A reply to John Surname, principally, but also an opportunity to review some of the recent history of squatting in Australia. S is for SHACking Up, Soul Train & Squatting (January 16, 2009) was a previous post responding to some criticisms of SHAC, but on squatting, property and housing issues more generally. John wrote on the subject of Diddly-Squatters on January 14. The following img, taken from John’s post, graphically portrays the general tone of his writing on the subject of squatting:
And here’s some recent commentary from John (and A.J):
Yeah I read it. Your post is mostly quotes from centuries past, and then you don’t even make any kind of coherent point. Squatting is for bums and lowlifes, and in this day and age is a lifestyle choice. Maybe the students should grow up and actually go and meet some real homeless people.
Why do you support their actions, and squatting in general?
John Surname | Homepage | 01.19.09 – 1:57 pm
“Over a century ago, a Frenchman called Paul (1841-1911) made the following observations on property.”
A.J | Homepage | 01.19.09 – 4:15 pm
So to begin…
OK. Yeah: I quoted some peeps: George Orwell’s adaptation of I Corinthians xiii (Keep the Aspidistra Flying: first published by Gollancz in 1936); and Paul Lafargue on ‘Capitalist Property’ (1903).
On the other hand, I also cited Julia Gillard’s speech of March 2008, and half-a-dozen or so media reports from December 2008/January 2009, one from 2004, and two studies (2007 and 2002) both by Richard James, Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education and Professor in Higher Education at unimelb.
As for whether or not I made any kind of coherent point, maybe not, but you can’t blame a bloke for trying.
So I’ll try again:
“Squatting is for bums and lowlifes, and in this day and age is a lifestyle choice.”
In reality, squatting is for anyone who chooses to utilise vacant buildings for accommodation or other, social purposes. Leaving aside the emergence of a squattocracy in the nineteenth century, “bums and lowlifes” have been occupying buildings in this manner in Melbourne, Australia, and cities and lands across the world for many, many years.
- Antipodean Patrimonialism?
This paper will consider whether the term patrimonialism can be applied to a particular, keenly contested and racially bifurcated aspect of Australian history: the relations between ‘squatters’ and those with competing civil and property claims. The discussion will draw parallels between Australia and other settler societies.
“Squattocracy” has had a lively currency in Australian political history. It was first used to designate the social, political and economic power of pastoralists who acquired use rights over vast stretches of grazing land in the early years of white settlement. For many 19th century colonial activists, it was the key enemy of ‘closer settlement’, capitalist farming and industry, and democratic reform. Squattocracy was associated with the long domination of upper houses of Australian legislatures by inherited wealth. It has been a periodic target of those determined to achieve the principle of ‘one man, one vote’. Squattocracy also figured prominently in periodic public debates on the class character of early Australia, and on the role of ‘ruling elites’ more generally.
There may be two distinct histories of patrimonialism in Australia. The Australian colonies were among the pioneers of ‘universal’ male and later female franchise in the nineteenth century; Aborigines gained [de jure] full citizenship only in the late 1960s. While the squatter’s patrimonial rule over white settlers was arguably short-lived, that over some groups of Aboriginal people persisted, for good or ill, for more than a century.
I suppose squatting could be described as a ‘lifestyle choice’ for some; then again, some term homosexuality the same thing. In reality, things are a little more complicated. In any case, even if one were to concede (and I’m happy to do so) that squatting is a choice, the fact that a choice has been made does not tell us anything about the legitimacy or validity of that decision. But what I think you’re alluding to is a more general critique of a certain species (stereotype) of student radical, for whom squatting is one of a number of choices (including the adoption of one or more sorts of food faddism) that together add up to the fulfillment of a certain social role (and cliche). Hence, I think, your admonition that “Maybe the students should grow up and actually go and meet some real homeless people”. That is, on the one hand, there are “fuckwits who think they deserve to live in someone’s else property for free because it’s their right to live in the inner city”, and on the other hand, “real homeless people”; and never the twain shall meet.
