PUBLIC BOOK DISCUSSION: VASUDEVAN’S ‘AUTONOMOUS CITY’
New Roots Co-operative Shop, Sheffield. 7th February 2019. Part of the Making Space exhibition.
Public discussion with Alex Vasudevan (AV) author of The Autonomous City & Sam Burgum (SB), associate researcher at the Urban Institute.
AV: The first thing to say is that conversations around the history of urban squatting are, by their very nature, incomplete. There’s so much more work to be done and, in the process of writing this book, the realisation that I came across was that in many ways this was an introduction to conversations, debates, really intense political struggles, commitments and solidarities. You can’t really do justice to it in the kind of panoramic sweep that I was intending to offer. So the book was really just a starting point, a kind of opening into these conversations. What’s really exciting is, people like Sam, there’s so many people working around these issues right now, so there seems to be a groundswell of interest. Not only around housing insecurity (unsurprising given the housing crisis here in the UK), but the extent to which squatting and occupation practices perhaps offer a window into thinking differently about housing in cities. So I guess, in the context of the book, I was just trying to answer some basic questions about why thousands of activists chose to break the law, why did they choose to occupy vacant flats and buildings across Europe and North America from the late 60’s onwards to the present?
This obviously encompasses a number of places that are familiar to us, not only in London but also Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Bologna… etc etc… So I was interested in those places, but also trying to make sense of these actions. To what extent were they dictated by necessity? Or were they also representing a desire to imagine different ways of living together? And in trying to answer those questions, I was also interested in who were these squatters? What were the essential characteristics of squatting? Goals, actions, repertoires, political influences… So the project was really an attempt to answer those questions. And I spent a fair bit of time travelling across Europe and North America, spending time in info-shops and archives, institutional or otherwise, trying to piece together at least a provisional story which tries to understand the significance of squatting, and struggles around not only the ‘right to the city’, but the struggle to imagine different urbanisms more generally as well. So that was the context out of which the book emerged. It also emerges out of the context in which I had done earlier research for many years in Berlin. So this project sort of piggy-backed on top of that much earlier set of concerns, which were framed maybe in a more academic tone, whilst this book was meant to be written for a wider audience, and perhaps have a slightly wider lens (as it were) in deploying and understanding these issues.
And obviously, trying to think about these issues as a geographer, I was really interested in cities not only as crucibles of political action and political struggle, but equally sites of creativity and experimentation. And often those two ways of thinking about the city intersected in the ways in which we can think about squatting as a process dictated by necessity, but equally one often shaped by the desire to think differently as well. Those dynamics really influenced the way in which I thought about the issues in the book.
SB: The book has this ‘people’s history’ feel about it, in terms of the way in which you bring in these different events and the archives that you’ve used to build that history across the different cities. How did you choose the cities that you wanted to look at? Was it the ones which had the biggest reputation for squatting?
AV: I think there was a number of factors. One was that, in doing the earlier work in Berlin, it became clear that the history of squatting in Berlin was inevitably shaped by narratives, actions, and practices that had emerged elsewhere. And that when we talk about solidarities and networks that we think about in terms of contemporary activism, those had a historical context as well, in the sense that squatters travelled between cities and they shared ideas, they shared practices. They often spent time in different spaces and so I often followed some of those trajectories. Inevitably, I chose larger cities where there was a larger archival footprint. But nevertheless, I think that was certainly an inspiration. So like the longstanding connections between Berlin and Amsterdam, [or] connections that looked north to Hamburg and Copenhagen. And actually I think London remains a central city in a lot of these stories. Even if the archival remainders haven’t necessarily always been talked about in the way they deserve. I think in some sense I was trying to follow those connections. And even in the Lower East Side of New York, alot of the people involved in that scene looked across the Atlantic, and there was a sense of connection across movements and struggles across Western and Northern Europe.
I think there’s more work to be done and the book didn’t spend as much time in Southern Europe as it deserves. And that is an omission that I am still thinking about. I mean there’s a chapter about Italy, but again its quite panoramic, and there’s so much going on in Spain right now that I need to think about that much more carefully.
SB: I think Italy is a book in itself to be honest!
Audience: Or Greece, Athens, as well. I know there are a few really huge scale refugee housing projects in Athens I think. I’ve been reading some really mixed accounts of their successes and failings.
SB: I think that one of the things which is most shocking about Greece is the sheer violence that’s going on, with Golden Dawn setting off petrol bombs in front of squats and things like this. Its just stuff you don’t hear about except through this kind of research.
AV: Yeah, it feels like Berlin in the early 1990s with that level of confrontation in the wake of the Berlin wall. Where you had a local, far right presence in the centre of the city, especially 89, 90, 91, and similar things were taking place. And there was a sense that the right to the city was actively contested in ways that were incredibly confrontational and violent. And so, looking back at that moment, and understanding the re-emergence of the far right, certainly many people who went through those struggles are very worried about the resurgance of these kinds of street movements. And certainly squatted spaces – you mentioned Greece, but elsewhere as well – have been targeted in this context across Europe.
SB: Well, even the original ASS offices in London was supposed to be right wing arson attack, wasn’t it? When that burnt down on St Paul’s Road.
