[EN] Moving Towards Criminalisation and Then What? Examining dominant discourses on squatting in England

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Moving Towards Criminalisation and Then What? Examining dominant discourses on squatting in England

E.T.C. Dee

On March 31, 2011, an Early Day Motion was proposed in the
House of Commons by Mike Weatherley, Conservative Member of
Parliament for Hove. The motion read ‘This house believes that squat-
ting should be criminalised’. This was the latest step in a series of events instigated by Conservative Party outrage at gypsy and New Age trav-
eler land occupations in the run up to the 2009 General Election. It
is expected to result in a revision of the trespass laws which will make
squatting illegal. In this article, I will document and analyse the recent
discourses around squatting which have been both been created and
exploited by politicians and journalists.

I outline and explain several dominant discourses, concentrating
on media stories from national and local newspapers in Brighton and
London. These discourses exist in the media but (as will be seen)
both shape and are shaped by the attitudes of the general public, in a
reflexive loop. The stories fluctuate in emphasis and effect, although
recently most stories have tended more to the negative perception of
squatting and its protagonists. With the onset of proposals to crimi-
nalise squatting there seems to have been a noticeable shift in tone,
which is due to a multiplicity of factors and cannot be said to be ac-

Before moving forward, I would like to make two quick procedural

Firstly, a comment on the use of the word ‘England’. It might be
thought simpler to speak of squatting in the United Kingdom, but
the UK consists of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and
some islands. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, the law is different and
there is no legal basis for squatting (and it seldom happens). It also seems
unfair to include Wales when discussing only English newspapers and
therefore I speak only of England, in particular Brighton and London.

There are squats throughout the UK both in the countryside and the urban
environment, but these two cities are often mentioned in the media, so
I concentrated upon them.

Secondly, regarding sources, I have been tracking squatting stories
in the media for the last two years. For this piece I refer to the most
pertinent articles, and tend to focus on four newspapers (all dailies).
These are the Daily Mail (a right-wing tabloid), the Guardian (a left-
wing broadsheet), the Daily Telegraph (a right-wing broadsheet) and the
Brighton Argus (a right-wing local newspaper).

Critical Discourse Analysis

Following the work of Norman Fairclough, I will take an approach
to discourse analysis grounded in linguistics and applied to social theo-
ry. Discourse is taken to be spoken or written language use, which can
be examined as a form of social practice (1993: 138). Discourse analysis
explores the frequently opaque relations between discursive practices
and wider social and cultural structures. Such practices “arise out of and
are ideologically shaped by relations of power and struggles over power”
(1993: 135). The relations can be described as opaque since they may
not necessarily be comprehensible to those participants producing the
actual discourse.

Drawing a demarcation between ‘critical’ and ‘descriptive’ analysis,
Fairclough investigates the ‘ideological-discursive formations’ which
exist within an institution (1985: 739). He claims that it is usually a
simple matter to identify one ideological-discursive formation which is
clearly dominant and others which are dominated. When one ideologi-
cal-discursive formation becomes dominant and remains unchallenged,
then the norms which represent the background knowledge will slowly
become naturalized and therefore become the norms of the institution
itself. They will also become completely opaque to the language users
(1985: 751).

The institution is taken to be a “pivot” between the higher level so-
cial formation and the lower level social event, “an apparatus of verbal
interaction” (1985: 749). I will argue later that the views represented by
mainstream media discourses on squatting can be broken quite simply
into several ideological-discursive formations, with one clearly domi-

The important point to recognise here is that Fairclough has identi-
fied a manner in which language use (itself shaped by prior knowledge
and experience) comes to reinforce the ideological-discursive forma-
tion. In this way, “discourse makes people, as well as people make dis-
course” (1985: 750). Fairclough’s analysis is theoretically supported by
the work of Foucault, who suggests that “power is everywhere; not be-
cause it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere”
(1979: 93). An important corollary is that there is space for change,
in that ideological-discursive formations can be altered. However, the
domination of a particular framework can of course be dangerous, since
then the background knowledge becomes fixed to a certain ideological
perspective which can be difficult to change.

Language is recursive. It both forms and reflects opinions. With dis-
courses on squatting, it is possible to observe how the media stories
both form attitudes and manipulate them, by drawing on stereotypes.
As Fairclough comments, “it is vital that critical discourse analysis ex-
plore the tension between these two sides of language use, the socially
shaped and the socially constitutive” (1993:134).

To give an example of such an analysis, Fairclough examines the
script of a television series which involves the questioning of a woman
(who is the victim of rape) by two policemen and discovers implicit
propositions suggesting that the policemen hold sexist attitudes as part
of their background knowledge, which then shapes their behaviour in
the context of the dominant ideological-discursive formation (1985:

In another example, Fairclough studies extracts from Lancaster
University’s undergraduate prospectuses for the years 1967-8, 1986-7
and 1993. In the light of the increasing marketization of higher educa-
tion structures generally in the UK, he discovers how the discursive
practices themselves have become marketized through textual analysis
and also in terms of social practice. As he comments, “the 1967-8 entry
gives information about what is provided on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
In the 1993 prospectus, by contrast, the promotional function is pri-
mary; it is designed to sell the university and its courses to the potential
applicant” (1993: 156).

In both cases then, by close attention to the text Fairclough can
extrapolate conclusions. The suppositions here are that communication
through language is a type of social interaction, which is structured, and
further that this inherent structure can be affected by language itself.
These seem perfectly reasonable assumptions to make since language
clearly does affect the domains of discourse which are constructed. As
Giddens observes, “there can be no theoretical defence for supposing
that the personal encounters of day-to-day life can be conceptually
separated from the long-term institutional development of society”

How an ideological-discursive formation is
constituted regarding squatting

There is an interesting discrepancy between public views of squatters
in the Netherlands and England. The modern wave of squatting began
at the same time (the late 1960s and early 1970s) in both countries,
spurred by the need to provide housing in a time when many buildings
stood empty. Even though as Paul Chatterton observes there is a “long
history of the dispossessed building their own housing and infrastruc-
ture through the emergence of self-managed squatter settlements”, re-
cent discourses around squatting have diverged considerably in the two
countries (2010: 240).

In the Netherlands, the squatter is known as a ‘kraker’, after the
verb ‘kraken’ (‘to crack’) which came to be used colloquially as meaning
‘to squat’. Krakers are known as responsible, trustworthy people who
occupy buildings to protest at speculation, provide housing for those in
need, set up social projects, preserve monuments and take advantage of
emptiness to sidestep queues for housing, on Pruijt’s fivefold typology
(2004a). Drug-users and thieves who may use squatting as a pretext for
stealing copper pipes from a building are lumped together under the
term ‘junkie’ rather than ‘kraker’. The dominant ideological-discursive
formation is clearly one that is favourable to squatters and one in which
squatters (particularly those in Amsterdam) have been recognised
as actors participating in city planning (Pruijt, 2004b). However, as
Owens notes, this recognition was only won through hard work since
“squatting’s political nature is not given. Activists had to battle over
the meaning and purpose of squatting in order to make it their own”
(2008:47). Dutch squatters are expected to have researched the history
of the building (for example finding out who the owner is and whether
there are any planning permissions granted), behave non-violently un-
less provoked and to have cordial relations with the police.

All of this is very different in England, where the stereotypical view
of squatters is more along the lines of drug-addicted criminals who shit
in buckets, trash buildings and generally cause disturbance, as repre-
sented fictionally in Doris Lessing’s novel ‘The Good Terrorist’ (1985)
and various media stories. In illustration, I can point to reports in the
Brighton Argus.

One entitled ‘Websites give guidance for how to squat in Brighton’
reports upon the existence of squatter advice networks. Regarding a re-
cently evicted squat, it accuses the squatters of causing £20,000 of dam-
age and leaving faeces in every room of the building (May 10, 2009).
That year, May 1 had just seen a successful anti-arms trade protest by
a group called SmashEDO and the article features a photograph of a
mournful owner looking through a broken window with SmashEDO
scrawled on a wall. Leaving aside the question of how damage amount-
ing to £20,000 can be done to an empty property without a wrecking
crew, it seems there is a political subtext to this story.

Another article has clear political overtones, which mask the fact of
an illegal eviction. ‘Inside the home of amateur anarchists’ reports on
a police raid on a squat as part of the security drive (termed Operation
Otter) in the run up to the Labour Party Conference which took place
in Brighton in 2004 (September 24, 2004). Three people were arrested
on suspicion of burglary before being released the next day, by which
time the house had no doubt been re-secured by the owner. There ap-
pears to have been no real security threat, with rooms being described
as “typical of those occupied by many students, littered with books,
videos and clothes” (ibid).

In both these stories, squatting appears to be the superficial topic
through which other political points can be made.

Steve Platt tracked media perceptions of squatting from the 1960s
to the 1990s and notes that whilst squatters often had media coverage
to thank for successes, the relationship was a stormy one. During the

Coverage could at times be almost unrelievedly hostile. It
was one thing when squatting involved ‘respectable’, self-evi-
dently ‘deserving’ cases of homeless families occupying empty
council properties, often as part of a well-disciplined campaign
led by people who were not themselves homeless. It was quite
another when the squatters were perceived to be less respect-
able and deserving – single people, ‘outsiders’, ‘hippies’, ‘dos-
sers’ or drug-takers, people without the same steady eye for
how their image might play in the media – particularly if they
turned their attentions towards empty privately-owned prop-
erties or were seen to have some sort of wider political agenda

I shall return to the discussion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ squatters later on,
here I would simply note that Platt’s analysis is still valid today. I shall
now examine reports about squatting in the English mainstream media,
primarily newspaper articles written at the national and local level and
websites from various groups. I will first analyse media stories about
squatters characterised as ‘millionaire’ squatters (since they are occupy-
ing properties worth £1 million or more). Next, I will analyse the divi-
sion between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ squatters. This is followed by a discussion
of how such discourses were affected by the proposed criminalisation
of squatting.

‘Millionaire’ squatters

Beginning in the late 2000s and continuing up to the present day,
the mainstream media (by which I mean the daily national newspapers
and their internet news sites, local newspapers in London and Brighton
and in addition the BBC news website), have regularly featured news
stories concerning large, expensive houses which have been squatted.
These stories tend to relate who the mansion belongs to and what the
squatters think about their new, temporary utopia. A couple of times
a month, the discourse of the ‘millionaire’ squatters reliably reappears.
Until quite recently, when other factors appear to disrupt the tone,
there tends to be some sympathy for the squatters which could be ex-
plained by the framing of the squatters as slightly mythologised ‘Robin
Hood’ figures, taking back for the people what has been stolen from
them by the ultrarich. Whilst private property is sacrosanct under capi-
talism, it appears that there is a boundary beyond which there is a cer-
tain public sympathy for those who squat houses worth millions which
are standing derelict. The need to protect private property is coming
into conflict with a basic belief which frames emptiness as itself crimi-
nal when people have a need for housing.

This tension is also apparent in France. According to Thomas
Aguilera, writing in this volume about Parisian squats, “private prop-
erty is fundamental and constitutionally protected. It means that the
juridical institutions cannot allow an illegal occupation if an owner
complains. On the other hand, the right to housing is also fundamen-
tal (even if it is less than the right to property in the hierarchy of the
French constitution)” (page 210).

For example, in Brighton, a £1.75 million property called Fife House
(once owned by Edward VIII) was occupied in December 2008. In the
Daily Mail, a journalist surmises that neighbours “fear it is only a mat-
ter of time before the invaders start throwing wild parties” but allows
the squatters to retort that they are caring for the property (December
11, 2008).

Groups squatting large expensive properties in London have includ-
ed the Really Free School, the VHS Video Basement, the Da! Collective
and the Oubliette. The Really Free School occupied properties at 5
Bloomsbury Square, 34-35 Fitzroy Square, 6 Rathbone Place and 48
Whitcomb Street, and I shall examine them in more detail later on.
The VHS Basement take the stance of non-cooperation with main-
stream media, with a public message on their blog entitled ‘Dear
Guardian Wankers’ in answer to an enquiry from a journalist:
We are not interested in any sort of coverage from the main-
stream media. Aside from the fact that they are usually fac-
tually incorrect, and make everyone come across as complete
wankers, we see any news articles or similar as detrimental to
the squatting movement. It is articles like this that have, and
will lead to the laws being changed, making it much harder for
squatting to exist at all (December 21, 2009).

Such a response suggests that these squatters are aware of the negative
discourses around squatting and have decided to follow a policy of non-
cooperation with the media. Presumably the thinking is to not make
matters any worse by aiding the creation of such narratives. However,
the question must be asked how possible it is to step outside of the nar-
rative. For all its attractions, non-cooperation leaves no room to create
alternative narratives (hard as that may itself seem to be).

The Oubliette (‘dungeon’ in French) is an arts collective which
has squatted properties such as an old language school in Waterloo, a
Mayfair mansion left empty for twelve years and two former embas-
sies near Green Park. Their spokesperson, Dan Simon, claims that the
group is not squatting but rather using each temporary space to run an
arts project which needs no funding from either the public or private
sectors. He states that in each place the group has attempted to make
contact with the owner, proposing that they run the arts project until
whatever time the owner requires the use of the building again and
offering to maintain the building, with the twin benefits being that
neighbourhood property values do not fall as a result of dereliction
and the need for paid private security is removed (Guardian, December
21, 2009). In this sense, it seems that the collective are attempting to
import the notion of a brokered anti-squat deal from the Netherlands,
where it has often worked successfully. They are also working to change
the ideological-discursive formation around squatting at root, with a
redefinition of their actions.

So it seems that squatters might battle the dominant ideological-dis-
cursive formation, which is negative towards them, by either refusing
to participate (VHS Basement) or by redefining what is meant by the
term ‘squatter’ (Oubliette). Both reactions are in some way challenging
the legitimacy of the current dominant framework.

It is not surprising that the Oubliette squatters would want to pres-
ent themselves as something different to the standard definition of the
term. This is an attempt to codify a new subjectivity. Foucault suggests
this tactic as a form of resistance to the state, perhaps the most effective
tool at our disposal. He states this most clearly in his ‘Afterword – The
Subject and Power’ in Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (edited by
Dreyfus and Rabinow):

The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social
philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the
individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions,
but to liberate us both from the state, and from the type of
individualization which is linked to the state. We have to pro-
mote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind
of individuality which has been imposed on us for several cen-
turies (1982: 216).

An action that also attempted to engage with the ideological-dis-
cursive framework around squatting, in this case aided by a broadly
sympathetic media, was the occupation of the London home of Saif al-
Islam Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi. A group
called Topple the Tyrants took possession of the house in Hampstead
Garden Suburb in March 2011. It is estimated to be worth £10 mil-
lion. Within the context of the popular Libyan uprising, this action was
almost universally praised. In one article, the squatters were referred
to as “protesters” throughout and provided with ample space to make
their political point in their own words (namely that the occupation
had taken place “in solidarity with the people of Libya”) (Guardian,
March 9, 2011). Note also the use of the word ‘occupation’, rather than
‘squatting’. By talking about a squatting action without using the term
‘squat’ itself, the usual connotations attached to the term are avoided
and the action can be judged on different grounds, namely that the
son of a tyrant’s empty property has been seized in solidarity with the
people who are being oppressed by Gaddafi. The only dissenting voice
was that of Mike Freer, the local Conservative Member of Parliament,
who condemned the action and advised the squatters that “they need to
let the UK Government deal with the situation” (Hendon and Finchley
Times, March 16, 2011).

The case of Mark Guard is instructive. Described by the Daily Mail
as a “serial squatter” and also “crusader for the homeless and the under-
dog”, Guard was spokesperson for a group which squatted a string of
properties in 2009, many of which belonged to high profile celebrity
figures (December 10, 2009). Thus, there are news stories documenting
the occupation of homes belonging to former Home Secretary David
Blunkett, the ex-wife of billionaire Roman Abramovich and TV cook
Nigella Lawson. These residences cost their owners £4 million, £15
million and £33 million, respectively (Daily Mail, December 10, 2009;
October 19, 2009; November 24, 2009).

Squatting predominantly in Belgravia in West London, the group
also occupied the 80 room former Sudanese embassy and a £12 mil-
lion house on the same street as the residence of former Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher (Daily Mail, October 19, 2009).

In all the articles mentioned in the above paragraph, the occupiers
are consistently described as ‘squatters’, with the only descriptive modi-
fier being ‘serial’. This highlights the neutral tone of the reports, for
which the focus is not the act of squatting or even the related politics,
but rather the shocking emptiness of these properties.

In an interview with Guard which concentrates on “the scandal of
London’s empty mansions”, he claims that the Belgravia group is com-
posed of “good squatters” as opposed to “bad, anti-capitalist squatters”
(Evening Standard, October 26, 2009). Whether he is presenting this
view as a tactic or it is actually a belief he holds is unclear and perhaps
this fuzziness is useful for him.

Guard certainly comes across as a modern Robin Hood. Indeed,
this impression is helped by the fact that he was unsuccessfully pros-
ecuted for stealing electricity. He was apparently filming a group of
people squatting an abandoned building in Camden, north London,
on August 1, 2009 when they entered through an open window and set
off the burglar alarm. The squatters fled, but Guard, a qualified electri-
cian, stayed behind in order to turn off the alarm.

He stated he was acting in the public interest by putting on the
electricity momentarily to give himself enough light to reset the alarm.
However, the police who arrived in response to the alarm arrested him
and later charged him with stealing electricity. Despite Guard’s offer to
pay the electricity company 1p, he had to appear in court to face the
charge of stealing 0.003p of electricity. Unsurprisingly, when Guard
requested trial by jury the judge threw out the case and the Crown
Prosecution Service (funded by the taxpayer) ended up paying costs of
£4,200 (Daily Mail, August 19, 2009). In the reporting of this story,
Guard is certainly not portrayed as a criminal but rather participates in
a separate discourse, namely that of the ordinary man caught up in a
Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy.

So it certainly is possible for squatting and squatters to be depicted
in a favourable tone, but only perhaps when another discourse is in-
volved, so that the negative discourse concerning squatting is over-
ridden by a larger ideological-discursive framework such as the dis-
course concerning the scandal of the rich owning houses which they
leave empty, or, as just seen, the discourse of state bureaucracy gone
mad (a favourite theme for the Daily Mail).

The division of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’

Paul Danler writes “Polarization between good and evil, between
friend and foe, or to put it less linguistically, black-and-white painting
is an important strategy in political discourse”. He goes on to conclude
that ambiguity is not permitted since this “might allow for critical and
independent reflection on the listener’s part” (52: 2005).

In the media, squatters tend to be described in one of two ways.
There is a certain shorthand at work which enables ‘good’ squatters who
are protesters, occupiers or an art group to be distinguished from ‘bad’
squatters who are aggressive, lifestylists, serial, unlawful and unwanted
(Florence Bouillon’s chapter in this volume examines the classification
in the French context).

Steve Platt records that from the 1970s onwards, squatting has had
a “viciously antagonistic” relationship with the media (1999). In terms
of critical discourse analysis, it seems clear that the current dominant
ideological-discursive framework surrounding squatting is that squat-
ters are ‘bad’. If nothing else, the fact that squatters repeatedly have to
emphasise that they are ‘good’ not ‘bad’ demonstrates the power of this
stereotype. If squatting is considered as direct action against capitalism,
both because it attacks the very notion of private property and because
it allows participants the opportunity to indulge in activities of their
own choosing rather than being compelled to work so as to pay their
rent, it is of course clear why those in positions of power would want to
characterise squatters as ‘bad’. And as is seen below when articles relat-
ing to criminalisation are examined, the media can certainly function
as an organ of power.

To give some examples of the good/bad divide, I refer first to an arti-
cle entitled ‘Squatters occupy £3 million house on “millionaire’s row”’.
This group of three squatters were careful to self-identify themselves as
‘good’ squatters, with one being quoted as saying “I don’t mind being
called a squatter, but I am a good one. We are normal people, we go to
work”. He clearly wants to avoid being stereotyped by the background
knowledge which forms the dominant ideological-discursive forma-
tion. (Daily Telegraph, July 15, 2009).

In the previously mentioned Daily Mail article about Fife House
in Brighton, one neighbour is quoted as saying “They look like scruffy
students with combat trousers and baggy jumpers with holes in. But
they’re very polite and well-spoken. They seem like your typical middle-
class dropouts” (December 11, 2008).

In a chapter of his book Black Bloc, White Riot entitled ‘Semiotic
Street Fights’ A.K. Thompson discusses the good/bad distinction with
regard to anti-capitalist activism in the United States.

He argues that by defining the term ‘activist’ within criminal law, the
state has “managed to limit the scope of the possible within the realm
of dissent” (2010:34). He then proceeds to observe that in fact the di-
vision of ‘good’/’bad’ permits those making the distinction to enforce
their power “since the goal of designation is not so much to recognise
as to regulate the designated object, and since state officials reasoned
that ‘terrorists’ might embed themselves within the law-abiding crowds
[...] it followed that the vigilance of law enforcement officers needed
to extend to ‘good’ protesters as well” (2010: 35). In other words (and
returning to the domain of squatting) all squatters are still ‘bad’ at the
end of the day under the dominant ideological-discursive framework.

There is ultimately no escape for the ‘good’ squatter.

To take an explicit example of the discourse of the ‘bad’ squatter, I
refer to the case of John Hamilton-Brown, whose newly bought home
in Archway, London, was squatted in early 2011. In an article entitled
‘My £1 million house is ruined’ a journalist records how “cigarette
butts, fruit and discarded wine bottles were strewn across every room
in the house which was awaiting renovation after they spent six weeks
inside”. The ‘they’ refers to squatters, who are described as “cowardly”,
a “gang” and “mostly in their early 20s and European” (Daily Mail,
March 7, 2011). There is a subtle hint here towards a racist discourse
familiar from many other debates, when ‘the other’ is blamed for
every problem under discussion. This can be seen more clearly in a
Daily Telegraph report entitled ‘Eastern Europeans praise Britain’s ‘lax’
squatting law’ which details how “twenty foreign nationals, mainly
eastern Europeans” had taken possession of a council-owned build-
ing and spends much more time emphasising the possible disruption
to its conversion into two new classrooms for a school than assess-
ing the reality of the situation (March 13, 2011). Despite quoting
both a squatter known as Tom who said “We are good squatters. We
treat the places we live in with respect. We keep the place clean and
tidy – we ask visitors to take their shoes off when they enter” and
Peter Walker, Merton’s cabinet member for education, who remarked
“teachers from the school have told us that the only sound they have
heard coming from the squat is the sound of a hoover,” the aim of the
article is clearly to fit the story to the campaign to criminalise squat-
ting (on which more below). To emphasise this point, Mike Freer (the
Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green who was concerned
by the squatting of the Gaddafi mansion) is quoted as saying “what
they are doing should be illegal”.

Steve Platt observes that the media prefers to tell an “individual
story rather than providing meaningful social analysis” and thus resorts
to describing “straightforward heroes and villains” (1999). This is cer-
tainly true, but further we can identify the underlying forces affecting
the stereotyping itself, as we shall see below.


I will now move to a brief consideration of recent media articles con-
cerning the proposal to criminalise squatting. Certainly, there are a
multiplicity of factors at work here, but nevertheless there does appear
to be a concerted attempt to manipulate public opinion and police
opposition. As Thompson states with regard to activism in the United
States, “representing activists as criminals and security threats (a cat-
egory that takes on its full significance under the society of control)
allowed state actors to initiate legal courses of action designed to more
effectively regulate dissent” (2010:32).

Regarding the proposed criminalisation of squatting, a rash of sto-
ries appeared in the Daily Telegraph, which began a campaign support-
ing Mike Weatherley’s call to change the laws concerning squatting.
Since time and space do not permit me to list all the examples, I shall
reference some of stories below, examining some implicit propositions
and drawing out some general themes. Any emphasis is mine.

In ‘The middle class serial squatters exploiting the law’ (March 6,
2011), the Telegraph focuses on the Really Free School group, which it
terms “a ragtag bunch of up to 40 activists and undergraduates”, who
are “dressed in scavenged clothes and ripped vintage tweed jackets”. The
owner of one Bloomsbury property which was squatted remarks: “It
was all very middle class. They were intelligent students, certainly not
impoverished. I suppose if I was going to have squatters I couldn’t have
asked for better ones.” The squatters are ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ in
terms of the easily formed stereotype, but the language of ‘serial’ and
‘exploiting’ (both used in the title) suggests that they are not to be
praised. There appears to be a threat to the middle classes from within,
from their very children rebelling against them. Describing the dress
code of such actors is codifying them as a threatening rabble rather than
equal participants in a debate over urban planning.

In “Squatting to be made illegal, vows Clarke” (March 18, 2011), the
language used is clear. “Police will be able to force entry” and “the days
of ‘squatters’ rights’ will be over”.

Kenneth Clarke, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
is reported by a conveniently anonymous source to be “sick of see-
ing cases of law-abiding people fighting to regain possession of their
properties”, with the result that “officials are now drawing up plans to
make such property invasions illegal”. As you will have noticed, there
is nothing conditional about the Daily Telegraph’s campaign to ‘stop
the squatters’ (a campaign for which it has in fact already claimed vic-
tory), with ‘will’ being repeatedly used in its simple future sense. Other
articles are entitled “Squatting Laws Endorse Theft”, “Squatters: How
the law will change” and “Coalition to make squatting a criminal of-
fence” (February 27, 2011; March 18, 2011; March 19, 2011). It does
not seem to be a question of whether squatting will be made a criminal
offence, but when.

Indeed, another article written on the same March weekend in a
different newspaper states that “Police will get new powers to evict offend-
ers who seize unoccupied properties” (Independent, March 19, 2011). It
goes on to declare “the days of anarchist collectives living rent-free in
Georgian townhouses are numbered” and argues that the new law is
necessary following “a series of high-profile cases where squatters have
invaded properties worth millions in elegant streets in central London”.
Clearly, anarchist squatters have no right to be on elegant streets. A
certain order has been transgressed. Whilst there is a commonsensical
feeling that buildings should not be left empty, especially by those who
are rich enough to own many properties, it seems for some reason (per-
haps the sheer number of squatters, or the increased visibility of squats
or simply as an excuse for repression) there is also now a feeling that
squatting is menace which must be stopped.

Most controversially, the Housing Minister announced in April that
home-owners were able to use sledgehammers to break back into prop-
erties which had been occupied (legally) by squatters, saying “it’s their
home and they are perfectly entitled to” (Independent, April 3, 2011).
The Minister, Grant Schapps, justified this stance with the comment
that “it’s physical violence against property, not the person”. For Schapps,
the moral right appears to lie with the home-owner who can regain
possession using any means possible. Whilst this may seem acceptable,
it is easy to imagine borderline cases (a single mother gets one week
overdue on rent payments, a jealous husband breaks into his former
house), which could lead to difficulties. Also, the power of the ideo-
logical-discursive formation is sharply laid out here, since even though
so-called anarchists were widely condemned in the media for targeted
property destruction against symbols of inequality (the Ritz restaurant,
banks, etc) during the TUC ‘March for an alternative to the cuts’ on
March 26, 2011, Schapps is able to utilise the same distinction for very
different ends. Only an ideological-discursive formation which is domi-
nant in the extreme would be able to perform this sort of manipulative

It seems the discourse on squatting changes over time, to suit vari-
ous political goals. In the early 1970s there was a prior campaign to
criminalise squatting and Steve Platt observes it was “as hysterical as it
was inaccurate” (1999). He records the opinions of various newspapers:

• Daily Telegraph: “Innumerable houses up and down the country
are now in illegal occupation by organised gangs of thugs, lay-
abouts and revolutionary fanatics”.

