This blogger will be talking at the NYC Anarchist Book Fair on April 16th, with an activist who worked with the Advisory Service for Squatters in London. I will read the text posted below. (Here you get also the links.) It's a little redundant, but... hoping for a lively discussion in New York.
Postscript: Well, that just happened today, and indeed it was a very lively discussion, which I hope to transcribe or digest for this blog sometime soon. I actually did not deliver this talk at all... But that doesn't matter, because here it is, written down. I hope to be able to develop another book from exactly this kind of content...
A Tour of Some Important Projects of Squatting in Europe
by Alan W. Moore
for the New York Anarchist Book Fair, April 2016
Perhaps the most influential post-war European urban squatting movement started in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The instigators were Provos, a band of young activists and intellectuals who organized with jobless youth. Inspired, if not led, by the maniac street performer Jasper Grootveld, the Provos did politics like the Dadaists did art. Until recently, Provo and the subsequent Kabouters movement have been Dutch secrets, known outside Holland only to studious reefer heads. The recent Autonomedia book on their movement, Amsterdam's Anarchist Revolt, by Richard Kempton (2007), is the first major text on their work in English.
In 1966 the Provos put out a poster – “In the center of Amsterdam there is a white house,” it said. The house is empty, waiting for those without places to live to move in and take it. This was when the waiting lists for public housing were impossibly long. Through clumsy police repression, the movement grew, until in the later 1970s Dutch squatters controlled hundreds of houses in Amsterdam, and wielded enormous influence in the city.
The question arises how this influence was attained, and how it declined. (Both the rise and fall of social movements are part of the study of academics within the SqEK research group to which I belong.) The Amsterdam movement was esteemed by many Amsterdamers, not only because it housed people, but because it saved ancient houses slated for destruction, and stopped a barbaric subway proposal that would have devastated a neighborhood.
As outlined in the 1996 film “The City Was Ours” (De stad was van ons), many Amsterdamers abhorred the violent riots, and many squatters themselves resented the brutal authoritarianism of the squatter war leader Theo van der Giessen, although his tactics achieved important victories against police.
One important footnote here – The Dutch film “De stad was van ons,” 70 minutes, with English subtitles, is one of the best films on a squatting movement. It does not search up on Google now at all. It is part of the dark web, accessible only on squat.net movie page: http://video.squat.net/.
This movement's success in saving buildings follows what the analyst Hans Pruijt (P-R-U-I-J-T), himself an ex-squatter of Amsterdam's golden age, called “conservation squatting.” Saving important buildings is a powerful road to public acceptance for occupation. Another classic example – the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, the original site of the Dada movement in Switzerland, was scheduled to become a fashion showroom. Artists occupied it in protest, and turned it into a 24-hour performance art action. Today it is a museum dedicated to the Dada movement and the squat is recalled as part of the stories told during Zurich Dada's centennial year. (See the movie “Dada Changed My Life” for the story [sort of] of this queer-driven art squatting action.)
Action in Amsterdam inspired other Dutch cities, of course. The university city of Groningen, and especially Rotterdam had substantial squatting movements, with a great many different outcomes. Our research group, SqEK meets next month in Rotterdam in the Poortgebouw social center, a legalized place that began as a squat in 1980. In the long run, the Amsterdam squatting movement directly inspired city government, which recuperated the movement's achievements. The city evicted some very large squatted centers and re-established them as low-rent enclaves for approved cultural tenants. The program, called “breeding places” (broedplaatsen), favored start-up technology and fashion businesses. Maybe it is not necessary to point out that this arrangement is a long way from an open-door, assembly-run center with a strong political position. Even so, a former squatter leader now runs an urban consulting business which draws on the lessons of the movement to advise city councils on municipal brand development and creative community management. Ugh, yes, but this is the evolution of contemporary political reality in Europe. When I suggest to U.S. anarchists that they should involve themselves in government, they look at me funny. The point is, however, that this kind of engagement does not mean foreswearing activism and direct action. It is only to recognize that occupation is an entirely respectable political tactic. Negotiations on the fate of a project can begin from the first conversation with police.
Dutch Provos were directly involved in one big squat project near Amsterdam. The entire village of Ruigoord was occupied not long after it had been evicted to make way for an expansion of the port of Amsterdam. The planned expansion didn't happen, and Ruigoord (R-U-I-G-O-O-R-D) became a summer studio haven, an open air sculpture park, and an expansive wooded grounds for festivals. Many of the displaced villagers moved back. Artistically minded squatters started what they called the Amsterdam Balloon Company, which evolved into a production group for free festivals. The area was also maintained as an ecological park. The Ruigoord festival tradition spread to a nearby privately-owned squatted warehouse called ADM, which has struggled hard to stay there. Building giant robots helps.