AV: Yes I think these histories are important. And one of my anxieties about the infoshops and the archives they store – not to downplay the danger this violence poses to people – but also to those histories. In the sense that… at the Papiertiger in Berlin they have a huge metal grill that comes down over the door, so it makes it much more difficult to firebomb. And within that space you have the entire life and pulse of an alternative city captured in paperwork. So there’s alot of work going into digitising this material, because its the only way to be sure that those histories are in some sense recovered, and remain a source of information but also a source of connection with people working on similar struggles right now.
SB: So in the London chapter you talk about archiving and how the London movement seems to particularly like archiving every movement and action. So I was wondering, is it unique to the London movement or is it…
AV: No, no absolutely not. I mean, there’s various versions of it. They run the spectrum from infoshops to alternative spaces where you’ve having to actually sit through material that in many cases hasn’t been carefully organised. And during that process you’re becoming your own archivist to try and manage and look at stuff. And in many cases that stuff has been collected but never really returned to by anyone. The other side to it is, you go to Copenhagen, and you go to the National Archives, Christiania and much of the material they’ve collected (people who have been involved in that particular community) have donated the material to the National Archives. So you can actually, and I did this, go online and order all this material. Flew over to Copenhagen. And then suddenly someone wheels in all this material into a cubicle in the National Archive.
Now on the one hand, for me, it was terrifyingly seamless. But also, it was nice to see that that history was being taken seriously in the national narrative. There’s many things to criticise about that normalisation, but also there was a sense that that material was in many ways was protected as well. So it was interesting that that played a role within the collection they have at the National Archives. I was certainly the only person looking at that material in the archives! Everyone else was looking at these amazing property maps and all this kind of stuff, and I was looking at stuff from Christiania. But similarly, on the Lower East Side, the squatters in New York have donated material to the Tamiment Library. Which is New York University’s archive on labour struggles and resistance. NYU charges $60,000 a year for tuition. And they have this very beautiful library which has all this great material on squatting. Its very well protected, but it feels like a very strange space to be working in.
SB: I think also… there’s a similar discussion with colonial archives. Where if you take those objects away from a community… whether you lose control and you lose some sort of authority that that history represents and those objects represent. So its a trade-off between an archive being protected from leaks, from eviction, and from arson, or losing control of it, potentially, by going into a bigger institution.
AV: Yeah, and that notion of institutionalisation has been written about by people who are very concerned about those issues. I think what is nice about the situation at NYU is that people who are looking at the material, are often people who have a kind of connection to those histories. So there’s been quite a sensitive attempt to curate that material. Its still a strange space to work in, but I think there’s been a compromise and a trade-off there. I expect Bishopsgate [Institute] is the kind of place in London where you have… it doesn’t feel institutional in that sense. But its a good place, as a repository for alot of this material as well.
SB: Yes. I remember during Occupy, the British Museum going round and taking placards, and installations, and being predatory archivists. Like ‘we need to save this stuff’… ‘but its not over yet! we’re still protesting!’
Audience: Another interesting thing with the archives and stuff is that almost every squat or similarly-aligned space has material which has either just been left there, or has become a curated infoshop. But I wonder how much… do you have any sense of how much has been saved or how much is going to be lost?
AV: I think there’s a lot of material that has been saved, which is really chastening in a good sense. I remember being in Bologna recently, a year ago, and we attended the meeting of a social centre and it was a meeting of the people involved in the archive. And what struck me was it was just local people form that neighbourhood, who had spent time being involved in that social centre, so they had a really intimate knowledge of all the materials and what was there. So I think as with so many other things, there’s kind of an incremental accumulation of material, and people have a good sense of what that material is, and alot has been recovered. Not just written material, but objects as well. So I think that’s important to reflect on. I think for people working on these issues we really have only scratched the surface at this stage, with the richness of the archives we’re working with.
SB: I mean, the ASS archives has decades of legal documents from protecting squatters in the courts. Its just stuff that’s accumulated. And there also seems to be a tradition in, maybe the 70s and 80s, where different squats around Europe, whenever they made a newsletter, they’d send it to all the other squats. So there’s a collection of stuff from Amsterdam in the 70s, and things like this, in the ASS archives.
AV: Yes you get the equivalent in Amsterdam and so on. Its amazing how closely connected these spaces and these communities were in that period, in a way that predates social media. Real time networking that we take for granted, but seemed to exist in the same way at that particular moment.
TYPES OF SQUATTING
SB: So I wanted to talk about London, and in particular, what strikes me about your chapter on London is that it chimes with that bit you have in introduction where you’re defining squatting. And you’ve got Hans Pruijt’s definition, which is quite technical, scientific and precise, and then you go into Colin Ward, and finally into the ‘right to the city’ type of stuff. And it becomes wider and more political. What strikes me about London, is that it’s those definitions in microcosm. It starts with a strict aim – a housing movement, we have to shelter people – but then its that crossover with other aims. So when it becomes part of wider movements or cultural means to ends and refuges and alternative lifestyles and all sorts of diverse ends. And its seems that London goes through those stages from the 60s to maybe the late 90s?