For what it’s worth, I think that the gulf that separates impoverished students and squatters, on the one hand, and “real homeless people”, on the other, is narrower than you believe. For example, I know many individuals who have squatted, both in Melbourne and other cities, in Australia and overseas, and their relationship to homelessness and to the homeless is a good deal closer than you appear to assume is generally the case. I also know a number of housing and youth workers — some of whom have been homeless and/or squatted properties — who have intimate knowledge of squatting, and are sympathetic to the squatting movement.
There is also a considerable body of scholarship on the subject (mainly concentrating on urban squatting in Europe and urban and rural squatting movements in Africa, Asia and South America), and even some attempts at documenting this history in Australia. For example, Lock Out the Landlords: Anti-eviction Resistance in Australia 1929–1936 (Barricade Library Publishing, 1998; second edition, Homebrew Cultural Association, 2008) examines workers’ attempts to resist eviction during a period of ah, more “robust” political discussion. A good deal more can and has been written about the squatting movements of the 1960s and 1970s — see, for example, Squatters’ Handbook Chapter 11, ‘Squat History’, 2004.
A few blasts from the more recent past:
Unemployed squat in Health Department house
Green Left Weekly
November 13, 1991
CANBERRA — The Unemployed Workers Union squatted in a house belonging to the ACT Department of Health after discovering that the property, usually reserved for its secretary, had been left vacant for more than six months. [The UWU] organised an open occupation in the hope of providing suitable accommodation for some of the many homeless or needy people in Canberra. Best described as opulent, this residence is set in large, well-kept, leafy gardens on half an acre of land with a northerly aspect next to the Royal Canberra Hospital. The building is two stories and has double brick construction, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge living area, wall to wall carpets and curtains on every window. Power was still connected, as were two telephone lines. The kitchen included a refrigerator and microwave oven…
Squatters get organised
Green Left Weekly
November 11, 1992
MELBOURNE — There have been squatters for as long as there has been the concept of owning land. At certain times it has been condoned, but not today. Last century, Australian land was settled by the “squattocracy”, the landed class which grew rich on convict labour. For many people today, squatting is an act of necessity. Students, single parents, unemployed and others not eligible for social security often have little choice. In some cases, squatting is also a political act to deny property owners money for rent, and instead to use this money for clothing, food and other necessities. “Government departments leave buildings empty, yet there is a huge housing list. The logical thing to do is to put your housing [needs] in your own hands”, says Genevieve, a spokesperson for the Squatters Information Service, established earlier this year to provide information on squatting and support for squatters…
Homeless people evicted
Green Left Weekly
February 9, 2000
SYDNEY — A group of homeless people were abruptly evicted from a disused warehouse here on January 31 by oil giant Shell. The homeless people had been squatting in the warehouse for almost one year. According to the squatters, Shell has no plans to use the heritage-listed building immediately. However, Gavin Sullivan, spokesperson for Sydney Housing Action Collective, said “Shell’s approved development plans indicate the building will eventually be knocked down and replaced by a service station, convenience store and the ubiquitous McDonald’s”.
