Squat the Lot!

Seeking shelter in abandoned buildings – squatting – is under attack in England and Wales. Mike Weatherley MP (a member so unpopular that when he appears in public he has rocks thrown at him) has already criminalised squatting in residential buildings, and is now leading the charge to criminalise squatting in commercial buildings.

As Marie Le Conte points out in this article from our spring issue, now is not the time to stop squatting: now is the time to SQUAT THE LOT! What the fuck are you waiting for?

All illustrations courtesy of the Squash Campaign.

Squat the Lot – a call to arms by Marie Le Conte.

Beyond the blatant injustice of it all, the most devastating thing about the news of the first two people being sent down under the new anti-squat law was their stories, printed in the paper. Squatting was not about moral arguments or political football anymore; for the first time, what we were reading about was the lives of these two men and the series of events that led to their imprisonment.

One had come to England, then lost his job and his girlfriend; the other had moved to London to find a job that didn’t exist. Both were arrested for the heinous crime of attempting to put a roof over their heads, and soothe the plastic anger of a handful of powerful bigots who’d rather see buldings rot than try and understand the lives of those less privileged than them.

We’ve had it up to here with the oh-so-difficult lives of smug rich tossers who care more about the empty notion of property and the importance of leaving buildings empty, rather than occupied by the wrong kind. What we need is more real life stories, by people like you and me – and since I’m here anyway, I guess I’ll go first.

Though I had to go back to the world of kind-of-renting last month, as the Graduate Without a Future I’m about to become needs a bit of stability (at least for now), there are a decent amount of stories I’d like to share. My experiences might not be the best or the worst you could read on the subject, but they’re my own – if you feel like your tales are a hundred times more exciting than mine then, please, do write them up somewhere. Far from being an end in itself, this piece should merely be a beginning.

I guess I started squatting more or less by mistake: being part of the generation which got brutally radicalised during the 2010/11 student protests, I first spent a few months around projects like the Really Free School, and toying with the idea of kindly telling my landlord to fuck off. It all happened quite suddenly, when someone offered me a room in the squatted Hand In Hand in Elephant & Castle, and a combination of shower, washing machine and sink breaking down simultaneously made me realise that I was perhaps paying too much for my crackden-like flat.

The windows were covered in Sitex, which made our pub look like a bunker, but the old furniture was still there and the great weather meant that we were spending all our time in the garden anyway. The possession order had been served already, so we knew we only had about a month left, but decided to build a swimming pool anyway. We’d spent days removing needles from the ground, as the bulding used to be a brothel-cum-genuine-crackden, so we felt like we’d gained the right to enjoy our backyard.

A part of me always felt that it was too good to be true and, sadly, it was. One evening, after having finished to lay down the bricks and mortar at the bottom of the pit we’d dug, we all went to bed, only to be woken up at seven by a squat mate shouting something about men in suits destroying the front door. Half dressed and definitely not awake, we all ran downstairs; at the window, we saw six overtanned and comically muscular men taking turns with a sledge hammar to try and get through our door. And laughing about it. They tried and tried but, unable to get past our barricades, ended up using an angle grinder to break through a window.

Only then did they decide to inform us that the owners of the building had applied for another possession order at the High Court, which meant that they didn’t have to notify us of our impending eviction. We had, they announced, fourty five minutes to collect our belongings, otherwise they’d be locked in the pub without a chance of getting them back. The sequence of events was absurd: within an hour and a half, fourteen people went from asleep in their home to sitting on a pile of mattresses in the street, wondering what the fuck to do next.

Fast forward two weeks, via a friend’s couch and a note on the squatters board of the 56a Infoshop, and onto an ex-laundry shop in Shoreditch. No shower – again – bucket powered toilets, but a direct view on Columbia Road flower market on Sundays, and a quiet place to enjoy the summer. Though once again, it all fell down too quickly: after a mere two weeks, two builders employed by the owners turned up, and threatened to evict us by force, whether we wanted it or not.

