What does a dictator’s house look like? In a leafy Hampstead cul-de-sac, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi owns a £10m mansion. The London base of the Libyan dictator’s son is held by a company based in the British Virgin Islands for tax reasons, and boasts a swimming pool, a private cinema – and, now, a dozen activists squatting in the living room.
Yesterday, with more reports coming in of government thugs spilling rebel blood on the streets of Zawiya, a group of young people entered the empty mansion. They secured the entrances, taped up a notice stating their right to hold the property under British common law, and moved in. They flung banners from the windows reading “solidarity” in English and Arabic.
“We’re opening this space as an embassy for the Benghazi government, and as a place to house refugees fleeing the tyranny,” one activist told me. “How long are we going to be here?”, said another young man in the darkened front room. “As long as it takes.”
The occupation of space has gone way beyond a student prank, although there is an element of mischief to it. The young people who have taken Gaddafi’s gaff are a loosely affiliated group of radicals calling themselves Topple the Tyrants. They include student protesters, Libyan citizens and members of UK Uncut. “We are not here to cause any damage,” said a Libyan occupier. “Why would we? It’s our house! It belongs to the Libyan people. We’re here to make sure it isn’t sold to finance more killing.”
For months, activists across Britain have been reclaiming the dead investment space of the wealthy, setting up refuges, community centres and free schools in empty properties including a London mansion belonging to film director Guy Ritchie. Starting with the university occupations in November, the political appropriation of space has become a great deal more serious, from temporary symbolic occupations of town halls and bank branches across the country by local people protesting against public service cuts, to longer term projects.
Organising online, these activists are gaining skills and building networks at great speed. With ruling elites across the world ensuring there is no room for the young, the poor and the unemployed in their own cities, the drive to reclaim space has now become a global movement. A number of Libyans are now living in Gaddafi’s mansion, along with British students and workers.
Many of these radical squatters see themselves as offering a moral and practical response to a government that consistently values private property before people. Much of the media has portrayed them as spoiled kids, selfishly inconveniencing hardworking home owners with their high jinks. That argument becomes harder to make, however, when the homeowner in question has financed his property empires by exploiting a population which is now being slaughtered with British-made weapons. Now, more than ever, it is clear that not every property tycoon deserves his bounty.
Squatting empty buildings is legal, although the government is keen to criminalise it. It is also a reasonable course of action in a country where almost a million properties are empty, and a million citizens are homeless or precariously housed. Until now, the police have largely refused to see it that way, and thrown their weight behind evictions of the new occupation movement.
This time the police have given the squatters little trouble, writing off the matter as a civil issue. If the dictator’s son wants his house cleared, he will need a court order. Meanwhile, inside the mansion, dissidents from the Libyan international solidarity campaign are calling their families in Tripoli in gleeful tears, telling them that activists across the world are on their side, and this occupation proves it.
It is hard to imagine who would tell bailiffs to drag Libyan citizens out of the private property of the Gaddafi regime – particularly at a time when our government is kicking sand over its catalogue of fawning support for the dictatorship. The occupation of private property is one of the proudest traditions of resistance in Britain.
In 1649, the Diggers occupied St George’s Hill in Surrey, declaring that they would no longer allow landowners to fleece the poor. “By theft and murder they took the land,” sang the Diggers. Watching protest banners flapping from the window of the Libyan dictator’s occupied mansion, those words echoed in my mind.
“Out of Libya, out of London!” screams one banner, weighted down with coat hangers that clatter in the wind. For men like Gaddafi and his supporters in the British government, the hoarding of profit and property is a global business. Now, solidarity and resistance have also gone global.