Squatting in residential properties was criminalized in the UK last September, after a campaign in the tabloid press that portrayed squatters as a bunch of vagabond Romanian immigrants who would invade your home, eat your children, and sell your furniture on eBay if you ever dared to pop to the shop for a pint of milk.
This all started when the Daily Mail gleefully seized upon the attempts of Mike Weatherley, a Tory MP, to have squatting banned. The MP for Hove and Portslade on England's southern coast boasts that squatters call the new law “Weatherley’s law," wearing the fact as badge of honor. Although, that smugness took a bit of a battering when he was chased off Sussex University campus by a bunch of pissed off squatters and lefty students hurling rocks, eggs, and tomatoes, after turning up for a debate at the end of last year.
Reliable statistics are difficult to come by, but even with the numbers of homeless going through the roof they don’t have, it’s fairly certain that the amount of squatters is dwarfed by the number of Britain's empty properties. Squatting was already a civil offence, but what with the conservative Tories being the party of bourgeois reaction, it's no surprise that they were keener to criminalize the homeless than to make sure fewer people end up with nowhere to live.
Burly men evict a squat.
Since squatting a residential property can now result in a fine or land you in jail, people are taking to cracking commercial property instead (although some Conservative MPs are pushing for this to be banned as well). One such property is the Cross Keys, a boarded up pub in Chelsea. I went there when the squatters who'd moved in were having a kind of open house meet-and-greet to ingratiate themselves with the locals. I wanted to find out what makes them tick and why they're so hell-bent on preying upon society's most vulnerable: multiple home owners and commercial property barons.
The only local resident who turned up was an old-ish man who lived in a nearby house. He was sipping red wine and attempting to butt himself into conversations with the other attendees—an assortment of people who knew the squatters and had heard rumours of free food (which turned out to be deliciously true). I could imagine him doing exactly the same thing on Friday nights when this was a functioning boozer full of horse-faced toffs rather than tousle-haired hippies.
I asked him what he was doing there. Wasn’t he annoyed about these young upstarts taking over his local pub? On the contrary. “They’re doing a public service,” he said. He explained that the pub had been bought by an “odious” asset-stripper who's savvy enough to realize that, while you can make a healthy profit selling IPA to braying Made in Chelsea parents, you can make an absolutely eye-watering profit by turning buildings into swanky apartments and selling them to the world’s ultra rich. That is, as long as you don’t mind upsetting the existing population (who are merely very rich) by robbing them of their watering hole.
Jonny Remlab shows off his tattoo in the kitchen of the squatted pub.
Maybe it was the wine, but for a moment the squatted pub seemed like the command HQ of a drunken upstart army in the battle against global capitalism. That was pretty much the point for Jonny Remlab, one of the squatters, who said: “It’s two-fingers to the people who think they can charge huge rents. I think it’s good to be like: ‘Fuck you! We’re living here for free.’” Along with a few others at the Cross Keys, Jonny was of a new generation of squatters who'd been drawn in through (what else?) the Occupy Movement. “A lot of us dropped out of education for this dream we were sold of indefinite protest sites being there and fucking shit up. Then a lot of the higher-ups at Occupy abandoned those people for very online, technology-dependent, middle-class activism, and some of us were left carrying the torch.”
According to Jonny, revolutionaries are picky house hunters. "Location, location, location," is their motto, and being central gives you an easy commute when you want to “go out and smash shit up, give shit to the police, and give shit to the government,” but can’t afford the bus fare.
It’s not always about insurrection, though. Through another group of squatters, I was introduced to Arte Kane, a photographer who gets the piss taken out of him by other squatters for being a “hipster.” He’s happier with the label “artist-photographer.” It’s precisely his lack of change-the-world political outlook and the fact that he works for the man that singles him out. “Some squatters are intimidated by someone who’s making money out of creativity and they don’t want to show that,” he says.
A squatter from a now-evicted squat in Chancery Lane.
He gives me a rundown of squatting's social make up: “It’s like 25 percent ‘alpha male’ squatters who bully people into giving them the best rooms, but there’s a lot of girls who aren’t like that. Then maybe 20 percent are lost kids who take drugs and are into self-expression. And there are a lot of foreigners.” He reckons squatting is becoming more socially acceptable and the demographic is changing, telling me: “I’m seeing a lot of girls and half decent people taking this option rather than paying rent.” I asked him if “half decent” people meant non-stereotypical hippie squatters. He said yes and added that these are exactly the sort of people who might get put off by the government’s determination to criminalise it.
