Acts

Published on September 1st, 2012 | by Engin Isin

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Offence of squatting in a residential building

Often acts happen to you rather than you being an instigator. You can become caught in the act without knowing. On 2 September 2012 a 21-year man from Plymouth was arrested by the police in London for squatting. Apparently, the police were looking for a suspect and found Alex Haigh along with two other men, Michelle Blake and Anthony Ismond in an unused property in Pimlico, London. (Michelle Blake and Anthony Ismond are awaiting sentencing.) Alex had left Plymouth in July for London and worked as an apprentice bricklayer for a while. On 26 September 2012, Alex was sentenced to 12 weeks after pleading guilty to occupying a housing association flat. On 1 September 2012 the government has enacted a new law that criminalised squatting and quashed what came to be known as ‘squatting rights’ – de facto rights to occupy vacant buildings. The legislation ‘Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012’ criminalised squatting by enacting that a person commits an offence if ‘(a) the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser, (b) the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser, and (c) the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.’ (s. 144, you can read the act here.) Alex’s father thought that the law made a case of his son as the 12 week prison term was too harsh for someone who had done nothing wrong except committing an offence that had become an offence so recently.  It is not that this legislation was enacted without struggle. Led by Squash Campaign activists organised numerous rallies and demonstrations to at least to repeal s. 144 to no avail. Alex made an infamous history by becoming the first person to be convicted of squatting. The broader implications and context of this legislation are not very hard to put together. In a climate of increasing mobilisation with London Occupy and other movements, the government would rather debate if and to what extent to regulate banks and bankers all the while swiftly criminalising dissent and depriving people without means to find shelter from the cruel, if not outright unjust, storm of austerity. But criminalising squatting has even broader consequences. Squatting is an act with deep lineage from South Africa to India and Taiwan to Germany and France. Simply put, squatting raises fundamental issues about property rights, housing rights, social citizenship, and civil disobedience as a right of citizenship. So Alex’s fate is caught up with a much larger social struggles than being caught napping in the wrong place and wrong time. That may very well account for the reason why, as his father thought, the law made a case of him.

 

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