Squatting, nostalgia, media

It annoys me no end to read articles by people who used to squat in the 1980s and who now dismiss the current squatting movement from a position of ignorance. It happens all too often that someone grandly declares how different things were back then compared to now, with the difference being that they used to be embedded in social struggles and now they are not.

The latest example in a whole chain of frustrating reads would be Charlie Higson’s piece in the Guardian, presumably written to promote a friend’s new exhibition about squatting at the ICA, judging from the photographs accompanying the article. To be fair, Higson does say he was not a “proper squatter” but he still falls for the trap of looking back with rose-tinted spectacles towards an idealised past whilst condemning current squatters as foreigners and criminals. Without realising it, he is slipping into reactionary discourses and repeating the easy stereotypes through which the mainstream media is happy to operate. As an ex-squatter, he should know better than to do that.

I want to address three of the claims he makes:

Claim1: There’s no houses left to squat

Higson states “there wasn’t a housing crisis in London then [in the 1980s].” Well, there was a crisis, but of a different sort. Councils had way more empty housing stock than they knew what to do with back then, whereas now property prices are so high that they even want to claw back and sell off houses which squatters have been living in for forty years. So today there is less social housing to squat, sure, but then the game is always changing and now there are loads of empty offices and shops.

The point is to liberate empty and derelict property which could be lived in, sometimes to save it from demolition or speculation, sometimes as a base for self-organised activity, always as an action against private property rights and capitalism. So now people occupy pubs, clubs, morgues, hospitals, all sorts of things. You can see marked on a map of London the tremendous range of buildings occupied for use as social centres over the years. And they are still being squatted today.

Claim2: The idealism of the past is now gone

The argument goes that squatters used to be idealistic, noble people who took on houses to renovate them and did a good job, but now “those days are probably over” and squatters are “militant Italians” to use Higson’s phrasing.

Even while admitting he was never “fired by an anarchist agenda”, Higson still buys into this nostalgic narrative of how things used to be. He seems to have forgotten that pitched battles and successful eviction resistances created the possibility for him and his friends to live in squats..

To address the specific case of the “militant Italians,” well I am not in possession of all the facts of the matter and it seems like an easy stereotype to resort to, a way to ‘other’ these people by defining them through their nationality and their politics. Maybe in the same way that they would call Higson a bourgeois bastard? A twitter conversation made it seem like Higson had met the squatters, but did he actually speak to them himself?What would their side of it be? There’s normally a few different truths floating around.

I don’t automatically see squatters as perfect, there have always been people who make noise, so yes some squatters do that, just as some renters do and even some home owners. At the end of the day, squatters are of course just people, like everyone else. All that makes them different is that they have decided to take their housing situation into their own hands. Classing them as “militant” and “Italian” only serves to back up the hegemonic discourse that declares such threats should be juridically repressed.

In my academic work I have attempted to show that blaming foreign squatters for everything is simply a classic example of a moral panic. Squatters become folk devils, a scary other. It’s not backed up by hard evidence, only by stories, often apocryphal or wrong in the details. That’s why I reserve judgement on Higson’s tale. The mainstream media tends to deal in straightforward stereotypes, the occasional good squatter who repairs buildings and gets on with her neighbours being praised, whilst otherwise bad squatters are sneered at. Especially the undeserving ones as opposed to the deserving poor, an arbitrary distinction if ever there was one.

Yet this is nothing new. Squatters have been pointing out how this happens for years, since the media stories about someone going out for a pint of milk to return to squatters have been around since the 1970s … Monty Python even did a sketch about it!


Claim 3: Squatting has no function any more

Higson says “When council properties dried up, squatting changed” and this baffles me. There are still a lot of empty buildings. There are now more homeless than ever before. At the end of a long piece in the London Review of Books about the housing crisis, James Meek suggests that “the advent of the age of gentrification doesn’t preclude the advent of slumification, and nostalgia becomes prophecy”. And yet Higson says about squatting “those days are over.”

It also needs pointing out that Higson is wrong to say squatting is now criminalised, since only squatting in residential buildings has been criminalised, through a badly administrated law which has been repeatedly questioned in its execution. For example in Brighton, three squatters walked free after the prosecution failed to prove they were living in a squat.

Squatting has and can still act as a useful social mechanism to keep property in use. Especially when there are so many people without even a roof over their head at night, to claim squatting is a thing of the past is simply astounding.

Of course it is unfortunate if someone dies or an acrimonious divorce leaves property languishing empty, of course I do not advocate immediate repurposing of property, that would not be common sense at all; but there is a need, and I see it as a moral need, for property to be used and not left empty.

So perhaps squatters push people to put their property back into use. This is surely a good thing. The rule should be use it or lose it, and this feeling is reflected in the doctrine of adverse possession. When speculators sit on houses for decades, councils do not move forward on plans, business ventures fail, military land lies derelict, old factories slowly rust, busted criminal enterprises stand empty, beautiful old courthouses are deemed too costly to run and buildings sit rotting for so long that no-one even knows who the owner is any more, then somebody NEEDS to take action.

In all these cases and more, squatting offers a (short term) use solution which I would argue is beneficial for everyone. Law or no law, squatting is not a crime and in any case rarely has a victim.

Yes, mistakes can and do happen, no, not all squats are well planned, but I do not see alcohol getting banned after someone glasses another person outside a pub. Indeed, it would take few of these incidents even for the pub to get closed down. Yet based on a few unfounded reports and a hysterical media campaign, the action of occupying an residential building was criminalised in 2012.

The take away

In fact, you might start to wonder if the ultimately successful moves to criminalise squatting in the Netherlands (in 2010) and England & Wales were part of a generally pan-EU tightening of restrictions designed to prevent the formation of new protest movements. At precisely the time that the austerity crisis bites and the lack of affordable housing options begins to impact on society, the best option to house oneself has been made much harder.

And yet squatting continues, as it will do as long as there are empties. Just this week there is the heartening news of the old stock exchange in Manchester being squatted by a group planning to do a homeless action centre over winter. The owners, two former Manchester United football players, have agreed to let the squatters remain there over winter. Now that’s the sort of story about squatting I like to read.