AV: Yes. Its one of the difficult issues that its easy to focus on one desire, to meet a basic housing need or put a roof over your head, versus this impulse to experiment and live differently. Alot of work goes into separating those two moments out, especially by the tabloid press in this country, which likes to use one to attack the other in some ways… But my sense is that there is a lot more messiness there. There’s sometimes that very basic need to sort out housing which leads to carving out alternatives as well. On the other side, those alternatives might become catalysts for alternative ways to thinking about housing. So that spectrum I would like to hold to and I tried to in the chapter in London, which was obviously to narrate a history which is partly shaped by insecurity and precarity. But equally begins to articulate other questions around what it means to be a squatter. And I think those things I tried to hold in suspension. One of the things that chapter is trying to do is say that what a ‘squatter’ is is many different things, and ‘who’ is a squatter… there were many different people involved in squatting. So I think one of the aims of that chapter was to provide that kind of perspective.
SB: Yes, for me that really comes across. And the problem in the media is you get this ‘deserving/undeserving’ idea that if you squat for housing, you have a reason to do it, whereas if you squat for any other reason, you’re just doing it for a lifestyle choice. And I quite liked how you presented it as… if you’re looking for somewhere for shelter or refuge, then you’re looking for this wider questions around housing, property, community and all these kinds of wider questions. But also part of the complexity is that individuals can be artists and homeless at the same time, for example, so its not necessarily a journey, but those different types of squatting are mixed up in the same individuals as well.
AV: The danger is when you try and separate those out. You know, the idea that when you’re homeless you can ‘only be’ homeless, that does so much negative work that very pejorative understanding of how struggles people face with housing insecurity rules out who they are in other ways. You do see alot of the different struggles and movements in cities, where there is a kind of process of coalescing around precisely what you are describing… someone may need to satisfy basic housing need, but at the same time, that becomes part of another kind of process. I hate to use the word ‘journey’ because that’s an awful one to use in this context, but in this case it is a process of… you know it changes your identity in all kinds of complex ways. And you see that reflected in the way that squatters often talk about their own experiences in many cases. Not exclusively so, I don’t want to romanticise that process, but in many cases many of the people who have been involved in this have found a political space as well.
Audience: It was interesting that you were talking about people who are doing it by necessity are the ones who have a good reason for doing it. When I think about France, for example, culturally it will be probably more accepted to live in a squat if you’re doing it for activist reasons, than if you’re just homeless. And its really clear. So alot of people do that kind of ‘lifestyle choice’ by becoming activist first. So it becomes a whole thing where activism and lifestyle are so entangled they’re just one big thing. And they’re almost seen as more deserving than people who don’t have a house.
AV: Yeah! I mean, Nazima Kadir writes very powerfully about the social capital you often associate with squatting. And that sometimes, there are those who – I don’t want to say ‘adopt’ an activist persona – but, inhabit the world of activism. Which confers on them a certain status in activist spaces. Which if you were to appear simply as ‘homeless’ may not be necessarily performed in the same way in the context of that space. So there are complex power plays and power geometries, which kind of look at it more in… I don’t want to say a ‘negative light’, but maybe portrays the complexity and tensions that emerge in these struggles. And that’s why that kind of dynamic gets exploited in the press alot because its a really pressure point around housing insecurity and activism. That’s a gross simplification, but its certainly something that came up in alot of conversations, but also alot of the work on first-hand accounts of alot of movements.
SB: I mean, there seems to be a history in the UK where, after the 2nd World War and up to the 60s when it comes back into fashion to squat, its always very explicitly a housing movement first. And then there’s the Hippie squats in the late 60s. And you get these massive tensions between people who are seen to be squatting as a ‘lifestyle choice’ and people who are seen to be squatting because they’ve got nowhere else to go. And that tension stays there…
Audience: Yes. But the housing crisis in this country is just on another level to whatever happened in France after the war. Probably because there was still, at the time, alot of countryside which had the space to welcome people. So it has been much stronger here. Its probably not the case anymore, there’s just as much homelessness in France than anywhere else, but that’s a more recent thing. And so I’m not surprised that the housing side of the movement would be much stronger here, and especially in London.
SB: Yeah yeah. The thing is you still get these tensions now. Movements that are for housing homeless people, can’t stand the more artistic squats, they see it as serving homelessness only. And when people squat places for art exhibitions and things like that, they kind of see it as a waste of a building – ‘burning through a building’ – like you’ve wasted that opportunity. It could have been a shelter. Which is a narrow way of looking at the artistic and cultural side of it, but they’re the tensions that have remained probably since the 60s, of how you use these buildings and what purposes you put them to.
Audience: Yes. Whereas I think it might be quite different with activist groups [in France]. Generally it would be using space which other people can’t use, so there’s always a purpose to the space, and it could not be just anywhere else.
Audience: I suppose in your book you also talk about ACME sitting alongside other occupied terraced streets of houses in London. So I wondered if you saw a tension between people who were occupying terraces as squatters, as opposed to those occupying ACME properties who were living in similar ways, but were slightly more institutionalised?
