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Anatomy of an eviction

“We’re being evicted”.

By Roger Yates

This was the text message that I had been dreading – and yet, one I expected sooner or later. It came from a ‘squat’ in north Dublin and the “we” was a female squatter and her rescued greyhound.

I grabbed my keys and headed for the place…

Rewind to about 6 weeks earlier when some friends and I responded to the eviction call from the Grangegorman site near Smithfield in the centre of Dublin. A long-established squat, replete with café, residential areas, and a community garden, had been invaded by Gardaí, workers who erected dividing fences, and bailiffs.

We had attended to offer solidarity and, subsequently, much-loved and needed sandwiches as a stand-off intensified. Although I do not claim the title of squatter for myself, I was involved in a small way in the running of a ‘squat-shop’ in the 1980s in Liverpool which was situated across the road from an anarchist book store called New from Nowhere.

Since that time, I had trained as a sociologist, studying and teaching topics such as the sociology of crime and the sociology of poverty. The sociologist in me took an interest in the Grangegorman case, so I trotted along to court to witness events when “persons unknown” were given some 30 days to prepare their case – to get out, effectively.

As a de facto participant observer, then, I stood in Dublin’s Four Courts alongside a group of scruffily-dressed squatters as they urgently consulted with their casually-dressed legal representative. How out of place they all seemed among the suits and the uniforms. It struck me that this little gathering, being looked down upon and sniffed at by most present, probably had the most gentle and communal of values of all there. They seems very much out-of-place and, sociologically, that is quite a dangerous place to be. They didn’t seem to stand for money, or power, or private property (obviously) and they were clearly far out of step with the general ethos in that building.

I remembered a point that was made in an early criminology seminar I attended at university. The lecturer had us contemplate the vast number of jobs and careers that depend on the constant commission of “crime” in any given society. What damage the “criminal fraternity” could do to the social fabric if they all stopped their unlawful activities. What if no-one “stepped out of line”? It certainly would not be great news for criminal barristers and solicitors.

So it was with all this in mind that I agreed to act as observer (and, as it transpired, helper and driver) when a friend and friendly hound set up a squat of their own. The site is a large fenced-off compound comprising a small boarded-up two-bedroomed house, a large grassy area to the front, and a huge derelict factory area to the left. The front door was swinging open, its window broken, so no break-in was necessary.

The person who “cased” the joint had been told that the site had been disused for up to twenty years but documents inside the house indicated that a tool hire firm had operated there until 2005. Still, a decade is a long time to stand alone.

The house itself was quite cosy but some work was inevitably needed to block a couple of holes and fix a few broken windows, especially the one in the door. As ever with abandoned buildings, large stones lay in some of the rooms, thrown through the windows from the street. In the time that she had, our squatter had organised a small gang of enthusiastic helpers to assist with cleaning, painting, and yard tidying. A passer-by who lived in the area was pleased to hear that the place was soon to be made less of an eyesore. The house and gardens quickly began to look lived in and cared for. However, with no electricity or running water, “arrangements” were necessarily made for the provision of portable heaters, cookers, and toilet-flushing facilities.

Then the dread day: “We’re being evicted.”

I arrived at the location not knowing what to expect. Gardaí; or a group of heavies; flashing lights; trouble; tears. I found only the latter as the squatter had returned to find that, earlier in the day, some people (“my men” as it turned out) had been inside the house and had systematically smashed and destroyed all the household items there. A wooden bed was broken up and thrown into the garden, clothes and bedding thrown out and deliberately had paint poured onto them. Solar-powered lights not only removed from the building but made unusable. It seemed clear to me that some point had been made, and made with force: try setting up here, on my land, in my property, even though I’m not using it just now, and you’ll suffer as a consequence. Every window in the occupied bedroom had been smashed from within to render it less hospitable. It seemed like a cruel act.

As the squat organiser, and a friend who had responded to the eviction alert stood wondering what to do next, the owner – or a man claiming to be the owner – arrived. Shouting and clearly furious, he began to push the women about, issuing sexist and racist slurs along the way. The greyhound wanted to defend her human but was held back as attempts were made to defuse the situation.

The man, well-dressed in expensive coat and shoes, insisted that this was his property and that he was living in the house. This was clearly untrue since the house had been empty apart from a broken washing machine and office paperwork when occupied a few weeks earlier. Access to the house involved squeezing through a chained gate, negotiating a wall, and a walk through the overgrown garden area, not something the suited gent seemed likely to be willing to do.

When he realised that the people had decided to leave peacefully the man did calm down, now claiming that he had bought the property some months beforehand and intended to redevelop the residence and set up a business in the factory area. He rationalised his anger by saying that he wasn’t NAMA or the banks, just a simple businessman trying to make a living. He needed this site immediately and certainly wasn’t going to tolerate anyone dwelling there in the meantime.

As the “sociological observer,” my task was to remain silent and watch while this exchange took place. Afterwards, I did find that I was angry with myself for having not challenged some of the claims made by this man. For example, there was no evidence that he actually owned the place, apart from his assertion that he did, and his apparent righteous anger. I pondered on the claim that the site was to be immediately cleared for imminent development.

It has been a month or so since the eviction. I travel past the scene almost every day. The compound still stands unused. There has been no sign of any development – the chained gates are exactly as they were once the squatters had left. The property stands deserted and smashed up by “his men,” while its ugly blue fencing remains intact. I have decided that I’m going to document just how long it takes for work on the site to begin – assuming it will.

One thing seems clear to me. The man could have left the squat alone and made an agreement with the occupiers that they must move on when actual development was imminent. By such an arrangement, he would have got himself a free guard person (and dog) but then he’s seemingly unconcerned about the state of the place or any damage to it, since he caused a good deal of it himself.

I’m supposing that he’d argue that he need enter into no such agreement with uninsurable trespassers – someone else’s need for accommodation is not his business. Indeed, he said that there and then. From a legal point view, he was right – but morally? Perhaps he would worry that in the two, six, twelve months before redevelopment work could begin, the squat would be established and, therefore, that much harder to bring to an end. Much easier to act firmly and immediately – smash the place up so much that no-one will want to be there.

A house that was being transformed into a cosy home better stood as an empty shell.

The squat-organiser tells me that she would have agreed to leave once work was about to start. It appears – and some will think this obvious – that there is no trust between property-owners and property-occupiers. Perhaps this business person has had dealings with squatters before and found them unlikely to abide by contractual niceties – perhaps he simply acted like a bloody-minded indignant property-owner who sees no reason to consider the needs of those who seem not willing or able to pay their way.

There are surely different ways to look at this. Anarchists argue that property is theft. It seems, more so, that property unoccupied and neglected is preferred to property made safe and homely by a stranger, even in a housing crisis. •