The word “squatting” conjures up images of large empty houses being broken into by unruly youths, living in a house that is not their own and then being unwilling to leave and give up their new free home. But a new government bill, aimed to tackle the “squatting problem”, is in danger of affecting the ability of students to hold peaceful protests in buildings.
The bill, to criminalise the act of trespassing, could criminalise the homeless as well as the sit-in protests that are traditionally very popular to students. The sit-ins that swept across many institutions last year in response to the increase in tuition fees would be criminalised if the bill went through – as lawyers suggest it would amount to trespassing.
While I didn’t join in with the supposed “Great” York sit-in last year, the participants of which occupied part of the Exhibition Centre for 10 days protesting against the potential increase in tuition fees, I did admire their determination and dedication to the cause they were pursuing. The only disruption that the University suffered was the loss of space and the annoyance of the continued protest being there day after day – to criminalise that would be misguided and illiberal.
Whether you supported the sit-in in York last year is irrelevant, as is whether you saw the sit-in as the best form of protest; what does matter is that those students who wished to protest about a cause in such a manner were allowed to do so and not stopped because of legal wrangling. In the future students could be severely limited in their choice of protest expression.
Trespassing and occupying owned property is not what I am advocating. But when it is done for a good reason and when it is conducted in a cooperative and non-violent way, it is hard to see the logic in criminalising such behaviour – albeit indirectly. The protesters last year in York met with University officials, explaining their own position and making allowances for other students to come and work in the space upon University insistence. In return the University listened to the concerns that were being raised, and although the protest was eventually unsuccessful, the conduct during it could in no way be described as criminal.
Similar student sit-ins erupted in Chile over the summer; and while some of the activity was violent, sit-ins have been used world-wide to show authorities, at whatever level, that the people aren’t in favour with the decisions being taken. To ban this would damage the principles of the right to demonstrate and would be a backward step when historically constructive demonstrations have highlighted issues and helped society advance.
The bill may be intended to solely deal with squatters (and whether that is right or wrong is another argument) but as lawyers have warned, protests, such as sit-ins, might also be blanket covered by it. It is necessary for the bill to be reconsidered once more.
Fundamentally, a law with unintended consequences is not well thought through regardless of what they are, especially when those consequences criminalise legitimate and peaceful forms of protest. Perhaps a sit-in is needed to get the government to listen.