Squatting Spring – 2015

Squatting in England and Wales has been under pressure since the introduction of s144 LASPOA in September 2012, seeing a decline in buildings available to squat and increasing arrests and prosecutions under the new law. However, despite all this, squatting has not disappeared and continues to provide essential shelter, important cultural space and a hub of resistance against the Behemoth of property development. Covered in this NewsRound special edition:

  • Fight for the Aylesbury
  • Sweets Way & Guinness Trust Occupation
  • Liverpool Love Activists
  • Reclaim Brixton
  • Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (aka ANAL)
  • Elephant & Castle Social Centre
  • Brighton Radical Bank
  • Peterborough Squatters Autonomy
  • Queer Punx @ The Black Cap
  • Land Squats – Runnymede Eco-Village & Grow Heathrow
  • Global – Ireland & Brazil
  • “Homes, Not Jails” & Further Case Studies

February 2015 saw the beginning the Squatting Spring, kicked off by the Squatters Bloc at the March for Homes, taking over a block of flats at the decanted Aylesbury Estate in Elephant and Castle after the standard A-to-B march. The action inspired a spate of political occupations across the country, giving renewed vigor to squatting as a tactic and form of resistance. Actions ranged from social tenants taking homes, to the antics of ANAL in the wealthy West End.

Two different types of squatting action emerged, exemplified by Fight for the Aylesbury and Sweets Way, both set on council estates in London; the first could be called a “squatters’ action”, executed by squatters, for squatters, in solidarity with social housing; the second was a “community action”, with local residents under threat of eviction taking over buildings as leverage for securing a fair deal from the council, and supported by squatters and housing activists. Both types of occupation reinvigorated the narrative around squatting, empty homes, and social cleansing.

Fight for the Aylesbury:

Blog: https://fightfortheaylesbury.wordpress.com/

Twitter: @Fight4Aylesbury

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The Aylesbury Estate is a 2,700 dwelling, 1960’s council estate in south London, a major target of privatisation under Tory (Right-To-Buy) and Labour (stock transfer, PFI, NDC) governments alike. Government and local council have been applying pressure on the council tenants and leaseholders since the 1980’s, seeing an accelerated decant and displacement in the last few years. In 2014, Southwark Council gave the go-ahead to gargantuan housing associations, L&Q and Nottinghill Housing Trust to start demolishing and rebuilding the Aylesbury estate in phases. On the 31st January 2015, the squatters arrived…..

What followed was one of the most audacious squatting actions seen for some time, combining community engagement, on-the-ground action, self-generated media, demonstrations, networking, fun days and 5-a-side football. The highlights of the occupation are here presented in a timeline format:

  • 31 January 2015: Aylesbury 1 occupied; the residential flats were occupied as a political protest, and therefore exempt from police action under s144 LASPOA.
  • 5 February 2015: Southwark Council and police smash up 8 empty, neighbouring council homes to stop the occupation spreading further.
  • 11 February 2015 – Demo outside Southwark Council’s main offices on Tooley Street. Bags of broken glass and rubble, gathered from flats that had been smashed up by council workers, deposited in the council’s foyer. Overwhelming support, from passing pedestrians and bus drivers/ passengers.
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  • 15 February 2015 – Aylesbury Occupiers and Brick Lane Debates organise 1-day conference “Is this the beginning of the end of the Housing Crisis”
  • 16 February 2015: Southwark Council apply for an Interim Possession Order (IPO) for 77-105 Chartridge House; successful. But the court rejects the council’s bid to get an order covering all buildings on the estate.
  • 17 February 2015: 7PM, 100+ TSG (riot police) attacked occupation with force, using angle grinders to cut through metal barriers, and storming the occupied homes (77-105 Chartridge House). Squatters quickly occupy 69-76 Chartridge House, and at 10pm, the riot police declare their intention to break into the new, legal occupation. Thanks to the large number of supporters who gathered outside, TSG are successfully resisted. A tense stand-off lasts several hours, police grabbing supporters using snatch squads, six people arrested and taken to Walworth police station. An Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) is used to disperse the crowd outside the occupation. Afterwards a solidarity demo for the ‘Aylesbury Six’ – the people arrested during the eviction attempt – is held at Camberwell Magistrates Court.
  • 19 February 2015: Council hire private security to prevent access to the occupation. Six security guards and one vicious dog patrol the area, grabbing people trying to enter and exit the occupation.
  • 4 March 2015: Southwark Council get an Interim Possession Order for 69-76 Chartridge on the Aylesbury Estate. The disused council offices at the base of Chiltern House are then occupied, previously headquarters of Southwark’s regeneration and planning departments.
  • 13 March 2015: Southwark Council completely seals off the entirety of the Phase 1 redevelopment block, using a massive fence topped with razor metal. Dozens of security guards deployed to stop those intending to enter or exit the premises, and the cost of security reaches almost £10,000 per day.
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  • 2 April 2015: a demo was called to pull down the Alcatraz fences, as they had been dubbed now. What happened next was one of the best bits of direct action for some time. With a crowd of around 50-100 people, many dressed in black and masked-up, the highly mobile march started to circle the fenced-off estate. At certain points, grappling ropes were attached to the razor metal at the top, and by sheer force, the fence was literally torn down, inspiring gasps and cheers. The solid presence of security and police inside the fence ensured that the estate could not be re-invaded. The march eventually dispersed into the night, and the feeling of satisfaction from avoiding a boring A-to-B march was palpable.

