The Police, Squat Evictions and Housing Precarity

by Izzy Köksal

Police involvement in the violent eviction of squatters is just one strand of an ever-deepening UK housing crisis.

First published: 08 May, 2014 | Category: 

A recent tweet by Lambeth MPS brags about the eviction of a squatted doctors surgery in Brixton on a rainy January morning: 'another crime generator closed down!' they exclaimed. Happily, the twitter account was met with a barrage of abuse, but this tweet shows how the police are often found intervening in what is a civil matter to make people homeless. UKBA officers had got an invitation to this eviction as well, meaning that people were not just made homeless but detained and imprisoned because of their immigration status. In the run up to the eviction Lambeth police had been harassing the squatters through paying regular visits to the squat and trying to look through the windows.

For centuries, squatting has been a way that homeless people have housed themselves in abandoned buildings. But squatting in residential buildings was made a criminal offence in September 2012 under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, in the face of great opposition by a diverse range of people and groups. (This law is now continuously being challenged by squatters through protest occupations and other subversions and in the courts.) In the midst of a severe housing crisis, it was made a criminal offence to house yourself in an unused residential building. Despite calls from some Labour politicians for the full criminalisation of squatting, however, squatting in non-residential buildings is still a civil matter.

Yet police are often seen flanking bailiffs at evictions or simply conducting their own illegal raids. The police justify their presence at evictions as necessary to prevent a ‘breach of the peace’ yet very often it seems that they are the cause of breach of the peace. One squatter after a recent squat eviction described how a policeman reassured them that they were not getting involved, then told how they “saw him on the fire escape with a battering ram breaking down the door, accompanied by two bailiffs”. It appears that bailiffs have a similar habit of going beyond the law when evicting squatters; Squatters Legal Network told me that whilst squatters have always had their possessions stolen by bailiffs, there has been a recent upsurge of cases in the last year by the same bailiff company.

Back at the Brixton doctors surgery last October, where they were successfully resisting an eviction attempt, I heard another story of the Met involvement in an eviction which had nothing to do with them. One squatter told me how they “were sitting eating breakfast when the police burst through the ceiling. There was a police helicopter flying overheard for us too!” Lots of squatters are pretty nonchalant about police and bailiffs going beyond the law as it is seen as fairly standard, but there is still a great deal of anger and frustration, and this incident was particularly extreme. Shortly after this, there was an incident at the Mare Street social centre in Hackney where builders from broke in and smashed up the building with crow bars and sledge hammers. The squatters managed to catch this on camera, but the police haven’t taken any action because the videos do not show the bailiffs breaking into the building. “The council have taken it seriously though, as it’s a grade two listed building” one squatter said, without irony.

There are many more stories of surveillance, illegal roof top break-in evictions, hired thugs, thefts and physical assaults. All of this is just one aspect of the wider precarity and violence of the housing crisis. Squatters are people who are simply attempting to house themselves and the criminalisation of squatting residential buildings has made this more difficult. The whole raft of extra-legal methods used by police, bailiffs, and property owners against squatters makes this situation even worse, as their ability to reside safely and securely in non-residential buildings is constantly under threat. Squatters Legal Network said they knew of four recent instances of police harassing squatters, in some cases failing to act when a section 6 of the Criminal Law Act has been broken by the owner, and often siding with the owner (Section 6 protects the rights of occupiers of properties). SLN also spoke of the difficulty of gathering this sort of information from squatters and so it is probable that the number of cases of abuses is much higher.

Of course, all evictions are violent whether legal or illegal. It is important to highlight the intense uncertainty and aggression faced by squatters and others who are precariously housed. These examples show the extreme and disturbing lengths that owners, police and bailiffs go to in order to restore the right of private property. One person I talked to explained to me that one reason they feel they can commit these abuses is because squatters are dehumanised:  “they think we are scum.” This dehumanisation and the normalisation of evictions is of course ramped up by the mainstream media; evictions of squatters are becoming entertainment for TV programmes like ‘The Sheriffs are Coming’. A £1 million contract between Lambeth council and UK Evict (the biggest and most violent bailiffs) showed a request to film the eviction of Rushcroft Road housing co-ops and squats for another bailiff TV programme.

Of course, these tactics are not just used against squatters. Other precariously housed people have long been subjected to such treatment in the defence of private property; tenants on low incomes find bailiffs threatening them on their doorsteps and travellers have always been a target for state violence. The legal and extra-legal attacks on squatters make all of our situations more vulnerable as the new law, section 144, strengthens (even more) the rights of private property owners at the expense of others.

This is all part of the increasingly serious housing crisis we face in the UK, where private property reigns supreme, in which mothers skip meals to feed their children and pay the rent, where people hit by the bedroom tax face constant anxiety and suicidal feelings about their living situations, and where squatters are evicted in a dawn raid to make buildings empty again. Cuts to welfare and housing benefit, soaring social and private rents, and gentrification mean more and more people are being made homeless. The emergence of live-in guardian companies normalises hyper-precarious living and undermines tenants’ rights and squatters’ options of unused buildings. One housing benefit cut  introduced last year for 25-35 year olds (part of a whole raft of such  cuts that have received little attention) has seen an increase in demand for homelessness services by young people. For many of these young people, and many others who the council do not have a statutory obligation to house and whose housing benefit doesn’t cover their rent, their only option will be to squat, despite the crackdowns they face.

Squatters have very few rights compared to tenants but one thing they can do is film these incidents and take out private prosecutions. This is easier said than done, though– when your place is being broken into, it’s difficult to film and the amount of video evidence they need is high. But it’s still a useful tactic to pursue as the information can be used by the Squatters Legal Network’s spotter card project. They are collecting reports, photos, video evidence and other information on abuses by bailiffs, security guards, police and other ‘agents of darkness’ in order to pursue legal strategies in support of squatters. And of course, strong barricades makes their job harder.

Squatting has long been a way that people solved their housing issues collectively, and for decades the government has threatened to criminalise it. But as well as these legal threats, on a daily basis, violent extra-legal methods are used against squatters. This is taking place in a context in which people are forced out of their communities and entire working class estates are demolished in the name of ‘regeneration’. As Housing Solidarity argue in this report, it’s important to talk about these incidents so they do not go unnoticed, so that the news is spread within our communities and beyond to others who may face similar situations in the future.

Despite these crackdowns, squatters are often able to resist evictions, using text messages sent to those on the squat eviction phone network to mobilise numbers quickly, sending bailiffs and police on their way. The communal living also allows them to deal with some of the stresses. Explaining how they coped with the anxiety of evictions one squatter said, “we’re all anxious together, so it’s OK”. This sort of collective mutual support and direct action shows us ways that we can organise in our communities and develop networks to defend our homes and our abilities to house ourselves.

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