Squatters’ 60-Year War Against Private Property

How propertied classes team up with the state to forcibly evict urban squatters.

Margaret Garb

After police evicted them from Tompkins Square Park in 1988, several homeless people moved to the “Dinkinsville” shantytown on East 8th Street. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

Around 12:30 a.m. on August 7, 1988, a small army of police offi­cers in riot gear cov­ered their badges, raised their batons and charged on foot and on horse­back into Tomp­kins Square Park on New York’s Low­er East Side. The artists, punks, squat­ters, anar­chists and evictees gath­ered there had expect­ed a con­fronta­tion. With real estate devel­op­ers cir­cling the neigh­bor­hood, the local com­mu­ni­ty board had imposed a 1:00 a.m. cur­few on the park to try to clear out the home­less. But no one expect­ed the cal­lous vio­lence, the armored police pha­lanx thun­der­ing down on bot­tle-throw­ing pro­test­ers. By day­break, when the police retreat­ed, 53 peo­ple were injured, includ­ing 14 police offi­cers. Four­teen offi­cers were lat­er tried on bru­tal­i­ty charges; none were con­vict­ed. The vio­lence that sum­mer night marked a turn­ing point in the street bat­tles over pub­lic space and hous­ing in the postin­dus­tri­al, rapid­ly gen­tri­fy­ing city.

In Hamburg in 1973, a police commando unit equipped with machine guns stormed a building and “viciously attacked” squatters.

Over the past 60 years, when­ev­er squat­ters claimed homes in West­ern Euro­pean and U.S. cities, even build­ings long aban­doned, the state used force to pro­tect pri­vate prop­er­ty. After police vio­lent­ly removed squat­ters on the Low­er East Side, some build­ings were set on fire and oth­ers left decay­ing and emp­ty. Prop­er­ty rights, not build­ings — and cer­tain­ly not hous­ing for the home­less — were preserved.

The forced evic­tion of urban squat­ters is just one piece of Alexan­der Vasudevan’s The Autonomous City: A His­to­ry of Urban Squat­ting. But in Vasudevan’s account, which leaps from New York City to Berlin, Ams­ter­dam, Copen­hagen, Lon­don and Van­cou­ver, vio­lence erupts again and again. Squat­ters — young and old, the des­per­ate­ly poor along with the utopi­an — are dragged from their homes by local police. Even as squat­ters sought the pro­tec­tion of court orders, non­prof­it orga­niz­ing and direct nego­ti­a­tion, vio­lence proved the stan­dard and sav­age response to the chal­lenge to the cap­i­tal­ist prop­er­ty régime.

Vasude­van is a geo­g­ra­ph­er and recent­ly appoint­ed fel­low at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty. The Autonomous City is dense and live­ly, culled from news accounts, court cas­es and inter­views. This is not a bal­anced account of a con­test over urban space (I did not see a sin­gle inter­view with a police offi­cer). Rather it is an anec­dote-filled essay on the pol­i­tics and com­mu­nal aspi­ra­tions of var­i­ous groups who took pos­ses­sion of urban build­ings with­out hold­ing the titles. For the work of a geo­g­ra­ph­er, the specifics of each place are strange­ly miss­ing— there’s lit­tle of what it felt like to live in a squat in 1970s Lon­don, say, or 1980s Copen­hagen. Vasude­van is more con­cerned with the polit­i­cal than the mate­r­i­al. That’s all right. Squat­ting demands to be under­stood as more than a refuge for the home­less. Instead, to con­dense Vasudevan’s analy­sis, it is polit­i­cal action designed to dis­pute the lib­er­al (or neolib­er­al) state.

Some squat­ters, espe­cial­ly those in 1980s Lon­don and New York, need­ed afford­able hous­ing. But most, com­ing in the wake of 1960s-era stu­dent protests and the anti-war move­ment, aimed to pro­duce a new kind of urban com­mu­ni­ty. The very choice to squat,” Vasude­van writes, was also pred­i­cat­ed on a refusal to accept the cat­e­gories and struc­tures imposed on them.”

