Beyond Adverse Possession: Seeking Revolution in Oakland’s squats

by Samara Steele

This year unlikely revolutions have blossomed around the globe, with whole populations rising up, riding the wave of their own rage, dethroning dictators and denouncing disparity. It is hard not to be caught up in the euphoria of it all–the people of Egypt dancing in Tahrir Square as Mubarack’s regime crumbled, the people of Tunisia carrying the flame of Bouazizi all the way to the capital, the anti-austerity protests sweeping through the town squares of Europe, the burning of London as disenfranchised youth released their rage in Tottenham.

Watching so many moments of human expression on the news, I couldn’t help but celebrate the emotional victories of all of these people. However, I harbor strong doubts when I hear activists claim that these revolts mean “capitalism is collapsing.” The myth that capitalism can somehow “collapse” is perhaps Marx’s greatest error in his nearly flawless economic theory.

It can be fun to fantasize about the fiery end of capitalism–be it a collapse or a revolt–but economic modes of production don’t die quite so easily

Capitalism has already collapsed about 8 times now. The worst was perhaps the Recession of the 1890s, during which entire countries went bankrupt and the populace overthrew various governments around the globe. Individual political and economic systems entirely toppled, but capitalism just started over. The people couldn’t imagine anything new, so from the rubble of their burnt out cities they just began re-enacting capitalist exchange.

In building our strategies to end capitalism, it’s worth investigating the “fall” of the previous mode of production, feudalism.

During the reign of feudalist distribution, a handful of noble-born aristocrats owned the land and means of production, while over 90% of the population served them as serfs. Starting in the 1500s, a merchant class arose who (at first) sold goods to the aristocrats. As these merchants accumulated wealth, they were able to create a new “capitalist social space” with a value system that allowed non-aristocrats to own land and acquire wealth. Eventually–after 200 years of developing this capitalist space and social practices–the merchants no longer needed the aristocrats. The so-called “revolutions” in America, France, etc in the 1700s were simply the gesture of shrugging off the parasitic aristocratic class. The real revolution had begun in the 1500s, when merchants built the foundations of the capitalist practices that would eventually make feudalism unnecessary.

In that vein, I am convinced that if we want capitalism to actually stay collapsed at some point, there will need to be a new type of economic distribution to replace it. We must work to build new social spaces in which post-capitalist identities and practices can evolve.

I was mulling over these ideas when I moved to Berkeley a few months ago and began to get involved in activism here. I was surprised to discover that many local activists live in houses they neither rent nor own–these activists are part of the Radical Squatting Movement. This movement can be traced back to the European Autonomous Movements of the 1970s, when revolutionaries turned away from the overtly political tactics of the Revolt of ’68, and instead began to build underground “autonomous” social spaces outside of the values of capitalist exchange. This kind of squatting quickly spread to the U.S., gaining momentum in NYC of the 1980s, and continuing to grow in fits and starts through the 90s and 00s. The more I talked to folks about these squats, the more I wondered if they were the sort of social space from which new types of economies could grow.

Boasting hundreds–or perhaps thousands–of squats, the city of Oakland could be called the West Coast Capital of Squatting. This summer, I explored several explicitly radical Oakland squats, primarily focusing on two houses, Comedia and Spackle House, because these two houses represent opposite ends of the spectrum:

Comedia is a mural-bedecked open-door squat that hosts travelers, punk shows, a bike shop, and a small zine library; whereas Spackle House is a white-walled invite only squat where a small group of activists and their friends quietly relax between activities.

All names of people and houses in this article were changed to protect privacy, with the exceptions of Steve De Caprio and Heather Wreckage.

COMEDIA (open-door punk house)

The gate to Comedia bares a giant circle-N. As I push through the gate and enter the yard, it seems I have entered a very different sort of space; a space where the false hierarchies of capitalism have been abandoned. Dolls hang from trees. The sides of the house are painted with intricate murals. As I walked through the halls, the paintings on the walls and ceilings steal my attention. Symbols, animals and blurs of color abound. I find myself thinking of the Chauvet Cave Paintings in France. But this art was not created by long-dead prehistoric humans: the living artists are all around me, cooking, writing, talking, braiding hair. They may be fully modern humans but to me it seems like there is a sense of wildness about the squatters. No one is acting “businesslike.” Moods seem to flow, unrestrained: bursts of joy, exhaustion, annoyance, and anger are expressed, instead of hidden behind customer-service-like masks. These people are very different from the “professional” activists I encountered in college and while working for NGOs–instead of scrambling to bolster their resumes, these people are concerned with honestly expressing themselves as part of their work to change the world.

In the past Comedia was a duplex, but a stairwell has been constructed uniting what had once been two separate homes. I dash up the stairs and make my way to the living room that doubles as a show space and for guests to sleep in, just in time for the weekly house meeting. About twenty people are seated in a large circle. Some of them have brightly colored hair and piercings. Others are dressed a bit more formally, as if they just got back from a part time job.

Pris, one of the house members, facilitates the meeting. She is swathed in black lace, a tutu, and combat boots. If you count the chicken coop and the two tool sheds, Comedia only has space for eight permanent house members at one time. Almost everyone in the room is a visitor.