Squatters fight on
Green Left Weekly
September 13, 2000
SYDNEY — On August 23, South Sydney City Council workers armed with sledgehammers and crowbars attempted to evict almost 30 homeless squatters from council-owned buildings at 147-159 Broadway, near Glebe. The squats are less than 100 metres from the office of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. After failing to gain entry, the council officers refused to negotiate with the squatters and called the police to have the squatters evicted…
A theatre for the dispossessed
Green Left Weekly
March 6, 2002
SYDNEY – The owners’ plan for the Grand Midnight Star would have been nothing like it. Rather than becoming just another block of flats, the enormous Heritage-listed art deco theatre on Parramatta Road in Homebush has become a “social centre” for community activities and political organising. The new occupants, a collection of activists who make up the Social Centre Autonomous Network (SCAN), have reinvented the space. The downstairs bar has been turned into a place where activist groups can meet and where people can eat and chat, the lobby has been fitted with a dozen computers, an empty side room has become an art gallery, the industrial-sized kitchen has been taken over by Food Not Bombs and the cavernous ballroom, complete with chandeliers, will become a venue for gigs and raves…
The Redfern Block vs developer greed
Green Left Weekly
March 3, 2004
…In the 1970s, the lack of affordable housing in Redfern drove many Kooris to squat in empty houses, and in response police arrested and charged squatters with trespassing. The local church hall became a home for increasing numbers of homeless, until it was shut down by the South Sydney Council. It was with the help of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation and the plumbers union that houses were brought up to a liveable standard, resulting in 45 Indigenous people residing in three houses in the Redfern Block. When development threatened to displace the residents, the BLF placed a ban on all development in the area and any other work that the construction company was doing. It is this kind of union and community solidarity that is needed to defend the Redfern Block today, 30 years later. A real answer has to involve Indigenous self-determination…
The practice of squatting buildings for ’social’ as opposed to purely ‘private’ (residential) purposes has a long history. To cite one example, on January 1, 1987 (1987 having been designated International Year of Shelter for the Homeless) squatters occupied a disused cafe opposite Princess Pier in Port Melbourne. Subsequent activities included the usual array of meetings, workshops, benefit gigs, film screenings, performances, a cafe (needless to say!), etcetera.
To cite another, more recent example: the Brown Warehouse in Wellington Street, Collingwood (now a yuppie apartment complex). First squatted in the late ’80s as a cafe and performance space, it was re-squatted in the mid-’90s, and used for much the same purposes (Dropdead even played a gig there), at first providing temporary accommodation in the city for forest blockaders, later becoming a more permanent residential and social space.
In a related case, during the 1980s and into the early-’90s, the Squatters Union of Victoria: maintained an office and meeting space (in an abandoned fire station in North Fitzroy); produced a radio show; distributed a bi-monthly zine (Squat It!), conducted a weekly community cafe; operated a telephone advice service; produced leaflets, stickers and various other forms of propaganda (in addition to the bi-monthly zine); organised benefit gigs; resisted evictions; and engaged in various other activities in solidarity with others engaged in workplace (for example, the BLF) and community struggles.
In Williamstown (Melbourne) in 2002 there began a series of art shows called ‘Empty Show’, held in abandoned properties [VIDEO].
Squats have also been established to house conferences. A few examples: in May 2004 over 500 people attended a conference for four days in a reclaimed warehouse in inner city Melbourne. ‘State of Emergency’ was a series of workshops, forums, parties and film screenings that attempted to come to grips with the new forms of state power, war and neo-liberalism that pervade everyday life [VIDEO]. ‘A Space Outside’ was a gathering of educational and creative workshops and direct action training that took place in the lead up to the G20 summit mobilisation in Melbourne from 17th * 19th November, 2006. Over the course of five days, approximately 400 people came through the space before it was busted by seventy police on Friday 17th November, the eve of the main protest. At the same time that ‘A Space Outside’ was being evicted, so too was ‘The Wake’, a squat which served both a residential and social function (gigs, meetings, workshops, etc.).
Currently, hundreds if not thousands of individuals squat in Melbourne, mostly in order to provide themselves with a roof over their heads. I support the actions of SHAC because I support direct action — in this case squatting — in order to solve social issues — in this case housing for the low-waged. Beyond this, the proposal SHAC made with regards establishing a student housing cooperative at 272–278 Faraday Street seems to me to be eminently reasonable, and has numerous precedents, most obviously STUCCO (197–207 Wilson Street, Newtown, Sydney), a student housing cooperative at the University of Sydney, originally established as a squat in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and which currently houses a total of 38 people in 8 self-contained units at low cost (app. $70 per week).
