David Thompson
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June 22, 2011

Comments

JuliaM

"This is a "common" right, as David Harvey reminds us. "The freedom to make and remake our cities," he argues, remains "one of the most precious, yet most neglected of our human rights"..."

No-one’s arguing that you shouldn’t be allowed to ‘make and remake your cities’, Alex.

But buy the properties first, don’t expect to be able to steal them…

David

As so often with Guardian articles, it implies more than it says, and what it implies is extraordinary. As shown above, squatting is by no means confined to unused and rundown properties. The recent death of a relative can present an opportunity for those inclined to violate someone else’s home.

But hey, it’s protest.

DB

The research summary section of Vasudevan's Nottingham University page is a beyond-parody example of academic jargon.

"Berlin's restless relationship with the 'modern' offers, it is argued, an ideal historical milieu in which to test performance theory while at the same time questioning some of its presentist assumptions."

For my part I think Berlin's presentism assumes too much of its 'modern'. No wait, I believe the presentist assumptions of the 'modern' are ideal for Berlin's historical milieu, it is argued. Hang on, I've got it now - I argue that my assumption questions the restless relationship of performance theory within the ideal Berlin milieu of the historical presentist 'modern'. Yes, that's it.

Can't argue with this, though:

"Ultimately, my main motivation for this project is to not only offer a thick description of the everyday practices of squatting but to relocate the squatter movement within recent debates surrounding the political geography of the contemporary city."

DB

He has a blog, too:

…we are left in a general state of obstructed agency (see Sianne Ngai’s fantastic Ugly Feelings) and have become increasingly tethered to a form of sociality shaped by a congerie of negative affects (fear, paranoia, anxiety, envy).  As Lauren Berlant has persuasively written, it is the supine affective charge of aspirational normativity with its  increasingly "recessive" and "underperformative" modes of being that have come to characterize our current age of austerity.

I was saying the same thing the other day to the vulnerable members of the community as we trashed the squat.

rjmadden

But hey, it’s protest.

The left always start by redefining words.

David

“The left always start by redefining words.”

Well, beneath the rhetorical chaff about “vulnerable communities,” “occupation-based tactics” and “geographical rights to the city,” there’s a lot that’s not being said.

Suppose I had the means to buy a second home – say, a rundown farmhouse or cottage somewhere. Suppose, though, I didn’t have enough cash to renovate it properly so that it was fit to live in or rent out. I might have to leave it empty while I saved up to make it fit for use. This might take some time – many months, maybe years. Does that give an “activist” the right to break in and violate my property, most likely causing further damage, for which I’d have to pay?

Or suppose I had to be away from home for several months, possibly longer, to look after an ill or dying relative. Suppose I didn’t have time to find a temporary tenant and left my home empty for much longer than I’d like. Should my home become fair game for anyone sufficiently radical who could break in and then forcibly stay for an indefinite period?

And why does what the intruders call themselves count as an excuse?

Andy M

Cheeky, he's been using the arty bollocks generator.

Ben

"He has a blog, too"

I started to laugh, "oh, one of the pomo-gibberish generators!" but then I realized it was for real. Then I wept. (well, no, not really but "then I rolled my eyes so hard they hurt" isn't nearly as lyrical).

Andrea Harris

I like how he hasn't even changed the generic "just another Wordpress weblog" default slogan. I'll bet you he doesn't know how -- in fact, I'll bet you he has some underpaid flunky (or unpaid student intern, or whatever you call them over there) upload his pretentious gibberish to the blog.

David

It’s interesting just how quickly our cultural Marxists degenerate into non-reciprocal posturing and borderline sociopathy.

Vasudevan’s article fits rather well with the recent juvenile blather about student “occupations.” Leftist academics including David Graeber, Luke Cooper and the comical Priyamvada Gopal tried to redefine violence as anything they disagree with, thereby elevating actual thuggery to mere retaliation. A manoeuvre eagerly copied by other Guardian contributors. We’re told that universities, shops and government buildings are “legitimate targets for protest and occupation.” Terms that conveniently include all manner of exciting physical activities. You can only wonder how they’d feel if, say, a mob of noisy and disgruntled taxpayers embraced a similar ethos and “occupied” their respective faculty lounges in an equally radical manner.