• The Times: “It has become increasingly clear that the act of
squatting is no longer carried out by, or on behalf of, deprived
and homeless people”.

• Daily Mail: “Many thousands – in all probability the majority
– of squatters are freeloaders and layabouts … Strong laws are
needed to prevent the forces which are undermining the demo-
cratic processes of our country”.

Thus we can see similar language being used to generate a demand
for criminalisation which on that occasion (and subsequently in the
early 1990s) was unsuccessful. More recently, there appears to be a dis-
tinct progression in the general discourse from the amused and de-
tached tolerance of the ‘millionaire’ squat stories described earlier to
a new, more aggressive stance. A ‘new’ (or repeated) discourse centred
around generational and class elements is forming. The theme is one of
middle-class parents having to confront the exploits of their supposedly
wayward children who are ‘good’ squatters in that they are middle-class,
political and intelligent but who are also ‘bad’ squatters in that they are
manipulating the law to their own ends and challenging the very no-
tion of private property. The employment of the parent/child relation-
ship is in itself denigrating and of course not necessarily true. Squatters
are from all ages and backgrounds.

Writing about “activist milieus” in general anthropologist David
Graeber observes that it is impossible to stereotype such a broad group-
ing (2009: 245). However he does tentatively conclude that such mi-
lieus can be “a kind of meeting place, between downwardly mobile
elements of the professional classes and upwardly mobile children of
the working class” and this is probably also true of squatters in England
(2009: 253).

This new discourse can then be seen as an attempt to shear off some
of the values of the ‘good’ squatter and add them to the dominant ide-
ological-discursive framework of the ‘bad’ squatter. Previous attempts
to criminalise squatting were thwarted in the 1970s and 1990s but this
would suggest that the current attempt is more sophisticated and has
learnt from previous mistakes. Certainly, as the work of Steve Platt has
shown, this is a discourse which reoccurs periodically.


When I began writing this article it was to explore an interest in
the differences between the mainstream attitudes to squatting in the
Netherlands and England, two countries where I have squatted and
researched squatting. The best way to do this seemed to be to track me-
dia stories as they happened. Whilst writing, the Conservative Party’s
plans to criminalise squatting emerged and started to colour the media
discourse, so I was well placed to track the changes.

Using the terms of Critical Discourse Analysis, it seems clear that in
England the dominant ideological-discursive formation around squat-
ting is being shaped to facilitate this criminalisation. The mainstream
background knowledge around squatting is already negative overall,
despite frameworks around ‘good’ squatters still existing. Discourses
around ‘millionaire’ squatters, ‘bad’ squatters and ‘middle class’ squat-
ters are manipulated by those in power using the media. There are a
multiplicity of factors at work here, but as seen above some tactics used
are race, class, age and education. It must be noted that arguments
based on gender have not really featured, possibly because the term
squatter is itself gender-neutral.

Squatting appears to be a node where various values intersect regard-
ing morality and legality. Whilst those in power may wish to protect pri-
vate property at all costs, there is a persistent view held by the public at
large and reflected in the mainstream media that leaving properties empty
is inexcusable and occupation can be justified under certain conditions.
In terms of engaging with the prevalent media discourses, various
squatting groups attempt to shape the parameters of the discourses, with
the aim of creating a discourse more favourable to squatting by sidestep-
ping the usual associations of the term ‘squatter’ and redefining it. It is
debatable how successful this tactic has been, but this chiefly serves to
indicate the strength of the dominant ideological-discursive formation.
One way in which to encourage the process of redefinition would be
for squatter groups to engage with local communities on projects which
would serve to amplify the widely held feeling that squatting is legiti-
mated by housing need or lack of governmental provision of essential
services. This will no doubt happen in a time of economic downturn (and
has an inspiring precedent in the actions of Jeudi Noir in France).

What else does this mean for the future? It seems likely that there
will soon be an attempt to criminalise squatting, but precise details on
how exactly this will be done are for the moment scarce. Nevertheless,
a war for public support will be fought in the mainstream media and
whilst individual groups such as the VHS Basement may choose to
refuse engagement with the media, it seems important to battle the
dominant ideological-discursive formation and to work to change the
background knowledge concerning squatting since even if the law is
passed, contestations over the meanings of squatting will continue in
different fields.

Further, the making of law is one thing and its enforcement is quite
another; in Spain the phenomenon of squatting actually increased fol-
lowing criminalisation (Martinez, 2011). There is of course no coher-
ent single voice of the English squatting community although various
groups such as North East London Squatters, Squatters Network of
Brighton and SQUASH (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes) do exist.
But no one voice is required or necessary. If various different groups
and individuals all commit to local and national battles over the mean-
ing of the term ‘squatting’, then this may well eventually have a positive
impact in terms of preserving the value of squatting as anti-capitalist
direct action.

One factor which must be recognised is the threat of deliberate
misrecognition, as identified by Thompson. Within his domain of dis-
course this refers to “the threat that takes as its premise the interchange-
ability of activist and terrorist – in order to tighten the screws of regula-
tion” but it is an easy stretch to imagine state actors first criminalising
squatters and then referring to them as terrorists (2010: 33). In fact,
the recent events which occurred in May 2011 in the Stokes Croft area
of Bristol show how easily squatters can be characterised as terrorists.
In the context of ongoing non-violent protests against the opening of a
supermarket, a police raid on a local squat in search of molotov cock-
tails was perceived as an illegal eviction and this led to two nights of
sustained rioting. It is of course worth mentioning that no molotovs
were recovered and the squat’s four inhabitants vehemently denied any
connection to the anti-supermarket campaign.

Examining the situation in Berlin, Holm and Kuhn assert in this
volume that “the dynamics of squatter movements are closely con-
nected to changing strategies associated with urban renewal, and that
in each case they emerge from the crisis of the previous urban-renewal
regime” (page 162).

According to the Empty Homes Agency, there are more than 80,000
empty homes in London and almost 740,000 across the country,* and
it is likely that in the current economic downturn more, not less, will
become empty. And therefore squattable.


This article was written 2010-11, before the criminalisation of
squatting in residential buildings in 2012. For more information and
updates, please see Squatters Action for Secure Homes (http://www.
squashcampaign.org/) or the Advisory Service of Squatters (http://


Newspapers and Websites
for internet links see https://brighton.squat.net/discourselinks.html

Addley, E. ‘Squatters take over Saif Gaddafi’s London home’ Guardian, March
9, 2011.
Chiles, A. ‘Websites give guidance for how to squat in Brighton’ Argus, May
10, 2009.
Curtis, N. ‘The millionaire, Chester Square and the scandal of London’s empty
mansions’ Evening Standard, October 26, 2009.
Gammell C., McAuley O. & Tyzack, A. ‘Squatters occupy £3 million house on
“millionaire’s row”’ Daily Telegraph, July 15, 2009.
Hayes, A. ‘MP Mike Freer urges squatters to leave Gaddafi house in Hampstead
Garden Suburb’ Hendon and Finchley Times, March 16, 2011.
Harris, P. ‘Crusading for the homeless and the underdog, meet the serial
squatter who’s taken over a £4million mansion in Belgravia’, Daily Mail,
December 10, 2009.
Hickman, M. ‘Clarke cracks down on wave of squatters’ Independent, March
19, 2011.
Howie, M. ‘Coalition to make squatting a criminal offence’ Daily Telegraph
March 19, 2011.
Hutchison, P. ‘Squatters: How the law will change’ Daily Telegraph, March 18,
Jamieson A. & Leach, B. ‘The middle class serial squatters exploiting the law’
Daily Telegraph, March 6, 2011.
Leach, B. ‘Eastern Europeans praise Britain’s ‘lax’ squatting law’ Daily
Telegraph, March 13, 2011.
Malone, S. ‘Rise in squatters puts more Welsh homeowners at risk of huge
eviction bills’ Wales Online, September 5, 2010.
Martin, A. ‘Film maker dragged to court for “stealing” 0.003p worth of elec-
tricity… at a cost of over £5,000 to the taxpayer’ The Daily Mail, August
19, 2009.
McCorkell, A. ‘Shapps: ”Landlords can legally use force on squatters”’
Independent, April 3, 2011.
Moore-Bridger, B. ‘Squatter family “wrecked my home and took my belong-
ings”’ Evening Standard, February 11, 2011.
Pidd, H. ‘”We’re not squatters” says art group occupying Mayfair mansion’,
Guardian, December 21, 2009.
Unrecorded author, ‘Inside the home of amateur anarchists’ Argus September
24, 2004.
Unrecorded author, ‘The £1.75m freeloaders: Squatters take over King Edward
VII’s Brighton mansion’ Daily Mail, December 11, 2008.
Unrecorded author, ‘Dear Guardian Wankers’ VHS Basement Website,
266 | ETC Dee
December 21, 2009.
Unrecorded author ‘Serial squatters move into new £15m home… in the same
street as Mrs Abramovich’ Daily Mail, October 19, 2009
Unrecorded author, ‘Nigella Lawson gets new neighbours after serial squat-
ters take over abandoned £33 million Belgravia mansion’ Daily Mail,
November 24, 2009.
Unrecorded author, ‘My £1 million house is ruined’ Daily Mail, March 7,
Unrecorded author, ‘Squatting Laws Endorse Theft’ Daily Telegraph, February
27, 2011.
Whitehead, T. ‘Squatting to be made illegal, vows Clarke’ Daily Telegraph
March 18, 2011.


Buchholz, T. ‘To Use or Not Use Urban Space’. A paper presented at the
4th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism
(IFoU) Amsterdam/Delft 2009.
Dee, E.T.C. ‘Dominant Discourses on Squatting in the United Kingdom’. A
paper presented at SQEK (Squatting Europe Kollective) Conference IV
Berlin, Germany March 29-31 2011.
Lopez, M.M. ‘Squatting in the Eye of the Storm – The Social and Legal
Framework in Spain’. A paper presented at SQEK (Squatting Europe
Kollective) Conference IV Berlin, Germany March 29-31 2011.

Books and Journals

Aguilera, T. (2011) ‘Squatting in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region: diversity
of configurations and relations with public authorities’, in this volume.
Chatterton, P. (2010) ‘The urban impossible: A eulogy for the unfinished city’
in City, 14:3, pp. 234-244
Fairclough, N. (1993) ‘Critical Discourse Analysis and the Marketization of
Public Discourse: The Universities’ in Discourse Society 4:2 pp. 133-168.
— (1985) ‘Critical and Descriptive Goals in Discourse Analysis’ in Journal of
Pragmatics 9 pp.739-763.
Foucault, M. (1982) “Afterword – The Subject and Power” in Dreyfus, H.L. &
Rabinow, P. (eds) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics
Chicago: University of Chicago pp. 208-226.
— (1979) The Will To Knowledge – The History of Sexuality: Volume One
London: Penguin.
Giddens, A. (1981) ‘Agency, Institution and Time-Space Analysis’ in
Knorr-Cetina, K. & Cicourel, A.V. (eds) Advances in Social Theory and
Methodology: Towards an Integration of Micro- and Macro-Sociologies
Boston; London; Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul pp. 161-174.
Graeber, D. (2009) Direct Action – An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press.
Holm, A. & Kuhn, A. (2010) ‘Squatting and Urban Renewal: The Interaction
of Squatter Movements and Strategies of Urban Restructuring in Berlin’,
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research pp. 1-15.
Lessing, D. (1985) The Good Terrorist London: Jonathon Cape.
Owens, L. (2008) ‘From Tourists to Anti-Tourists to Tourist Attractions:
The Transformation of the Amsterdam Squatters’ Movement’, Social
Movement Studies, 7: 1, pp. 43-59.
Platt, S. (1999) ‘Home Truths: Media representations of Homelessness’, in (ed)
Franklin, B. Social Policy, the Media and Misrepresentation London: Routledge.
Pruijt, H. (2004a) ‘Okupar en Europa’ in (eds) Lopez, M.M. & Adell, R.
¿Donde Esta las Llaves? El Movimiento Okupa: Practicas y Contextos Socials
(Where are the keys? The squatters’ movement: practices and social contexts)
Madrid: La Catarata pp. 35–60. English version available at: http://www.
eur.nl/fsw/english/staff/homepages/pruijt/publications/ sq-eur
— (2004b) ‘Squatters in the creative city. Rejoinder to Justus Uitermark’ in
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 28:3, pp. 699-705.
Reeve, K. with Coward, S (2004) Life on the margins: the experiences of homeless
people living in squats. London: Crisis.
Schulz, P. (2005) ‘Morpho-syntactic and Textual Realizations as Deliberate
Pragmatic Argumentative Linguistic Tools?’ in (eds) de Saussure, L. &
Schulz P. Manipulation and Ideologies in the Twentieth century: Discourse,
Language, Mind Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Thompson, A.K. (2010) Black Bloc, White Riot Edinburgh; Oakland;
Baltimore: AK Press.

[EN] What is a “Good” Squatter? Categorization processes of squats by government officials in France

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

What is a “Good” Squatter?
Categorization processes of squats by government officials in France

* This article is a revised and updated version of an article published in the journal Déviance et Société in
2010 as “Le squatteur, le policier, le juge et le préfet: procédures en actes et classements ad hoc”.

Florence Bouillon

A number of important laws favouring the right to housing
have been adopted in France in the last three decades. A respite from
expulsions during winter (15 November to 1 March), grace periods,
financial support, social accompaniment and re-housing of tenants in
case of expulsion (1998 law against eviction) are some significant mea-
sures characterizing these evolutions. Clearly, the right to housing has
progressed. Though the problem of bad housing is far from resolved
in the absence of an adequately ambitious social housing policy, these
laws testify to a consensus of society and politics on the importance that
must be given to the problematics of exclusion from “decent” housing
in France today.

Yet, it is remarkable that all these measures contain restrictive clauses
concerning squatters. If they confer rights on holders of lease agree-
ments, it is left to judges to decide when the occupants have “actually”
occupied the space. Evidently, the legislator concerned with respect-
ing private property did not wish to grant the occupant “without right
or title” the same security as a tenant. How does the magistrate then
decide whether or not to apply the laws for advantages in housing to
illegal occupants of empty houses?

A first glance at the decisions of French courts relating to squat-
ters shows that squats are evicted mechanically. Indeed, in 96.4% cases
(CERCRID [Centre de Recherches Critiques Sur Le Droit], 2003) judges
accept demands for the expulsion of squatters and travellers installed
on lands without amenities. This reading of the litigation of squats is
found to be partly contradicted by ethnographic investigations made
in Marseilles squats between 1998 and 2005. This inquiry consisted
of a long-term direct observation conducted within fifteen squat areas.
During these stays, several narratives of expulsion were assembled and
police interventions in the squats were directly observed. Furthermore,
18 interviews on eviction procedures were conducted with squatters, a
lawyer, a judge in chambers and several policemen. Finally, I had access
to some thirty judicial files relating to squats. I also assisted in the hear-
ings in seven cases.

All this evidence allowed me to complete and nuance the statistical
data (on the quasi-styematic expulsion of squatters) and update the
diverse modalities of intervention in squats. In fact, even before an evic-
tion procedure came to my notice, a significant part of the squats were
subject to expulsion by the police. Statistics cannot take them all into
account and moreover, they say nothing of the respite the judge can
award occupants. Finally the decision of expulsion does not imply that
it is always effective, the prefect must order of the police force to carry
out the eviction, which is not always the case.

It is clear from these few observations that where the technical and
mechanical application of the “spirit of the law” is presumed, we are
in fact confronted with a “game”. The question that then comes up is
twofold: what are the precise outlines of this margin of maneuver and
how do government officials use it?
In order to answer these questions, I posit that law is a social activ-
ity (Weber, 1986) and as such, it constructs itself (Latour, 2002). In
other words, it produces and transforms itself at each moment of its
elaboration and application. From this perspective, law is a shifting, un-
stable subject that leads to a systematic work of interpretation by those
who are in charge of writing as well as applying it. I will therefore see
with a sociologist’s gaze, with the intention of being empirical (ethno-
graphic) and focused on the practices of the production of normativity
(Dupret, Ferrié, 2004, 355), to advance the following hypothesis: the
squat is a place of normative tension, which in order to be resolved
requires a work of categorisation by different institutional actors in-
volved. The procedures of classification and categories of judgment mo-
bilized is henceforth the object of investigation.

The squat in the law’s eyes

Before considering government officials’ practices on squats,
the legal framework of their action must be specified. Two important
qualifications are laid down by the French legislature. The first strictly
separates people who enjoy rental lease even if it is no longer binding,
from those who never signed one. It must be mentioned straightaway
that only the holders of a lease explicitly enjoy the measures favour-
ing housing rights and especially those protecting occupants from ex-
pulsion. Others form the big category of “occupants without rights or
titles”, and the application of these measures depends on how govern-
ment officials judge the situation.

This first distinction having been established, a second one must
be made within ‘occupation without rights or title” between contrac-
tual situations (official housing, use on loan, precarious conventions
of occupation…) and non-contractual (squatters, occupants of uncon-
structed land, strikers and demonstrators who occupy a premises or a
public space). The existence of a contract, even if properly speaking
it is not a lease, gives rights, particularly the right to stay on in the
places. Squatters are, along with Roma [gypsies], amongst the least pro-
tected of all inhabitants. Be as it may, a squat does not constitute an
offence in France. As civil litigation, it falls under the jurisdiction of
the magistrate’s court. Apart from smash and grab or break-in, which
are difficult to establish, squatters therefore risk “only” eviction. So that
this eviction can take place, a juridical procedure is necessary a priori:
according to article 61 of the 9 July 1991 law, except in a special ar-
rangement, expulsion or eviction from a building cannot be pursued
except by a court decision or minutes of conciliation and after orders
to quit the premises. Yet, sometimes, for several reasons, squatters leave
before any procedure is undertaken: they ignore its existence, they do
not wish to have dealings with the law, they don’t intend to remain in
this building, they suffer from forms of intimidation from the landlord,
neighbours or police…indeed, as the cases described here will show, the
squat is the object of immediate eviction by police officers. Three actors
thus play a crucial role in the expulsion of squatters: the police officer
(by evicting forcibly or not), the judge (by allocating a grace period or
not) and the prefect (by lending the support of the police or not). On
what grounds do these government officials decide the destiny of habi-
tants and determine the different treatments observed?

Tensions of police judgements

According to former squatters who were questioned, evictions from
squats by “strongmen” commissioned by landlords are less frequent in
France today than some twenty years ago. With the institution of laws
favouring the right to housing, tolerance of such evictions has dimin-
ished. A visit of Internet sites on defence of landlords rights also indi-
cates that they are at present informed of the risks they run in case of
“violent” evictions. If today armed expulsions by landlords or even in
certain cases by exasperated neighbours, have not entirely disappeared,
expulsions taking place without procedure and by force are above all
carried out by police officers.

In which case can the police then evacuate a squat without waiting
for the judge’s decision? In other words, what does the “special arrange-
ment” mentioned in the 9 July 1991 law empirically cover? The most
frequent response to this question, from police officers as well as squat-
ters, refers to the “48 hour rule” of occupation. Over and above this
period, the procedure is not compulsory and the prosecutor or police
officer can decide to terminate the occupation. This rule, which is not
registered as such in the texts, corresponds to the somewhat vague no-
tion of being caught red-handed (flagrant délit). According to article
53 of the penal procedure code, ‘flagrant délit’ is defined as a misde-
meanour actually being committed or having just been committed. It
is therefore first of all correlated to a notion of time. But this time is
more flexible than the 48-hour rule would imply. Police officers must
in fact carry out an interpretive work that consists of defining the oc-
cupation. Are the inhabitants already living in the squatted place and
does the place or its occupants present some kind of danger? When
they are notified of the opening of a squat (the information comes in
most cases from the neighbours), police officers estimate the situation
both from a visual and discursive point of view: whilst police officers
try to penetrate inside a squat, something that is difficult to do if the in-
habitants are reluctant, they simultaneously proceed to investigate the
neighbourhood in order to identify the duration of the life of a squat
and characterize its occupants. The assessment of a squat is oriented by
the search for “traces” of habitation, which determine the possibility
and relevance of an immediate intervention.

More precisely, in addition to the elapsed occupation time, the evic-
tion depends upon a general interpretation of the situation. My obser-
vations considered four aspects: the presence of a violation (offence by
entering the place, illegal electric connection…), the social difficulties
apparently encountered by the occupants, the pressure exercised by the
neighbourhood and/or the landlord for expulsion and the supposedly
criminal character of activities conducted in the squat (consumption
of drugs, etc.). Finally, the nature of the occupation must be decided
in order to determine the correct attitude: if the question is of a settled
home and if the occupants have not been guilty of any other offence,
then the squat is transformed into a “residence” and the police forces
should not intervene. On the other hand, if the squat is not yet lived in,
or if it constitutes an acknowledged danger, then police intervention
must be instantaneous.

But the field inquiry revealed other possibilities within the scope of
police intervention, which more or less respect this legal framework.
Indeed, in the eyes of some police units, and in some cases, forcible
evictions take place on the borders of the law. As one of the policemen
interviewed explained, if the “families” benefit from the advantages of
eviction within a legal framework, people seen as “marginals” are likely
to be evicted at all costs: “more or less legal subterfuges to intervene”
are then found. In Marseilles, the field inquiry showed that squats oc-
cupied by “young strays”, mainly isolated adolescents without papers
from Maghreb, are evicted in this manner. Suspected of delinquency
and generating a strong feeling of insecurity amongst neighbours, these
adolescents do not have any means of opposing the police (no knowl-
edge of French or of legislation and lacking external support, etc.). The
squats they occupy have the shortest life expectancy, at best from a few
days to some weeks. Squats occupied by the Roma, currently victims
of ostracism in France, are sometimes also evicted without any legal

If police activity is, here as elsewhere, framed by the law, law enforce-
ment consequently falls on the borderline of legality. Police inquiry in
the squats aims at distinguishing a “residence” squat from a “public
order problem” squat. Thus, the squat is certainly typical of the police
mission’s dual nature as identified by Dominique Monjardet (1996). It
consists of both “applying the law” and “using force”. It remains to be
known how the judgment of police officers is constructed and the na-
ture of the evidence arousing their suspicion or their compassion. The
protective power of the “family” was mentioned, but it can be offset
by the great disqualification of groups like Romas. Besides, my inquiry
shows the strong indexing of police controls according to the physical
appearance of people (sex, age, clothing style, skin colour), which influ-
ence police controls in France (Jobard, Lévy, 2009). Thus, more than
facts, a set of “representations” related to the more or less assumed huge
deviancy of squat inhabitants operate as discriminatory factors in police
activity amongst occupants who have neither rights nor titles.

Judges face to face with squatters:
to be (or not to be) of “good faith”

Because some inhabitants of squats are spotted too early and/or be-
cause they are not perceived as legitimate inhabitants, they do not ben-
efit from the legal procedure before eviction. For various reasons, many
will leave on their own account without waiting for this procedure.
This could be due to ignorance (of legal protection offered by the pro-
cedure), intimidation (exercised by the landlord, neighbours, police)
or mobility (departure for another city, asylum in another accommo-
dation…). Only a section of the inhabitants of squats who cannot be
quantified precisely will therefore appear before a judge and the prefect.
Most often, in more than 75% of squat cases (CERCRID, 2003)
squatters are judged by a court hearing, “accelerated procedure” or
“emergency”. It has been noted that the judge nearly always pronounces
eviction from a squat: consequently, granting or refusing a respite is the
principal stake in a court hearing.

The construction and housing code authorizes the judge to grant
respites extending from 3 months to 3 years, whatever the status of
the occupant. Amongst the decisions examined by CERCRID, such a
respite is granted to squatters only in 6,5% of the cases (CERCRID,
2003: 80). Therefore, it goes without saying that most often, when
confronted with a squat situation, the judge evicts without any other
kind of consideration. From the judges’ perspective, who are the (rare)
“legitimate” squatters?

My field inquiry and more specifically the motivations behind judg-
es’ decisions as revealed by the files examined, show that judges grant
respites to squatters on grounds that suit the two involved parties. As
far as the landlord is concerned, three elements are decisive: first, the
status and position of the landlord of the occupied building, because
the loss suffered by a physical body (small private landlord) is estimated
to be more important than the loss experienced in the same situation by
a legal entity (such as a society or public person such as a collectivity).
On the other hand, the length of time during which the building was
vacant before being occupied is evoked, because it reflects a more or
less advanced state of abandonment. Finally, as an extension of this sec-
ond element, the judge is attentive to the landlord’s real interest in his
property: the latter should be proved with material evidence (minutes
of public meetings, estimates of building firms, etc), that the building
is the object of current or future projects.

Thus, lively debates sometimes take place between the landlord of a
premises and its occupants, the former trying to demonstrate that the
building will be soon restored, accommodate tenants or sold, whereas
the latter will on the contrary attempt to prove that the projects ad-
vanced are fictional or circumstantial. Without generalizing all situ-
ations of squatting, it could be said that in Marseilles, from 1999 to
2005, out of twenty odd evictions from premises, about half underwent
repairs and were occupied. The rest remained in the same state, that is
to say empty and run down.

When the judge thinks in terms of content his decision cuts across
these considerations and those of squatters. The question is to find a
“right balance” between the landlord’s constitutional and inalienable
law to his property and the social and sanitary situation of squatters.
As far as the latter are concerned, the defence lawyer’s primary aim is
to convince the judge that squatters are in real material difficulty. He
must prove that even if they have no rights or titles, they are driven to
occupying the premises. They are not usurpers but “truly poor”. The
occupants’ modest incomes are then displayed along with the lack of
regular work and “the state of necessity” in which they find themselves.
It is also recommended that occupants be shown to have taken other
steps to find accommodation. The judge will be all the more indulgent
if the occupants have exhausted all legal solutions and in particular, pre-
sented files to HLM offices whose certificates and file numbers will be
produced. Above all, these arguments aim to testify the squatters’ good
faith, that is to say, their real desire to acquire legality.

Having proved that they are “genuine” poor, squatters and their law-
yers have to demonstrate that they are also “good” poor. Groups, par-
ticularly youngsters are very quickly designated as “bands” and arouse
strong suspicion. On the other hand, the squat is commonly considered
an anarchic, anomic place where immorality reigns. Consequently, the
squatters’ lawyer must show his clients’ inoffensive nature. He insists
on their moral feelings and their aspirations to normalcy. He specifies
that they are not “drug addicts”, they “don’t steal” and their marginali-
sation does not necessarily coincide with delinquency. He affirms the
occupants’ insertion in their neighbourhood and if possible, presents
letters and petitions of support signed by neighbours. The fact that a
recognized association supports the squatters particularly their daily life
style inside the squat can be factors of reassurance for the judge.