Terrified, we called our friends, who couldn’t not come, then the police, explaining that we still had squatters rights, and were afraid they’d beat us up. A copper did turn up ten minutes later, but, rather unsurprisingly, did not take our side: when I asked if he realised that he was about to not only make three young women homeless for no reason, but also break the law himself, he shrugged and said that he knew, but could not care less. ACAB, indeed. The three pigs eventually decided to give us til the next morning to clear off, unless we wanted to get arrested for, well, y’know… something.

After an excruciating night of planning and discussions, we decided to go our separate ways. And once again, I ended up knocking on the door of a friend’s house at dawn, with a pile of suitcases, and apologising profusely.

My third try was more successful – and nearly unbelievable. The building was absolutely gigantic, and its front, entirely made of glass, was directly on the banks of the Thames. It’d been built as a yuppie restaurant in Greenwich, but was so hidden from the main road that they never managed to get any customers. The bar was still full of posh glasses and cutlery, and though the (now customary) lack of shower or functioning toilets (and, this time, electricity) was a bit complicated, we all got used to it quickly enough. And to be frank, you can’t say you know “dystopian” til you’ve spent your evenings in a large and empty dining room lit exclusively by candles, and the lights from the Canary Wharf skyscrapers from across the river.

The charm of our big open space started to fade,however, when some of us attempted to bring people home late at night, and effectively woke up absolutely everyone. Besides which, some of us had noticed a big mansion-like building in Walworth that’d been empty for several months. Secret plans were hatched, a team was formed, and once it was certain that it was unoccupied and likely to remain so, we got to work. As it turned out, we’d just hit the jackpot: while our friends who’d stayed in Greenwich got swiftly evicted by the owners boarding up the windows and literally leaving them in the dark, the Elephant & Castle squat is still proudly going, a year and a half later.

Not that it’s really a squat anymore: when we moved in, and the owners expectedly turned up, they turned out to be surprisingly receptive to our plea, which was something along the lines of “please don’t kick us out, we’re tired and we just want a home we can take care of”. Whilst relatively reasonable, this type of message is generally greeted by property owners with a big, bold “fuck off”, swiftly followed by a court date.
ut not this time: after a few meetings at their offices, we agreed on a month by month rolling-contract, a peppercorn rent of a pound a month, and got ourselves comfortable in our barely-falling-apart new house. It had everything: electricity, a shower, two kitchens – a bath! – and even a garden, which foxes ended up using more than us. Blame the terrible British weather.

This brings us to the end of my tale, which I would have liked to be a happy one, but sadly cannot be. In our time living in a stable squat, we ended up becoming a refuge for those less lucky than us – and boy, there was a lot of them. From the one who turned up on our doorstep with a black eye because he’d been beaten up by thugs hired by a landlord, to those who kept getting kicked out again and again, legally or illegally, it simply never stopped. And the new law only made it worse: by strictly having to stay in commercial properties, many ended up in absolute shitholes, when there are so many residential places in London that could do with occupiers.

Sadly, this may only be the start: Parliament is planing to criminalise squatting in commercial properties as well, and if we let it, more and more people will be driven to the streets, or on to these few overcrowded places that are lucky to be legal and safe.

The theme of this edition is sedition, so I guess this is my call to arms. If you squat or used to squat, please talk and write and shout about it as much as you can. Our stories need to be heard. And if you’re stuck in a shit flat in a shit part of London, wondering why the fuck you bother to spend most of your money on an overpriced rent, then start considering your options.

The most beautiful thing about squatting is the sincere solidarity between everyone involved. As a community, it is stronger than anything I’ve seen, or was ever hoping to see. Whilst not wanting to fall into the cliché of the union making us strong, I so honestly believe that if more people could start squatting, nothing could stop us. And, quite frankly: if I’ve managed to do it for two years, then so can you. Or, in a nutshell: what the fuck are you waiting for?

Pick up your copy of Strike! here