Squatters Evicted from E. 13th Street

(#26, 1996)

On 8 August, 1996, an Appellate Court reversed an injunction issued by State Supreme Court Judge Eliot Wilk that barred the City of New York from evicting squatters in several buildings on East 13th Street between Avenues A and B. The reversal was issued because the squatters were not able to prove to the court's satisfaction that their occupation of these abandoned, city-owned buildings -- just a handful out of over 900 (!) such buildings in New York City -- was continuous over the course of the last 10 years. (Some of these buildings have in fact been continuously squatted for as many as 12 years.) Had continuous occupation been proved, the court would have no choice but to grant the squatters the legal right, under the concept of "adverse possession," to own the buildings they have occupied, renovated and lived in.

In the very early morning of 13 August 1996, with the San Diego Republican Convention about to start, the City of New York -- through its attack force, the New York Police Department -- carried out eviction orders at 535, 537, and 539 East 13th Street. A total of 80 people were forced out of these buildings and immediately made homeless. (These evictions came about 15 months after the City successfully evicted squatters from two other buildings on East 13th Street, a series of events we attempted to document in our pamphlet Squat the World!) After completely sealing off the area, the City's armed forces proceeded to completely gut all the affected buildings, thus rendering them completely uninhabitable, once and for all. At this writing [October 21, 1996], the police are still occupying 13th Street between Avenues A and B.

Also on 13 August, the City sent its Fire Marshals to intimidate, search and confiscate certain "dangerous" items from the 7th Street squat.

In the evening of 14 August 1996, a large group of people assembled peacefully in Tompkins Square Park to protest the evictions of the 13th Street squatters. Invoking a clearly unconstitutional park rule that forbids the assembly of groups numbering more than 20 people, the NYPD moved in and roughly arrested 31 people, including artist Eric Drooker, who was grabbed by the throat for singing "Dem Bones." To protest these arrests and the evictions, squatters unsealed "Glass House," a formerly-squatted, now once-again abandoned building on 10th Street and Avenue D. (In 1994, when the City evicted the residents of the Glass House, it claimed it was going to use the former glass factory as housing for people afflicted with AIDS, which it did not do.) There were 29 arrests at the Glass House action, which was cheered on by several hundred people. But a rally and march called for 25 August 1996 drew only 50 or 60.

Though we are not squatters, we have several friends who are currently squatting buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But even if we did not have such brave and creative friends, we would be outraged at the policies and actions of the City of New York, and would be fully committed to doing whatever we could do to help NYC's squatters. In part because former federal prosecutor and current Mayor Guiliani still has the reactionary mindset of a prosecutor, in part because the gentrification of the East Village is a top priority of the City's ruling classes, and in part because the squatters have been so successful for so long at finding, unsealing, re-furbishing and maintaining these "urban homesteads" -- without any help or money from anybody -- in the very heart of the capitalist theatre of operations, the City is moving against all of the squats in the East Village and the Lower East Side. Other squats that are in immediate danger of eviction include the one located at 537/539 East Fifth Street, and ABC No Rio, the squat on Rivington that since 1980 has housed a well-known gallery/performance space, a garden and an artist's studio, as well as living spaces for untold numbers of people.

Of course we believe that the City's campaign against the squats is (among many other bad things) disinformative, misdirected, counter-productive, short-sighted, authoritarian, unnecessarily violent, unconstitutional, probably illegal, vindictive, cynical, callous, condescending, self-righteous, and wasteful of the taxpayers' money and the resources of the NYPD, both of which are said to be in short supply these days. But we also believe that the squats are beautiful, creative, courageous, constructive, directly democratic, autonomous, lively, environmentally-conscious, and highly valuable to the surrounding community for a variety of reasons (the squats, in addition to keeping the housing stock from deteriorating so quickly, tend to discourage the dealing of drugs, the dumping of trash and other "quality of life" offenses).

Far more so than any group of self-avowed "revolutionaries" active in the NYC area, the squatters are setting precisely the type of example that no one in power -- neither the politicians nor the bureaucrats, neither the landlords nor the real estate "developers," neither the community groups nor the local educators -- want anyone else to follow. The squatters are demonstrating -- neither in words nor in speeches, but in acts -- exactly how much is possible for small autonomous groups of people to accomplish outside of the dominant institutions, the most basic of which is landlordism. The squats are laboratories for the revolution of everyday life: within them, people learn to teach themselves and each other such "specialized" skills as carpentry, masonry and electrical engineering; within them, people learn to discover, develop and refine real desires, and to organize themselves in such a fashion that the realization of everyone's desire is possible, if not likely; within them, people learn to experiment with "free" time, because not having to pay rent means not having to have a steady job, and because not having a steady job means having the freedom to "spend" time as is desired. By contrast, the meeting rooms of the city's anarcho-syndicalists, federated anarchists and revolutionary socialists are morgues for the corpses of defeated revolutions.

