‘What issue of private property? It’s empty!’ Stigmatization and self-image of squatters in Amsterdam

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By Zuzana Žurkinová

Before coming to Amsterdam for my Erasmus Programme, in search of accommodation and seeing the rent rates, I googled ‘squatting in Amsterdam’. Nothing intelligible popped up. I came across anti-squat agencies as well, but again I could not make much out of it; eventually I gave up. Once in Amsterdam, I had this urge to find out what it is all about, but I did not know how. Early on I met a girl, Sabrina, and we soon found we had common interests; she told me about this place – Joe’s Garage – where she was planning to help out cooking vegan dinners. Sounds good, I thought. She sent me a link where I signed up as volunteer. I did not hear back from them for quite some time, so I decided to stop by on a Wednesday, which their program described as ‘Lonely Collective Day’. The board outside the place said ‘free coffee and tea’. I entered and there was no one in, except the ‘bartender’. I wanted to start a conversation, but did not know how. Eventually I asked him what one of the posters said (‘Kraakspreekuur Oost’). He answered:

‘Kraken means squatting. This is an illegal squat. You could be arrested for being here.

His statement was surely exaggerated, but made the squatting scene all the more appealing to me. From the time I was sixteen I have resorted towards a, let’s call it alternative, underground lifestyle in terms of dress, friends, culture, and hang-out places; even so, the squatting scene had remained vague, distant, and thus exclusive in my eyes. As I was thinking just now about ‘squatting’ in my life, I realized I had come across it several times already, but had never paid attention to it and did not know what it entailed. I had heard stories from friends in Slovakia who had traveled through Europe; they were all hyped up about squats for no apparent reason though. When I was studying in Prague I knew there were some squats, but I was not really interested, it all appeared too obscure and out there. A friend once told me he had slept over at a Prague’s squat, because his friend knew someone who allegedly was living there. They found the squat, someone opened the door, they asked for this guy, and were let in and told to find a place to sleep even though they did not get to meet the acquaintance. Next, on a previous trip to Amsterdam, I joined a group of friends to a squat party. It was somewhere in the city centre, there was a bouncer who kept everyone quiet outside, we paid five euro entry and got inside a fairly small room with a stage and a bar. These instances surely did not create a coherent picture of what squatting is whatsoever.

Perhaps it was exactly the perception of exclusivity and of feeling misplaced in a squat that enchanted me so much and encouraged all the questions: who are these people; what brings them together; what is the message behind their actions; what are the unwritten rules; what is the community like; how do they perceive themselves and others within the community? I became interested in researching the squatting community and exploring something so strange step by step. Throughout this research, I was trying to make sense of what I had seen or heard. I was making links between previously acquired and new knowledge. And I was constantly accumulating subcultural capital (Thornton, 1995), in order to feel more comfortable in the social setting of a squat.

The recurring theme of interest was how they perceive themselves and the community in the context of how they are perceived by others. Does the perception by the general public matter to them at all? My research thus revolved around the way members of the squatting community in Amsterdam construct a self-image in the face of stigmatization. In this paper I will present and analyze the research findings in several interconnected parts: a brief history of the movement; the current political system and its impact on the squatting scene; criminalization and stigmatization; self-image of the community as a counterculture; exclusivity vs. openness; and values and practices.

Getting acquainted

My contact with the squatting scene in Amsterdam started in September 2013; since then I was actively engaged in the community for three-and-a-half months. My research started on the internet. I came across the website of Radar, ‘a non-commercial project [that] publishes information about other non-commercial projects’, providing ‘a political and cultural online agenda covering several European countries since 2000’. Through Radar I was redirected to the websites of particular squats and learned about the activities they organize. The squats and social centres I visited were Joe’s Garage, Valreep, Vrankrijk, ADM, and other sites. The second step was attending activities and conducting participant observation. This took place at various events, including concerts, movie nights, volunteer cooking, bar shifts, a giveaway shop (a ‘store’ based on the idea of ‘bring some, take some’, but generally all things are given away for free), a squat opening, a squatting action, and dinners at squats. In general, at all these events, the atmosphere was relaxed, but not particularly welcoming – as if guided by an attitude of ‘live, and let live’, or ‘do your thing, and I’ll do mine’. But as time passed, and a number of people encountered me on a regular basis, the relations got warmer; as they knew that I would stay on for some time – that I was not one of those who come-and-go.

