Property Is Theft: A history of punk rock and squatting

For decades, the spirit and morals of punk rock and squatting have gone hand-in-hand. We explore the turbulent political history of this riotous relationship, while speaking to the homeless and squat community of London.

Property Is Theft: A history of punk rock and squatting
Words and photos:
Jak Hutchcraft

'Get up! Wake up! We share a common plight / Kick back against the system, fight for squatters' rights!' Inner Terrestrials – Squatters' Rights (1996).

It’s cold, bright Friday lunchtime and Kerrang! is waiting outside a three-storey office building just off a busy high street in London. We're meeting Distras – a South African-born punk who has squatted here for the last two years. A double-door swings open and a bloke in a bandana, Cyness band tee and backwards cap shouts us over.

Squatting is a slang term for living in a property without permission from a landlord, tenant or licensee. Many squat out of necessity and homelessness, others for ideological reasons, some for both. The phrase “squatters' rights” is often in reference to Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which made it an offence for police to force unauthorised entry into an occupied building, including squats. This was overturned in 2012 and since then it’s been illegal to squat in residential buildings. However, squatting in non-residential buildings – like the one we're visiting today – is currently legal. You can even become the registered owner of property or land if you (or your mates) have squatted consistently for 10 or more years. It is worth noting, though, that police can take action if you damage the property, refuse to leave after being told to by a court, or use electricity or gas without permission

The squat neighbours a nursery and resembles an old council office, the interior is full of graffiti, art, bikes and the random belongings of the 20 people that live there. “This place has been a squat for three or four years. When I first moved in, I was staying in the disabled toilet downstairs”, Distras explains as we wander up the stairwell.

“Someone moved out and offered me this big room. I thought, I have to do something with this space. It’s not like we’re paying a lot of rent or anything!” he laughs, referring to Panic Attack Studios, his bedroom-cum-music studio on the first floor. It’s a punk hideaway complete with instruments, amps and a mattress. “A lot of stuff in here has been skipped [recovered from skips in the area] and then repaired,” he continues, proudly showing off a recycled sound system and high-end video camera.

Vakaris, guitarist in Distras’ hardcore band The Chain Of Panic, is the backbone of the not-for-profit studio. Originally set up to just record their own band, the studio has since hosted other artists including local busker Steve Broe, who had never recorded any of his music despite performing on the streets of London for decades.

The punk roots of British squatting can be traced back to the '60s and '70s. During the late '70s, in London alone, there were tens of thousands of empty houses and an estimated 50,000 squatters nationwide. Villa Road in Brixton was an entire street of unoccupied Victorian houses, which inspired rough sleepers, artists and activists to break in and set up camp. An extraordinary community of over 200 people formed on this South London street and it quickly became a seedbed for alternative thinking. Homeless single mothers, British Black Panthers, anarchists, feminists and hippies were sharing spaces, swapping ideas, hosting workshops and fighting for social justice.

Musicians were also drawn to squats in the '70s. The Slits – celebrated as punk’s first all-female band – lived in and rehearsed in squats in Shepherd's Bush in their early days, before going on to release some of the most defining music of the post-punk era.

In 1977, punk collective Crass played their first gig at a festival on a squatted street in central London. Left-wing and anarchist politics were a central part of their ethos and founding members, Gee Vaucher and Penny Rimbaud, had been already been squatting for 10 years prior to the band’s inception. They broke into an abandoned 16th Century cottage in Essex called the Dial House in 1967 and transformed it into an anarcho-pacifist commune with an open-door policy.

Up north in the '80s, Chumbawamba (yes, that Chumbawamba) were gigging and living in squats in Leeds. Coming together in 1982, they made a name for themselves in the northern punk underground with their political post-punk, before becoming a household name in 1997 with their tongue-in-cheek party tune, Tubthumping. Originally meant to subvert and poke fun at the mainstream pop world, the song accidentally secured them their place in pop music history, soundtracking football tournaments, party song compilations and office Christmas parties ever since.

The punk squatter culture merged with rave in the early '90s as the European sound of acid techno (a gnarly spin-off of acid house laden with squelchy 303s and thundering 128bpm beats) landed on British shores. Chris Knowles (aka Chris Liberator), drummer of punk band Hagar The Womb had squatted in Hackney, East London throughout the '80s but put down his sticks to start DJing in 1991. He and his two mates Julian and Aaron (aka the Liberator DJs) started Stay Up Forever Records two years later and became key players in that scene. The big squat raves they organised began to feature acid techno DJs on one floor and punk bands on the other. “We were all into techno and raving but felt a bit out of place going out to commercial raves when we were all from a much more squat/punk background,” he explained in an interview with Louder Than War.

