Ruffians and Ne’er-do-wells
Friday Ephemera

It’s Protest So It’s Righteous

Alexander Vasudevan is a lecturer in “cultural and historical geography” with an interest in “radical politics” and “cartographies of protest.” He also, naturally, writes for the Guardian. Which may help explain his belief that proposals to criminalise squatting would create “jarring archipelagos of wealth and poverty” and, more importantly, remove “a potent symbol of protest.” Squatting, see, isn’t opportunist theft, it’s a form of political protest and therefore righteous by default:   

The seizure and reclamation of space (temporary or otherwise) has become a key and potent symbol of protest here in the UK, from campus occupations to the playful interventions of groups such as UK Uncut.

Yes, we’ve seen those playful interventions and the people they tend to attract, many of whom wish to play with unsuspecting members of the public. And note the word reclamation, as if what’s being taken, often forcibly, somehow already belongs to the people who’ve decided to take it. Because… well, being terribly radical, they’re entitled, obviously.

As, for instance, when squatters invaded and occupied the home of Lisa Cockin’s mother, recently deceased, then used it as a venue for some rather lively parties. When the intruders were finally evicted, the Cockin family were left with repair costs and legal bills of several thousand pounds. Or when squatters stripped the home of Denise Joannides – even ripping up its floors - in what I’m sure could be construed as an act of radical protest.

What is at stake here is the further criminalisation of occupation-based tactics, which could severely limit the ability of vulnerable communities in particular to assert and stake their own geographical “right to the city.”

Protestors - at least those of a kind congenial to Mr Vasudevan - apparently have a right to storm and occupy a private business, a private home. How liberating it must be to have such moral certainty and a convenient disregard for boundaries and reciprocation. Note too the deployment of the Vulnerability Card, thereby implying that the nation’s squats are currently heaving with the frail, the elderly and the disabled. A strange insinuation, given that squatters are very likely to be young people like these, also gorged on “radical politics,” and whose only obvious disability is a failure to perceive their own absurd double standards.

Readers who wish to reclaim the belongings of Mr Vasudevan – say, his laptop or his phone – should head for the University of Nottingham.

Update, via the comments:

As Mr Vasudevan is keen to excuse the “seizure and reclamation” of other people’s belongings as a “potent symbol of protest,” it seems only fair – and important – to bring that sentiment back to his own doorstep, or that of his employers, if only rhetorically. Of course our academic radical has little to worry about. Readers of this blog are likely to have strong inhibitions regarding the invasion or theft of other people’s property, unlike some enthusiasts of the “radical politics” that Mr Vasudevan finds so exciting.

Vasudevan’s article links to a recent squatting news story, one of a dozen or so such incidents, reactions to which are apparently “an attempt to further sanctify the virtues of private property.” For readers overseas, the incident involved the film director Guy Ritchie, whose partly-renovated home was “seized and reclaimed” by a troupe of squatters known as the Really Free School. 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 group decorated Mr Ritchie’s house with banners exhorting “strike,” “occupy” and “resist.” It seems 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.” The squatters, who refused to leave when confronted by police, claimed they would be engaging in a “collective learning process” with topics including how to steal from public transport and “classes in tarot.”

Update 2:

An anonymous commenter takes exception to my description of squatting as opportunist theft. “Squatting,” we’re told, “is more like borrowing.”

Well, borrowing usually implies consent and the voluntary return, intact, 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. And on top of this indignity, then having to pay for any repairs and outstanding utility bills. Maybe the borrowers, as our unnamed friend puts it, should just steal the owner’s credit cards and run up a hefty bill. It would save everyone a lot of hassle.

The borrowing shtick is repeated by a squatter in the Guardian comments, with an air of “so what’s the big deal?” A tone that reminds 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 solicitor, or complain quickly enough, or simply doesn’t know their property has been invaded… hey, it’s their fault, innit?

That must be the “social justice” we hear so much about.