Hey, it’s protest.

Rafi

David, I'm amazed you keep finding these ridiculous people. Keep it up.

Protestors - at least those of a kind congenial to Mr Vasudevan...

That's the key line because God knows they don't like it up 'em.

David

“That’s the key line because God knows they don’t like it up ‘em.”

Well, as Laurie Penny demonstrates regularly, those who thrill to the prospect of “principled thought-through political violence” and “upsetting the police” are generally the first to cry “fascist” and “police state” when the favour is returned in even the smallest way. As I said before, maybe we should assume that Laurie and her supporters have no objection to their belongings being stolen or destroyed by those who disagree with them, provided they feel sufficiently righteous and entitled. But then Laurie and her peers seem to prefer those non-reciprocal principles. They’re so much more exciting.

Likewise, I suspect Mr Vasudevan is a little too entranced by the notion of squatting as an “occupation-based practice” and “urban counterculture.” It all sounds very daring and edgy, if not entirely convincing.

But let’s take another example, one cited by Mr Vasudevan in his article. In February, a squatter collective “entered” the property of Guy Ritchie while it was being refurbished. Once inside, the group fired up their iPhones and issued an open online invitation to other “occupiers” to join them and “sleepover in the most rah property in London.” A property that isn’t theirs and which they chose to violate because, hey, they could. When not tweeting furiously, the squatters decorated the house with banners exhorting “strike,” “occupy” and “resist.” Presumably, these radical souls imagine they’re being oppressed, though as so often it’s not particularly clear how or by what. A dozen or so presumptuous middle-class “activists” armed with BlackBerrys and iPads are hardly the most plausible members of a “vulnerable community.”

Presumably this behaviour is deemed noble and heroic, at least by those doing it, as long as they can claim to be oppressed in some never-quite-specified way, or provided they just don’t like Mr Ritchie or whatever it is he supposedly represents. And if so, this seems a tad whiny and self-flattering, not to mention passive-aggressive. Not quite as daring and edgy as some would have us believe.

Horace Dunn

"...these radical souls imagine they’re being oppressed, though as so often it’s not particularly clear how or by what"

Oh come on David, if you were oppressed too, you wouldn't need to ask "how or by what". Clearly, then, you're part of the problem. Oppressor!

Karen M

Best comment from CIF thread:

"Mr Vasudevan, good news. There may be people in the Nottingham area willing to take you precisely at your word. You left this bit out, but according to microsecond's internet research on Nottingham University, the postcode for white vans with Satnavs driving to your office in University Park, Nottingham is NG7 2RD.

There may be people in your very area who are seeking right now to use 'occupation' as a legitimate tool of protest, or as a necessary coping strategy in the face of an highly uneven and exploitative housing market, or to undermine the polarisation and fragmentation or our cities forming new and jarring archipelagos of wealth and poverty - or who simply want to undertake seizure and reclamation of space (temporary or otherwise) as a key and potent symbol of protest.

When they arrive, could you perhaps lend them a hand with moving their stuff into your office space, so that they can address these valid issues in the ways you propose in this article?"

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/22/criminalising-squatting-rights-protest?commentpage=6#comment-11285546

David

“There may be people in the Nottingham area willing to take you precisely at your word…”

Quite.

Maybe it didn’t occur to Mr Vasudevan that his enthusiasm for intrusion, intimidation and “occupation” as a “potent symbol of protest” might not impress everyone. Say, those who’ve actually had to deal with poseurs, thugs and leeches doing precisely as he suggests. But given his willingness to excuse and endorse the “seizure and reclamation” of other people’s property, it seems only fair – and rather important – to bring that sentiment back to his own doorstep. Or at least that of his employers.

anon

Squatting isn't 'theft' it's more like borrowing.

David

“Squatting isn’t ‘theft’ it’s more like borrowing.”

