Book Review: The Urban Politics of Squatters’ Movements edited by Miguel A. Martinez Lopez

Monday 3rd December, 2018

Review by Rhiannon Craft

Miguel A. Martinez Lopez is Professor of Sociology at the IBF-Institute for Housing and Urban Research, Uppsala University (Sweden). He was previously affiliated with the City University of Hong Kong and the Complutense University of Madrid. Since 2009 he is a member of the activist-research network SqEK (Squatting Everywhere Kollective). He is interested in urban sociology, social movements and participatory-activist methodologies. Most of his works are available at: www.miguelangelmartinez.net. Miguel A. Martinez Lopez edited The Urban Politics of Squatters’ Movements, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.

The Urban Politics of Squatters’ Movements provides a valuable addition to a growing body of literature documenting and analysing a modern history of urban squatter's movements across Europe. As it currently stands, the social and political history of squatting practices remains largely unknown, and that which is known is often distorted by negative stereotypes perpetuated by media discourses and criminalisation. This collection begins to fill this gap and combat misconceptions by systematically illuminating (and comparing) the mechanics of various Squatted Social Centres in Europe. It is shown throughout the collection how these movements are simultaneously shaped by and respond to the varying social, political, and historical contexts in which they are found.

Chapters 2 to 10 present to the reader 8 case studies of different squatting movements that have risen in a variety of different European cities: Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, and Brighton. Each of these chapters reveal the historical patterns of such movements as they grow, shrink, and transform – and refuse to disappear – over time in response to changing social, spatial and political landscapes. All of which interacting in their own unique ways, giving each movement in each city its own distinct flavour and identity. Each chapter includes quantified visual representations that are embedded within thick qualitative descriptions, allowing the reader to observe the patterns at play. Chapters 11 to 13 provide an intriguing comparative overview of the case studies. Significant differences between Northern and Southern Europe are highlighted.

By employing the concept of “protest cycles” (Tarrow, 1994; emphasis added), this collection displays the temporal rhythms of these urban forms of resistance as they persist to exist across Europe. All of the case studies reveal that whatever forms of power and oppression may exist within any geographical or temporal context, resistance may change but inevitably coexists; refusing to go away. It is shown that each generation of squatting can carry the seeds for those that follow, as tactics and knowledge accumulate and are passed on. Echoing the work of Manuel Castells (1996; 2012), it is also shown how squats can operate as “nodes” that connect an array of social movements, sparking political action. Through tracking the rhythms of squatting movements, it is revealed that these forms of resistance have been persistent for over four decades as they respond (and reconfigure) in relation to changing constellations of power and oppression – or indeed, social organisation. Of course, there is no pure, single form of resistance (Foucault, 1984). These movements also possess many differences and conflicts within them. However, this is not seen as a weakness: Thomas Aquilera argues in Chapter 6 that conflicting tendencies and divisions within squatting movements in Paris have contributed to keeping the movement alive. Indeed: “the more heterogeneous a social movement, the more powerful it may be in challenging authorities and, more broadly, urban social organisation” (2018: 123).

As Miguel Martínez López points out in the introduction, most of the researchers in this collection possess dual identities – as both researchers and insiders, academics and squatters. From these immersed research positionalities, the researchers are shown to offer informed, authentic accounts of the movements in which they are deeply embedded, whilst maintaining a critical academic flare. They tell stories that may have remained unheard otherwise. Together, they provide further evidence of the value of breaking down the epistemological barriers that once restricted the possibilities of research. This is particularly relevant in research regarding transgressive, underground groups.

While providing rich descriptive accounts, this collection also illustrates how academics can move beyond description and become active. In these case studies, the researchers are active in two ways. Firstly, many of them are active in an immersive, lived manner whereby their everyday practices – as squatters – are carried out as activists. And secondly, as researchers and writers, they provide accounts that stem directly from within the very heart of these movements. Indeed, if we are to follow lessons from post-structural feminists, it can be said that accounts from academics have significant power to contribute to and reshape discourses. Regarding movements like this, resistance through research is much needed. As already mentioned, such movements have often been misrepresented by negative media discourses in the past. These negative discourses have often been triggers and legitimisers of the punitive state responses imposed as attempts to diminish them, which is well illustrated in this collection.

In conclusion, this collection offers a detailed account of an array of urban squatting movements across Europe, the contents of which will be of interest to all sociologists concerned with social organisation, social change, and the social movements that arise out of (and contribute to) these key facets of sociological interest. It could be said that squatting movements are simultaneously drivers and indicators of social change, as they emerge in response to changing constellations of power and social organisation, revealing the mechanics of the interplay of power and resistance. In this sense, such movements are arguably at the heart of sociological inquiry and provide empirical evidence that can begin to facilitate a deeper understanding of the way in which such processes operate. The geographical and temporal dimensions of such accounts will also attract historians and geographers, especially those that are interested in the significance of cities and social movements. And finally, the methodological and epistemological implications underpinning the research are useful to anyone interested in immersive social science research, and the benefits such research practices present.

Review by Rhiannon Craft, Cardiff University.

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