Thus, the associational framework (the famous DAL association, the
organization advocating for the right to housing that since the begin-
ning of the 1990s organized appropriation of empty buildings for peo-
ple without residence or those who were badly housed) is therefore an
advantage even if it is in no way a guarantee, for some squats supported
by organisations of this kind have suffered immediate evictions. But for
the lawyer, it can tilt the balance of power in favour of squatters more
than in the case of an isolated occupation. However, the presence of an
association in a court hearing of squatters occurs rarely.

In juridical processes, squatters are classified according to three ma-
jor criteria: the “genuine poverty”, “sincerity” and “harmlessness”. The
question is to prove that they suffer from marginality and do not rep-
resent a danger for the collectivity. Squats resulting from poverty in
which occupants justify their practice by the need to survive are most
likely to be effective on grounds of “good faith” so that the stigma of
delinquency can be successfully averted. Alternative squats (artistic, po-
litical collectivities) have more difficulty in appearing as squats from
necessity; but they are also less suspected of deviancy than the former.
A short description will illustrate the preceding statements. It lists
the arguments mobilized by lawyers in court hearings of a squat of art-
ists. Installed in the enclosure of a partially disused municipal building
in the neighbourhood of the Panier in Marseilles, the SLAAF (Sans
Local d’Activités Artistiques Fixes) was opened in 2000 and evicted in

There were fifteen of us, mostly inhabitants or SLAAF
sympathizers, present in the hearing of 7 January 2001. The
squatters’ lawyer opened the debate. He began by pleading the
inadmissibility of the complaint, arguing that the mayor of
Marseilles was incompetent to act in the arenas of culture such
as housing that fall under the district Council’s jurisdiction.
The mayor’s lawyer then spoke. He quickly rejected the formal
arguments and asserted the legal nature of the right of action.
He then came down to the facts by developing five successive
points. First, he recalled the illicit nature of the occupation
and contested that the occupants penetrated into the build-
ing without breaking-in. He then insisted on the antiquated
and dangerous aspect of the premises. Indeed, the premises
were unfit for habitation. He evoked the illegal electrical con-
nections set up by the squatters, which constitute a source of
danger. His defence dealt essentially with the illegitimacy of
the dwelling. He first questioned their need: One of them was
even the son of the judge, Your Honour! The lawyer then dis-
tinguished these illegal artists from those who rented work-
shops and lodgings on the floor of the same building by pay-
ing a rent as was required to the municipality. Or, it was not
enough to carry a portfolio of designs under the arm to be an
artist. Not only were the so-called squatters hardly artists, but
above all, they were a source of danger: the lawyer quoted a
letter sent to the mayor by these legal artists saying the place
was now open to all and they lived in fear of robberies. The oc-
cupation was therefore not as peaceful as they claimed! Besides,
the legal artists had a real project for the building (space for ex-
hibition, pedagogical space and cultural restaurant) supported
by the city council. Like his adversary, the city council’s lawyer
claimed he did not wish to argue about who were true artists.

But his entire plea attempted to redefine the fake bourgeois/
young authentic artist couple, which he knew to be at the heart
of the defence, as true serious and constructive artists/rebel-
lious and immature youngsters. The squatters’ lawyer then
took the floor and pleaded on fundamental grounds. He began
by asserting entry into the premises without break-in. Then
he very clearly opposed SLAAF occupants to the “false artists”
mentioned above, whom he tried to discredit: Do you see Van
Gogh writing a letter denouncing poor artists? He castigated
the rich artists, whose main activity consists of hand kissing
and eating starters in social receptions at the town hall. These
were the real artists! He clamoured, pointing to us, seated on
the benches in the courtroom. Armed with the thin file pre-
pared by the squatters, the lawyer then intended to give proof
of the works realized and the additional value added to the
place. He insisted on the cleanliness. The city council would
therefore not be cheated. Quite the contrary. He then talked of
the activities organized by the inhabitants, from the opening of
SLAAF in the neighbourhood and the letters of support from
artisans and neighbouring shopkeepers. This occupation was
peaceful and even appreciated. They were not drug addicts, nor
delinquents! He then mentioned the electricity bills that had
been duly paid. They were not parasites! Above all, the lawyer
wanted to prove the occupants’ good faith. He insisted on the
real needs of housing by providing copies of demands for social
housing. He evoked letters sent to the city council in order
to open a dialogue after the proposal of mediation had been
refused. Finally, the lawyer attacked what he termed the phony
associative project of the resident artists. In no case would this
project materialize before June. He asked for the grant of re-
spite until September.

At the court’s exit, SLAAF occupants were happy. They had appre-
ciated their lawyer’s plea and his frankness. On my part, I note three
schemes of legitimacy identified earlier (genuine need, sincerity, harm-
lessness). However, I will never know if the judge in charge of the file
was sensitive to them. After the hearing and certainly with the medi-
atisation of the affair by the regional press, the mayor withdrew his
complaint and went to the extent of promising the inhabitants the sig-
nature of a convention of precarious occupation. But some weeks later,
he changed positions and summoned them to appear once again before
the court where their eviction would finally be announced.

The perfect ultimate resort:
the question of “troubling public order”

Once the judge decrees eviction, it is up to the prefecture to final-
ly decide if a squat should or shouldn’t be evicted by authorizing the
use of force. Besides, basically, re-accommodation (or more often no
re-accommodation) of squatters also depends on the prefect.
When does the prefect postpone eviction? From my observations,
the government official generally takes such a decision in case of a risk
of serious public disorder. This is adopted when the squatters are sup-
ported and threaten to mediatise their situation and/or when they ap-
pear to suffer from particularly dramatic living conditions. Young chil-
dren clearly inspire more compassion than adults, in particular single
men who are perfect figureheads of the “bad” poor.

Adjournment of eviction normally opens the way to negotiation be-
tween the government official and the landlord, who, since the 1998
law (which, in this sense, is also a protector of property rights), re-
ceives compensation for the sum of unpaid rents. Thus, the inhabit-
ants of some squats benefit from a form of juridical status quo, while
awaiting re-accommodation and/or seizure of the occupied building
by public powers. They settle their occupation dues on a monthly ba-
sis and the state pays the remaining amount. Another question, which
the prefect must decide is whether or not to grant accommodation to
the evicted squatters. As opposed to occupants with titles, there is no
legal compulsion to re-accommodate squatters after an eviction. Re-
accommodation again falls within the discretionary power of the ad-
ministration. Fieldwork revealed that in most cases, no re-accommo-
dation is granted. Persons identified as without fixed domicile (Sans
Domicile Fixe [SDF]), alternative groups (who however do not all ask
for access to ordinary housing), “isolated” immigrant workers, foreign-
ers without papers… are those who practically never benefit from re-
accommodation. The presence of young children and the institution
of a balance of power by mobilisation of inhabitants and their support
(associations, militants, neighbours) could nonetheless positively influ-
ence the decision to re-accommodate.

Moreover, it must be noted that when housing is assigned, most of
the time it is simply temporary accommodation: some nights in a hotel
or a place in a household. It is not rare that inhabitants refuse these
proposals, even if it means putting up encampments in the same street,
so as to draw the attention of the media and public authorities to their
situation. Some only see this as “manipulation” by associations more
anxious to ensure their own publicity than help the evicted. However,
one can easily imagine people tired of being shunted from one tempo-
rary accommodation to another hoping to find some stability at last.
Moreover, as I frequently observed, the reluctance to accept accom-
modations miles away from the neighbourhoods where families have
been living, where children are going to school or parents working and
where links of sociability and solidarity have been constructed, makes
perfect sense and renders suspicions of “manipulation” or allegations of
so-called demands of “special treatment” redundant.

Thus, in most cases, the prefect does not postpone eviction of squat-
ters nor does he apply the step of re-accommodation. When he grants
the assistance of law enforcement agencies, the last stage of eviction
begins. A letter from the prefecture is addressed to the police agree-
ing upon a date with the bailiff. An eviction calls for some organiza-
tion: on the fixed date, the bailiff, the police officers, the locksmith and
the removal men are all present. Most evictions take place early in the
morning. Physical resistance is rare and occurs essentially in political
squats. Once the eviction is carried out, a locksmith is responsible for
immediately shutting the premises. Next, the squat is walled up and
“anti-squat” armoured doors are installed. Sometimes too, the insides
of the place are destroyed (police forces speak of rendering an apart-
ment “lifeless” so as to discourage new squats).

Eviction is not only a traumatizing moment, it further undermines
the inhabitants. Thus, Claire Lévy-Vroelant and Jérôme Segal make the
following observations on the eviction of 150 Romas from a building
in Montreuil in 2003: “this eviction adds to the misery of precarious-
ness. Efforts at integration are shattered. Children were enrolled in pri-
mary or secondary school, in special classes, access to health care was
instituted by constituting medical files, the demand for literacy classes
was going to be heard, etc” (2003, 224). Evictions consequently lead
to heightened impoverishment of populations already victims of ostra-
cism and great social vulnerability. In no sense do they resolve the squat
“question”, because in the absence of an alternative, it is highly prob-
able that the persons concerned will sooner or later occupy a new build-
ing. Eviction thus contributes to producing the very situation it was
supposed to end: occupation without right or title to vacant housing.


As far as a squat is concerned, the “spirit of the law” is finally not so
easy to identify: the legislator as we saw, does not oblige the judge to
protect the inhabitant who has neither right nor title, whilst leaving
him the opportunity to do so. It is in this zone of uncertainty that a
judge, a police officer or a prefect can exercise his power of discretion.
The tension is then between two perceptible poles: ultimately it must
be determined if the squatter is a “voluntary marginal” or a “victim” of
bad housing.

The ethnography of litigation of a squat confirms the importance
of a “delinquential” reading of a squat by government officials. Social,
economic and residential fragility of the large majority of inhabit-
ants is hidden by the stigma of deviance. By offending the “absolute
and sacred” right of private property, squatters don the clothes of the
“wicked”, even seditious poor from whom society must above all be
protected. In this general repressive frame, some differentiations are
nonetheless applied. The figure of the child, because it is linked to in-
nocence and equally part of a legal compulsion to protect it, appears
most effective in changing the stigma. But it does not form an un-
shaken bastion. Besides, it is always open to “reversal” since bad living
conditions in a squat could be a motive to place children with foster
parents. Parents then find themselves obliged to take up the responsi-
bility and emotional cost of a situation they suffer. Other parameters
more often work against the inhabitants: the fact of being young, male
and especially foreign. At the moral level these modalities of classifica-
tion are objects of a juridical translation through channels of categories
like “good faith” and “troubling public order”. These ad hoc grading of
squatters on which the forms of procedural acts will depend, update the
dialectic between “true” and “false” poverty, which has lain behind the
reversibility of a policy of assistance quickly veering to repression when
confronting target populations (Geremek, 1997).
However, it would be wrong to affirm that laws in favour of hous-
ing rights have no effect on government officials’ decisions on squats.
Indeed, several examples testify that some judges and prefects base
themselves on laws favouring housing of “disadvantaged people” to
grant respites to occupants without rights or titles. But on the sub-
ject of the squat, nothing is won. Firstly, because as mentioned in the
introduction, of the persistence of initiatives to criminalize the practice
or limit squatters’ rights. On the other hand, some “favourable judge-
ments” for squatters have not become a precedent, as Joane Benhayoun’s
thesis of law affirms (2005): jurisprudence on the subject has shown
itself to be undeniably protective of property rights during the last
few years, although measures upholding the right to housing have not
ceased to multiply. Therefore, if the question of law remains decisive as
far as future living conditions of squatters are concerned, that of social
“norms” is equally so. Today, it is also around collective representations
of the realities of a squat that struggles must be conducted.


Benhayoun, J., 2005, “La conciliation du droit de propriété et du droit au
logement à l’épreuve de l’émergence des nouveaux droits-créances: le cas
limite du squat”, Thèse de doctorat de droit, Aix, Université Aix- Marseille
Bouillon, F., 2009, Les mondes du squat. Anthropologie d’un habitat précaire,
Paris, PUF/Le Monde, coll. Partage du savoir.
Bouillon, F., 2010, “Le squatteur, le policier, le juge et le préfet : procédures en
actes et classements ad hoc”, Déviance et Société vol. 34, n°2, p. 175-188.
CERCRID, 2003, “Les décisions d’expulsion d’occupants sans droit ni titre.
Connaissance empirique d’un contentieux hétérogène”, Paris, Report to
the Ministry of Justice.
Dupret, B. and J.-N Ferrié, 2004, “Autour de la fabrique du droit”, Droit et
Société, 56/57, 353-357.
Geremek, B., 1997 (1987), La potence ou la pitié. L’Europe et les pauvres du
Moyen Âge à nos jours, Paris, Gallimard.
Jobard, F. and R. Lévy (dir.), 2009, “Police et minorités visibles : les contrôles
d’identité à Paris”, New York, rapport à l’Open Society Institute.
Lascoumes, P. and É. Severin, 1995, “Le droit comme activité sociale : pour
une approche weberienne de l’activité juridique”, in Lascoumes P. (dir.),
Actualité de Max Weber pour la sociologie du droit, Paris, Librairie générale
de droit et de jurisprudence, coll. Droit et Société, 155-177.
Latour, B., 2002, La fabrique du droit. Une ethnographie du conseil d’État, Paris,
La Découverte, coll. Armillaire.
Levy-Vroelant, C. and J. Segal, 2003, “Les Roms de Montreuil et d’ailleurs.
Des immigrés européens particuliers”, Les Temps Modernes, 624, 223-230.
Monjardet, D., 1996, Ce que fait la police : sociologie de la force publique, Paris,
La Découverte, coll. Textes à l’appui.

[EN] Configurations of Squats in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region: diversity of goals and resources

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Configurations of Squats in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region: diversity of goals and resources

* This chapter comes from a paper presented at the SqEK meeting which
took place in Berlin, 29-31 March 2011, in “New Yorck” Squat and from
a paper presented at the 7th Conference of Social Sciences, CEU, Budapest,
May 2011 (also published in http://blogs.sciences-po.fr/recherche-villes/
files/2011/05/WP_Aguilera_2011-03.pdf). I thank the researchers and ac-
tivists for their remarks and comments.

Thomas Aguilera

The latest national survey on housing (Annual Report of
Fondation Abbé Pierre, 2011) shows that in France more than 3.6 mil-
lion people live in precarious housing conditions. Among them, more
than 600,000 people do not have a roof. Paris is one of the densest
European capitals and space is a rare resource. However, paradoxical-
ly, we estimate that 9% of the housing in Paris is vacant (more than
120,000 vacant houses). Many housing associations and organiza-
tions, and above all squatters, denounce this situation. Likewise, there
is also a huge problem of a lack of cultural spaces in Paris. Some surveys
show that an artist has to wait more than 30 years to get a workshop
and that the city council only assigns 6 workshops per year (Langlois-
Mallet, 2008; Lextrait, 2001). In this context, squatting could be seen
as a solution to these problems. It lets inhabitants acquire a house or
a workshop. In fact, there were more than 2,000 squatters in Paris in
June 2010 (Aguilera, 2010). They live in an illegal place. Sometimes,
social centers propose an alternative way of occupying urban space:
they develop cultural and social activities beyond the traditional and
institutional policies. They can also be an open place where people can
talk about politics. Nevertheless, the squat is also a problem for public
actors and urban planners. On the one hand, in France, private prop-
erty is fundamental and constitutionally protected. It means that the
juridical institutions cannot allow an illegal occupation if an owner
complains. On the other hand, the right to housing is also fundamen-
tal (even if it is lower than the right to property in the hierarchy of
the French Constitution). The squat becomes a public problem built
within the tension between these two rights.

How can we explain the persistence of squatting? During the spring
of 2010, more than 21 squats existed in Paris and we can have all the
reason to believe that they just represent the visible part of a shadowy
phenomenon. Understanding the role of disorder enables us to under-
stand how the national and city governments try to build and preserve
public order. The policy makers have to bargain with squatters because
they are part of multilevel urban governance including the federal gov-
ernment, the police, the municipality, the real estate investors, the pub-
lic housing developers, and the owners. Although the squat is an illegal
settlement, it is recognized by authorities to contribute to the life and
the development of the city. A squat could be generally defined as an
unsanctioned, collective or individual, occupation of a building in or-
der to live or develop activities in it without the consent of the owner.
Different types of squats exist and each scholar working on squats gives
his own typology: Cécile Péchu (Péchu, 2010), Florence Bouillon
(Bouillon, 2009) and Hans Pruijt (Pruijt, 2004) all deploy their own.

In this paper, we address all kind of squats precisely in order to under-
stand the different configurations of settlements. We present in this
chapter the different configurations of squats in Paris and the surround-
ing region, and the relationships between squatters and local officials.
In the first section, we present the data and the methodological ap-
proach (I). In the second section, we present squatting as a challenge to
urban policies: the squat is at the same time a roof, a tool for advocating
the strengthening of the right to housing and a critique against housing
and cultural policies (II). Finally we present the different configurations
of squats in Paris (III).

I. Data and locations of squats in Paris and
the Ile-de-France Region

We chose to take into account all types of squats based on the juridi-
cal definition. We built up a database containing 60 squats since 2001,
the year of the election of the new socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë,
of which 21 remained open in 2010. In Paris, we classified 17 “artistic”
squats, two “political and activist” squats, two “emergency and precari-
ous” squats. First, we adopted an ethnographic approach (observation,
participant observation and interviews) in order to document the world
of squatting in Paris and to understand the functioning of the collec-
tives and above all the relationships between squatters, humanitarian,
nongovernmental organizations and associations defending the hous-
ing right, officials, lawyers, housing developers, and neighbors. Then,
we conducted interviews with officials, local representatives from the
city council, urban developers, and lawyers. We spent more than 130
hours of directly observing and conducted 39 interviews over 65 hours
with: 15 squatters; one homeless person; three merchants; one neigh-
bor of a squat; the housing department director of the city council of
Paris (twice) ; the culture department director of Paris; one local deputy
mayor ; one local urban planning deputy mayor ; four police command-
ers ; one lawyer ; one local social worker ; one journalist ; the director of
the mission “Squat et Rave” of Médecins du Monde ; the director of the
Fondation Abbé Pierre  ; two association leaders ; one director of security
for a social housing developer ; two directors of the GPIS (Groupement
Parisien Interbailleurs de Surveillance / Security Organization for the
Housing Developers of Paris). We also did a daily review of national
(Le Monde, Libération) and local (Le Parisien) newspapers and websites
(squat.net, Rue 89, Mediapart) in order to update my database.

1.1. The geography of squats in Paris: the poorest part of the

At the very beginning of the research, we strove to update our view of
squatting in Paris. Indeed, during the interviews we realized that no one
was able to present current data: where are the squats? How many
squatters live in Paris? Each actor had a part of the answer because they
Configurations of Squats in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region | 213
had to deal with a particular matter. We thus tried to pool all the infor-
mation needed together in order to give an updated landscape of squats
in Paris. A quantitative work enabled us to confront and confirm some
of our hypothesis. The second objective of this qualitative and quantita-
tive work was to develop a geographical analysis of the squatting phe-
nomena in Paris. We built maps in order to understand the different
logic both of the squatters and the officials in charge of creating and
executing housing and cultural policies.

This map lets us understand some of the logics at work. Most of the
squats are in the north and east of Paris on the right side of the Seine.
The 18th district is the poorest of Paris. The median annual wage per
family is 16,766 Euros while in Paris as a whole it is 23,293 Euros
(INSEE, 2007). The buildings are old and much more damaged com-
pared to the other districts of Paris. Indeed, 72,7% of the houses are
in buildings which were built before 1949 (63% for Paris) (INSEE,
2006). Many important renovation and building programs have been
implemented in the 2000s in order to provide affordable public hous-
ing. Nevertheless, during the renovation programs many buildings stay
vacant and provide good opportunity for squatters. Thus, the social
composition and the housing context in the 18th district have allowed
squatters (precarious families, drug addicts, immigrants but also artists)
to use these spaces to live. This district is also the drug market of Paris
and attracts many drug addicts. The renovation programs implemented
by social developers caused the eviction of squatters and their transfer
in the north of Paris (Porte de la Chapelle). Nevertheless, in March 2010
the eviction of the last squat in the north pushed squatters to return
to the 18th. We find many squats in the 19th district where there are
many vacant spaces and Brownfield sites that squatters have easily oc-
cupied. Many artists live in this district and there is a large and active
cultural life (and the local city councils sometimes support them). The
13th district hosted many squats during the 2000s (les Frigos, l’Atoll 13,
la Glacière, le Barbizon) but the renovation programs and the intense
surveillance built around social housings has successfully prevented
new squatting.

1.2. Squats of public housing at the regional scale

The squats in Paris are mainly what we call “activity” squats which are
predominantly composed of social centers and artists. They represent
up to 80% of the “visible” squats in Paris City. The rest of the occupa-
tions are made up of “emergency and precarious” (10%) and of “politi-
cal” squats (10%). However, in order to broaden the perspective at the
regional scale, we found an official data base from the association in
charge of coordinating all social housing developers (AORIF, 2006).
This database only concerns squats of social housings (owners are pub-
lic housing developers) and we estimate that there are 1800 squats in
the whole region (1,200 squats are in private buildings) if we follow this
two unique surveys on squats in Ile-de-France (Quercy, 2002 and
AORIF, 2006).

At the regional scale, the squats are spread out according to the in-
come distribution and the quality of the buildings. Some observations
and interviews with housing developers allow us to assume that they
have a stronger capacity to protect themselves from squatters in the
richest departments (in the south and west). The department of Seine-
Saint-Denis is deeply impacted because of the co-presence of a precari-
ous population, illegal immigrants who cannot legally afford a house
and a very vulnerable precarious, housing stock.

II. Squats as challenges to urban policies

More than simple occupations, an illegal occupation is a mode of
action to resist to the political order, to contest public authorities
and to assert a right to housing while being a first response to this
claim and a survival strategy. If we follow Cécile Péchu, we are deal-
ing with “sectorial illegalisms” (Péchu, 2010: 10): “an illegal spot for
the immediate realization of the claim. The squat is at the same time
a negotiation tool and a response to the request that it supports”.
This definition enables us to understand that the squatters build their
own place while asserting (more) spaces to live or survive. Three main
features appear here.

The first is that squatters short-circuit and “hack” the urban hous-
ing and cultural policies (Aguilera, 2010). Indeed, they are out of the
legal and traditional frame for resource allocation of spaces provided by
the city council and public and private developers. For example, they
usually do not subscribe for a social housing or a workshop, and this
maybe for numerous reasons: sometimes by choice because they refuse
to wait for institutional allocations but more usually because they don’t
have access to the “official channels”. They do not sign up for social as-
sistance (Warin, 2008, 2009, and 2010). They do not either have the
social resources nor the “administrative and legal knowledge”. Thus,
they find the ways to obtain these resources: “the urban poor often have
to step outside the law in order to gain access to housing” (Azuela et
Duhau, 1998:157). Legality is too expensive, so people self-organize in
order to find the means to survive.

The second remark is that these spaces of illegality are, in general,
spaces of precariousness. Moreover, this financial fragility assures the
transition to a legal fragility: “The very fact that a city is divided into ‘le-
gal’ and ‘illegal’ areas has profound implications for society as a whole,
since a truly public order, in the sense of social norms to which all
members of society must adhere, does not exist. As long as a substantial
part of the population gains access to land by a different set of process
from the rest of society, it is clear that not all individuals are subject to
the same rules, regardless of whether or not those rules can be formally
classified as “law”(Azuela et Dubau, 1998:157).

The third feature is that squats appear at the same time as a critique
of the urban policies, a tool to ask for a roof and a strategy to survive
without public support. The squat as a mode of action (Péchu, 2010)
combines a strong political discourse against housing policies (DAL,
Jeudi Noir) or the political order in general (for example for the anar-
chist squats of Montreuil, East-Paris), with demands for welfare, hous-
ings (from the federal government or the municipalities) and shelter for
homeless people. The most striking example seems to be in 2009 in the
Parisian squat of “Rue Baudelique” (18th district of Paris), which hosted
during one year more than 2000 undocumented immigrants coming
from 25 different nationalities while petitioning for legal regularization
and documents. They illegally inhabited a place to enter into the legal-
ity. Furthermore, we can interpret this mode of action as anti-free rider
(Olson, 1987), in the sense that to get the benefits of the squat (a roof
and relocation to legal housing) people have to be squatters (Péchu,
2010). Thus, we understand that we come back to an old debate con-
cerning squats. Is it used as a tool or as an end? Even if we can show that
illegal occupations combine both dimensions (Merklen, 2009), we try
here to distinguish them in order to understand the differences between
various configurations. We propose a factorial analysis with two axes:
one concerning the means/ends cleavage, the other one representing
the level of resources of the dwellers. We call “resources” the social (net-
works), economic (financial resources) and political (links with offi-
cials, representatives, lawyers, media and police) capital held by the

Hans Puijt examines the phenomena of the institutionalization of
squatting wondering if the “institutionalization of an urban movement
is inevitable”? (Pruijt, 2003). He defines three configurations. The first
one is the terminal institutionalization. It “implies that, in the repertoire
of action, convention replaces disruption. The second is flexible institu-
tionalization, when conventional tactics complement disruptive ones”
(Pruijt, 2003:136). The third is the cooptation whereby one part of the
squatters, usually the less radical or the leaders, is absorbed into leader-
ship of the city. This analysis is linked to the resources and goals. For
Hans Pruijt, the squat as an aim is more vulnerable to repression from
public actors and is less likely to persist while the squat as a means, as
a tactic to get other resources (mainly a house), allows some positive
results. Thus, he distinguishes the squatting movement and the hous-
ing movement. In Paris, we have both kinds and we present in the next
section the different cases.

III. The configurations of squats and the
conditions of mobilization

On the top of the resources axis, we observe one kind of squat particu-
larly used by the “Jeudi Noir” (Black Thursday) collective, who are dedi-
cated to media logic, and the association “DAL” (Droit Au Logement
– Housing Right Association). These two collectives use squatting as a
tool and a mode of action for activists. But the squat is also a goal itself
for artists, anarchist activists and precarious families who are looking
for a roof to survive.

3.1. Jeudi Noir: media logic, building agendas and coopta-

This collective was founded in 2006 to denounce the high price of
housing in France. Its first actions were to invite journalists to visit
flats to show the extremely high prices of housing for students and pre-
carious families. Then, it added another mode of collective action with
squatting in 2007. The activists have since opened 13 squats. They seek
and find vacant buildings to squat and draw the attention on the inef-
ficient housing policy of the municipality and of the State. Two main
claims are highlighted by the collective: the application of the DALO
and of the requisition law of 1945. One of the specificities of the ac-
tion group compared to the other Parisian squatters is their massive use
of Media: “we don’t want more activists but more Media” (Collectif
Jeudi Noir, 2009). The media logic is the central dimension of their
action. The squat is only a tool to draw the attention of the media and
thus of national and local representatives. We call them “agenda build-
ers” because they are able to create two kinds of “cycles of attention”
(Baumgartner and Jones, 2005). The first agenda concerns squats. Each
occupation of Jeudi Noir increases the number of articles about squats
in newspapers and television. The second agenda is Housing policies.
Each occupation represents the opportunity to challenge politics.

