Sunday, 13 November 2016

Options for dealing with squatting



As the Metropolitan Police say, and this brilliant publication reveals, most buildings that squatters live in have been abandoned or are otherwise empty. When peoples’ only choice is criminalized, the legality of the law itself is discredited.’ – Danny Dorling (All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster)
Almost everyone was against the criminalization of squatting. When the Ministry of Justice put out their consultation – Options for Dealing with Squatting – in July 2011, it’s safe to assume they had not anticipated that 96 per cent of respondents would ask them not to change the law; they must have been surprised to discover that included people like the Metropolitan Police Force, the Law Society, their own Liberal Democrat partners in government, and various homeless charities, including Crisis and Shelter. Despite overwhelming opposition, the government ploughed ahead with their property protection plan; what was previously a private matter between property owners and occupiers is now a matter for the police – and can be punished by up to six months in prison or a $6,760.00 fine.
Take a closer look and it’s not difficult to see why most were against criminalization. At the time squatting was criminalized in England and Wales, there were 1.2 million families on housing waiting-lists, while over 750,000 properties stood empty for six months or more. Despite Ministers and the media laying the groundwork for legislative change bycarpet bombing public opinion with mistruths, the reality is that squatting is a relatively minor problem; however, one of the major causes of the UK housing crisis is property being kept deliberately unavailable and unused by wealthy speculators – often as a way of avoiding tax. It is speculation, not squatting, that causes most insecurity in the housing market.
And as the consultation responses revealed, not everyone sees squatting as a problem: most respondents to the consultation wrote in support of its many positives. One such response pointed out that squatting is only a problem for those who own multiple properties, and that it has traditionally been a solution for those who can’t call themselves owners:
The number of Interim Possession Orders indicates that this really is quite a small problem for society (although it can be a large problem for a small number of individuals). The “tradition” of squatting, traced back to the Diggers, has undoubtedly had benefits for society.’
All this begs the question: why would the government spend vast sums of public money to protect those who perpetuate the problems caused by empty properties? And why would it do so by criminalizing homeless people in the midst of a housing crisis? Many respondents to the consultation questioned the government’s priorities: property protection for the rich and prison for the poor seemed an unfair proposition of almost Dickensian proportion. In their consultation response, Liberal Democrat think-tank Alterpointed out that those who benefit from criminalization – wealthy tax-avoiders – have the ear of government:
This change is contrary to the interests of UK taxpayers. It would provide a valuable state funded benefit to wealthy tax avoiders. This influential lobby has the ear of Conservative Justice Minister Crispin Blunt. If he were concerned about ordinary property owners who actually pay tax in the UK, there are far cheaper ways of protecting them from squatters.
During what little debate there was on criminalization, John McDonnell MP (now Shadow Chancellor) reminded the House of Commons that it should ask of all legislation: ‘Will it cause more problems than it seeks to prevent?’ After six months, not a single person arrested under Section 144 was found to be displacing a home-owner. The first person to be jailed under the new law was Alex Haigh, a 21-year-old brick layer who, struggling to find work during a housing crisis, was living in a property in Pimlico, London that had been otherwise empty for over a year at the time of his arrest, and was owned by property developers.
There is some hope that this obviously unjust law could be binned. These days, there’s significantly shorter shrift for wealthy tax-avoiders ploughing their ill-gotten gains into London property and leaving it empty, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis. Nobody could have predicted that John McDonnell – who campaigned against the criminalization of squatting both before and after the introduction of Section 144 – would one day become Shadow Chancellor. If a new-look Labour gain power, a repeal could well be on the cards – because, as McDonnell said six months after criminalization:
People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse.
Options for dealing with squatting is a short collection of responses to the consultation, published by Dog Section Press. You can read it online or pick up a print copy.
Vyvian Raoul is an editor at Dog Section Press.