Throughout the process I talked to many people who were in some way involved in the squatting community. The talks mostly revolved directly or indirectly around squatting. I also conducted formal interviews with four squatters (fictional names are used here for privacy reasons). Stefan, who is in his early twenties and has squatted for two years, is a member of Kraakspreekuur (KSU) Oost, a squat counseling and assistance organization. Martin is in his twenties and a member of Studenten Kraakspreekuur (SKSU). Paul, a man in his late fourties, squatted from 1983 till 1993, but is still involved in the squatting community and a member of an organic food co-op. And Marijke, a feminist in her twenties, has squatted for four years.

It is important to note that my interviewees greatly stressed that everything they said was solely their opinion and that they did not feel as a representative of anything like a squatting scene or community. Uitermark (2004a: 230) came across the same sentiment: ‘In squatters’ circles, it is considered highly inappropriate to speak on behalf of ‘the’ squatter movement because it is widely acknowledged that different agendas should co-exist.’ Thus, no generalizations are being made; the four interviewees merely represent a sample which allows for some insight into the squatting subculture. It should further be noted that I use the terms scene, subculture, community interchangeably, since they are not strictly defined.

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, there was a squatting movement in Amsterdam. As a movement, squatting ‘challenges housing shortages, urban speculation, absolute private property rights, and the capitalist production of urban space as it is conducted by the State and private interests. […] Squatting is, above all, direct action aimed to satisfy a collective need through social disobedience against the oppressive protection of property rights’ (López, 2012: 870-71). This definition of squatting applied in the past as it does today. But before plunging into the present picture of squatting in Amsterdam, it is crucial to know the history of the squatting movement in this city in order to see the transition and understand the current situation it finds itself in. The Amsterdam Museum’s permanent exhibition grants one section to the squatting movement and gives a concise overview:

In post-war Amsterdam many young people had great difficulty finding affordable housing. But houses and offices stood empty- and this caused growing resentment. In 1965 for the first time, empty premises were demonstratively squatted. Squatters’ groups provided an alternative method of distributing living space. After an Anti- squat Law was passed in 1976, the number of evictions of squatters increased. Some of the squatters’ strongholds, such as the large buildings named De Groote Keijser, De Grote Wetering and Lucky Luijk were forcibly cleared, which led to violent street riots in Amsterdam. The climax came in 1980 when the forces of laws and order confronted the squatters and tanks were used to clear Vondelstraat, at the same time the inauguration ceremony of Princess Beatrix as queen of the Netherlands was seriously disturbed. In the end, the protests had their results: the city council organized systematic purchase of squats, and then converted them into inexpensive housing suitable for young people.

In the past fifty years, the squatting movement had its ups and downs: becoming more radical, or relaxed; numerous or weaker, more successful or rather submitting to repression. Paul had experienced the 1980s in Amsterdam as an active member of the squatting scene. He came to Amsterdam from Aruba, in search of an alternative lifestyle, freedom. However, he came to be disappointed by what he saw. As he said, in the 1980s the squatting community was full of dogmas, one could have the feeling of being watched and judged all the time.

People would check you out and wonder: Are you political, are you too much political or too little?’

But he was lucky to find a more ‘relaxed’ squat, which was eventually evicted in 1993. The solution of the state was to create housing replacement for the squatters, and from that time on Paul has been a renter. He described the scene back then as ‘fairly militant; as long as it’s heavy, it’s good’. Moreover, people in the squatting community functioned on one dichotomy: everything was either militant or bourgeois, and you wanted to make sure you were not bourgeois. According to Paul this has changed:

‘The situation improved. The scene is much more pragmatic, smarter. Studying was bourgeois back then, but now, these kids need to work and study, they are in touch with reality.’

Paul sees that work and studies unfortunately take up too much time, but at the same time he thinks it gives the current generation independence and agency as well. With work or studies one does not represent a complete social outcast, but can move deliberately up and down the social ladder as one sees fit.