Borrowing usually implies consent and the voluntary return of whatever’s being borrowed. As opposed to a person whose property has been invaded then being forced to use costly legal means to recover it. Maybe the borrowers, as you’d put it, should just steal the owner’s credit cards and run up a hefty bill. It would save everyone a lot of hassle.

Incidentally, the borrowing shtick is repeated by a squatter in the Guardian comments, with an air of “so what’s the big deal?” Which reminded me of the ridiculous Da! Collective, a member of which confidently announced: “Squatting is not a criminal offence. If the owners want to kick us out they’ll have to apply for an eviction notice.” Both comments suggest a belief that the moral onus is, conveniently, on the owner of the property, not the people invading it, damaging it and occupying it without the owner’s permission. So presumably if the actual victim of the trespass doesn’t complain formally via a solictor, or complain quickly enough, or simply doesn’t know their property has been invaded… hey, it’s their fault, innit?

Andrea Harris

I guess I can borrow anon's car and wallet then. Make sure you visit the cash machine before I come over, anon!

Seriously, this sort of thing just isn't done in my part of the world. Anyone "borrowing" someone else's property in Virginia, whether it is occupied by the owners or not, runs the risk of becoming the proud bearer of several pellets of buckshot, which will be placed most abruptly into the flesh of said "borrower" via shotgun by the property owner.

Murgatroyd

I don't believe that Vasudevan is using his spleen. I know of several small pieces of lead that would like to occupy it. They might even effect radical change.

Min

vulnerable communities

"I'm not entirely sure how they could justify throwing me out under their principles, but one thing is clear: they have occupied buildings in the name of the public, but only selected members are allowed to stay… Unlike the destitute on the streets, I'm not so sure the people I met will have much of a problem finding or paying for alternative accommodation."

http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/welfare/squatters%27-wrongs/

David

Andrea,

“Seriously, this sort of thing just isn’t done in my part of the world.”

In parts of Europe I’m pretty sure there are designated squatter buildings with legal or quasi-legal status - often publicly owned and long since abandoned. But here, squatting more typically involves breaking into private residential property. And Mr Vasudevan seems chiefly concerned with – and enthused by – squatting as an act of protest, which apparently makes the activity vital, righteous and unassailable.

But if you or I had to spend weeks or months in legal proceedings (civil or criminal) and had to spend a hell of a lot of money just to retrieve our own property and then pay for its repair, along with any outstanding utility bills, I think we might want to protest too. Though I’m guessing that’s not the kind of protest Mr Vasudevan finds exciting.

WTP

Not sure how widely this is known, but FWIU squatting is somewhat legal here in the US. You can acquire someone else's property by squatting there, but in order to do so you must be paying the taxes on the property (I take it that is not happening over there) and you must do it in an overt and belligerent (not sure if that's the right word) manner. The Wiki on "squatting" in the US does not resemble what I remember researching about it 15-20 years ago or so. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable about US real estate law could clarify...

Kevin Donnelly

Can I squat on someone's excellent Doctor Who novelisation collection? After all, they're not doing anything with it and I *really* need it?

Also, money in bank accounts. It's there, people are refusing to use it, I need it. Can I please just take it, as clearly if I need it I have a right to it?

Tories: Make all bank account details public property!! Wait - if they have more than whatever Laurie Penny deems acceptable, obviously.

Andrea Harris

WTP: I'm pretty sure what you're describing is garbled in the extreme. It sounds like what you're describing are properties that the government has taken over due to unpaid taxes, and someone buying that property at a public auction by paying off the tax lien. We have a lot of that over here, but it's not illegal, and it's not squatting. We do have homeless people (I prefer to call them "bums" or "hoboes" since few of this population resembles the big-eyed, helpless Poor Family of mum-&-starving-kids of song and story) who occupy abandoned buildings all over the place, but that is squatting, and it's illegal, and as far as I know there's no big movement over here to admire or condone this sort of activity.

There are instances where people refuse to move out of places they stopped paying the rent on, or were foreclosed on, and the municipality's authorities haven't gotten around to moving them out, but this is also illegal, and disapproved of. I just can't think of anything in the US approaching this bizarre helplessness of the UK's government in the face of this sort of abuse of property owners.