They tried to kill it, but squatting's not dead




Despite the British government criminalising residential squatting in 2012, the squat community is still active and squatting remains a defiant protest against inadequate housing and inequality.
In July 2011, the Ministry of Justice launched its euphemistically titled consultation, ‘Options for dealing with squatting’. Successive administrations had attempted to deal with squatting, and from the outset it appeared that the new Conservative government was determined to continue the crusade. It would do this not by addressing supply and demand in the housing market, but by seeking to criminalise trespass; what was a civil matter between owners and occupiers, the government intended to make a matter for the police. 
It came as a surprise to the Ministry of Justice when 96% of respondents to their consultation were against criminalisation. They must have been fairly aghast to find that included not just squatters and their supporters, but also people like the Metropolitan Police, their own Liberal Democrat partners in government, and an array of homeless charities including Crisis and Shelter. Only ten private landlords responded to the consultation to say that they had been negatively affected by squatting.
Although the government and its media cheerleaders paved the way for criminalisation by carpet bombing public opinion with obfuscation about Eastern Europeans squatting your home as soon as you nip out for a pint of milk, the truth is that squatting has historically been a relatively minor problem. In their response, the Law Society told the government that the civil law relating to squatting was “not often used, because squatting happens infrequently, but where it is, our members report that it is extremely effective.” The Met told the MoJ, with uncharacteristic clarity, that the majority of buildings that are squatted are “either empty of abandoned”.
And of course, not everyone sees squatting as a problem: most respondents to the consultation wrote in support of its many positives. One such response pointed out that squatting is only a problem for those who own multiple properties, and that it has traditionally been a solution for those who can’t call themselves owners: “The number of Interim Possession Orders indicates that this really is quite a small problem for society (although it can be a large problem for a small number of individuals). The ‘tradition’ of squatting, traced back to the Diggers has undoubtedly had benefits for society.”
Despite overwhelming opposition, the government ploughed ahead with their property protection wet-dream and it became law in 2012. The act of seeking shelter in abandoned residential properties – squatting – has been dealt with: anyone found putting a roof over their head in this way can now be punished by up to six months in prison or a £5,000 fine. The first person to be jailed under the new law was Alex Haigh, a 21 year old brick-layer who, struggling to find work in the midst of a housing crisis, was living in a property in Pimlico, London that had been otherwise empty for over a year at the time of his arrest.
During what little debate there was on criminalisation, John McDonnell MP (now Shadow Chancellor) reminded the House of Commons that it should ask of all legislation: “Will it cause more problems than it seeks to prevent?” After six months, not a single person arrested under the new law was found to be displacing a home-owner; at the time squatting in residential buildings was criminalised, there were over 750,000 properties in the UK that stood empty for six months or more.
Options for dealing with squatting is a short, anonymously and collectively authored book of responses to the consultation: a platform for opinions that have otherwise been ignored. It’s a modest rallying cry, as well as an attempt to call-out a deficit of democracy in the parliamentary process – a folio in the door of history. As the old chant goes: whatever they say, squatting will stay.
One of the victories of the campaign against criminalisation was that only squatting in residential buildings was outlawed: squatting in commercial buildings is still a private matter between owner and occupier. So while it’s not easy, there is still a squatting scene in London and other big cities in England and Wales. And that scene is still important, both for those that have no better housing options and for those that use squatting as a protest.
There is some hope that this unjust law could be binned. These days, there’s significantly shorter shrift for wealthy tax-avoiders ploughing their ill-gotten gains into London property and leaving it empty, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis. Nobody could have predicted that John McDonnell – who campaigned against the criminalisation of squatting both before and after the introduction of Section 144 – would one day become Shadow Chancellor. If a new-look Labour gain power, activists hope a repeal could well be on the cards – because, as McDonnell said six months after criminalisation: “People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse.”
Vyvian Raoul is an editor at Dog Section Press. Check out Options for dealing with squatting online or grab a print copy.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Banksy / Dismalaid / Calais / Riot ID