The system and agency

Nowadays, the Netherlands is a country marked by flourishing capitalism and associated neoliberal policies, and thereby a decreasing welfare state, which creates a particular structure of feeling. Kennelly (2009) describes this structure of feeling as follows:

The concept of structures of feeling was developed by Raymond Williams to describe the ways in which apparently individual emotional and embodied experiences are actually connected to broader structural effects. These structures of feeling are further complicated by the forces of governmentality that have emerged around neoliberal ideals, specifically an inexorable focus on the individual, and the individual’s capacity (and requirement) to make the best of his or her own life.  […] The specific manner in which such self-regulation takes place is shaped by prevailing notions within liberal democracy about the role of the individual in relation to the state. (Kennelly, 2009: 297)

The neoliberal ideology enhances the structure of feeling of individualism, meritocracy, taking responsibility for oneself, and estimating one’s worth through one’s contribution to the state and society in terms of progress and resources. Martin feels that the current system takes the responsibility from the government’s hands and places it on the shoulders of the people. However, as he says somewhat proudly, squatters found a way to deal with this responsibility.

The welfare state no longer exists. It is called participation state now. Fix your own problems, they say. We fix them with squatting.’

Thus, the system creates a platform, where people may exercise their agency; it creates a structural distress to which youths respond critically and actively. In the case of squatting, the government has been reluctant to deal with the housing problem, and people took things into their own hands. Pruijt (2012) emphasizes the importance of the agency of squatters, and analyzes the mechanism behind it:

Empowerment is an element in counterculture and countercultural politics. It results from the act of establishing squats. Squatters break free from a dependent attitude toward both the state and the market, at least in the area of housing, and distance themselves from the bureaucratically regulated way of home making. They gain self-confidence because they take care of their own housing needs, by occupying a building and making it inhabitable. They break the power exerted over them by city planning, waiting lists and the norms of private property rights, which require that homeless people remain quietly homeless while around them houses, stand empty. (Pruijt 2012: 27)

According to Bucholtz (2002: 531), behavior which is considered unacceptable by authorities may represent a social critique: ‘youths’ socially transgressive actions may be understood not simply as culture-specific manifestations of psychological distress but more importantly as critical cultural practices through which young people display agency’. By the same token, Stefan claims that squatting is seeking a freedom that you cannot get in mainstream society.

‘[It is about] taking your rights back from people who took them from you.’

Criminalization and stigmatization

Speaking of the empowering effects of squatting, the other side of the coin is that the system puts those who seize the opportunity for exercising agency into an unfavorable social position. Firstly, there is moral panic around squatters. As Cohen (1972: 9) describes the workings of moral panic: ‘when a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests, its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media and politicians’. Marijke argues that capitalism and individualism are the norm, and hence squatters’ anti-capitalist and collectivist values are constructed as divergent and threatening.

Stuart Hall (1988) has argued that, in the context of global neoliberalism, the elites come up with moral panics to justify crackdowns, by scapegoating the imaginary ‘internal enemies’. In the case of squatting in the Netherlands, the elite would thus be distracting the public from the problem of the housing market by creating this moral panic. This involves the transferring of the state’s responsibility to deal with the housing problem to the people in need of housing themselves, and then to the house owners: if they do not protect their property from squatters, they are financially punished. As a result, property owners accommodate so called anti-squatters who have no tenant rights, but pay considerably lower rent price.

Secondly, there has been a discursive shift from a ‘failed integration’ approach to criminalization. The Squatting Ban of 2010 criminalized hundreds of people. According to Stefan, the criminalization of social movements such as squatting is the government’s way to impose homogeneity. It is the result of the government’s failure to address the issue. Squatters certainly do not perceive of themselves as criminals, for two reasons: first, they do believe strongly in the right to have a place to live; second, they do not believe in private property. As a result, they believe their practices are good, right, and justified.

Me: What about the issue of private property?
Martin: ‘What issue? It’s empty!
Me: So, you don’t believe in private property?
Martin: ‘I don’t believe in private property in the form of a house, to have a place to live is a basic need, right. To have a car is a luxury.

‘Private property makes no one happy, but the elite. Development of humanity is trampled by money and private property. Money is being made of things it shouldn’t be made of.’ (Simon)

However, these arguments are lost in the spate of moral panic and criminalization, which turns squatters into the stigmatized other. Stefan sees the source of stigmatization in the press, where the squatters are portrayed neutrally at best, but usually violent evictions are covered. Moreover, he believes the government would not care if they squatted a building in the Bijlmer (a socioeconomically deprived area in Amsterdam Southeast) as opposed to the city centre. The social marginalization goes hand in hand with physical marginalization.

