In at least some european countries squatting is legal under certain circumstances, and if its done properly (and with some luck) it can be very hard for the authorities to displace squatters. Squatter cafes, (often former flats) dot the city and act as social hubs for the network and bases for organizing. The Mollie (anarchist slang for mollitov cocktail) hosts nightly activities such as community dinners, peak-oil preparedness discussions, film screenings, and game nights. Every Monday is the planning meeting for the weekly squatting action.
The SWOMP site we visited is the 4th of its kind (the first three having already been shut down.) The vacant lot was actually not vacant when a squatting action was first planned. It was an abandoned school. The city had been deliberating for over a year what to do with the building. When the city got wind that a group was planning on squatting it, they decided to demolish it. The squatting action was planned for Sunday. The wrecking crew came on Friday. By Sunday all that was left was a lot of sand and some remnants of brick foundation. Little did the city know they were creating the perfect venue for a SWOMP action.
The SWOMPers brought in 4 trailers and erected a 'fortress' around them. They tapped into left over water and sewage piping, set up 3 solar panels, and planted gardens. There is also a complex lock-down system hidden in the most inaccessible part of the fortress, in case the police show up (the entire structure would have to be dismantled to remove the people inside.) One of our favorite aspects is an urban gardening innovation using a pallet stood on end, lined with cloth, and stuffed with dirt. Poke holes in the cloth, plant seeds, and you've got a vertical garden. I have fantasies of covering the whole outside wall of a building with these things. You could cover your house in food!
This site has been occupied now for 4 months. The city recently polled the neighbhors about the lot. They suggested various alternative plans (like a playground or park) and asked what the neighbors wanted. Most said that they actually liked the squatters there. The city will probably shut it down eventually. Fortunately, it could take the bureaucracy well over a year to do so. I wonder how long something like this would last in Washington DC. 24 hrs maybe? Generally, squatting in Europe happens on a level far beyond anywhere in the U.S. Why this level of tolerance, and even acceptance, in Europe?
Squatting still has something of a heroic and romantic quality to it, even for many mainstream Europeans. People seem to feel a sense of sympathy and appreciation for what squatting represents. Fundamentally, squatting is (in part) a protest against homelessness and the exploitation of people through the privitization of a basic human right. I've been reading Earth Democracy by Vandana Shiva. She talks a lot about the concept of the 'commons' and the history of how the commons in Europe and in India were privatized. In the US, holding common land is not a part of our historic consciousness. But it is still part of the European consciousness, and examples of it do still exist in places. I imagine that sympathy for squatting comes in part from a low-level subconscious resentment lingering in collective consciousness over the loss of the commons and the wide-spread institution of wage-slavery over the last few hundred years.
Sympathy for squatters isn't as good as a mass movement to reclaim the commons, but hopefully it's a step in that direction.
For more info:
Their homepage is http://swomp.wordpress.com/ It's in Dutch, but if you do a google search for it there will be an option to translate it.