Infamous street-artist Banksy made headlines again this week with his latest illicit artwork. The piece, which was painted opposite the French Embassy in London, features a crying Cosette from Les Miserables, her tears the result of a cloud of CS gas that engulfs her. Like his recent pieces on the edge of The Jungle camp and around Calais, it’s another comment on the refugee crisis. This piece takes a pop at the French government’s handling of the situation – and, in particular, their use of public order weaponry against the people that live in the makeshift encampment.
In a first for the elusive street artist, his piece featured a QR code. By scanning the code with a QR reader, viewers were linked to a Youtube video of CS, rubber bullets and concussion grenades being fired indiscriminately into the camp, which is situated on dunes on the outskirts of the Port au Calais. Despite video evidence, just last week police spokesman Steve Barbet issued a denial against such tactics: ‘It’s not in our interest to use teargas unless it’s absolutely necessary to restore public order, and it is never used in the camp itself,’ he told the Guardian.
Banksy has another link to The Jungle: when his Dismaland exhibition was dismantled after its five week summer run, the artist sent leftover materials to the camp to be turned into shelters. The materials were accompanied by Dismaland crew members, who have so far constructed 12 dwellings, a community centre and a children’s play area, in a project that has become known as ‘Dismalaid’.
When the crew visited, they found evidence everywhere of weapons being used inside the camp. An anonymous member of the of the Dismalaid crew told us: ‘It’s impossible to walk from one end of the camp to the other without stumbling upon various bits of depleted weaponry – from CS canisters to rubber bullet casings to spent cartridges, they’re all over the place. And everyone you speak to has stories of the Gendarmes firing them indiscriminately into the camp – seemingly with little reason, very often.’
And when crew members used Riot ID, a civic forensics project designed to help civilians identify riot control weapons, they found out that the weapons being used were not designed for shooting at people at close range or in confined spaces likes tents, lorries, tunnels and fenced in border zones. Impact munitions like rubber bullets have strict guidelines on distance and angles for firing. Likewise, how ‘safe’ or harmful tear gas is depends on the amount of chemicals released, how close you are to where it is discharged, as well as on how much air is moving through the area. Because refugee camps like The Jungle are overcrowded and heavily secured with fencing, razor wire and guards, when tear gas is set off, no one can escape very far.
Being trapped by tear gas can lead to serious injuries and even to death, as the killing of a 20-year-old Eritrean woman in Calais last July made clear. The young woman was hit by a car while fleeing from tear gas fired at close range by the police into the back of a lorry.
Not only are the French security forces shooting people with riot control weapons at close range, almost all the tear gas casings the Dismalaid crew found were identified as out-of-date. Like other chemical products, tear gas expires, becoming dangerous for a number of reasons. For one, the mechanism that sets off the canister or grenade can become faulty. This can lead to injury for anyone handling them. It can also make the devices more likely to cause fires – especially when lodged into enclosed spaces like tents or lorries. This dangerous police behaviour can be deadly.
In addition, the chemical compound contained in expired weapons may no longer be approved according to the most recent safety tests and certificates. But perhaps most ominously, expired riot control casings are very difficult to trace back to the point of sale – allowing both weapons manufacturers and governments to evade blame.
One can imagine the thinking behind using out-of-date, potentially illegal weaponry on people with no legal status: has someone in a police station somewhere in Calais taken the decision to use up old stock on those with no right to complain? Perhaps they gambled no one will find out and, even if they did, that no-one will care anyway. But more and more people are becoming sympathetic to the plight of the refugees perched on that small patch of land in the Port au Calais. And by using Riot ID, the crew in Calais were able to identify tear gas casing as products of French manufacturers SAE AlsetexNobel Sport Securite and Verney-Carron, as well as US-based Combined Tactical Systems. These companies are industry leaders that export around the world – in the Port au Calais they’re profiting from the repression of refugees.
Riot ID is a project from Omega Research Foundation, Bahrain Watch and Bournemouth University with Minute Works graphic design. The RiotID pocket guide is available to freely download in Arabic, English, French, German, Spanish and Turkish . Dismalaid is an impromptu anarcho-aid project run by recycled crew from Banksy’s Dismaland.
Anna Feigenbaum is a Lecturer in Media and Politics at Bournemouth University
Vyvian Raoul is a co-founder of STRIKE! Magazine and founder of Dog Section Press.
- See more at: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2016/01/29/dangerous-weaponry-used-on-refugees-in-calais/#sthash.iMVcvm4q.dpuf

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

UnFunFair by Simon Tyszko




There's a whole heap of madness going on in most people's minds, most of the time, isn't there? Unlike everyone else, however, artist Simon Tyszko has the good sense to set it free, run with it, and allow his wildest thoughts to become touchable. Like the full-sized Dakota airplane wing installed in his flat, on the fifth floor of a Fulham council estate. Or his work in cocaine, Absolute Hypocrisy, that made a criminal of the buyer - the 'deal' taking place in a Parisian hotel room. His practice is an ode to what-if, a punk-prayer to the possible. His latest show, in the arch space at the Beaconsfield Gallery, is a cornucopia of his most recent explorations in tangibility – some of the best bits that have made it from mind to matter. So go play at The UnFunFair today.

http://london.lecool.com/event/unfunfair/

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Beyond Best and Worst*



So that's what a People's Assembly looks like.