Stigmatization is inherently based on stereotypes and generalizations. Amused and with certain disdain, the squatters shared with me some of the prevalent stereotypes about squatters: squatters are lazy, irresponsible, antisocial, destructive, filthy, alcohol and drug abusers, etc. As Marijke says:

‘The stigmatization is given by the social structures. People see dirty people living for free. Nationalism, capitalism, free market is the norm and people are upset that you can still live outside of this; that you can allow yourself to be free, live off dumped food. They can’t relate to these people.’

Just as squatters do not view themselves as criminals, neither do they perceive themselves as losers. ‘Squatters do not stigmatize themselves as losers, instead they derive pride from a self-created housing solution’ (Pruijt, 2012: 26). The problem with stigmatization, however, is that people who are stigmatized are at the same time marginalized, misrecognized, not taken seriously, and not given sympathy. But do the squatters care?

Stigmatization is an omnipresent part of the squatting life, yet not so prominent. I asked my interviewees what to do with the stigmatization. Marijke recalls, in her words, one ‘idiotic campaign’, with the message that squatters are also nice people, not only Eastern Block punk rockers who drink hard and do drugs. She says that fighting the stigma is not important to her. She elaborates on how to show the value of your struggle in society, so the people would relate to you:

Gentrification is hardcore. There is a struggle to fight such as the refugees’ issue and gentrification, but is it a struggle that people would relate to? There is not really a struggle now that would help the squatters’ reputation.’

Stefan has a fairly radical outlook on stigmatization. He does not see a point in fighting it, since squatting itself is not greatly influenced by it. Squatting has been and will be the same – certain people would do certain things no matter what:

If it happens to fall into a social stigma, fuck them!

He is quite pessimistic due to his experience with a government that doesn’t listen:

Even if the neigbourhoods are on our side, the government doesn’t care what they think.

Stefan was one of the squatters of the Valreep, which was slated for eviction, but the squatters resisted. I ran into him shortly after the demonstration for the legalization and thus preservation of the Valreep as a community centre. At the demonstration, around five hundred people from all over the Netherlands, squatters and other supporters showed up. Accompanied by five big cars equipped with professional sound systems, they toured from the Valreep to the Rembrandtplein, where a speech was given. The demonstration was legal, there were several policemen regulating the traffic along the way. When I asked Stefan whether the demonstration would possibly help anything towards legalizing the place, he looked at me amusedly and plainly said that naturally, it was good – for nothing, they organized just for the kicks of it.

Me: The stigma is that squatters do not contribute to society.
Stefan:’ We do more than 90% of average people. That should be obvious.

Similarly, Paul thinks that the only sensible thing to do is to dispute by example.

It’s better to shrug your shoulders, because to engage in the debate is useless. Play their game, and do your thing.

Counterculture, subculture, alternative culture…

To dispute by example can be considered the essential characteristic of a counterculture. All the members of the squatting community I was in contact with perceive themselves as part of a counterculture or subculture (depending on how one defines these terms). According to the British Library Board:

A countercultural action or expression communicates disagreement, opposition, disobedience or rebellion. A counterculture rejects or challenges mainstream culture or particular elements of it.” This might mean: protesting against a particular situation or issue; rebelling against the accepted or acceptable way of doing things, struggling for liberation when you are oppressed or marginalised, finding new ways to represent yourself when you are misrepresented or simply not represented, creating your own culture when you are dissatisfied with the culture that is made for you. (British Library Board, 2013)

Squatting could virtually at some point or another assume all the forms stated above. For Martin, the squatting movement is not really about going against the system, but innovating new things within the system. Even though Stefan disapproves of the term counterculture, due to its ambiguity, he admits that squatting could fall into the category. But he says:

It is rather a movement of a different lifestyle.’

As is often the case with subcultures, the mainstream tries in a way to absorb the alternative in order to empty it of its subversive potential. Hebdige (1979) discusses two strategies of the ideological incorporation of the ‘threat’:

First, the Other can be trivialized, naturalized, domesticated. Here the difference is simply denied. Alternatively, the Other can be transformed into meaningless exotica, ‘pure object, a spectacle, a clown’. In this case, the difference is consigned to a place beyond analysis. (Hebdige 1979: 97)

Partly, both these strategies are employed in dealing with the squatting subculture. Nowadays, even though squatting practices have been made illegal, there is a process of co-optation going on. As Uitermark (2004b: 688) puts it, co-optation means ‘conversion of oppositional groups into social service providers’. The question is to what extent the squatting movement can be co-opted, given that it is so elusive and diverse.