Fuckwits, bums and lowlifes in Victoria Street, Sydney, 1970s
Those who were part of the long drawn-out campaign that followed Arthur King’s disappearance speak of a constant air of danger and intimidation. Roelof [Smilde] says, ‘The number of residents still in the street just kept on dwindling. When Arthur first disappeared there were plenty but gradually they got more isolated and the more isolated they got the worse they felt about it, and finally they’d leave. In the end there was only a handful. When it got to the point where there was literally only two or three left, that’s when we started the squats. That was our final tactic.’
The decision to squat was made when Mick Fowler was the only tenant left in the threatened buildings. It was a last-ditch attempt to prevent the buildings from being vandalised by Theeman’s men.
Squatting was not unique to Sydney but part of a worldwide-trend whereby squatters, often young, usually poor, stymied developers who wanted to pull down the old inner-city residential areas and build luxury high-rise offices and apartments in their place. Squatting has been used as a tactic in Amsterdam for more than twenty years.
A couple of dozen Push people squatted in Victoria Street, joined by a whole range of people, from dedicated conservationists to followers of fringe political groups to the homeless just looking for a place to sleep. The Libertarians had wanted two things: to protect the architecture of Victoria Street and to keep the area for low-cost housing ‘for knockabout students, sailors and all the sorts of people who used to live there’.
‘To bring back low-cost housing to one of the best streets in Sydney?’ Arthur King says. ‘Shit, it had no chance of success.’
Roelof says, ‘It was a battle for the inner-city, for low-income residents to be able to stay there, and that was lost. It wasn’t lost in Woolloomooloo. A lot of the spin-off from Victoria Street was successful — in places like Woolloomooloo, the Rocks and Darlinghurst and Waterloo. But in Victoria Street we lost.’
The Victoria Street group knew that one way to succeed was to send Theeman broke. And they almost did it. By 1974, the hold-up in the Victoria Point development was costing Theeman $16,000 a week in interest payments.
But the squatters were up against a businessman who was getting desperate and a team of heavies with little regard for ethics. The tactics employed against them became more dangerous, including the firing of houses, with or without squatters in them. In one such fire, an Aboriginal girl who was camping in one of the houses died.
Intimidation came not just from hired men but from the police. One night when Wendy [Bacon] was squatting in the street, the door of the flat was broken down in the middle of the night by members of Squad 21, the vice squad.
In January 1974 the squatters were evicted by police, assisted by gangs of men employed by Victoria Point Pty Ltd. These men were organised by Fred Krahe [1919–1981], a former policeman. Video footage from the event shows wild scenes of squatters on roofs, clinging to chimneys, and people being hauled away to paddy vans.
By this time Wendy was living with Roelof at his flat at Darling Point. On Valentine’s Day, she received an orchid from an unknown admirer. Inside it was a bullet an a note: ‘Have a good day but avoid barbers’ shops.’
‘That was the second time I was really frightened. The first time had been after Arthur disappeared. And the next time was when Juanita [Nielsen] disappeared.’
While Wendy became nervous, Roelof wanted to keep going. He was heavily committed. He was financing a lot of the Victoria Street activities and was neglecting his punting. The expensive flat wouldn’t flat much longer. Before long he’d be broke. ‘Not that it mattered,’ he says. ‘I’d been broke before.’
After the squatters were evicted it looked the Victoria Point project would go ahead. Within months Norm Gallagher succeeded in taking over the NSW branch of the BLF; [Jack] Mundey, [Bob] Pringle and [Joe] Owens were expelled, never to work on a building site as builders’ labourers again. Gallagher’s first act was to lift the ban on Victoria Street. The same day, he was seen driving down Elizabeth Street in a car with Frank Theeman.
