On Saturday 18th August I saw over a thousand people form a human chain
around a gas fracking site in Balcombe. It was a powerful sight. A large oil drill towered menacingly in the air, circled by a tall razor-wired fence. The razor wire was circled by police officers and elite Ghurkha soldiers from Nepal. The officers were circled by extra fencing. The fencing was circled by chanting, clasped hands, Mexican waves and song. It was a day I will never forget and one that connected me not only with the hopes and fears of thousands of protester, but also with South America, the Indian Sub Continent, the future, the past, the young, the old and the thumb of a Nepalese soldier.
The first time I saw the drilling site I was taken straight back to Colombia. In 2007 I worked in human rights, visiting communities affected by the arrival of British mining multinationals. All the ingredients that we documented in the oil regions of Casanare and Arauca are present in Sussex now: conflict and social division, the militarisation of the countryside, the unequal sharing of short term profits (often appearing as corruption) and the industrialisation of once peaceful communities with lorries, widened roads, bridges, traffic, light and noise. This is before you even count the pollution of air and scant water supplies (millions of gallons of which is used and contaminated by fossil fuel exploration).
The global ‘oil curse’ that has divided societies, decimated ecosystems and destroyed economies has arrived in the rolling wooded hills of Tory heartland. What happened next outside that fence was one of the most remarkable moments of solidarity I have ever witnessed.
At demos you will usually see me dressed as a copper. I do this for a number of reasons:
1/To make people laugh. You’ve got to have fun at a demo, otherwise you will be seen as angry looser and people will not join in.
”]2/One of the purposes of FIT surveillance teams, the use of under-covers, uniforms, weaponry and police brutality it to intimidate, provoke and discourage people from showing up to demos. I have seen regiments of clown armies doing such good work that protesters have decided to stay inside kettles even when it was possible for them to leave!
3/ To poke fun at the coppers. Let’s face it they do lay themselves open to a good ribbing sometimes.
4/ For no other reason than being able to stand at the end of a line of cops with a sign that reads ‘Police say no to fracking’. I once wrote the words ‘Police say no to cuts’ in chalk on the pavement in front of police who responded by laughing. One officer thanked me “because we can’t say that ourselves.” They should have arrested me. Chalking a public highway is classed as ‘criminal damage’.
Outside the perimeter fence, dressed half as gorilla and half as copper and armed only with a megaphone, I informed the uniforms on the other side of the fence that our campaign of gorilla warfare had been cancelled. They were outnumbered, after all, and it would have been unfair. Eighty five percent of local residents oppose fracking and there were shitloads of protesters from as far-an-oil-field as
But some form of conflict had to take place. The Ghurkhas are some of the bravest, best trained, most loyal soldiers in the history of modern warfare. They were far from their home and (as I was told by protesters camped next to the site) resentful that they were being used as private security for this corporation. In Colombia they have a word for militias used by companies and corrupt politicians – paramilitaries.
But these officers were no terrorists. I could see it in their giggling faces. They were agents of the public realm; there to serve and to protect. They (we hope) get
out of bed in the morning wanting to be part of something noble – an organisation working to reduce crime and the fear of crime, to uphold justice and the survival of the democratic values that we so cherish. Isn’t that why we were there?
It was decided that the best way for us to resolve our apparent differences, in a non violent way, was through sport. Thumb war to be precise. It was a risky decision. I didn’t know if thumb war shared the same success of Coca-Cola and the happy birthday song. Could it have permeated the climbs of the Himalayas? The stakes on this reaching a peaceful resolution depended on this going well, but
”]physical conditions were stacked against our mini-Olympiad. A large fence meant that it had to be either thumb war or pole vaulting. The latter would have presented problems for the officers, who had no access trees since they were chopped down to build the fracking site.
I elicited the help of a demonstrator, to… well demonstrate. A nine year old girl volunteered herself. I could tell she took the discipline of thumb war very seriously and had obviously been training (as well as probably having some sort of genetic predisposition to strong thumbs). She won. But that was only a
demonstration so it didn’t count.
It was time for the big bout. Both sides were now aware of the rules and a large crowd had assembled. Tensions were at fever pitch (one of the police officers was pissing himself). We faced each other, two gladiators separated by a fence, an ideological conflict, an economic apartheid and a multi-billion dollar global security apparatus. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. I nervously extended my hand through the fencing and into enemy territory. If my opponent rejected it a major opportunity for peace would have been lost. I would also look like a massive tit.