To find out what this new generation of squatters can expect, I visited a factory that had been established as a squat by a guy called Rob Voodoo in 2001. After more than a decade, the squat is soon to be repossessed. I talked to its founding father, who told me that after spending some time gurning at squat raves himself, he and a mate figured that if the fucked up guys they'd met on the scene could start a squat, so could they.
“We found this place already open. When we first came in, there was lots of racist graffiti and syringes everywhere. There were baby clothes next to a camp bed, next to a human turd on the floor. No electricity, no water.”
Looking around, the place no longer resembles the white power festival toilet Rob described. In fact, it’s now a beautiful art gallery and events space, with residential squats attached. I assumed it took a while to clean up. “Yeah, we had to get plumber's rubber gloves and go into the toilet, which didn’t have any water. People had put bin bags in the toilet and shit in them, so we had to drag them out of there.”
Mat Valentine, whose business card says, “Contortionist, Magician, Comedian, All round entertainer.”
Shitting in plastic bags was a recurring theme among the more experienced of the squatters I talked to, most of them breaking into a wry “If I had a penny for every plastic bag I’ve shit in,” type smile whenever the subject was mentioned. I suppose—given all the money they’ve saved by not paying rent—that is pretty much the case.
It was one of the reasons cited by Mat Valentine, an ex-squatter I met, for finally giving up. “You turn up to a building and it seems okay. You turn on the tap, some water comes out and you think, ‘Great, there’s water here.’ You move into the place and it turns out that actually, there is no water. So, you’re shitting in plastic bags. Not a fucking great thing to have to do.”
But it wasn’t the only reason he quit. He continued: “Then, after a while, the owner sends round some heavies, who come and say ‘We’re going to fucking kill you if you don’t get out of this building.’ The ridiculous thing is that the owners have no intention of using the building. One building we were in, the owners were in another country, but they got this jealous rage at the idea of someone living there. It was a bit infantile.”
OK, I said, but there must have been situations when you were squatting in someone’s home who legitimately needed it? Mat was insistent: “I’ve never, ever, once squatted a building that was in use. The laws that were in place were already adequate to protect property owners – trust me.”
He told me this in a hoarse voice, having spent all day shouting in Covent Garden, where he works as a busker. It was squatting that gave him the “economic amnesty” he needed to work on his act, namely throwing a chainsaw in the air so that it spins around three times, as he also spins before catching it. Blindfolded. He said he’s the only person in the world to be able to do that.
A lot of the squatters I met were keen to impress upon me the cultural impact that criminalizing squatting will have, and they probably have a point. Without that economic amnesty helping new artists and musicians, wouldn’t middle class art school students have an even tighter stranglehold on our culture?
Gee Sinha promotes one of his parties by painting his face like a tiger.
One man hoping to use squatting’s cultural vibrancy to challenge the government’s criminalizing agenda is Gee Sinha. His collective, Suspenses, puts on squat parties that, he hopes, will turn the tide of public opinion. He explained: “We put on events with undiscovered talent and show that we can be really creative with space. They will inspire people, because it shows that what a building is used for is more important than the ownership of it.”
I’d love to believe that a squat party could trump the Tory party, but I wasn’t totally convinced by his strategy. I asked him whether these events were really going to be able to take on the might of a Conservative government backed up by the tabloid media. “We’ll kick their arse, mate,” he answered with an unerring faith. “We’ll change people’s opinions. We’ll be successful in the long run because we’re doing it with color, sound, and beauty, and people will get bored of reading the Daily Mail.”
I don’t know if squatting has somehow made Gee blissfully ignorant of the omnipotence of the Mail, or if he’s just an optimistic guy, but nobody’s going to get bored of it any time soon. Even people who hate it can’t stop tweeting about how awful it is, all while they secretly peruse the column of shame for pictures of Beyonce's arse.
Which is a shame, because even though my new squatter friends could be a little sanctimonious at times, they were nowhere near the monsters that the tabloids have made them out to be. I certainly enjoyed hanging out with them more than I would with the kind of people who buy a second property “just as an investment” so they can price everyone else out of the property market, then extort half their wages out of them in rent. So long as property prices and rents remain as high as Piers Morgan’s sense of self-importance, squatting will continue and it is landlords, not squatters, who will emerge as the real villains.