Of course, I agreed with a lot of what was said inside the hall yesterday afternoon; I sort of thought I might - I've been broadly agreeing with left rhetoric for the best part of a decade now.

For all the talk of left unity, however, there does still seem to be a divide between those inside and those that were - both physically and metaphorically - outside of Westminster's Central Methodist Hall yesterday. But it's ok, because inside the hall there was, more or less, unity – and for some, that's enough.

For the sane and non-sectarian elements of the left, for the best of the left, this marks a new chapter in left renewal as well as a desperately needed lift for the whole anti-cuts movement. For the sectarians and naysayers, for the worst of the left, it represents a slide into even greater irrelevance.”

What if the people on the lawn outside central hall yesterday are not 'the worst of the left', but - perhaps even in equal measue to those inside - caring, dedicated and intelligent? To dismiss them and their disagreement is not only intellectually lazy, but actively self-defeating if seeking to build a truly inclusive movement. It's an old elitist trick to say: “Ignore these people, they're just trouble makers. They don't have any ideas of their own and they're trying to spoil the party for everyone else. They're merely malcontents, or mad.” Sound familiar?

Who are these ghouls that are not serious about building a stronger, bigger left, anyway? Doesn't it seem unlikely that the people who bothered to write blogs, or who came to Central Hall yesterday to put their point across with megaphones, want to remain on the sidelines - don't want a big movement capable of change? Wouldn't they just stay at home and cry into their Bakunin if that were the case? Does anyone seriously believe they're saboteurs, that they want the world to be a worse place? Or have they just got a different perspective on how to build a better one?

People are fed up with the old sectarian, divisive and insular habits of so much of the left. Disagreement and debate are necessary and healthy. That is not the issue. The point is to establish common ground, build on it, and not get distracted by ancient grudges or trivial differences. You could feel the collective willing to make this a reality and marginalise those who make it more difficult.”

The prefix phrase 'disagreement and debate are healthy' gave me pause, and brought to mind the Met's 'Protest is an important part of democracy' – you know that there's a but coming. In the Met's case it's: we will stomp you into the ground if you try it; in the author's it's: you will be marginalised and ignored if you disagree - or branded un-sane. Isn't it dangerous to say, now, at this point, you have crossed a line (of my own imagining) and I don't have to listen to you anymore. You are dismissed. You are a non-person and your ideas are non-ideas.

Apart from the fact that marginalising people only ever makes them more angry, and almost never makes them just disappear like you want, saying 'we're not the sectarians: they are!' is sorta sectarian, isn't it? Isn't it a bit ironically divisive to talk of a best and a worst of the left, of marginalising people whose views are percieved to be 'difficult'. There was lots of agreement on the day, which was really heartening, but I heard a whole plethora of disagreement as well – ranging from concerns over a lack of consensus decision making to gripes about catering. To dimiss the whole gamut as 'naysaying' or irrelevant doesn't leave much room for nuance – it's all a bit black and white, a bit George Bush Junior.

At the meeting about cuts to disability welfare, for example, I heard one activist complain that the discussion had been sidelined to the marquee – that it was not only insensitive but also unkind to leave comrades with disabilities “twitching in the cold” all afternoon. She thought it was important that once the group got inside the hall, they made this particular concern heard. Is she a naysayer? Certainly. Does she, therefore, deserve to be marginalised or branded irrelevant? Certainly not.

But when we did finally get back inside the hall, there was no opportunity to raise that concern – only to swoon at Tony Benn again and clap along to the speeches that seemed well-rehersed rather than a reaction to the day's events. One person approached the stage to pass a note to the table, but he was awkwardly ignored until Francesca Martinez ackowledged at least his presence, if not his note. Sorry fella, like those outside with megaphones, you are not part of the script – you were not in the programme.