Freedom and differentiation

Stefan emphasizes the key aspect of a squatted place, in Dutch called wederrechtelijk, which he could not quite translate into English, but he used the words extra-political, extra-juridical; in other words outside-of-the-law. And with squatting a building comes expansion of perceived freedom.

A squat is a space where people have their own rules, norms. When you squat, you operate outside the law, and thus it is more inviting to do so.

Apart from the ‘save the city’ frame that was still relevant in the squatting movement of the 1980s, a strong mobilization occurred around what might be called the ‘free space’ frame. As Uitermark (2004a: 236) notes, central to this frame is the feeling that squatting is about more than just housing and confrontation but involves an alternative way of living. Likewise, Pruijt (2012: 39) writes that ‘the opportunities for countercultural expression are a bonus that adds to the attractiveness of squatting, and once someone is settled in a squat, she or he will find an environment that is, to some extent, conducive to countercultural development’.

For Stefan, squatting creates a certain vibe that brings about particular values and practices, such as a ‘culture of solidarity’, ‘higher-level helping’, ‘protest against individualism, consumerism’, ‘alternative lifestyles, Do-It-Yourself culture’. Furthermore, he claims that squatting is ‘more practical than ideological’. Meaning that there is no ideology imposed from outside, but everyone creates and forms the community organically by their practices.

On the other hand, there is Marijke, who claims that for her the only reason for squatting is living for free, but even this is not as plain as that. Squatting gives her the opportunity to spend a minimum of her time on paid work (a part-time job twice per week at an eco-store), and dedicate the rest of her time to activities that are important to her, such as political groups, feminist and vegan promotions and investigations.

Each of my interviewees said that the way a squat will function depends on the particular group of squatters. There are no rules, there is no such thing as a ‘proper squat’. There are squats that are politically active, some are socially active, and some are just for the sake of people living for free. However, Stefan has one unwritten rule in mind: one should help others to squat and make the first steps. Once I was told by a stranger at Joe’s garage:

A squatter and a squatter does not mean the same. You gotta be involved in squatting inside out, you gotta help squat other places, attend meetings.

By this, he alluded to the different modes of involvement in the movement. As Marijke defined the community: ‘divided, all having ideas about how to squat’. Even though there is apparent disdain for hierarchy, once I asked my interviewees about the differences between squatting practices in different areas of the city, they were fairly apt to make distinctions. Marijke told me that the West, De Pijp, and the Centre are still mingling, but the East is different. In the East, people have this lofty idea of squatting. They want to reach out, they make campaigns, are cooperative with the government and neighbourhood. In the West and Centre, people are more radical, militant, critical and dedicated to squatting. There is no way they would let the police in.

Martin describes the attitude in the West (his own area) as, ‘let’s squat and see what happens’, and fairly against the city government, while squatters in the East are more political, engaged with the press, and put much effort into researching the buildings and owners in order to increase the chances of long-term stay. Paul identifies this difference as a conflict within the scene, between political vs. subcultural. The East can be understood as outward-oriented, thus political, whereas the West is more inward-oriented, meaning subcultural-focused on the internal world of the subculture. Yet precisely due to the lack of research and effort put into image-building, perhaps, the squats in the West and Centre get evicted faster, as Marijke also notices:

Back then, I did not think the East approach was good, but they are still there.

Besides this differentiation by area, there has been a general shift in attitude since the Squatting Ban was passed in 2010, which outlawed squatting and huge eviction waves ensued. The criminalization of squatting has transformed the nature of the practice to a great extent. After the squatting ban, naturally, many people left the community or Amsterdam as such. For Stefan, the ban worked as a kind of filter – those who do not want to or do not have time to put effort into squatting, will have to go. Paul recognizes that squatting is not easy nowadays, ‘people do not have time to squat’. The effort includes researching the house, making the place livable, reconstructing, sending out neighbourhood letters, thinking about publicity, helping others with squatting actions, and last but not least: moving around several times.

Marijke explains that before the squatting ban, there were two to three squatting actions every Sunday, now it is much more relaxed. As a result, it is now less of a community. Before the squatting ban there would be a very active alarm line (if anything goes wrong, one could contact anyone from the community), and helping out fellow squatters with building, renovating, barricading, or installing water, gas and heating was very common. She says, now it is different:

‘The community is not strong enough. It is not about politics anymore, rather about living for free. Everyone hates squatters nowadays. There are no people on our side, so what movement are we talking about?’