AV: Yeah I mean I think there has been longstanding tensions between the kind slightly different, I guess, repertoires of practices and commitments that… with the more institutionalised and ACME mobilised versus the people ‘squatting’ (whether we want to frame it in terms of necessity or squatting on a more individual basis, in which there many people in East London during the period I’ve been looking at). I think what was really interesting to think about and… my sense of chatting with people about that moment is a sense that we should be a little bit more circumspect on some of the tactics ACME were involved in, and perhaps you can detect a history of other kinds housing strategies which have emerged more recently in the UK, things like property guardianship, which are quite interesting, where you have more institutionalised approaches to informal housing. So I think its quite interesting and the issues mobilised by ACME are part of that story, absolutely. And you see that replayed in a number of other cities as well, so whether its across Europe or in North America as well.
SB: Yes, because in addition to these tensions between housing or culture and art squats, you also get these tensions with what it means to be a ‘squatter’ and whether you should be able to accept negotiating with the council. Whether that’s selling out…
Audience: Yes! So the issue of licensed squatting you talk about it totally unfamiliar to me…
AV: There were of course short-term co-ops whose licenses were distributed in the 70s and 80s, most of those now do not exist. But the notion of a licence is exactly the same thing that property guardians depend on. Some would argue its about conditionalising housing and stripping people of their tenants’ rights, there are some very interesting tensions here, and some have argued that the move to licences long term has not been a good thing for thinking about housing insecurity.
SB: And of course you also have the squatter amnesty in 1977, and alot of people point to that as the death of that moment in squatting. Because so many people decided to become tenants, that it kind of killed the whole reason why they were supposed to be taking these empty buildings in the first place. But then you get other people saying that the whole point of the movement was to secure housing, so if we’ve been able to squat a building and negotiate with the council to stay, then we’ve achieved our goal.
AV: Yeah. I mean the politics around negotiation are very fraught I think. You see similar debates in Berlin in the 1980s, those who negotiated and those who were unwilling to do so, and that left deep scars in terms of the housing movement in the city in the 1980s which, in some ways were never really resolved. Many of the spaces that were legalised have survived to this day in some form, many of the people who were involved through the early struggles are still there, but alot of people are no longer involved in that kind of activism. And that tension, that faultline, was crucial, some would argue, in breaking the more politically-minded or militant aspects of the squatting scene. In some sense, a neighbourhood like Kreuzberg (which many of you may be familiar with) has in the last few years been hyper-gentrified, but squatters did provide a modicum, a modest resistance to that process in the 80s and 90s, and Kreuzberg is very different to what it would have been has squatting not existed. So I think we need to cling onto those histories! Because they did matter and some of the spaces still exist now. And ironically many of that older generation, have been the catalyst for the revival of housing-based movements more generally, so… There’s something interesting about the relationship between the present and that history which I find quite compelling in that respect.
SQUATTING AND SUBCULTURE
SB: So do you think that after [the amnesty] in 1977 and that split in the movement is part of the reason why it becomes more like an underground subculture throughout the 80s and 90s? So you get that kind of, the people who were just in it for housing have got their goal, so they stop being part of the wider movement and protest, while others go into the more subcultural style of squatting?
AV: Yeah, I think that’s partly right. But also I think, in addition to that, the emergence of a youth social movement across Europe is part of why it became more of a subcultural ethos. There’s been a lot of good work done on trying the track the connections between different forms of youth politics with the very idea of subcultures mobilised. I think there’s something about the 80s as a response to incipient neoliberalism which almost produces subcultures that resist urban revanchism and regeneration. Its not just about a moment in London when you see, some people, deciding to legalise their practices. But I also think, alongside that, I think you see the production of subcultures which are a political response to that particular moment. So I think there’s two things going on there. One is, you’re absolutely right, subcultures emerged as a response to the division or the ways in which the scene seemed to take on a number of different forms, or squatting more generally adopted a number of different practices. But I think there’s something about the late 70s and 80s where the very idea of subculture becomes very important as a way of asserting political claims to struggles for the city. And that’s certainly an argument that a number of historians have made in recent years, trying to write the history of the 1980s as a kind of alternative history. And the very word ‘subculture’ becomes a way of telescoping that history. So I think there’s something interesting there. Certainly that gets picked up on work in Germany as well, with youth movements and so on, and there’s something about the sense that there was still a time and space for young people to experiment in ways that young people today don’t seem to have because of very specific pressures around work, around education, around the precarity that’s conferred on them. That seemed very different in the 80s, even though the 80s was very much a movement of ravanchism in other ways. So I think there’s something about the 80s that’s worth following on its own terms as well, so I think squatting kind of gets produced as part of that process I would argue…. I mean that’s a gross simplification but…
SB: Yeah. Well I mean you talk about in the book how, in the 70s, there was the availability of empty housing. As a very practical reason as to why people can squat, because there’s loads of empty housing that’s been compulsorily purchased by local authorities in London as part of regeneration schemes, and then they can’t do anything with them so they just get squatted. Whereas I guess, by the time you get to the 80s, Thatcher is starting to sell all that off? So maybe you don’t have the availability of empty housing as much, so maybe squatting turns more towards underground practices, or you get more mobile scenes like the raves and free festivals in the late 80s?
