Squatting as Civil Disobedience

Despite there being an estimated one billion squatters worldwide (Neuwirth, 2004), Kesia Reeve has argued that “squatting is largely absent from policy and academic debate and is rarely conceptualised, as a problem, as a symptom, or as a social or housing movement” (2005).

Squatting is the action of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied building that the squatter does not own, rent, or have permission to use.

Notably, squatting is often affiliated with anarchist, autonomist, or socialist political movements (Barnett, 2015), but it can also be a means of building conservation as well as a means to affordable housing.

In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, Matthew, a Phoenix resident who had lived off-grid in school busses and in cooperatives in central CA, found himself without access to affordable housing. Though many of us support programs like ACORN that advocate for the economically indigent, sometimes, the only way you can cast a “whole vote” (at least according to Henry David Thoreau) is through more radical acts of resistance.

Matthew had seen “the place” for months while walking through the neighborhood. Despite the severe neglect, it had great bones, with columns flanking a long, covered porch and bay windows. So he put on a pair of coveralls, grabbed his tool bags, parked his station wagon in the driveway, and hopped the fence into the backyard.

He claims that drilling out a door lock is easy.

“Step 1: chuck a larger drill bit into a cordless drill. Step 2. insert the drill bit into the key slot with a rapid and consistent twisting motion.”

He says you’ll know when you’re in because there will be a hole in the spot where the key slot once was.

“Next, you’ll need to replace all the locks on all the doors with your own keyed set. Secure all the windows and any other points of access. The goal is to secure the property as your own so that no one can get in without breaking and entering, including the property owner.”

“Next, establish residency. Write yourself a letter that includes your name, the date, and your intent to occupy this property as your home. Seal it in an envelope and mail it to yourself… [if]it been 30 days since you first moved in and sent that letter, you have established occupancy and can prove it. You are no longer trespassing…if and when the property owner shows up, they will now have to make a deal with you allowing you to stay in exchange for rent or the caretaking of the property, or [they can] give you notice to move out.”

Of course, you’ll need to take some additional steps to maintain your residency. “Call the city and start water/sewer/trash service in your name. Call the electric company and get the power turned on in your name. Move some furniture in. Clean up the front yard. Plant some flowers. Park in the driveway. Be obvious. Introduce yourself to your neighbors as the new caretaker. Be respectful. Be a good neighbor.”

“The ultimate squat,” according to Matthew, “involves something called adverse possession, [and though] laws vary from state to state, it basically states that if you openly and continuously occupy a property for X number of years (typically 5-10) without the owner’s objection, and you pay the taxes on the property, after said number of years, you legally become the owner of the property.”

Granted, most squatters do so out of necessity and are asked to leave or evicted before the state-determined period of time. Others, like Matthew, use the space for a few months (or even years) as a gathering place for artists, political anarchists, punks, or anyone practicing the freegan lifestyle.

Arguably, squatting is a radical form of political resistance in the 21st century, and as Henry David Thoreau argued in his 1848 essay on Civil Disobedience,

If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

About the image: a variation on the International Squatters’ Symbol, wherein the circle represents land or a building, and the arrow represents the “squatters’ direction of movement.” The symbol also suggests the transient nature of the occupation. However, given that “squatting is symptomatic of the inequalities that exist within political and economic systems…it is often politically associated with Anarchism and Anarcho-Socialist movements” (from The Sangha Kommune).