It begins after midnight on Friday night with the sound of a crowbar being forced through the thick sheets of plywood protecting the back door of the abandoned former library in Dartmouth. After a few minutes’ work the door swings open, a lone figure enters the building and the night is quiet again. I’m here, shivering in the dark, to witness the fulfillment of a promise made by local activists. By Saturday, they had said, an abandoned building would be forcibly occupied to protest the urgent need for affordable housing for the city’s poor. This unpublicized late-night action gives the small contingent of organizers time to secure and clean the space in advance of the next-day’s rally.
Many hours later, in the sunny Saturday afternoon, a busload of protestors pulls into the parking lot with vanloads of police and media in tow. As protestors and police spill from their vehicles, a banner is calmly unfurled from the roof by those who had secretly broken in the night before: “Build Housing NOW.” A crowd of about 30 protestors gathers to block the front entrance as a triumphant Chris Neale, his feet dangling above the large banner, smiles and smokes a cigarette, feeding soundbites to the media.
“The city owns this building, it is in good condition,” Neale says. The building is clean and safe, he says, and it could be used almost immediately to house over 30 people. With electricity and water working already, “what it needs are kitchens and beds.” Cameras click, video rolls. The throng of police backs off to a respectable distance, waiting for instructions from the abandoned building’s owners, the Halifax Regional Municipality.
With the building occupied and their message resounding with the crowd, the squatters have won the first victory of the day. For the next half an hour, a calm prevails. As the police stand back, the doors of the large building are triumphantly flung open, and the public is invited to tour the building. Inside, hard-core activists mix with curious members of the public, marveling at the space. The tour group walks from room to room, talking, joking, with a palpable feeling that something important and positive has begun.
I meet a smiling Steven Slater on the second floor of the squat. Slater is a middle-aged man who came to the squat with no radical political compulsions, but mainly out of curiosity. A former resident of Dartmouth, he remembers the building when it was a museum. “This was a history museum,” he says. “The library was down on the first floor. Around the back was the kids’ section.” Looking around the airy, carpeted room, he says, “Well, it’s definitely a wasted space that is useful for something. In terms of keeping the weather off you, you’ve got room here. This is a good building to occupy.”
In an adjoining room, the sun streaming in through a large window, Aaron Doncaster excitedly scopes out possible sleeping spaces. “This is amazing. This is unreal,” he says. “I will live here. I will not pay $500 per month for a crappy little tiny room.”
Sitting on a table nearby, 56-year-old Bill Krampe tells me he’s been an activist since he was 19 when he marched against the Vietnam War. “That makes me an old feller, but that’s alright,” he says. Krampe says he’s “very proud of what I’m doing,” by being in the squat, even though it’s illegal. “I feel hopeful that the word will get out that there are facilities here in the HRM that can house people,” he says. “This building is perfectly OK. It could be a wet shelter.”
Krampe tells me he’s frustrated that, instead of building affordable housing, “the city is pointing fingers at the province who points fingers again at the federal government.”
Not long after I speak to Krampe, word comes from outside that the police seem to be mobilizing to enter the building. Gathering on the roof, we receive frantic news yelled up from outside. “Police have arrived with a crowbar,” says one. “The city has ordered everyone to leave,” people inside are told. And, we hear that the police have advised: “If you touch a cop, you will be charged.”
For the group of about 10 people still inside, the dream is fading fast. Quickly, attention turns from the optimistic planning of long-term living arrangements to nervous preparations for an imminent siege. Now, those inside must decide if they are willing to face arrest for this cause. For almost everyone in the room, the answer is yes. As the squatters rush to gather desks and chairs to barricade a large glass door on the second floor, I decide to take the last opportunity to leave the building before the raid. I exit from the front, and the door locks behind me. Outside, a squat organizer delivers the news to the police: “Some people have made a decision to stay inside.”
Almost immediately, a group of police officers approaches the building, one of them brandishing a large crowbar. They force away a line of protestors, the building’s first line of defense. And now, for the second time in a few hours, the cracking sound of breaking plywood is heard, this time mixed with the frantic yells of protestors as the police, authorized by a phone call from city Chief Administrative Officer George McLellan, force their way into the building.
As the first wave of officers move upstairs, a second group blocks the entrance, making it impossible for anyone to see the action on the upper floors. Soon, the sharp sound of the crunching of metal on metal is heard from the second floor. The barricades are falling. Minutes later, a group of police emerge carrying Chris Neale who had declared earlier that he “won’t be walking out of this building.” He is forced into a waiting paddy wagon. Cameras snap, video rolls.
One protestor attempts to jump to safety from the building’s 12-foot high roof into the arms of his friends below. He makes it, but two police officers move in to force him to the ground. Fellow protestors use their bodies to attempt to intervene in his arrest and they are violently tackled by police. One protestor screams in pain as his face is forced into the pavement by two large officers who pile on top of him, eventually handcuffing and dragging him back into the building, out of the public view. He is later carried into a waiting paddy wagon, apparently unhurt. All told, nine protestors are arrested in the ordeal.
The violent end to the squat was the predictable focus of most of the next day’s media reports. For me, however, the sustaining memory was the brief calm before the raid when members of the public were allowed, for the first time in years, to walk around a building that is in fact their own rightful property, bought and maintained with their tax dollars. I’m left with the feeling that if city officials had visited the peaceful squat, as some citizens did, instead of immediately having their unelected CAO, by telephone, order police action to stop it, they might have been able negotiate a peaceful and productive end to the day.Just after the police raid, I see Steven Slater standing outside the building, now empty and surrounded by police. “It would have been nice if they’d let people stay for a while,” he says calmly. Slater is disappointed the protest ended in violence. “The police are doing their job,” he says. “But I think the city has failed. This really is a building that’s not being used, that’s not slated for demolition. The city has definitely failed.”