I could see the Ghurkha was nervous. He was faced with a big risk and having to draw on all his training as a peacekeeper and a killer simultaneously. He stood alone, disciplinary hearings ringing through his head. He looked at the police officer stationed four meters to his right. He looked at the rest of the world staring in: anarchists in balaclavas, clown army soldiers, a slightly desperate looking police gorilla, one arm hanging through the cage, grandmothers, fathers,
daughters. The seconds ticked bye like a dying heartbeat. Nothing happened. Shit. Then, slowly, the small brown hand of my enemy combatant came timidly to mine. We locked together. One! Two! Three! Four!
The crowd erupted in an outburst of struck oil that shot up from a place deep inside of us. Someone called out “Namaste” (the Nepalese greeting) and he pressed his hands together and made a slight bow. Then one of the most extraordinary things happened. A circle opened up in front of the gate and a discussion started over the fact that we were not the only victims standing in this field. In April of this year the Ghurkhas (who have been dying alongside British soldiers since 1815) threatened to go on hunger strike if they did not receive pensions equal to their British counterparts.* There was genuine anger and gut felt solidarity among the protesters that our brothers on the other side of the fence, who were prepared to die for a Queen and Commonwealth, were being so blatantly denied.
The assembly’s discussion widened. It was mentioned that there are police officers living in emergency BnB’s because of the lack of affordable housing. Most officers can’t afford decent schooling in a privatised education system. Neither can they afford to look after their elderly parents in a landscape of NHS cuts. Gas companies, like Cuadrilla operating in Balcombe, get tax breaks, stripped back regulation and a special office to support them in Whitehall. The rest of us get disability cuts, homelessness, debt, stress and suicide. Our elderly population gets
The Ghurkha was genuinely touched by the outburst of solidarity. We, in turn, were touched by the trust he put in us. For a moment there were no uniforms, no razor wire and no fence – just a bunch of people standing next to a giant drill that doesn’t need to be there.
We are all in this sticky puddle of bituminous sludge together. If I was reminded of anything at last weekend it was that I am part of a global movement standing against energy cartels who have a strangle hold over our democracy, our
economies and our climate. I was reminded that chains of people are much stronger than chains of hydrocarbon molecules and much more volatile. We are the most powerful source of energy and our reserve remain largely untapped. Join the growing grass roots resistance against fracking, fossil fuels and corporate greed. The time for action is now. All power to the thumbs.
And as for who won, well, let’s just say it was a draw.
** Despite the misinformation on gas prices, Cuadrilla themselves have admitted that the impact on shale gas will be “basically insignificant” (p29 The Guardian, Tuesday 20th August, 2013)
This beautifully produced short documentary was made by Matt Hopkins of Progress Films as part of a series of hard hitting short portraits of modern Britain.
At a time of record homelessness, evictions and rent hikes, the Government’s response has been to break the UN Declaration on Human Rights and criminalise people who make a temporary shelter out of long term empty buildings. They now propose to extend the ban to residential buildings forcing the public to pay for the imprisonment of squatters and the enforcement of empty buildings on behalf of a powerful landowning minority who are profiting from ‘land banking’ (buying up properties, keeping them empty and selling them off years later at an inflated price)
This is not just an attack on squatters but boaters, social housing tenants, young people unable to afford homes, sofa surfers, people stuck at their parents; in short – everyone affected by a system that uses housing as a commodity rather than an essential resource for everyone. Now is the time to stand up against the further criminalisation of squatting and protect public space and social centres as well as our rights to carry out student sit ins, workplace occupations, peace and environmental camps, heritage occupations. Here are…
Also, essential listening on the housing crisis from Resonance FM
A sneak preview from the new LP ‘Made Possible by Squatting’ in collaboration with Dead Kousin. Vocals recorded in a squatted recording studio in South London where Depeche Mode used to record. LP out this Summer.
“No homes without people! No people without homes!” [Chant on the streets of Spain]
“Don’t make me look like a prat for not knowing how many properties I’ve got” [David Cameron in an interview, 2009]
I live in disused buildings, part of the 10% of the world’s population that lives on squatted land and, consciously or otherwise, is taking direct action against the deficit in affordable housing and availability of land. As such, I am part of a network of communities that recycle unused food, furniture and space. I live in London – a city haemorrhaging with homelessness, a city where entire families are forced to live in converted utility rooms, where single mums get re-housed from BnBs on a monthly basis, a city with 80,000 buildings, and “twice as many bedrooms as people” (Danny Dorling, University of Sheffield). Very soon, if the Coalition Government has its way, I could be writing this from prison.
Last week the Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt, started writing to MP’s in an attempt to gather evidence to support a further ban on squatting in non residential premises. This law, like the law concerning residential properties, could be rushed through without proper consultation before the summer is over – criminalising tens of thousands of people who have made a temporary shelter out of empty and unused office blocks and industrial warehouses.