AV: Yeah absolutely. But also I mean, if you talk to activists in South London in particular, there were still thousands of empty properties in the 80s. Kind of Hallworth, Lambeth, down the Old Kent Road, that part of London there was alot going on. So the Old Ambulance Station, which was basically not only a squat but a gig space where alot of bands cut their teeth in the 1980s, was an important part of that subculture you’re describing. But there’s also alot of other things going on around squatting organisation, which I think gravitated more southwards in London at that moment. So I think there’s also reorganisation of the microgeographies of these kinds of activisms of that period. And that’s partly a product of what comes out of housing being sold off, and the regeneration schemes taking off, but I think there were still these pockets of empty housing that people were trying to exploit at that time. There seemed to be alot of interesting things that were going on the 80s, and I know speaking to alot of people at the infoshop in London who are trying to unpack this history in a little more detail. Chris at 56a knows more about that history than anyone else I can think of.
SB: That brings us back to the archives doesn’t it!
AV: Yeah I mean ultimately alot of this is about trying to hold onto these materials. It feels like we’re living in a moment when these possibilities are incredibly difficult, so… There is a kind of utopian look backwards because its something to try and cling onto as well. And certainly I sometimes feel guilty of almost living vicariously through these stories, which is something I don’t want to do, but it’s hard not to when you’re hearing some of the things that transpired. And the apocryphal stories of… For example there’s a story in the book about a group of squatters in Copenhagen who dug a tunnel, and when the police arrived they all did a runner, and they just left a note saying ‘Bye! We’re gone!’. And these kind of urban myths that accrue around that, they still kind of give you a certain frisson about a different moment. Which I do miss in some ways, but I have to not feel that way, because its not very politically productive!
OPPRESSION OF SQUATTING
SB: So, one of the other things I was hoping we could talk about is the militarisation and oppression by police. And the story that opens the book, which is a military operation to evict this youth squat in Copenhagen, is quite striking in terms of a longer trend of the militarisation of the police and how they handle informal spaces.
AV: Yes. There’s so many different versions of this history that need to be written. One thing I didn’t do in the book, which I wish I had done, is actually talk to the people who were involved on the police side of things. There are various political commitments which made that process incredibly hard for me to do! But I think it would have been quite interesting because, actually in Germany, there are videos produced by the police about how to best do an eviction. And police training manuals have these explanations around the best way to carry out an eviction on a squat. So there is a kind of pseudo-science around these practices which, when you think about it, is incredible in many ways. And some have argued that that eviction in Copenhagen, which was the Youth House in 2007 I think, there were observers from a number of police forces from the air at that event, there was a real sense that that eviction was treated as a laboratory for rolling out new forms of militarised policing. Which involved helicopters, which involved commandos, which involved at one point spraying foam onto the windows which would harden so the windows couldn’t open, so that squatters couldn’t throw things at the police. So there was a whole series of tactics which were rolled out at that eviction which were quite interesting.
It’s alleged that Mark Kennedy, of activist impersonation fame, was at that eviction. I mean, the only person who has told that story is Mark Kennedy, so I’d take that with a pinch of salt. But that’s quite interesting in terms of the way in which evictions were treated as laboratories for rolling out new forms of policing. But also the amount of times there were evictions when there were actually tanks involved, is quite terrifying prospect. Whether in New York in the 1990s, or that famous photograph in Amsterdam of an armoured carrier bulldozing barricades with squatters on top. So this militarisation of policing has a genealogy. And I think there is more work to be done around that, and I think especially the role of bailiffs which has changed a great deal over the last 40 years. There’s some great photographs from the 1960s where squatters are literally throwing bailiffs out of the house, which obviously you would not legally be allowed to do now. But also some of the bailiff organisations in the UK, who have been involved in some high-profile evictions, have emerged out of the 1980s and the Thatcher moment. One of them came out of a military background. They pride themselves on being able to deal with activists. I mean that story, there’s more to be told on that, and trying to think about how we’ve got to that place of militarisation.
SB: Yeah. Is it the Redbridge eviction where all the bailiffs are National Front and they’re hired thugs to basically get rid of the London Squatter Campaign in the 1960s?
AV: Yeah, actually I think the name of the guy who was involved at Redbridge, his name comes up in the Enoch Powell archives as well. I might be wrong on that, but at the time of writing the book I was trying to trace these names as well, because I was trying to work out if there was a wider ecology of far right and militarisation of eviction processes taking place, and that name comes up if my memory serves me correctly. So I think that is the case, absolutely. In Spain, the Guardia Civilia do loads of the evictions in private buildings, and that’s basically the military police. So that kind of militarisation is really instructive. One story is that there was a building in Turin, which is an old stables from the 18th century. The building next to it is the police station, but when they came to some event, they still got into their police cars and drove through, even though the police station is part of the same complex! In some cases, they are side by side geographically as well, but ultimately alot of violence one doesn’t want to downplay in any circumstances. There’s the famous case in New York where the wrecking ball was literally demolishing a squat and there was still someone inside of the building and they had to stop to rescue this person. So eviction is a form of intense violence.
SB: I guess it still happens regularly on a smaller level. I’ve heard a few stories now where property owners have been very embarrassed by the fact there’s squatters in their building, so they basically just hire some people to basically beat up the squatters and get them out. So its not even necessarily big, spectacular pieces of violence, it can be individual occasions.
