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When Property is Literally Theft

„Property is theft” goes an old anarchist saying. Many average people may not subscribe to this wisdom, especially supporters of the system which rests on private property. Although this is certainly the case in Poland, a „post-communist” country which wanted to privatize just about everything, even the most staunch defenders of privatization have to admit that many, many abuses occured. Public property and industry was swooped up for only a small fraction of its value and, as we can see in the case of housing privatization, has been outright stolen.

All of Poland knows the story. Almost a decade ago, members of our Warsaw union organized with tenants and helped bring the facts to light, about the theft of public housing, with the complicity of a wide network of civil servants, lawyers and judges. 10 years later, almost 2 dozen people have been arrested and some of these houses should be remunicipalized. Only that is not going so smoothly.

Interest in the criminal privatization process began back in 2002-2003 and came through an acquaintance from the loosely-defined alterglobalist movement. Our friend described how his tenement house was privatized by the family of the city President. We wrote 3 articles about this on the anarchist news portal, exposing the situation and the plight of the tenants. Although this story became newsworthy, it was blown over for many years. Now it is one of the most well-known examples of theft and corruption in the history of Poland.

For some years, tenants did not have a loud voice and each such story of corruption and theft of public property either went unheard or appeared somewhere deep inside the papers, only to be forgotten the next day. After forming an organization together with tenants in 2009, we organized many radical actions, occupying the City Council and trying to get our topics on the agenda. In 2010, 36 organizations – mostly comprised of organizations of particular addresses – got together to demand action from the city. Two reports were prepared: one on the bad effects of particular policies and practices on tenants, another on irregularities concerning housing privatization – or „reprivatization” as they prefer to call it.

The City tried its best to ignore it, but tenants kept pushing. In 2011, our colleague who was one of the strongest activists, was brutally murdered, most probably by the reprivatization mafia. The police tried their best to brush this case under the carpet. But this only made the scandal bigger.

The elites of the city – for example media, housing authorities, etc. - ideologically inclined to support the project of housing privatization – did not want these stories to explode. This is because their main plan was – and is – the gradual liquidation of public housing. It is to be done over a period of time, selling-off and giving away property piece by piece and dividing people along the way. We have been subject to years of narration about how „unfair” it is that the public has to maintain housing for the poor. Class warfare in one of its typical manifestations.

However the scale of abuse became too much, even for some of them. In 2016, a huge scandal broke out and this has proven to be the most serious of the 3rd Republic. In the end, a government commission was set up to deal with the situation. This in some ways fulfilled a postulate made by tenants in 2010, to create a commission – although certainly we imagined something a little different.

In the end, evidence gathered by some of our members was used and lead to decisions to remunicipalize some houses. We had been talking about the theft of public housing for years and have been able to prove it.

Unfortunately, the pro-privatizers keep fighting and are backed by big capital. They have lawyers, lobbyists and some judges in their pockets. As we heard from a member of the Krakow reprivatization mafia, getting a decision from a judge was a matter of giving bribes of less than 750 euros.

The mafia engaged in property laundering – in other words, property changed hands quickly, sometimes fictiously, in order to claim that it was bought „in good faith”. Amazingly, purchasers of stolen buildings and flats are typically not required to return them, although some decisions require them to made monetary restitution.

The pseudo-owners of the stolen property hope to overturn decisions in court and are passively supported by the city in this endeavour. One such „owner” is a company called Fenix, which purchased the building sold by the family of Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, President of Warsaw. Its headquarters are still found there and wealthy people inhabit the gentrified building. There are already 3 decisions that it bought stolen buildings and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Known for harrassing and evicting tenants and driving them into irreversible debt with huge rent hikes, the company portrays itself as a „victim” and is taking the decisions to court. We'll be protesting at the first case next week.

The so-called „rule of law” which is so often touted in the bourgeois societies with some semblance of legal justice is a complete farce here. It needs to be stressed that a lot of the theft of public property took place because of the complacency or outright corruption of the judiciary and organs of public adminstration. Although there is the occassional victory in the courts, it is more likely that tenants are screwed by these legal institutions, that usually side with capital, regardless of the facts of the case.

The only way to successfully fight is to keep the pressure on, by taking direct action. In the last few years, those who govern have tried to channel things into a legal route that they control. Some people have been convinced by them to take another way – to become politicians or to enter into a protacted and practically useless „social dialogue” where at most crumbs are given to pacify discontent. From our point of view, it is counter-productive and a way of distracting people and dividing them.

Essentially, there are huge limits to what the legal framework can allow you to accomplish. This is different according to many factors, but one thing is clear: the owner class has set the laws to its advantage and the bigger the gap between them and the rest of the people, the more the state serves only its interests.

Additionally, although we prefer remunicipalization to further privatization, the muncipality is an unaccountable institution that itself acts like a mafia. This is why many tenants whose houses are being returned understand that they are still far from a good place as long as this muncipality – that has for years conducted class warfare against the poor - is in charge. As we say, this housing should be under the control of the tenants themselves, with the participation of the local society. After it has freed itself of the desire to continue internecine class warfare against the poorer residents of the neighbourhoods.

Instead of models of property based on speculative capital and landlordism, where the rich get richer and the poor struggle to keep a roof on their heads, we declare that property if theft and propose the rebuilding of widescale public housing, controlled by below and the immediate occupation of disused homes. We note that the largest stock of disused homes in Warsaw are publically-owned and being neglected by the City or being held in limbo, waiting to be privatized or reprivatized. This is one of the reasons we vehemently opposed this reprivatization process, because it is depleting public housing stocks, leading to unused housing in legal limbo and contributing to the city's housing crisis.

This month we will also be demonstrating against privatization. Although it has been in effect suspended, at least in Warsaw, it is not legally regulated. After years of pushing for an end to the process, the Justice Ministry and other members of the government promised this and drafted an act containing our most important postulate, but this is being held up by different interest groups – for example the lawyers who profit immensely from this and even the American government which is always keen to defend the rights of private property.

Whether or not criminal privatization will be stopped for good will depend on the determination of people – or the lack of it. The struggle continues – but it is really only beginning!

ZSP-ZW Warszawa