Lenzie SSP member Thomas Swann explains the Dutch Squatters movement...
Nijmegen, situated on the river Waal only 5 km from the German border, has a rich history of squatting (Kraaken in Dutch) stretching back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite various changes in local and national legislation in the Netherlands, occupations of unused buildings is still occurring in Nijmegen. In contrast to Scotland, where squatting is illegal and squatters can face immediate eviction from a property, Dutch law in effect entitles individuals to squat a building if it is left unoccupied for a period of twelve months, though it does not mention squatting directly. This article will chart briefly the development of the squatters movement in Nijmegen, highlighting the factors which have contributed to its prominence in the city, while also focussing on one event in the history of squatting which was a landmark not only in Nijmegen but across the Netherlands.
First, how does the law in the Netherlands in relation to squatting differ from that in Scotland? While in England and Wales squatting is more practical and so also more common (there are an estimated fifteen thousand squatters in England and Wales), Scots law imposes a fine or even imprisonment on anyone found to be occupying a property for which they do not possess ownership. In the Netherlands, the law is more sympathetic to squatting than even in England and Wales. In order to legally squat a building, an individual needs only to access the building without forcing entry, and live in it with a bed, a table and a chair, as well as a working lock which the squatter can use. These conditions define a home in the Dutch legal system, and since it is prohibited for the authorities to interfere in the private home of an individual, they are also prohibited from invading a squatted building, in so far as it meets the criteria required for it to be legally a home. This would be true of any dwelling, but is also true of a building which has been left unoccupied for twelve months. An individual can be evicted for non-payment of rent, but as squatters have no rent contract, this does not apply. In this way, squatters can occupy certain buildings and, provided they register the squat with the police, not face harassment.
This was one of the three factors which laid the legal and social/political foundations for the squatting movement. The second was the acute shortage of housing which had plagued the Netherlands since the Second World War. This was common to most Western European states, where the number of households was increasing at the same time as a decrease in residential construction in the post-War years. The population shot up following the war from 10 million in 1949 to around 13 million in 1970. Now, the population stands at over 16.5 million. While the birth rate has decreased dramatically since the 1970s (later than other European countries), immigration has contributed to a net rise in the population, and recent projections predict that the population will continue to climb gradually. While the government invested heavily in the third quarter of the twentieth century in social housing (resulting in the Netherlands to this day having a high proportion of social housing: 35 percent), the shortage was not eliminated and still remains an issue.
The third contributing factor was the Western sexual revolution of the 1960s. In addition to liberating individuals from sexual tradition through making available female contraceptions, it liberated people also from other social hierarchies including that of the parent-child dynamic. Generational antagonism fed a demand on the part of the new youth to live independently from their parents at a younger age than had previously been the norm. This, coupled with the New Left outlook of this social group, resulted in an active movement to take over formerly private space and turn it over to a wider public use. It was youth and social workers then who first began squatting buildings in order to provide homes for those who could ill afford to buy or rent their own, or for whom there was simply such a lack of housing that no other option was available. In addition, there was an increasing number of vacant private buildings as the wealthy were more inclined to invest in real estate than in the stock market following the recession of the 1970s.
These factors then contributed to the squatting movement all across the Netherlands as a social need for housing was met through the activities of the youth, made possible by the legal recognition of squatters' rights. This was especially true of Nijmegen because of its large student population, generating a significant number of individuals willing to occupy buildings in order that they could be used to provide housing for those who needed it. This would seem to suggest that squatting was a relatively peaceful affair, with no real antagonism between squatters and the state, whose laws facilitated the occupations. However, to paint such a rosy picture would be to ignore some of the significant events which marked the response to squatting by local and national authorities. One such event in Nijmegen occurred in Piersonstraat in 1981.
Piersonstraat was the site of a housing block which was scheduled for demolition by the local government, to be replaced by a multi-story car park, a solution to the problem caused by increasing car ownership in the city. The occupants of the building, which was being used as social housing, were opposed to the council's plans, as were many in the neighbourhood, which had existed in an incredibly close-knit form for generations. When it came time to finally hand over the keys for the properties to officials from the council, the residents reportedly relinquished their keys outside the front door, while squatters working with their support entered the building through the back. The squatters carried with them folding chairs, tables and beds, to attempt to work within the law and stop the authorities from destroying the homes. While this threw up an instant conflict between the new occupants and the local government, the local population showed a remarkable and uncommon solidarity and provided the squatters with food and other supplies.
As was required by law, the council applied to the courts for a warrant to forcibly remove the squatters. However, the day before the court was due to rule on the issue, the 16th of February, barricades were erected in the streets surrounding the building. The squatters had managed to construct the obstacles behind the backs of the police, by staging a fake demonstration in the middle of the night against the planned demolition. While the authorities were engaged in policing this demonstration in another part of town, the barricades went up. One can imagine the surprise of the first policeman at the scene the following morning, who apparently stood gobsmacked at the sight of the defences. The squatters found support from unusual corners, the break with political and social normality resonating with many. Pirate radio broadcasters decided to cooperate in sending the signal from the squatters' radio station across the country, bouncing it from one small antenna to the next. Taxi drivers used their cars reinforce the barricades and block entrances to the streets.
On the 23rd of February, the police moved in with unimaginable force. In addition to one thousand, two hundred policemen and seven hundred and fifty soldiers from the Dutch army, they were backed up by two hundred riot vans, three Leopard tanks, three armoured personnel carriers and a helicopter. Even with their barricades and support from the local population, the squatters were powerless to resist such an effort. With the area being flooded with Tear-gas and CS gas, those resisting the police and army were left with no choice but to flee. The houses on Piersonstraat were torn down. However, the parking garage was never built. The council instead used the space to build new social housing. Despite this victory, in the mid 1980's, squatting laws were changed which made it much easier for the police to remove squatters from buildings. These changes included the stipulation that a building had to be left unoccupied for twelve months prior to being squatted.
Squatting still plays an important role in political life in Nijmegen, but as a radical act of social resistance it no longer occupies the position it once did. With a Left-wing local government composed of the Socialist Party, the Green Left and the Labour Party, the council takes a contradictory approach to squatting. Recently, some of the oldest squats in the city have been legalised, while at the same time a squat situated in an old post office was evicted. However, Right-wingers in the national government are determined to use squatting as a scapegoat and attempts are being made to ban it outright, which have been resisted in the parliament by, among others, the Socialist Party. The struggle not only to maintain individual squats but to preserve the practice itself is under way not only in Nijmegen but across the Netherlands. Following a recent eviction from a squat in Nijmegen, activists revived the old squatters slogan: 'You cannot evict an idea.'
For further information on squatting in the Netherlands and elsewhere, visit squat.net/en or indymedia.nl
Or click HERE to see Dutch squatting in action.
Thomas has also written a piece for LENZIE ONLINE