Magazine | November 15, 2010, Issue

The Price of Zero Intolerance

An epidemic of building-squatting afflicts Amsterdam -- and the liberal officialdom can scarcely muster a shrug

Three hundred hooded men in black recently gathered in the 17th-century center of Amsterdam to demonstrate against tyranny, oppression, and “the gentrification of our cities.” (At least, they were probably men — it was hard to be sure, since many had outfits less revealing than most burqas.) They angrily brandished banners reading “Your laws are not our laws,” and they had a particular law in mind: one that has just come into effect in the Netherlands and, as of the First of October, makes squatting — occupying a building against the wishes of its owners — a criminal offense, punishable by up to one year in prison. Passing the law was a necessary first step towards bringing some order to the Netherlands’ urban areas, but the city government is refusing to enforce it properly.

Legal squatting has been central to the identity of the European Left since the 1960s, tenaciously defended both as a useful tool against vacancy caused by property speculators and as a means to preserve a subcultural flavor of radical chic much esteemed by the soixante-huitards and their spiritual descendants. Until October, to reclaim an occupied property, the owner needed to pursue an arduous civil lawsuit to prove he had concrete plans for it. Just as Spartan citizen-hoplites and medieval nobles were legally exempt from paying taxes, modern squatters are exempt from paying rent — a kind of bohemian aristocracy.

That was supposed to come to an end with the new squatting ban. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that squatters are reluctant to relinquish the privilege of living gratis, but the foot-dragging way in which the burghers governing Amsterdam — a socialist stronghold for nine decades — are responding to the ban and the associated demonstrations is symptomatic of an anarcho-romantic way of thinking that has become an integral part of the legal and political culture of Europe.

The hooded squatters’ ranks having swollen with sympathizers, including some members of the city council, things turned sour at dusk. Amidst defiant howls of approval, vacant apartments were broken into, the “for sale” signs ripped off. Police later determined that the mob had probably been very well organized in advance. Armed with sharpened sticks to defend against the charges of mounted policemen, and armored with padding underneath their clothes, the mob started to erect barricades, setting fire to bins and cars and hurling bricks, bottles, and bicycles at the police and firecrackers at their dogs and horses. Eventually the riot police managed to regain control of the streets using tear gas, but several policemen and horses were injured. Unidentified persons threw Molotov cocktails at the police station the next day. The chief of police received death threats, and the chief prosecutor’s house was covered with graffiti, ominously spelling his wife’s name.

When the city council convened a few days later to discuss the riot, left-wing parties refused to condemn the demonstrators unequivocally. Instead of accepting the police report, they called for an inquiry into whether the police had used excessive force. Squatters addressing the council made similar demands: Ruby, a 19-year-old female squatter who had received a blow to the head from someone, is suing the police for attempted manslaughter. A majority of the city council discussed the riot as if it had been a soccer match in which both teams committed a few fouls.

#page#Many Amsterdam politicians openly sympathize with the colorful crew of anti-fascists, animal-rights activists, anarchists, punks, students, and modern artists who constitute the squatting movement. Several council members have squatted themselves, and the alderman for urban planning personally hung a “squat me” banner on a building a few months ago. To be fair, many squatters are not as violent as the 300 protesters. Sympathizers claim the problem isn’t squatting itself — which is merely a lifestyle choice — but violence, implying that there is no connection between the two. Unfortunately, the non-violent squatters almost never feel the need to distance themselves from their brick-hurling brethren; and even without suffering violence to their person, owners of occupied buildings are faced with lost income and often severe damage to their property, with almost no chance of receiving compensation.

For months, the government of Amsterdam, home to between 200 and 300 buildings used as squats, had refused to indicate whether it intended to enforce the new law once it came into effect. When the mayor finally explained his intentions, he brought fog rather than clarity. The police, he said, would evict squatters if the building had been in active or planned use, but buildings whose owners presented a plan only after they had been squatted would be dealt with over the course of several years, on a limited number of specific days when a big enough police force could be mustered. Other squats would be cleared only when “sufficient remaining police capacity” was available. The police would not interfere with new squatters caught red-handed while breaking in. And the council emphasized that it would avoid “evicting for vacancy” as much as possible — meaning the police shouldn’t clear a building if it would remain vacant or unused directly afterwards.

