If you look at the photographs and videos from the protest at North Frederick Street where housing activists occupied and vacated an empty building, the obvious question is : whose side were the gardaí on?
Perhaps this is an unfair question, but it’s one plenty of people following the events online and on the streets will ask. After protesters marched to Store Street garda station, they stood outside chanting “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
Unidentified men wearing balaclavas emerged from a van to enter and then seal the property on Tuesday. The photographs show them standing at a door with gardaí in the foreground. Gardaí were also wearing balaclavas. Garda sources say they are part of the Public Order Units protective uniforms and have have also said that the Garda involved would have been concerned about reprisals on foot of being identified on social media.
This may be the case but if anyone was seeking images or an incident to stoke the embers of an incendiary mood in Dublin, they need look no further. For the gardaí to enter the fray in this manner, masked and brandishing batons, was brutish and foolish. The housing crisis is emotionally charged, and on North Frederick Street, the gardaí merely escalated the situation. Protestors were arrested, some ended up in hospital. What’s going on?
This is not the first time in recent weeks there has been a seemingly disproportionate response to the small, but growing, number of occupations of vacant properties. In Cork, housing activists were reportedly removed from two houses they were squatting in by an operation which included gardaí from the Emergency Response Unit. Why were members of a unit that generally handles operations such as counter-terrorism incidents, hostage rescue, and high risk drug raids deployed to remove squatters?
Activists will seize on what happened on North Frederick Street as proof that “the system” is conspiring against “the people”. And they’re right. We now have a toxic combination of a market-worshipping Fine Gael in power and an ineffectual housing minister. There are few consequences for landlords who leave properties and sites derelict and vacant. The greed of developers is unchecked. Nonsensical lethargy over building social housing is married with a lack of political will, or action on tenants rights such as rent control and longer leases. Rents are insane and we are reliant on private entities to take charge of housing when their sole aim is to pursue the maximum profit that can be squeezed out of every square foot in a development.
The consequences of this is that the type of development that is actually happening in the city is astronomically expensive student accommodation, and hotels.
All of this has caused not just resentment and anger, but desperation and urgency. Some people have moved that sense of urgency on to the streets in protest. Good on them. Bundle this heightened atmosphere up with the actions and response from the still unidentified balaclava-wearing-men, and the gardaí, and you have a situation that is birthing a new housing movement.
As this housing movement grows - assisted by galvanising moments such as the one on North Frederick Street - there will be the inevitable tedium from conservative quarters about how protesters should act. These instructions generally come from those who are both cynical and apathetic, who do little to change things themselves, yet then benefit from the society activists forge. Why shouldn’t properties that are empty longterm, or that landlords have been sitting on for years, be occupied, and squatted? Either as a means of protest or to provide housing to those who need it? Why shouldn’t people be out on the streets about the housing crisis? Where has doing nothing got us? Such actions are not radical responses.
Direct action, which is what these occupations are, is perfectly justified in this scenario. Reasonability is in the eye of the beholder, and often being “reasonable” is a futile tactic in an unreasonable situation, which is what the multifaceted housing crisis is. The obedience with which Irish people tend to act, and the politeness people tend to demand of those who want to effect change is ineffective, unrealistic, and patronising; it merely exists to uphold the system that needs to be dismantled. We know that disobedience, direct action, and protest that has brought us some of the most beneficial social changes in this country.
Occupations and squatting are normal responses. What is radical, what is dangerous, what is unnecessary, what is unjust, what is reckless, is the housing crisis, not those protesting it.