And the jubilation wasn't even universal inside the hall: chair Vicki Barrs had to ask people to stop heckling on a couple of occasions. It's not fair to heckle, she said, it doesn't give people the chance to say what they want to say; if people are heckling, might it be that they haven't been given the chance to say what they wanted to say? If there are hecklers, isn't it because they don't agree with what's being said? And if they don't agree, you haven't got consensus – you just haven't, and no amount of applause or congratulatory sentiment can hide that.

Is there an absolute truth towards which we are all working? Is there a point at which those outside the Central Methodist Hall have crossed the line, have put their own needs and wants above those of their comrades? Maybe, but you can bet your life that those outside think exactly the same of those inside. In fact, you don't need to place such a high stakes bet: you could just go and ask them, talk with them, meet them halfway. But it's pretty difficult to meet anyone halfway when you're sitting on a stage.

Consensus is not about dismissing all of the arguments you disagree with until you're left with applause; it's about hearing the whole range of opinion and then finding a way forward that's acceptable to all. Of course, you may think that your ideas are just better, more correct, than other people's – you're perfectly entitled to that opinion. But don't then accuse others of sectarianism.

And not only because it's a self-defeating waste of energy: it just sounds so silly. Before this week I'd only heard the word sectarian used in connection with religious conflicts, or where atrocities have been committed. It is at best absurd and at worst intellectually authoritarian to describe these disagreements as sectarian – I can see neither John Rees nor Ian Bone calling for their opponents to be knee-capped, can you?

Actually, I'd like a movement that included both Ian Bone and John Rees – but I'd like to be sat at the same level as them, discussing ideas and coming to, if not agreement, then consensus. I don't want to be patronised by handsomely paid trade unionists plying well-worn phrases about workers' solidarity (seriously, if you're that solid, take a pay cut?). I'd like something that looked a bit more like an Occupy style general assembly - I'd rather be waving my jazz-hands in agreement with something I contributed to than applauding the same people I've been applauding for the past ten years. I'd like a movement that convinces rather than condemns. 

Let's not forget that 'the left' (big or small L, as you please) should be merely a transitory classification on the way towards a world without any...


*If you disagree with anything in this blog post, fear not: I'm probably just a nutter. Feel free to go ahead and marginalise me - but don't then be surprised if that makes me angry, and more likely, not less, to disagree with you in future.

Friday, 26 April 2013

The best people for the job




"It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor." - Seneca


"I want my leaders to be the best people for the job", said a friend to me recently, over a Jamaican lager on one of the first sunny evenings of Spring, in another friend's back yard. On the kind of evening that can't help but fill you with optimism, a cloud suddenly formed in my mind.

Not because of the deep-seated, unquestioned, desire for a leader; not even for the denial of our own worth, the insidious idea that some people are just better; but because he believed that only by paying them lots of money would we attract these 'best people',  these ubermensch, and that our politicians weren't actually paid enough.

Perhaps it's based on a fair premise - that, in a fair world, those who worked the hardest would be best rewarded (and another, distinctly dodgy, premise: that wealth is the best reward). Perhaps, as a teacher himself, that's just an idea he desperately needs to cling to, to stay optimistic as those poor underpaid politicians keep piling up work at outside his classroom door - his own mental light at the end of the tunnel. One day, Lord, one day. But it's denial; in George Monbiot's phrase, "if wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire."

And even in that imaginary fair world, the more money for better people premise only works if you want to be led, rather than represented - if you want politicians to look up to, someone to adore, rather than representatives who know how you feel. Fuck sympathy, I want my politicians to have truly empathetic understanding of the dread fear caused by an unexpected bill landing on the doormat - and then work hard to eliminate that fear for everyone.

This is something that Mujica, the world's poorest president, understands.  Now that he's attained office, he's on a deliberate drive to make the presidency 'less venerated'. He refuses to live in the official presidential palace, instead using it as shelter for homeless people during the coldest months. While our own venerated leaders are driven around in limousines, Mujica gets about in an old VW Beetle. 
His presidential salary is about $108,000 per annum, but he donates 90% (mostly to programs for expanding housing for the poor), which leaves him with an amount comparable to that of an average Uruguayan. 

When asked if he has enough to live on, Mujica's response is straight-forward:

"I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine, because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less"

Life dominates thought and determines will; if your life is one of privilege, how often will your thoughts be with the poor? How likely will reducing inequality be your will?