A brief sociology of the members of the group shows that they are
students, artists but also activists (ecologists, socialists, and extreme-
left activists) who do not necessarily need to squat. During the juridi-
cal procedure in 2010, one of the leaders selected the more precarious
people to put their name on the official list of the squatters in order
to prevent the risk of a bigger fine because of the solvency of some of
them. Indeed, in France, the judge analyzes the personal situation of
the squatters to know if they are “truly” poor and need a roof to survive
or if they do not necessarily need to squat (Bouillon, 2010). The result
of the juridical procedure often depends on the solvency of the squat-
ters. We analyze here a “professionalization of precariousness”: the aim
is to build a “precarious” movement with no precarious people. As we
explained above, the squatters from Jeudi Noir are often students, archi-
tects, and artists. Compared to other kind of squatters, they have more
economic resources. But poverty becomes a resource to gain legitimacy
in a social conflict where the judge could be more lenient with the poor.

What is very interesting in this squatting movement is the relation-
ship between the leaders, who do not live in the squat, and the local
officials. Indeed, the leaders are now officials themselves (one is a repre-
sentative of the regional assembly, another is a member of the Socialist
Party, and another is a representative of a local municipality of Paris).
They have a strong political capital and thus, strong social resources.
They build quasi-friendly relationships with the representatives of the
municipality of Paris, with the head of the housing department and
with the policemen in charge of controlling them. Thus, they accept
the rules of the political game, of representative democracy, while other
squatters denounce it. Moreover, although they squat, they respect the
rules of the public order. Their presence is not disruptive at all. Usually,
city officials come to support them in their action, and take advantage
of this public tribunal to criticize the national government. For exam-
ple, the mayor Bertrand Delanoë came to the squat “The Marquise” at
Place des Vosges. The President of the Region, Jean-Paul Huchon always
assists them during juridical procedures. Just before the night of the
eviction of the last squat “avenue de Matignon”, a communist member
of the National Assembly slept in the street in front of the squat to
block policemen.

3.2. Droit au Logement (DAL): a housing movement using
squat as a means

The DAL movement was born in 1990 from a division with the
“CML” (Comités des Mal-Logés / “Committee of people in bad housing
conditions”). The CML used the squat in a “classist” way if we follow
the typology of Cécile Péchu (Péchu, 2006, 2010). They squatted social
housings to denounce the way the State allocates housing. The occupa-
tions were carried out during the electoral campaigns to draw the atten-
tion of the candidates and the media. However, the creation of the DAL
represents a change in the repertoire of action. At the very beginning
the DAL refused to use squatting as a mode of action: they wanted to
avoid action that was too disruptive and not to be consider as “an ille-
gitimate” actor in order to be able to negotiate with public authorities.
But in 1993, they squatted again in Avenue René Coty and in the “rue
du Dragon” in 1994. This last occupation made the DAL enter into the
public sphere thanks to a massive use of the media and had three main
results. First, each squatter was relocated by the State and the squat was
evicted. Second, the State accepted to use the Requisition Law of 1945.
Third, the Right to Housing was declared “constitutional”. By disturb-
ing public order and using an illegal tool of activism, DAL achieved
their goals. For Cécile Péchu “this is a cover of the squat that lies be-
tween the spectacular action intended to put pressure on authorities
and real action to resolve the housing problem of squatters” (Péchu,
2006). Squatting by DAL is “efficient”: Each occupation is followed
by the relocation of 90% of the squatting families (mainly precarious
African families). In the 18th, 19th and 20th districts of Paris (the most
heavily squatted districts), they rehoused almost 700 families with 15
squats. In the Seine-Saint-Denis department, almost 100 squats have
accommodated 1000 families. In the 19th district of Paris, 6 squats or-
ganized by the DAL were evicted since June 2002. After each eviction,
the activists succeeded in getting relocation of all the families from the
State, the City Council or the SIEMP (“Société Immobilière d’économie
Mixte de Paris”/ Public-Private Housing Developer of Paris). This is the
result of many negotiations between leaders, officials and families. It
shows us that the DAL has a considerable political and social capital
which is used by the activists during these conflictual negotiations.
Nevertheless, the squat is only one mode of action among others for
this housing movement. The DAL combines different kinds of action
which are, sometimes led in the same place: demonstrations, sit-ins,
real squats, symbolic squats, hunger strike, office occupation, illegal ac-
commodation, and concerts. This combination enables the activists to
target different actors: the national government, municipalities, private
owners, housing developers. The “efficiency” of the movement is partly
due to this strategy. The proportion of squats in their total number of
actions increased even while only representing 8% of the actions of
the DAL, and 20% of the actions of the CML (Péchu, 2006:462). But
the DAL has a stronger use of the media to bring the housing problem
into the public sphere. Cécile Péchu distinguishes two types of squats:
the “real” squat and the “symbolic” one. The real one is used both as
a house and as a mode of asserting the right to housing. The symbolic
one is only used to publicize a message. The temporality is the similar to
the one of the Jeudi Noir: the squats emerge during electoral campaigns
and “non-expulsion period”. However, nowadays, since the creation
of Jeudi Noir, the DAL has received less attention in the media than
the former. This is due to the fact that the DAL has less social and po-
litical networks than Jeudi Noir and is therefore a less institutionalized
movement. Indeed, as we showed the activists of Jeudi Noir are closer
to the political class while those from DAL prefer to build an open con-
flict with officials and representative in order to put them under pres-
sure to obtain the relocation of the families. DAL is closer to the “squat
of deprivation” of Hans Pruijt and the “classist” type of Cécile Péchu.
The leaders nevertheless maintain relations with officials but they use
them in a very different way. They call them to request more houses
rather than to require help against eviction. The number permanent
activists in the association are no more than 20. The decisions are very
centralized and the DAL movement corresponds to a Pruijt’s notional
of flexible institutionalization.

3.3. Artists and social centers

The squat appears as a mode of action. The two cases above show that it
can be used as a means to obtain more than a roof over one’s head. It is
the “housing side” of issue squats. Nevertheless, the squat can also be an
individual and collective occupation aiming at living alternatively in the
city beyond the official public policies and the rules of the ownership:
counter-culture, alternative art against commercial and mainstream art,
concerts, and innovative social services provided to the inhabitants of
the district or homeless people. People can chose to organize themselves
to demonstrate that self-organization of society is possible and to strug-
gle against an individualist society based on private property rights. In
France, the word “squat” includes all the meanings we present in this
paper, but in other countries the specific configuration we are evok-
ing in this section is the “social center”. People wishing to create new
human relations as well as social and cultural activities, enter illegally
in a building and appropriate the place. Of course the squatters also
use the building as a house but the main goal is to turn into a place of
meetings, festivals, concerts, theater plays, art classes, kindergarten, or
bicycle workshops. All these activities are linked to the daily life of the
neighborhood which usually accepts the presence of the squatters and
defends them against when the owner wants to evict them (Aguilera,
2010). Most of the Parisian social centers are animated by artists (17
of 21 in 2010). We observed that all of these social centers and artistic
squats are more or less tolerated by the City Council.

There is a profound problem concerning cultural spaces in Paris.
Some surveys show that an artist has to wait more than 30 years to get
a workshop. As we presented before, squatting can be both a problem
for public actors but at the same time, a solution. In fact, for artists
it is a solution in the sense that illegally occupying a building enables
them to create and exhibit inside Paris: “we need more space to live and
create. In Paris, some spaces are unoccupied so we enter and use the place”
(Mathilde, squatter). Since the election of the socialist mayor in 2001,
Bertrand Delanoë, local public actors are rather tolerant towards these
kinds of squats because officials became aware that Parisian voters like
these cultural places and that they develop interesting projects.
Indeed, sometimes squatters provide local and social services in the
face of the inefficiencies of the public and legal system. Squats reveal
problems in the city, compensate for a lack of local activities and in-
spires the city council. Many squats in Paris (the “Jardin d’Alice”, the
“59 Rivoli”, “La Générale”, “TDV”, the “Petite Rockette”, …) provide
art classes and exhibitions in places where the municipality is unable to.
Sometimes, officials prefer to build strong relationships of trust with
the squatters rather than to repress them. This is the case of a specific
association: MACAQ (Mouvement d’Animation Culturelle et Artistique
de Quartier / Local Cultural and Artistic Association). This association
which was born in the 17th district of Paris and has a very special re-
lation with the left wing of the city council. MACAQ organizes the
carnival of Paris, many cultural events, and bric-a-brac sales. The mu-
nicipality externalizes the management of these social and cultural ac-
tivities. The logic is the same concerning vacant housing. The housing
department director told me that he gives “concessions” to MACAQ
to squat building if they are empty and too expensive to renovate. He
calls them “professional squatters”. Thus, nowadays they squat the 123
rue Tocqueville in the 17th district where they host many associations:
“It’s a good deal for all of us. The municipality doesn’t
have to pay repairs and surveillance. For the squatters, it is
an opportunity to get a building legally for some time. When
we have a building where we don’t have any project we call
them and they squat” (Housing Department director of the
Municipality of Paris).

Furthermore, some squats provide social services. Since 2005, the
artists who squat in the “Petite Rockette” host 14 homeless people with
the help of the NGO “Médecins du Monde”. Thus, social centers chal-
lenge and “serve” the municipality at the same time.

Thus, the City Council adopted two political instruments which
allow it to control and govern the squats in Paris (Aguilera, 2011). The
first is the project and the call for project proposals. When the City
Council wants to retrieve the management of a building for a specific
project, the Housing or the Cultural department launches a call for
project proposals and sometimes squatters are welcomed to participate
in imagining the future of this building. Squatters have to enter the
legal sphere and accept the status of urban planners or experts. They
have to present an application like the squatters of the “Petite Rockette”
did with the help of the NGO “Médecins du Monde”, or the artists of
the “Forge de Belleville” in 2009. This process forces squatters to respect
administrative norms: budgets, security norms, public order. They have
to determine the allocation of the place (artistic place with workshops,
living place with bed rooms, etc). They have to accept the ground rules
of the urban planning.

The second instrument is a juridical contract between squatters and
the owner, the precarious lease, which allows the squatters to stay in
the building for a determined and limited period (18 months gener-
ally) and for a small rent (around 1000 Euros per month). It is an
instrument of normalization of the relationship between squatters and
owners. Thus, it is a first step to reduce the tension between property
rights and housing rights. Moreover, it is a means for the municipality
to control illegal spaces. The squatters and the owners are both winners
in this process and both parties usually accept it. The squatters can
stay and the owner avoids a juridical procedure of eviction which is
quite a burden. From illegal to contractual, squatters change their sta-
tus but they stay in the same location and keep, more or less, the same
activities. On the one hand, squatters have to accept some ground rules
to stay. On the other hand, as squatters are innovators in terms of so-
cial and cultural practices, they urge public actors to innovate. Parisian
representatives, who have adopted these two instruments as vectors of
public policy innovation, were inspired by squatters for the last two
years: they created new festive and cultural places: the “104”, the “100
rue de Charenton”, the “Petit Bain” etc.

However, although this is not the mainstream opinion, some squat-
ters (mainly anarchists) refuse to deal with the municipality and criti-
cize squatters who accept it denouncing it as “institutionalization”.
Some of them told me that the squat loses its identity and its own value
if it is legalized:

“We are legal now. We lost the freedom of illegality…When
we were illegal we were not allowed to do anything so we were
able to do everything! Nowadays we cannot do anything with-
in the [boundaries of the] law” (Pablo, squatter).

In Paris, the extreme-left wing and non-institutionalized squats are
absent. We can find some in the periphery like in Montreuil with some
anarchist groups who refuse to deal with state actors. The consequence
is that the squats are more ephemeral. A larger European compara-
tive work should show that Parisian squats are less politicized than in
Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Geneva, and Amsterdam. A last group of
squats are the invisible squats.

3.4. “Invisible squats”

As we have already mentioned, we estimate that there are 2,000 squats
in the Ile-de-France Region. The problem is that most of them are in-
visible: we can observe them when the owner becomes aware of the
situation and wants to evict them. Some interviews let us think that
the Prefecture (deconcentrated local state, the representation in region
of the federal State) would have built up a database but at the moment
we are not able to have access to the files. The only exhaustive database
we can use is the one presented in the first section of this paper. It only
concerns squats in buildings owned by social housing developers. We
observed 661 squats at the regional scale in 2006.

The Housing Developers are frequently victims of squatting for three
reasons and during three particular moments. First, when developers
renovate buildings the flats are empty and vulnerable; second, during
relocation of renters and “turn over”; third, during the construction. 51%
of the squats presented here are small squats of flats. Homeless people
or precarious people enter in a flat when they know that it is empty. In
41% of the cases, some networks of people have a good knowledge of the
situation of relocations and renovations. During interviews, some actors
told us that they can paid-off the doormen and some security officers of
developers to get the addresses of empty flats. They enter a flat, change
the lock, write a fake lease and sell it to precarious and immigrant families
unable to check the veracity of the situation. Besides, the region hosts also
some cases of squats whole or mainly composed of drug addicts. The last
one in the north of Paris hosted hundreds of drug users. It was evicted
in March 2010. The inhabitants of these squats consider the occupation
as the primary goal because they want a roof and nothing else. The aim
of squatting is to live in worthy conditions and to avoid sleeping in the
street. There is not any process of institutionalization and the inhabitants
benefit from staying invisible. They don’t have many resources but have
the skills to open a squat.

In this section, we have analyzed the different configurations of
squatting in Paris, specifically according to two main cleavages: re-
sources of squatters and their goals. The process of institutionalization
takes two mains forms: cooptation as with Jeudi Noir, flexible as with
DAL and artists. For some scholars (Castells, 1983; Piven and Cloward,
1974) as well as for the political radical squatters, the process of in-
stitutionalization means the decline and loss of identity of the urban
movement. However, squatters in Paris usually accept a flexible insti-
tutionalization. They create their own identity which is a combination
of interests. They develop strong rational strategies radicalizing some
positions on the one hand (the main tool of their activism is illegal) and
accepting the rules on the other (the rules of the negotiation). Squatters
have many resources. They are able to mobilize their own resources to
create a “disturbing” situation (McAdam, 1982). They have built many
networks, of which some are informal: squatters move a lot between
different squats and they know each other. Besides, they have estab-
lished formal networks of sociability in order to exchange experiences,
information and to organize events. In Paris, 70% of the squats belong
to the Intersquat Network which is a Parisian initiative, although it is
connected to many European squats in Rome, Barcelona, Berlin, and
Geneva. The members of Intersquat meet once a month to exchange
their experiences. They talk about new techniques for squatting, avoid
eviction, and organizing a legal defense. They also circulate the address-
es of newly vacant buildings. Finally, they organize several European
events and meetings between squatters elsewhere in Europe (held in a
different capital every year). This network gives the squatters some re-
sources they can use to address officials. They know how to speak, how
to organize an official meeting, how to defend themselves legally, they
also know the Parisian territory (their databases of vacant buildings are
more complete than the official ones) and how to mobilize the media
to be visible.


As in every country in Europe, we find very different types of squats
in Paris and its region. We can distinguish different configurations de-
pending on the resources of the squatters and on their goals. The squats
and social centers in Paris are the most visible. But they are only the
small part of the iceberg. Most of the squats are invisible and hidden
and we have to integrate them in the analysis when we are talking about
squats even if their inhabitants are not activists. Indeed, we presented
the squatting group “Jeudi Noir” which uses the media in order to at-
tract attention to the housing problem in France and the DAL which
is able to organize big events to relocate poor families. Many artists
squat in Paris and have quite good relationships with the local officials,
which allow them to stay and participate to the development of the
city. However, we have shown that many squats are invisible. They host
precarious people who need shelter in order to survive. In that last case,
squatting is not a choice and the mobilization to defend themselves is
very difficult.

These different configurations imply different responses from state
actors. In fact, as we have shown, artists and social centers are usually
tolerated by the Paris city council which needs them to build a European
cultural capital. Indeed, officials know that the city can attract tourists
if it is a “creative” and innovative city. The political squats are also often
supported by the left wing city council which considers them as a tool
to critique the national right wing government. However, this side of
public policies does not have to prevent us from observing the “dark
side” of these relationships. Squatters without any resources (media,
social and/or cultural capital) are usually evicted and the municipality
does not intervene to support them. The police and the discipline of
the city still work in Paris in order to control squatting. The police in-
tervene during the daily life to avoid squatting in empty buildings and
when the judge orders an eviction, the police carry it out.


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[EN] Explanation of recent site downtimes

[EN] Explanation of recent site downtimes


Dear squat!net users,

Yesterday, Wednesday September 10th squat!net had a /planned/ downtime from approximately 12 AM until approximately 4 PM or earlier, which allowed us to install new hardware.

We are painfully aware that squat!net has had a lot of sometimes longish downtimes recently. Our apologies for that: the tech-team of squat!net works like a good old fashioned squatted space, we are all doing this work on volunteered time and money. We are dedicated, but we are also poor andvchaotic and whatnot. Earlier, a comrade organized some extra RAM for the server, but it didn’t fix the regular crashes encountered by our box. So we have installed a ‘new’ secondhand server that was kindly donated to us by a loyal supporter of the squatting movement, and we really hope that it will solve our downtime problems on the short term. On the longer term, we are also looking into a complete software
rehaul of the squat!net server, to ensure easier use for you, less technical fiddling for us, and enhanced security for all of us.

So, please bear with us, we are happy to serve the squatting movement at large! Send us suggestions, requests, complaints, fanmail, or if you have some kicking collective, organize a benefit to help us cover the costs – we don’t need a lot to run s!n, but we do need to spend some money on the physical hosting of our server and on new bits of hardware every now and then.

By all means get involved! Here is how:

Contact page = https://en.squat.net/contact/
Email = squat [at] squat [dot] net
IRC = #squat on the indymedia network, easy access via


Hosting = https://en.squat.net/hosting/
Help = https://help.squat.net/

News in different languages = http://planet.squat.net/

Listings = http://radar.squat.net [even better new version coming soon!]
Films = http://video.squat.net

Thx for your patience, and keep squatting da lot!

Your s!n tech-team.

[EN] Have Squat, Will Travel: How squatter mobility mobilizes squatting

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Have Squat, Will Travel: How squatter mobility mobilizes squatting

Lynn Owens

“We will not leave!” This defiant statement is the typical re-
sponse from squatters threatened with eviction. To leave would be to
give up, to lose one’s home or a community’s social center, to lose a
building back into the real estate market, to lose autonomy, to lose
face. Thus, when eviction looms, squatters will do nearly everything
to hold on to the building, whether that involves going through legal
channels to increase their claims over the property, waging a public rela-
tions campaign to turn local sentiment in their favor, or, if all else fails, employing more militant tactics, such as barricading the space and defending it against the police. Leaving is losing. Stability is security. It is not only their space that is under attack, but also their identity, because what is a squatter without a building to squat? To successfully occupy a building, they must refuse to leave.

Except, of course, when they want to. While resistance for squat-
ters is often, and most publicly, performed simply as staying put, the
reality is more complex. In fact, as David Harvey (2005: 42) notes,
sometimes “the only form of resistance is to move.” It does not always
make sense to stand and fight to the end. Escape can be a powerful
supplement to open conflict as a response to power, and squatters often
build elaborate escape paths from their buildings as part of preparing
its defense (ADILKNO 1994). Escape, however, is simply one way to
move. Squatting provides a stable place to live and work, and by do-
ing so, it also launches various complementary and conflicting forms
of mobilities. At its simplest level, squatters must always keep an eye
towards their next location. While particular squats are not always pos-
sible to maintain, flexibility and mobility guarantees that squatting can
be. Thus movement may be from one street to another, from one neigh-
borhood to another, or possibly to new cities or countries. Squatting
provides stability by creating a resting place for transient populations;
it also creates new opportunities and desires for mobility. Squatting sets
people into motion, drawing them to cities to become squatters, to ex-
perience their culture, to learn their tactics.

If the individual squatter’s maxim might be stated as create stability while preparing for mobility, this is even more the case when examining squatters’ movements.
Squatters’ struggles emerged in many European cities in the late 1960s
and early 1970s, and quickly spread across urban, national and inter-
national spaces. The spread of squatting across Europe was more than
merely the abstract diffusion of ideas and tactics; it was driven by the
spread and physical movement of actual squatters. Amsterdam squat-
ters went to Berlin. Berlin squatters went to London. London squatters
went to Barcelona. Barcelona squatters went to Amsterdam. Sometimes
movement provides an escape, sometimes an exchange, and often both.
Squatting is about space. At its most basic, it is about people with
not enough space appropriating it from people they think have too
much. Squatting is also about place; it is a tool to defend place, as well
as to redefine it. Generally, squatting is about turning empty spaces into
meaningful places. To fill these spaces with meaning requires a lot of
hard work, both to repair and renovate the building and to convince
others that their efforts at place making are legitimate and worthwhile.
To do this, squatters draw on many resources, grounding their meaning
in the concepts of “the local” and “stability.” Despite the important role
these two bundles of practices play in successful squatters’ movements,
this should not be taken to mean that squatting is exclusively, or even
primarily, about the local and the stable. In fact, a careful reading of
the successes of squatters’ movements in Europe reveals that squatting
is at least as dependent on cultivating and strengthening strategies of
the translocal and of mobility. This tends to be underplayed in public
discourse, though, since it does not fit easily with common sense ideas
of community, which squatters appeal to in their claims, even as they
complicated it through their actions.

Using the case study of the emergence and mobilization of the
Amsterdam squatters’ movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, I will
show the critical role that activist mobility played in the simultaneous
formation of a local and international squatters’ movement. Mobility
is critical in understanding contemporary social movements, even one
as seemingly place based and resistant to moving as squatters’ move-
ments appear to be. I argue that you cannot fully explain and analyze
the emergence and activity of a social movement without paying close
attention to the actual movement of people who constitute it. Even the
most intensely local politics are the product of many forms of mobility.
It is not that the political creation of the local actually ignores the im-
portance of mobile bodies to their issue, it is just that they are too eas-
ily dismissed as nothing more than “outsiders” or as secondary actors:
belonging is placed in opposition to mobility. Mobility is not just about
difference. Movement both homogenizes and differentiates. Flows of
people, things, and ideas produce unique places, as well as spaces of
sameness, linking them together into a broader web of paths and con-
nections. I hope to show how squatting provides both “moorings” and
“mobilities,” feeding and being fed by its simultaneous local and trans-
national context. This dynamic is fundamental to understanding the
emergence of the Amsterdam squatters’ movement and how other local
and national movements emerged alongside it due to the forms of mo-
bility practiced by squatters.

Movements move

How many social movement dynamics get missed through the thor-
ough, but partial, focus on the “social” as opposed to the “movement”?
When mobility is studied, the focus is primarily either on a momentary
movement, like the protest march (Barber 2002), as well as the maps
they generate (Wood and Krygier, 2009), or on large-scale elite mobil-
ity and the formation of transnational social movement organizations
(Keck and Sikkink 1998). But as protest and protestors have globalized
in their fields of struggle, the importance of mobility for all kinds of
activists has also increased.

Activist mobility is central to creating durable forms of collective
identity. Urry (2000, 2007) and Kaufman (2002) both argue that con-
ceptions of society and the social, including social movements, need to
be rethought through approaches based on mobility. That is, to focus
on the “social” side of social movements requires a fuller engagement
with issues of movement. Mobility, like place, is relational. That is, mo-
bility is meaningful in relationship to other forms; it is always plural,
never singular. Moreover, mobilities produce a way of relating. They are
how we form and make sense of relations to others (Adey 2009: 18).

Building solidarity across space can play a critical role in forming an
effective collective identity. McDonald (2006) points us towards new
ways of conceptualizing movement solidarity, ideas that are in line with
theorizing the practices of traveling activists. Importantly, he supple-
ments the concept of solidarity with his own, “fluidarity,” which is
based on more fluid and fleeting identifications, which are not a sign
of weakness, but rather of flexibility. Travel lends itself to such models
of collective identity – fluid because travel is at its core transient and
changing, but also solid, since travel is embodied. Bodies and politics
travel through space and are grounded, at least for some period of time,
in a specific place. “Bodies and embodiment occupy the center of activ-
ist experience…the body keeps recurring, to the point where it threat-
ens to take control of experience” (54).

McDonald builds on Urry’s (2000) concept of the Bund, based on
the German word for association, as an important basis of identification
and action, one that combines ideas of belonging and mobility. Unlike
conventional forms of community, the Bund is intense, impermanent,
and mobile (McDonald 2006, 95). This ties in well with both travel
and squatting. Not opposites, they are rather different manifestations
of the same desires. One is captured at rest (but even then still mobile,
even when promising “we will not leave”) while the other is in motion
(even while the beliefs and practices remain stable within the cycle).
Protests have always been a place where ideas are shared and commu-
nicated – not just to the larger public, but also to other activists and
participants. When activists travel, it can spark increased innovation,
information sharing and identity building. As Eyerman (2006) argues,
mobile activists create new forms of political interactions, which pro-
vide “additional space for education and political and social interaction
between activists and with the local community. Demonstrations in
other words have become extended periods of intensive political social-
ization” (206).

Mobility is a way of being in and defining space, and space matters to
movements. Tilly (2000) lays out the most important ways space affects
movements. Movement participants act in space, and are therefore en-
abled and constrained by it. Movements act on spaces. And movements
change spaces. Cobarrubias and Pickles (2009) show how movements
actively work to imagine the spaces of contention. For example, activ-
ists produce maps as a means to re-imagine and redirect political action
and outcomes. During the past decade, global justice summit protests
have played a key role in creating an alternative space of political con-
tention and discourse. Mobility is key to the strategy and identity of
these protests, as denoted by the emergence of a new political actor, the
“summit hopper.” Featherstone (2003) follows the “Inter-Continental
Caravan” in the way its movement across spaces creates new maps of
grievances. As McDonald (2006) points out, this mode of politics as
travel “underlines the importance of a grammar of experience associ-
ated with displacement and voyage” (44). And when activists arrive at
their new destination – the place of protest, which is itself a protest of
place – they seek to redefine cities to make them suitable for political
confrontation, as Shields (2003) shows in his analysis of protesters’ ap-
propriation of the tourist maps of Quebec City in 2000.

