Professional Qualifications To Write This Node
My particular squat was called 3BC, and was located in The Lower East Side of New York. I lived there for about a year and a half while attending Yeshiva University, a fact which was known, (and not generally held in high regard) by the Rabbi's of that institution. During this year and a half, a period in which I went through a typical adolescent refusal to talk to my parents, I lived, breathed, ate, and slept like a squatter with two small exceptions: I was one of a very small number of people studying for classes, on the one hand and I could take showers in friends' dorm rooms on the other. (Although this second exception isn't as hard as it seems: see Befriending an NYU Student , which will be created as a later node if this "history of squatting" series seems to get a good response.
THE LEGAL BASIS OF SQUATTING
Nobody actually knew. There were a bunch of rumors connected to this, the most persistent being the existence of a NYC squatter's law, which would allow anyone occupying an abandoned property to hold title to it after a period of three years. There were a number of older anarchists who swore to this. However, no one I have ever spoken to has ever seen a copy of the law, and there seemed to be no proof it was available. On the other end of things, squatting involved a number of felonies and criminal misdemeanors, including breaking and entering, trespassing, vagrancy, and probably a dozen more. Everyone I knew had been charged with something at some point. Getting arrested and spending a day or two in jail was just part of the experience. (Go figure.)
HOW TO BEGIN SQUATTING AN ABANDONED BUILDING
The short answer is, break open the door with a sledgehammer. In reality, it was much more complicated. First of all, it was important that the building actually be abandoned. If there was an owner somewhere, still paying property taxes, the odds would be very good that he would sic the police on the building before the proper defences could be put into place, and that would be the end of that. (Or actually, that wouldn't be the end of that, as there would still be a couple of nights in the slammer to go to.) This meant that if you had your eye on a particularly attractive looking brownstone with a bricked up doorway and rats coming out of the window you needed to go the New York City Property Registry in order to be sure that the property wasn't owned by anyone. Woe to the teenage runaways that would refuse to take their elders advice and just take over a building. A couple of nights in prison and a one way ticket back to Podunk was inevitably their fate.
Once the building had been chosen, a team needed to be assembled, specifically a team of people each with a special skill or character trait. These could normally be found from two categories: people living in the park which had yet not been adopted by a squatting team (or "collective" as we called ourselves back in those halcyon, anarchist days), or from someone who was parastically living in a squat not his own and himself looking to join a group of young brave men and true. It was essential to have at least two people who could steal electricity from nearby buildings (there's another one of those felonies), and develop a rudimentary plumbing system. Also, though I see this nowhere in the official literature (which anyway doesn't exist), every good squat had at least one loyal lunatic - someone who had no problem taking on a police detachment head on with a garbage can lid but would never turn his anger on his fellow squatters. This was a hard type of person to find, but worth his weight in gold if you could find him.
At this point - and only at this point - was it time to assemble, late at night, under the harsh glare of the electric lighting, and take a crack at the brick wall of the door with a sledgehammer. Actually, although a picture of a young anarchist breaking down a door with a sledgehammer was an essential part of the movement's propaganda, the correct way to take over the building was to leave the main barriers inact and either find a way to get in through the basement or through the second story window. We accomplished this in our building through a ladder set up in the backyard to allow entrance through the second floor. The first floor remained boarded throughout the life of 3BC.
OK I'VE RECLAIMED A BROWNSTONE FOR THE PEOPLE. NOW WHAT?
Now is the time to deal with two important questions: physical comforts, and defence. These were handled in two different ways.
PHYSICAL COMFORTS: GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS.
Most of the squats I know were taken over by anarcho-syndicalists. Unfortunately, no one really had a precise definition of what this meant. At some point it became shorthand for "all decisions are made unanimously". Considering that almost every building was a combination of teenage runaways, the ambulatory mentally ill, drug addicts, punks, political activists, and a group of people who just felt more at home in the squatter movement than they ever would in an apartment, getting unanimous consensus was more difficult than it seemed. In general, it involved long, drunken discussions that generally ended up with the people who actually knew how to solve the problem getting frustrated and just solving it without asking anyone. This frustrated all the people who didn't know how to solve the problem and were therefore not consulted, but, considering they didn't know how to solve the problem, there was little they could do. Perhaps this was anarcho-syndicalism. The need for physical comfort broke down into three categories.
