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MOVEMENTS

Street Battles-- German Squatters Squeezed to Near Extinction

A. Clay Thompson

Date: 10-14-97

For decades, young people calling themselves "autonomists" have been occupying abandoned buildings ("squatting") all across  Europe and establishing highly localized communities. The movement was large enough to capture the sympathetic attention of PNS correspondent A. Clay Thompson, who went to see for himself -- and found that, at least in Germany, it may not survive: a policy that combines forceful evictions with grants of legitimacy to some squats may mark the death of the movement. Thompson is a PNS associate editor and a former activist in the squatter movement. This is the second of three articles on the politics and culture of youth in Europe.

POTSDAM, GERMANY -- As a socially alienated punk rocker coming of age in the '80s -- you remember the '80s: nuclear war looked imminent and nuclear families combusted constantly -- I looked to Europe to reassure myself I wasn't alone.

I watched from afar as European punkers "squatted" abandoned buildings creating an alternative universe in which their communal ideas and anti-society ethos could flourish. The squatters spread across the continent like a tribe of pirates washed ashore with utopian ideals. They generally opposed global capitalism and authoritarianism; they ran illegal nightclubs, restaurants, bars, bookstores, movie theaters, and radio stations that helped sustain their communal lifestyles. The squatters, who often called themselves autonomists, demanded freedom "to create better lives for ourselves today," as one Danish squatter, put it.

In the early 90's I experienced the scene firsthand during several expeditions through Europe's liberated territories and autonomous micro-regions.

But recently, I returned to Germany -- where the movement had been most powerful -- to report on the scene. To my dismay, I found it dying.


Courtyard of Brunnen - Strasse 7 Squat, Berlin
Government intransigence and police pressure, including military style attacks on long-standing squat houses, have taken a toll. In eastern Berlin, where squatters once held at least 165 large, five and six-story apartment houses, only three remain today. Vanloads of police and SWAT-type teams use nightsticks and tear gas to force new squatters out as quickly as possible.

Right now Potsdam, a small city east of Berlin, is at the center of the police-squatter war. In recent months cops have gutted the town's once flourishing squat scene -- most of the buildings now sit bricked up and rotting on empty streets. But squatters have resisted -- sending at last four police officers to the hospital and dozens of resisters to jail.

Late in August, some 700 squatters, punkers and "autonomen" from as far away as Australia, plus bands from Scotland, Poland, Finland and Germany, converged on the town for an annual three-day musical event staged by one of the last squats left (called the Archiv). I joined the throng, eager to celebrate the rituals of a community I still claim as my own. Instead, I found myself caught up in a ferocious police clampdown, near mayhem and martial law.

The trouble began the first night when local police moved to shut the festival down -- and were greeted by squatters who tossed a firebomb at a cop-car. The cops fled uninjured, the car was toast.

At noon the next day, a convoy of 500 plexi-helmeted riot police from Berlin forced fest-goers out of the Archiv environs. By nightfall, 350 squatters and sympathizers were back again, faces masked by bandannas, to square off with a phalanx of cops thunk-thunk-thunking wooden batons on plastic shields and firing wooden bullets. Calm returned by morning, but a day later another eviction set off renewed street fighting, and dozens of arrests.

Furious street battles probably won't halt efforts to cleanse Germany of squatters. In town after town, police have whittled down the number of squats to a handful. Squatters once responded to every eviction by seizing a new building, but stepped-up policing has made that impossible.

Squatters have also been hurt by their own success. Throughout the country, squatted buildings have been legalized, and squatters have signed rent contracts. Some of these have worked out very well for the squatters, guaranteeing cheap rent and respect for collective decision making. Others complain of being wrapped up in red tape, and of course it feels weird for outlaws to cooperate with the government.

For some of those who do have contracts, a movement that uses guerrilla tactics now seems threatening. At a recent "house discussion" in a 70-resident legal squat, some ex-squatters argued that new squatters next door should be removed because, one explained, "We are afraid the city will think we helped them squat here."

In Karlsruhe, a city of 300,000 in southern Germany, the half-block long C shaped "Steffi" has been occupied for the last seven years. The 55 squatters have built a cafe seating 100, a bar and concert hall, workshops and five kitchens, and provided housing for refugees. Now the Protestant church, which owns the building, wants it back.

The mayor has intervened, hoping to avoid a repeat of the Potsdam clash. Demonstrations involving a thousand supporters have dominated the local TV news. The city council is offering the squatters a 41 room complex at a reasonable rent.

The squatters have mixed feelings. "It's not big enough for all the people in our living group," one said. "We don't want to be like the American Indians, pushed into smaller and smaller pieces of land." He concedes, however, "in this era, we're lucky to have the city negotiating at all."

In post-Cold War Germany, the squatters' movement has run into its own Berlin Wall -- a determination, voiced by Chancellor Kohl earlier this year -- "to never give extremists - on the left or right -- another chance." As the police clampdown spreads, some ex-squatters have become semi-nomads, parking their vans and gypsy-esque wagons on vacant lots. Others have seized woodlands about to be bulldozed and crafted eco-communities in protest. And some have gone to Amsterdam -- where squatters still take empty buildings every week.

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