(Top photo: Yui Mok / PA)
The anarchist squatters who took over a £15 million mansion in London's bourgeois Belgravia neighbourhood and opened it up to rough sleepers were forcibly evicted this morning. After a court order was issued on Tuesday, bailiffs battered down barricades and pushed homeless resisters to the floor. I headed down to watch the resistance from the inside.
The occupiers – Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (ANAL) – had expected their defeat. And they weren't wrong to presume: Nick, a cheery squatter, said the court hearing over their eviction lasted all of three minutes.
Andrey Goncharenko – the mansion's billionaire Russian owner – has kept a low profile during the battle over a property he has never lived in, and his representatives made short work of the ANAL crew's appeal. Mr Goncharenko owns four lavish London properties, including a £120 million Regent's Park pile dubbed "Britain's most expensive home". He plans to add a swimming pool to the newly-evicted property in Eaton Square.
After hearing the news of the court order the squatters held true to their egalitarian credentials and organised a council yesterday evening in the mansion, taking a vote on whether or not the 30 or so squatters in the building wanted to resist the eviction. Almost every hand shot up, and talk turned to tactics.
First-time resisters were advised to play dead once the invasion took place, while one veteran advised "spreading Marmite and piss all over the floor when they get inside – it's a chemical weapon. It really stinks... they'd have to get pressure cleaners in to clean up." Calling for focus, another experienced squatter reminded the group: "Mayhem generates support. For half an hour after the eviction starts, there'll be so much media attention. We have to record the bailiffs vandalising a Grade Two listed building."
People then moved out to scavenge for pallets and call in back-up to defend the luxury property.
Talk soon turned to when the bailiffs would make their move. An early false alarm came at around 8PM, when word spread there was someone sniffing around on top of the building, dubbed the "ANAL Embassy". We climbed through a skylight onto the sixth-storey roof, looking over London's smog-filled skies to the distant one-eyed glare of the BT Tower.
In fact, the hi-vis interloper was a security guard stationed in the neighbouring building. Initially coy, he got drawn into a debate with a couple of squatters. "Ten percent of squatters are OK, sure," he said. "But the other 90 percent are disgusting. The places I've seen… they're full of junkies."
"We all have ways of coping," shot back a squatter called Kate. "And those are people at the absolute bottom of society, coping the only way they can."
Back downstairs, people started securing all the entrances and exits, screwing shut doors and hammering planks of wood across windows. Some needed extra reinforcement, having been smashed by a gang of Nazi-saluting fascists on Saturday as an activist ran a poetry workshop and children coloured in banners.
Other squatters started preparing a communal meal, under the guidance of a squatting veteran called Tammy. "The posher the house, the more media attention we get," she explained as she whipped up a vat of Quorn lasagne. "We're neighbours with the Queen here. And this is just a group of homeless people who'd otherwise be stuck outside in this foul weather."
"Me, I'm like a cockroach," she added later. "Wherever I am, I always survive."
As I was cutting up a carrot, a squatter called Josh wandered over.
"I hate those," he said.
"Yeah, I know what you mean – it's so difficult cutting up veg on a plate with a lip."
"No, I mean the knife. I was stabbed in the back with one just like that. It nearly killed me – my heart stopped twice." Josh went on to explain that he was five days clean from an addiction struggle, and heading back up north to visit his family and child for the first time in 15 months.
The barricading continued until the small hours. People drank, chatted and played music, or slept sprawled across the stairs and huddled in corners. Tension and exhaustion grew, with multiple false alarms as different officials scouted out the building and squatters raced to pack up their possessions.
At 8AM this morning, the bailiffs arrived. Backed by a slew of police officers and a pointless fire engine, around 15 representatives of private evictions company The Sheriff's Office swarmed around the mansion and battered on the reinforced doors with rams. The anarchists laughed as their handiwork withstood the strong arm of the law, driving the bailiffs to weaker doors downstairs.
They were met with blasts from fire extinguishers and chants of "we shall not be moved", but muscle prevailed and the heavies surged into the building. While arguing fiercely with a bailiff, Josh was grabbed from behind and slammed to the floor by one of his shaven-headed colleagues. One squatter with cerebral palsy, who could only walk with the aid of crutches, was unceremoniously carted out on piggy-back by a friend. Another sat on the floor to meditate, prompting a bailiff to snap: "You'll be doing some pretty non-peaceful meditating if you don't move now."
Under threat of arrest, the crowd was driven out peacefully. Some ANAL activists headed off to scout out a new squat elsewhere in the city, while their comrades milled around winding up the slab-faced security contractors in the doorway, asking about their steroid habits and pretending there were arsonists and knew about secret passages hidden throughout the empty building. Eventually, they were let in one by one to recover their possessions: a mobile phone, a docile dog, a pair of crutches.
Tammy confronted the bailiff who manhandled Josh. "It's fucking disgusting, kicking homeless people onto the street," she yelled. "You're one pay-cheque away from homelessness yourself."
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of squatters.