Marijke thinks that in order to build up the movement, it is not enough to be friendly. She recognizes a certain amount of nostalgia for the past era of squatting. The struggle is not really there anymore; only the nice things are left from the previous eras. There are not many people left who would pose a threat to the government; there is no community to keep it going.

Exclusivity vs. openness

Since the scene is rather small nowadays, and to keep its legitimacy it is dependent on the numbers, it would make sense for it to try to be open and inviting. The community may have the impression that it is open and inviting, but that is not how it is perceived by outsiders. The extent of exclusivity of a community is determined by the level of subcultural capital needed to enter, to become a member. The concept of subcultural capital, developed by Thornton (1995), designates an inherent part of a subculture, which is formed organically and usually unconsciously. Subcultural capital ‘incorporates the specifics of youth subcultures, and is best understood as a highly context-dependent experience of ‘‘being in the know’’’(Kennelly, 2009: 303). It is the attribute that sets one apart from and together with others. Different from Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, subcultural capital is not tied to class, especially in the context of squatting; class becomes irrelevant once you put yourself in the shared circumstances of living in a squatted place. Subcultural capital rather relates to style, by which insiders distinguish themselves from outsiders.

Paul was a very helpful informant in explaining this insider-outsider perspective. He says that many squatters, even though the common sentiment is to appeal to the masses, are still suspicious towards outsiders. They want broader reach, but are ‘racist’ in the sense of posing themselves in opposition to ‘the Other’ – yuppies, or hipsters, for instance. Moreover, he sees that many act as if they have ‘seen the light’; they have this messianic, heroic approach, which goes contrary to the contempt of hierarchy.

But Marijke notices a difference compared to when she started squatting four year ago. She says that the squatting community used to be much more elitist, but nowadays it is quite open, though still not quite inviting or appealing to the general public due to the illegality of the practice and the repercussions that come with it. Also, she says the community in Amsterdam is not as uptight as elsewhere. In her view, the social structure is quite relaxed, so that anyone could find a suitable spot in the social spectrum of squatting.

If you are not openly fascist or in right-wing politics, you can get in.

Martin stresses the fact of illegality: people do not trust others easily. But he also thinks that active participation would get any person ‘in’ sooner or later. Through participation one can prove oneself, one’s dedication and intentions. There are several levels of participation in the community – ranging from random volunteers to active squatters – and thus several levels at which one needs to acquire the subcultural capital. Most of the squats encourage people to send an email to sign up as a volunteer, or if one has an idea for an activity. This surely makes it open from the insider’s perspective, but the outsider – having no subcultural capital yet – might feel reluctant at first.

I was once sitting at Joe’s Garage and a couple comes in and asks where they can get some information on squatting. The bartender readily wrote down three addresses where they should go ask. At first sight, this could be seen as an instance of openness, but at second glance, it is rather like people coming and going. To really become part of the community, one has to prove oneself – precisely by acquiring and using the subcultural capital. It might sound as an obscure term, yet the mechanism of subcultural capital is rather simple; it functions as a natural filter among people who fit a certain group on the basis of a value and belief system. For instance, you would not wear high heels when going to a squat, and definitely not take a cab, nor say sexist jokes, because simply, it is not done.

I think it is interesting to see the self-descriptions of the squats, and to see how welcoming they present themselves. For instance, Joe’s Garage describes itself as ‘a squatted social center, a meeting place in the Transvaal neighbourhood for squatters and non-squatters’ (Radar, Joe’s Garage section). Valreep, according to the website is,

… a social center in the making in Amsterdam East. It was established 24 July 2011 in a completely run-down but beautiful building – the former Pet Asylum. A lot is done to make the building suitable for our activities. Almost daily there is something to do or attend. If you’re interested in helping out or organising something yourself, let us know by e-mail. (Radar, De Valreep section; now defunct)

ADM is described on its webpage as:

The cultural free-haven ADM is one the last large live/work communities of Amsterdam. On the terrain reside now some 125 people. Amongst them are; children and pensioners, theatre-makers and stage-builders, inventors and technicians, dancers and musicians, actors and directors, crafts-men and women, sailors and buccaneers, life-lovers and ‘different thinkers’. (ADM)

The legalized squat in the very centre of Amsterdam, Vrankrijk, is a place which hosts Queer, Punk and Hip-Hop Nights. But I found on their website an activity, Day Cafe, which they had to cancel for lack of volunteers.