Horrifically, this was the most difficult problem to solve. The pipes in the building had generally long been stripped and sold as scrap, there was no interior piping at all, and the bathrooms were generally missing tiles, if they had ever had any, and were filled with holes. There were not too many ways to fix this without a professional plumber, few of whom seemed to be anarcho-syndicalists. The answer - (forgive me) - was simple: buckets. There were buckets of water that were pulled from the garden hoses of the community parks that well meaning civic activists had planted all over the Lower East Side, as well as buckets for fecal matters and urine. The latter were generally hauled to the roof by whoever was on this sort of duty to be used as ammunition against a police raid. One or two of our colleagues in other squats put together a rudimentary water system, but we were never given a real clue as to how it works, the brotherhood of anarcho-syndicalists only going so far.
Electricity was easy - a few cables, a couple of quickly installed sockets, and someone stupid enough to try to lasso the edge of your wire to the main swtich in the real world electricity paying tenement next door. A few passes, a few near deaths, some cheap equipment, and soon every room could have at least a light bulb. The problem with this was that the neighbors (and the electric company) would get upset about this, and they would cut the power. It was back to studying by candlelight. Finally, someone came up with the decidedly non-anarchist idea to apply for electricity in the name of the 237 E 3rd. Street Collective, and to just pay the damn bill. Thus, we had electricity until the final, devastating police raid on the building.
Dude, if you think you're gonna change the world without getting a little dirty, you have another thing coming to you
. The only real ways to get food (or alcohol for that matter) were 1. Begging. (throughly undignified), 2. Standing in line for free meals from the Hare Krishna
people (did they really put drugs in the food?) and the preferred method, 3. dumpster diving
. This was done after the supermarkets of the city closed and consisted of recovering, from their dumpsters, all of the food that had been thrown out having gone one day past the expiration date. Large meals were developed and cooked using this procedure. It had the slight disadvantage
of requiring the practicioner to dive into a garbage dumpster
, hence the name, but, as long as the food was cooked sufficiently (fire came from stolen park benches or tree branches, generally in a barrel), it could be quite tasty.
Now this was tricky. As soon as we got into a squat, the police were trying to get us out. Generally within a day or two they would have us under siege, and we would need about a week of supplies before they got bored and went away, chalking up another tactical defeat. (Time was on their side, anyway). After the initial siege, there were two major problems: limiting access to the building and preventing a police attack.
Limiting access to the building was simple. In our case, an invader would need to 1. Find the entrance, no easy trick as it involved wandering around to the back lot of an abandoned building through a passage almost choked with rubble 2. Get past the Doberman 3. Get someone to drop down the retractable ladder or, if the ladder was mysteriously left down (as it often was) 4. get passed the crazed, cocaine addicted knife wielding sentry. Obviously, point four was the major line of defence here, although sometimes we had trouble breaking through our own defences (I do remember a long conversation with our sentry explaining why cutting my throat would be a bad, not a good thing. But he was a good guy and came around.)
THAT kept out the pimps and the drug dealers. The next, and pressing question, was that of the police. What to do during a raid? Here the question was how real life you wanted to get. In general, the surly adolescents suddenly remembered that a twenty year sentence is a long, long time, while the druggies didn't give a fuck. They therefore led the attack. The first step was - you guessed it - the urine and feces on the top of the building. Often - VERY often - this was enough. However, sometimes rocks, bottles, and other objects would be thrown. Generally, though, it involved a siege - which meant that everyone in the building retreated to some dark corner, occasionally throwing something at someone to get them to retreat. In general, this worked - the police didn't really want to risk their well being getting a couple of dozen mole people out of a brick death trap - however, when they came with the tear gas grenades and the bulldozers, you knew you were through.
There's a lot more I could tell, but I think it would have to wait for other topics, other nodes. If people are interested in getting more detail on the life, times, etc. of the LES squatters, (late and lamented, although there are still a few holdouts by Avenue D) let me know, and I'll write something up.