AV: Yeah, I know in Berlin, where the squatters are phoning police, saying there’s a thug trying to beat us up. And then the police show up. Its sort of like when you have those two spidermen pointing at eachother in that cartoon! But in those moments the police are like ‘hold on, why are we…’ But its because someone has actually contracted out some thugs and muscle. And actually squatters were perfectly within their rights to… I mean some would argue, why are you phoning the police. But nonetheless that did take place.
SB: Well, it’s tricky isn’t it. You have to strike that balance between self-policing as an autonomous space, which doesn’t always work out. I know at least one example where they’ve actually had to get hold of the property owner to help them get rid of some of the other squatters in the building, because they just couldn’t do it themselves. I’m sure that’s not very common, but it just shows that kind of difficulty of who is in the space, who is allowed in the space, how you handle people getting violent or stealing stuff…
AV: I mean, like that ‘negotiation/non-negotiation’ tension, this is a really important one about just the broader relation of squatters to “the state” I guess. Some people feel like negotiation and that kind of relationship makes sense to them, others feel uncomfortable about that situation for a whole host of important reasons. So that kind of struggle is part of this as well, absolutely.
CRIMINALISATION AND PROTECTING PROPERTY
Audience: Do you think there’s any… thinking about squats as being an early space of a militarised police response. I wonder what it is about squatting and housing which first inspired the need for such a response, and I wonder how much the legitimate/illegitimate squatter dichotomy affected the amount of violence being used on squatters?
AV: I think the police are upholding the sanctity of property in some way, that becomes the police playing a role in that process, and I think that’s part of the story. That being said, I think there has certainly been a racheting up of that [violent] process. I mean, if you were to try and squat Berlin today, by the time you’ve got your crowbar out of the bag the police would already be there. So, there’s a sense that that kind of response to people taking their housing needs into their own hands has really changed. That differs in other parts of Europe I would suspect. But there seems to have been an intensification and a shoring up of this kind of need to protect property, at precisely the same juncture as the housing crisis has intensified. And that seems to make alot of sense in some ways. Policing is there to respond and manage that process. In some ways, to use a phrase which is used in a very different context, to incarcerate that process. Because criminalisation does a particular kind of work I would argue.
SB: Its difficult to… because I agree that its connected to the financial crisis. Its connected to speculation and wanting to keep buildings empty. In 2012, when they criminalised residential squatting in the UK, in the same month they increased the length of time you could keep a building empty before the council were able to take it back off you. New Labour had this law that after 6months, if the building was empty, the council could take it back. But at the same time as they criminalised squatting, they extended it to two years. So its very hard to not see those things as connected. But at the same time, unless you’re going to claim there was a conspiracy, its hard to make those connections explicit. Are they literally sitting down and thinking ‘we need to get rid of squatting so we can make more money off empty buildings’.
AV: Well, I’d rather talk about structures rather than people sitting around in a room, in the sense that the criminalisation of squatting was in one sense – at least here in the UK – about shoring up a political base in terms of the Conservative party (and this is such a dog whistle issue for many of their voters). You know, in a sense that exceeds the issue itself, even the police were like ‘you don’t have to do this’ and ‘it ties our hands’ and ‘it creates work that we don’t have the resources to respond to’. And so when that process went through, it very much felt like it was about ticking a box in terms of being a dog whistle issue which is an easy win for us. At the same time, there is a more structural dynamic about the nature of vacancies in cities and managing that process. And the extent to which property markets were partly dependent on vacancies. I think they overlap rather than there being a linear, neat explanation. Obviously intensified policing often responds to particular moments. And that can get racheted up very quickly and we certainly see that in the last few years.
This was an issue they wanted since the 1970s, this particular political constellation if you want to call it that, they’ve been waiting for that moment. That’s partly the reason that Mike Weatherly was rolled out as the person involved, there was both a sense that this was something they wanted to do, but I think there was also a sense of this being a cyncial moment to explode. We also forget this was partly due to student protests who occupied various spaces, and made claims to various places, and probably off the back of some of the takeovers from Occupy and the riots from the year before, the language of securitisation and the oppression from policing.
Audience: But… not to keep pushing the point. But there must have been some point where there were people in a room. And as we know a large amount of them were probably landlords as well, who were MPs or funders… you can speculate until the cows come home around what actually happened.
SB: A similar thing happened in ’77 when they first tried to criminalise squatting, and they made it easier for people to evict people. At the same time they brought out this new homelessness act, at exactly the same moment, which was supposed to look after people who were rough sleeping or who weren’t in suitable accommodation, but they watered it down. So that local authorities could get out of their duties and find loopholes where they didn’t have to look after people who were homeless, or they could push them onto the next borough, and things like that. So its just the way in which they collide at the same moment which seems useful for a certain agenda…
AV: Yeah, I mean in terms of the management of homelessness in the U.S., where they’ve created these encampments and tent cities which are partly a product of local authorities, who in some cases are trying to manage very acute issues in particular communities. And some of the people involved, especially on the charity end of things, may have motivations that are around housing, justice, sustainability, inequality. But at the same time the encampments themselves become very particular kinds of spaces. These contradictions around housing and homelessness have a very long history in the UK and elsewhere. So they get performed in different ways, and I find it interesting the role that the state plays in particular historical moments.