Our collective strives to create a space where people can meet up and chill out without any pretext. […] We try to keep the place as inviting as possible for all ages (children as well) so it’s smoke free and no alcohol is served. We hope to have the other side of the space used for workshops, info meetings, movies, and other social and political activities during the day cafe. So groups who want to use the other space are more than welcome. As it is an all volunteer space we are always looking for more volunteers to join and help out. If you are interested just pop on by to the day cafe and ask us. (Vrankrijk, Food Section)

The ever-present problem of mobilization of active participants is often discussed among the core members of the squatting community. As the community shrinks and grows, people come-and-go, the problem is ongoing. How to provide an incentive for outsiders to volunteer? As for the already-members, the level of engagement in the support of the squatter community depends on the individual members, and the incentive is solidarity-based; based on the no-hierarchy ideal – everyone does their share.

On the one hand, the openness is sincere, the squatting community attempts to reach out and benefit a particular neighbourhood, since the belief is that they should take this responsibility as the government is passive. On the other hand, the openness is calculated and slightly enforced, as the outside volunteers are often crucial in keeping the community going.

Squatted social centres

Care for the local community is a value which is reflected throughout the agenda of the so-called squatted social centres, such as Joe’s Garage in the East of Amsterdam. The activities include a giveaway shop, cheap concerts, free movie screenings, free workshops, cheap vegan dinners, and more. Neighbourhood letters and good relations with local shopkeepers help the social image too. Yet, the question remains whether these activities reach beyond the neighbourhood and actually strengthen the squatter community.

The discussion about legalization and thus de-criminalization is closely tied with the function of squats as social and cultural centres. Defined as a social and cultural centre, a squat can be understood to be benefiting a particular locality. But as such, it may lose its radical character. On the political level, something called ‘movement meritocracy’ may take place, meaning that one faction of the movement is prioritized and accepted while the other faction is dismissed. This logic coming from outside has not (yet) fully penetrated the squatting community; a squat would not turn into an entrepreneurial venue out of such calculative thinking. As Uitermark (2004b: 696) argues, ‘simple dichotomies (co-opted versus radical) can no longer capture the dynamics of movements’. Moreover, he believes that, ‘it is possible for some segments of urban movements to retain their subversive identity, to stay outside the state and to nevertheless become part of urban development strategies’ (Uitermark, 2004b:.689). As long as the squat is not being evicted, it necessarily shapes the urban space.

One way to go is to try to legalize a squat in order to avoid eviction. However, some say that once a place is legalized, it loses its political edge, though others say that anything can have a political message if you make it so. In my guess, a legalized place may lose its vibe more than its content. The following exchange might be illustrative of what it means to be political in the context of a squat.

Q: How do you keep a legalized place political? A: The price of alcohol.

As legalization of a squat may bring about internal problems within a particular squatting community, so may the organization of a squatted social centre. With regard to the squatting scene in London, Chatterton (2008) mentions an interesting phenomenon.

There is also some disquiet as to what social centres are actually achieving if they become part of the consumer landscape of a city, or as Jess from London described, as “a trendy café for people to hang out rather than actually get stuff done.” This self-criticism points to fears about becoming spaces for alternative or radical lifestyles, without a recourse to their wider context and political potential. (Chatterton, 2008: 1216)

I encountered the same sentiment with Stefan. He complained about all the students and hipsters who come to the squats, because it is ‘hip and cool’, and because the food and drinks are cheap. Perhaps, he feels as if the whole idea of the squat was being misunderstood, emptied and starting to be commodified. As Hebdige (1979) argues, that is what happens to many subcultures. Yet, the probability of the squatting movement being incorporated into the mainstream culture is significantly lowered by its very basis: its illegality and stigmatization, and perhaps more importantly, despite its ‘anti-ideology’ stance, its strong ideological stance of anti-capitalism.

