Squatting After the CJA

This article is from Black Flag in 1996 and was one of a series looking at the impact of the Criminal Justice Act in the mid 90s.

Squatting after the CJA

The same day that Brixton erupted in December the Riot cops had an outing in North London. This time they were evicting squatters from Greenwood Road, Kentish Town, behind the Rainbow Church, centre of the "new movement of DIY eco-warriors" that is apparently the face of protest in the '90s.

After the eviction the riot cops were faced down for several hours by the squatters and their Rainbow Tribe neighbours shouting, "watch out for the little people" and "the pixies will get you" and throwing some fruit and a few eggs. The deployment of 70 cops in full riot gear was obviously justified in view of the leprechaun threat.

Sadly, this was probably the biggest squat resistance in London since Claremont Rd, the houses in the route of the M11 extension evicted in the winter of 1993. It is also one of the first evictions of any scale since the squatting sections of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act came into force in August 1995.

The inclusion of squatting in the CJA affected it and any squatting movement in a number of ways. The first, and most damaging, was the reporting that suggested that squatting would be made illegal. This appeared in the straight media but also in alarmist rubbish in the alternative press. The myth has become widespread amongst anyone not involved or affected by squatting but also with advice workers and, more worryingly, the homeless and others who might need to squat. It was much easier for journalists, professionals or aspiring hacks, to write shock horror stories then explain the pointless and complex changes to the law that did eventually take place.

Other developments in the squatting scene have been closely connected to the anti-roads movement. This grew out of the squatting of houses in North East London on the route of the proposed M11 extension. Houses left empty by the Department of Transport had been squatted for years but the opposition to the M11 made them a focus for resistance as well as somewhere to live for hundreds of people. Publicity at Twyford Down and victory at Oxleas Wood in South East London brought a growing anti roads movement to the local opposition to the No M11 campaign. However the road protesters always knew that there would be other protests to go to and their priorities were being nice for the cameras and appealing to public opinion. Keeping it respectable and unthreatening, an admission of inevitable defeat. Squatters and other local people had little choice but to go along with this surrender. Locked on to anything that didn't move or sitting on top of scaffolding towers held up the bailiffs long enough to put Claremont Road into squatting mythology. The D-lock replaced the ski-mask as squatter fetish gear.

Attempts to use the interest/fear/anger stirred up by the threats to squatting, real or imagined, to rebuild some sort of squatters movement in London were similarly dominated by activists with agendas outside squatting. Over the past few years the local squatting groups and networks had almost entirely ceased to exist. This was a far greater threat to squatting than the CJA. The statements that "the CJA affects us all" and that "everything is connected" made it easy for the overworked or the apathetic to allow any new energy to be used up portraying squatting as part of some rainbow coalition of "new social movements"; all sharing the same campaigning values of media friendly pacifism and a refusal to confront even the idea of state power. All a bit tough if you were squatting out of housing need rather than out of a fondness for the Levellers pop group. Without accessible local groups, squatters are isolated and more vulnerable. Squatting is more difficult without information about empties, the law, etc., and the solidarity that local groups can give you.

Instead many squatters have fallen for the line that we must put across a good image in the media. By presenting ourselves as good responsible citizens we will convince those in power not to evict us or smash up our homes. By playing to the media we capitulate to their agenda. Our actions are dictated by what the editors and journalists want. There are no differences between the political positions and aims of a (liberal, democratic) media and a (liberal, democratic) state. In the end we become good responsible citizens, in shit housing, just like we are supposed to be. Of course a number of squatters, well represented in the squatting/ alternative media, really are good responsible citizens, pushing an image of peaceful creative people who just want to make their contribution to society, doing very nicely out of it and playing big brother or big sister to any squatters movement. They have successfully imposed a leadership, at least of attitude, an acceptance that we play the media game. While alternative careers in arts and media are built, any resistance is isolated as irresponsible. However it is our acceptance of this "leadership" that is the real problem.

Many squatted social centres are also dominated by the media image mentality and it is here that a clear refusal to confront authority immediately undermines any threat of militant resistance. The two most obvious places, the Rainbow Church, mentioned above, and the CoolTan in Brixton, now no more, are based around the idea that if we are nice, creative, small-business people etc. the council/owners won't evict us and will even give us money. There is no intention here to challenge anything at all. You can't resist an eviction or be nasty because otherwise you will spoil the image and ruin negotiations for other buildings etc. The conclusion is that any eviction can only be resisted, if at all, within the guidelines laid down by the anti roads movement and CND. Faced with such a threat, owners have no incentive to deal sensibly with squatters at all. Both the CoolTan and the Rainbow Church have or had licences. The CoolTan went quietly, maybe things are changing at the Rainbow Church.

In contrast to defeats in Britain, squatters in the Hafenstraße in Hamburg have been allowed to keep the blocks they have squatted for over 14 years. The squatters were always in the front line against the gentrification of the area between St Pauli and the port and the resistance to eviction attempts mobilised thousands in street battles with the riot cops. Millions of deutschemarks worth of damage was caused. There have been rental agreements with the authorities in the past but these have not mellowed the attitudes of the squatters. Attempts to smear them by association with the Red Army Faction and (fairly true) media portrayal as a hotbed of revolutionary activism have completely backfired. As an attempt to end the conflict the city council are selling them the block and writing off some debts of rent and rates. It remains to be seen whether this is a victory for the squatters and the fight against gentrification or a successful attempt to buy off resistance. In either case a cosy media image and being peaceful was never a major part of the squatters' tactics.

It is difficult to persuade people that resistance and confrontation can lead anywhere other than arrest, imprisonment or a good kicking in the short term or more laws and repression in the future. However, these things are happening anyway and without showing a willingness to resist attacks will only increase. Knowing that evictions and other attacks on squatters will be resisted will make the authorities less willing to risk something worse than a couple of lines of bad publicity in the Guardian or "exposure" on the videos of camcorder activists.

The CJA was never going to make squatting illegal. The first changes to the law tightened up existing laws relating to squatting houses where someone is going to move in. The stories in the media saying that violence could now be used to evict squatters were partly alarmist and partly lazy journalism. All that changed was that it is no longer an offence to use force to enter a place where a tenant or resident is being kept out by a squatter. The incidences of violence being used by landlords owners or cops have not gone up or down since. The second part of the law brought in a new, complex civil eviction procedure, the Interim Possession Order, and made it a criminal offence not to leave within 24 hours of the order being served. These procedures are relatively rare still with only one council, Labour Tower Hamlets, using them with any success so far. If they are opposed the owners can find themselves in trouble. The University of North London tried to use these "fast track" procedures to evict squatters from the old Kentish Town site of the polytechnic at the beginning of November 95. They were opposed and didn't get their building back until January 96.

The future for squatting isn't entirely crap. The misinformation is being fought, more information about new and old laws is getting out, other squatted social spaces are more realistic about their position and their potential. There are places being opened up, especially outside London. There is some debate about getting organised, different ideas about what we can or should do, and a growing, though still small, feeling that the threat to squatting doesn't come so much from the CJA but from our own unwillingness to stand up for our homes and our space.