No more social centres and cuts cafes. No more activist convergence centres during international summits. No more free parties in cities. No more skill shares, free shops, film nights, banner making workshops. A city in lockdown, where vulnerable people get thrown out of empty buildings and into jails for asserting a human right to shelter. But then where is the profit in human rights? Britain now has the highest prison population in Europe. Since I started secondary school in 1993 the prison population has doubled. Why could this be?
A/ The population has doubled
B/ We have mysteriously doubled our misbehaviour
C/ It has become profitable for politicians and their friends on the boards of directors to incarcerate people into
private prisons (paid for by the public), rather than remedying social deprivation and growing inequality.
Answers on the back of a postcard to PO Box Cameron’s bottom.
I have met the owner of the building that I am writing in now, just as I have with the last two commercial buildings where I have lived.
In all three cases we have explained our situation and reached an amicable agreement to leave on a particular date when planning permission is received or a quote has been given on demolition. The landlord has been free to visit and has been in regular contact. Stories like these are common but don’t get reported. Under the new law the police will have powers to enter regardless of such verbal agreements and arbitrarily evict squatters making them homeless or worse. Queue political persecution.
I once lived in a large premise in Central London that had been left empty for 20 years. When faced with eviction we invited the neighbours around for a consultation over how to save the space for the community after we had left. Over thirty people turned up.
“I’m really glad you are here” said one neighbour. “I have been burgled three times and they have always used this empty space to get over my fence”.
“What a valuable place this could be!” said another, “I have been living here for years and this is the first opportunity I have had to meet any of my neighbours!”
Preceding our eviction a man from the security firm (that covered the building) passed by. I struck up conversation with him and while we were chatting a neighbour passed bye and said how great it was that we were making use of the space. Another neighbour, seeing the uniform, shouted down a message of support from the balcony of his tower block. Seeing this, and hearing our story, the security guard pulled me to one side. He told me he supported what we were doing. “I used to live on the streets”, he said “I hate this job and I’m only doing it so me and the wife can move out of this city… I think it’s disgusting the amount of empties in this city. You should see the amount of buildings we work with. It’s a joke!” He then took my number and offered to give me advanced warning of the eviction date. I thanked him and told him how helpful that was since one of us was bed-bound recovering from a major operation.
Last week I spoke to another security guard outside a squat that we were handing back. He said he had worked in buildings in Central London over ten stories high that were left void. He then told me he considered squatters to be “freedom fighters” [!] Such instances of solidarity are not isolated. In Pamplona, Spain last year locksmith companies publicly declared that they would not take part in any further evictions of families from their homes.
In this country, as in the rest of the world, the security apparatus of private property is made up of low paid (often immigrant and exploited) labour who are worried about meeting their own housing needs. The Police frequently persecute squatter with illegal evictions, turning a blind eye to illegal evictions (carried out by private gangs sent to brutally evict squatters) or by brutally evicting squatters themselves. They are public sector workers on low income. Most don’t have a foot in the property market. The deficit in secure housing is their crisis too. It is also the crisis of elderly women freezing to death in sub standard housing, or dying of stress over rental costs. It is the crisis of the unemployed and young people forced off housing benefits, snared into a life of debt with no hope of owning their own home. It is the crisis on the millions of “hidden homeless” burdening the homes of aging parents or facing the cushions of friends sofas. It is the crisis of the middle classes desperate to find some financial security by buying properties while their pensions are gambled away by banks.
There are over 1 million empty buildings in this country – not paying bedroom tax. Join in solidarity against high rents, evictions, and the bogus crisis of available housing.
First they evicted the gypsies and I did nothing as I was not a gypsy
Then they evicted the squatters, and I did nothing as I was not a squatter.
Then they evicted the single parents, and I did nothing as I was not a single parent
Then they evicted the unemployed, and I did nothing as I was not unemployed
Then they evicted me and there was nobody left to help me.
Write to your MP asking them to sign the early day motion to repeal Section 144 on squatting
Please sign and share the petition to repeal Section 144 http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44597
What’s Going On
Things are heating up in squatland. This month a string of positive stories followed the news that the famous Friern Barnett Library (squatted by Occupy London) was saved from closure the story broke that Mike Weatherly (the Conservative MP crusading to ban squatting) has been receiving hundreds of thousands from property tycoons before and after his election. Then today (Monday 4th March) a shocking new report is got launched in Parliament by SQUAH (Squatters Campaign for Action on Housing). It present damning evidence on the effects of the recent law to criminalise squatting in residential buildings (more below). Minutes after the report was sent to the printers last week news came in that a homeless man - Daniel Gauntlett – had died in the doorway of an empty bungalow.
The following headings are based on the answers I prepared for the BBC Newsnight interview on squatting and the arts to be broadcast this Friday 8th March:
What Gives you the right to Live in Someone Else’s Property?
