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Portman Street Squat (London) 2004

My Life As A London Squatter


In July 2004 I said goodbye to a handful of friends gathered at a Greyhound station in my southern hometown. I had made no promises, and frankly I was set on never returning again. I had spent a great portion of my younger life on utopian pursuits and ultimately found myself the unwitting accomplice of ghetto gentrification. Shouldn't I have been nervous? Not really. I had grown accustomed in my early years, both out of necessity and almost monastic ambitions, to sleeping in dark urban alcoves and homeless shelters. The threat of bodily harm has never been more menacing to me than the threat of compromising my idealism. So as I sat down in the bus bound for Washington, D.C., the only alternative I considered to some sort of success in my mad plans was some sort of martyrdom. A week later I left Dulles International bound for Heathrow, London.

My money quickly disappeared and I found myself moving to more and more marginal sorts of accommodation. I had still not penetrated the world I'd sought: that of the London squatter. I was at the point of sleeping in suburban parks when I finally made contact at a poetry reading at a social center in the Tufnell Park neighborhood of the Borough of Camden. After various pejorative exchanges, I finally secured a housesitting offer from a senior squatter in Seven Sisters. Despite being let down later by the offer, that night I decided that I was on the right path. As I walked back through Camden Town en route to my hostel in Bayswater, I heard "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" echoing through the high street, and understood finally that what I was there to do was to be a journey of self-discovery; and there were sure to be more like minds here with which to reflect on myself than where I had came from.

After returning to the Tufnell Park Social Center, I was given the address of a squat in the center of the city, and a counterfeit weekly London Underground [subway] card. The Tufnell Park center was, in its networking of events and groups, trade of counterfeit urban necessities, and free meals for all, an anarchist hub for the city. There I had already gained a perspective of the international essence of this culture. My "caseworker", so to speak, was a Canadian. The barista who served me my coffee (for a non-obligatory donation) was Polish. The young Londoners of all descriptions came and left, but in the heart of the place was a clearly visible solidarity among nationalities, races, and genders. I could not help but imagine this scene, taking place in any number of cities. Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Belgrade. Somewhere, in Athens, there was a similar scene, with ideas on the graffiti-like possibilities of knitting or some other militant activity being exchanged.

The squat to which I was directed was just off Oxford Street at the Marble Arch tube station. The squat was a couple of buildings, five floors high [9 Portman Street]. To one side of it, across an alley, was a modern office building with a clear, glass covered elevator shaft. Behind it were the loading bays of a Marks and Spencer department store. Contained within the same block as the two occupied edifices were a law practice and a hotel. From the start, in one of the most central locations of London, amid the haste of a bustling shopping district, the squat was bound to offend certain sensibilities. For reasons that had not yet become apparent to me, however, this building would last as my home for the next two months. The politics of the squat were squarely identified as anarchist. The leader (for lack of a better term) of the contingent of squatters was a Cambridge student of Political Science who had come to London while on vacation, apparently through the squatter's circuit. This utopian experiment in unbridled human liberty was clearly, from the beginning, his experiment. Thus the first flaws in the culture were established for me. Even the squatters who came to occupy the building through channels related to the student's were hopelessly constricted within the confines of a Cambridge student's hobbyhorse. Failing to establish a constructive dialogue with this person, and in need of a place of residence, I eventually managed to make myself at home, much to his chagrin. If there was anything left to say on behalf of him and his fellows' influence on my perception of the squatter's culture, it would be his willingness to self-censor his ambitions on behalf of others' needs. Another group of squatters had recently been evicted from a squat down the street and were accepted, on a temporary basis, into the Marble Arch squat. This group was quite different from the student and his anarchists. The nationality of the anarchist group was a mix of English and American. The other group, to the contrary, was a mix of Israeli, Brazilian, Mexican, Polish, South African, and Italian. Within my first week there I saw the anarchists hosting community events while the new group engaged in heavy drug use. The rift grew broader with time, and it became more apparent that the new contingent would not be leaving anytime soon.

The anarchists began to introduce me to the activities of a squatter. First they showed me what is perhaps the primary activity of bottom-feeding squatters, called "skipping" in Britain, or "dumpster diving" in the US. In a city with a population of 7 million that is highly intent on the freshness of their foodstuffs, the throwing away of high quality food is a daily occurrence. The food is set on the "skip", or the curb, for pickup in boxes or bags. Competing in this urban scavenging are pensioners, veterans, immigrants, prostitutes, the insane, the elderly, and the handicapped. Routine locations for skipping were well established among my fellow squatters: Mayfair for TVs and stereos, Marks and Spencer for food, middle-class areas for furniture, etc. I learned that most London social centers supported their community meals by skipping (in Italy I found that donations, rather, were the primary source of food for community distribution). Another important lesson was in the legality of squatting. While essentially impossible according to most American states' laws, Scots law and other traditions, squatting is given legal grounds in English and Dutch laws, among others. The stipulations existing in England derive from an individual's right to housing being realized within the contrasts of peasants and lords of antiquity. As it is, a property owner may not remove you from their premises, nor may a police officer, if the premises is locked and there is no more than circumstantial evidence of a forced entry. The proprietor must engage in legal proceedings against the occupiers, in which the occupiers are afforded the opportunity to argue their case in the hope of delaying eviction further. At the event of eviction either police or contractors carry it out, and the identities of the squatters are sometimes documented. So why had we not received a summons?

