[EN] Book Review: Nine-Tenths of the Law

Book Review taken from Anarchist Studies Volume 21, | Number 2, 2013

Hannah Dobbz, Nine-Tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States
Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1849351188.

Nine-Tenths of the Law starts off with a thorough exploration of the American Indian history of land rights and tracks the various tactics by which the invading colonialists stole land and claimed title. Dobbz then charts acts of resistance over the past 200 years in the USA. Moving into more recent times, she analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the Urban Homesteading movement and assesses the impact of various housing justice groups, noting that Occupy, whilst important, has brought into the spotlight campaigns which in some cases have been in existence for decades.

Adverse possession is covered in some depth, with one inspiring case being the example of Steve DeCaprio who has got very close to claiming title to a derelict property in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dobbz then considers housing co-operatives and community land trusts as ways of taking title of property communally and closes with some powerful arguments for a future squatting movement, as part of a more general struggle for housing justice.

There are many fascinating stories. Unfortunately, I only have space to mention just two in brief. Firstly, the Anti-Rent War in Hudson River Valley, New York in the mid-1800s saw bailiffs regularly repelled and in one case forced to buy a round of drinks for everyone. The level of lawlessness (and tendency to wear disguises) seems quite reminiscent of the Guildford Guy Riots, which occurred at a similar time in England.

Secondly, I was saddened to read about the state-sponsored assassination of Yoland Ward in 1980. She was a young black activist researching a racist government policy called ‘spatial deconstruction’ which was designed to break up inner-city communities by scattering families across the suburbs.

In the battle for housing justice, squatting is certainly one important method amongst many others. As a direct action tactic it attacks the notion of private property which is a central tenet of capitalism. Recent moves towards criminalisation in the Netherlands and the UK (where squatting is now illegal in residential properties, and what exactly this means is currently being defined in the courts) show that it is still seen as a threat. And so it should be. As Aneurin Bevan said: ‘Either poverty must use democracy to destroy the power of property or property in fear of poverty will destroy democracy’.

In his back cover review, Alan W. Moore states: ‘if you’re thinking of squatting – or just want to know more about legal theory of property and home ownership – this book is for you’ and I would agree, but (and there’s always a but) I would offer some constructive criticisms as well.

The scale of the book means that it cannot always do individual movements justice. One example would be squatting in Seattle, which is skated over. Another example would be the references to Europe in the introduction, which leave a little to be desired. A direct link is drawn between the battle of the Vondelstraat in Amsterdam in 1980 and the eviction of Ungdomshuset in Copenhagen (2006-2007). Saying ‘Copenhagen saw some of the most destructive and virulent squat-defence riots since the ones in Amsterdam’ (p. 5) made me raise my eyebrows.

There are a lot more squat struggles out there than those two, but at the same time, only so much history can be squeezed into one book.

I enjoyed reading Nine-Tenths of the Law and I’m sure I will refer to it again. I agree with Hannah when she says that ‘bewilderingly, few other squatters I have met are interested in this kind of documentation’ (p. 238). In the introduction she comments: ‘I hoped by researching squatters in U.S. history to establish a cultural precedent and by pinpointing the legal conditions and issues surrounding squatting (and other forms of property resistance), I might help’ (p. 10). It is fantastic that she has put so much time and effort into making this book and I really hope it does inspire more people to start squatting in the USA (and everywhere else too).

E.T.C. Dee