Fight for the Aylesbury continues to campaign to retain the estate and protect the remaining social tenants there, but the occupation has since been evicted. The occupation gave the campaign a real sense of excitement, and without it, housing activists will have to keep fighting hard to retain this working-class neighbourhood under intensifying gentrification.

A good summary of the occupation (and embedded video footage of the fence demo) has been put together by those stalwarts of research-action, Southwark Notes: “It’s Not Too Late Aylesbury Estate: What happened and what next?” [Southwark Notes, 3 April 2015]

Sweets Way

Blog: https://sweetswayresists.wordpress.com/

Twitter: @SweetsWayN20

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Sweets Way is a council estate in Barnet North London, now owned by quasi-social landlords Barnet Homes and Annington Homes. The local authority in Barnet is reknowned for its neo-liberal agenda pushing, especially around housing and local facilities (eg libraries), with highly ambitious plans to redevelop the whole borough into some sort of box metropolis. Annington Homes and Barnet council decided that they would decant Sweets Way in order to rebuild it, with higher-density, less social occupancy and aimed at the yuppie commuter. But the residents on the estate decided they would not budge, because these were their homes after all, with their kids in local schools, ties with the community and their only option, being pushed further out of London. As tenants They started getting eviction letters, and parts of the estate boarded up, the local community started to resist social cleansing, with help from squatters and housing activists.

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In March, Sweets Way residents occupied the local social centre, and started a petition (3 March); several empty houses on the estate were also occupied as a political protest. Next they got Russell Brand, celebrity shit-stirrer, to pay them a visit (15 March), generating a barrage of media coverage, which they had been starved of to that point. The campaign began to build and residents started haranguing the council and Annington Homes about their eviction orders. In Court, Annington eventually got possession of all 160 homes on the estate (30 March), as well as an injunction on any protest on any part of the estate. But then the campaign just occupied another site (76 Oakleigh Road North), outside the injuction zone, and kept up its social centre activities; their guiding motto became the Mexican proverb: “They tried to bury us, but they forgot that we were seeds.” Annington Properties ordered High Court bailiffs to evict the remaining residents (11 April), with no date given for their arrival, causing stress and anxiety for the remaining occupants as they waited for their doors to be kicked in.

The intrepid campaigners kept up the pressure, protesting outside Annington offices and Barnet councillors’ homes, taking up advocacy case-work to help residents under threat of eviction (Juliet and Mustafa), and holding regular marches through Barnet to the town hall. By the 8th June, Sweets Way was celebrating three months in occupation; by month four, their occupation was still blossoming, and was renamed “Sweetstopia”. They embarked on a “People’s Regeneration Show Home” at 153 Sweets Way, a DIY project using supporters and volunteers to upgrade a home on an almost nil budget (£370) in six days, demonstrating that the whole estate could be brought up to an excellent standard for just £52,000 (3 August). This action won them a lot of MSM media coverage.