Laws restricting the remodeling and renovation of historical properties contradict the real estate market's desires. Likewise, with the banks of the River Thames being mostly clay, which is often the object of hidden movements, they turn some old buildings into unattractive monoliths of liability. If a landlord with such a property finds it occupied by squatters, it can be awfully prudent to simply allow the liquidation of the property at the hands of the often irreverent, unwelcome tenants. Upon reaching a low level of legal inhabitability, the property may then be subject to renovation and the occupants to eviction. Was this the case with our lack of interference? I could still speculate on this today. It wasn't long before the student left, taking some of the anarchists with him. The squat became more of an organic sort of communal living, being that participation was more equal. Some anarchists continued to stay, though they spent most of their time at social centers. The part of squatter's culture that I was then introduced to, however, had little to do with the lofty ambitions of the social center. The new group that settled in was made up of travelers, vacationers, and immigrants. Along with their drug use they began to use the roof of the building for a non-stop party comprised of a new, transient group that would come and go in the haze of events. Turntables and sound-systems were set up in large rooms and on the roof, and speakers were pointed down into the street below, much to the amusement of the tourist-filled double-decker buses. The greater European raving community had come to roost, and it sounded like one constant trance loop. Despite having such distractions, the residents began to procure jobs. A common employment of squatters in London, I found, is that of the bicycle courier. Bicycle couriers there, like in major US and Australian cities, are a diehard bunch, with their own esoteric subculture. Others began to engage in more dubious activities. With the disappearance of the ideologues came the appearance of more and more door locks. The equilibrium of personal liberties seemed tipped much in the opposite direction (as I have heard said about Mussolini's regime, "the streets were safer because no one went out".). I saw an abundance of liquor "taxed" from the grocer's. Bread stolen from doorsteps. Then eventually, one night, I was asked to aid in such unwholesome activities. Gavin, a white South African from Cape Town, had decided to move south of London, and wanted to open up a squat for some friends before he left. It was three in the morning, in a "posh" part of town. I was one of three lookouts. Gavin slipped into the alley of the building that he had been observing for sometime. Avoiding the city's ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, he made way to the building's door and slipped his crowbar out of his pack. Forgoing any recognition of property damage, I received my signal and ran to meet the rest of my entourage. We quickly slipped in and began our work. We checked the lights and water. There was no shower. What was this? We had entered an office being used as a junk deposit for a construction company. There was no time to waste in changing the lock. Once the latch was secured, we considered our circumstances carefully. The pros of such a place were few, and there was a real threat that unscrupulous construction workers would have no inhibitions about manhandling anybody they found when they came to work on Monday. It was decided that I was to remain in the building while the others returned to the squat to bring those potential future inhabitants of it. My terror was nearly indescribable. After about an hour they returned, and the whole group rejected the idea of moving into the place. As if making a consolatory gesture, Gavin appeased my writer's sensibilities. "So that's how it's done", he said as we left. A day later the lock had been changed.

As October approached, so did an event known as the European Social Forum [17 October 2004]. Part of the greater World Social Forum, an international forum for discussion on issues of globalization, the event drew thousands of people to London. Our squat became host to a large quantity of forum goers, and the subsequent mesh of new ideologues and transients created a very absurd and argumentative environment. The thieves in the night became more of a problem, and things would go missing out of people's pockets as they slept. Just before we finally found our summons, shoved through the mail slot one morning, I was woken in the middle of the night by a cockney accent and a sharp edge on my neck. It was time to go. On the day before the eviction, in a rare display of unity between us squatters of different persuasions, we made banners of large fabric. The next morning I stepped out with all of my belongings, along with a friend from Australia, destined for Buckinghamshire, then Dublin, and the more normal life of a bartender. As we crossed the street in the early morning hours, we joined the commuting business crowd, gazing up at our old home. "You can't evict the spirit!" fluttered in the smoggy autumn breeze.17 October 2004 I would later return to squat in London for a few more months, and would visit two social centers in Florence, Italy. Having sadly missed the European Social Forum, I continued to find a "No-Global" Europe in other settings: in Dublin at Trinity College's Social Forum and the Irish Film Institute's first viewing of the documentary The Corporation; in the backpackers carrying copies of Naomi Klein's No Logo, and the appearance of an essay by her on Italian social centers; in the rallies of naked bicyclists in front of the American Embassy, and the mythical talk of Seattle and NAFTA. But gradually this raw energy seemed sapped into a few political prerogatives. I left to pick apples in the English countryside with a group of gypsies but still found no great precipice to these undercurrents I'd followed thus far. And that was that: the personal journey had ended. I'd been in the heart of this international, urban subculture, and felt I understood a bit more about it. It had provided me with a reflection on human possibilities, as well as my own, outside of the contexts which we too often passively accept. As I think back, I most vividly remember a visit to a hippy squat in north London. As my friends and I walked happily down the streets, a man ran briskly past us. Several police officers soon followed. As we passed a Japanese noodle shop at the corner, we found another man being pursued by police. Before we knew it, the police had run up from behind us and tackled someone. Seemingly oblivious to us, they reached a gloved hand into the man's mouth and produced a large rock of crack cocaine. All the while we had nothing to do with it, but somehow felt implicated. And those friends, wherever they may be now, certainly feel as much as I, the continued implication.

It is the charge that some carry, that things could be, should be, done differently. However successful the squatters of London may be at this is arguable. One thing is for certain, however. The protected freedoms of such extreme subcultures ensure each and every one of our own freedoms. Whatever balances we strike in the future, they will surely be found within these freedoms. In examining such subcultures, however foreign to us they may be, we raise important questions pertaining to civil liberties and basic human rights. Is it a fundamental right that humans should have shelter? Is this the first question in the modern dialogue on the welfare state? Aside from these questions, we also raise comparative questions. What freedom exists for a substratum in the United Kingdom that is denied for over 356 million Americans? And perhaps more importantly, we stumble at length upon the slave and the jailbird's most unanswerable question: what would I do with freedom? This was my quest, and I have yet not a clue.

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