I have lived in 4 different empty buildings. All of them have been owned by companies that own several properties and have kept the place empty for between 5 and 15 years. Two of them were registered in tax havens. The building where I currently live is due to be demolished. After we arrived we met with the owners inside the property. They saw we were not people who wanted to trash the place but instead wanted to put a roof over our head and they agreed to let us stay until it was time to go for demolition.
I think we need to stop talking about criminality and start talking about the shortage of affordable housing and growing inequality. People are being forced to work 40 – 50 hours a week and give 60% of their salary towards keeping a roof over their heads. Is it right to bypass civil law and throw people out of empty buildings and into jails? Should the Sate be used to enforce long term empties buildings?
What about the cases where people’s homes get stolen while they go on holiday?
The Daily Mail (a gang of Romanian’s moved in while I went to the shop) narrative is a scare story. Before the new law was passed, anti-trespass laws meant that police could already intervene to evict squatters who were desperate or stupid enough to move into someone’s home, or intended home. I know of no one who has. This is why the Criminal Bar Association, the Law Society, the Magistrates Association, the Metropolitan Police, and numerous academics and charities came out to say the new law banning residential squatting was unnecessary. The Tories now want to do the same to squatting in empty non residential buildings.
Free workshops, open days, soup kitchens and public spaces provided by squats don’t make it to the media, so we write blogs.
What about all the antisocial behaviour that happens in squats?
I know of no evidence that suggests that squatters are more antisocial than any other sector of the housing population. I have lived in private rented accommodation where people are violent, take drugs and are noisy. I have squatted with people who started squatting to get away from domestic violence or life on the streets. Is it acceptable for us that the Tories want to close squats at the same time as it is closing crisis centres for women and emergency housing for vulnerable families? Are we prepared to pay the cost of a boom in street homelessness and housing benefit claimants?
Is there a link between art squatting?
If you were to take all the squatters (and ex-squatters) out of your CD collection you would hardly have any CDs left. If you were to take all the squatters (and ex squatters) out of the festival circuit the stages would be half empty. Look at the massive cultural export of places like Camden, Hackney and Brixton. Would London be the cultural capital of the world without squatting in the 70s and 80s? Many, such as Director of Westminster’s Cockpit Theatre, Dave Wybrow, say that it wouldn’t:
“We need to recognise the role that squatting has had in the social and cultural health of our cities. For decades they have provided spaces where young people and creative practitioners can exist by recycling empty and abandoned buildings. Without this the creative industries die.”
The people doing the lighting displays in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics – ex squatters. The rock anthems that we grew up on, sung all over the world – many were written in squats.
“Far from criminalising squatting we should be legitimising squatting as something that provides flexibility and fluidity in the housing market. Social housing is getting passed to private hands which are failing to deliver. The guardianship schemes and private developments now being used to convert empty commercial buildings can’t meet the deficit in short life housing for young people in cities in the way that squatting can.”
Is there a link between the Occupy Movement and Squatting?
One of the reasons that Occupy Movement has been so explosive is because it because a wide spectrum of society has stuck its flag in the ground and said “this space is ours” in a world where our they are privatising everything with a heartbeat.
People squat as a reaction to the deficit in affordable housing but for many it is also a political act. Are we going to allow companies and individuals to keep buildings empty sometimes for decades at a time while they appreciate in value? while people are left on housing lists for 10 years? while police officers are being left in emergency accommodation, housed in BnBs at public expense because there is no housing for them? Why has all the public housing being sold off? I think it’s time for us to decide as a society are we going to allow the Tories to run our housing stock for profit or are we going to demand they run it for people.
The new report by Squash can be found here www.squashcampaign.org. One of its arguments is that, in this new law, the private sector has is passed the cost of securing long-term empty building to the state. In short: we pay for prosecutions, prison sentences and housing benefit claims so that they get to rig the housing market for profit by leaving buildings empty. The report has already started to receive endorsements from prominent politicians and academics:
‘This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse. This new evidence demonstrates so clearly the need to repeal this misguided law.’ John McDonnell MP
‘A few months after the Government brought in the disgraceful law criminalising the homeless occupying an empty house we can see that some of the most needy are indeed suffering in the way that we feared.’ Baroness Miller
‘The conclusions suggest that many of the assumptions on which the recent law against squatting was based – for example that people squat as a lifestyle choice, and occupy other people’s homes – were unfounded and that Section 144, as predicted by many, is having a detrimental impact on homeless and vulnerable people.’ Dr Kesia Reeve
The new laws on squatting are an assault on civil society and public space. Now is the time to act. Support your local squats by speaking out about the crisis of affordable homes and the new laws on squatting.
Write to your local MP asking them to support the repeal of Section 144, Criminal Justice Act and to oppose the proposed criminalisation of squatting in non residential buildings.
Sign and share this petition http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44597