A Lasting Influence

Bob Eastman

Reviewed in this article

The City is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present.
Edited by Ask Katzeff, Bart van der Steen, and Leender van Hoogenhuize. PM Press, 2014.

When radicals in North America look towards Europe, a movement that often captures our excitement is the squatters movement. In anarchist circles, the movement has attained an almost mythical status. Its history of spectacular militant confrontations with the police, seizing of space, and proliferation of social centres and alternative cultural institutions is legendary. The mythology has been built by stories shared among comrades, pieces scattered across zines, and via the niche genre of anarchist travelogues.[1] The mythology has further benefited from the simple fact that until recently, there have been relatively few accessible books published in English, and those that had been available focused primarily on the events of the 1980s, which do not cover recent changes in the squatting movement.[2]

Over the past three years, there has been a comparative explosion of new books on the topic. Among the most notable have been the Squatting Europe Collective’s two anthologies, Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles (2013) and The Squatters’ Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism (2014). Additionally, an English translation of Geronimo’s Fire & Flames: A History of the German Autonomous Movement (2012) offers a passionate account of the fabled German Autonomen. While all of the above titles are important contributions to the study of the squatting movement, the most valuable title is The City is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present (2014). Published by PM Press and edited by Bart van der Steen, Ask Katzeff, and Leendert van Hoogenhuijze, The City is Ours is an important anthology as it greatly expands on the history and conception of squatting in Europe and offers critical reading for those interested in the topic.

The editors of The City is Ours situate the importance of their study in terms of the recent upsurge in social conflict across Europe: the Paris banlieues (2005), the December Revolt in Athens (2008), the London riots (2011), the 12 March Movement in Portugal (2011), and the M15 movement in Spain (2011). They draw parallels to a previous wave of revolts in Europe in the 1980s, ones in which the squatters movement played a significant role. The squatting or autonomous movement – with its combination of squatted houses, social centres, youth culture, alternative forms of living, and radical politics – has been a force in Europe since the 1980s. The practice spread rapidly throughout the continent and despite its visibility, has received little scholarly attention. Even within the movement, there have not been many comprehensive titles published.

Despite its lack of formal recognition, squatting coalesced into a broadly shared set of practices, tactics, and attitudes that are frequently referred to under the broad term “autonomous.” Beyond occupying and defending buildings, autonomous activists have used their occupied spaces as infrastructure from which to engage in other political actions encompassing a variety of issues, frequently including the struggle against nuclear weapons, infrastructural projects, neo-Nazis, and austerity.

The City is Ours seeks to overcome the limits of the few previous studies that exist on squatting by taking a new approach. Rather than collapse local differences into a broad narrative that would necessarily lack nuance, the editors assembled an anthology that explores squatting in a number of different places. Among the cities discussed are Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona, Brighton, and Vienna. The collection focuses not only on places that are outside of the traditional squatting discourse which has usually focused on the dramatic actions undertaken in Amsterdam or Berlin, but also expands the discussion to look at contemporary autonomous movements. The editors link the experience in these different locations with a helpful introductory essay that explores the broad experience of squatting in Europe and situates it as a political practice.

As an anthology, the book is an engaging and accessible read. The essays mix disciplines and styles, which vary considerably in tone. The City is Ours also deserves praise for its rich visual composition. The book – laid out by Josh MacPhee of Just Seeds – does an excellent job capturing the squatting movement’s aesthetic culture. Throughout the book there are pictures of flyers, covers of publications, graffiti, street art, and photos of squats, that give readers an appreciation of the movements’ aesthetics. Similarly, there are numerous photos that provide snapshots of life in various squats as well as photos from squat defense actions and protests. The striking visuals help to pull readers into the text, giving a visual illustration to what otherwise could occasionally be an abstract discussion.

Beyond giving readers an overview of squatting in Europe, The City is Ours offers valuable political insights that can be important for readers outside of Europe. After reading, several recurrent themes stood out: most notably in exposing the problems associated with grand narratives or monolithic histories. All too often, radicals take an approach that reduces social movements into a grand narrative that overly generalizes and simplifies what is in fact a complex history. This is something that has happened with squatting, as the editors discuss in their introduction. While movements may share threads and reference points, they are necessarily different depending on the local context.

There are no simple formulas to replicate or tactics to adopt, but rather, a large variety of different movements informed by their local context, which may or may not have something to offer us. This is important because all too often when we look elsewhere, we are tempted to transpose tactics and ideas without taking the time to truly understand them. The importance of localized approaches really comes through in The City is Ours. Rather than idealize the past, we might instead conceive of the squatting movement as peers with whom we are connected in terms of politics and struggle. For example, as many European cities have undergone or are undergoing a process of gentrification, the squatting movement may have something to offer those of us in North America in terms of how we might resist similar gentrification processes.

Squatters have been a visible force in confronting gentrification, offering up not only critiques of urban redevelopment projects, but also undertaking political resistance. At the core of the squatting movement, the practice of seizing space is an attack on gentrification. The very practice of squatting itself raises the question of who the city is for and who deserves to live in the city. It’s a question that has ramifications far beyond the individual squats or squatters.

The political practice of squatting has also developed an extensive toolbox of strategies, practices, and tactics for resisting displacement and evictions, which could certainly be used by radicals fighting gentrification in the North American context. Whether that be the mechanics of occupying or barricading a building, there is much that could be applied elsewhere. Squatters often develop a detailed knowledge of the neighborhood they are operating in, learning property law, looking into ownership, and anticipating trends in neighborhood development – skills that are essential for those looking to fight gentrification. Squatters have also developed tactics for campaigning in defense of their squats.
For example, in the chapter on Amsterdam, the author talks about how squatters have on occasion researched landlords, created flyers, and undertaken broad campaigns aimed at publicly shaming them. Moreover, many squats function as social centres that are important hubs of activity, creating a certain visibility of radical culture and organizing that is often missing from many radical organizing efforts in North America.