Place can be understood as either territorial or relational (Nicholls
2009). Traditionally, place is treated as territorial, as a fixed and solid
entity. Nicholls (2009) argues that such conceptions are problematic
in a world defined by mobility and flux. Rather place is better seen
as an area “where actors with different statuses, geographical ties, and
mobilities interact in fleeting and unstructured ways” (80). Massey
(2005) defines place as “always under construction…It is never fin-
ished; never closed. Too often space has been relegated to a frozen, im-
mobile state” (9). Thus, “conceptualizing space as open, multiple and
relational, unfinished and always becoming, is a prerequisite for history
to be open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics”
(59). She claims that simplistic treatments of place leave it vulnerable
to being cast as a victim in current debates about globalization, even by
its claimed defenders. While the local is often posited as the opposite
of the global, and thus both threatened by and the primary basis of
resistance against globalization, Massey shows that the reality is more
complex: “local places are not simply always the victims of the global;
nor are they always politically defensible redoubts against the global”
(101). Thus, local production of the global offers some chance to affect
global mechanisms through local politics – not merely as defense but
to reshape the global itself (102). Mobility of political actors, and the
concurrent politicization of mobility, is one way in which activists par-
ticipate in complicating how space and place are understood, opening
it up not just to flows of people, but also to new ideas and practices.

As Massey notes, “the closure of identity in a territorialized space of
bounded places provides little in the way of avenues for a developing
radical politics” (183), so when activists struggle for more immediate
demands, they are often simultaneously resisting the closures of space.
While Nicholls (2009) supports Massey’s relational understanding of
place, he argues that it also lacks a working theory of collective action
that can explain how place is made and remade by collective actors.

To address this omission, he recommends bringing mobility and
place theory into social movement research. Such a move offers impor-
tant perspectives on how place creates opportunities for diverse actors to
come together, how this coming together affects power relations, and,
most importantly for this work, how activist nodes get linked together
to form a broader social movement space (Nicholls 2009, 83). Building
on this latter point, he asserts that social movement place-making and
mobility create productive conditions for forming and cultivating col-
lective ties, increasing the number of possible contact points for diverse
actors with similar goals to come into contact with each other. “While
these complex interactions can spawn new alliances, they also play a
role in lowering cognitive barriers, freeing the flow of information be-
tween different organizations, and spurring innovation” (85). Mobile
activists spread ideas and identity, and in doing so facilitate the future
spreading of new ideas and identities.

This social movement space is the product of both mobility and sta-
bility. Moorings make mobility possible. They act as enablers, allowing
actors to experience the mobility of themselves and others, as well as cre-
ating destinations for movement (Adey 2009: 21). Relationships between
the fixed and the mobile are recursive: mobilities defined fixedness and
create further fixedness, albeit not without tensions (23). Mobility, es-
pecially in repetition, creates stability and formulates attachment – to
movement, but also to place, as well as the people and things one trav-
els with. Technology, which makes mobility possible, is also assumed to
render it redundant, by delinking communication from proximity. But
closeness does not replace the need or desire for “real contact” – it actual
intensifies it (18). Mobile life is constituted through a “material world
that involves new and distant meanings” (21). Mobility is not the inverse
of stability, nor does it always challenge forms of stability. Instead, to be
fixed and to be mobile are two related and interactive aspects of social
movement activity, and it is important to understand the conditions un-
der which these relations support or undermine the other.

In recent years, social movements have drawn on ideas of Deleuze and
Guattari (1980) in formulating both strategies and self-understandings,
particularly their idea of the nomad. They locate their social position
in opposition to citizens, sedentary actors, who are not necessarily im-
mobile, but when they move, they travel over familiar routes, returning
to the same places. Nomadism, however, takes a different tack, not one
of rigidity and permanence, but fleeting, free lines of flight without an
endpoint. The nomad relies on spatial features, but is not governed by
them. The nomad travels through open, smooth space, navigating not
from global knowledge (i.e., “the map”), but by localized engagement.
The nomad engages with a space that is “localized but not delimited”.
Nomadism, despite (or perhaps because of) its romantic opaqueness,
has been appropriated by numerous radical political actors. Nomadism
is equated with resistance (Adey 2009: 60). Day (2005) argues that
Deleuze and Guattari’s third category, the smith, is more appropriate.
The smith is neither nomadic nor sedentary, but is a hybrid moving
back and forth, guided by an “involuntary invention” of new tactics
and strategies (403). This actor creates both moorings and movements,
a network of connections that itself is always in flux.

Another concept appropriated from Deleuze and Guattari is deterri-
torialization. To deterritorialize is to decontextualize relations, often as
process of reterritorializing them into a new context. Fernandez, Starr,
and Scholl (2011) in their book on the social control of dissent, show
how summit protests can be seen as a conflict between police and pro-
tests to control space through processes of ongoing territorialization.
As they show, this is not limited to the space of the actual protest, but
begins long before, as activists try to move through space in order to
contribute to the action, and the state seeks to limit their movement as
much as possible, sometimes changing the laws to do so. Mobility sits
at the heart of new European spatial visions (Adey 2009: 10). That is,
the new Europe is a product of new forms of mobility, for capital, con-
sumer goods, and people. This ideal Europe is only possible, though,
through the exclusion of others’ movement, primarily non-European
immigrants, but also oppositional political actors. In the run ups to
recent summit protests, governments have suspended the Schengen
agreement which allows free movement across borders, in order to ren-
der activists immobile (Fernandez, Starr, and Scholl, 2011).

That government officials have become so interested in constraining
the mobility of activists could be taken as one more sign of the success
of such movement to the larger movements. But while travel tends to
serve certain positive needs and goals of activists, it is not without its
own costs, such as a tendency to inflate the appearance of the depth and
breadth of opposition, which can result in tactical blunders and mis-
steps, as well as organizational infighting (Katsiaficas 1997). Networks
and links built on mobility are often maintained by and oriented to-
wards the needs of the most affluent and elite participants, since they
are the ones who can most easily travel.

Mobility is riven with differences and access issues. While it is easy
to celebrate, it is not always simply positive. It is gendered, it affects
abilities to participate, it can disrupt consensus, it can erase public-
private boundaries (Adey 2009: 88). Additionally, Nicholls (2009)
argues that there are two moments in social movement mobilization.
First, forming loose connections between activists who share grievances
and identity create identification with a general cause. Second, directed
and coordinated mobilities produce a network of affiliated activists who
can participate in shared actions. This second moment often creates
tensions with the first. “The ability to overcome geographical and cul-
tural obstacles makes it possible for ‘mobile’ activists to forge a coherent
social movement space, but in doing this, they introduce new points
of antagonism that pit them into conflictual relations with their less
mobile and more locally grounded comrades” (91). Mobility – and the
control over mobility – is power (Adey 2009, 104).

Squatting: a place to move

At first blush, squatting presents a very straightforward relationship
to place, as captured in a popular slogan for squatters facing eviction:
“We will not leave.” This demands a stable conception of place, one
that resists change and disruption by staying put. Already, however, the
first signs of complexity emerge from this stance – to resist change is
also a form of making change. This is common in social movements,
where demands for larger social change are often accompanied by ac-
tivists’ efforts to protect their own most cherished values and practices.
But there is still more to the story, as place carries within it its own com-
plications. For squatters, place is about much more than stability, it is
equally about mobility. To have a place of one’s own provides more than
a place to rest one’s head; it also creates a destination for others, as well
as a home base for one’s own movement, producing a node in a larger
network of travel. Squatters, of course, recognize the importance of
certain forms of movement to the success of squatting – squatters don’t
simply occupy buildings, they also move in, move through, and when
compelled to leave, they move on. As much as squatters emphasize their
commitment to not moving during their confrontations with police and
government authorities, in fact, squatting has always been at least as
much about creating free and rewarding forms of mobility as it is about
creating a place to stay.

Activists have long been travelers, whether they are the revolutionar-
ies of old, who traveled both to foment revolution and to join already
existing rebellions, or today’s global justice activists, who travel to eco-
nomic and political summits to protest the decisions and decision mak-
ers there. Likewise, travel offers escape for political actors, whether it is
to be on the run from the law or just to get a break from the grind and
potential burnout of feeling “stuck” in the same place. In this chapter,
I use the history of the squatters’ movement of Amsterdam to explore
the ways that squatting is used as a tool to redefine both urban place
and social movement space through creating new forms of both stabil-
ity and mobility.

Stabilizing squatting

Mobility is a political tool, but it can also be a severe liability.
Amsterdam squatters initially had to do an enormous amount of work
to link an effective politics to their actions, and much of this effort was
directed at grappling with the relationships between squatting, stability,
and mobility. In the 1960s, Amsterdam squatters could count many
enemies – the police, the landlords, the property speculators, the gov-
ernment. Yet they also faced a less likely foe: the countercultural tourist.

The Provos, a small but influential anti-authoritarian group, staged fan-
tastic “happenings” during the early to mid 1960s, fueling a burgeon-
ing youth culture based on opposition to authority, creativity and drug
use (Mamadouh 1992). As post-war Europe recovered, mass tourism
returned. Tourists flocked to Amsterdam. While some came for the ca-
nals and the Rembrandts, others were more interested in the drugs and
the hippie scene. The Provos, a precursor to the squatters’ movement,
proposed the White House campaign in late 1960s in response to the
growing housing crisis, where they urged people to live in abandoned
buildings to save them from disrepair and provide cheap housing for
those in need (Duivenvoorden 2000).

Although activists were slow to take up this call, countercultural
tourists were already way ahead of them in terms of occupying empty
houses. “Tourist squatting” was quite popular in Amsterdam (Pruijt
2004), with travelers sleeping in Vondelpark or Dam Square, as well as
any empty building they could find. These tourists showed little inter-
est in repairing buildings or helping neighborhoods. In fact, their goals
were often the opposite: destruction could be far more entertaining.
Squatters, more interested in addressing the housing situation than in
no-frills tourism, bristled against intrusions into their physical and po-
litical space. In the early 70s, Nieuwmarkt squatters distributed posters
proclaiming, in Dutch, English, German, French, and Arabic, “Our
neighborhood is no campground” (Duivenvoorden 2000: 85), hoping
to drive tourist squatters out, and to distinguish themselves as a “good”
type of squatter: one who intended to stay and contribute to the com-
munity over time. Culturally, activists and tourist squatters were quite
similar, and the activist milieu even attracted their own tourists. But
activists and tourists clashed over squatting’s meaning. Activist squat-
ters worried tourist squatters hindered their goals, leaving destroyed
buildings and public outrage in their wake, and confusing the public
by conflating cultural changes advocated by the youth movement with
social and structural changes to buildings and neighborhoods. Making
squatting the basis for a political movement required successfully shift-
ing the tactic from the domain of tourists to activists, which meant
that squatting had to be made about stability rather than mobility.

Activists argued that the value of squatting came from the ability not
just to move in, but also to stay. Their public missives were increasingly
marked by commitments to the long term – to being good neighbors,
to being good caretakers of buildings. In this formative moment of the
squatters’ movement, the need was to connect squatting with a very
fixed and stable conception of place, one that minimized mobility.

This battle was most hotly contested during the early periods of the
political movement, as it sought to stabilize itself as a legitimate pub-
lic actor, emphasizing the stabilizing effects of squatting. As political
squatting grew in size and influence, direct challenges to tourist squat-
ting dissipated. But the tension remained, as evidenced by the defense
of the Groote Keijser. Following a particularly violent eviction at the
hands of the police in 1978, squatters decided that they were no longer
willing to vacate buildings without a defense when the eviction orders
came. When the eviction for the Groote Keijser was ordered in 1979,
squatters decided this was where they would make their stand: “We
will not leave.” To transform the building into a symbol of stability
and steadfastness required work, not just in barricading the doors, but
also in replacing and changing the residents and their commitments,
since many living in the building at the time were either apolitical or
traveling tourists. ADILKNO (1994: 47) asks, “But why should those
houses whose front-door keys had been handed around by tourists just
last summer, houses that had had Israelis barbecuing on the floor, start
to function as a symbol of the people’s will?” The reasons were prag-
matic: the building was big enough to hold a lot of defenders, strategi-
cally located on a canal, and owned by a particularly reviled speculator.

Securing the building, however, meant expelling the tourists. Squatter
Theo remembers giving them a deadline to leave, warning that if they
did not leave willingly, he would return “with a larger gang to throw
them out” (De Stad 1996: 126). With the building barricaded, the
tourists and apolitical residents removed, the squatters waited in their
fortress for the police. But the police, and the expected confrontation,
never came. Instead, the showdown occurred elsewhere. After resquat-
ting an evicted building on Vondelstraat in early 1980, squatters suc-
cessfully drove off the police with a spontaneous explosion of violence.

They barricaded the street, holding it for a weekend, and transformed it
into a carnivalesque zone – the “Vondel Free State.” But the end came
as suddenly as the beginning. Monday morning, tanks crashed through
the barricades, sent by the city to restore public order (Andreisson
1981). Despite this massive show of force, the movement prevailed,
saving the Vondelstraat squat and increasing their presence and influ-
ence in Amsterdam city politics (Duivenvoorden 2000).

To effectively politicize squatting meant a focus on stability, in rela-
tion to the building and to the neighborhood, as well as to the identity
of the actors and the movement itself. To be a good squatter meant to
stay. To be a successful movement meant to stay. However, as soon as
the movement experienced its first major successes, this same stability
became the basis for a dramatic increase in mobility, both into and out
of Amsterdam.

Mobilizing squatting

“Help! The squatters are coming – Cologne falling into chaos?”
(quoted in Duivenvoorden 200: 179). In Amsterdam, during the early
months of 1980, squatters’ efforts to hold on to their squatted homes
escalated into a series of violent standoffs with authorities. And the
tactics were not just heavier, they were also more effective, as squat-
ters held on to their buildings, beating back not just the police, but
also real estate speculation in the city as a whole. But following their
triumphant stands, members of the movement were doing more than
simply basking in their victories. Their performances on the streets of
Amsterdam had been so successful, they decided to take their show
on the road. Establishing their travel itinerary was not difficult, as the
invitations to visit other activist groups were pouring in from across
Europe. While local activists tended to treat them as conquering he-
roes, many other residents were far less enthusiastic about their visit.

A November 1980 trip to Hamburg prompted the local press to warn,
“The rioters are coming!” (quoted in Duivenvoorden 2000: 180). While
admittedly sensationalistic, such alarm was not wholly unfounded. The
trips by Amsterdam squatters sparked a string of political riots through-
out Germany and Switzerland, culminating in fierce fighting between
squatters and police in Berlin in mid-December of that same year. And
the travel kept coming. In 1981, Amsterdam squatters added France,
Italy and Spain to their destinations. These political tourists success-
fully exported their ideas, identity, and tactics across Europe, much to
some locals’ dismay. On one level, this is simply a tale of how activists
used mobility to share tactics and strategy. On another level, though, it
reveals the complex ways in which a local place can be constructed and
contested, as well as how mobility shaped, for better or worse, the way
squatters mobilized across Europe.

By the time Amsterdam squatters took to the road in 1980, travel
was already responsible for existing relationships with foreign squat-
ting groups. While most traveled as squatters or activists, early forms
of travel primarily took the form of individuals going to meet and stay
with other individuals. That is, squatters traveled just as friends travel,
but gaining political skills and insight in addition. For example, one
of the more prominent Amsterdam squatters spent time in Frankfurt
during the early 1970s, a time of widespread unrest over housing is-
sues, as well as staying for long periods in the squatting underground
in London during the mid 1970s (Theo, de Stad 2000). He not only
learned how things were done in each location, but also got to know the
people involved; both types of connections would play a key role in his
contributions to the Amsterdam squatters’ movement, as well as its ef-
forts to spread its gospel beyond its own borders. Furthermore, during
the 1970s, calls for solidarity were already crossing borders. Christiania,
the squatted “free state” in Copenhagen, was calling for international
support and for sympathizers to travel to help resist threatened evic-
tions as early as 1975. At this point, though, travel was either individual
or sporadic and based on big evictions. Systematic and representative
travel did not emerge fully until 1980, with the success of Vondelstraat
and the subsequent rise to prominence of squatters as a political force
in Amsterdam.

The politics of Amsterdam spilled over into other cities, first by
the media images that spread throughout Europe and the world, and
then through the movement of squatters as they toured other squat-
ting hotspots. The dramatic Vondelstraat victory, coupled with April’s
coronation riots (Duivenvoorden 2000), drew worldwide attention
(Andreisson 1981). Amsterdam squatters exploited their notoriety.
In fact, the touring had already begun before the confrontations on
Vondelstraat. Only one week earlier, Amsterdam squatters were in
London, at the “International Squatters Festival” organized by the
London Squatters’ Union. There they brought films of recent protests
and evictions, as well as squatting handbooks and other bric-a-brac to
sell in order to finance the trip. They were joined by squatters from
Berlin at the all day meetings and presentations, one of the first ex-
amples of an international convergence of squatters.

The summer of 1980 was a busy one for Amsterdam’s squatters,
and not only because the political situation was heating up in the city.
Through travel they forged stronger ties with their German “fellow
travelers.” In May and June, they paid visits to Cologne, Hamburg, and
Münster, followed by trips to Darmstadt, West Berlin, and Nürnberg in
the months that followed. As stated in a travel report published in the
Kraakrant, the local squatters newspaper, travel and exchange between
the Netherlands and Germany was both informal and organized, with
the goal being both to teach and to learn.

In the previous year many Amsterdam squatters traveled to Germany
in order to see how squatters organized there. Also, people have on
their own initiative made “tours” through German squat-cities, in or-
der to describe squatter activities in Amsterdam, accompanied by films
and video. There was a great interest for such information in Germany.
(“Duitsland,” 1980: 5)

Cologne squatters were to first to invite their Amsterdam comrades
for a visit, creating a public meeting for them to show their films and
speak about the conditions in Amsterdam and the keys to their strategic
and organizational successes. The organizers promised an opportunity
to learn from Amsterdam’s accomplishments, and to spark discussion
over local squatting politics. The visiting squatters shared information
at 2 different meetings – one with about 30 people, the other with
several hundred – on specific actions, but also on their general shift in
tactics, from passive to active resistance, which had proved so successful
and was being touted as the model for squatters elsewhere (Erik, Tara,
John, & Vincent 1980). Weeks later, squatters arrived in Hamburg; the
poster for the event promised,

As you know, the housing struggle in Amsterdam is at a high point:
just during the coronation of Beatrix, 220 houses were occupied by
squatters. The squatters struggle against the vacancy of living spaces
and against real estate speculation in the Netherlands. Despite massive
police and military force the squatters won’t let themselves be repressed
– they simply need a roof over their head. In Amsterdam 50000 people
seek housing. Just as many people in Hamburg have been seeking hous-
ing for years. Must Hamburgers also soon start squatting? The Dutch
squatter has existed for already 10 years. We want to learn from them
how they fight the housing crisis. Therefore we have invited them to a
discussion with squatters from Amsterdam. They are bringing a film
along, reports over their actions, e.g., the coronation day, and informa-
tion on how the organize themselves.

The local press was not amused, warning, “The rioters are coming!”
(quoted in Duivenvoorden 2000: 180). When the Amsterdam squat-
ters took to the road, they represented more than just simply a success-
ful political movement; they also represented the fears of those invested
in protecting the status quo. They symbolized the fact that no locality
was fully safe from political disruption and destabilization, because the
boundaries of each local place were fluid and contested. However, they
also called into being the most dangerous political actor: the outsider.
While they certainly sought to help their squatting comrades, the pres-
ence of outside activists was at odds with efforts for local actors to create
a basis in stability and locality that was so important to the Amsterdam
squatters during their formative stages.

The Amsterdammers were ostensibly teachers, but they also learned
critical information about the different conditions for squatting in
other national and local contexts. For example in a report about their
trip to Cologne, the squatters related the hysteria surrounding their
visit; “the way the press criminalizes squatters was highlighted by the
visit of 4 squatters to town and the headlines, “Help! The Squatters are
Coming!” and “Chaos in Cologne” – as if the Amsterdam squatters had
come to participate in violent defense of the big squat in town” (Erik et
al., 1980: 23). Still, they left town hopeful for the future of squatting
in that city, as they felt that “lots of people coming to the talk were also
first exposed to the new squat Stollwerch, which they hope will be the
start of larger involvement in the movement there” (23).

Information and people were flowing across borders, but so far the
effects on action were negligible. Amsterdam squatters came, spoke,
then went home, leaving their hosts to plan their own actions. With
time, possibly from a combination of intensification of the situation
in Germany, the changing expectations of the presentations, or simply
the motivational power of the speakers, these presentations became pre-
ludes to more “hands-on” actions. For example, a visit to West Berlin in
December coincided with an episode of fierce fighting between squat-
ters and police in the heavily squatted Kreuzberg district. The finger-
prints of Amsterdam squatters were all over the event. “German police
reports pointed not only to the presence of Amsterdam squatters, but
also that the fighting methods employed looked to be transplanted di-
rectly out of the Netherlands” (Duivenvoorden, 2000: 180). A news-
paper story covering the event noted, “the presence of Amsterdammers
on the fight stage is no surprise to German police, because Amsterdam
squatters were already active in West Berlin. Also, Dutch squatters took
part in the occupation of a chocolate factory in Cologne in May and
June earlier this year.”

The situation intensified with a March 1981 visit to Nürnberg.
There was very little actual squatting going on in the city at the time,
and local organizers wanted to change that. The head of KOMM, a
youth center in the city, traveled with friends to Amsterdam and got in-
terested in the housing crisis and squatting, and started squatting upon
returning home. The first visit by the Amsterdammers in late Juanuary
1981 generated a successful talk at KOMM, with about 200 people
attending (Muller 1980). The Amsterdammers taught about their own
movement, as well as shared techniques for those who wanted to squat
themselves. Originally, they had planned to show films of recent ac-
tions, such as the Vondelstraat defense, but because KOMM received
money from the city, city officials forbid the films to be shown at the
center. What they were learning was already worrisome enough to au-
thorities. The local police chief voiced concerns,
the youth were told precisely how the squatters in
Amsterdam work, the tactics against the police, how to best
barricade their house, or how to resist eviction by the police…I
find that a scandalous affair. There are only a few empty houses
here. It is very dangerous, what the Dutch squatters are doing
now in Germany. (Muller 1980: 1)

The concern was not that the Amsterdammers were meeting with
other squatters, but that they were trying to create new squatters’ move-
ments out of thin air. About a month later, they returned for another
effort to show the films at a different venue. When the police arrived
to shut the meeting down, the people present reacted with spontane-
ous demonstration, marching through the city, breaking windows, and
damaging cars, doing extensive monetary damage. The disturbance was
blamed on Amsterdam squatters, with authorities anxious that their
influence was spreading beyond the main German squatting centers
like West Berlin.

It was in Germany that the Amsterdam squatters forged the clos-
est bonds through the most frequent travel. But their travels extend-
ed across much of Western Europe. The same week as the events in
Nürnberg, other Amsterdammers were in Barcelona giving a similar
talk to squatters there. At the same time, a large-scale convergence
in Paris brought together squatters from all over Europe to meet and
discuss strategies, tactics, and political goals, as well as build stronger
personal networks within the movement. The meetings in Paris were
the first major international conference of squatters in Europe. It was
quickly followed by another conference in Münster, Germany. Both
featured significant participation by Amsterdam squatters, who were
generally recognized as the largest, most organized and most successful
of the European movements. Thus their knowledge and experiences
were consistently sought out. These early meetings grew larger over the
course of the early 1980s, later growing beyond the confines of local
and national borders, as well as expanding the issues into a more gener-
alized oppositional ideology and politics. They provide a model for lat-
er, and much larger, protest meetings that brought together European
radicals in a transnational forum, such as the anti-EU summit held in
Amsterdam in 1998, as well as the summit protests of the 21st century
(Fernandez, Starr, and Scholl 2011).

Although the visitors from Amsterdam were tasked with providing
an inside view of the movement, they were far from the only travel-
ers offering such information. In fact, many Germans were also mak-
ing less formal forays to Amsterdam, such as the authors of the piece,
“Amsterdam in Autumn” (1980) who visiting the city for a week in the
fall of 1980 to stay with friends in a squatted house and gain a better
understanding of both the tactical side of the movement and the ev-
eryday life of squatters in the city. It seems it was not just the squatters
who were traveling either, as “The West German police have already
sent researchers to Amsterdam to study the methods of the squatters”
(“Amsterdamse Kraker” 1980: 1) in order to better contain the growing
German squatters’ movement.

In their efforts to legitimize and strengthen their burgeoning move-
ment, Amsterdam squatters focused on developed a practice and im-
age based on stability and spatial fixity. However, successfully achieving
these goals launched them out into the world with new forms of mobil-
ity. It was their ability to stay put in the face of forces, both physical
and ideological, that were trying to pry them lose that produced the
conditions for unleashing waves of mobile squatters out into the larger
European social movement space. They toured the squatting cities of
Europe, teaching strategy, forging stronger organizational ties, and edu-
cating and being educated on the general and the specifics of squatting
in Europe. The same connections built during these travels created new
networks for other forms of travel, this time bringing non-local squat-
ters into the city – sometimes for a quick visit, and sometimes for much
longer stays.

Squatting, despite being intensely local in focus, grew and survived
as a movement in Europe because of the mobility of activists. They
helped form a translocal network of actors who not only could draw
on each other’s knowledges and numbers, but also created a larger
European squatter identity. This larger burgeoning European squatters’
movement drove new forms of mobility both by creating destinations
and by creating a general social movement space that facilitated travel
by making it possible to move from city to city and never fully leave
“the movement.” As this case also shows, there are risks with creating
a space of mobility completely encapsulated within social movement
space. You risk cutting off ties to “the local” and creating yourself as
an outsider. When squatter tactics become “Amsterdam tactics,” this
reveals the limits of mobility in movement building. However, refusing
the advantages of mobility is no guarantee of being spared its costs.

Travel Souvenirs: Something to Remember

This is only a very narrow window into the complex travel patterns
among European squatters. These early trips coming from and to
Amsterdam in 1980-1981 show how quickly mobility became inte-
grated into basic squatter practices. Even in this small slice, we can
see the emergence of the key role travel played in building not just the
content of the movement, but also its symbolic power. Activists are no
different from anyone else – they travel, and they do so for a lot of dif-
ferent, and sometimes even conflicting reasons. Thus, activist networks
can closely resemble friendship networks, connecting individuals across
movements, even when the movements themselves have no formal ties.
Information and tactics can flow through such channels but can be spo-
radic and unreliable. Still, these ties provide existing connections which
can help facilitate more formal travel and interactions when needed.

While these informal networks based on individual travel were key
to later travel of activists as representatives of movements, there were
other important precedents worth noting. That is, before Amsterdam
squatters started traveling, their reputations preceded them, as images
and stories of their actions circulated through mainstream and alterna-
tive media alike. Thus, they were already well known before trying to
make their tours, a fact that certainly made planning easier, as well
as receptions more welcoming, at least on the part of other activists,
if not necessarily the authorities. Therefore, what the Amsterdammers
brought with them was not necessarily completely new to the audi-
ence – most were likely familiar with the famous images of the tanks
at Vondelstraat – but rather to provide depth to issues already known,
as well as organizational and tactical lessons from a movement that was
enjoying victories. When the Amsterdammers traveled, they traveled
not as individual squatters, but as representatives of an entire move-
ment, a movement that was winning and thus appeared to offer impor-
tant lessons to other similar movements and their participants.

