Commentary by Tom Boland
People kept down by prejudice sometimes use the tactic of “non-violent civil disobedience.” Such tactics are familiar to many because those who marched with Martin Luther King used them to win voting and other rights for people of color. Native peoples, poor people and homeless people are using such tactics to seek justice today.
If conditions for poor people are where you live as they are where I live (Boston), I invite you to consider squatting buildings as a way to publicize the need for affordable housing. This article suggests my tips if you decide to squat or encamp for your rights.
For your information, I am a pacifist anti-poverty activist who spent two years homeless. In the last few years, I’ve been working with groups in and near Boston that homeless people manage.
One of them, called Bread and Jams, now has many programs. One program is a “social action and service center” for homeless people in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (That’s right, homeless people run their own center here. The Center has been open since 1991. Maybe a homeless-run center would also work where you live).
I distilled the “squatting tips” below mainly from the failures of a three-month encampment for affordable housing in Boston in 1988. It involved hundreds of homeless people and allies.
Authorities tricked us into moving our location a number of times, although we spent over two months camped outside Boston City Hall. Our protest ended with a building takeover and over a dozen arrests. Our nonviolent direct action campaign was called HOMEFRONT 88.
A decade later here in Boston, a group called Homes Not Jails is squatting for affordable housing. I urge you to think about squatting where you live, and here are my tips:
1. Bring camcorders, tape recorders, cameras, notepads and press passes. This will help deter police harassment and, if it occurs, provide you with a record of it. It will also help you get access to sites and information that authorities are trying to keep from the public eye. It’s amazing how humanely officials can act when they know that others are watching.
2. STAY IN CONSTANT TOUCH WITH SQUATTERS WORLDWIDE
This cross-fertilizes strategies and helps you decide what may work or not locally. It also builds morale, especially when authorities are trying to discredit you and threatening arrests to scare off supporters.
Nowadays, the Internet is an excellent link to other squatters in a world where over a billion people are houseless----even in wealthy nations.
The home page for Homes Not Jail (Boston Chapter) is a good place, at: http://www.geocities.com.Capitalhill/7996/
3. GIVE EVERY PARTICIPANT AN “EVICTION ALERT PHONETREE”
The list should include contact phone numbers for the newsdesks of alternative and mainstream----local TV, newspapers, and radio, plus wire services such as United Press and Reuters. Don’t forget college papers and radio stations.
4. Also include contact numbers for supporters to mobilize quickly if arrests occur. Perhaps you can find progressive members of City Council, clergy or other “notables” to promise to be arrested if you are “evicted” from the site.
But make sure they do not take over and corrupt your aims. (For more on this, see point 5 ).REQUIRE NON—VIOLENT CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE TRAINING OF ALL WHO MIGHT RISK ARREST. To help assure public support, you’ll need to make sure there are no threats, screaming or fights. Officials or the media may well use such incidents to deflect attention from the validity of your issues.
Role-play all possible outcomes. There are fine non—violence trainers, especially among the Quakers. You may want to contact Friends Meetings (Quaker congregations) if you have them locally, or the American Friends Service Committee.
6. CREATE “LEGAL SUPPORT” ROLES FOR THOSE WHO CHOOSE NOT TO BE ARRESTED.
Never “guilt-trip” those who may not want to do civil disobedience. Make sure they are in a spot where they will not be arrested. Help them choose legal support tasks. These include meetings, transport, materials, cash, outreach, publicity and legal help—to name but a few.
7. MAKE YOUR SPOKESPEOPLE THOSE MOST AFFECTED---HOMELESS PEOPLE.
I think it’s a form of “domestic colonization” when non-poor people speak for the poor, even when “progressives” do it. When actions show signs of success, politicians and service providers often try to take control, take credit and take any resources you win (such as housing and cash).
Homeless people’s aims get lost in such shuffles---as well as the materials to survive and that homeless people deserve. Choose your allies carefully, and let homeless people speak for themselves.
8. MAKE DEMANDS THAT LINK THE KEY ISSUES---CIVIL RIGHTS, HOMES FOR ALL, WAGE-RENT SLAVERY. Be realistic. Demand the impossible. What is “possibly feasible” today is far short of what people need and deserve. Accept no substitutes. You may get what you ask for---so ask for everything.
9. WIDELY PUBLICIZE AND ENFORCE A BAN ON ALL ALCOHOL AND DRUGS ON SITE. People who are high or agitated at your actions will undercut your credibility with the public who can help win your demands. If you see someone with drugs or alcohol, ask them to take it off the site—first time, every time. Fighting drunks will discredit your actions quickly.
10. GET ADVICE AND SUPPORT FROM CIVIL RIGHTS GROUPS. One group that comes to mind is National Law Center on Homelessness and poverty ( which works closely with National Coalition for the Homeless ). The Law Center recently published a report on police harassment of homeless people, titled “mean sweeps.” If you use the internet, you can link to the Law Center ( and other useful information on homelessness ) via the National Coalition for the Homeless homepage at: http://www.nationalhomeless.org. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) helped Home front protesters get charges dropped. ACLU is another group worth working with, especially if people are arrested.
11. HAVE SQUATTING SUPPLIES ON SITE AND NEARBY. If you manage to hold a building, authorities may try to starve you out. So have water, blankets, food, soap, and buckets for human waste inside—before you publicly announce your site.
Also have cell phones inside, so that you can have contact with supporters outside. Don’t forget musical instruments to celebrate your struggle—and to accompany you as you sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
12. REFUSE TO BE MOVED
Don’t let officials off the hook by moving off their turf and out of my minds. They will tell you that the problem is somebody else’s, not theirs. If indeed they have power to give what you demand and need, stay where you are. Hold official’s feet to the fire, so that they finally “walk their talk” about helping homeless folks.
Hundreds of people participated in Boston’s HOMEFRONT ’88. Yet our gains were largely nullified by drinking and drugging on site and by public quarrels (including fistfights) among would-be “leaders).
It also hurt us that we let officials scare us into moving our encampment from one site to another. Our cause was just---homes for all. But our reversion to “chain of command” and our lack of “nonviolent discipline” helped reinforce stereotypes about activists and homeless people. And HOMEFRONT lost it’s commitment to direct action, floundered for awhile, then died.
You may want to tailor these guidelines for your specific needs. I hope these suggestions help. I send my best wishes to all of you fighting homelessness.
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio Issue 27 May 1998