collective desire to continue this project and to fight for decent housing. However, by the end of it, these were people whose experiences of sustained attack by the state through attempted evictions and expansive legal procedures had been unwillingly formed into an army. They are ready for the attack, and have learned that barricading and physical resistance are necessary against a hostile and aggressive council. Connections grow between individuals who struggle together against a common enemy.

‘My commitment to the street’s struggle, and my love for the people I lived with, grew each time a house was wrecked and each time we worked out ways to try to prevent it. The external threats and our resistance certainly brought us together’.

Wates & Wolmer, Squatting: The Real Story, 1980

Solidarity also extends to the broader housing movement. Squatters consistently emphasise the importance of unity with tenants and residents organisations, and the strength of a united neighbourhood. At the Aylesbury, open meetings for all to attend are held every night, with people ready to talk to tenants. The squatters went leafleting around the neighbourhood and also held two information and fun days, with crepes, bouncy castles and information boards in order to connect with the tenants. Similarly, In the first Elgin Avenue Struggle? Yes! (EASY) publication in 1973, released by those campaigning at Elgin Avenue, ‘it was generally agreed that we must work together to unite squatters and non-squatters together against evictions’. In the newsletter of an All London Squatters Meeting there is a whole section on unity with tenants, arguing that ‘Squatters are isolated from tenants. If links are not made, where can squatting go?’ Working with tenants and residents on campaigns against property developers and rent hikes built trust and was able in many cases to resist the efforts of the state to polarise squatters and tenants. Councils and newspapers often attempted to do so by claiming that squatters were unfairly ‘jumping the waiting list’ on housing lists. Squatters continually fight against this attempted polarisation, and in doing so are able to experience how disparate groups can effectively beat huge organisations if united.

Squatting helps many people see the connections between struggles and thus politicises them in many directions. Experience of violent evictions led people to hold a stronger anti-police line. EASY issue 19 mentions a demonstration against police raids on Camden squats, which were also ‘against police oppression generally’. This exemplifies how a conflict specific to squatting (a raid on a squat) broadens into a critique of wider forces of oppression (the police). Likewise, seeing housing as a working-class issue led people to demonstrate for other class-based issues, such as the miners strikes and campaigns. On the agenda for an All London Squatters Federation meeting from 1974, support for the miners was one of the earliest points, with it stated that ‘it was felt that the squatting groups should actively support the miners in their struggles, and in the case of a strike be prepared to help out with the picketing’. Squatting opened people’s eyes to many related struggles and encouraged them to think critically about engagement with the government and political systems.

Many people turned to squatting exactly for the political environment. Here I mean an environment directly opposed to exclusion on grounds of identity, ability to make autonomous decisions over one’s own life, and an active desire to celebrate difference. Squatting was hugely influential on the lives of many individuals due to its association with, and the inevitable reality of, alternative lifestyles.

Due to the dual needs for solidarity and support, and the housing of many people, squats were usually occupied by large collectives of individuals. It is common in squats to pool resources and food and to live communally. This is a radical difference from the way in which society desires households to function. The communal nature of squatting and alternative ways of living has several important implications.

Living communally has a significant effect on the concept of family. The nuclear family as a unit is by necessity often broken down through squatting. Although families usually stay together, they would often be living with other people, on a street near other squats, or engaging in the squatting community in other ways. The state saw this disregard of the fundamental family unit as a threat to its established order. This is indicative in the treatment of family units compared to individuals by the councils who dealt with them. A cohesive ‘family’ following the state definition was more likely to be rehoused by the council if a squat was evicted. ‘Families’ were more likely to receive licences or better treatment, and indeed, when the LSC first was established, it was families moved into squats that were able to set a precedent of licenced squats for the rest of the squatters to follow.

Queer people often found security and acceptance through squatting.  Interviews with men who were involved in the Brixton gay squats of the 1970s reveals the assumption they made when moving into squats that homosexuality would be tolerated. Railton Road was squatted by many different types of people by the time the gay contingent arrived, forming a precedent for an alternative, radical network. Railton Road was ‘littered with alternative political groups. There was the Peoples News Service, the anarchist bookshop; there were two women’s centres’. Gay people felt accepted because the area was already radical. By assuming they would be accepted in squatting communities, different groups created communities that accepted them. Thus, Squatting helped to foster a collective identity. Similarly, moving to a squat because it suited one aspect of your lifestyle often lead to the engagement with the other politics occurring in the space.