Anti-capitalism and anti-mainstream as a value

Anti-capitalism is a prominent value in the squatting community. It is based on the ground that squatters want to distance themselves from the capitalist system, they want to find innovative alternatives, and be as independent from it as possible. They fight against the ever-growing capitalist-based notion of people’s value being derived from the extent of their contribution on an economic level. Anti-capitalism is a vague term, but Chatterton (2008: 1210) points out that, ‘while there may be agreement in principle with being anti-capitalist, it is everyday practice that constitutes it. By doing politics in particular places with particular people, through cooking, cleaning, making decisions or fixing computers freely and for the collective, the social relations of anti-capitalism are given form’.

Any practice that goes against the mainstream capitalistic, consumerist ideals can be referred to as anti-capitalist. Squatting per se is the epitome of anti-capitalist practice: living for free. Also, activities such as a giveaway shop, bike workshop, free movie screening, cheap concerts and drinks, vegan dinners for three-five euros, all undermine the established system of making profit. Moreover, popular practices of squatters involve dumpster diving, or skipping, which means finding food (or whatever, such as furniture) that has been thrown away either at dumpsters or directly from stores and restaurants. In addition, shopping at Albert Heijn is a no-no, whereas stealing there is a way to go.

The act of working together and running a building collectively and independently becomes politicised as participants learn how to work collectively and to manage their lives, and come to realise that different ways of organising leisure, social welfare and economic exchange do exist and are feasible. (Chatterton, 2008: 1214)

In addition, the squatting community is to a great extent associated with the practices of veganism (or at least vegetarianism), interest in ecological and organic alternatives and permaculture. Such practices can be seen as being socially responsible and taking active care for the future of the planet. As Lopez (2012: 875) recognizes, the squatting community comprises of members who have various affiliations – anarchists, punks, environmentalists, antifascists, artists, and activists for human rights, animal rights, feminism, etc. – that all allow for ‘the emergence of squatting as an urban movement beyond isolated episodes of squatting because they push squatters to pursue multiple goals of social change beyond the right to a free or affordable (mostly urban) space. This is a common ingredient of radical left and countercultural movements’.

The board hanging above the bar in Vrankrijk identifies the value system of squatters concisely: ‘No Racism, Sexism, Homophobia or Violence of any kind’. It is based on the grounds of equality and no hierarchy. This value system sets the squatting movement and the mainstream in a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The self-image that the members of the squatting community form is rather positively enhanced by the stigmatization than being skewed. They take pride in the resistance and differentiation; while being ‘othered’, they actively set themselves apart from the ‘Other’.

Conclusion

Squatting is not living completely outside the system; it is about finding ways how it could work the best for you, innovating and adjusting the environment, while enjoying its presence. The squatters could possibly distance themselves in other ways, for instance, they could move to the countryside and create a permacultural garden, etc. But no, they stay, enjoy the urban life, and get involved.

The stigmatization, which they have to endure as a result of their choice to be active in urban centres rather than being marginalized, has virtually no effect on the way they go about their self-image formation, because they make this decision out of free choice. Meaning that while the circumstances that lead squatters to squat are created by external factors, the squatters are the ones who decide to deal with the situation in this particular way – that is their agency.

Moreover, the stigmatization does not really affect them, because they have created their own world inside the established world of mainstream society; naturally there is some interaction going on. Some may have the feeling that they are fighting for a noble cause, whereas others may simply enjoy the fact that they are managing to circumvent the ‘screwed-up system’, against the odds.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

Bucholtz, M. (2002). Youth and cultural practice. Annual Review of Anthropoly, 31: 525–552.

Chatterton, P. (2010). So what does it mean to be anti-capitalist? Conversations with activists from urban social centres. Urban Studies, 47(6): 1205-1224.

Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of Mods and Rockers. MacGibbon and Kee Ltd.

Hall, S. (1988). Hard Road to Renewal. London: Verso.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.

Kennelly,J. (2009). Learning to protest: Youth activist cultures in contemporary urban Canada. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 31(4): 293-315.

López, M.A.M. (2012). The squatters’ movement in Europe: A durable struggle for social autonomy in urban politics. Antipode, 45(4): 866-887.

Pruijt, H. (2012). The logic of urban squatting. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37.1: 19-45.

Thornton, S. (1995). Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

Uitermark, J. (2004a). Framing urban injustices: The case of the Amsterdam squatter movement. Space and Polity, 8(2): 227–244.

Uitermark, J. (2004b). The co-optation of squatters in Amsterdam and the emergence of a movement meritocracy: A critical reply to Pruijt. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 28(3): 687-98.

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