Their Law: The New Energies of UK Squats, Social Centres and Eviction Resistance in the Fight Against Expropriation (Part 1 of 2)

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For anyone old enough to remember themselves as a teenager during the nineties, with fond memories of piercing their own ears (multiple times) whilst listening to the second album of The Prodigy ‘Music for a Jilted Generation’ [self-piercing nostalgia optional], they will recognise ‘Their Law’ as the musical response to the criminalisation of rave culture’s collective enjoyment of ‘repetitive beats’ directly legislated in Section 63(1)(b) of the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994. The metallic screams and staples pulsate into an abrupt “fuck them and their law” where the Braintree boys quarterise their angry sentiment against enclosing law, the voice of a radical resistance felt in lower frequency bass, vibration, body, the tribe, the people—rave terms.

I think of Their Law when I think of the energy and metabolism of many communities now fighting the heartbreaking effects of unabated private property acquisition in the UK, of the fierce passions contesting the market-obsessed policies enacted through unapologetic and unconcerned legislative processes that are entirely ignorant of the difficulties people are facing on a day-to-day basis just to be. I think of the physical and emotional pain of loss, upheaval, dependency; forms of impoverishment exacerbated as a result of legally sanctioned expropriating forces. State law is addicted to the drama of capital and we see this self-fulfilling prophetic tragedy of the commons happening across the urban spectra, notably in aptly labelled ‘ghettos’ which ‘benefit’ from the redevelopment and gentrification which merely allows further unfettered privatisation and commodification. This occurs in areas now prime for private acquisition in South and East London, at the expense of the homeless, the already destitute, the already excluded, and the already vulnerable. The eviction resistances originating across London constituencies of both the Left and Right – Newham (‘Focus E-15’), Barnet (‘Sweets Way Resists’), Camden (‘Camden Resists’), Lambeth (Guinness), Southwark (Aylesbury), combined with the new confidence of squatted social centres (‘Radical Bank’ of Brighton and Hove’ and ‘Elephant and Castle Social Centre’ in South London), despite the criminalisation of protest–proclaim their own rendition of Their Law; and damn, it sounds good.

There is so much going on in terms of the housing crisis, neoliberal regurgitation of social stock as ‘regeneration’, the removal of squatters’ rights, fights against dispossession, that it is difficult to unpick the legal and political events and frameworks. They are many-fronted whilst at the same time all bi-products of the very same process and bifurcation of privatisation reaching new levels of extremity in its nihilism. Even as I write this, Manchester’s St Anne’s Square and Castlefield ‘Homeless Rights for Justice’ tent occupations are awaiting notice of an injunction to remove them from a now ten week old encampment in the city, in a similar move to the City of London Corporation’s removal of Occupy St Paul’s in City of London Corp v Samede [2012] EWCA Civ 160.

Samede and these recent occupations remind us of the use of private law to remove occupations, the commodification of not just public space, but social housing stock, at the same time as the street becoming increasingly viable as a home by many as a result of the very same commodifying processes. The Manchester protestors, and those of other resistances spoken of in this piece, are a mixture of both the homeless and activists, a prevalence in protests whereby the actions are not only symbolic resistances where supporters and campaigners are raising awareness around housing issues, but the activists themselves have directly lost or are threatened with removal from their place of residence as a result of a ruthless interweaving of law and venture capital targeting the most basic of all human and animal practices, that of home-making.

In recent years there have been a number of cases relaying the increased privatisation of space and the equal demise of protest protections. Protestors have been banned from privately owned shopping malls in Appleby 2003 37 E.H.R.R. 38, climate change activists have come up against heavy civil lawsuits by energy giants on whose land demonstrations have taken place (West Burton being a prime example), and private law mechanisms have been extensively used to remove students during university occupations. There are now some interesting questions in relation to anti-fracking demonstrations. In Manchester Ship Canal Developments Ltd v Persons Unknown [2014] EWHC 645 (Ch), it was shown that Article 8 can be used as a defence in protests on private land and have the potential to trump the Article 1 Protocol 1 right of peaceful possession of property by the landowner in ‘exceptional circumstances’. The horizontal use of the Human Rights Act 1998 became possible following the decision in the Grow Heathrow case, Malik v Fassenfelt [2013] EWCA Civ 798, [2013] 3 E.G.L.R. 99, where the court itself must comply with human rights obligations under section 6 of the act, thus allowing for human rights protections against actions of private bodies.

Human rights arguments were used in a Magistrates Court hearing on 16 June 2015 by representatives of the collective at the now evicted Radical Bank of Brighton and Hove, in defence of impending possession order proceedings. ‘RadBank’ as it is better known was an occupation of an empty Barclays bank building in the London Road area of Brighton, by activists, locals, students and undoubtedly the homeless, creating Brighton’s first squatted social centre for many years. As the building was of a commercial nature, it fell under the old regime of squatting law, particularly under sections 6, 7, and 12 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. These regulations allow for squatters to remain in occupation until a Court order removes them, as opposed to the forcible removal permitted by section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 in properties deemed to be ‘residential’.