And so we have done what we can to help the squatters: during the eviction of the East 13th Street squats, we provided distribution and unlimited, free photocopying of flyers produced by squatters and their supporters. We appeared on the pirate radio station Steal This Radio (88.7 FM) between 6 and 7 pm on 14 August 1996 -- during the very height of the protests -- to state and explain the reasons for our support of the squatters. We lent our physical presence to and carried signs at the various spontaneous protests against the evictions that broke out across the street from where the squats had been, at the action at Glass House, and at the 25 August rally and march. (Our sign proclaiming LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION OF EVERYDAY LIFE was photographed by the Village Voice and appeared in the edition dated August 27, 1996.) We wish we could have done more.

Perhaps it would be helpful if we framed two questions that might clarify what needs to be done in the coming months and future struggles:

1). It was claimed in the 15 August 1996 edition of The New York Post that "it's noteworthy that the squatters are now virtually without sympathizers." In the hand-out entitled "Some Facts About Squatters and The Evictions," an anonymous squatter pointed out that

"Squatter's and community activists were joined by over 200 Lower East Side (L.E.S.) residents, mostly of the public housing units across from Glass House, the site of the protest that took place on Wednesday the 14th over the previous day's violent evictions of 80+ tenants from their homes on 13th street. More than 350 people took to the streets in support of the squatter's [sic] and the larger issues facing the community: gentrification, outrageous rent increases that are forcing long time residents out of the community and unchecked police violence and racism. There were 29 arrests."

Note the confusion here: were there 200 or 350 sympathizers on hand? This inconsistency seems to signal the presence of a deeper, unresolved problem: Were these people really there to "support" the squatters, or were they there as spectators? And how does one tell the difference between supporters and spectators, without personally interviewing each person? It would be an inadequate response to say, "It hardly matters whether there were 200 people or 350 people, or if they were there as supporters or spectators -- what matters is that they were there." Such a response would overlook the fact that the squatters' rights movement as a whole is isolated, without a broad base of popular support, and currently being decimated by the City of New York, despite the presence of what could very well have been 350 hard-core supporters at the (completely symbolic) Glass House action.

2. In the 15 August New York Post piece, it was claimed that "most of the 13th Street squatters are would-be bohemians and pseudo-anarchists who simply enjoyed living rent-free." The answer contained in "Some Facts about Squatters and the Evictions" was in part as follows:

"[The 13th Street squatters] are politically diverse and come from all walks of life. Many squatters are activists who are working towards building community structures that encourage self-determination and run counter to the prevailing forms of impersonal, capitalist-oriented living that result in forcing people to give half of their pay over to shamelessly wealthy slumlords for housing."

In other less imprecise words, the squatters are real bohemians and anarchists who (of course!) enjoy living rent-free. There is no point in denying that squatters are lifestyle anarchists, people whose very way of organizing their domestic life is a direct action against both capitalism and the State. Indeed, it is because they are lifestyle anarchists that the squatters inspire such so much admiration among militant workers, radical intellectuals and, of course, social anarchists such as the folks at NOT BORED! But coming to grips with and mastering these facts is difficult, and difficult for at least two reasons: A). It will require a renewed awareness of the necessity of theoretical analysis (even after the squatters have "come out" as lifestyle anarchists, the spectacular media will no doubt continue to maintain that the squatters aren't "real" anarchists and/or deny that it is even possible for anyone to be an anarchist in NYC in 1996); and B). It will require a renewed awareness of the necessity of organizational innovation (to prove that not only is anarchism "possible," but also that the squatters themselves are "real" anarchists, it would be highly desirable to create a directly democratic council or federation that brings together delegates from all the squats in the East Village/Lower East Side, which are otherwise "represented" by a group of spectacular militants who continually rely on such utterly stale forms of protest as rallies, marches and speeches).

But if anyone can overcome these difficulties, it is the squatters. More on this next issue.



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