by Suzy Q
Lately, some in the Bay Area radical scene (overwhelmingly people with decent jobs who rent), have been dismissing squatting, and those who choose to squat, with what I believe are shallow generalizations and stereotypes. The pitfalls of squatting are the pitfalls of anarchy, and we’re going to have to figure them out.
Most of Oakland’s squatters are people of color, often long-term residents, who don’t call themselves anarchists. There are no official statistics, but I know this because I keep bumping into them. Anyone scouting squattable buildings in these parts has to be cautious of disturbing people already there. In addition to these precarious squatters, many of the local squatters I meet are ordinary working people who stopped paying rent to their absentee slumlord years ago.
My current house is a good example. From what I’ve been able to piece together through things left in the house, and research at the courthouse and online, the last resident was a man who had previously rented the house, and continued to live there for two years after his landlord died, refusing to leave when served a Notice to Quit. He fought his eviction, but missed a filing date due to being in jail for a few weeks. Also, when we moved in, a man had been sleeping on the porch for about 5 months, hidden by the overgrown hydrangea bushes. He’s still at the same address, but now has a roof and electricity. The point is, my squat had already been squatted twice, in very different ways, by people of color.
The rest of this article is about and is directed to members of the predominantly white, young, and mobile anarchesque milieu, not because we’re especially special as far as squatting is concerned, but simply because that’s what I am. This is why I see squatting as part of the anarchist project.
We avoid paying rent, and therefore have time for our lives, whether that’s caring for friends and sweeties, educating ourselves, making music, engaging in community activism, or committing petty vandalism against developers and banks. It’s a special kind of a place. It allows a certain fluidity of people moving in and out, existing without their address being recorded by the state.
We get practice at the nitty gritty of anarchy. We have to figure out how to live outside of police and property titles, resolve our own conflicts, and share a resource that really matters to us. I’ve rented several times, and even though neither myself nor anyone involved has even considered calling the landlord or the police to resolve our conflicts, the subtext of property rights is always there. Even if we have guests and travellers, and do everything by consensus – I pay $400 a month for the right to this room. But in a squat, I am there because everyone else wants me to be there. Even if I found, opened, and fixed up the building, at the end of the day I don’t have any enforceable rights over anyone else.
Many of the same issues come up in an open squat as in an infoshop, but unlike most activist groups, we have a physical incentive to commit rather than drop out when things get hard. Squatting can be an intense experience because you can’t just skip the meeting Tuesday if the project is frustrating you. Anarchy is our life rather than a recreational activity after work.
Squatting and fighting for buildings has the potential to concretely disrupt the gentrification process. Once established, clever squatters can subvert tenant protection and property laws to drag a legal case, and therefore their occupancy, out for years. We waste developer and bank resources that would be used to do more damage elsewhere. The Hot Mess/RCA squat has delayed Rockridge Realty from developing an entire block of north Oakland for 2 1/2 years so far, and has cost them god knows how many thousands in legal fees.
In my experience, most people who assert that squatting causes gentrification cannot articulate the mechanism by which they believe this occurs. However, I can see two ways that members of the predominantly white, transient youth subculture that is our radical milieu choosing to squat might contribute to the gentrification process.
Firstly, it can bring white folks into marginalized, and therefore easily squattable areas, both as squat residents and through throwing shows that attract hipsters. One impediment to the gentrification of black neighborhoods is the racism of white yuppies, who don’t want to live among people of color. A neighborhood containing white squatters often feels more comfortable to a white yuppie than one of black working families. The same applies to white punks renting in these same neighborhoods, except that squatters have to be on decent terms with their neighbors, while white punks with a lease are free to be assholes to marginalized people if they feel like it.
White squatters don’t have to limit their activities to poor Black neighborhoods. C’mon guys, don’t keep taking remedial math, move onto calculus already! The logic of capitalism ensures that there will always be a few houses empty, even in the highest-rent areas. You can exploit that white privilege to take those houses, and then bring a few of friends of color with you.
Secondly, squatters and renters are much easier for developers and city governments to push around than people who own their homes. If a collective buys a house together, rather than squatting, they will be in a position to resist gentrification. This is great for people who have enough resources to pool to buy a house. I am not one of those people. Owning a house requires paying not just the mortgage, but taxes, garbage fees, etc. As an anarchist, I would rather not hand my resources to those people even if I had them.
Also, you can still squat in partially gentrified areas that would be too expensive to buy a house in, so the house-buying strategy relies on aiding the initial process of gentrification, in order to benefit from it in the end. Many of the SF and Berkeley co-ops either sold their buildings or gentrified internally.
Some dismissal of squatting has to do with personal experience of some squatters being assholes and some squats being drama bombs. I have to say that some squats/squatters do suck, but plenty of renters and homeowners suck as well. It seems odd for radicals to demand an infinitely higher standard of behavior from a group of people just because they don’t pay rent.
The absence of set rules and laws can be surprisingly hard to navigate. Often, people do the work to scout, research, and squat a house, but then, because they have no sense of ownership, let assholes and wingnuts move in and don’t feel they have the right or ability to kick them out. Our rent-paying friends tend to dump their unwanted people at squats to get rid of them.
Learning how to make decisions collectively and share resources and power is a difficult but essential part of the anarchist project. We need to develop a system of belonging outside of the capitalist model of property. We need to keep ourselves safe from people damaged by the police state without resorting to it. We need to make and hold each other to collective agreements.
These issues come up most fiercely in larger and more open collective projects, because people have different backgrounds and expectations, and there are too many people for everyone to develop close relationships with everyone else. Possibly because of this, most squats, even most anarchist squats, aren’t open to all and sundry. My current place isn’t. Everybody just talks about the more public and dramatic places.
In the end, anarchist housekeeping is sometimes tricky, but it’s worth it. Squatting offers many benefits to the individual anarchist and the promotion of anarchy at large. The difficulties that it offers are opportunities for learning and growth. These types of problems are not unique to the squatting situation, but rather arise with any group of people learning to do something that really matters to them in a non-hierarchical way.
To my friends who squat, who work shitty jobs to pay their rent, who sleep in their cars, under bridges, in parks – I love you all.