Squat­ters formed protest cul­tures, or micro­cul­tures. There were squats orga­nized by fem­i­nists, anti-racists and anti-con­sumerists. Many had ties to rad­i­cal polit­i­cal move­ments, such as the Black Pan­thers or the Provos, a rad­i­cal art col­lec­tive in mid-1960s Ams­ter­dam. (The group had launched smoke bombs at the 1966 wed­ding of Princess Beat­rice.) They opened cafés and orga­nized art exhibits. They issued man­i­festos and urban plans, remak­ing and reimag­in­ing the city as a place for demo­c­ra­t­ic, egal­i­tar­i­an com­mu­ni­ties. The right to the city,” Hen­ri Lefebvre’s famous slo­gan, was to many of the squat­ters a lived prac­tice, an asser­tion of rights to res­i­den­tial space and to alter­na­tive iden­ti­ties. Squat­ters in New York, Vasude­van writes, were recover[ing] the dis­ap­pear­ing use val­ue of their neighborhood’s housing.”

Squat­ters, though unable to cre­ate cities free of cap­i­tal­ism, achieved some vic­to­ries. In Ams­ter­dam, where as many as 70,000 peo­ple lived in squats between 1964 and 1999, squat­ting became a broad polit­i­cal move­ment. A flash­point came in 1975 when the city issued mass evic­tion notices as part of a plan to tear down Nieuw­markt, a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood in the old Jew­ish quar­ter, and replace it with a sub­way, a four-lane high­way and a busi­ness dis­trict. The neigh­bor­hood had stood near-emp­ty since WWII, when the vast major­i­ty of the city’s Jews were deport­ed and killed. The squat­ters who had occu­pied the build­ings suc­cess­ful­ly pres­sured the city to scale back its plans, con­struct social hous­ing and include res­i­dents in future plan­ning. Squat­ting was no longer a sym­bol­ic act of protest” but a move­ment able to alter the city’s hous­ing market.

In 1970s Ger­many, by con­trast, the expe­ri­ence of squat­ting proved vio­lent and mar­gin­al­iz­ing. Squat­ters in Ham­burg and Frank­furt were caught up in an intense strug­gle known as Häuserkampf (hous­ing war) which end­ed with a bru­tal clam­p­down.” In Ham­burg in 1973, a police com­man­do unit equipped with machine guns stormed a build­ing and vicious­ly attacked” squat­ters. That trau­ma­tiz­ing expe­ri­ence upend­ed a non­vi­o­lent squat­ting movement.

Although squat­ters won occa­sion­al bat­tles, they grad­u­al­ly lost the real estate war. On New York’s Low­er East Side, squat­ters were fol­lowed by artists and punks, soon trailed by white hip­sters and devel­op­ers. By the night of the Tomp­kins Square Park riot, near­by ten­e­ments were being rehabbed and sold as high-end con­dos to the young elite. From New York to Van­cou­ver to Ams­ter­dam, ris­ing prop­er­ty val­ues have turned for­mer­ly decrepit squats into lux­u­ry condos.

The Tomp­kins Square Park riot was an expres­sion of a dis­ap­pear­ing Man­hat­tan cul­ture of work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties of artists, activists and hard­work­ing fam­i­lies. It was, in addi­tion, a pow­er­ful demon­stra­tion of an age-old cap­i­tal­ist weapon — state-sanc­tioned vio­lence — and a reminder of the insid­i­ous bond between the urban prop­er­tied class­es and the lib­er­al state.

Mar­garet Garb is the author of Freedom’s Bal­lot: African Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Strug­gles in Chica­go from Abo­li­tion to the Great Migra­tion.. She is work­ing on a his­to­ry of pover­ty and work in the U.S. from the Civ­il War to the Rea­gan era.
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