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Squat The Lot

May 10th, 2004 · post by anon · Make a comment

Squatting is not always done by political people, but to me it is a political act in itself. It is about reclaiming space and self-empowerment. The words on every copy of the Squatters Handbook read ‘Squatting is still legal, necessary and free’. Somehow free means something more than not having to pay for it. Squatting creates an autonomous space, an open space, and space where we decide what our lives will be about. The Squatters Handbook estimates 864,000 empties in the UK. Empty buildings are sitting there while thousands of people (though fewer people than there are buildings) are homeless or unable to pay rent. For many anarchists, squatting is practical application of the theory of self-empowerment, self-organization, life without money, the reclamation of spaces for people and by people from the state and capitalism, and the creation of autonomous spaces. Whether it is a home or a social centre, squatting is about people working together to take care of themselves – without the state and without bureaucracy. DIY and mutual aid in balance. It also means not having to pay rent.

The laws and logisitics of squatting in the UK are basically among the best you’ll find anywhere in the West, excepting maybe the Netherlands or possibly Switzerland. In most European and North American countries squatting is simply defined as breaking or entering or some other criminal offence. To squat in Spain, Italy, the US is almost always done as a form of militant political action (unless it is a crack den) because evictions and legal ramifications are violent and harsh. In the UK, squatting is legal and evictions are dealt with (or meant to be) as a civil matter in civil courts. Squatters have rights, though limited ones, in this country and you should almost always use them. It protects you from heavies and police raids, and it also helps keep alive the rights of all squatters. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Finding a squat is basically about taking initiative and looking for an empty. There is an empties list compiled and put up at 56a Infoshop (56 Crampton St, SE17 – Elephant and Castle, London), but it is rarely up to date. Every squat I’ve ever known anyone to find was by searching and/or luck. Riding a bike around, walking or just being aware on the bus. Just look. When you find a place, you and one or two other people – not a large group, as it draws attention – should go look at the place. Figure out how you can get in. Think about all the things you might need, whether it is better to go in during the day or night (fluorescent safety jackets can be a good outfit for daytime entry). Many really nice buildings often leave their windows open, sometimes doors are unlocked… Anyhow, no matter how you get in, never tell anyone how you got in. When asked by the owner, police or whoever, simply say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘a window was open’ or my friend’s favourite ‘squatter’s secret’. Only if you are caught in the act committing criminal damage is it an offence.

Once you are in the building you need to get a lock on the door immediately, first thing. Once your lock – any lock, even if it is an inner bolt – is on the door you are in legal possession of the building. So, if an alarm goes off or the police come, you want to get the the lock on fast. If the lock is on by the time someone arrives, it is too late. You can refuse them entry and claim the rights of possession. Never let a cop in unless you feel confident that they aren’t a threat. You have the right to refuse anyone entry. Once a lock is on, the squat is your home and you have the right to privacy – even at an open door social centre. Putting a Section 6 Legal Warning on the door (see Resources) is a good way of letting police and owners know you understand the law and your rights. Some squatters will say it is better not to put one on the door because is makes you more conspicuous (it is good to lie low at first). Yet, I think this isn’t right usually. One squat I was involved in got raided after one day by the police. This was an illegal raid, but they kicked the door down and we lost tons of couches, mattresses, and personal items of value to the collective. The police said that if they saw a Section 6 on the door then they would have been less likely to raid. I think it acts as a deterrent because it lets them know you are educated about your rights and the laws around squatting. That raid was illegal, though, and we should have prosecuted. It protects all squatters rights when you enforce your own. We shouldn’t have let the cops get away with that because it puts future squatters in the area at the same risk. Police will particularly pick on foreign squatters or non-political squatters for raids because they assume that they don’t know their rights. One legal justification for a raid is if the police feel you are stealing utilities. As electricity is easy to see, this is a common problem. Therefore, register electricity right away under any name you choose…

Technically, a new squat needs to be occupied at all times, and in practice this is often true. This is the legal justification for possession and it helps keep the new space safe. It is also a good idea to mail a letter to yourself to the squat’s address. This is sufficient to prove it is your home. As for holding onto a squat, it helps to know who owns the place. If you live in London, you can go to the Land Registrar in Lincoln’s Inn and to the Council Housing Office to find out who owns the building/freehold and if there is any planning permission on it. It is really on a case to case basis whether or not you should contact the owner if s/he hasn’t contacted you after a week or so, but usually people wait for the owner to contact them. Most owners will call or come by before issuing papers for court proceedings (unless it is a very large/rich company). Sometimes, more often than people think, owners will negotiate and give a verbal licence/consent for squatters to stay for awhile. If you are served with court papers and haven’t ever spoken to the owner, then it is worth tracking her/him down and trying to negotiate. I stayed in a squat where a verbal licence of nearly a year was negotiated after a possession order was granted. Keeping the place in good condition and not upsetting the neighbours are obviously among the best ways to gain a verbal consent to stay. As for the court case, you should contact ASS immediately after reading through the court papers served to you and come up with a legal strategy. (see below for their contact info)

I will not speak long on the issues of setting up leccy, water, gas, etc as it is sadly not my strongpoint – a gendered division of labour horribly remains and is recreated in activist communities… If you do not know how to hook up leccy, water, etc, then you can often find someone who will help you. If you don’t know anyone, then go by social centres in your city and talk to people. Often there is someone who wants to teach new squatters DIY skills. We should be self-sufficient. But have a look around yourself first. Go down to the basement. Find the fusebox, see if anything looks familiar – what looks connected or disconnected. Is it a coin meter or not? What kind of fuses does it have? As for water, it can often be quite easy if everything is in decent shape. Sometimes you just turn on the valve in the basement. If something has been cut, some plumbing work will be necessary. As for gas, many squats never set it up. It is more dangerous to get working and less people know how to do it. If it’s a short-term squat, many people don’t bother. There are electric cookers and heaters. For a long-term squat, it is often worth figuring out the gas because it reduces the leccy bill.

As a final bit, I’m going to have a small political rant. As I mentioned at the start, squatting in the UK is one of the easiest places to do it. This needs to be protected and preserved. Squats give us homes and they give us social spaces outside of the capitalist system. Between my home and the social centre where I focus my social and political life, I spend most of my time at these liberated spaces. In places where squatting is illegal and criminalised, people fight passionately to protect their squats. Squatted villages and social centres are evicted with guns and military police in places like Spain. In Britain, resisting an eviction (after the courts grant the owner possession) often only takes about 10 people and some basic door barricading. We should defend our homes and social centres. A couple months ago a social centre in Kentish Town/Tufnell Park resisted their eviction and the bailiffs never even tried to evict. The bailiffs left and still haven’t returned, though the squatters moved on to another building. A squatted home near Kentish Town tube station managed the same and are still waiting for bailiffs to return. When bailiffs evict a squat where no one resists, then it is fairly easy and they don’t need equipment. Yet, the slightest resistance means they need expensive equipment that the owner has to find the money to pay for. This can delay an eviction for months or lead to an agreement with the owner. Making evictions harder will also start making owners and the government think twice about evicting squatters out of hand. We should defend our homes and make squatting more accessible to those who really need it.

Resources:

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