Whether by hosting open assemblies for their neighbourhoods, distributing food, or hosting cultural events, squats show the importance of having physical spaces in which we can come together. When squatters have chosen to make demands, they have frequently been for squatted housing to be turned into social housing for low income, migrant, and refugee residents. In many cases, squatters have strong connections with these populations.

Another important consideration brought up in the introduction is the way in which we “memorize” particular events and movements. In the case of the squatting movements in Europe, there is a tendency to view them through past images of conflict and militancy. This can create a phenomenon where the present is constantly judged through the often distorted lens of the past. This idea is explored at length in Nazima Kadir’s “Myth and Reality in the Amsterdam Squatters’ Movement, 1975-2012.” Kadir looks at the way the mythology of the squatters movement in Amsterdam, as a massive militant youth movement, obscures the reality of what was happening during the 1970s and the 1980s. The article challenges traditional conceptions, arguing that by focusing solely on what was a particular subset of those squatting, the experiences of others such as migrant squatters are excluded. Additionally, it’s a myth that conjures up a particular individual who is “...usually represented as a thin, white man in his late teens or early twenties, wearing a balaclava and throwing stones from the roofs of squatted houses or confronting the police” (22). This type of idealization of course invisibilizes other experiences and can often obscure the other types of work that squatters engage in. While squatting is arguably a distinct subculture, it’s also a political movement that has connections with other segments of society. Across Europe feminism has had a strong influence on the movement since the early 1980s and The City is Ours discusses feminist collectives in Barcelona and the role of feminism in expanding the discourse around tactics. Specifically, the autonomous movement across the continent became less “masculine” with fewer idealized images of male street fighters as feminist and queer politics spread. Not only did this change aesthetics, but it also led to deeper questioning of gender dynamics within the movement and the squats.

Squatters have also frequently been involved in struggles over migrant rights through solidarity actions and concrete practices such as food distribution programs. Aside from invisibilizing other experiences, this mythologized squatting movement also limits the contemporary movement, as participants constantly measure themselves against a past ideal that cannot be repeated, both because the political context has changed and because it was overly simplified to begin with. Both the question of grand narratives and the mythologizing of the past are important to consider regarding the stories and histories we tell about the movements in which we are involved.

The question of militancy comes out repeatedly in the various essays in The City is Ours, no doubt due to the type of aforementioned mythologizing of the autonomous movement over the years. On the one hand, there is an undeniable history of victories won through militant confrontation, whether it be efforts that successfully stopped the residents of a building from being evicted or militant confrontations that gained concessions from governments. On the other hand, militant street conflicts have declined since the 1980s.

In the introduction, the editors point towards a number of different influences, among them the influence of queer and feminist politics that challenged conceptions of masculinity associated with street fighting as well as the strengthening of the police apparatus (13 - 14). In the discussions of militancy it is also interesting to consider some of the practices of the squatting movement as they relate to contemporary political currents. For example, in Copenhagen during the 1980s, squatters used diffuse night-time sabotage actions (paint, stink bombs, Molotov cocktails, and stones) to attack embassies and multinational corporations. The parallels to contemporary insurrectionary anarchist strategy
are notable. The author also discusses how, as the movement declined in Copenhagen, the autonomous movement shifted its reference points towards other places in Europe, organizing actions in solidarity with squatters elsewhere. While international links can be a source of power and strength, it is possible that they can also be self-referential and obscure the lack of connection to one’s own area.

One criticism of the text is that one could definitely walk away from it still feeling a bit hazy on the history of movements in each of the locations explored. While most of the authors do a strong job of contextualizing the topics they are discussing, because the majority of the pieces focus on some specific aspect of squatting in a particular location, the larger picture can at times be lost. For example, in the piece “Squatting in London: Squatters’ Rights and Legal Movement(s),” the discussion is narrowly focused on the intersection of squatting and the law. A reader could definitely finish the piece having little understanding of the broader history of squatting in London. In other cases, because many of the authors contributed essays that make very specific arguments, there can also be a tendency to narrow the discussion in a way that leaves the sense that something is missing. At times, this creates a bit of an uneven mix between essays that offer more historical accounts and those in which the authors articulate a nuanced argument about a particular aspect of squatting politics or practices. This is certainly a shortcoming of the text, but to be fair, the authors and editors did address this by providing suggested reading lists that give an overview of the literature on squatting in each locale.

The City is Ours is a long overdue contribution to our understanding of the squatting and autonomous movements in Europe. Its mix of highly accessible essays and striking visuals make it essential reading for those seeking to expand their knowledge of the squatting movement. It deserves praise for its nuanced and detailed exploration of the topic, one that avoids glorifying and simplifying movements, yet at the same time, presents them in an exciting way for those of us living in a North American context to draw inspiration from. For nearly 40 years, squatting and autonomous movements in Europe have been at the forefront of a wide range of struggles, developing a political practice that actively and visibly asserts itself, while also practically taking care of its needs. In its best light, it provides a living reminder that another world is possible and that we can take the steps towards that world here in the present.

1. See for example Off the Map (2006) by Crimethinc or Peter Gelderloos’ To Get to the Other Side (2009).

2. ADILKNO’s Cracking the Movement: Squatting Beyond the Media (1994) and George Katsiaficas’ Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (1997).