Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Visit

On Thursday I went to the Surgery to visit P. He had spent there a couple of nights already, and he said it felt very safe. I started taking the boards off the windows of the Exanimation Room.

I find that taking the boards off is one of the most satisfying things when you open a squat. The boards are there to make the property uninhabitable. The boards say in a clear language that the owners have no intention to use the building, and they want no one else to use it. Taking the boards off floods the dark and stuffy rooms with air and light; it’s the first sign that life is returning there.

The board was screwed in with 20 long screws, which took a long time to unscrew. When I took a break, I heard someone calling from the outside.

“Hi, I’m the gasman, I’ve come to check the meter”.

“We don’t use the gas… and actually we’re on our way out”.

“It’ll only take a minute”.

We let him in. As he was taking a reading, he said “I thought Mrs Wilcox would be here”.

“Mrs Wilcox?”

“The landlady. She said she’d be here. Well you’re right, the gas hasn’t been used for at least a year.”

“Do you think he realized this is a squat?” said P, after the man left. “I mean it’s pretty obvious”.

I shrugged my shoulders.

Two minutes later, another car pulled up. A woman came up to the gate. From inside the Surgery, I could hear her asking P what he was doing there. I figured we were getting a visit.

When a fellow squatter asks you if you had had a visit yet, they’re not talking about your auntie on holiday to London or your best mate coming for tea. The visit, in squatter-talk, is the occasion when the owners – or, more often, their representatives – come round and discover that the empty property is not empty anymore. It’s a moment of confrontation. Quite naturally, the owners are surprised, unhappy and usually angry. No squatter I know enjoy these situations, but they are unavoidable. And it’s important to keep your nerve otherwise you may risk losing the house.

A big question is whether to open the door. Some people say you should never do that, so not to compromise your home; the owners might manage to force their way inside, and this seriously undermines your position, if the police is called. It’s important to remain in control of the entrance. The door protects you. But it’s a horrible feeling talking to people through the key hole. It doesn’t make you feel secure; quite the opposite. These situations reduce the two sides to angry voices: a faceless squatter vs. faceless landlord. Michael, on the other hand, thought you should open the door: it’s a sign of confidence, and it’s good for the owners to see you face to face. Unpleasant as these situations may be, only very rarely they become violent. It also depends on how many of you are in.

Luckily, the surgery has a front gate, which is locked with a padlock, so we didn’t face the dilemma. P opened with the standard squatters-gambit: he gave Mrs. Wilcox a copy of the Legal Warning quoting Section 6 of the Criminal Law.

On her side, Mrs Wilcox was living up to the script:

Who are you? What do you do here?

You have no right to be here.

Who gave you permission? How did you get in?

I’m going to call the police.

If you’re homeless, you can go to a hostel. It’s not my problem. You can’t live here. We’ll get you out.

It’s none of your bloody business what we plan to do with the building. We’ve bought it, we own it. It’s ours.

Why don’t you go to work like everybody else?

Are these your bicycles? Did you nick them too?

Are you on [unemployment] benefits? I’m sure you’re on benefits.

You want money, right? That’s what it’s all about.

To hear the patronising ‘why don’t you get a job’ preach from a property-speculator driving a posh car is amusing to some degree but it’s a bit clichéic and boring. I don’t want to go on my own preach, but for me, the basic question is why do you expect people to slave in shit-jobs to pay exuberant London rents, when so many buildings stand empty; why do you leave a building boarded up for a year and not get someone to live there; It’s better for the building, it’ll make the neighbours happier (from the rubbish in the front garden it seems that junkies have been using it as a shooting gallery). But the owners are not interested in all that: they’re in it for the money. We knew from the neighbours that they want to knock the Surgery down and build flats. The neighbours didn’t like the idea.

At the bottom of things are two conflicting ideas about houses.

A. Houses are human-made spaces created for social action / interaction / work / play / shelter. They are made first and foremost to be used.

B. Houses are commercial assets: their ultimate role is to be converted into capital. They are nothing more than opportunities for profit through rent/sale.

These two notions are irreconcilable on some level.

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