Property resistance in the Bay and beyond

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Models sport T-shirts bearing the logo: "Better to squat than let it rot."
IMAGE COURTESY AK PRESS

In 2004, Hannah Dobbz climbed up the drainpipe of an abandoned building in Emeryville and disappeared through a broken window. Outside, her friends waited with blankets, pillows, and food. Making her way down to the first floor, she unsecured the plywood door and let them in.

Dobbz had stayed in squats before—in the East Bay, and in Europe. But now she was finally “bottom-lining” her own. The property, an abandoned boat and turbine warehouse they called the Power Machine, was in legal limbo. The city of Emeryville had claimed eminent domain over the building, but settlement proceedings would continue for the next two years.

In the meantime, Dobbz and her friends made the Power Machine their home. They fixed up the building and collected bikes, books, and art supplies. They threw loud parties. Located under a bridge and next to the railroad, no one seemed to care—not even the landlord, who stumbled upon Dobbz during her second week of residency.

Dobbz’s experience, along with those of other East Bay squatters, became the subject of her film, “Shelter: A Squatumentary” (Kill Normal Productions: 2008). In 2007, she left the Bay Area and moved to Buffalo, but continued to advocate for the practice of seizing abandoned spaces, dubbed “property resistance.” Now, she has published a book on squatting.

The book, Nine-Tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States (AK Press: 2013), is both a guide for squatters and a history of land occupation movements. It delves into the philosophical justifications for squatting, and challenges the assumptions behind the economic forces of the housing market. For Dobbz, squatting is a tactic: it reasserts that shelter is everybody’s basic human right, not just the privilege of those who can afford it.

“One of those things that I’m hoping to do is rethink how we view property, to try and shift the emphasis from housing as a market value, to more of a use value,” said Dobbz.

Nor could the timing be much better, since recent events seem to have rekindled property resistance activism in the Bay Area. In 2011, the Occupy Oakland movement created a dialogue around public space and private ownership. Now, with the tech boom driving the cost of living ever higher, that dialogue has been infused with newfound urgency. 

Steve Dicaprio is the CEO and founder of Land Action, an organization that offers support and legal information to land occupiers. As Occupy Oakland unfolded, he began to research property foreclosures. He wanted to know which sites could be most easily occupied and defended from a legal standpoint. According to Dicaprio, organizers of Occupy Oakland soon began to consider the occupation of foreclosed homes as an alternative to demonstrations in Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza.

The goal of Dobbz, Dicarprio, and other activists is to foster a discussion around property. The focus needs to be on stewardship, not ownership, said Dobbz.

Both Dobbz and Dicaprio will be speaking at Looking Glass Arts on Friday, April 19th, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20, with proceeds going to Land Action. A free event will also take place the following night at 7:30 p.m. at the squatter residence Hotmess/RCA Compound (656 West MacArthur Blvd.), with a dance party to follow.

In the meantime, you can read an excerpt of the book here.

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