WTP

Sigh...Now Andrea, you've made me do research. I hate to do research. It's the one thing that would make me a good media monkey, I know I'm right I just don't have the facts and I'm generally too damn lazy to look it up. Unlike media monkeys, the facts when referenced tend to back me up. Anyways, apparently the term "squatter" has been appropriated in favor of the lefty douche-bags, so we must reference the term "Adverse Possession". There is a wiki entry for that, presented for your consideration:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverse_possession

Or more specifically:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverse_possession#Squatter.27s_rights

Now granted, much depends on the jurisdiction but I recall it being a concern in certain places (Arkansas, I think) under certain conditions.

aphid

David, just spent an hour+ going through your archives. Excellent blogging.

Small donation on its way.

David

aphid,

Gratuities always welcome. I’ve got my eye on a nice Bush Vine Grenache and I’d rather not have to seize or occupy the local off-licence.

Only an hour?

David Gillies

The Violet Elizabeth Bott mode of political discourse that seems to have found such vogue among the Leftists really is tiresome. I've run across people like this on any number of occasions, and the tragic, empty hole inside them is the lack of a hinterland. It's all politics, all the time. There might be a 'there', here, right now, but it's fake. There's certainly no 'there', there. Anomie is deadly.

Andrew Duffin

"a key and potent symbol of protest here in the UK..."

Sigh.

As so often, when he says "the UK" he actually means "England".

Squatting is a criminal offence in Scotland, and has been for a long time.

JuliaM

Kevin Donnelly: "Also, money in bank accounts. It's there, people are refusing to use it, I need it. Can I please just take it, as clearly if I need it I have a right to it?"

Sure! Gotta beat the government to it though...

svh

Shorter Vasudevan:

"Criminalising squatting would threaten our rights to ignore your rights."

Andrea Harris

WTP: okay, but that stuff you linked to doesn't seem to hold in the cases outlined above, where some group of people just decided to move into a property they liked because the owner was away. I mean, I realize property law can be pretty confusing, but it's pretty clear that the squatters David wrote about and this Vasudevan character are praising are not the same type of people as someone with a boundary dispute. The people in the linked articles are quite deliberately taking something that doesn't belong to them. It's not even ambiguous.

WTP

Andrea,
I suppose we could argue the semantics of "somewhat legal" and "ambiguous" until the bovines return to their domiciles. As I said, I would be interested to hear from someone with greater knowledge of US real estate law than myself. However, based on what little I do know, from my father working in the real estate business, from looking at various investments, from serving on my home owners’ association board, and from being a cautious investor, I have come to the conclusion that unless you have an army, you don’t own land, thus you are highly dependent on what the government wants. What the government wants is power. If it thinks it can acquire more power by letting hoodlums take over property, it will do so. If it thinks it can get more money by condemning property and giving it to those who will generate more tax revenue from it, it will do so, hence the laws of eminent domain. I don’t like it, just as I don’t like the Kelo decision. I think governments are being very short-sighted in doing so.

Upon much consideration of natural rights and property rights and how the world works, it appears to be a fact in the way that freedoms of thought or religion are immutable. There are some aspects of life that laws can only obfuscate, for the better or for the worse, but cannot change. Again, I don’t like it, but it seems to be a fact of life.

I’m curious about UK land rights. Many years ago my father did some business with a Scotsman who liked to invest in real estate in the US but not in the UK. He said that according to UK laws, HRH owns the whole lot when it comes down to it. Brits “think” they own their property, but they’re really just renting. I never met this man myself, so I can’t attest to his level-headedness, but he was a quite successful person. And my interest in commenting on this was that at its base, the foundation for real estate laws are probably quite similar in the US.

T.K. Tortch

Andrea & WTP:

"Adverse Possession" has been a part of U.S. Property Law a long time. Most states have, or had, a combination of common law doctrine and statutory law laying out when it applies.