These are hopelessly mixed signals, confusing to everybody involved — including the squatters, who are punishable with prison, but meanwhile given to understand they won’t have to leave in a hurry. The left-wing majority on the council even voted to cut the size of the police unit enforcing the ban by 50 percent, arguing that the new law would burden the police too heavily, since squatters might resist eviction. In the past, evictions have regularly resulted in little urban guerrilla battles, most of them with the police, but some with gangs of heavy-duty ruffians hired by enraged owners — with the police intervening to protect the squatters. In one such intervention, now legendary, the police actually used tanks to clear barricades. In a more recent case, squatters left a building booby-trapped, using motion sensors to start a contraption that was meant to cause the roof to collapse on the policemen inside.

It would indeed require a sizable police force to enforce the law — all the more reason to take action, one might argue. Instead, a majority of councilors opined that it’s nonsensical to use policemen to make people homeless when, for example, homosexuals are still being beaten up in the city.

Now it’s true that a great deal of crime is committed in Amsterdam that is even more serious than the property theft and vandalism involved in squatting. A disturbing trend of gay-bashing is indeed on the rise. Woman-trafficking and forced prostitution in the red-light district, violent robbery, murder, and “gangsta”-style shootings among young blacks are also rife in the canal-crossed Venice of the North. But as any degree of practical wisdom will make clear, authorities should be extremely hesitant to announce that the enforcement of a law will depend on having sufficient “spare” policemen on hand. It’s as if the police announced they would continue to enforce laws against stealing cars and bicycles, but wouldn’t grant the issue priority if the owner had an alternative means of transportation. Absurdly, calls from the center-right city-council minority for a statement that the squatting ban ought to be properly enforced sparked immediate accusations from the fuming Left of jingoism and catering to greed.

#page#To complicate matters further, a squatters’ collective has sued the federal government in an attempt to have eviction denounced as an infringement of a citizen’s right to “respect for his private and family life [and] his home,” as defined by Article 8 of the European Human Rights Convention. Squatters may shout that our laws are not theirs, but they are extremely proficient at turning the law against their capitalist oppressors. Their official “Arrestee Support Group” provides legal aid and advice — for example, never say anything after being arrested, not even your name. (One of the violent hooded rioters was released from custody because his identity could not be established.)

In fact, judges have been quite good to squatters over the years. Squatting really took off after a group of squatters won a decisive legal battle in 1971, when the Netherlands’ supreme court ruled that even if a building is for sale, it can still be squatted. The movement flourished, basking in widespread sympathy over the shortage of affordable housing — though what truly gridlocks Amsterdam’s housing market is not the greed of property speculators but the fact that more than half of all dwellings are “social housing” subsidized by the government. This creates a dearth of affordable houses for purchase and makes people living in social housing deeply reluctant to move. In 2007, another baffling supreme-court ruling declared that the right to domestic peace is so fundamental that it must be respected by the police, regardless of whether a house is legally or illegally occupied. Given these circumstances, it’s unsurprising that squatters have announced that “squatting will go on” and “this means war.” The predominant legal and political climate in the Netherlands has been one of giving in, accommodating, and appeasing.

The problem with this sort of appeasement is that it tends to progress through a culture, its laws and institutions, generating more and more of the same. The violence, vandalism, and destruction that usually accompany a squat have caused misery to thousands of property owners who are bewildered that the authorities will not or cannot come to their aid. Yet a sizable portion of the political and legal class in the Netherlands seems unable to realize how destructive it is that this injustice has been tolerated, defended, and even cherished for so long. When appeasement becomes a habit, it has a neutralizing (if not neutering) effect on the rule of law — and on common sense.

– Mr. Boomsma is a freelance writer living in Amsterdam, where he works for the city council.

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