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But the pressure was building too, and bailiffs started turning up to turf out the rest of the residents at Sweets Way, Annington got a possession order for the campaign’s base at 76 Oakleigh Road North (8 August), private security firms harassed the occupation (4 September), and the war of attrition continues in the case of Mostafa, the last remaining occupant of his home.

The media has been pretty lax on reporting Sweets Way in any meaningful way, but the following events generated the following articles/ media:

Early Days

Eviction Resistance –

People’s Regeneration Show Home –

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The Sweets Way example helped set off another social tenant-led occupation, this time south of the river in Brixton. The Guinness Trust Estate is an estate in the process of decant, when the tenants with the aid of housing activists, occupied some of the empty flats; as with Sweets Way, their battle has been hard, with many of the same issues – bailiffs and evictions, the council smashing up usable flats, etc. Check their blog for the details: https://guinnessoccupation.wordpress.com/

Community-led occupations have provided an important locus, where social tenants, housing activists and squatters could come together temporarily to achieve common aims. However, what makes them different to the squatter occupations is their media-friendliness and adopting squatting as a tactic rather than a life-choice. They have been effective and important, but also had their problems, especially when relying on the honesty of the media, councils and politicians to keep their side of the bargain. Sweets Way and Guinness Trust are still in occupation, and we wish them the best of luck; if you can help them out at all (eg occupation rota, media coverage, legal), get in touch with them directly.

Protest & Squats

The squatted social centres and protests over the period have been focused on the themes of homelessness, austerity/cuts, evictions and gentrification, all of which are tied in together creating/ the result of the current housing (price) crisis.

Love Activists (Liverpool) – April

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The Love Activists have been around for a little while now, and their tactic of squatting spectacular empty buildings to turn them over to the homeless has won them respect and attention. In April, Love Activists in Liverpool squatted the impressive former-Bank of England building on Castle Street, and immediately made demands of the council to improve homeless provision, using their occupation as leverage. What followed was a stand-off between the occupiers and police, which was to last until the 12th May.

Although the Love Activists started the occupation to support the homeless in the city, the Liverpool police force threw disproportionate resources at policing and harassing the occupation, no doubt under political pressure. The total cost of the police operation over the two weeks came to over £225,000, with the police claiming its actions during the occupation were necessary for “ensuring the safety of the public”. Even though the right-wing newsrag, the Liverpool Echo, slated the occupiers at every occasion, the majority of Liverpudlians were well behind the squatting action, with an Echo poll finding that 52.5% of respondents thought the Love Activists “should stand firm”, 36.1% responding “They should never have occupied the building” and 11.5% “They’ve made their point. Time to move on”.

During the occupation, the Love Activists stormed the Mayor’s Ball at the Titanic Hotel in protest at welfare and public service cuts, and on the 12th May, the Love Activists were evicted from the Bank of England building. Five people were arrested and prosecuted for trespass who all pleaded guilty to “trespass while a possession order was in place”. Initial claims that a First World War bronze plaque had been stolen by the activists were proved false, after police confirmed it had been found in the building.

The Love Activists continued their spate of actions, protesting at the Three Queens Day in the city, and later went on to squat a former bar, Mello Mello. Beyond Liverpool, these actions were given scant attention by the mainstream media, and received little reportage. One of the few interview pieces can be found here, in a blog-piece for Independent Liverpool.

“An Afternoon With the Love Activists” [Independent Liverpool]

 

Reclaim Brixton (London) – 25 April

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Reclaim Brixton was a resounding great-day-out for many hundreds of Londoners and Brixtonites; the sun shone, the mob took over the streets and parks, and spontaneous marches headed-off at regular intervals to assail the yuppies lunching in the Village, the Town Hall, the Cop Shop, Foxtons, and other hated institutions in the area. Mobile soundsystems, samba bands, mega-phones and chants (“Fuck Off Back to Chelsea”, “Whose Streets? Our Streets”, to name a couple) provided the festival atmosphere to this platform for anti-gentrification, anti-eviction groups (Black Revs, Cressingham Gardens, etc) to lash out against those killing Brixton. A good round-up of the events of the day has been compiled on squat!net “The Mob is Rising”, and one of the many photo compilations of the day, on the Brixton Buzz website. The day petered out after Pedals, the legendary bicycle soundsystem, was arrested by a large riot police contingent.

