London: Squatting, Media and the Liberal Myth

(No specific names or places have been used in this article. Much of the information is purposefully left vague for two reasons. Firstly to respect people’s anonymity and secondly so individuals and groups do not feel they are specifically under attack, which is not at all my intention. My intention is to put the squatting campaign in a wider political context, and examine some of the attitudes I have observed within this context)

As a prelude to the criminalisation on residential squatting in the UK in 2012, the right-wing media went on a hysterical smear campaign against those who self-house. All sorts of disparaging nonsense was thrown about. The media’s focus became the (in)conveniently timed squatting of a large house in a wealthy area of London. It was too tasty for the media to resist: a photogenic affluent professional couple. A baby due. And freeloading squatters invading their future family home. The hacks went mental.

The tabloids’ OTT demonisation provoked the squatting community into action. It was vital, with this deluge of bullshit sealing the deal on a residential squatting ban, to have a response that combated the monopoly the media had on the argument. Other campaigners thought it had even more potential: that a constant presence in the media and the government could potentially change the public and/or the government’s mind.

And so the squatting campaign worked on the presumption that, in a democracy such as this, we can have an impact on these institutions if we just try hard enough to communicate with them. And what has become clear over the last couple of years (though I’m pretty sure a number of people figured this out a long time ago) is that attempting to establish an equal dialogue with the media is impossible. The dice are already loaded: their aim is to attract attention for their own purposes, whether it being viewing figures or shifting papers. A spirited debate between pro and anti-squatters might stir some interest, but a sensationalist smearing of squatters is even more titillating.

And so the constant battle for sympathetic press meant that those ‘representing’ the squatters began to accept (or had already accepted) the press’ biased rationale. The squatters entered into debates which made no sense. They said things that weren’t true, that they didn’t believe. And, probably the worst outcome, was that rather blaming the structural problems with the media, pro-squatting campaigners sometimes blamed other squatters for their failure.

I remember my friend being interviewed on a news program. He mentioned the fact that there were already laws protecting people from their homes being squatted if they intended to use them. The interviewer asked him if he thought that squatters such as these should be arrested. This put my friend in a terrible position – because he was on the news, certain things were unmentionable. He was trying to broaden the appeal of squatting, and so he couldn’t say that he disagreed with such laws or felt they might be too harsh. You only have a few minutes of air time and need to keep things brief and simple, and so these complications cannot be dealt with properly. My friend, trapped, said the only thing he felt he could say: “Squatters such as these should be arrested and punished as the law states”. He probably didn’t believe this. The punishment is potentially severe for some squatters just making the silly mistake of occupying a property that isn’t abandoned, and can also be read as an attack on politically motivated occupations. But the point is he couldn’t have responded in any other way in the hope of being taken seriously by the mainstream media.

The media doesn’t like complications and ambiguity. Intellectual finesse is not punchy. For a lot of the debate their argument was completely one-sided: “all squatters are bad”. The pro-squatting media campaigners, therefore, could not risk a finessed argument. Their position had to fit into the simplistic, polarised media perspective, and therefore be “all squatters are great”. Obviously, neither position is wholly true. The problems with this are two-fold. Firstly, the argument becomes incredibly limited from the start. It presents an unrealistic image of squatters, leaving no space to challenge the fundamental assumption that squatters are a uniform type. Secondly, the result of this was that when reality inevitably refused to fit the projected ideal image, the squatting campaigners turned their frustrations on the squatters themselves.

Things are far from perfect in the squatting world. Things go wrong, as they are wont to do when large groups of people live together intimately for extended periods of time. After such things happen, I’ve heard of squatters being called by pro-squatting campaigners to inform them that the activists were dissatisfied. Why is this? The main source of tension is that the “activists” have been building up a strawman image of the ‘squatter’, and they expect the numerous and diverse range of squatters to uphold that image. This is an impossible task. Here, we see a campaign that becomes so obsessed with media image, and so indoctrinated into media language, that it turns on the very people its supposed to be supporting. When pro-squatting campaigners have been brutally grilled on live television, afterwards I’ve witnessed them fly into a rage at other squatters they perceive as the problem. I cannot blame anyone for being upset by these experiences, or taking them very personally, but it’s saddening to see how much easier it is to direct anger at individuals than at the power the media have over the entire debate. Since when was the media a squatter’s friend, and other squatters the enemy?

I’ve heard squatters saying that mistakes they make could have huge effects on how the government chooses to handle further restrictions on squatting. This is plays into the liberal myth of the impact an individual or small group can have on established power structures. It’s important to be clear: the State doesn’t actually care about squatting. But if certain government figures have axes to grind with squatting, and if a ban on it is expedient to the incumbent government to secure some votes, they will be able to push it through. Squatters and pro-squatting campaigners are simply not taken into consideration.

Indeed, the State’s logic and the government’s own disregard for the democracy was made quite clear before the ban on residential squatting was brought in. It put out a “consultation”, ostensibly to ascertain the public mood on the ban. The result? 95% of those who engaged with the consultation said they disagreed with the ban. The Met police – the State’s own agenda enforcers – were against it, saying the law would stretch their resources and skills. Government response? Ban it anyway. If anyone had any hope of the campaign challenging the media or the government on their own territory, this should have been the moment when it was clear that they simply did not give a shit.

The incestuous relationship between the media and government is nothing new. It is essential to realise that the paths of communication they set up are not designed for them to be challenged, but for them to maintain control of the debate under the veneer of offering an equal voice to the public. And their agenda prevailed not because more people didn’t join in the campaign. Not because more people needed to talk to the media and the government. Not because enough petitions weren’t signed. But because the avenues of dialogue were already biased against squatters.

What to do next is part of a much longer discussion. But I feel that this form of aggressive liberalism has been, and is, counter-productive. What has been productive, however, is ordinary people realising they can operate outside of these confines. This is what the government and media are most scared of. A lot of work during the last two years surrounding squatting has been inspiring. The SQUASH campaign has provided great support for squatting arrestees. The Eviction Resistance Network linked up with tenants. They discussed their common ground in a crisis of rotting empty buildings, rocketing rents and increased homelessness in order to stand collectively against evictions. These are just two examples, amongst many, of expanding the action outside of the government and media. Their channels fracture us. When we refuse to accept these channels, it is our first step toward communities linking up to defend themselves on their own terms.