Squatting: The Audacity of Taking Up Space

The pandemic-induced eviction crisis should bring back memories of a movement that fought for free housing for all

Notting Hill, London, 1977. Photo by Roger Perry

In Sisterhood and Squatting in the 1970s, Christine Hall gives a dystopian yet accurate description of some boroughs in London. “To walk through Islington, Camden, and Hackney in the early 1970s was to walk along street after street of soot-blackened, late Georgian and Victorian terraces and villas boarded up and left semi-derelict.” Our collective consciousness isn’t trained to think that such a description could be attached to any area in London, so, how’d that happen?

After World War II, Britain had to map out how entire cities would be rebuilt because German bombing had inflicted significant damage to urban areas. But because of a shortage of house-building material, the rebuilding process went too slowly for upper-middle-class residents, so they left for better pastures. These better pastures were newly-built urban areas with new housing facilities in the suburbs on the outskirts of London so that Inner London inhabitants could relocate. This massive exodus left thousands of housing facilities empty and derelict, most of them lacking the three essential household amenities: exclusive use of their water supply (including hot water), a bath, and an indoor toilet. When the ones in charge of London’s rebuilding process realized these areas were up for grabs, they saw fit to simply demolish these empty houses to build better, more expensive housing, shopping centers, and more. And that’s when the squatters come in.

In the late 60s, squatters took it upon themselves to repair and live in those places for many reasons, but let’s focus on the marginalized people that make up the bulk of those squatters: homeless people, women, working-class people, and those who meet at some of those intersections.

In 1970, the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged with force in the U.K. This second-wave feminist organization emerged with force as they analyzed women’s roles in society and defined their first demands at the first National Women’s Liberation Conference to establish social and economic equality for women. But while this movement was massive on its own, it wouldn’t have been as successful if it weren’t for the squatting movement that was taking place at the same time. As outstanding research shows, the best way for women to establish social change is through revolutionary socialist movements. Such examples can be found in countries like France, Cuba, and Algeria. In 70s Britain, the revolutionary socialist movement of the hour was women-only squats.

Women-only squats allowed feminists to organize more efficiently as a lot of them lived around the same area. They offered a new, more welcoming infrastructure to allow for women’s centers, refuges, nurseries, feminist and women-owned bookshops, art centers, and workshops.

But women-only squats weren’t only a means of feminist activism. Their purpose wasn’t solely to get rid of the archetype of the angel in the house — the idea that a woman should be a caring and obedient housewife. Women-only squats also allowed single women, mothers, lesbians, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, to escape the patriarchal institution of marriage that had historically, socially, politically, and financially contained them. This allowed them to safely take on traditionally masculine tasks like plumbing and building, but also provided them with a safe space in which they could thrive on their own terms.

In a society where men tended to seek a high-paying career like becoming a doctor or engineer, and where women could only hope to reach low-paying careers such as becoming a female doctor or a female engineer, women-only squats were an alternative lifestyle where their gender didn’t act as a barrier to entry or as an impediment to their growth. There, with the removal of the glass ceiling, they could find fulfillment beyond the tiny box men used to put them in.

To the wealthy, though, squatters were a stain on the face of London, as if they had spray-painted graffiti within the walls of the city. I’m using the word ‘graffiti’ intentionally here because it can be as much of a political statement as squatting is. In fact, squatting and graffiti are pretty much the same things. In The Faith of Graffiti, Norman Mailer calls graffiti “Your presence on their Presence… hanging your alias on the scene.” And Dick Hebdige, in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, writes that graffiti “draw attention to themselves. They are an expression both of impotence and a kind of power — the power to disfigure.” Squatting, or simply taking up space as a marginalized person, is exactly that. By occupying spaces that the established order has deemed you unfit for, you change the tapestry of those spaces, and that’s revolutionary.

Again, I’m using the word ‘revolutionary’ with intent here, too. Inherently, squatting is an anti-capitalist movement, in that it’s a radical act against landlords and other property owners who hoard flats and houses and other types of property and wait for the highest bidders to rent them. When you occupy a place that was meant to be destroyed solely to be rebuilt into something that will fit within a capitalist framework, squatters put a bit of a muzzle on the housing market. It’s important to note that squatters are often either homeless, people of color, and otherwise marginalized because of their race, gender, sexuality, or simply because they don’t have the means to continue living from paycheck to paycheck. Because there’s something we don’t think about: the housing market needs homeless people. If everyone had a home, there would be no need for a housing market. At its core, the housing market is an exploitative scheme. Between 1950 and 1970, the average price of a home went from £2000 to £5000. Between 1970 and 1973, this price doubled. With as many owners as renters in the 1970s, owners saw no reason not to increase their prices. Those who can’t pay would have to flee to other towns or be evicted so that wealthier people could rent those unaffordable homes.

So let’s say things as they really are, the housing market is exploitative, yes, but it goes deeper than that: the housing market and the housing crisis have always been the same. And that’s tragic. But it’s also not very surprising that those squatters who were mostly women, homeless people, or workers, could identify as socialists, Marxist feminists, or socialist feminists. After all, in Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton points out that one of the reasons why Marx’s ideas are still popular with many people nowadays is that they acknowledge the tragedy of the way things are right now.

That’s depressing, so let us end on a more uplifting note. Apart from the end of the opening credits to “Malcolm in the Middle”, two types of people say that life is unfair: those who have suffered the unfairness that’s been thrown at them the majority of their lives and never really saw a way out, and those who, whether they know it or refuse to acknowledge it, actively perpetuate or even create unfairness. In 70s Britain, all the way to right now, those people could be landlords, members of Parliament, men who feared no retaliation from the law after perpetrating domestic violence, or the disproportionately white and male political landscape that silences marginalized people so as not to give a voice to their problems. In this context, squatters who were already living the tragedy of the way things were found one solution to their myriads of problems by, as Norman Mailer puts it, bringing their presence onto their Presence, by hanging their alias and their dirty laundry and their entire lives on their scene, and that’s powerful. And for many, many people, empowering.

Squatters in Tolmer Square, London. Power to them.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email: abderemane.m.assad@gmail.com

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