Squatter’s rights

Just like many other 20-something year olds aspiring to change the world, many a time I have gone to bed thinking, So…What did I realllly achieve today?

Today, I achieved everything.

Two of my neuroscience buddies (denoted as ‘A’ and ‘P’ for your convenience) and I were just about to leave a university event at Westminster Bridge Street when we bumped into a mutual friend (‘C’). She mentioned something about going to see a protest in a building across the street where some squatters were residing.

My ears perked up. Squatters? I remembered a tube journey from a couple of years ago, where I was first introduced to the media-hype on a squatters rights case: a group of squatters had (then legally) entered an empty house, and refused to leave despite being ordered to do so by the police. Such incidences resulted in the change of squatter’s rights laws:

http://metro.co.uk/2011/07/13/squatters-could-be-forcibly-removed-under-new-proposals-by-ministers-76181/

I was amused, but quietly charmed, by the intricacies of the British legal system, the quirkier side of British culture, and the fact that the Metro could not resist publishing a double-spread about the matter. Every. Single. Day.

So when C suggested going to see the building, I was all for it. What’s the worst that could happen? We were going to go see an interesting building. From outside right? Cool.

The building looked completely out of place on Westminster Bridge Road. The grey walls were rotting. Graffiti impeded the path of most of the light leaving the lone lit window. How had I never noticed this building before?

We approached the entrance, and – consistent with the plot of a dozen haunted mansion novels – the door creaked open. An elderly man poked his head through the crack and muttered a few words to C, who nodded, and much to our confusion, seemed to understand. C walked in.

Ummm. Wut?! The rest of us throw each other an open-mouthed look. We’re going inside?! Very hesitantly, we followed C.

I was not prepared for what I saw next. Two short steps from Westminster Bridge Road took us far, far away. We found ourselves in the ruins of a lobby. In what was the reminiscence of street light, I could make out a red couch, torn and turned on its head. Broken glass and wood shards decorated the floor. The walls were cracked, occasionally broken, leaving nowhere for the plumbing to hide. Two men sat in the corner.

C walked through the room, as casually as people do when walking through a supermarket looking for a sandwich, and out through a set of double doors.  Now assuming responsibility for C’s life, we followed. The other side of the abyss was privileged with light.

This meant that we could now see what we had gotten ourselves into; deserted rooms, barren corridors – empty space as far as the eye could see. Well, except for the graffiti. Barely an inch of the interiors was spared from the black, red and blue of spray paint. While some pieces blew the mind and deserved to be in an art gallery, others gave useful written advice on how to undermine the establishment.

C was now walking several paces ahead of us, midway through climbing a flight of stairs. While walking up, several thoughts (perhaps slightly irrational…) flew through my head: I wondered when the building was going to collapse, when I would get mugged, and if the GMC would revoke my future medical license. I also entertained a fleeting thought of future death due to asbestosis (Oh, the joys of being a medic).

Another set of double doors led to another set of surprises. This time it was in the form of an inhabited hall. Fifteen people were sitting in the corners of the room. An elderly hunchbacked woman dressed in black walked past us. A large, dark coloured dog crossed our path. Nobody batted an eyelid when we entered the room. And, as usual, C just strolled along.

C’s final destination was a small room. As we walked through the doors, we were instantly hit by a thick wall of cigarette smoke. It took me a several seconds to make sense of my surroundings. About 6 people were sitting on a table. The closest to me as a gigantically tall man, with frizzy hair and blackened nails, slouching on his chair. To his right was a clean shaven, well-dressed man with styled hair, thick rim glasses and a MacBook Pro. A MacBook Pro? The rest of the table was occupied by a woman with a multitude of piercings, a man on another laptop, and a giggling couple. Behind us, two men lay on the floor, accompanied by several empty take-out dinner boxes. I have never seen such a random assortment of people in a single room.

Gigantically tall man got off his chair and, much to my surprise, gave C a big hug. This was followed by a session of banter and catching up; apparently the pair had known each other for a while. Our presence in the room still seemed to go unnoticed. What in the world is going on?

After 5 minutes of uncomfortably shifting around, I decided to make some conversation. Becoming friendly with these people was the best chance of us not getting knifed.

The results were fascinating. I was immediately put at ease when I saw how open and friendly our hosts were. In thirty minutes, I learned more about life than any textbook or documentary could teach me. London had an entire squatter’s network. The network had a headquarters which moved around every two months. Squatters’ lives were understandably very difficult and they were under constant threat by the police. In fact, they had been ordered to evacuate this building by the following morning. I seemed more worried by this news than they did though; careful planning meant that their new home had already been identified – an office building somewhere in the city; moving was just part of the job.

Some of the squatters were ‘professional’ squatters: currently, their existence revolved around occupying buildings, finding their next meal, and ensuring that they had somewhere to go when they were told to look for a new home. Others were social or political activists. One of the men with a laptop, Gingux (a code name which he had earned during his time in a school ‘gang’), worked for an online company.

After thirty minutes of riveting conversation, A, P and I felt like it was time to say our goodbyes. An email address was exchanged. Several helpings of handshakes went around. Of course, C decided to stay on, but now assured that her life was no longer in danger, we could leave the building.

We exited the building in complete silence. Each of us took our own time to process what we had just seen, smelt and spoken. Very few people have the privilege of experiencing something this unique, this extraordinary, I thought to myself. Finally the silence was broken: the three of us looked at each other with stupid smiles, jumped around like complete idiots, vigorously shook random body parts, and yelled to passers-by about how incredibly awesome that was.

Being inside and outside the building was physically only a matter of meters. But the two spaces felt like they were a universe apart.

Adiós! It is now time for me to email Gingux.

 

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