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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

“Weet je waar een kraakpand is?”

Maandag, 7 Augustus

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Groningen, where I had some faint notion to spend a month, gain some appreciation of the anarchist movement in the country, and try to learn Nederlands (the word “Dutch” is actually a bastardization of “Deutsch,” which means German, whom some time ago the English evidently mistook for Nederlanders). Right as I was biking into the city I suddenly began to wonder why exactly I thought Groningen was the city to find anarchists in. I didn’t know anyone there and had never heard the place being mentioned in connection with radical activity. All around me I saw a thoroughly mediocre city startlingly devoid of radical graffiti and plastered propaganda. Hold on a second, why the hell did I come here? Even a solitary spraypainted circle-A would have flooded my heart with joy, and in fact my first glimmer of hope, the first good omen, came from the sight of an Anti-Fascist Action sticker stuck boldly to a lamppost on Hereweg.  Little did I know that the person who had placed it there would later give me a tour of all the city’s squats. At the time it was just a little sign that somewhere in this city, hiding amongst the shoppers and students, was one of my kind.

By now the routine of scouting a new city had become automatic: memorizing the main thoroughfares and looking for squat symbols, signs of political life, parks with hidden places I might sleep in at night, places safe and dry to lock my bike, dumpsters, cheap internet cafés, places to get water and go to the bathroom.  After hours of fruitless searching I finally decided to join, if only temporarily, the 21st century, get on the internet, and look for mentions of social centers or squats in Groningen. I soon got an address for Oude RKZ: once a hospital, then a squat, and now an alternative residence for some 300 retired hippies, lefties, punks and sundry others.

An acquaintance I made there permitted me to put down my sleeping bag in a storage room for the night, and pointed me towards a protest in support of asylum seekers happening the next day in the Grote Markt, where I introduced myself to a rapid succession of people that in the span of four hellos and three minutes landed me with floor space at a squat just west of the center.

What exactly is a squat?

A squat is a vacant building occupied by people who for a variety of reasons do not respect the property rights of the absentee owner, and either openly or covertly take up residence therein.  Once inside they fix up the decaying building, hence the connection of the squatters’ movement with the DIY (do-it-yourself) culture.  They often hang a banner with some concise “fuck you” to established order, or cover the façade of the building with graffiti of varying aesthetic and political content, perhaps also peppering the surrounding neighborhood with the squat monogram to point the way to travellers. In Nederlands, the word is kraakpand, in Deutsch besetztes Haus and in Español casa ocupada.

Laage der A, a squat in Groningen.

Laage der A, a squat in Groningen.

Squatting, in Nederland, is legal in buildings that have been abandoned at least a year.  There are a number of loopholes, and to the business-sympathetic ear of the courts and police who retain sole power to interpret the concept, “abandonment” takes on a startling degree of metaphysical complexity. In other words, liberal Nederland deals with the potentially insurrectionary phenomenon of squatting with a strategy of legalization, a permissive release-valve that tolerates discontents creating their subcultures in buildings truly abandoned by capitalists, and forces resistance, from those squats the powerful wish to retake, into disarming legal channels. To defend your squat, you don’t pick up a brick the honest, old-fashioned way—you need to get a lawyer.  Property owners have also taken up the tactic of establishing anti-squats by renting out vacant, squat-vulnerable apartments to people willing to sign away all their rights in return for a rent as low as 20 euros a month.  Owners have no obligations to anti-squat tenants, and they can kick them out with a couple weeks notice.  In Groningen and other cities in Nederland, many of the best buildings that would otherwise be available have been filled with anti-squats.

The opportunistic socialists in Nederland have come to the defense of anti-squats.  In Groningen for example, they are known to dramatically squat a big building, co-opting the enthusiasm of the youthful participants; they win publicity for themselves as humanitarians by moving students, poor, or homeless people into the building; and then they pressure them all to sign an anti-squat contract and trumpet it as low-income housing.  It’s not unheard of for them to stage-manage the whole thing with the owners from the get-go.  This sort of action is great for the owners, and it opens a back door to destroy Nederland’s progressive housing rights, creating the reality that poor people must surrender all their housing rights in exchange for a cheap place to live, which the speculators can maintain as flexible properties because at any moment they are able to kick out the tenants and demolish or sell the building.

