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Amsterdam Decides It's High Time To Squash Its Squatters

The squatter movement has long had a foothold in the Netherlands' canal-carved economic capital. As evidenced by a major early July raid, authorities are now looking to send its squatters packing.

Squatters during a 2009 demonstration in Amsterdam, Holland
Squatters during a 2009 demonstration in Amsterdam, Holland
Jean-Pierre Stroobants

AMSTERDAM -- The Mobile Unit was out in force: men and women ready for combat, wearing full-face helmets, clubs in hand, guns in their holsters. The heavily-armed police faced people hurling rocks, bottles and paint. They retaliated with tear gas and water canons that served their purpose. The barricades turned out to be weak, though some tried to stop trucks from passing through.

Fifty meters away, on Passeerdersgracht in the heart of Amsterdam, young girls wearing white wedding gowns came to the protestors' aid. The operation, covered extensively in the local media, was aimed at evicting the occupants of an abandoned building. The squatters belong to the art collective known as Schijnheilig, or "krakers." The group is well known in the city. It's a distant heir to the 1970s revolutionary movement in the Netherlands. At that time, the squatter movement organized occupations of buildings, and developed a very Dutch version of the large, global youth protest movement.

This type of confrontation in Amsterdam at the beginning of July is a perfect example of the way the country's attitude has gone from sweet to tough when it comes to squatters. Those supporting the squatters shouted loudly, waving plastic puppets - a symbol for what they call police officers acting like "puppets without a brain." The area was cleared out within 10 to 20 minutes. Police used jackhammers to break open the locks. They then dragged out occupants in handcuffs before whisking them away in paddy wagons. Onlookers included 30-something hipsters, dreadlocked boys, punkettes with holes in their tights, anarchists, and men wearing full-face hoods. Together they attempted a sit-in, in vain. One young girl even jumped into the adjacent canal.

Composed and determined, a police officer summarized the report: 140 occupants—squatters—and their supporters were arrested, no one was injured.

The next day, the newspapers explained that many occupants of the Schijnheilig had refused to identify themselves, but that 52 of them had been transferred to the Immigration Department, and could be detained for as long as legally allowed. "It is a way to put pressure on them," a lawyer commented. Most of those arrested appeared, in fact, perfectly able to hum the Sinterklaas Kapoentje, the first song that all good Dutch children learn in order to thank the great saint who delivers toys. But in the country of Geert Wilders (leader of the far-right Party for Freedom), for many the krakers are nothing but foreign drug dealers.

Some 160 buildings and apartments in Amsterdam are still illegally occupied, along with several dozen others in other parts of the country. However, that's next to nothing compared to what the Provo movement generated in 1966, or what the "krakers' carried out during its early years in the mid-70s.

The movement's internal divisions

In October 2010, the Dutch parliament voted a law making it illegal to occupy buildings, land, caravans, or houseboats without permission. It took more than three years of deliberation in order to reach this legislative process. In 1993, a reform to the housing code kept squatting legal, but only in places that were empty for more than a year. This compromise weakened the movement, but it did not make it disappear. Already, the movement was a victim of its own internal debates and divisions. Some supported the use of violence against "the system" in general. Others wanted to limit their purview to defending access to shelter for the young and underprivileged.

The major battle—and the real turning point—of the kraker movement was the huge protest on April 30, 1980, which coincided with the coronation of Queen Beatrix in Amsterdam. The event transformed itself into an enormous clash, despite the presence of 10,000 police officers, gendarmes, and other military officers on the streets. Sharpshooters were positioned on rooftops and the airspace above the city was closed, but it didn't matter. The confrontation between the riot police and the protesters left hundreds injured and caused millions of florins in damages. It marked a milestone in the peaceful history of post-war Netherlands.

The spirit of the krakers survived, giving life to protests against real estate speculation, and to a continuing subculture of people who support their alternative work and residential arrangements.

In The Hague, the Villa Kabila, the former embassy to the Republic of Congo, is occupied by artists who sometimes open their doors to visitors for a concert and meal. At Maastricht, the former warehouse of Landbouwbelang has been occupied for over nine years now. It has a dance hall that can welcome 500 people as well as famous rock groups.

Before being cleared, the Schijnheilig of Amsterdam had been visited by the Dutch daily Volkskrant. The newspaper recounted how the local movement, led by a 29-year-old doctoral student whose passion is the works of Calvin, was planning to promote experimental art. "In the current political climate, that's already a political move," he says. Good point, young man.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Jos van Zetten

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