Pris asks everyone to go around the circle and say their names, and how long they plan to stay at Comedia. One young woman says she’s staying here until she spanges enough cash for a bus ticket home to San Deigo. A pack of dreadlocked travelers are on their way to a treesit in Oregon, and are grateful to have a floor to crash on tonight. A longtime house member introduces himself as Turnip and says he’s either “staying until next week, or until a thousand more Comedias spread across the globe.”

As the house denizens introduce themselves, one person stands out. He is a middle-aged man who introduces himself as Bill. Bill has grey hair and talks like an engineer. He wears a brand-name fleece jacket and gold-framed spectacles. Bill was recently laid off. “I will be homeless within the week,” he says, explaining that he hopes to come live at Comedia in his time of need.

Pris bites her lip. “Why don’t you come hang around the house this week, to make sure you can… tolerate it.”

On the living room wall, just behind Bill, the words “Safe as Hell” are painted in black.

Just last week I rode my bike to Comedia after work and Billy, a Comedia house member, showed me the giant red welt on the back of his head where just a few hours before, a long-time visitor beat him repeatedly with a broom handle. The visitor had been acting strange all day, muttering under his breath, then he just hauled off and attacked Billy. Lavender, a flute-playing traveler with long dreadlocks, pulled the attacker off Billy and calmed everyone down. The attacker was immediately kicked out, but everyone was still jittery and shaken.

“This kind of fucking bullshit happens at least once a week,” says Barleycorn, a house member, in an interview a few days later. He explains that it’s often visitors and travelers who bring the violence.

Comedia strives to be a safe-space, so house members don’t tolerate violence, harassment, or non-consent. The house also has a no-hard-drugs policy, and a ban on alcohol (except during house shows). But some visitors disrespect the house’s policies, leading to disturbing scenarios followed by people being told to leave.

Members of Comedia have considered ending the open-door policy, which allows anyone to stay for at least 3 days. But for every disrespectful visitor, there are at least ten awesome ones: solid folks who come and learn about squatting and self-governance, and occasionally get plugged into the activist community. Several writers and artists for Slingshot have been Comedia visitors, and many Comedia visitors have gone on to spread squatting elsewhere. “I estimate at least 1200 people come through Comedia a year,” Barleycorn says. Comedia is a community space that builds something beyond itself, and the open-door policy is a part of that.

Every few weeks, there’s a musical extravaganza going on at Comedia, often drawing over a hundred people. One night it was Holy! Holy! Holy!, who played in the nude, encouraging the audience to also throw their clothes off as they rocked out to the intense tunes. This was followed by a hip-hop group, with backup dancers in chains. This evening was immortalized in Dreams of Donuts #13, a zine put out by Comedia member Heather Wreckage. Almost everyone at Comedia is either an artist, writer, musician, model, and/or photographer. Living in a squat allows them the time and flexibility to weave artistic expression into their lives.

Additionally, almost everyone at the house has been involved in activism in some way, be it marching in the Oscar Grant protests, feeding the homeless with Food Not Bombs, working on new squats with Homes Not Jails, staffing local infoshops, or defending animal rights.

When a bedroom in Comedia opened up in August, dozens of people vied for it. As the house members deliberated who to give the room to, of the major things they considered was how the candidates spent their time. Two candidates had been staying in the Comedia bunk room for nearly a year, but did not actively engage in activism and spent much of their time away from the house working and taking university classes. These two were well-liked by many house members, but the collective ultimately chose to give the room to two newcomers who were involved fulltime in the activist community.

“The house tends to have far more cismen than other genders,” Pris tells me in an interview. Cismen (short for “cissexual men” or “cisgender men”) are people who were assigned the male gender at birth and continue to identify as male. Because Comedia has more self-identified males than other genders, several people from a nearby queer-only squat have accused Comedia of being “male-dominated.”

“It’s really frustrating to hear people say the space is male-dominated when there are so many complexities with gender and powerplay going on [at Comedia],” says Finch, who lives in the Comedia Attic. Last winter, house members collectively decided to turn the Attic into a safe-space for women, trans folk, and queer people. Straight males are not allowed in the attic, except by invitation. The Attic has its own meetings, separate from the rest of the house, where gender issues can be discussed without the presence of males. “Living in Comedia, I have become more vocal and a powerful woman,” Finch says.

As I continue dropping in on Comedia, I notice how much I enjoy being in the space. Even though some of the travelers terrify me, I find myself missing Comedia when I’m away for too long, wanting to come back. Being there feels good, feels comfortable.

One day, I run into Turnip at the Long Haul infoshop, and Turnip tells me that, the night before, he had asked some drunken travelers to leave Comedia because they had broken the drinking ban. As these travelers staggered away, their dog was hit by a car and killed in the street in front of the house. Immediately, people from Comedia banned together to help them bury their dog and struggle with their grief. These sorts of convoluted interactions have no right or wrong answer.

As we discuss the issue further, Turnip eloquently states, “There are a lot of problems at a squat like Comedia that are rooted in poverty, violence, despair, and social injustice, but at the same time there’s a direct engagement with life’s dramas. A lot of people are insulated from these conditions by spending all of their time maintaining their status in the system, but they are missing out on a real life experience.”