As travel became more common, as well as being recognized as an
effective means of building networks to facilitate the flows of informa-
tion and resources, even more formal solutions emerged. Conferences
and convergences provided new destinations that opened up the dis-
cussions beyond the one-way, teacher-student model employed at the
beginning. At these squatter conferences, most activists met each other
as travelers all occupying a neutral place, where the exchange of ideas
was opened up even wider. At the same time, while building new sorts
of relationships at the organizational and movement level, new affec-
tive and friendship ties were being made as well, ties that would help
to facilitate not just future travel and action, but also a growing sense
of collective solidarity – not just as squatters, but also as holders of an
oppositional transnational and translocal European identity.

Intramovement, international travel provided a means for build-
ing identity at multiple levels. First, individual activists gain identity
through traveling as a squatter and being recognized upon arrival as a
squatter and by being recognized upon return as a squatter with new
insights. That is, they traveled as someone with something to teach, but
arrived also as someone with something to learn, which becomes some-
thing new to teach upon their return, setting up a cycle of education
and information diffusion. Second, places and their local movements
gain identity through the contact and collaboration with other places
through travel – they become places that are both similar to other plac-
es, through the shared experience of squatting, but also unique: differ-
ences that only become meaningful in the context of the larger field.

Moreover, activist travel becomes a way to participate in complicating
conceptions of place and the local, while still acting to defend them.
Finally, the larger “squatter movement” also gains a broader identity
that transcends local differences, even as it celebrates them – primarily
by keeping the idea of “destinations” and a defense of the local alive
inside the larger collective space and identity.

Thus, the movement of movement actors creates destinations, new
places to go to, and worlds, new places to be in, as well as the subject
position of the agent that travels between and within them to hold
them together. That is, although cities and scenes get made into desti-
nations worth visiting (either because they have a surplus or a deficit of
information), the travel network being constructed allowed squatters to
“stay in the same place” i.e., the larger squatter movement itself – with
its own culture, rules, tactics, and goals, all converging through the
interplay of activists across borders. This network of squatters’ move-
ments contributed to the formation of an alternative European identity,
one that emerges alongside other competing Europes, including the
hegemonic EU vision of a united Europe. Their Europe matched the
broader trajectory of globalization, which is to link the local to the
transnational, bypassing the central role of the state, as well as resistance
to the state, which had traditionally regulated these relationships.

Travel certainly built complex activist identities, but it also embod-
ied a symbolic enactment of the politics of the broader squatters’ move-
ments. Squatting was at its heart about the creation and defense of
home. At the same time, though, it played out an entirely new vision of
what a home could be: home did not imply a static place to live in, but
also provided room for movement (as well as movements). The choice
to stay or to leave was always present in the squatted vision of home.
To resist the police was not always about the need to stay, but more
often about the need to defend the autonomy of choice – one should
be able to choose when to stay and when to leave. Such a politics takes
a skeptical view of borders, particularly the political borders which con-
strain the autonomy of the individual. Squatters celebrated the power
of a DIY (do-it-yourself) practice, so they always sought to do their
politics, not just espouse it. Therefore it is no surprise that the squatters’
tactics would combine the demand to stay with the freedom to leave,
always trying to strike a balance between the two, a balance further
reflected in the desire to create a space where the individual and com-
munity contribute to each other, rather than repress or reject.
While these flows of people and ideas through movement safe spaces
produce a network of horizontal connections connecting the local to
the transnational, places that are safe for both escape and recovery, there
are negatives to the geographic expansion of the movement, particu-
larly a geographic expansion that is not matched by a similar expansion
of numbers. Thus, if the space of the movement and its politics grows
faster than the population – and in some cases, as happened in the
later part of the 1980s, in the opposite direction of membership – then
growth will create a lot of “empty space” between activists. This allows
for the “illusion of mass militancy” which undermines the local and
connections to the “actual” audience of action, as politics, particularly
at this time remained under the control of the state and local authori-
ties. Moreover, such freedom of movement allows, as well as fosters,
internal splits, which can only be solved through making links to like-
minded actors in a different city or country, a process of factionaliza-
tion that wrecked not only the squatters’ movement as time went on
(Owens 2009), but also similar autonomous movements in Germany
and Denmark (Katsiaficas 1997).

Travel continues to play an important role in the formation of both
local and transnational radical movements, embodying the movement’s
dynamicism and global reach, raising consciousness, spreading tactics,
and effectively knitting communities together. Yet travel in movements
remains contested. Some critics argue that mobile activists are bad for
movements, as they disrupt local communities, reproduce privilege, and
emphasize escape over engagement. But the situation is more complex.
Travel connects people across places and places across people, thereby
offering a means of bridging diffuse global networks with dense local
networks, pulling the two towards each other. These connections, how-
ever, are not seamless, creating new tensions and contradictions, calling
for a deeper investigation of an anarchist politics of place and travel.
What kind of practices and knowledges does travel produce or obstruct?
A key point of contention is over the politics of place, which is more
complicated than the simple traveler/local distinction. Activists straddle
the difficulties of defending old conceptions of place and locality while
creating new ones. As globalization expands the reach of both the issues
and voices of radical politics, increased access to travel creates new po-
litical identities. For the squatters of Amsterdam, and those of Europe,
travel played a central role in establishing both the uniqueness of the local
context as well as the generality of transnational identities and representa-
tions. Travel helped produce powerful forms of political action, based not
on integration, but on “experiences of alterity, of the in-between. We can
see this in the tension between travel and emplacement, between speed
and stillness, between the virtual and the embodied” (McDonald 2006:
223). Squatting is principally about residence and stability, about local-
ity and community, but to build and protect those, it also became about
mobility and flux. This allowed for the creation of a broader social move-
ment space that let squatters move between buildings, between cities, and
between states, carrying information, strategies, and tactics across these
borders. Squatting made new mobilities possible; new mobilities, in turn,
made squatting possible. The importance of mobility for a movement so
bound to a strong sense of place highlights the relational aspects of place and how activists contribute to building and expanding that open sense of place.

However, even open places remain bounded, and the successes
of mobile squatters brought with them new tensions to the movement,
because the strongest language of defending the local remains one of a
stable territory. Squatting continues to struggle with and respond to this
tension openly, which is why it remains such a fruitful case for examining
how place and movement get built though and into social movements
more generally.


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[EN] Squatting And Urban Renewal: The Interaction of the Squatters’ Movement And the Strategies Of Urban Restructuring In Berlin

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Squatting And Urban Renewal: The Interaction of the Squatters’ Movement And the Strategies Of Urban Restructuring In Berlin

* This is a reprint of the article published in Holm and Kuhn (2010,
‘Squatting and Urban Renewal: The Interaction of Squatter Movements
and Strategies of Urban Restructuring in Berlin’ in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35 (3), 2011, pp. 644-658.

Andrej Holm and Armin Kuhn

Squats have been a feature of the development of many cities in
developed capitalist societies. Existing studies mostly concentrate on
investigating the political and legal conditions for squats (Bodenschatz
et al., 1983), probing the motives and forms of squatter movements
(Pruijt, 2004) or reassessing their character as a new social movement
(Grottian and Nelles, 1983; Koopmans, 1995). These approaches
trace cycles of squatter movements back to changed legal conditions
and social inequalities, especially in the housing provision, as well as
to socio-political and subcultural turning points. They therefore reveal
important factors that determine the development of squatter move-
ments, but we believe that it was first and foremost the broader urban
political context that determined if and how squatter movements arose.
We take Berlin as an example to show that the dynamics of squatter
movements are closely connected to changing strategies associated with
urban renewal, and that in each case they emerge from the crisis of
the previous urban-renewal regime. We begin by looking at Pruijt’s ty-
pology of squats (Pruijt, 2004) and research that shows how aspects
of movements were integrated into neoliberal urban policies (Rucht,
1997; Schmid, 1998; Mayer, 2002) to analyse the specific relationship
between squatter movements and urban-renewal policies in Berlin. In
the following section, after contextualizing the Berlin squats within
the campaigns that were waged by the social movements of the time,
we discuss the background of Berlin’s urban politics, and in the next
two sections consider the two high points in housing conflict that took
place at the beginning of the 1980s and around 1990, respectively. We
focus on the influence of squats on urban restructuring policies. In ad-
dition, we provide a typology of the urban-renewal regimes operating
in Berlin in the penultimate section. Against this background, we argue
in the concluding section that in each case the Berlin squatter move-
ments developed at moments of transition between various models of
urban renewal, and that they contributed in greatly varying degrees to
these processes of transformation. While the squats at the beginning of
the 1980s contributed decisively to the implementation of a policy of
‘cautious urban renewal’, the squats of the 1990s constituted an alien
element in neoliberal redevelopment policy in East Berlin.

Urban policy and the social movement
context of the first Berlin squats

The TUNIX Conference, organized in Berlin in 1978, brought to
an end a cycle of social movements in the Federal Republic that had
begun with the student riots of 1967-68. The ‘red decade’, as histo-
rian Gerd Koenen termed the years from 1967 to 1977, had not only
laid the foundations for new social movements against atomic power,
war and militarization, but also for the sexual-equality movement. It
paved the way for sectarian experiments involving the setting up of new
revolutionary parties and for the increasing radicalization that led up
to the armed resistance of the Red Army Faction and the Movement
2 June. A turning point came when sections of the movement reacted
to the ‘German Autumn’ of 1977 and the level of government repres-
sion at the time by withdrawing from mainstream society and setting
up specific alternative projects. Berlin came to be the centre of this
rapidly growing alternative movement. In 1979 the alternative scene
that grew around pub collectives, bicycle workshops, district newspa-
pers and printing houses reached an estimated membership of 100,000
people (Scheer and Espert, 1982: 19) and provided many of those ac-
tive in the movement with a form of economic security beyond that
provided by capitalist wage labour. The issue of suitable living space
quickly became of central importance for these projects, and squats
seemed to be a way of appropriating such space. In addition, squatting
fitted the political approach of the alternative movement: its interven-
tion in urban restructuring, preoccupation with the problems posed
by apartments standing empty, the housing shortage, property specula-
tion and displacement – all these issues constituted an opportunity for
the movement to go beyond its own needs and personal concerns, and
thereby escape the potential pitfalls of a politics of representation.
While the alternative movement was growing rapidly, Berlin’s urban
politics slipped into a veritable crisis. The housing shortage – in 1980
alone some 80,000 people were registered as seeking apartments – was
not simply the result of established territorial boundaries preventing
the ‘frontier town’ from expanding in size. It was more a case of the
public programme of redevelopment favouring the speculative strategy
of keeping apartments vacant. According to Senate statistics, 27,000
apartments were uninhabited in 1978 (Bodenschatz et al., 1983: 301).
House owners and housing associations deliberately allowed houses to
become derelict with the expectation that they would be able to demol-
ish and re-build or fundamentally modernize them using government
funding, and eventually charge correspondingly higher rents.

The ruling Social Democratic Party in Berlin pursued an uncom-
promising policy of ‘redevelopment by eviction’ in the inner-city dis-
tricts. Described as a ‘feudal, bureaucratic way of disposing of people’
(Eichstädt-Bohlig, cited in Nitsche, 1981: 210), this policy, and the as-
sociated displacement of the low-income population along with a large
number of commercial operations, provoked widespread resistance in
the 1970s. In Kreuzberg, in particular, tenants’ committees, citizens’
action groups and other urban political groups protested for many years
against the restructuring of the area around the Kottbusser Gate. Their
influence was, however, extremely limited, and their participation in
town-planning decisions was at best symbolic (Laurisch, 1981: 26). For
the most part, resistance and squatting campaigns continued to pro-
duce no results.

A crisis of legitimation in urban housing policy was finally reached
in December 1980, when a corruption scandal involving building
contractor Dietrich Garski cast doubt upon the Senate’s policies and
exposed the murky amalgamation of the Senate’s policies with build-
ing contractors, redevelopment agencies and housing associations. The
resignation of the Senate a few weeks later heralded the ‘miry end of
an era’ (Matthies, 2006). The relative power vacuum that lasted right
up to the victory of CDU (Christian Democratic Union) candidates in
the elections of May 1981 paved the way for the explosive expansion of
squatter movements in the months that followed.

Rehab squatting and ‘Revolt 81’

The fall of the Senate in January 1981 was preceded by a sweeping
‘radicalization’ of the movement (Koopmans, 1995:171). The housing
wars to which this led can be divided into three phases: emergence, ex-
pansion/differentiation and downfall. The first phase had already begun
as early as February 1979, when the citizens’ initiative ‘SO 36’ con-
sidered ‘everything produced by the constitutional state’ as exhausted,
and organized the first ‘rehab squats’ (Aust and Rosenbladt, 1981: 36).
The squatters’ practice of occupying houses and immediately starting to
renovate them was meant, on the one hand, to point out the longstand-
ing deterioration and emptiness of the apartments, and on the other
hand, to create acceptance of this method of civil disobedience. The
public and political success of these first squats had further repercus-
sions: until December 1980, 21 houses had been occupied by squatters
in Berlin. As early as March 1980 a ‘squatters’ council’ was set up to act
as the point of contact and negotiation in dealings with state authori-
ties. The district and the Senate’s initial response was a willingness to
negotiate with these first rehab squatters, although the authorities were
inconsistent in their political strategy.

The actual starting point of ‘Revolt 81’, the beginning of the second
phase of the squatting movement, was 12 December 1980 (Michel and
Spengler, 1981). On this date, an illegal eviction carried out by police
in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg provoked a street riot that lasted until
the morning of the following day. In the months that followed, new
houses were occupied by squatters on an almost daily basis, peaking in
the summer of 1981 at around 165 houses (Koopmans, 1995: 174).
The overwhelming majority of these apartment buildings were situated
in the districts of Kreuzberg (approx. 80) and Schöneberg. Massive dem-
onstrations, street riots and direct action, combined with the associated
erratic expansion of Berlin’s squatter movement, was part of a Europe-
wide revolution that began in Zurich in May 1980. The Zurich opera
house riots were the prelude to a two-year phase of severe disputes sur-
rounding an Autonomous Youth Centre owing to a shortage of spaces
for alternative youth cultures. Within the context of a Europe-wide cri-
sis in the Fordist model of economic growth and rising unemployment,
the slogan ‘Zurich is burning’ served as inspiration for an entire genera-
tion of mostly disaffected youth. A widespread lack of perspective and
conservative roll-back against the authoritarian break-up of 1968 con-
stituted the foundation on which the revolt spread like wildfire, initially
in the Federal Republic of Germany (Freiburg im Breisgau, Hamburg,
Berlin, Bremen and Hannover), then on to Amsterdam and later to
Britain (Katsiaficas, 1997: 107ff; Schultze and Gross, 1997: 35).

The 1980 revolt enabled a new political generation to enter the stage,
something which was not attributable to the alternative movement. Very
little reliable data concerning the social composition of Berlin’s squatter
movement are available. An article published in the weekly newspaper
Die Zeit on 12 August 1983 states that 65% were men, 35% under the
age of 21, 40% between the ages of 21 and 25, 36% school children
or students, 26% in employment, and 38% unemployed or without a
recognized job (Pökatzky, 1983: 9). These figures coincide with analyses
that identified two large groups within the squatter movement from the
outset (AG Grauwacke, 2008: 45): on the one hand, the ‘alternatives’,
most of them middle-class students or academics; and on the other hand,
a group of people who were ‘marginalized’, either willingly or unwillingly,
most of them under the age of 21 and with a proletarian background.
This heterogeneity in social structure is also reflected in the diversity of
political beliefs and squat-related goals. The movement developed with-
in a few months and was arguably aware of its heterogeneity but never
quite wanted to refer to itself in such terms. For a different view of the
movement, it is helpful to consult the typology developed by Hans Pruijt
(2004), which categorized different types of squats according to their
respective motives and goals. Pruijt differentiates between deprivation-
based squatting, squatting as an alternative housing strategy, entrepre-
neurial, conservational and political squatting (ibid.: 37).

At first, the diverse interests did not conflict with each other. On the
contrary: the dynamic of the rehab squatter movement was based first
and foremost on the ‘radical’ forces that made use of the political power
vacuum to occupy a substantial number of houses in the shortest possible
time, thereby ensuring a level of conflict potential that largely prevented
immediate evictions. Such strategies were focused on confrontation, and
benefited at the same time from public acceptance and support, which
resulted from the long ‘work of fermentation’ by citizens’ action groups
and tenants’ representative offices and their strategy, which was largely
aimed at negotiation and mediation. Soon, however, the conflict between
a political course of confrontation, on the one hand, and the strategic
pursuit of alternative urban political goals on the other, came to the fore.
By the time the issue of legalization of houses arose, conflicts between ‘ne-
gotiators’ and ‘non-negotiators’ could no longer be covered up: the fac-
tion that could be attributed to the alternative movement wanted to hold
on to the houses and was increasingly prepared to put this interest before
an earlier consensus – no negotiation until ‘political’ prisoners were re-
leased, and an ‘overall solution’ for all squatted houses. The contingent of
‘non-negotiators’ began to differentiate themselves from the alternative
movement by referring to themselves as ‘autonomists’ (cf. Schwarzmeier,
2001: 50ff), and accused negotiators of giving up the political struggle
and of resorting to the mere preservation of their own spaces.
The strategies that the government pursued were aimed at dealing
with this conflict, focusing on the squats and the ‘crisis’ they triggered.
The SPD (Social Democratic Party)-led transitional Senate under the
leadership of Hans-Jochen Vogel, which came into office in February
1981, wanted to convert the squats ‘into legally ordered conditions that
were also in complete harmony with civil law’.Evictions would only
be possible if specific criminal charges were made – trespassing alone
was not enough – and if prerequisites for immediate renovation were in
place (cf. Bodenschatz et al., 1983: 322).

After the elections in May 1981, the CDU-led Senate under Federal
President Richard von Weizsäcker reversed the relationship between se-
lective integration and suppression. Any efforts made towards integrat-
ing the ‘peaceful’ squatters were repeatedly thwarted by the Minister for
the Interior, Heinrich Lummer, a committed advocate of the hardline
faction in the department of public prosecution and the police authori-
ties, who had already counteracted the moderate course pursued by
the SPD-led Senate. Lummer divided the squatters into ‘those ready to
negotiate’ and ‘criminals’. He proclaimed a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to
new squats, and launched a large-scale offensive against demonstrations
and similar protest actions. House searches conducted on the pretext
of tolerating no ‘lawless spaces for criminals’, were often used either
to damage the houses in such a way that they became uninhabitable,
or simply to evict their occupants with immediate effect. The wave
of repression (cf. Brand, 1988: 204ff) that began with the CDU-led
Senate’s entry into office reached its sad climax on 22 September 1981,
when Klaus-Jürgen Rattay, an 18-year-old squatter, fleeing from baton-
wielding police, was knocked down and killed by a Berlin Transport
Authority bus as he crossed the street. This was the turning point that
led into the third phase and to the downfall of the squatter movement.
After the summer of 1981, the movement’s ‘vanguard in Berlin rapidly
crumbled away’ (Bacia et al., 1981: 127). It was a sign of their ‘ag-
gressive helplessness’ that TUWAT, an ‘extravaganza’ staged in August
1981, brought together up to 3,000 people from the whole of Germany
(Mulhak, 1983: 242). Even the ‘alternative’ squatters ‘believed that the
chance of houses being legalized had been diminished by the new CDU-
led government’ (ibid.). In the following ‘psycho winter’ there was a
temporary absence of repression and consequently absences of unity,
and the squats that housed autonomist ‘non-negotiators’ were ground
down by deferred internal conflicts (AG Grauwacke, 2008: 65ff). The
urban policy initiative in the squatter environment felt that the work
they had been doing over many years was now in jeopardy. At the same
time other conflicts came to the fore, such as mobilization against the
NATO Double Track Decision, the West Runway at Frankfurt Airport
and the Brokdorf nuclear power plant.

While the squatters ‘had lost the initiative’, urban political groups
began to ‘incorporate the squatter movement into their ideas and poli-
cies for housing’ (Bodenschatz et al., 1983: 324). Prominent patrons
from churches, colleges, the arts and culture scene and the unions who
had moved into squatters’ houses for their own protection, declared
shortly after Rattay’s death that they intended to ‘prevent the rehab
squatters’ just cause from disappearing in a fog of violence conjured
up by the Senate’ (EA, 1981: 86). In negotiations with the Kreuzbeug
district authority and the Senate they instigated a moratorium on evic-
tions that lasted until Easter 1982 (Bodenschatz et al., 1983: 322). At
the same time, squatters from across the spectrum of the alternative
movement, in collaboration with urban political campaigners, began to
establish supporter associations that would act as models for legaliza-
tion beyond the scope of individual houses. Attempts to legalize houses
more extensively were, however, repeatedly thwarted by the strategy of
escalation pursued by the Minister for the Interior, who ordered evic-
tions on the slightest pretext, often in the middle of negotiations (ibid.:
325). This ‘type of pre-concerted’ interplay (Pökatzky, 1983) between
the negotiating table and evictions characterized the entire ‘legaliza-
tion’ process right up to the final evictions in the autumn of 1984.
Koopmans (1995: 178) totals up the figures: of 165 squatted houses,
105 were finally ‘contractually pacified’ by rental or purchase agree-
ments, and the occupants of 60 were evicted.

The legalizations were only a partial success: by the end of 1984 the
squatter movement was finally crushed, or rather, ‘pacified’. Only a few
legalized houses enjoyed financial support under the ‘self-help hous-
ing’ programme launched in 1982. In spite of everything, spaces for
collective and alternative lifestyles remained a marginal phenomenon.
At the same time, the legalization of houses established the division of
the movement, making it easier to criminalize the autonomist ‘non-
negotiators’. The latter were all the easier to criminalize because ‘sec-
tions of the squatter movement’, by virtue of their militant actionism
and subjectivist misconception of autonomy, gave up ‘every right to
turn their own ideas into the reality of other social spheres’, and isolated
themselves in the process (Geronimo, 1990: 96). The legalization of
houses ultimately signified the end of any political dimension to the
squats beyond the scope of housing policy.

The housing policy incentives that remained had a particular in-
fluence on the International Building Exhibition set up in 1979, and
undoubtedly constituted a success for the squatter movements. As a
publicly financed and commercially organized institution in the 1980s,
the exhibition became a new centre of power for urban building (Bernt,
2003: 46). Its old-building section was a ‘reservoir for departmental
policies opposed to the demolition policy’ and became the driving
force behind the ‘twelve principles of cautious urban renewal’ that as-
similated the core demands of tenants’ groups, urban political groups
and rehab squatters. Although these principles were never laid down
by law, they had a significant impact, even beyond Berlin (ibid.: 52).
But not even these successes remained untarnished. One effect of de-
centralization and the expansion of opportunities to participate in local
decision-making processes was that even the conflicts had to be dealt
with locally. ‘While the legal parameters were preserved, decision mak-
ing was moved down a level, to the centres of conflict, and activists were
integrated into a consensus-seeking process with the aim of gaining
more acceptance and identification with decisions in the neighbour-
hood’ (ibid.: 56). Even the survival of hard-won achievements in hous-
ing policy, rooted above all in the work of the International Building
Exhibition, seemed to depend on the successful outcome of these at-
tempts to find a compromise. As Karl Homuth (1984: 37ff) put it in
an early study, ‘cautious urban renewal replaced the violent character,
bureaucratic paternalism and inscrutability of these plans with careful,
step-by-step processes that were easier to comprehend and more so-
cially adjusted’, yet this would not come into full effect for several years.

Squats in East Berlin at the beginning of the 1990s

The squats in East Berlin at the beginning of the 1990s can only be
viewed within the context of the explosive social changes that took place
during the turnaround (Wende) and reunification. The political power
vacuum of the Wende period, and the massive loss of authority on the
part of the police and municipality facilitated the large-scale occupa-
tion of vacant old buildings in the inner city. In addition, the GDR’s
housing policy, oriented towards new buildings, was creating the main
basis of urban buildings for the squats. After years of reconstruction
in Berlin, a city scarred by the destruction of war, the housing prob-
lem was to be solved by erecting industrially manufactured apartment
buildings that were for the most part developed in large estates at the
outer city limits in the form of new towns or districts. As a result of
this one-sided orientation, the inner-city areas, consisting of old hous-
ing that had been ideologically devalued as the legacy of capitalist ur-
ban development, were neglected in town planning and were showing
signs of structural decay (Hoscislawski, 1991; Hannemann, 2000). The
outcome of this real-socialist practice of disinvestment was not only
poor refurbishment of apartments in the old housing areas but also
a vacancy rate of up to 20% in particular districts. A total of 25,000
old apartments were vacant, most of them in the inner-city districts
(SenBauWohn, 1990). Accordingly, squats during the Wende period
concentrated on housing stock in the inner-city districts of East Berlin
that dated back to the Gründerzeit (a time of rapid industrial expansion
in Germany around 1900).

In total, around 120 houses were occupied by squatters in the inner-
city districts of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain, and sporadically
around the district of Lichtenberg. Based on an analysis of the usually fort-
nightly (but weekly at times of intensive mobilization) Squatters’ News,
issues of the video magazine AK Kraak, as well as interviews with those
who were active at the time and personal recollections of the period, the
dynamics of squatting in East Berlin can be divided into three distinct
phases. These can be distinguished according to both the character of the
squats and their main geographical focal points.

The first phase of squats encompassed the period from December
1989 to April 1990. The majority of the 70 or so houses occupied
by squatters during these months were in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.
In comparison to earlier squatted apartments – ‘schwarz wohnen’ (‘re-
siding illicitly’) had a long tradition in the GDR – the character of
squatted houses clearly changed in the winter of 1989 to 1990. Houses
were occupied openly and assertively. Banners, secured windows and
barricade-like doorways soon made these houses sites for an anarchis-
tic, libertarian experiment against everything that was petit-bourgeois,
against Nazis (who had already begun to organize themselves in very
large numbers in the final years of the GDR) and against every form
of rule. The squatters during this first phase were mostly East German
youth, who were largely already acquainted with one another from
various subcultures and political scenes. They were then joined by the
first West German and international ‘fanatics’ and artists, who by and
large were integrated in a friendly way into the new squat. In particular,
the squat called the ‘art department store’ in the Oranienburger Strasse
(Tacheles) and the squat at 5 Schönhauser Allee, which served as the
headquarters of the art and culture project called WYDOX, focused
on creating spaces that would primarily help squatters achieve self-re-
alization. Their function as a place of residence was merely secondary
(see Galenza and Havemeister, 2005). They were, in turn, joined by
individual squats made up of citizens’ action groups, who focused on
preventing the planned demolitions of entire old housing blocks in the
districts of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. Most of these houses were legal-
ized relatively quickly into cooperatives and ‘cautiously’ renovated by
means of financial incentives.

In his typology of squats, Pruijt (2004) identifies a heterogeneous
mix of different strategies during this first phase of squatting at the be-
ginning of the 1990s. In addition to squats that focused on squatting as
an alternative housing strategy, some squats quickly became established
as centres for exhibitions and other events (entrepreneurial squatting),
while other squats had the goal of actively preventing existing demoli-
tion plans (conservational squatting).