In 2002, after 35 years of living there and fighting off developers, Penny and Gee from Crass were forced to either make a bid for the Dial House property or leave. After much deliberation and ideological quandary, they managed to buy the property with the help of supporters and ex-residents. It still operates as a progressive space for artists, punks and activists.

Over on Brixton’s Villa Road, however, things played out differently. Some of the homes were destroyed by the council to build a park, others were repossessed and split up into flats, the squatters moved on and eventually, perhaps inevitably, gentrification arrived in the area. A two-bedroom flat on the road will now set you back over half a million quid.

It’s easy to get lost in wistful tales of punk past when it comes to squatting, but it’s important to remember that living in this way, both then and now, isn’t all innovative art, edgy music and activism. For many people it’s a lifeline.

“I’ve been homeless for basically three-and-a-half years,” Vince (pictured above), a local rough sleeper explains as we walk through Camden. “I was in prison and when I came out they were meant to sort me out a gaff but they never sorted out nothing, my probation officers and that."

Vince used to DJ house and garage music in the '90s but has since fallen on hard times. “I lost my flat in Camden, I’ve got heart problems and yet still I ain’t got nowhere to live.” He goes on to say that he’s staying at his friend’s house nearby at the moment but has squatted in the past. “The thing is, when you go into one of them empty buildings they try and do you for burglary, mate! I’ve seen so many empty places, it’s a joke. Up in Queen’s Crescent there’s at least three. There’s a couple up the road here. Why can’t they give people places when there are so many empty places?” Vince questions, visibly upset.

Further down the road we meet another rough sleeper and musician, Stephen Johnstone, 37. “I’m an underground rapper, I’ve done music all my life. I’ve been sleeping rough for like, six weeks.”

Stephen (pictured below), who raps under the name Menace, was kicked out of his temporary accommodation after stealing another resident’s bike. “The council won’t rehouse me now so I get a hostel every night, if I can. I’m just trying to stay safe and that.” We ask what he thinks of the government's approach to the housing emergency. “They don’t do a thing, I don’t think they’re even interested, know what I mean? I don’t think they even think of homeless people, they’re just doing their own thing.”

Figures released last month suggest that more homeless people died on the streets of Camden last year than in Manchester, Nottingham and Cardiff combined. Homelessness charity Shelter released research that indicates more than 274,000 people are homeless in England right now, including 126,000 children.

“It is shameful that 274,000 people are without a home,” Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter said. “And with COVID protections now gone thousands more will be joining them. A shoddy hostel room or a freezing cold doorway is no place to wake up on Christmas morning, but sadly so many people will.”

She’s referring to the 'Everyone In' scheme that was rolled out by the government in 2020, which provided rough sleepers with hostels and hotels to hinder the spread of COVID-19. 688 people died in 2020 while homeless, which was down from 778 in 2019. This can be attributed in the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, which has not been reinstated. All the while over 600,000 houses are sitting empty, according to government figures from 2020.

A spokesperson from Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told Kerrang!, “Tackling homelessness is an absolute priority for this government, which is why we have committed more than £2billion in funding over the next three years. On top of that we’re providing £375million this year to prevent homelessness and have given councils in England £65million to support people in rent arrears.”

Back at Distras’s squat, we get into the politics of his situation.

“I feel like we are protesting, in a way. It’s a free space and it has done a lot of good,” he explains. As we talk, anti-fascist and anti-royalist images adorn the walls around us, as well as posters of British punk legends The Exploited and The English Dogs. “There are a lot of people that have mental health problems inside here and they need a place to stay. I won’t say much more because that’s their business, but some people think about squats and they think we’re just trashing the fucking buildings, but that’s not what I’ve seen. A lot of good has come out of this place.” He explains that several of his housemates just “came out of nowhere” and have been living there for years. “We never turn anyone away.”

Distras works as a bike courier and starts getting ready for his shift. We ask how he ended up here. “At the time it was a necessity. I had been renting since I got to the UK in 2004, but I got kicked out and needed a quick place to stay. This is where I’ve been since then.” He goes on to say that they’ve been served an eviction notice for the end of January and that they’ve already been “window shopping” for a new squat. “We had a legal eviction attempt last year, fuck, that got messy,” he recalls. “A lot of people got fucking hurt. A guy in the room next door got bitten by a fed dog! It was messy as hell.”

It's sometimes easy to forget that punk was founded on anger. Pure, potent rage united the kids in a way that had never before been seen in popular music. And, if you look at our rich history of activism and social justice, you’ll see that anger becomes action and action becomes change. If you need a reason to reconnect with that anger then just think of all of the people sleeping rough this winter, while half a million houses sit empty across the country.

If you see a rough sleeper send details of where and when you see them, as well as a brief description of the person, to StreetLink using their website, app or by calling 0300 500 0914. StreetLink is operated in partnership by charities Homeless Link and St Mungo’s. Scotland has no centralised service so you should check for contact details of your local council.

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