SPACKLE HOUSE

(invite-only chillout zone)

As I climb the steps, I worry I’m at the wrong address. Spackle House seems so quiet, so white-walled, so… normal. I knock on the door, and am greeted by a long-haired man in a collared shirt who introduces himself as Steve De Caprio. Steve is often called “The Squat Guru” by other squatters, and has dedicated the last decade of his life to defending the rights of squatters in court.

We sit down in the living room, and have a lengthy discussion about the philosophy and legality of squats. Steve explains that one of the biggest critiques of the Squat Movement is that it is not sustainable because it depends on capitalist waste. But squatting itself isn’t supposed to last forever: “Squatting is a tactic towards building a revolutionary infrastructure.”

In the late 1990s, Steve traveled through Europe, staying at legendary squats in Belgium, France, Spain, and Italy. Many of these squats had cafes, libraries, schools, and daycares. Shortly after returning to the U.S., Steve was laid off from his job, but instead of looking for a new one, he moved into Comedia, which was the only explicitly radical squat in Oakland at the time. Seeing the need for a network of squats, Steve began cracking new houses.

Steve envisions a future squat-based society, in which there are open-door houses like Comedia, but also lots of small, specific houses–houses for writers, houses for parents with children, houses for people recovering from addiction. This world wouldn’t be a true utopia–squats are too complicated to fit everyone’s needs all the time. But something magic does happens when we stop distracting ourselves with jobs: navigating our convoluted relationships with other humans becomes the work of our lives.

Spackle House may soon become one of the first houses in the State of California to become legally owned by a squatter. Steve explains that, according to Adverse Possession laws, if you live in a house for 5 years and pay all the back taxes on it, it should become years. “But it’s never that easy: the city will always try to screw you.” Currently, the city refuses to recognize Spackle House as a legitimate structure until Steve pays a contractor to redo much of the work he’d done himself. Perhaps, on some level, the city officials are scared of what Steve is doing: if a squatter succeeds in legally obtaining property, what would that mean about capitalist ideas of ownership?

A few years ago, when the cops came to shut down Banana House, a previous house Steve cracked, Steve had lashed out aggressively, leading him to spend some time in jail. “I should have just walked away, cracked a new house,” Steve says, “But I put my emotions ahead of the revolution… me being in jail didn’t accomplish anything.”

Another criticism of the Squatting Movement is that these squats gentrify poor communities by bringing white people into minority-only neighborhoods. But Steve explains that “In a world this convoluted, there is no clear, neat path to being revolutionary.” In the 1960s, strikers could take unemployment, and there were more resources available for people who wanted to work for social change. But now those who want to make change must make complicated choices to create the time and space they need. “When you do something positive in this society, you always get some revolutionary backlash,” Steve says.

*

Weeks later, as I finish up this article at the Long Haul Infoshop, several folks from Comedia have shown up to help with the Slingshot layout and design. Some of them have read my article and have mixed feelings: everyone seems to have a different idea about what squatting is, what it could be, and how it should be represented. But I’m beginning to suspect that no one–not even Steve De Caprio–knows exactly what squatting is.

Climbing the hills of Oakland, looking out over the sea of houses, it is impossible to tell which houses are owned and which are squatted. As we try to grapple with the complexities, words escape us, and the movement roils beneath the surface.

The economic theory at the beginning of this article was heavily influenced by the work of Evan C. Buswell.

———–

TEXT BOX 1 (can go anywhere on page):

Terminology

crack a squat / open a house – to begin the process of transforming an abandoned building into a home

to dumpster – to rescue food and other useful items from going to the landfill

Homes Not Jails – a squatter activist group

right of adverse possession – the part of English common law that allows anyone who has lived in an abandoned building for 5 years to become the building’s lawful owner (local laws may vary)

to spange – to engage in the age-old art of asking pedestrians for excess cash

traveler – someone who journeys form squat to squat, usually by hoping trains, bike touring, and hitchhiking

———-

TEXT BOX 2 (can go anywhere on page):

“Squatting is occupying unused territory. It is creating an autonomous zone amidst a proprietary world.”

–Breez, a radical squatter

————–

TEXTBOX (can go anywhere on page):

“If a chieftain or a man leaves his house, garden, and field and hires it out, and someone else takes possession of [it] and uses it for three years: if the first owner returns and claims his house, garden, and field, it shall not be given to him, but he who has taken possession of it and used it shall continue to use it.”

–Hammurabi’s Code, Law #30,

written 1700 BCE

—————-

TEXTBOX (can go anywhere on page):

Three Tips for New Train Hoppers

1 – Find an experienced guide to go with you on your first trip.

2 – Hopping off a train while it’s moving (“hoping on the fly”) is dangerous as fuck. Even if it’s only going 2 miles an hour, your clothes can get caught very quickly. A couple of our friends have lost their legs this way.

3 – Don’t feel pressured to drink. Yes, drinking is a big part of train culture, but you may feel more comfortable staying sober around trains. Trust your instincts on this one.

Love,

Slingshot