The popularity of the event, and the smashed Foxton’s window, sent the mainstream media into a tailspin, and for the next week, they carefully lambasted and undermined the protest. Their messaging ranged from “Mostly peaceful, except for a handful of extremists”, “This is not the way to deal with gentrification”, “Is gentrification really that bad?”, “Everyone’s complicit in it”, trumpeted by the usual right-wing suspects, the Evening Standard, Daily Mail and the New Statesman. Even that liberal protector of the status qou, the Guardian, published a pile of commentary blah about how the demonstration solved nothing, and even concluding that rising property prices meant Brixtonians could now move to the countryside using Foxtons (the piece was funded by the Rockerfeller Foundation). And of course, the politicians got their word in too, with Lib Peck, co-op killer and social-housing destroyer, whining: “[…] it’s significant that the six arrests made on the day, were not Brixton residents, or even residents from other parts of London, but people who live outside the capital and came specifically to cause trouble.” [Editor’s note: Fuck off MSM and political careerists; we had a bloody good day out and we want more of this please]

 

Peterborough Squatters Autonomy – May

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In Peterborough, a crew calling themselves Peterborough Squatters Autonomy squatted an ex-Environment Agency office block Aqua House, adorning it with protest banners and setting it up as homeless refuge. Having moved in around 18 May, as they were taken to court on 4 June, and violently and illegally evicted the same day. Peterborough is one of the areas affected by s144 LASPOA and the confusion it creates, with incidents like this from squat!net [Nov 2014]. It seems any attempt to undermine the authority of the council or create practical solutions for the street homelessness, will not be tolerated in the Midlands. The squat got coverage from the local rag (pics), and ITV (interview):

 

Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (aka ANAL) – April to June

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Love ‘em or hate them, ANAL and its brother/sister groups (eg SHA) have been on the rampage in the West End of London, harassing the capital’s “exclusive zone”. Taking luxury building after luxury building, they demonstrate that so much of central London is really made up of empty buildings, owned by nefarious offshore companies and landbanking developers. ANAL’s actions have been audacious and on-message, taking the battle for buildings right to the heart of the beast, even in the face of security harassment and illegal eviction. The following list of buildings (some of their 34 squats in the period) between March and May has been compiled by the London Evening Standard in their article:

“Mayfair squat eviction: ‘Squatters are playing Monopoly by taking over some of London’s top properties’” [Evening Standard, 28 May 2015]

  • 123 Pall Mall, former Institute of Directors headquarters, evicted on March 30.
  • Admiralty Arch, Grade I listed former Cabinet Office set to be turned into luxury hotel in a reported £75 million deal, evicted on April 2. Press coverage in the Express.
  • 29 Pall Mall, empty office building near St James Square, evicted on April 14. Security bods lay siege to the building during the occupation [squat!net article].
  • 13 Neal Street, former offices of Natural Shoe shop, evicted at end of April by bailiffs.
  • 43-49 Parker Street, empty office building, believed to have got in through fire escape, evicted on April 30.
  • 60 Newman Street, former offices of engineering firm Ramboll which worked on Heathrow Terminal 2 and Tate Modern projects, evicted on May 8. Press coverage in the Fitzrovia News.
  • 40-41 Great Marlborough Street, hosted party with hundreds of organised by activist group Pheonix Rising, which charged £5 entrance and £2 a beer.
  • 66 Grafton Street, empty offices occupied by SHA who claimed bailiffs acted illegally without proper paperwork, evicted on May 19.
  • 22 Grafton Street, bailiffs evicted group after just three hours on May 23.
  • 16 Grosvenor Street, former office building now vacant and under development by Quintain, eviction on May 27. Press coverage by the Guardian.
  • Reading Room, Frith StreetEvening Standard article

 

Elephant & Castle Social Centre (London) – June

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In the run-up to the Anti-Austerity Demo in London in June, the Elephant and Castle Pub was squatted as a social centre. The massive redevelopment of the area (Heygate demolished, Aylesbury next) has meant that the pub was closed and Foxtons, the hyper-gentrification estate agent, had its eyes on opening a shop there. A pub by that name has existed in the vicinity since 1765, and is how Elephant and Castle – the neighbourhood in London – got its name. Despite the site being an asset of community value, it was left out of the listed status given to the rest of the brutalist 1960’s office block. The squat hosted a number of events, workshops and info nights over two and a half weeks, before being evicted [Rabble, 17 July].