But just when Theeman thought he’d rid himself of one thorn in his side, there was another. Juanita Nielsen was an unconventional heiress who owned a house on the eastern side of Victoria Street. She had been overseas during the early days of the battle and when she returned she, like other owner-occupiers, was not initially impressed with the squatting campaign, fearing the effect on property values. She published a local newspaper, NOW, that was primarily an advertising rag. But in 1974, Juanita’s position, and her newspaper, began to change. In the months leading up to her disappearance in July 1975 she carried on a single-handed and highly effective battle with developers.
In an article about Juanita at the time of the inquest into her death, Wendy Bacon wrote, ‘The middle-class heiress who had once worried about the effects that green bans and squatters would have on property values was filling NOW with militant phrases such as, “Laws are based around property, not people. Green bans made people more important.”‘
Juanita Nielsen disappeared after a meeting with Edward Trigg at the Carousel Club. Trigg, who ran a club for Jim Anderson, said they discussed an advertisement that he wanted to run in her newspaper. The club was owned by an Abe Saffron company. After absconding, Trigg was eventually caught, pleaded guilty to conspiring to abduct Juanita Nielsen, and spent two years in jail. No one has ever been charged with her murder. At the inquest — where Arthur King first told his story publicly — it emerged that not long before Juanita’s abduction, Frank Theeman had paid Jim Anderson a sum of money, ostensibly for investing in a business.
Not long ago, Tim Bristow, private investigator to the glitterati, said he had been offered the contract to kill Juanita Nielsen, that he had turned it down, and that the man who did it was Freddy Krahe, Roelof’s ‘killer cop’. Krahe died in 1981.
By the time the developers had rid themselves of the Push, the BLF and Nielsen, public and government standards on urban conservation had shifted, aided by the Federal Minister for Urban Affairs, Tom Uren. The Labor Government would soon be thrown out of office, but it had made a difference to Libertarians after all. Theeman never got his forty-storey towers; the Victoria Point development went ahead but on a reduced scale, not providing Roelof’s dreamed-for low-cost housing, but city homes for the urban middle-class.
Today, Victoria Street is peaceful and tree-shaded; a mixture of elegant restored terrace houses, backpacker hotels and trendy cafes, with a few cheap flats in still-unrestored buildings. When Mick Fowler died in 1979, the street was closed as hundreds of people turned out to farewell him: seamen, conservationists, builders’ labourers, university lecturers, musicians, public servants, middle-class trendies, anarchists and activists, demonstrating the extraordinary range of people mobilised in this extraordinary battle.
At the top of the sandstone steps that lead down to Woolloomooloo is a plaque to Mick Fowler: ‘Seaman, musician, green ban activist … for his gallant stand against demolition of workers’ homes … from his friends.’
~ Anne Coombs, Sex and Anarchy: The Life and Death of the Sydney Push, Viking, 1996, pp.296–299.
See/hear also : Mick Fowler – 115 Victoria St, ABC, 1979 | Wendy Bacon, ABC, 1974. The Juanita Nielsen Mystery (ABC): “In 1977 ABC Radio’s Double J produced this radio documentary looking at the conflict between residents of Victoria St in Kings Cross and developers. Double J 1977.” Video: ABC TV 1976, “ABC TV’s This Day Tonight investigates this mystery one year after Juanita’s disappearance. ABC TV, 1976.” ABC TV 2004, “In 2004, ABC TV’s 730 Report investigates fresh allegations about the unsolved Juanita case. ABC TV, 2004.” Killing Juanita: a true story of murder and corruption, Peter Rees, Allen & Unwin, 2004. Rocking the Foundations, 1986: “An outstanding historical account of the Green Bans first introduced by the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s in response to community demand to preserve inner-city parkland and historic buildings. One of the first women to be accepted as a builders labourer, filmmaker Pat Fiske traces the development of a quite singular union whose social and political activities challenged the notion of what a union should be.” Green Bans, Red Union: Environmental Activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation, Meredith Burgmann & Verity Burgmann, UNSW Press, 1998.