Ruigoord is deeply invested in what might be called a hippie ethos. Marijuana grows freely. Psilocybin is sold at the festivals, which feature tents, yurts and tipis, a pyramid, many offering Tarot reading, yoga, crystal work, sauna, and.... I forget. But the core group remain evangelists of squatting. Ruigoordians today support the Belgian squat of the village of Doel, a similarly evicted village in a port area outside Antwerp. The ancient village of Doel today is an open air gallery for global street artists.
At the Futurological Symposium of Free Spaces, Ruigoord leaders received the “ambassadors” of the free city of Christiania, an enormous project in Copenhagen, Denmark that began around the same time as the village in the harbor was abandoned.
Christiania is famous. (The wonderful film “Christiania You Have My Heart”  is online, on YouTube this time.) The abandoned military base in Copenhagen was taken over by students inspired by their architecture professor. It continues to this day, having weathered decades of hostility by several Danish governments and the close scrutiny of institutional researchers. Recent attempts by right-wing governance to enforce single ownership on Christianites, and turn over some of their land for private development have been successfully resisted. It remains one of the top tourist attractions in Denmark, not least for its “Pusher Street” where hashish and other soft drugs are openly sold. (The dealers of hard drugs, heroin and cocaine, and their users were evicted long ago.) The community offers a research residency for counter-culture students interested in Christiania.
After the hippies set up squats after their ways, it be came the turn of the punks. Vienna and Zurich were famous squatting centers in the 1970s and '80s, although moribund today. Squatting started pretty late in Slovenia. They had to wait for the Eastern socialist bloc authoritarian governments to fall. But punks also took over an abandoned army base and called it Metelkova Mesto. Today it is the major center for youth music and party in Ljubljana. And the government also took a piece of it, when a part of the complex became the site of a newly constructed museum of modern art. Still, anarchist politics continue as crusty as you can in a region with plenty of active fascists. An activist from Metelkova's punk community, an archivist there, recently toured the USA with Crimethinc in the “To Change Everything” tour.
The biggest squat in Italy also is on a military base. The 19th century Forte Prenestino was almost immediately obsolete when it was completed in the 1880s. It was used by the Fascists and the Nazis before being abandoned. Forte Prenestino has a drawbridge, two parade grounds, and a maze of underground tunnels which were used to store munitions. It was occupied in 1986 on “Non-Labor Day,” the Feast of Non-Working. Forte Prenestino is entirely self-financing, mainly through concerts, festivals and cafes. It is well known for the annual Crack! Fumetti dirompenti, the festival of disruptive comics. But the number of projects in the huge complex is dizzying: infoshops, hacklabs, cinema, theater, acrobatics lab, screen printing, drawing, sculpture, and carpentry workshops, gymnasium, music rehearsal room, recording studio, record label, natural cosmetics lab, photo lab, tattoo studio, and public spaces like a wine bar, a tea room, a very popular gourmet and locally-sourced kitchen cafe, and a pub.
And, just as in Paris the anarchist squat Transfo supported the occupiers of Notre Dames des Landes who were opposing the regional airport there, a collective at Forte Prenestino supports the No TAV movement in the north of Italy. This occupation and resistance camp opposes the high velocity train between Turin and Lyon, France. At Centocelle social center, also in Rome, SqEK researchers drank “No TAV” wine, bottled by the locals of the Susa Valley in thanks for the political support or Roman squatters.
Hmmm... was that simply a gift in gratitude? Or, more likely, part of the solidarity economy between the Roman left and the left of the countryside? Both solidarity economy and food culture are important fronts for work in Italy, and throughout Europe.
On the subject of economy, I'd like to mention a way I have always understood squatting, from the first project I was personally involved in, the 1980 Real Estate Show on Delancey Street. I understood that occupation as “insurrectionary urban development.” Along this line, I see squatting as urban innovation. And what's so important about it is that it does not accord with the capitalist model of entrepreneurship. Squatters make their projects happen with their own labor, not with capital. The direction of their work is towards a vision of a new world, and a reformed society. Anti-capitalist urban development, if you will, runs exactly parallel to the whole creative city brand mishegos, and education for entrepreurship that has gripped city governments in its spell in the 21st century. I see it as our job to break that spell with a snap of the crowbar. And right behind it comes the home brew and pickles...
The biggest historical example of this parallelism I can adduce is the phenomenon of hacklabs in squats. These pioneering experimenters with computers, open source code and free information came out of the pirate radio stations, like the famous Radio Alice in Bologna and Black Cat in Amsterdam. The squat-based hacklabs trained a generation of programmers in the new media of communication and business, which has had enormous implications for the economy of the cities concerned. (This story is told in the “Making Room” book by the hacker historian Maxigas, and the theorist of digerati Geert Lovink.)