Audience: Its been very interesting to hear about your own relationship to the archives and individuals within, for example, the infoshop. I was wondering if you were ever tempted to write yourself into the book? Or at least situate your position in relation to squatting?
AV: Yes and no… is the slightly cop-out answer it wasn’t intended to be! I’ve had two objectives around this. One was to think about that more immersive aspect of being involved in various housing initiatives, in particular moments in time. But also being told by other people within the scene that they wanted someone with critical distance, because alot of activist histories have been written from a particular point of view, and that can be very important, but also can have its own blindspots. So I took the conscious decision to step back a little bit in the context of this project. And that meant being slightly more panoramic, and less immersive, I thought that might be the right thing to do for what I wanted to accomplish with the book. There are trade-offs from doing that. And there are things you can’t really capture… the texture of occupied spaces, the rhythm of those spaces, which can be written about in ways which I think other people have done very beautifully. But what I wanted to do with this project was to provide that scaffolding, that arch of history, as a kind of provocation, rather than trying to tell that whole story. There are things I’ve missed as part of that, but that was a conscious decision.
SB: Yes. I guess the problem with archiving is, because it has a reputation of being an ‘objective history’, because its an object and its material and its been stored somewhere, that must have been ‘how it was’. It must be somehow capturing the truth of the squatting movement. And it always has to be partial, I guess, and part of this ongoing process in which you’re discovering new things, and new interpretations of things. It makes archiving pretty tricky politically, and ethically, as to how you represent different groups.
AV: Yeah absolutely. In the context of Berlin, if you roll back earlier to the 70s and 60s, there was student groups who were involved with local housing associations for working class residents, who articulated their experience of housing precarity in very different ways. Some of those accounts which have been recorded are interesting to think about, and produce a very different kind of archive, to maybe some of the more curated ones that have emerged in the decades that followed. So that process of archiving, and recording and documenting, is shaped by these biases. But also there are moments when it reveals these fault-lines and tensions in interesting ways.
SB: I guess it comes back to the autonomous stuff. Because the idea is that state archives are these evil institutions that argue their history is the correct history, the official history, whereas activist archives are more authentic and capture the silences and people’s history of a community. And to some extent that’s true. But it’s not to say that, to some extent, activist archives aren’t subject to the same biases and selection that go on in the state archives. There are still limitations of archiving which are shared across both types of collecting and research.
AV: Yeah I think the idea that activist archives somehow escape that process would be unhelpful in thinking about these histories, because of various hidden cases of organising material, sifting through it. In some cases, also, not holding onto material (because of political biases, or other reasons) means some of those stories are lost as well. Especially when you think about some of the oral history material, you need to think about whose voices are being recorded, whose voices remain absent from those archives, and there’s alot more to be thought of in that context. If you go to NYU, as I mentioned earlier, they do have oral history archives. But that is a slice through a squatting scene, and alot of people’s experiences, both positive and negative, aren’t part of that archive. So in that sense, being mindful of those blindspots and biases, that process of not only recording but documenting, organising, collecting, is equally significant for activist archives, in all sorts of ways.
SB: But I guess, at the same time, you get really cool stuff. Like the Remembering Olive Collectivefor example, how they address silences in squatters’ histories who don’t really talk about Black Panther squats and Railton Road in the early 70s.
AV: Yes and that’s whats really important about providing a more finely grained history of squatting in London, and the different iterations of that process in other cities. For example, Amsterdam had a large number of Surinamese squatters in the 1970s, but that history has still not been told very well. Its very important and still needs to be documented and unpacked, and there are different versions of these kinds of histories on their own terms, that demand further attention.
FUTURE OF SQUATTING
Audience: This might be a difficult question, but what do you see as the future of squatting as a kind of activism for housing? And how do you think it compares to the rise of tenants unions in the UK, and other forms of housing activism like Community Land Trusts for instance?
AV: Yeah I think the reality is that, in the contemporary moment, there is obviously squatting going on both invisible squatting, very intense squatting purely based on need under the radar, and that’s still going on the UK (probably more than we are able to document). But because of the intense criminalisation, most people in London that I know are no longer involved in squatting, because its too difficult to do in a way they feel comfortable with. There are still people involved, but that scene has shrunk in the last 5 or 6 years. I don’t know if you feel the same way, Sam, but that was my sense is that it isn’t quite the same linked network of homes and projects that might have even still been around 2012?
SB: Yeah I think its still there. But its been pushed underground since 2012, you can’t have the same kind of public squatting, if you like. If you take over a building you have to hide the fact you are in there. Maybe even negotiate more than you use to with the property owner, because the law is on their side now and they could easily kick you out within 24 hours. It was so much easier when there was even the notion of squatters rights, which lasted up until 1994, maybe a bit longer, and that argument has been lost. So what you end up with is a very informal style of using empty buildings, I guess.
