Thursday, November 17, 2011

Squatter's Life

This article, written by Embers guitarist Steven DeCaprio, originally appeared on Invisible Oranges a heavy metal blog.

I met Mila in 1999 at La Scintilla, a squat in Modena, Italy. I was on tour with my previous band Lesser of Two. Mila runs a number of labels including Agipunk, Break the Chains, and Iconoclast. Recently Iconoclast agreed to release Embers’ upcoming album, Shadows.

La Scintilla was a huge fortress with a bar, library/store, a computer workstation, two rooms with free foosball, a large concert space, a guest room designed for over a dozen people, multiple kitchens, storage, an entire floor of apartments, dining room, common space, laundry room, meeting room, and space left to expand.

During Lesser of Two’s tour in ’99 as well as subsequent tours by Embers, we played at many squats such as La Scintilla.

Before touring Europe for the first time, I always thought of squats as merely abandoned properties which people just occupied for shelter. As a teenager, some friends of mine and I had occupied a vacant warehouse. We brought furniture into an empty office in the warehouse and hung out there. I remember when Ash, the other guitarist on Lesser of Two’s first E.P., was kicked out of his parents’ house and began living in the warehouse.

Once his parents kicked him out he was living in the warehouse without electricity, and one of the only places we could plug in was a local park that was known as a pick-up spot for guys cruising for sex. Eventually Ash left town and Lesser of Two became a three piece with my wife, Kelly, who currently plays bass with me in Embers.

After arriving in Europe and seeing the squats there, my ideas about the possibilities of squatting expanded dramatically. Lesser of Two and Embers have played in dozens of squats throughout Europe. Some of the squats are as good or better than any commercial venue you will play in—they have large stages, professional sound equipment, efficient staff/volunteers, backstage area, food, etc.

Other squats are on the other extreme: burned out or stripped husks of buildings powered by a maze of extension cords plugged into pirated electricity, where a foreboding sense of injury lurks around every corner. There is also every possible variation in between.

Despite this, even the most blighted squats tend to provide a good forum for metal, with people packed in, getting drunk and rocking out regardless of their surroundings. In fact, sometimes playing a show in a building that is falling apart adds to the post-apocalyptic sensibilities that metal often embraces. Sometimes it’s like playing the most out of control dive bar you could imagine.

La Scintilla was one of many squats I encountered that sparked my imagination regarding the possibilities of squatting. I imagined squatted fortresses and labyrinths with their own self-contained societies rising up in every city. Other squats that inspired similar thoughts include Zoro in Leipzig, Rotteflora in Hannover, Rozbrat in Poznan, Ladronka in Prague, El Paso in Torino, Barrikaden in Oslo, just to name a few.

After the show at La Scintilla in ’99, drinking and dancing ensued. Mila began to dance on the bar and tables, jumping from one to another in time with the music. He was soon joined by a boisterous woman. The image of them dancing with such reckless abandon was surreal. Unfortunately, the festivities came to a halt when the two of them came crashing down upon each other, leaving the woman with three broken ribs and Mila with a large welt on his head.

When the Lesser of Two tour in ’99/’00 was complete, my band mates and I split up and traveled around Europe. For those 2 1/2 months I lived primarily in a squat in Madrid. The entire household was comprised of radical vegetarians. One floor was vegan, the other vegetarian. In a culture dominated by bullfights and tapas, being a vegetarian was very much against the grain. At the time there were more squatters in Madrid than vegetarians.

My friend Rekena, who invited me into the house, switched between playing guitar and bass in many punk and metal bands. While I was there he formed a short lived vegan death metal band with one of our other housemates.

At one point, some friends of ours squatted a building in our neighborhood. Rekena and I went there to hang out. While we were there one time, the owner and two thugs kicked in the door and started assaulting people in the apartment. Rekena told me to leave. I wanted to stay and fight, but he was adamant. Later I realized he was looking out for me, because the police arrived and everyone in the squat was arrested.

Squatters in Europe have varying degrees of rights. Spain is a country where squatters have few rights. On the other end of that scale is the Netherlands, where squatters have extensive rights. Most countries fall somewhere in between.