As Janis will doubtless discuss at this meeting, both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have recently passed anti-squatting laws. (Although curiously in the UK commercial premises are not part of the ban.) These laws give authorities the legal means to evict immediately. These follow along German models, and other European laws like those in Spain, called “eviction express,” which are not so recent. Despite these laws, squats and occupations continue. In some cases they actually increase. In all of these, familiar political conditions obtain. What I mean is that, with squatting part of political culture, negotiations are quite normal between popular assemblies and elected and appointed governmental powers, usually mediated by the judiciary. These do not invariably result in eviction for well-organized, strategic, and purposive political squatting projects.
With an active squatting movement the range of negotiating positions for activists opens up considerably. Occupation can become, at certain propitious times, naturalized. It does not always provoke an aggressive police response, despite the laws against residential squatting. It might mean an immediate negotiation with city officials. This can be seen in the case of Hamburg, a relatively small city (1.7 million). There the carefully coordinated squat of the Gängeviertel group of buildings slated for redevelopment led first to negotiation, and second to the institutionalization of the occupation as a cultural center. It still has significant political components.
Of course at times a vigorous defense is required. Also recently in Hamburg, as in Barcelona extensive street battles with police preserved two long-term social centers, the Rote Flora in Hamburg and the Can Vies in Barcelona.
I recognize that this is the kind of movement U.S. activists can only dream about. (Maybe in flashes it appears in Oakland.)
Squatting in Europe has great depth as a direct action political project – and, as its partisan academics in the SqEK collective call it, a movement. Squatting is about claiming rent-free housing for the poor and excluded. It is also about opening public common spaces, making room for organizing, cultural work, and communal living. Squatting is also a culture. It is multi-generational with deep roots and often with significant popular support.
Because squatting in Europe is part of the political process, squatters can't be ignored, nor so easily criminalized. Most dramatically, the mayor of Barcelona elected in May of last year is a former squatter and eviction resister. (Ada Colau's book, written with Adrià Alemany is called "Mortgaged Lives" and it's available in English as a free PDF download.)
Matthew Desmond's book “Evicted” has made a splash in liberal New York media. Desmond's work is an ethnography of the poorest of Milwaukee who are serial victims of eviction. Rent for substandard housing consumes the lion's share of their meager incomes; in one case 80%. One slip and they're out. Their landlords are making lots of money, since the rents are not cheap, but market rate. The rub is once evicted, it's really hard to get another apartment, so who is going to rent to you? Exploiters of the poor. Behold a business opportunity. Evictions are handled in civil court, and there's no public defenders. Most tenants have no lawyers. Most don't even bother to show up. Further, their evictions may not even go through court, but just be handled by the landlord's designated goons.
Waiting lists for public housing are decades long – that's decades.
As I listened to this, I realized this was a prima facie case for a squatting movement. I'm living in Milwaukee now, and there's no sign of one. Why not? I asked Google, which informed me of Occupy Our Homes, which came out of OWS. They continue their campaign to "save homes" which are being foreclosed by banks. This isn't the problem which Desmond describes. He describes a situation of unaffordable housing, not people who at one point could afford to buy and couldn't keep up payments. Apparently activists, with some NGO support, saw this as a more winnable campaign, to pressure banks for more favorable terms in foreclosures.
This was not the position of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, nor of Homes Not Jails, nor of Take Back the Land. These groups which have run significant squatting actions in recent years were started by and for homeless people, however, not homeowners. They came from desperation, and from comprehensive organizing that traces its roots back to Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign.
It can be easy for an old man to fulminate and exhort – but I believe indeed that it's time for U.S. anarchists to get over their intoxication with riots, leave the punk shows for more than a smoke, and realize that they are part of the political process here as well. They can do a lot more within it. Direct action is a gambit, an opening move in a political game that then plays out. How a squat goes, and what it means and comes to stand for is in the hands of the bold assembly
////////////// Much of this is taken from my book, Occupation Culture: Art & Squatting in the City from Below, 2015; PDF:
Although I have realized through talking about it that that book is not enough, and this is kind of a start on the next one...
Also this book is referenced in the text:
Alan W. Moore and Alan Smart, eds., "Making Room: Cultural Production in Occupied Spaces"; PDF:
Amsterdam's Anarchist Revolt, by Richard Kempton, PDF:
SqEK research group
[NL] De stad was van ons [EN subs] 70mins 708 mb avi
Hans Pruijt "Squatting in Europe"
Cabaret Voltaire centennial, the squat recalled
ongoing problems of the museum
SqEK meets next month in Rotterdam
“breeding places” in amsterdam (PDF)
critique of this
Belgian squat of the village of Doel
Futurological Symposium of Free Spaces
Christiania, you have my heart - YouTube
CSOA Forte Prenestino (Italian)
The Real Estate Show - ABC No Rio Dinero
Where Can We Be? The Occupation of 123 Delancey Street, Stephen Zacks
Radio Alice in Bologna