The squat got some press coverage, from slime-mongers Vice with this self-congratulatory article: “I Watched Anti-Austerity Activists Start a Squat in a London Pub” [Vice, 18 June 2015]…and some local blogs:

 

The Radical Bank (Brighton) – June

The Radical Bank Collective squatted an abandoned building on Preston Road, in Brighton, previously a Barclays Bank, and set about creating a social space for creative action and activity. During their stay they hosted an open day, putting on various workshops (from first-aid to digital security), curating artwork and film exhibitions from local artists and activists, and provided free vegan food all day. The collective no doubt had high hopes for continuing their project, but it must be assumed that they were evicted by Barclays shortly after their last communiqué on 17 June.

Communique #1 – 11 June

Communique #2 – 17 June

 

Queer Punx @ The Black Cap (London) – June

Queer Punx crew hit the gay press headlines when they squatted the Black Cap, “London’s oldest continually operating LGBT venues”, which was unexpectedly closed in April this year, cause for 200 of its loyal supporters to gather outside for a vigil. Like the George and Dragon in east London [Gay Star News, 12 August 2015], another queer venue bites the dust, as property prices, developers and rent hikes kill off the lively corners of London. Spokesperson for Queer Punx, George F, eloquently explains the squatting situation in London in two sympathetic articles in the gay press:

 

Land Squats

Land squats have continued to come under pressure from the authorities and landowners, but have successfully resisted the eviction attempts to date.

Runnymede Eco-Village (Windsor) – April to June

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Runnymede Eco-Village was celebrating its third year of occupation, living outside the system, sustainably, on the land, when the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta came round. With the Queen’s river parade celebrating the Magna Carta (slightly ironic) passing somewhere in the vicinity, pressure to push the eco-community off the land before the event began to build in April. Mid-June and the Eco-village had a community festival to celebrate its first three years, when police from five forces were called in to stop it, claiming it was an “illegal rave” [Demotix, 12 June 2015]. This harassment seems to have backfired on the establishment, as Mainstream Media outlets (national and international, left and right) picked up the story, jazzed up the photos of the camp with soft-focus, and ran with it, leaving covering of the ageing monarch in the dust.

However the story is still not over, the Eco-Village winning their court battle to assert their rights under the Magna Carta [TLE, 24 June 2015], taking their case to the Court of Appeal in September (which may have failed at the time of writing). For a brief moment, Runnymede (having been under the radar for years), has become the most photographed and covered land-squat in recent times.

 

Grow Heathrow (London) – July

On the 8 July, the dodgy landowner of the Grow Heathrow occupation site arrived with six bailiffs to try evict the eco-community currently living there. The site’s anti-eviction process – lock-ons, phone trees – was set in motion. Before long, a crowd and the police arrived; the police informed the owner that his team of bailiffs was not equipped to deal with the situation and there being no warrant, any eviction would be unlawful. Once more, the landlord left empty handed, and Grow Heathrow celebrated.

Details from the Transition Heathrow blog “Bailiffs Successfully Resisted”

 

Global Squatting

Ireland

Until a few years ago, squatting in Ireland was almost unheard of. With the recent financial and property meltdown causing widespread hardship in the Republic, the squatting scene has been at the forefront of the fight-back. Dedicated squatting crews and housing activists– like An Spreach – have taken buildings, run homeless projects and held out against the brutal Gardai and the full might of the State, since squatting is illegal in Ireland. Two articles on squat!net give insight into this inspiring movement of direct-action, anti-capitalist response to the crisis there:

“Dublin: Interview with An Spreach housing activists” [squat!net, 27 June 2015]

“Dublin: Mutual Aid at the Bolt Occupied Hostel” [squat!net, 22 July 2015]

Brazil

Squatting is nothing new in Brazil, since the favelas there are themselves massive land squats. However, with one failed mega-event just gone (World Cup) and another due soon (Olympics), the homeless and the landless of Brazil are invading the unfinished shells of the vanity projects started by Brazil’s oligarchs and money moguls. And Brazil’s paramilitary riot police have come in hard to protect their paymasters’ failures, evicting those seeking shelter in these empty buildings. The following article appeared in Reuters, telling of riot police removing squatters from a derelict hotel in Rio de Janeiro, which former Brazilian oil magnate Eike Batista had planned to turn into a luxury hotel for the 2016 Olympic Games.