While I was in Madrid, I took the time to study Spanish. I went to a squatted school in a building that was abandoned by the Catholic Church. The school was called La Prospe, and they provided free Spanish classes. Most of my fellow classmates were recent immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.

Upon returning from Europe after the Lesser of Two tour in ’99/’00, Kelly and I attempted to return to our old routine. All of our lives, Kelly and I have worked low skill shit jobs to support our music, including dishwasher, short order cook, pizza delivery, construction laborer, recycling collection, etc. Whenever we went on tour we’d quit our job and look for another after we returned.

Since Kelly and I were touring and traveling for over 7 months, we decided to move out of our apartment, and look for new housing on our return. We found an apartment with friends, and I had assurances from my previous employer that they would hire me back.

That didn’t quite work out.

After only a few months back, we were evicted, and the manager who promised my job back had been replaced. Without work and housing my options were limited. For a while I slept on friends’ couches while I looked for work. Then I started to sleep in our tour van rather than rely on my friends.

For about a year while I slept mostly in our tour van, my primary source of income became donating my body for various scientific experiments. It was at this point that I became determined to start a squat similar to those I had seen in Europe as a solution to my housing dilemma.

Hellarity was the first squat where I lived. It is a squat that people had been residing in since the early to mid’90s in Oakland. The squat had an open door policy which resulted in a great deal of chaos. Since I was always cooking food for everyone, I was embraced by the household, and eventually given my own room. Often I would come home and find wall to wall people sleeping on every inch of floor space.

It was at Hellarity that I realized that squatting is not free. Almost every day there were new guests magically appearing on our couch, and we constantly had to kick old guests out to make room. Guests would fight with each other. Housemates would fight with each other. Guests and housemates would fight. It was a constant struggle amongst everyone to best utilize our limited resources.

Of course with all that chaos came a lot of positives as well. There were many amazing travelers coming through. Many of them were musicians. Many of them would help with house projects or help dumpster dive for food. Because of this, Hellarity always had plenty of food for everyone, even if we were all living on top of each other.

All along I knew that I was not comfortable simply using Hellarity’s resources. I needed to strike out on my own, establish my own space, and widen the circle. I left Hellarity to establish a squat in Berkeley, California, which we named Banana.

Banana had been abandoned for more than 10 years and was filled with dust and garbage. The plumbing didn’t work so my fellow squatters and I had to re-plumb the house. We also replaced the broken windows and cleared out much of the garbage. We turned on the water, electricity, and a phone.

The beginning of the end occurred when I was at the house removing the boards on the windows I had repaired. The Berkeley police stormed the property, and held us at gunpoint. I was cited and released, but I stood there while city workers boarded the property back up.

Later, I returned, removed the boards, and moved back in. I was cited again, and the city workers used one way screws to install the boards, and filled the keyhole with epoxy. Again, I was cited and released.

The third time I came back, sawed the screws and doorknob, and moved back in. I was again removed by the police, then cited and released. The city workers then welded the storm door shut with an arcwelder.

At this point, the back and forth between the city of Berkeley and me had become personal. I should have realized the situation was untenable and moved on. Looking back on it now, I realize I was simply being foolish, but the anger I felt about my situation dominated my thoughts. I could not accept that our society would prefer for me to be homeless while an abandoned house rots. We reward stockbrokers, corporate CEOs, real estate speculators, and so on with wealth and luxury, but musicians are forced to work shit jobs, live in slums, and in some cases go homeless.

I returned to Banana with a cordless dremel, a diamond blade, and a can of WD-40. I sprayed the weld joints with lubricant and cut the metal with the dremel. I had cut all the weld points and was in the midst of changing the locks when the police arrived. They took me to jail.

For my efforts, I was cited six times, spent two nights in jail, and spent weekends for a year cleaning up trash on the side of the road after being convicted of three counts of “unlawful entry into a residence.” I had no money for an attorney, and the judge denied my requests to have an attorney appointed to me. I had to represent myself through an entire jury trial and had six out of the nine charges against me thrown out. Pretty good for a beginner, but not good enough.

My legal troubles did not stop there. While out on bail, I returned to Hellarity. The first day I woke up, the house had been served with a lawsuit. Because of my growing legal experience, the duty of litigation rested mainly on my shoulders. I gave the district attorneys a run for their money. For about 2 1/2 years, I litigated them in circles until I couldn’t handle both the burden of litigation as well as the drama of wall-to-wall people; 20 at one count in a house with only four actual bedrooms.