Despite Nederland’s progressive laws, owners commonly win eviction processes against squatters, and then the police come to kick them out.  Other times, owners skip the courts and hire goons to attack squatters with crowbars.  Not too many years ago, squats in Groningen were defended forcefully.  The high point was in 1991, when the city evicted the Walters-Noordhof Complex, a huge squat near where the university library stands today.  All of Boteringestraat was covered in burning barricades, rubble, and riot police, where now shoppers stroll past yuppie stores consuming above all their illusion of social peace.

In Germany, squatting is less legal, hence the term “former squat” used so frequently in reference to the occupied dwellings in that country. If they do not want to retake a particular property by force, the government or property owners can bring it back into the pale of legality by making the attractive offer to the rogue tenants to purchase or rent the building for an extremely low amount, “legalizing” it.

In the US, there has never been a countrywide squatters’ or autonomous movement as has existed in Europe. The only squats I knew about in Virginia were either covert, or “permission squats” allowed by the absentee owner.  Housing and building-use codes seem to be stronger tools in the US for preventing any unorthodox  use of buildings. It certainly would be much harder in the US to run a squat bar and sell alcohol to raise money. Some of the key squats on the Lower East Side during New York City’s squatting heyday were evicted because they were “not up to code” and supposedly presented a danger to the occupants.  Not that we have to pine for irretrievable days of glory or covet Europe’s fabulous squatting movement.  These days, squatting seems to be a growing phenomenon in the Rust Belt, where municipalities do not have the money to demolish all the condemned buildings in the largely abandoned cities.

Here in Nederland, the center-right government in power was proposing a law to illegalize squatting, sparking a number of protests, mostly around Utrecht and Amsterdam, and also a number of raids by police, who had just forcibly evicted a large squatted farm in the center of the country, in the week I arrived.  In Amsterdam a large squat was repeatedly evicted and reoccupied.  Elsewhere a squatted castle was stormed by police.  The occupiers resisted, though I was told they were hippies and didn’t put up a good fight—no catapults, crossbows, boiling oil, or anything like that.

Vrijdag, 11 Augustus

Tegen Nazis!

Against Nazis! That first sticker I saw in Groningen...

The guy I was staying with, Joop, lived with a friend, Jan, at 31 Taco Mesdagstraat, in a small squatted apartment just above a pizza place.  We hit it off easily, going on long walks, dumpster-diving for groceries, discussing economics, media, radical propaganda, and similar themes.  After getting to know me for a couple days, they invited me to stay there the whole month I was in Groningen.  I was considering going on to Utrecht, but Joop described the anarchist movement locally as experiencing a decline. I’m a sucker for hard cases, so I decided to reject the big city syndrome and stay on to help them with a few projects, and to explore this smaller, less exciting city and its fascinatingly apprehensible routines.

Three days a week there was an open air market on the Vismarkt, and you could skip vegetables.  Outside the city center were a few supermarkets with generous dumpsters.  And you could use the internet for free at the university, if you could get a password.  It would be pretty easy to provide for myself this month.  I felt immediately comfortable there, and satisfied with my new home after days on the road.  I used to think it was impossible to make real friends in less than a year, but as my friends back home seemed increasingly distant with each meager email, I was amazed by how quickly I could become close to new people I met, brought together by hospitality and a shared struggle.  It wasn’t enough to hold off a heavy nostalgia, but it did make living worthwhile.

A week after we met, Joop, Jan, and a friend of theirs took me out for my birthday.  We saw The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach’s latest film, a brutally honest chronicle of the struggle for independence in Ireland.  People can desire freedom so strongly they will sustain torture or take a life, and at the threshold of victory they can suddenly begin to doubt themselves and sell the revolution short.  I wonder, if we ever get that far, will we miss these calm days of powerlessness?