It doesn't really meaningfully compare to contemporary squats in the U.K.

Though it can result in a person who otherwise had no title to property owning it, you've really got to put in the hours and you can't be coy about it. The person claiming adverse possession of Property must occupy the property continuously, without significant interruption, for a long period - IIRC in most jurisdiction, seven years.

Further, the person must occupy the property in a way that is "open and notorious", meaning that the person must be using or occupying the property in a way that's clear to the casual observer or anybody who might care to check the property out more closely. You must openly treat the property as though you own or at least rent it.

It's a risky investment strategy because if the property's true owner shows up at any time before the seven years and gives notice that he is the real title-bearer for the property, then the adverse possessor is back to zero, and would have to stay there seven full years without the owner showing up again if he wants quiet title to the property.

Legal notice of ownership by the true owner can be as simple as a certified letter. He doesn't even have to bother evicting the adverse possessor, so long as he keeps sending notice every seven years.

Further, in most jurisdictions, continuing to pay taxes on the property is considered sufficient open notice to the world of the property's true ownership. Even "no trespassing" signs with the name of the owner would do.

In the U.S. Adverse Possession law doesn't have much or anything to do with Supreme Court decision like Kelo. I would be surprised if the doctrine was even referenced in that decision, except to distinguish it.

It's more a relic of the U.S.'s frontier days. For example, back then a family might acquire title to land and start a farm. They might then abandon the property for any number of reasons - bad at farming, or better opportunity elsewhere - and find it worth their while to pick up and move right away without notice or trying to find a purchaser for the property. Further, record keeping wasn't as rigorous or as easily accessed then as now, the property might not be in a jurisdiction that taxed it at all, and written communication was slow and at the country's edges, distributed irregularly.

The idea behind the doctrine is that land being put to no use whatsoever, having no taxes paid on it at all and no kind of even minimal attention paid to it ought not to go unused if there is somebody who is willing to put it to use for an extended period of time. If the property has some real economic or social utility and the true owner will not even bother checking on it once every few years, pay taxes on it, or posting "no trespass" signs, then the law will let someone make productive use of it.

These days it's very rare for somebody to successfully acquire title to property via adverse possession. Even in the frontier days the law was biased against the adverse possessor and in favor of the true title bearer; now that there's no land just lying around in the wild as their was in former days it's much less common for property (that somebody would actually want) to be abandoned entirely, and since most jurisdictions tax property, that jurisdiction would seize and auction off the property for unpaid taxes anyway.**

**There are some places in the U.S. where you can't give land away. In one of the Dakotas so much former farmland has been utterly abandoned that the State and local governments have ended up owning outsized chunks of the State. The local jurisdictions would seize the property for failure to pay taxes, but then they couldn't sell it at auction for any price. Last I heard the State was trying to sucker the Federal Government into taking some of it off their hands -- literally ceding sovereignty over it to the U.S., so that it would revert to territory status again.

WTP

Mr. Tortch,
Thank you for your explanation. The fundamental concept, as you state:

"The idea behind the doctrine is that land being put to no use whatsoever, having no taxes paid on it at all and no kind of even minimal attention paid to it ought not to go unused if there is somebody who is willing to put it to use for an extended period of time"

sounds similar to what I recall. One could, if one was a 1990's newspaper columnist or a 2011 commie, stretch that idea in an extreme manner to justify the sort of actions taken by rioters and their sympathizers. I have recently been doing Wikipedia-depth reading into mineral rights and other conveyances. There is much to real estate law that is below the surface, both literally and figuratively. I still hold to my basic premise that you don't really own land unless you have an army. Anything that isn't nailed down, however, can be protected in any manner with which the possessor/owner chooses. You can't put it in a Swiss bank account or vault. You can't hide it...though those who may recall a certain F. Scott Fitzgerald novella could argue...but that's just fiction. But the concept of land ownership exists at the mercy of the state.

T.K. Tortch

No problem. Satisfied the pedant in me.

I'm not surprised the U.K. squatters would rely on a concept like that underpinning Adverse Possession law to justify what they do. For the likes of them every damn thing is a slippery slope tilted their direction. No matter how asinine the argument.