Squats were often used as a base for other political or community oriented projects. At Aylesbury, since moving into our new, larger space, there has already been talk of hosting music nights, community dinners and bicycle workshops. ‘These kind of projects can serve a double function: they are good in themselves and they can help create links with people in the area who are not squatting.’

Not having to pay rent opens up a huge realm of lifestyle possibilities. Many realise they no longer need to have a job, or can choose jobs that pay less but are more enjoyable. This means that there is a lot of time for people to engage in projects that they find personally fulfilling. Squats are excellent bases for projects and are used accordingly. In Tolmers Square alone while some of the space was converted for living in, there was also space for a poster workshop, a workshop for repair work, a motorbike workshop, a bookshop, a fruit and vegetable coop, a space for community events, an artist’s studio, and an infoshop. These spaces also help to foster a sense of the communality as each worked to satisfy a different element of communal needs. The communality and the diminishing of the reliance on wage slavery for paying rents helps to develop in many people an anticapitalistic view of the world:

As a squatter, I find my need for the glittering world of status possessions becoming less and less. Buying less and enjoying it more. Because we spend less time at jobs we can spend more time taking care of our own needs which in turn saves a great deal of money… my daily life has been totally transformed… by really living together in a group the monetary value that is placed on certain functions by a consumer society is replaced by our own values which are based on real needs and real pleasures.

Wates & Wolmer, Squatting: The Real Story, (1980)

The very fact of not paying rent was a significant development in the lives of many squatters, that had a hugely politicising effect as people realised that freedom from rent meant freedom from work which effectively led to a far greater degree of personal, and collective, freedom.

In this essay I have presented my argument that squatting is inherently political. This argument is a direct response to the false binary propagated in the literature of both the squatters’ movement and subsequent scholarly material between political and non-political/deprivation squatters. In part one I argued that this binary is dangerous as it disrupts unity and allows the discourse to be shaped by the media. It was harmful to the movement at the time, and still affects the language of the squatting community today. The discourse of ‘good squatter/bad squatter’ is still as pervasive as ever, despite attempts to fight back against this unhelpful division.

The binary is a false one for several reasons. First, it suggests that there can be no overlap between those who squat out of housing need and those who squat as a form of political activism or as a base for political projects. Second, the binary is false because all squatting is political as it creates a conflict with the state. In part two I defined politics as conflict between those within the status quo and those without. I showed the ways in which squatters and the government, councils and police enter into a violent conflict. The reason for this degree of antagonism is because squatting posed a direct challenge to central tenet of state control: property rights.

In part three I showed the ways in which squatting itself can be politically transformative. I elaborated two main ways in which squatters become politicised: through experiences of solidarity and self-determined action, and through alternative lifestyles and communal living. In these ways individuals were able to explore the benefits of community and self-control in ways not available to many outside of the particular squatting subculture.

This paper has drawn out some of the problems pervasive in the squatters’ movement and also in the literature surrounding it. Within the movement, once the binary can be dissolved then energies can be refocused around issues of changing the media perception of squatting as a whole. It can also provide agency to those outside the traditional political domain through lack of property and allow them to redefine themselves as political agents. Likewise it can help to assuage some of the guilt that ‘political’ squatters, who do not need to squat out of deprivation, feel regarding their place in the movement, particularly as within the UK there is still an emphasis on the legitimacy of deprivation squatting over political in the media. To call the act of squatting political legitimises those who choose to engage in it for ideological reasons, as squatting should be encouraged regardless of social or economic background as a domain for resistance to hegemonic control over our homes, our lives and our consciousness.

This essay can be seen as a framework through which to explore these subjects and studies, as a foundation for a new historiography of squatting that no longer seeks to apply false divisions within a fluid and political movement. For scholars should always remember the basic idea presented throughout: once the crowbar has been wielded, the confrontation has begun.

-An Occupier

 


Further reading:

Bailey, The Squatters, (1973)

Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, (2000)

Squatting Europe Kollective, Squatting In Europe, (2013); The Squatters Movement in Europe, (2014)

Wates & Wolmer, Squatting: The Real Story, (1980)

Wates, The Battle for Tolmers Square, (1976)

Ward, Housing: An Anarchist Approach, (1983)

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