Battery Tracks: Story of a Richmond Squat

The Setup

The story of how I came to be waiting outside of a illegal squat for a slumlord and the cops is one that began with a relatively innocuous question: “Do you have a video camera?”

A friend and fellow anarchist, Mo, had asked me. She explained that work was progressing on the abandoned house that she and a few others had been fixing up and living in. They’d named the squat “Battery Tracks”, in honor of both nearby Battery Park and the railroad travel culture. The video camera, she explained, was to document all the work that was being done and the reactions of neighbors to their cleaning up the property in case the squat was busted and a political statement needed to be made. The owner hadn’t stopped by in three years, and I assumed this was a just-in-case sort of preparation. I assumed wrong.

A couple of days later, I was filming a guided tour of the repairs with Mo and Eris, another of the squatters.

The work being done was extensive – molding, painting, plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets – and the house had the energy and potential that comes with the ambience of renovation. The rooms were still relatively bare, save for the working materials, and there was not yet water or electricity. They had been pissing into buckets of sawdust.

We talked to the neighbors, who were overwhelmingly supportive of their work, and we chatted a little about what conditions make squatting a revolutionary act. I went home happy with the footage, not expecting to need it for some time.

Lawrence / The Bust

Three days later I received a call. The landlord, Oliver Lawrence was on the premises with the cops.

I would hesitate to call Oliver Lawrence a “slumlord” if it didn’t describe him so well.

This is a guy who owns about 100 vacant, rotting properties in Richmond. In 2007 he received 150 code violations on these properties, earning him fines of $375,000. The city graciously cut Lawrence a deal which suspended all fines pending work on the properties.

But his track record has not improved. In 2008, the year after promising to repair these buildings, Lawrence received 600 code violations. (This is in addition to unpaid taxes, like the $6,000 accumulated over 3 years for the Battery Tracks home.)

One of Lawrence’s Church Hill buildings
Richmond learned just how dangerous these properties could be when 323 West Broad Street, one of Lawrence’s unoccupied buildings that had been neither maintained nor secured, went up in flames. A recording studio next door where some of my friends cut tracks was badly damaged. Had the fire department not been on top of things, it could have been much worse.

Put simply, Oliver Lawrence is a property speculator. He buys cheap buildings and lets them sit, waiting for the market value to rise to make money without having to do any work. He has no vested interest in the safety or appearance of the communities in which these properties are located. To him, the houses are investments, not homes.

Enter Mo and Eris. Anarchists (or “libertarian socialists”, pick your term) are generally of the opinion that housing, like health care, is such an essential part of human life that it ought not be left to competitive, private markets. You needn’t share that view to understand why it is socially deviant to hoard vacant, blighted properties that serve no purpose while record foreclosures are forcing families out of their homes.

In brief, confronted with problems of both homeless people and empty houses, the one-step solution presents itself to any sane person with breathtaking clarity.

And now Lawrence had shown up at Battery Tracks, suggesting loudly that he get “the boys” to come down and take care of the squatters. He left with the promise that he would return in 24 hours, and the demand that all of their possessions be off the property by then.

Less than one week after they had begun preparing for a bust, the resolve of Mo, Eris and whoever decided to support them was going to be tested. There might even be arrests, depending on how they responded the next day.

We began planning before the sun went down. Phone calls were made, text messages sent. Press releases were issued to local print media and news stations. Cardboard and wooden signs were constructed and placed all over the front of the property. After investing months of work, money into Battery Tracks, Mo, Eris and the others weren’t going to go quietly. If Oliver Lawrence and the police were to show up again in 24 hours, there would be people waiting for them.

The Showdown

The next day three television news stations and several print reporters stopped by. CBS-6 did an interview and asked us to call when something went down.

Exactly one day after the bust, a small crowd of activists and supporters had congregated in front of the house. After an hour of waiting, Lawrence still hadn’t shown up. But then, how punctual could you expect someone like this to be? Somehow I couldn’t imagine him glancing at his watch and thinking, “Oh dear! I’m a full hour late for my appointment with the young activists who’ve taken over my property!”

He came later than anyone expected, just as night fell, with the police in tow. The law, after all, was on his side. Channel 6 suddenly reappeared in their “Storm Team” van.

Partly cloudy tonight, no thunderstorms on the horizon,
but we will see a shitstorm in the early evening
with a 53% chance of arrest. Back to you, Tom.

They wouldn’t be getting an interview with Oliver Lawrence, who had holed up behind the tinted windows of his truck. We would be waiting half an hour for Pop-A-Lock to arrive and open the deadbolt installed by the squatters.

Lawrence was clearly asking the police to make arrests through his cracked window, but they weren’t about to cause a scene with a news crew present. Instead, they called in for backup: public relations.

“We just want to make sure that everyone is happy with the conduct of the police department today,” the well-dressed man said to us. He was a nice guy, a smooth talker, as PR people tend to be. He asked us a few questions and took photographs of the signs. Mo encouraged him to quit the police department.

A Pop-A-Lock vehicle finally stopped in front of the house. The poor technician was utterly unprepared for news crews, police and activists, and did not appear happy to have responded to this particular call.

Lawrence finally emerged from his truck and joined the unsuspecting locksmith on the porch.

“Who’s going to be paying me for this?” asked Pop-A-Lock.

Lawrence refused. “You’re not even going inside the house.”

“Yeah… but I’m popping the lock…”

They repeated this back and forth a couple of times before the locksmith finally realized that Oliver Lawrence was too cheap to pay to get inside his own property.

Oliver Lawrence
Suddenly the building inspector was on the scene. The only person with more authority than the police in this particular situation.

He had come to condemn the house. Ironically, this was not necessarily because of its condition, but because people had been living in it without water or electricity.

By staying there to repair the place, Mo, Eris and the others had inadvertently been the cause of its condemnation. If Lawrence didn’t spend a lot of money to fix the property up (and he almost certainly wouldn’t), Battery Tracks would be confiscated by the city and sold at auction.

What Now?

Some might consider the auction of this blighted property a good thing. With new ownership comes a new future, almost certainly better than its past, right?

Well, maybe. But probably not. Buying a house from the city at auction requires a minimum 20% down payment – a percentage at the very high end of the range required by your typical broker or real estate company – and the time over which you have to pay the remaining balance is much shorter. The consequence is that the majority of people who are able to afford these properties at auction are… real estate speculators. Like Oliver Lawrence.

And the cycle continues.

Battery Tracks has ended. To reenter it would mean certain arrest for Eris and Mo. They plan to see if their work on the house might give them dibs on a purchase, but it’s a longshot.

CBS ended up doing two news segments on the story, the first of which inaccurately claimed that the squatters “admit they went too far by doing work on private property”. (It was, of course, the entire point to do the work on Lawrence’s private property.)

Style Weekly ran a story on the incident titled “Remodeling Anarchy“, which was a bit dramatic (“they were building their Alamo”), but covers a lot of ground very concisely.

It was not the first Richmond squat to be busted, and it certainly won’t be the last. But the public battle has made it one of the most important, and I’m pleased to have had a front row seat.

Article by: Kontra
Photos by: Joon and Kontra


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