Squatters in London say they have been unfairly and aggressively targeted by bailiffs and police at a time when more people are seeking an emergency place to stay.
With big rises in people losing their jobs and rough sleeping during COVID lockdowns, squatting – mainly in empty commercial spaces such as old businesses – has become the only viable option for some people.
In June it became legal again in the UK to evict squatters following a temporary ban due to COVID-19 over the spring. Since then, squatters said a rising number of them have been kicked out of properties and forced out onto the streets, sometimes after violent confrontations with police and bailiffs.
“There have been more illegal forced entries and threats [during the pandemic],” a member of the Advisory Service for Squatters told VICE World News. “Having not much work on, bailiffs, or blokes calling themselves bailiffs, have been trying on all sorts of dodgy ways to evict squatters and travellers. We have helped to stop a couple of these and are seeking compensation for some of those affected.”
The sudden ramping up of squatter evictions has been streamlined by cases being heard over the phone rather than in court. With landlords and bailiffs not able to evict private tenants due to continued government protection, squatters say they have been heavily targeted, regardless of the health consequences.
Andy, 18, an anarchist squatter living in South London, who spoke on the condition of using a pseudonym for fear of being identified by the authorities, has been evicted from four squats and arrested three times “on spurious grounds for offences related to squatting” so far during the pandemic. “When you are getting evicted every three weeks or so, it’s very difficult to isolate,” he said. “If it’s an illegal eviction it could be more violent as well, so it’s almost impossible to resist while socially distancing.”
He said usually if he is caught breaking into an abandoned building the police don’t make much of a fuss. “But now 20 cops turn up. In one squat they climbed onto the roof and smashed in the doors and dragged me out, which they wouldn’t normally do, especially if it’s just for criminal damage. It’s because they are bored and they know that there are people they don’t like living in squats. My last arrest, I was literally just walking into a squat and a plain clothes officer rushed the squat and dragged me out.”
London’s squatting community has shared multiple reports of increased police brutality towards squatters during the pandemic. A column called “Bastard Watch”, in a squatter’s magazine and podcast called SLAP, name and shame police officers behaving aggressively against squatters. In the last column, a named police officer was described as using a taser against someone for “furrowing their brow” at him.
Andy’s group of squatters, who usually squat empty commercial spaces and abandoned business premises, have so far avoided breaking into the hundreds of businesses and office blocks left temporarily empty because of the pandemic. He said this is because they did not want to “fuck over” small business owners affected by the pandemic. He said “COVID closed” office blocks are harder to occupy due to their size and likelihood of having CCTV and security.
In the face of increasing opposition from the private landlords and the state – and high vulnerability to COVID-19 due to the precariousness of their housing – the squatting scene in London has managed to forge solidarity between communities and maintain mutual aid networks for the benefit of squatters and the wider communities in which they live.
In South London, networks have been set up to help squatters share information about “skipping” spots – when food that has recently been discarded by supermarkets, but that is still safe to eat, is retrieved from bins outside of shops and distributed. “Skipping” is practiced by many squatters in the capital as an environmentally friendly and free method of obtaining food.
In Deptford, anarchist squatters developed a food cooperative where food sourced from skipping and elsewhere could be donated, sanitised, and then distributed to vulnerable people in South East London. Before lockdown, they had maintained a squatted social café called Pie n Mash which provided free food and advice to vulnerable and homeless people, and a meeting place for squatters and activists. When it was evicted at the start of the pandemic by High Court bailiffs, they continued its legacy in providing for those in need.
The pandemic aside, the future of squatting in London is uncertain. Even though squatting will likely be on the rise – as more people are pushed out of rented accommodation and unemployment rises – the Conservative government promised to criminalise the act of trespass in its manifesto. During October, an inter-squat meeting was held in which representatives from over a dozen squatted buildings across London came together to discuss organised resistance to proposed law changes.
“At the moment we have some legal rights, and that protects us a bit,” said Andy. “But we will have to be much more underground if they do make it completely illegal to squat. There is a potential for the squatting scene to grow.”
A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said: “Squatting in offices or other non-residential premises is not a criminal offence and police would only become involved if the squatters committed an actual criminal offence, such as criminal damage. Where there are bailiffs evicting, our role is just to prevent any breach of the peace and for most bailiff enforcements we are never called.”