At the same time all of this was happening a documentary on squatting was being filmed called “Shelter: A Squatumentary”. This documentary follows the story of three squats in the East Bay, including Hellarity and Banana.

Shelter: A Squatumentary (TRAILER)

Shelter: A Squatumentary (OLD TRAILER)

During all of this, I had another squat on the back burner. It was completely uninhabitable, but extensive remodeling sounded better to me than continuous litigation. A tree was growing into the roof. One floor was filled with dead animals. The other floor had trash and fire damage. The crawl space had syringes and more trash.

We called the house Noodle.

Today, I live at Noodle. The roof is fixed, the trash is gone, and the house is mostly functional. We have no hot water or electricity, but there is no litigation or drama. It’s my home.

Currently Timm, who plays guitar in Embers, lives with me. Since we don’t pay rent or mortgage payments, one might think that we could save a lot of money and sink it into the band, or quit our jobs and tour incessantly.

Unfortunately, since the house was abandoned for over 40 years, it was in dire need of repairs (or demolition). Because of this, I spend most of my paycheck on repairs and blight fines. I hope that one day the house remodeling will be done, and I can put more time and money into the band.

Despite this, my life has settled down considerably. I have a decent job, there is little house drama, I’m not involved in any litigation, and I get along with my neighbors. My friends and I even started a garden in an empty lot on our street. We built a shack which is looking more and more like a cottage. Our friend is the “groundskeeper”.

Also, since I’ve been in and out of court so much I’ve decided to become a lawyer. When I pass the Bar Exam in 2013, I will become the only lawyer that specializes in squatting. I find myself consulting with squatters often, helping them avoid common pitfalls while establishing or defending squats. There are now numerous squats in Oakland, and the trend is growing.

However, unlike Noodle, not all squats have happy endings:

. . .

Safehouse owners throw bookcase at occupants

. . .

Safehouse barricade: owners throw knives

. . .

I have learned a lot through my squatting experiences. I’ve learned that our society places a higher value on property than human life. I’ve learned how people can come together during difficult times and how they can fall apart and turn against one another.

I’ve also learned that in the U.S.A., squatters have more rights than I originally thought. For example, if you squat a property long enough, then the property becomes yours. This legal principle is called “adverse possession,” and it is the squatter’s holy grail. I have achieved that at Noodle. I don’t know anyone else who has. I’ve started a blog about this subject with this same name, Adverse Possession.

Embers has gone to Europe twice since I first met Mila at La Scintilla. During those tours, we have played in many squats. Playing in European squats can be a good alternative to commercial venues, especially for lesser known bands who are self-managed. It’s exciting to be working with Iconoclast now because Embers shares roots in the crust, squatter, and radical communities, as do a growing number of metal bands today.

In 2009, Embers played at Barrikaden in Oslo. Afterward we visited one of the infamous burned churches of Norway. Playing in European squats can be a good alternative to commercial venues, especially for lesser known bands who are self managed.

Tips for squatters:

1. Research

Before entering a house and living there, it is often helpful to know exactly what you are walking into. With an address, you can find the owner’s name and the parcel number through your local tax assessor’s office. With that name and parcel number, you can find more information at your local courthouse and county recorder’s office. The internet can also be a good source of information, but don’t rely on the internet exclusively. I recommend researching numerous properties, so you can pick the most viable rather than the most desirable.

2. Prepare

Before entering the house, imagine all the possible reactions by people who may undermine your efforts, such as neighbors, police, owners, and city officials. Brainstorm every possible reaction by those people and develop a strategy for taking possession of the house in a way that avoids as much potential confrontation as possible. Develop strategies as well to deal with situations as they arise. Treat such interactions as the theater of life and practice your lines with your friends.

3. Repair

Make sure that the water is turned on and that you fix up the house in a way that both ensures your comfort and secures the respect of your neighbors. I recommend a fresh coat of paint and a garden if you want your neighbors to like you. If you turn an abandoned house into a filth infested shantytown you shouldn’t be surprised if your neighbors turn against you. Respect your house and respect your neighbors.
— Steve DeCaprio

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