The squatter scene in London

First of all, the squatter community is an informal one; there are no registries or any kind of formal membership to be part of the community. The boundaries of this community are not well-defined. A common misleading assumption would be that it is formed by people who are squatting, but this would be a simplification of the current situation. As in many other communities, the membership to the squatter community is defined by the people who are in the community.

Support your local squats (Courtesy of Feral78)

There are people who are currently squatting but do not consider themselves squatters and are not linked to the squatter community, for example, people who are living in a place after their contract has ended. There are also people who are not squatting but are considered as part of the community as, for example, people who have squatted in the past or are supporting the community in some way. On this last group, supporters, we can include some organizations like the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) and Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH). These organizations are formed by many people. Some of them are squatting now but some are not, and they provide services for squatters on a national level.

The ASS provides legal advice and helps with some of the practical aspects of squatting. It is well regarded in the community and its history now spans more than four decades, beginning as the Family Squatters Advisory Service in the 60s. The ASS has edited the Squatters’ Handbook since 1976 where they review the laws that affect squatters, inform them of the rights they have and give some advice on how to choose a place to squat, what to expect, and how to deal with common problems.

SQUASH was recently created to fight the changes in law that would criminalize squatting. It is a coalition of activists from two housing charities (Shelter and Crisis), lawyers, squatters, and some other supporters. This group became actively involved in different actions against the new law, contacting different people taking part in the legislative process and providing information for the people interested in the case. After getting support against the new law from politicians, academics, the Metropolitan Police and many others, the changes passed and as of September 1st squatting is considered a criminal offense.

Besides these formal organizations, there are some more informal organizations that are part of the squatters community. As in any community, the squatters form a network of relationships, but some of these networks are explicitly available. These squatters networks are given a name and they represent squatters in a particular area. In London, two well-known networks are the North-East London Squatters Network (NELSN) for squatters in the Hackney area and surroundings, and the South London Squatters Network. They provide a way to meet other squatters in the area by arranging meetings, debates, dinners and other activities. They also help squatters by supplying information, creating emergency phone trees and putting in contact squatters in need. These networks are usually informal; there is no central leadership or central administration, and things get done by spreading the message through the network, for example to update the phone tree or to arrange a meeting.

Finally, social centers and autonomous spaces are also involved in the squatters community. Most of these centers are squats or began as one, and their involvement with the community varies to different degrees. Some centers, such as the rampART, a now defunct squatted social center in London, provide a space for alternative culture. Others, like the London Resource Action Center (LARC) or the 56a Infoshop, are more actively involved in the squatting community organizing meetings, putting squatters looking for a place to live in contact and providing educational material, such as the Squatters Handbook, to squatters. These social centers usually form part of the UK Social Centres Network and are in contact with other social centers in the UK.

Many of these groups, and some other groups not described above, publish their own material about the squatters’ culture. The most common format is the zine, a self-published magazine with news, mainly about squats and squatters, but frequently including articles about law, politics, political theory and other related issues. This zines are a good source for a further study of the squatters culture and the squatter community, they provide a longitudinal view as back issues are available, and the information published in them is written by squatters and is for squatters.

To these organizations we must add the squatters and squats, the central elements of the squatter community. It is more difficult to generalize about these as there are many of them and they are very diverse. It is estimated that the average life of a squat is six months, from the day they open until the day they are evicted. Squats can vary in size, type of building, organization, and purpose. They can vary from small residential squats of just a few people to big commercial buildings hosting dozens of people. The most common use of these squats is for residential purposes as social centers are difficult to keep, specially for legal reasons. For example, the open door policy required for a social center so everyone can participate is not possible, as they can be evicted if the police get inside. They must control access to the building.

Squatters’ profiles also vary. A full demography showing their age, class, race and nationality, as well as their motives and other useful information, will prove to be difficult to obtain and could be the object of a separate project. Most of the squatters contacted for this research were in the twenty to forty age range, but there were some exceptions. Also, in conversations with some of these squatters they mentioned people outside this range. As for nationalities, they are not limited to British people. French, Spanish, people from eastern european countries, and other nationalities were contacted in the course of this research. Mentioning other characteristics would be misleading as they would require further study.

To sum up, the squatter community in London is composed of squatters, squatters networks, social centers and autonomous spaces, and organizations like ASS. All of these people and groups, and probably others that were unintentionally left out, play a significant role in the development of the squatters community.

See also:
Brief history of squatting and land struggle in England (Part I)
Brief history of squatting and land struggle in England (Part II)

Leave a Reply