AV: Yeah. My sense more generally is that squatting and occupation as a tactic will continue. It is a tactic, it is a tool, it is a way of not only resolving housing needs but carving out new spaces. But that also must be seen in conversation with a whole set of other housing developments in the UK and elsewhere, whether tenant rights and unions, of community land trusts, a wider spectrum of practices that are asking important questions around how we house ourselves. I think there are other places where those kinds of connections have been more forcefully made. If you think of Spain after the Financial Crisis, people who were foreclosed on their mortgages, the kind of movement that coalesced in resistance to that, used squatting but it also used a whole set of other tactics, to the point where one of the protagonists is now mayor of Barcelona (for better, for worse, its put her in a very difficult position, and I think has disappointed alot of people as a result). But I think there we see a coalition of practices coming together, I think in the UK there is still work to be done in communities and practice together. There have been attempts around the Radical Housing Network in London, where these conversations take place. But they feel quite ephemeral, they kind of seem to coalesce around particular struggles and then disappear again. Those unions, those other kinds of struggles still exist, but its joining these tactics together that I think would lead to more meaningful change over time, I hope. And I also just think that as housing crises intensify people will just take matters into their own hands because they need a roof over their heads. People will continue to squat even if its underground, so…
SB: I think the strongest network that I’ve come across at the moment is around the rave scene. It seems like people who know eachother across the whole city are people who meet up every weekend in Hackney Marshes, or a warehouse or something, and that’s the strongest network at the moment it seems to me.
AV: I’m not suprised at that.
SB: But I mean… there’s still connected groups. Because the people involved at 56a were involved at Aylesbury, were involved at Focus E15, were involved in Grow Heathrow, Barnett. And then Streets Kitchen link up alot of people as well.
AV: I think the problem is that, if its the same people, one of the conversations we often have is burnout and exhaustion. The kind of work that goes into making these spaces… people do burnout. Its completely understandable because its a kind of emotional and physical labour in many cases, that you can’t sustain over 5, 10 years in many cases. So that’s why the movement tends to still be relatively small. Its a commitment in many ways, and that’s hard to resist.
SB: I also think when the movement is smaller, those divisions we were talking about become more acute. Because they don’t get as diluted across many people. All it takes is two people falling out and there’s a massive rift in the movement.
AV: Yes completely. And often those people are gatekeepers for wider political debates and discussions, and once they fall out that ripples through what’s left of that particular social constellation.
SB: So, through this book, you’ve obviously looked at squatting movements in many different contexts across the global North, in Europe and America. I wondered whether there are any regional differences, so many people talk about how squatting is different in southern Europe and northern Europe; to the UK and the US. That they all have different priorities and approaches to squatting in these different legal and culturally contexts in which they happen.
AV: Yes. I didn’t mean to suggest that the connections override some of the differences between these scenes. Alot of squatting in southern Europe is organised around another crisis: the migrant crisis. And the infrastructures of care that are being created in many cases by housing activists and squatters, who provide housing for refugees in incredibly challenging circumstances. And while you see elements of that in other places like Calais, southern Europe, the kind of movements that are organising right now, are in many ways calibrated to address that crisis as well, which perhaps isn’t entirely the case in northern Europe in the same way. That isn’t to say there aren’t similar spaces, I don’t want to overplay that distinction, and certainly you get a sense of the sensibility… when you think of the Lower East Side movement which organises around particular figures, but also the subcultures in New York as well. The punk scene does play an important role to that movement. So that may overlap with things over here, but its also quite different.
The north American scene also has another added complexity which I kind of put my foot in it when I was visiting the scene in New York. They had a big poster which said ‘This Land Is Ours’ and I asked a question about indigenous communities… and there was tumbleweed in the room. I was just trying to explain that maybe other people have understandings of that property which are different. And of course, in north America, in Vancouver, there is a history of squatting. The First Nations say ‘well, you’re all squatting on our land’ because there was never any treaties signed, so that land hasn’t been legally ceded. So squatting was often used in north America to evict First Nations from their lands, it was a tactic of dispossession. Rather than one of trying to reclaim possession. So I think those regional differences really matter, you could replay that story in Australia in very similar ways. And I think that’s an important distinction… one needs to remind activists, because in many cases there is a very romantic ‘we’re reclaiming this property’… but there are other property narratives which shape that parcel of land. Alot of it around First Nations communities is often overlooked, and that’s a really important history around these issues.
SB: Yes. I mean there has been a few example where they have recognised that contradiction. Like Woodsquat in Vancouver which was an indigenous movement to begin with, and was questioning the narrative of other squatting movements and settlement narratives.
AV: Yes completely. The entire history is built through various moments of the squatting scene in Vancouver. By which I mean the more activist version of it… I have had to try and grapple with this. Because you’re on unceded territory, so your very claims to that property and land, preclude and overrides these histories in many cases. And Woodsquat is one particular example of those kinds of histories in squatting.
SB: It reminds me that, when I was in Sicily, we went to this squat party and all the crew were wearing T-shirts which said something in Italian across the front. And we were like ‘what does that mean?’ It meant “My Band, My Land”. And we were like ‘oh that’s brilliant’ and we all bought a t-shirt. It was only about an hour later we thought, ‘actually, this sounds quite, nationalistic! maybe a little bit, right wing?’
AV: Yeah, its also like the way in which people think about ‘my home’. And completely understandably that you’re making a space, a home, a community, one has these emotional investments in that process. And they sometimes performs themselves is ways that sound quite similar to the property owners! ‘Its my property!’ So there are competing notions of property at work, but its funny how the language mobilised can be quite similar.