RadBank were given only two days’ notice to find legal representation and prepare themselves for the court hearing, and as a result, had to stand in court as litigants-in-person. The cuts to legal aid specifically put squatting cases outside of the scope of civil legal aid under Schedule 1 Part 1 of LASPO. It is interesting that despite the collective arguing the infringement of their Article 8, the closest legal protection we have to a right to housing, the judge dismissed their arguments declaring ‘rights cut both ways’ inferring the predominance the rights of Barclay’s Bank from Article 1 Protocol 1. If RadBank would have had the legal representation and notice to prepare that would have allowed a fair hearing, a lawyer would have quickly corrected the judge with a reminder that despite its apparent unhinderance in possession claims, Article 1 Protocol 1 remains a qualified right. Not surprisingly, a possession order was granted by the High Court and the squatters were evicted two days later, but what has happened as a result is a resurgence of political motivation in the Brighton area, to work collectively and to seek alternatives to the mode of property we are subjected to. RadBank’s philosophy was specifically to use space and time for alternative value than that of capital accumulation, to show that time can be slowed down, frozen, either through understanding the institutional legal frameworks, as they did, or to attempt to institute and enact their very own dimension, their very own form of organisation and legality, which for just two weeks they managed to achieve. They stated, “This building has been left empty and will continue to do so. We are doing a lot of good here, but according to law it is better to leave it empty, to rot. Nobody should let this happen.” Interestingly, Barclays have now co-opted the social centre idea in a gentrified version of community involvement with a new less radical and threatening use of their empty, private property.

Fascinating and encouraging was the decision on 23 June 2015 of the High Court in London to grant residents of the Runnymede eco-village, site of the signing of Magna Carta 800 years previously, a stay of execution from eviction proceedings brought by Orchid Rynneymede Limited, based on the exceptional historical circumstances of the location as well as another ground-breaking consideration. Most exciting for squatting collectives and eviction resistances of the future, was the acknowledgement of common rights arguments of sustenance and sustainable land use enshrined (but forgotten) under the twin Charter of Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest. The possibility of communal rights arguments coming up against individual property arguments, even at a relatively low court level, is something to hold onto amidst the apparent totalitarian enclosing of the commons elsewhere in law. Only last week, the energy and commitment of locals and anti-fracking activists making their voices heard and listened to in planning decisions, brought about Cuadrilla’s failed application to explore fracking possibilities in Plumpton, Lancashire—another victory for community and collectivism over the avarice and destruction of private interests in land.

According to Serpis, RadBank was also inspired by a feeling of solidarity and common connection with thousands partaking in anti-austerity actions across the UK, as well as by other social centres, such as the Elephant and Castle Social Centre in the now intensely re-configured and re-formatted built and social constructions of Lambeth. The Elephant and Castle pub in its current form on the corner of New Kent Road and Newington Causeway was built in the sixties, but according to reports there has been a pub on that spot since 1765. As a result of losing its liquor licence, the site has become vulnerable to developer acquisition, with plans to use the space as a new branch of ‘Foxtons’ estate agents – oh, the irony. According to Squat.net, the local community group Walworth Society is turning the Localism rhetoric on its head and using the law for grassroots causes through seeking to register the pub as an ‘asset of community value’ under the Localism Act 2011 and the Assets of Community Value Regulations 2012, which if successful could save the building from becoming another glass fronted faux-space of the London-wide property tycoons.

Squatting for use, the tactic of social centres, is a politics of procrastination where a biding for time and stalling a possession order allows for a Hakim Beyian ‘TAZ’, a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ of property for use or even a ‘temporary autonomous home’. To claim an outrage in protest demands the apportionment of time, a moment in which to be heard; it also demands the space in which this detraction resides, which is to stake a claim that ultimately relies on our association with the earth and the resources around us. This association is always the land, our placement at a given time within a sovereignty, where arguably all protest seeks to assert the protection of each of our conceptions of home. This connection with land and home rings so true again as rights to protest and rights to housing are coming together in direct action, both symbolically contesting the enclosure of private property whilst at the same time halting the extraction from one’s place of existence as can be seen happening in the resistances against the neoliberalisation of housing stock. The police holding and questioning of Jasmin from the Focus E-15 resistance specifically highlighted the draconian measures brought against individuals contesting dispossession of their homes, and the criminalisation of protesting for housing specifically, bringing together this convergence of resistance and habitat once again.

Social centres, whether squatted or otherwise, are not new tactics of protest; there is a long tradition of ‘direct housing’ actions going back to the post-World War II era, countering the shortage of housing in the aftermath of destroyed stock. This was followed by a second wave of squatting for homes from the late sixties, where families were re-housed in empty homes by the likes of ‘London Squatters Campaign’ and the ‘Family Squatters Advisory Service’. A third wave of squatting has been seen in recent years, since the seventies, which has been shaped by the legal fiction of ‘squatters’rights’and the influence of punks and artists, as well as alternative, autonomist, anarchist and anti-capitalist politics of all shapes and sizes. There is arguably a fourth wave of squatting happening through eviction resistance, which by its nature suggests the recalcitrance of the extant neoliberal logic of individual property being enforced today. Squatting and occupation protests have returned to contesting space for shelter itself, and it is these contemporary resistances we turn to next.

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