Pall Mall: home to the Queen, the Oxford and Cambridge gentleman's club, the embassy of Kazakhstan and endless tourists transplanting themselves into these scenes of luxurious white empire with their selfie sticks. It's not the kind of place you'd expect to find a squat but that's London I guess; always full of surprises.
I was wandering around Pall Mall yesterday when I spotted the banner: "anticapitalism", unfurled across the front of a building that on closer inspection was covered in defaced newspaper articles: cartoon penises scrawled upon the face of Nigel Farage, that kind of thing. I started taking photos of the scene when I realised a guy with dreads was staring through the window. I made some hand signals at him and moments later he gestured for me to go round the back.
"K", the dreadlocked window man, greeted me with a smile. "Hiya," he said. "Would you like a cup of tea?" He told me he was part of a group called the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (or ANAL for short) and said the historic building they'd squatted was the Institute of Directors. Inside this huge empty room, built by John Nash at the behest of the royal family in the 1820s, was just the odd bike, some sleeping bags, an old, crap laptop and a guitar. Cables and wires stuck out of the ceilings but due to the grand empty space it all seemed to be clean and ordered. I just wanted to run around in circles.
K introduced me to the rest of ANAL, who gave me a grand tour of the seven-storey building, from the empty vaults in the basement – which were very creepy – up to the kitchen area. Another ANAL guy named "J" offered me bananas and porridge that he was boiling up in a rice cooker. I felt like I'd walked on to a weird episode of Cribs.
Eventually I sat down with K and J to talk squatting, ANAL and the housing crisis.
VICE: So what are you guys doing here?
K: Well, we are occupying this building at the moment to highlight that there are huge buildings in London that are just collecting dust when they could be transformed for the good of the people. This building is owned by the Institute of Directors, which is effectively a group of massive companies, CEOs and politicians who have endless wealth. Evidently they can afford to leave a seven-storey building, which could home about 300 people, empty during a supposed housing crisis.
J:This is a protest against the entire system of property ownership and the majority of property is own by a minority of wealthy people. The way this works out in London is that rent is hugely high in the meantime we have a lot of homeless people, so we are defying the whole system of property ownership by going into these big empty buildings, living here as people who don't have anywhere to go and refusing to pay rent for it and at the same time we set up a collective that opens this space to other people.
So what is your group? How do you define ANAL?
J: We are the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians but we are also a federal monarchy and our squat dog "Zeus" is our King.
K: As a structure we are horizontal, so instead of having a boss or a landlord we are a collective. It's quite clear to see that the people running society are the ones causing the problems and this situation is getting worse. The wealth gap is only increasing, especially with measures such as the bedroom tax, so we are literally the rejection of capitalism.
J: Basically through doing this we are showing them that yeah, they can make all of these decisions that are good for them and bad for everyone else but there will be resistance. Essentially we, the people, are fighting back through occupation.
So how did you get in here? Have you guys done anything like this before?
J: We have been occupying buildings in Mayfair and Soho for a while now; this is actually the 17th building we've occupied in this area. We were the group that occupied RBS bank as the "love activists", we occupied a hotel in Mayfair and a few other big buildings. We were walking past this one, saw it was empty and just thought, 'Why not live here, man?'
Also we had been kicked out of our previous building.
J: I mean there are ways to test if buildings are empty; we do land registry checks just to make sure no one is actually living in them.
So, you're kinda standing out with the banners – are you getting much attention?
K: This is where the richest and the wealthiest people are, so of course. We are here so people can see that we are not happy with what they are doing. And yeah, we plan to be here until the elections, maybe after.
When did you move in?
K: A week ago. Since then we've been trying to organise workshops for people and create more awareness. We don't think we'll have the building very long because of the nature of the court system now. Of course it's not exactly going to be in our favour.
Yeah, you're probably right.
K: Since the ban on [squatting] residential [properties] in 2012, lots of established squats in old residentials have been forced out onto the streets. By force, by the police, and the TSG.
J: But it's still legal to squat commercial buildings, so as long as no one is using the building and if you don't cause any damage when entering the building – e.g. you come in through an open door or open window – then you can live temporarily. But as soon as you have contact with the landlord or the police they will take you to court or take an IPO out on you which means you have to get out within 48 hours, because after that they basically get the dogs in. Then we just move on. It costs the property owner money, which can only be a good thing.
Have you had any issues with this way of life? Like fights or things getting out of control?
K: No, normally things are fine. We see people that have become homeless due to the way the system affects them – maybe they develop mental health problems, problems with the use of hard drugs... So a few of the people we opened up buildings to were unstable and would start having fights and eventually we had to start a crew where we would take up only a few homeless people.
J: We give out free food to everyone, we basically get most stuff from skips and stock that supermarkets throw away that's not gone off.
So you're a bit of a charity then?
K: We are anarchists, so we don't believe in charity. We believe in mutual aid, so we'll help each other and at the same time we are taking on the system that means that these people need charity in the first place.
J: "Charity" doesn't really help people and even then there's a monopoly on who can actually help. We did a food kitchen in Trafalgar Square where we gave out free food to everyone but were shut down as we were deemed "antisocial".
What do you guys have coming up?
K: Everyone is welcome to come and visit – we have lovely free food and workshops on the history of squatting and a presentation on politics and art. Every night we also take food donations; we don't take money, just food. And we have loads of space, so if anyone reading is interested in doing workshops, yoga, etc, they should just come down to Pall Mall, man. And look, we are right next to the Queen in Buckingham Palace!
J: I mean this building is nice. But a palace would be nicer. We are getting closer and closer, so watch out and we'll see what happens.