Bring Back the commons – Alameda D.A. criminalizes squatting

By Woof Woof-Howl

On Wednesday January 20, 2016 the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office (DA) issued arrest warrants for 4 organizers working with the non-profit Land Action. The organizers, now being called The Land Action 4, face 7 criminal charges-3 of which are felonies, up to 8.5 years imprisonment, and $89,000 in fines. Among the allegations is that these organizers were involved in a “Conspiracy to Trespass,” a common charge used to target civil rights organizers.

The organizers are being charged for their involvement in the occupation of an abandoned house in the Cleveland Heights neighborhood near Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA. Two of the defendants, Patrick Xu and Wren Hyde, were the on-site property managers on behalf of Land Action. The occupation began in mid-September of 2015, and for the next 3 months the occupants made multiple improvements to the property. On December 17th the owner of record noticed the occupants, and through a family connection to the DA’s office, petitioned the DA to intercede on the owner’s behalf. Subsequently, in negotiations with an agent of the DA, the occupants agreed to move out of the property. However, the DA broke the agreement and arrested Xu as he was removing the last of his belongings from the property. Arrest warrants were issued for Wren Hyde, Kelly Jewett, and Steven DeCaprio; none of whom were physically on the property at the time the warrant was issued.

Several neighbors said no one had entered the house since 2010.  According to the prosecution’s official complaint, the owner of record admitted to not having lived in the house since 2003. Over the years, the sagging foundation has caused exterior walls to buckle and shear, creating large cracks in the stucco that collect rain during storms. At the time of the occupation, the property had accumulated 5 years of unpaid back taxes, which made it eligible for tax foreclosure. Land Action was preparing to take ownership of the property via the legal doctrine of Adverse Possession, a.k.a. “squatting to own,” by filing certain documents with the Alameda County tax assessor. After discovering the occupation, the owner payed the most recent fiscal year’s taxes, leaving $45K still unpaid as of this article’s publication.

Hundreds of abandoned/vacant properties have been occupied in the Bay Area in recent decades. Disputes over these properties generally remain in the civil realm. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the court rules in the title-holder’s favor and the occupants are ordered to leave. Very rarely do they end with arrests, and never before have they resulted in felony charges. But this time, the DA has pushed what has historically been considered a civil matter into criminal court.

The DA is attempting to criminalize squatting, and with it, Adverse Possession, precisely because these tactics have been very effective here in the Bay. The squatters movement has provided safe haven to thousands of dissident voices over the years. During the Occupy encampments many activists were able to organize full-time because they lived in squats. Squatters have also posed a major obstacle to the widespread speculative practice of hoarding properties only to leave them empty and unused and thereby inflate housing prices. So we can read the DA’s actions as a fairly bald-faced attempt at political repression.

But there’s more. Especially disturbing to the DA was Land Action’s attempt to use the doctrine of Adverse Possession to claim ownership over a property without paying market value for it (This is a privilege local government would rather reserve for capitalists – see the 12th street remainder parcel scandal, in which Oakland City Council tried to give luxury condo developers an acre-sized lakefront parcel for well under market value, an action that the City’s own Attorney declared was illegal).

So the DA is acting on the commonly held, knee-jerk moral impulse that “housing should cost something.” The average person on the street is likely to tell you the same – if you don’t pay for it, you don’t deserve it, and anyone who lives in a house for free must be either a parasite or a criminal – which means this fight is also about land, and what it’s worth.

To many people, the Alameda DA’s actions may not seem so newsworthy given that the Bay Area is already one of the most expensive places on the planet. We already live under the boots of capital, so what difference does it make if squatting is legal or not? Whatever the outcome of this court case, I hope that you, dear Slingshot reader, will use this moment to remind your conventionally minded friends what’s really at stake when the average citizen believes “housing should cost something.”

At the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, the old feudal order was crumbling under the pressure of popular uprisings. The princes, the religious authorities, and the new mercantile elite allied against the common people to devise new means of social control. Thus began a centuries-long campaign that robbed the peasantry of their land, especially their collectively held land, the proverbial village commons. By this bloody process of dispossession, the European peasantry was transformed into the world’s first modern landless population: they had been made into a dependent working class that had no choice but to accept the yoke of capital.

In the birthplace of Capitalism land used to belong to everyone and everyone belonged to the land. Now, all over the world people believe land is a commodity to be bought and sold. A perverse “common sense” tells us that people don’t have a basic right to shelter, that home is a place we must earn through a life-time of toil in service of capital interests. Let’s remember how much bloodshed over centuries it took to condition people to believe that filthy, capitalist lie.

So if anyone ever asks you, what’s land worth? Maybe they’re a landlord, and they want to know, is it worth… $1200 a month? Go ahead and ask them back, “how much will you pay me to keep your kidneys?” And they’ll be very disturbed by that question — they’ll say, “listen, sicko. Why should I pay you for my kidneys?” Indeed, why? Who’s got a gun to our heads, who’s holding the very preconditions of life itself for ransom? It’s the very definition of sick. And now you begin to see the level of depravity necessary to conduct the centuries-long campaign of dispossession that has produced the global landless. The depravity necessary for the IMF to conduct its programs of privatization in an effort to “develop” so called undeveloped territories. By ripping us from the land and holding us apart, we become like a thundercloud over a mountain, ready to hurl millions of volts just to bridge that gap.

We must look to history in order to understand what it means when the average “freedom loving” American believes the property regime we live in is reasonable and natural. The Alameda County DA’s attempt to criminalize squatting is just one more nail in the lid of a psychic coffin that has been centuries in the making. The ruling class has ripped us from the landscape so thoroughly that we’ve forgotten that we were once one organism – only then could the ruling class sell our own flesh back to us, by the pound and by the square foot.

Whatever happens with this court case, remember that if you value liberty, land is beyond all price. So wherever you are, fuck capitalism, fuck privatization, fight the enclosures, and BRING BACK THE COMMONS.

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