A second phase of squats, lasting from May to July 1990, centred
geographically on the urban district of Friedrichshain. During this pe-
riod the squats underwent a qualitative and quantitative expansion,
growing by a further 50. In their search for places to live as well as new
adventure, an increasing number of ‘unpolitical’ groups also experi-
mented with squatting. In addition to the mainly East German squat-
ters, there were now squats that for the first time were being organized
by West Germans or West Berliners. These squatters had been affected
by the housing shortage in West Berlin and had partly been brought
together through political protests. They were predominantly students
who collectively moved into vacant houses in the East. The main fo-
cal points were still Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. In Friedrichshain only
a handful of houses were occupied by squatters at this time. In the
April 1990 issue of Interim, the newsletter for West Berlin’s ‘alternative’
scene, members from the oppositional ‘church from below’ drew atten-
tion to houses in Mainzer Strasse that had been left vacant since 1987,
and put out a call to the squatter movement (see Arndt, 1991). In their
announcement they said: ‘If there are really enough squatting opportu-
nities for everyone, if it’s more a case of a lack of people willing to take
them up, and if it will maybe help avert or impede a further destruction
of houses along western lines, then why not?’ (ibid.: 32).

At the beginning of May the 11 vacant houses in Mainzer Strasse
were occupied by squatters. With over 250 occupants, the ‘Mainzer’,
as it was called, swiftly became the centre of the Friedrichshain squatter
scene. Alongside many facilities (bookshop, second-hand bookseller,
public kitchen) the first Tunten (gay) house project in East Berlin and a
women’s/lesbian house were set up. Those who lived in these houses on
Mainzer Strasse were mainly West Berliners and members of the West
German autonomous movement (Benjamin, no date). The coordinat-
ing committee that operated between the occupied houses, the ‘squat-
ters’ council’, pursued a strategy of confrontation, in particular through
initial negotiations for contractual legalization of squatted houses.
In Pruijt’s typology this second phase of squats in East Berlin may
be more clearly characterized as ‘political’ squatting. Houses that were
occupied by squatters were no longer considered mere free spaces for
self-realization, but more markedly as sites of confrontation with the
state authorities and as symbols of political self-positioning.

A third phase of the East Berlin squatter movement began at the end
of July 1990. The number of new squats was reduced when the mu-
nicipal authorities in East Berlin started implementing the ‘Berlin Line’
ordinance, in terms of which, from 24 July 1990 onwards, no new squats
would be tolerated, and independently of any criminal charges or evic-
tion notices, squats would be evacuated by police within 24 hours of
occupation. In early November evictions of squatters from 2 houses in
Prenzlauer Berg and Lichtenberg gave rise to violent conflict. After evic-
tions on the morning of 12 November 1990, around 50 squatters from
the houses on Mainzer Strasse spontaneously demonstrated their solidar-
ity with the evicted squatters. According to police reports, squatters re-
acted to the introduction of police reinforcements and the use of water
cannons and armoured personnel carriers in Mainzer Strasse by bom-
barding the police with flares, throwing roof tiles, cobblestones, paving
slabs, sacks of cement, slingshots and Molotov cocktails (Arndt, 1991:
13). During the night, a violent street riot ensued that lasted for hours.
Attempts by around 1,500 police officers, all from the West, to force their
way into the street were unsuccessful, despite the use of water cannons,
armoured personnel carriers and stun grenades (ibid.: 21). This escalation
of violence made a negotiated solution less and less likely, in particular
because the West Berlin police ignored the district’s political protago-
nists and focused instead on eviction by force. In the early hours of 14
November, Mainzer Strasse was cleared by a total of 3,000 police officers
from all over Germany, several helicopters and ten water cannons. With
over 400 arrests made and many casualties on both sides, this was the
violent turning point in the East Berlin squatter movement.

The evictions in Mainzer Strasse clearly demonstrated that the
option of militantly defending squatters’ houses had failed. This re-
alization prompted the majority of groups in squatted houses to
come to the negotiating table. During district-specific negotiations,
usage agreements on the majority of houses were drawn up with the
respective housing associations. However, when East Berlin proper-
ties were being reassigned to their previous owners or their respec-
tive heirs, these contractual agreements were no longer considered
reliable. In the case of a number of squatted houses, reassignment
led to conflict with the private owners and to more evacuations well
into the 1990s.

In contrast to the wave of squatting of the early 1980s, internal
debates between ‘negotiators’ and ‘non-negotiators’ in the East Berlin
squats remained confined to specific time periods. After the dramatic
evictions of squatters from the houses in Mainzer Strasse in particular,
only a few squatters refused to accept a negotiated solution. This change
in attitude is evident from the ratio of around 30 evicted squats to 90
legalized ones during this time. While around three-quarters of all the
houses in East Berlin were contractually safeguarded in the early 1980s,
in West Berlin the figure was scarcely more than 60%. After legaliza-
tion, many former squatters began to make structural improvements
and, following their own initial renovations and repair work, under-
took more comprehensive restructuring, often in the context of public
development programmes. In the course of the 1990s the Berlin Senate
spent over 250 million euros on what was known as the ‘self-help hous-
ing policy’ development programme. In total, over 3,000 units were
renewed in this way, many of them former squats (Abgeordnetenhaus
Berlin, 2002). On the basis of lease agreements that were concluded
over many years and as a result of people having a substantial personal
stake in the modernization of the buildings, modern housing condi-
tions were created in the context of these programmes. In some dis-
tricts, the renovation of former squats was the first clear sign of urban
renewal in the making.

Squatting and urban restructuring

The squatter movements of the 1980s and 1990s were similar not
only in terms of their solidity; we can also identify numerous paral-
lels between the processes involved. First, in each case a political pow-
er vacuum was the condition for the explosive proliferation of both
movements: in the 1980s the death throes of the SPD-led Senate of
January 1981, and the transitional government’s restricted capacity to
act; and in the 1990s the fall of the Berlin Wall and the institutional
chaos that followed. Secondly, in both cases a violent demonstration of
restored sovereignty in urban policy constituted a turning point that
ended in the defeat of the movements: on the one hand, the eviction
of 8 squats on 22 September 1981, during which Klaus-Jürgen Rattay
came to a violent end; and on the other hand, the eviction of Mainzer
Strasse on 14 November 1990. In both cases this restoration of sover-
eignty was preceded by widespread shifts in political power at the broad
urban level: the election of the CDU-led Senate in 1981, the formal
reunification of Berlin and the annexation of the former GDR into the
Federal Republic on 3 October 1990. Thirdly, a further similarity was
the fact that extensive legalization models could in each case only be ap-
plied to houses in public or not-for-profit ownership, whereas for hous-
es that were in private ownership only individual rental, leasehold or
purchase agreements were drawn up. And fourthly, the conflicts within
both squatter movements ran along similar lines: while in 1990 the
conflict between ‘negotiators’ and ‘non- negotiators’ was not as acute as
it had been in the early 1980s, the conflict of interest between, on the
one hand, ‘conservation’ squatting and ‘squatting to try out collective
forms of living’, and on the other hand, the ‘political’ or autonomous
squats, was the same. It was symptomatic that in both movements the
squats organized by citizens’ action groups were the first to draw up
agreements and legalize their houses.

Despite all these similarities, however, we must also take proper
account of the differences. The squats of the 1980s were part of an
extended and differentiated alternative subculture that centred on the
inner-city districts of Kreuzberg and Schöneberg, which made up not
only the ideological background for the squats, but also the environ-
ment of their social and political supporters. The squats in the 1990s,
by contrast, consisted more of alien elements in a situation of sweeping,
radical change. While there were continuities with the GDR practice
of ‘residing illegally’, and many houses were rooted in their respective
neighbourhoods, they could nevertheless not be considered part of the
more extensive movement in the eastern inner-city districts. However,
the most marked difference between the squats of the 1980s and 1990s
may be found in the role each played in urban restructuring. We shall
now explore this difference in more detail.

The role of squats in urban restructuring

The policy of urban renewal pursued in Berlin can be divided into
three clearly distinguishable phases and models: first, what is known as
‘areal redevelopment’, carried out between 1963 and 1981; secondly,
the policy of cautious urban renewal, which was pursued between 1981
and 1989; and thirdly, post-Fordist urban renewal in East Berlin, pur-
sued from the early 1990s. The Berlin squatter movements in each case
accompanied the transition to a new model of urban renewal. For this
reason we shall examine in more detail the specific network of rela-
tions between squatters and the implementation of new types of urban

‘Areal redevelopment’ describes an approach that focused on the
widespread demolition of housing stock that is in need of renewal, as
well as the building of new, modern housing developments. The ‘First
Berlin Urban Renewal Programme’, approved by the Berlin Senate in
1963, provided for the demolition of 10,000 housing units. The re-
newal model was based on developers (mostly housing associations)
buying up mostly private property in the redevelopment areas and ex-
tensive financial support for demolition and new house-building work
from public funds for the Social Housing Development Programme
(Dahlhaus, 1968; Zapf, 1969). Aspects of this authoritarian form of ur-
ban renewal that were particularly criticized were the failure to involve
residents, the concerted destruction of existing neighbourhood struc-
tures, and the demolition of low-cost housing stock that would not be
replaced. In spite of comprehensive funding, rents in the new buildings
were markedly higher than those in the old building areas (Becker and
Schulz zur Wiesch, 1982).

The policy of cautious urban renewal was born out of this criti-
cism of the redevelopment of spaces. In implementing urban renewal
it focused on three types of ‘caution’: caution in construction, which
involved preserving the building stock and modernizing one step at
a time; social caution, which involved preserving the composition of
the social structure wherever possible and allowing tenants in the re-
development areas to stay in their houses; and finally, the principle of
caution in planning policy, comprising widespread involvement and
participation by residents in renewal activities. A participatory model of
urban renewal was tried out. Nevertheless, there was no change in the
material basis for urban renewal. Even cautious urban renewal rested
on extensive public funds and a transfer of the plots of land to (often
urban) redevelopers, so that in spite of other goals, urban renewal was
from then on organized by the state and distanced from the market
(Konter, 1994; Bernt, 2003).

The squats of the early 1980s were of major importance for the
implementation of cautious urban renewal. The squat houses and the
squatters occupying them provided the trigger, as well as objects and
partners, for a new model of urban renewal. First, the concentration
of the squatters’ houses in future or pre-designated redevelopment ar-
eas was a consequence of the legitimation crisis in the redevelopment
of spaces. Squatters, citizens’ action groups and a critical section of
the public attacked in equal measure, if not always as one voice, the
planned demolition of whole streets. The self-presentation of the squat-
ter movement as ‘rehab squatters’ essentially suggested a criticism of
the (by then usual) demolition-approach to development. Secondly, the
squatted houses not only triggered a new policy of urban renewal; they
were at the same time a kind of experimental laboratory in which new
instruments of urban renewal were trialled.

The eviction of squatters was not the only way in which the city
reacted to the regulatory requirement to end the existence of ‘lawless
spaces’. For the first time, some of those living in squatted houses were
granted a say in the renovation and design of their houses. Collective
usage agreements, gradual modernization and the deflationary integra-
tion of self-help interests represented completely new forms of urban
renewal and the end of the authoritarian urban-renewal regime of rede-
veloping spaces. The apparent coherence of the participatory principles
behind cautious urban renewal, along with the squatters’ notion of ‘self-
empowerment’, can be viewed as a third level of successful integration
of squats into cautious urban renewal. Apart from some basic criticisms
of the de-politicization of housing (Homuth, 1984) and of the evic-
tion of squatted houses, described as ‘preventative counter-insurgency’,
an independently minded political alliance consisting of alternative
groups, squatters, the Alternative List (the later Green Party) and pro-
fessional town planners and architects agreed to reject the bureaucratic
and authoritarian urban renewal of the past, and to work together to
create alternative models.

Post-Fordist urban renewal in East Berlin in the 1990s was clearly
distinguishable from the cautious urban renewal in the western part of
the city by criteria relating to real estate, urban planning and finance.
The enormous renewal requirements of around 180,000 apartments
in old buildings, the crisis in public finance and the privatization of
property brought about by restitution in redevelopment areas led to a
form of urban renewal ‘financed first and foremost by property owners’
(Berlin Senate, 1993). Instead of using funds and transferring owner-
ship to redevelopment agencies, the authorities attempted to imple-
ment the social and building objectives of urban renewal in East Berlin
using town planning legislation. The mode of control deployed for
urban renewal could be characterized as an increasingly negotiation-
oriented administrative action (Holm, 2006: 90). Rather than impos-
ing direct control through ‘money’, the redevelopment objectives of
the 1990s were to be strengthened using ‘laws and commandments’ as
means of control. In the process, multifaceted systems of negotiation
between tenants, property owners and urban authorities were created.
The redevelopment regime, in particular contractors and tenants’ com-
mittees, used moderation and consultation to provide, wherever pos-
sible, conflict-free implementation of urban renewal. Now the decisive
factors were not merely economic criteria, but also cultural and social
resources. Educated tenants in particular, and those closely involved
with social networks, were better able to make their interests count in
the individualized negotiation of modernization plans (Häußermann
et al., 2002).

Unlike the West Berlin squatter movement in the early 1980s, squat-
ters in East Berlin did not play a central role in implementing a new
redevelopment regime. Squatted houses were, in fact, an alien element
in the new regime of urban renewal. As in West Berlin, the regulatory
strategy the city’s government was pursuing gave squatters huge scope
for structurally renovating their houses. In East Berlin the authorities
for the most part had recourse to solutions already tried out in the
West. The routine unwinding of self-help programmes and collective
tenancy contracts had absolutely no innovatory potential for imple-
menting the new redevelopment model in East Berlin, focused as it was
on individual negotiation and private investments. These programmes,
on the contrary, brought about only cautious renewal of small niches.
The special role of squatted houses not only created discord between
East and West, but also explained the squatters’ far-reaching avoidance
of district conflicts. Their special status made cooperation with tenants
and district initiatives difficult. For example, widely held fears regard-
ing the restitution process and changing property ownership played
only a minor role in former squats that had long-standing leasehold
agreements. Contact between district initiatives and squatters’ houses
existed primarily in cases where private property owners tried to evict
the squatters themselves. For example, a fire on the roof of the squats
in Dunckerstrasse 14/15 in Prenzlauer Berg’s Helmholtz Square led to
a massive show of solidarity between neighbours and can be regarded
as the birth of many neighbourhood initiatives that still remain active
in the area today. In view of otherwise divergent interests of residents,
such shows of solidarity were, however, isolated cases.

Research carried out on movements such as the Kreuzberg squat-
ters in the 1980s shows that urban social movements cannot really be
understood when considered in isolation, and that they must instead
be viewed against the background of general social change. In the con-
text of the Fordist redevelopment of spaces in particular, squats can be
seen as catalysts for areal development. The orientation towards hous-
ing preservation in the founding period, the demand for a detailed
process of renewal, and even the implementation of an extended en-
vironment for urban renewal, can be seen as crystallization points for
post-Fordist urban renewal (Jahn, 1994). In this way, the Kreuzberg
squatter movement illustrates the modernizing function ascribed to ur-
ban social movements (Rucht, 1997). The institutionalization of social
movements that Margit Mayer (2009: 15) termed ‘from protest to pro-
gramme’ was reflected in the practice of ‘self-help in building’, but also
in the categorical acceptance of cautious urban renewal. In his studies
of Zurich, Christian Schmid (1998) refers to a dialectic of urban social
movements and Zurich’s ‘global city formation’, and in particular iden-
tifies the impulse of urban protest movements and subcultural activities
to bring about a cultural openness and the formation of a cosmopolitan
image of the city (ibid.: 221). In Berlin, too, there were attempts to
incorporate the squatter movement’s multifaceted and often self-orga-
nized cultural forms of expression into the image of a vital and creative
city. Urban protests and squatter movements should not be analysed
as something in opposition to the neoliberal urban development, but
must always be considered in terms of their restructuring impulse.
If we divide neoliberal urban policies into ‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’
phases of neoliberalism (Peck and Tickell, 2002), the history of Berlin’s
urban renewal shows that in Kreuzberg in the 1980s new forms of con-
trol and governance were being implemented while Fordist funding
instruments were maintained. It was only when the model was applied
to East Berlin’s redevelopment areas in the 1990s that a clear roll-back
of the earlier welfare-state foundations of urban renewal became notice-
able. The economy of urban renewal, no longer based on public funding
and public redevelopment agencies, now drew on private investments
of professional property developers. However, the communicative
incorporation of modernization projects, the involvement of non-
governmental agencies and the rhetoric of ‘cautious urban renewal’ all
survived. The squatter movement’s demands for a cautious treatment
of building structures and for more participation were absorbed into
the ‘software’ of neoliberal urban renewal, while changes in ‘hardware’
did not occur until urban renewal was extended into East Berlin. The
squatters were not so much the engines of this second transformation
in urban renewal as they were alien elements in its development. Its
abstention from a personal urban political agenda isolated the squatter
movement of the 1990s from other urban protest movements.

A new urban political movement?

Leftist movements today are again taking up urban restructuring as
a theme, and a ‘movement of free spaces’ seems to be picking up the
loose ends left by the squatter movements in the 1990s. In Berlin, these
themes were first revived in the campaign for a social centre between
2001 and 2005. Mobilization against the eviction of a longstanding
housing project at 59 Yorckstrasse, as well as the occupation of the for-
mer Bethanien Hospital and its use as a social centre a few days after
the evictions of June 2005, revived the debate on urban restructur-
ing and free spaces. And discussions around this subject in the Berlin
movements in 2008 seemed for the time being to have reached a peak:
the ‘squatter action days’ held all across Europe in April, the successful
prevention of a possible eviction of the social centre Köpi, the ‘emanci-
patory space’ action days at the end of May, and finally a referendum
that was called by the alliance ‘Sink the Mediaspree’, with 87% of par-
ticipants voting against a large-scale urban restructuring programme.
After 15 years’ delay, how did urban movements assume such po-
litical significance within the current model of post-Fordist urban re-
newal? The first decisive factor was the emergence of a ‘new’ political
movement in the 1990s, for which the Zapatista uprising in 1994 in
Chiapas, Mexico, and the protests in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in
2001 can be considered the most important reference points. Thus,
for instance, the campaign for a social centre initiated a short time af-
ter Genoa was less an expression of a lack of space for leftist move-
ments than a culmination of the convergence of groups and trends in
the context of a movement critical of globalization (cf. Lebuhn, 2008:
30ff). A second reason is the accelerated urban renewal in Berlin’s in-
ner-city districts. Luxury modernization, rising rent costs and social
displacement are no longer confined to the districts of Prenzlauer Berg
and Mitte, but can be seen increasingly in other inner-city districts such
as Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg or Neukölln. Furthermore, former squat-
ter houses are now no longer excluded from these trends. Changes in
ownership or a revived interest in profit on the part of existing owners
have affected the leftist ‘free spaces’ at 59 Yorckstrasse and currently also
at 54 Rigaer, the Köpi and 183 Brunnenstrasse. This has led to broader
alliances such as the ‘Wir Bleiben Alle!’ (‘United We Stay’) campaign,
brought into being to organize squatters’ action days, or through par-
ticipation in the ‘Sink the Mediaspree’ initiative, which was started in
2006. It remains uncertain how far this new political interest will have
noticeable repercussions for current urban renewal policy, or whether,
in fact, we can expect a break with the current redevelopment model.
The increasingly strained housing-policy situation, the large number of
new and old groups and initiatives, and initial institutional successes
such as the victorious referendum against the Mediaspree development
are at least signs of a new wave of urban policy disputes.


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[EN] Second edition of ‘Squatting in Europe’ published

[EN] Second edition of ‘Squatting in Europe’ published

The second edition of Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles has just been published. As before, the pdf is available and individual chapters are now being uploaded to the website, links below.

Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Published on Minor Compositions.

Squatting in Europe aims to move beyond the conventional understandings of squatting, investigating its history in Europe over the past four decades. Historical comparisons and analysis blend together in these inquiries into squatting in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and England. In it members of SqEK (Squatting Europe Kollective) explore the diverse, radical, and often controversial nature of squatting as a form of militant research and self-managed knowledge production.


  • Margit Mayer: Preface
  • Introduction
  • Hans Pruijt: Squatting in Europe
  • Pierpaolo Mudu: Resisting and challenging Neoliberalism: the development of Italian Social
  • Gianni Piazza: How activists make decisions within Social Centres? A comparative study in an Italian city
  • Miguel A. Martínez: The Squatters’ Movement in Spain: A Local and Global Cycle of Urban Protests
  • Claudio Cattaneo: Urban squatting, rural squatting and the ecological-economic perspective
  • Andre Holm, Armin Kuhn: Squatting and Urban Renewal: The Interaction of Squatter Movements and Strategies of Urban Restructuring in Berlin
  • Linus Owens: Have squat, will travel: How squatter mobility mobilizes squatting
  • Florence Bouillon: What’s a ‘good’ squatter? Categorization’s processes of squats by government officials in France
  • Thomas Aguilera: Configurations of Squats in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region: diversity of goals and resources
  • E.T.C. Dee: Moving towards criminalisation and then what? Examining dominant discourses on squatting in England

Available from Minor Compositions direct and all good radical bookshops.

[EN] Urban squatting, rural squatting and the ecological-economic perspective

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Urban squatting, rural squatting and the ecological-economic perspective
Claudio Cattaneo

In the light of the present energy, climate and economic cri-
ses, it is important to consider the relationship between the ideals of
the autonomous squatting movement and the practical effects that its
activity have in terms of reduced material and energy consumption and
of economic performance.

This article highlights the ecological economics of the squatting com-
munity. To a large extent independent from capitalism, wage labour and
monetary circulation, it is based more on self-organization, mutual aid,
recycling, use of renewable energies and renewable materials; as well, agro-
ecological practices and permaculture principles are applied when pos-
sible. This system, partially independent from financial and man-made
capital, is based on human and natural capital and it can work beyond
capitalistic market arrangements: a type of social ecology (Bookchin,
1997) where the central element is the material environment (be it a city
or the rural and natural countryside) and where people are not separate
because they form part of this living environment.

Going further with this intuition, this article also shows that squat-
ting goes beyond urban movements. As a result of urban growth, an
exodus that has left many rural tenures abandoned, combined with
radical ideals, are the base of the neorural movement which, in many
cases, takes the characteristics of rural squatting. This allows even better
the development of a natural economy.

The principles of squatting rely on political motivations (Martinez-
Lopez, 2002), squatters are related to counter-culture and radical poli-
tics (Prujit, 2004) and the phenomenon, largely present and sometimes
even institutionalized within Western societies, forms part of autono-
mous and political social movements. The underlying hypothesis is that
squatters, because of their radical political vision, want to get free from
certain forms of capitalist control -for example from being employed
on a routine base, or from paying a mortgage to a bank, but also by
keeping some anonymity over the internet. By doing so, they learn
how to satisfy their needs with a great degree of autonomy from the
conventional patterns of paying for rent, of needing a paid job, of con-
suming and spending money. The thesis I defend is that while urban
squatters are to a large extent autonomous from money, rural squatters,
who satisfy most of their needs directly from the surrounding natural
environment, also achieve higher degrees of autonomy from the system
of man-made products. In this way both urban and rural squatters pro-
vide a micro model for local solutions to the ecological and economic
crises such as making the best use of urban waste materials, skipping
for food, developing ingenious DIY applications, promoting coopera-
tion, sharing know-how, practising mutual aid, farming with organic
agriculture, integrated ecosystem management, sharing of experiences
in communal life and challenges in its organization. All these solutions
can be considered social innovations: alternative to many technological
innovations, which increasingly depend on complex artificial systems,
social innovations stem from within personal capacities and social or-
ganization, which is particularly relevant in those cases where the sense
of community is stronger.

In synthesis my positive argument is that, stemming from the politi-
cal, there are further levels of autonomy that squatters can achieve; my
normative argument aims at the inclusion of these experiences within
the spectrum of sustainable solutions both innovative, resilient and
practical against the ecological and economic crises.

Throughout this article I will make wide use of an little known
expression: technically speaking, rather than “economy” – which is
generally too often understood only in relation with money, markets
and capitalist accumulation – it is proper to talk of oikonomy. This, in
Ancient Greek terms means “management of the house/community”,
for Aristotles it represented “the art of living well”. Polanyi (1944) also
considered the distinction between the familiar embedded economy
and the socially disembedded market economy. In the former, typical of
pre-industrial non-capitalist societies, the economy must be considered
in a substantive way, in the sense that it simply looks at how material
needs are met in relation to the social and natural environment, and
where the formal economic principles – such as utility maximisation
or scarcity – cannot apply. Similarly, Weber (1905) considered that the
self-interested acquisitive economy based on rational utility maximiza-
tion was strongly influenced by the Calvinist religious belief oriented
towards the duty of diligent application in labour and of self-restraint
in consumption, with a result in unprecedented capitalist accumula-
tion. On the other hand Oikonomics is only a means to an end, namely
need-satisfaction for a good life; money can be useful, but the squatting
example shows that is not fundamental for a good life. For instance,
rather than selling most of their time on the labour market and rather
than participating in the competitive capitalistic system, when possible
squatters directly employ their time to satisfy their own needs; they do
so by using and developing their own social and personal capacities as
well as by making the best use of the materials supplied by their local
environment, be it urban waste or renewable natural resources.

From this oikonomic perspective it is important to acknowledge
that the squatting movement includes rural phenomenon. The study
of rural squatting is now particularly interesting because, due to the
growing energy and economic crisis, life in the cities – largely based
on non-renewable resources (like agro-industrial food production and
long food miles) – will become more difficult. It is likely that the right
to the land and the issue of how to access it will gain increasing im-
portance. Reclaim the fields! is the example of an autonomous rural
movement recently raising across Europe (www.reclaimthefields.org).
As fossil fuels become extremely expensive, the present global territorial
structure based on urban growth could radically change while living
alternatives, based on renewable energies, re-localized economies and
land exploitation for subsistence purposes will likely become more fre-
quent. To this extent, the practice of rural squatting can well represent
a degrowth society, in which Latouche’s “8 Rs” – namely re-evaluate, re-
conceptualize, re-structure, re-localize, re-distribute, reduce, re-use and
recycle – are manifest. In case of an enduring economic crisis, access to
both a roof and a land represents an opportunity which can allow for
the satisfaction of basic needs with a higher degree of autonomy from
the global economic system: working the land is in fact a source of self-
employment and of natural income. For the future, it is likely that the
urban movements will be joined by rural movements in their social and
political struggles against the respective powerful elites, being bourgeois
or aristocratic.