“Brazil police remove squatters from derelict ‘Olympic hotel’” [Reuters, 14 April 2015]

 

Homes, Not Jails – Evidence Base

In April 2015, we at SQUASH published our latest report on the effects of section 144 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (s144 LASPOA, for short), 28-months after it became enforceable. The policy brief, “Homes, Not Jails”, highlighted a number of points where s144 LASPOA was being misused, lacked clarity, or had hardened perceptions against squatters. Since the report, media stories continue to highlight that these injustices are still ubiquitous:

Policy Brief (Page 3): “The police regularly misuse s144 LASPOA and other offences to evict individuals or assist with evictions, and often fail to uphold laws which should protect such people.”

In April, activists from the FocusE15 Mother’s group re-entered a single mother’s home, which had been evicted by the council for rent arrears. Although the occupation was covered by “political action” and former-tenant dispute exemptions under s144 LASPOA, the police broke into the property and arrested Jasmin Stone, a high profile campaigner, for squatting in a residential property. Jasmin was released without charge, aided by 50+ supporters making noise outside the police cells. The statement put out on squat!net is a classic case study of police abuses under s144 LASPOA, like 1) breaking down the front door and seizing everyone inside, 2) threatening to take all children present into social care, 3) making token arrests , 4) not pressing charges after arrest under s144 LASPOA, 5) using specialist police units to arrest squatters (ie Scotland Yard). The story was picked up by RT [14 April 2015].

“London: E15 re-occupy evicted tenant’s home, cops come in hard” [squat!net, 17 April 2015]

“Focus E15 housing activist arrested on suspicion of ‘squatting’” [RT, 14 April 2015]

In another case, squatters took over the falling apart George Robey pub in Finsbury Park, famous for hosting some of Britain’s best underground music in the 1980’s. Islington council, in a joint operation with the Met police, raided the squat, arrested six and charged two with Extraction of Electricity. Like s144 LASPOA, extraction of electricity allows the police to raid premises, and evict a squat without court papers.

“Squatters evicted from famous Finsbury Park pub” [Islington Gazette, 20 April 2015]

Policy Brief (Page 4): “Evictions are becoming more frequent, violent and outside the bounds of the law”

This video shows representatives of property developer, Lexadon, using violence to enter the squatted Walton Lodge building on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. Despite illegally breaking into the squat and assaulting people in the squat, only one builder was arrested.

“Video captures builders forcing their way into squatted Walton Lodge building on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton” [Brixton Buzz, 23 April 15]

This story from Kent is an extreme example of the type of violence squatters’ face, when landlords send hired thugs/ armed gangs to scare them off. In this case a gang of 30-armed men with baseball bats and screwdrivers smashed down the door of a squat of three in Chatham. The squatters were lucky to get out alive; beaten black-and-blue, possibly stabbed, they were able to make a break out of the squat, with the gang in pursuit, when the police arrived. The squatters were taken to hospital for treatment. The violence of landlords and their thugs is the real crime here, not squatting.

“Chatham squatters describe being attacked by gang wielding baseball bats, metal poles and screwdrivers in New Road” [Kent Online, 16 Jan 2015]

Policy Brief (Page 5): “Commercial Premises are now the only empty buildings open for occupation, which tend to be unsuitable for living in, and uncertain with continuous calls to extend criminalisation”

Stories continue to surface in the local press about the hardships squatters put on 1) local business owners, and/or 2) local residents, in a low-level, building narrative of why squatting should be fully criminalised. In the first article from Worthington, commercial property owner Mr Khan said: “You can’t imagine the amount of stress I’m going through in this period. Every night when I go to bed I close my eyes knowing someone is in my property” (diddums), while the second article stresses the growing squat-rave culture in Cambridge keeping whole neighbourhoods awake.

“Landlord criticises law as squatters occupy Worthing property” [Worthing Herald, 22 May 2015]

“Rage against a Cambridge squatters’ rave – and now police come under fire” [Cambridge News, 10 Feb 2015]

A word of thanks to all the squatters, crews, activists and others for keeping the dream of squatting alive.