But the concept of land ownership exists at the mercy of the state.

Well, at a fundamentally bed rock level, that's a hard statement to get all the 'way round. Trick is to bias the gov't in favor of title-holder's rights. And keep it that way.

Of course, unless you can count on everybody being perfectly well behaved, it can take a gov't to protect the notion of property rights to begin with, or even insist that "property" exists in the sense we're talking about. Setting aside grudges and bad faith, probably most of the Western U.S. Indian wars were in a sense conflicts over what ownership of property actually meant rather than who owned it (stretching, here, it's not my area of study at all).

Don't know much about mineral rights, other than that you can't necessarily count on owning what's underfoot. I've got a buddy from law school who works out in New Mexico and has ended up specializing in business, mineral rights, and reservation law. His firm's retained by one of the Tribes out there; he says the interplay between State, Federal and Reservation law is knotty and fascinating.

T.K. Tortch

Well I may as well describe my one and only personal encounter with U.K. Squatters. Happened while I was in school in the U.K. during the very late '80's. Had a friend from the U.S. who was studying in London. We in turn had an acquaintance from home who had studied there earlier, overstayed, gotten an (apparently) illegal job in a pub, and flopped down to live in a squat.

I think these squatters were a somewhat different breed from Mr. Vasudevan's heroes. They had grabbed themselves a conveniently vacant building to live in. I don't think any of them would have claimed it was some sort of honest expression of political will. They were just taking advantage of a localized collapse of civil law enforcement.

The squat was in the Clapham area. I think that area got swept up in the recent riots? If so it much have changed a good bit. When I visited there were streets and streets of abandoned or vacant row-houses, probably built in the early 20th or maybe late 19th Century; they didn't look like post-war construction to me. It was kind of spooky, because the neighborhood was built for far more people than actually lived there. Our friend was living with others in a house in about the middle of one of these streets of empty residentials. She pointed out the other buildings that were inhabited, I think there were only four or five. All squats.

My friend and I were intrigued by this squat business. I had heard of large, blasted quasi-abandoned urban environments (The Bronx), but never seen one. We were interested in the obvious relaxation of the usual rules (landlords, rent) that allowed them to stay there.

Story she told was that the neighborhood had once been regular residential; it declined for whatever reason; people began moving out; some of the residential buildings were converted to council flats (the entire other side of the street had been council-owned, supposedly, and maybe her side too); more people moved out and nobody wanted in, so the buildings were shuttered.

She wasn't among the original squatters, who she thought had set up in the early-mid '80's. There was apparently some hair-splitting legal distinction you could exploit, something like it was illegal to bust the locks on an abandoned residence, but if you didn't get caught and changed the locks, the owner had to jump through various legal hoops to get you out.

These folks had managed to hook up the electricity and, alarmingly, the gas. In one guy's bedroom there was a grate where a gas fixture had been; there were four or five copper pipes sticking out into the room at a 45 degree angle jetting flame like so many bunsen burners.

I remember some absurd detail about the utilities - I think it was that the gas was coming in free of charge, but they actually had an account for the electrical service, which they paid for. I remember that detail highlighted what seemed to be some degree of toleration on the part of the local authorities, whoever they were. Maybe their resources were stretched, so if you didn't make a fuss they would turn a blind eye. Maybe it suited them if the kludged gas connection blew up and burned the row down!!

These folks weren't exactly innocents, but they did all have jobs except maybe one or two in school. They lived there, so they weren't interested in trashing the place with non-stop parties.

The funniest person who lived there I never actually met. There was a short flight of stairs down from the kitchen that ended in a closed door with a padlock on it. Our friend said "oh that belongs to the Druid Who Lives In The Basement. He'll be away for a few weeks."

And that's the whole of it.

Laban Tall

"they have occupied buildings in the name of the public, but only selected members are allowed to stay"

When I was in 80s London the scene was middle class radical - mostly graduate types. "Ordinary" people and street people NOT welcome. You got places by word of mouth.

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