The rest of the article develops as follows: section 2 presents the
theoretical legacy of squatters’ life-styles and their main characteris-
tics. Starting from the moral motivation towards not paying for rent,
it explains how less money is employed for need satisfaction and why
this behaviour is low-impact, therefore, ecological. Section 3 is a novel
contribution from an Iberian case-study presenting how different rural
squats and neorural communities are collectively managed and orga-
nized across two dimensions:
1. the line between monetary and non-monetary oikonomy and
2. the line between personal economies and communal integra-

In fact communal living can assume different characteristics so that
different degrees of communitarianism and of autonomy – namely,
from the money and from the system of man-made production – are
exposed. The case shows that neorural ideals behind these real-life expe-
riences tend towards the communitarian rural way of life and towards
organic agriculture principles related to material autonomy. Section 4,
finally, offers some insights over the steps that follow political auton-
omy and that differ between urban, rurban and neorural squat com-

This work is the result of participant observation (Cattaneo, 2006
and 2008) during nearly a decade, in which I have been participating
as an academic observer, but primarily as a member of the Barcelona
squatting community and of the Iberian neorural movement.

1. A side effect of squatting:
money-free, low-impact living and
communitarian organization

Among themselves squatters build links not mediated by tradi-
tional parental or social-class rules nor by the market. These links are
extended to the outside social and ecological environment, be it the
local neighbourhood, larger urban movements or the local territory
in rural areas.

Although a rising evidence of urban sites squatted for gardening
shows that the rural phenomenon is entering into the hearth of the cit-
ies, urban squatters’ main occupation does not relate to the work of the
land – they live in the midst of a metropolis, with other political, social
and subsistence priorities. However, their economy has a small envi-
ronmental impact because they tend to shun the market and the mate-
rial impacts associated to market production and distribution. Rather
than buying new products, they prefer to recycle goods and materials,
eventually they buy second-hand; they show a set of ethics opposed to
consumerism, beginning from the fact that they “recycle” abandoned
buildings – in which to live or carry on social activities – and that they
reform them employing simple tools, primary materials and voluntary
semi-professional work.

In contrast with the modern tendency that could be restated as
“become independent, live by yourself, be free”, urban squatters live
instead in a community and consider independence at another level.
They do not need to depend on banks, real estate business or a paid job;
rather, they develop their personal capacities and promote cooperation
within the squat and the local community. They make extensive use of
natural oikonomic means more than monetary or financial ones. To the
extent possible, they also grow their own food and collect rainwater.

Theoretical legacies to autonomous life-styles.

If the conventional economy is characterised by a production side and
a consumption side –supply and demand – which are connected by ex-
ternal and often impersonal markets, in the squatting oikonomy these
elements tend to melt into the same, into a micro embedded economy
as Karl Polanyi (1944) named it. If market action is characterised by
self-organisation, this primarily refers to human processes: the market
is said to be self-organized because there are human beings behind it
acting accordingly to their own interests. The principles of self-organi-
zation however, do also apply to cooperative and social processes such
as squatting or autonomous social movements, and where individual
interest of the market agent is substituted by the communal interest of
the collective.

The squatting self-organized oikonomy is nothing more than a return
to pre-capitalist origins, where market exchange is fairly limited and
is often sought as barter, with face-to-face relationships and common
trust dominating the transactions. Primarily, it is a return to household
modes of production and -in the urban gardens and neo-rural cases- to
communal land management. These are historical economic institu-
tions which are independent from the market and from private or state
property. The original point of squatters’ economies, particularly urban
ones, is to live next to the market and yet to be capable of reviving
an alternative economic system, typical of a time when competitive
economic dynamics were only marginal aspects of life. Neorurals’ and
squatters’ organizations have similarities with Malinowski’s (1922) gift
economy and Sahlins’s (1974) Domestic Mode of Production and re-
late to Becker’s (1976) theory of allocation of time and Kropotkin’s
(1915) biological and historical analysis of mutual aid as a factor of
evolution in social life. The key to understanding these processes is to
consider them as a self-organised bio-economy.

“Tornallom” is a Valencian farmer’s expression which literally means
“return the back” and constitutes the reciprocal exchange of physical
work: “one day you help me, another day I will help you”: this physi-
cal effort, which serves the oikonomic purpose, becomes the reciprocal
currency, without the need of money. This need is an indicator of in-
sufficiency, as opposed to self-sufficiency, with respect to access to the
skills and means that are required for subsistence production for a good
life. Money, originally a concrete means to ease the exchange of goods
and services, within the capitalistic economy and the dominance of
the financial dimension becomes immaterial, more artificial and, there-
fore, impersonal. Its counterpart, a remunerated job, also does so when
is related to alienating economic processes such as the industrial ones
applied both in factories and in farming. The means employed in pro-
duction and the working environment adapted to their optimal func-
tioning are increasingly artificial. In Tools for Conviviality Ivan Illich
highlighted the impossibility of certain complex technologies and of
related production systems to be good for a convivial and well-lived
life (Illich, 1973). Georgescu-Roegen, one of the fathers of Ecological-
Economics, argued that more social inequalities among workers, and
among citizens who can or cannot afford certain consumption patterns,
are a consequence of the ecologically unsustainable industrial economic
processes. He therefore added a political issue to the ecological one
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1971).

On the other hand, the squatters’ self-organised bio-economy is
based on a political reasoning in line to the above mentioned intellec-
tual criticisms, and closely related to the independence of their thought
from the mass behaviour that industrial economic processes promote.
As Marcuse (1954) already sought in his One Dimensional Man, self-
determination of needs and their satisfaction is an act of freedom,
which also seeks to improve autonomy against external control (be this
at the work place or in the determination of standardised living pat-
terns). Moreover, this independence of thought reaches the extreme
point where squatters – if this is coherent with their ideals – are ready
to commit a crime. Direct action and civil disobedience can be traced
back to David Thoreau (1849). Squatters’ independent ethical base is
the necessary condition to be ready to commit the crime of squatting.
The sufficient condition is to be collectively organised towards mutual
political support and to be able to resist repression. By not paying rent
and through collective organization, the doors to a radically different
lifestyle are opened.

The case against paying rent:
the Spanish evidence of real estate speculation

Squatting alien property is a criminal act. However, dignified hous-
ing -which is a democratic right- is still far from common people’s pos-
sibilities, with increasing rent prices that make housing extremely ex-
pensive, so that most life-time needs to be sold on the labour market,
creating a spiral towards individualism, monetary dependency and a
scarcity of free time.

Here follow six statements (Taller contra la Violencia Inmobiliaria y
Urbanisitca, 2006) showing the temporal trend in some aspects of the
“housing question” in Spain.

1. From 1960 to 2005, the percentage of flats for rent of the total
decreased from 40% to 10%.
2. In 1973, 34% of new housing constructions were destined to
be an officially protected home (VPO), but in 2005 it was only
3. While in 1997 industrial credit was 3.3 times more than real
estate credit, in 2005 the credit to the real estate market became
higher than credit to industry.
4. From 1990 to 2004, the average debt of a home increased from
45% to 60%. This means that lenders – mainly banks – virtu-
ally own the majority of the value of all Spanish homes.
5. From 1997 to 2005, the average cost of a flat increased 150%
while average salaries increased only 34.5%. This means that in
one generation (1980-2005) the price of a home equivalent to
lifetime salary increased from 14 months to 14 years.
6. The price of land as a share of the final price of a house in-
creased, between 1985 and 2005, from 25% to 55%. In par-
ticular, banks own 350 million m2 in Spain.

Facing this trend, many people would claim that leaving abandoned
properties, although protected by the law, is an immoral act. However,
squatters also have the capacity to do something against it, by free-
ing spaces for the development of collective living and social projects
which, in turn, allows them the possibility of free time away from the
labour market.

An opposite spiral is created towards the free collective development
of personal capacities and of social capital. A non-consumerist life-style
is likely to occur where not only homes and spaces for social centres
are recycled, but also food, clothes and many other objects that can be
somehow useful. Do-it-yourself becomes the leitmotif of a squatter’s

An explanation of how squatting allows living with less

The following explanation is an oikonomic analysis focusing on money
only as a means and on need-satisfaction as the real goal. The hypoth-
esis is that time availability and different ways to employ is the main
means of production available to all. Time can be sold on the labour-
market – in exchange for money – or can be employed directly for the
satisfaction of needs. All humans have the same basic needs, Maslow
(1954) and Max-Neef (1992, 1993 and 1995) dealt with this argu-
ment. Although what is defined as a basic need varies over time and
space, what is required for survival are the physiological ones (i.e. food,
sleeping) and basic material ones (i.e. a shelter, clothes); then there are
immaterial ones that might, or might not be satisfied through market
or material consumption: in fact needs, particularly immaterial ones,
are satisfied in different ways: how are squatters’ needs met? How do
they get them from outside the market? What is their material nature?
How do they employ their personal and collective working time? This
deep economic issue, central to tackling the ecological crisis, will be
presented here and, with respect to neorural communities, in the next

With respect to conventional lifestyles, squatters adopt several time-
viable non-money alternatives. The first and foremost is housing: with-
in a single night, a squatter can have a home that can last from a few
hours only to -in the best cases- several years. With some luck, a lot of
time and money are saved from paying a landlord or a bank’s mortgage;
the financial costs of squatting mainly refer to the materials required to
refurbish the place and to the legal costs.

The ecological economics of squatting can be said to be free from
barriers to exit from the labour market. Rent is in fact such a big over-
head cost that make it almost impossible for an average person to live
without constant monetary income, which makes the sale of labour
time a very relevant aspect in a person’s life.

Individualism in society and nuclear families of, on average 2 or
3 members, make life more expensive because of the many overheads
that cannot be shared. On the other hand, living in relatively large
communities of around 10 people or more – which is quite common
in many urban and rural squats – allow for economies of scale: costs
are reduced when things are done or purchased in bulk. Therefore,
household economies of scale are guaranteed by the division of ac-
tivities over a large number of community members to contribute to
time-use efficiency in household tasks. For instance in Can Masdeu, a
20-people rurban squat in the hills of Barcelona, communal living im-
plies cooking a meal once a week/fortnight, food shopping once a year,
working to raise money for the communal economy twice a year in a
group of four, working another 10 hours per week maintaining the or-
chard, house and/or social centre, etc. One person is in charge of buy-
ing food, one of keeping the accounts and paying the bills (telephone,
internet, vehicles insurance, magazine subscriptions, etc.), three are in
charge of the orchards, another of organizing household maintenance
and cleaning tasks, six are dedicated to the social centre, community
gardens and environmental educational activities.

Common to many squats is the provision of a “free-shop” where
unwanted clothes can be freely left or taken; the setting up and the
maintenance of home-made squat infrastructure (electricity, water,
kitchen, sanitation, furniture) is very diverse because normally different
people, with a wide range of skills and knowledge, have contributed
to it: no-one has to know each and every skill but still has the poten-
tial to learn them all. No professional services are paid to set-up and
maintain a housing project or a social centre. Moreover, the peculiar
economies of scale enjoyed in a community allow the services provided
by such infrastructure to be enjoyed by many: for instance, not only is
setting up a kitchen is cheaper because it is done with voluntary work
and employing basic tools and materials, but its costs are divided over
a larger number of persons who share it; the same is true for vehicles
which, far from being status-symbols, are used for transportation and
are commonly shared by a larger amount of people. While mainstream
culture is based on individualism, associated to the idea of indepen-
dence, collective organization represents an enriching alternative from
the personal point of view, with positive side benefits in terms of living
with less money and, consequently, with a lower ecological impact.

The third relevant aspect of a squat’s oikonomy is its upstream inte-
gration of production processes (do-it-yourself). This means that rather
than buying a product, this or parts of it can be self-produced. For in-
stance bread is self-produced and only flour is bought. Home and social
centre infrastructures are self-assembled and self-installed (provided the
technical know-how): only the materials are required, and might be
freely recycled from the urban environment. Because its members have
the know-how and the basic skills of a welder, a carpenter, a farmer, a
painter, a mechanic, a plumber, a baker, “do-it-yourself” becomes in a
squat the most basic opportunity for money-saving and collective self-

Differently from conventional households where consumption oc-
curs irrationally and is often driven by consumerism, mass-fashion and
manipulative advertising, living in an urban or rural squat requires a
certain attention to the “how to do it” in a different way. It is at no cost:
collective organization requires an effort towards enhanced communi-
cation and horizontal processes of decision-making (see, for instance,
Piazza, this volume), which can be time-consuming, but that at least
leave open the possibility towards the self-determination of how to live.

2. Rural squatting in the Iberian Peninsula:
self-organized communal systems.

The ecological economic perspective of squatting is even more evi-
dent in the rural context, whose presentation contributes to the con-
figuration of autonomous life-styles. Rural squatting is present in Spain
already since the Revolution, between 1936 and 1939, with large-scale
processes of land collectivization. The Spanish countryside is widely
characterized by rural abandonment. Migratory trends towards the cit-
ies have occurred since the late ‘50s as a consequence of the mechaniza-
tion of agriculture and of the arrival of fossil fuels. With the birth in
the late ‘70s and early ‘80s of the neorural movement the first rural vil-
lages were occupied by groups of people interested in self-organization
and eco-socialism as well as oriented towards economic self-sufficiency.
Magazines such as Integral or AjoBlanco, which focussed on ecological
and communal living and on the return to the country, inspired these
young generations in their moves. An extensive description of the ethics
and realities of neorural squatters is given by Badal (2001), while some
ideological foundations of rural squatting can be found in Colectivo
Malayerba (1996).

In this context, I highlight the value of oikonomic organization
within rural squats because it represents an interesting case of material
autonomy. This is characterized by the combination of a highly com-
munitarian sharing of labour time and a prevalence, over individual
paid work, of non-monetary self-employment within the community
and money-raising collective activities.

Looking from a time-use perspective, the neorural oikonomic activ-
ity can be characterized by:

• labour time employed within the community for the generation
of a monetary income;
• labour time employed within the community for the direct sat-
isfaction of personal and communal needs;
• labour time employed outside the community, sold in the la-
bour market.

As well, individuals undertaking these labour activities can do them
according to their personal needs or to those that are collectively pro-
vided, in a proportion that varies according to how they are organized.

In general the collective project tends to be more communitarian the
more isolated is the community.

In summer 2009 a rural squat gathering (Jornadas de Okupación
Rural) was organized in Sieso, a squatted village in the Aragon Pyrenees.
An afternoon debate was dedicated to sharing knowledge on how dif-
ferent communities organize their economy, which productive activi-
ties are undertaken and how the communal sphere is integrated with
the personal.

Presentations came from the participants in 4 rural squatted vil-
lages (the hosting village of Sieso and, from Navarra, Lakabe, Rala and
Arizkuren); 3 rurban squats (Can Masdeu and Kan Pasqual in Barcelona
and La Casa in Valladolid) and 3 other neorural communities related
to autonomous social movements (Alcoy, in Valencian Community;
Escanda in Asturias and Manzanares in Castilla). The diversity of the
forms of organizing and the different weight of the communal econo-
my among the participating projects was great.

All projects share a collective way to earn and to manage money,
but with large variations. In some cases the community is financially
self-sufficient, in other cases financial support is granted from external
institutions (one case), or through the formal contribution of its mem-
bers (three cases, 20, 50 and 100 Euro/month respectively) who find
individually the way to this income.

How collective income is generated also varies among neorural com-
munities: it can be from primary production (orchard, honey, meat, 3
cases) with direct sales to the consumers; bread making (3 cases, direct
sale); hosting events (international summer camps, courses, bar and
restoration services, local celebrations, 4 cases); or other services (i.e.
horse-keeping). Also, and particularly in the more isolated communi-
ties unable to easily access markets and consumers, some of its members
look for temporary jobs away from home (seasonal recollection, brick-
work) and pass the income to the community once they return.

In general, communal labour time is organized mainly in a collec-
tive way, where everybody contributes equally -there might be systems
to enhance that, like communal working days during the week- and
where work is not remunerated. The most common activities are or-
chard and food production and elaboration; building and infrastruc-
ture maintenance, rehabilitation and construction; energy supply (the
main one is fire-wood collection, chopping and storing) and water and
irrigation system maintenance. All communities have different types
of communal infrastructure and activities, which contributes to the
direct satisfaction of personal needs and communal requirements, thus
diminishing the dependency on monetary income. All have orchards,
chickens, in some cases, bees, goats and sheep, all have access to a bak-
ing oven; they have many tools and at least one general workshop, as
well as capacity to store recycled and construction materials, wood and
primary agricultural products. They are organized to participate in sea-
sonal recollection (i.e. for olive oil) or to collectively manage agricul-
tural crops elsewhere (olive and almond trees). As long as an “income”
of natural products and resources is secured, autonomy from money
and from the system of man-made production is possible.

The weight of the individual economy within the community is also
quite different, ranging from where all kind of income is communal
to mixed-economies, where people can have their own income as well
as a communal income for the community’s expenses. This last case is
particularly relevant within rurban squats because different individuals
might have a preference towards particular personal consumption pat-
terns, which the proximity to the city makes it more possible. In general,
given the precarious situation of squatting -and also of land tenure- the
property of personal capital is not collectivized, although the use of this
capital (which could be a car, or some tools) is widely shared.

The amount of money that the collective economy of these squat-
ting projects requires varies from very little (one case, 20 Euro/per-
son/month), to more considerable levels (250 Euro/person/month,
for one community which is not squatted), although this depends on
how many needs the community is able to satisfy, summing up, from a
minimum where only basic housing and food are provided, to a maxi-
mum where any kind of personal expense is included (such as tobacco,
education or travels).

The two most isolated places rely on extremely little financial needs
(around 200 Euro/person/month, all included), moreover it has to be
acknowledged that a good part of these expenditure is invested in the
re-construction of the villages, with returns on a less precarious quality
of life. Newer communities tend to have higher re-construction costs
and less capacity to self-generate this income.
Marginal barter exchange is often present, particularly among iso-
lated projects relatively close to each other and, if it exists, through the
participation in a barter network.

From an energetic point of view, in the rural cases fuel-wood is
used for almost all basic needs (cooking, heating, baking), and elec-
tricity comes from renewable sources (PV panels in most cases and
wind-generators in 3 cases – 2 of which have been self-made); in very
few cases closer to the city, electricity is freely taken from the grid.
Table 1 shows, as a summary, the difference in energy use -as an
indicator of ecological autonomy- among neorurals, rurban and urban
squatters, and the relevant facts on the importance of human endo-
somatic energy. Table 2 offers a comparison of how vital elements are
supplied in a sustainable community -similar to a rural squat- and in
the commonly known petrol-based civilization. These are the different
points towards a human ecological economy which the squatting expe-
rience shows to be possible.

In synthesis, the rural squatting experience results from the applica-
tion of the traditional squat ideology based on political antagonism,
anti-capitalism and autonomous self-organization, combined with the
neorural perspective, inspired by a return to simpler and more commu-
nitarian lifestyles and by the minimization of human impact on nature.
The evidence of this radical application of the squatting principles is a
political action rehabilitating abandoned villages and the rural way of
life. The life-styles of rural squatters represent an alternative system
with different degrees of autonomy from the main political economic
system characterized by industrial capitalist production. This issue is
discussed in the following section.

3. Urban squats, rural squats: what kind of
autonomy? The steps beyond the political.

Literature on the urban squatting movement can highlight its socio-
political aspects (Adell and Martinez-Lopez, 2004; Martinez Lopez,
2002; Prujit, 2004; Reeve, 1999 and 2005). Within these contexts the
main ambition is built upon motivations that have originated in an
autonomous way from the conventional mentality of the average soci-
ety, which is mainly influenced by the State system (its laws and edu-
cational system), by the capitalist spirit, by social norms often rooted
in religious beliefs which are in turn supported and enhanced by the
mass-media. Be it a counter-culture movement, a housing strategy, or
a direct action with an antagonist political message, they all represent
behaviours very different from mainstream ones, typical of western cul-
ture and life-styles. I intend this as political autonomy, in the sense that
its subjects are able to think in an autonomous way and consequently
they act accordingly, realizing radical and antagonist ideas. In particu-
lar, in the case of rural squatting, a commonly understood paradigm,
contributing to shaping the political perspective, is the necessary inter-
connectedness of the human with the natural milieu which can be char-
acterized as a political ecology. The defence of the environment, its val-
ues and the discourse over the rural way of life play a strong role among
rural squatters, more important than the defence of social-class values,
typically a more urban struggle. Rurban squatters, in particular, act as
a bridge transmitting political ecological ideas to networks of urban
actors. These political avant-gardes, like many other social movements,
generate novel discourses which are independent from the mainstream
ones, rooted in the western-based consumerist imaginary. As seen, in
the context of this autonomy of thought, one can find justifications
for breaking the system of State legality, which is clearly a political act.

However, I have highlighted that this autonomy of thought, mani-
fested in radical political (and ecological) thinking and motivations,
representing the ecological economics of the urban and rural squatting
movement, evolve through direct action into real behaviours. The
resulting reality can be described by two further types of autonomy,
namely economic autonomy (and its relation to employing time for
living with less money) and ecological autonomy (for living with more
natural and less industrially produced means).

Concerned with the capacity to maintain the squatting experience,
I have observed (Cattaneo, 2008) that this relies on the maintenance of
the capitalist system of waste production (and of rural abandonment):
if there were no more abandoned buildings, current forms of squatting
would not be possible; the sustainability of the experience is, paradoxi-
cally, closely interconnected with the existence of a system that produces
waste. The squatting phenomenon can therefore be said to be ecological
insofar as it makes an efficient use of a waste product; insofar as it can
recycle – like in a natural cycle – useless waste into a useful product, by
means of social organization, creativity and originality. Literally, an “au-
tonomous spirit” that manifests into autonomous spaces.

In particular, a relationship exists which proves that, the farther away
from the city, the higher the levels of autonomy that are achieved: pro-
vided that urban squats have limited access to primary natural sources,
in case of a drastic reduction in the amount of products that are gener-
ously given and of real-estate waste that urban squatters can re-use, it is
likely that they would have a harder time to survive than the more resil-
ient rural squats, although their autonomous spirit will make it easier to
adapt and survive than average people. Although largely depending on
the system of industrial production (and waste) urban squats gain easy
access to a large number of people and can be an example of money-free
low-impact living/development of social and political activity/social-
izing, based on non-consumerist ethics and largely working, from the
material perspective, on the recycling of urban waste: in fact, in the
case of people squatting for living/housing, squatting culture can be an
inspiring and visible source of ideas of how to slightly move away from
more conventional life-styles. From the purely socio-political perspec-
tive, the source if inspiration comes from knowledge sharing, solidar-
ity, horizontal relationships and all those cultural traits that, although
integrated within some fringes of civil society, are mainly not common
traits to the dominant political perspective: they have the potential to
manifest radical political aims directly at the core of where the estab-
lished power is set.

On the other hand, more isolated rural squats, although often un-
known – and the aim of this contribution is to start lifting this veil
– have strong socio-ecological values, as highlighted in the Iberian case
study. They are set in physical places geographically isolated, abundant
in land (and capacity of primary production) and are organized in a
way that achieves higher degrees of ecological and material autonomy:
neorural squatted settlements have lower population density, rely on
photosynthetic primary production and develop local systems indepen-
dent from the energy, food and material inputs generated in the urban

To explain it in a similar way, the oikonomic system of urban squat-
ters can be characterised by what they do not consume of the capitalistic
system of production and labour; they are “ecological” because they con-
sume economic waste so to extend the life-cycle of artificial products and
materials; the neorural oikonomy instead is characterised by patterns of
ecological production and consumption and by the management of the
rural landscape where they live in: neorurals are ecological because they
produce and consume less and in a more ecological way.

In the middle between the urban and the rural environment, and
just a few kilometres away from cities, lays the potential of rurban
squats. Here the perspective is that offered from a bridge between two
different squatting realities. For the case of Barcelona, Can Masdeu
and Kan Pasqual are antagonistic projects from both a political and an
ecological perspective and, beyond some autonomy from money, they
show a slight degree of autonomy from the economic system: like in
rural communities, they carry on farming activities and generate energy
from renewable sources; as well, endosomatic (human) energy is largely
employed instead of machines. Cattaneo and Gavaldá (2010) show that
endosomatic energy accounts for 16% and 38% of total energy con-
sumed in Kan Pasqual and Can Masdeu respectively, while the share of
non-renewable energies -mainly coming from cooking gas, petrol for
vehicles and, only in Can Masdeu, electricity- is of 10% and 29% re-
spectively. Yet rurban life is not so fully rural because of the proximity to
cities: notwithstanding the orchards, most food is still introduced from
outside because the land available is not enough for pastoral activities
or cereal cultivation. Neither is food autonomy their mission: higher
achievements towards ecological autonomy must be traded against the
potential for social transformation and political activism within the cit-
ies, so to contribute, among may other political objectives, to the rural-
ization of cities and against further territorial sprawl.

In general, it can be said that the re-vindication of use rights over
certain types of “built capital” of alien abandoned property is visible
both in the urban and in the rural environments. Rural squatting con-
nects with other aims beyond housing and political social activity, such
as living in relationship with agro-natural capital. It implies a particular
relationship with the means of subsistence and capital employed, which
means a further interpretation of autonomy, whose radicality can be
understood as a literal “going back to the roots”.

Table 3 represents in a synthetic form the different typologies of au-
tonomy here considered. Further degrees of autonomy imply previous
ones: a rural squatter’s ecological autonomy implies also an autonomy
of time and money, as well as an autonomy of political thinking char-
acterized by a morality that breaks a law. Common to all is this kind
of law-breaking political autonomy, manifest in choosing certain life-
styles, closely related to vibrant autonomous spaces. The oikonomic
means employed under different squatting modalities are shown in the
last column.

4. Conclusions

In this article I have introduced the ecological-economic perspective of
the squatting phenomenon, by looking at the oikonomic means squatters
employ to live with less money. Doing this, I have also attempted to
bridge the case of rural squatting, less known in the literature. The sub-
stantive findings of this article answer the guiding question: “to what ex-
tent are squatters autonomous from the economic and political system?”
At least as it regards the difference between urban and rural squatters,
the answer shows that urban squatters, able to live with little money and
capable of collective self-organisation, are more autonomous than the
average urban population, both in economic and socio-political terms.
Rurban and rural squatters achieve also increasing degrees of ecologi-
cal (material) autonomy: neo-rural settlements constitute a system with
greater autonomy than urban squats, which are still dependent on the
energy inputs and material recycling of the urban system. Urban squats
are not as ecologically autonomous as neo-rural communities but they
contribute in the shaping of antagonist social and political values.
In analysing the squatting phenomenon, the ecological perspective
cannot be dissociated from the political and economic vision. To this
extent, as an alternative to increasing social control and the erosion
of democratic freedoms perpetrated by the State and its connection
with capitalist interests, the incoming energy and economic crises is
an opportunity to look for the constitution of more decentralized and
autonomous communities, inspired by radical ideals and based on col-
lectivism and self-organization.

For further analysis I see questions related to driving social change
-another fundamental role associated to squatting- and the relation-
ships that rural autonomous experiences can have. What kind of so-
cial change is necessary? What kind of adaptations to more sustainable
lifestyles and relationships are necessary, as a response to the ecological
crisis? These are questions that the ecological economics of urban and
rural squatting can help in addressing.


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