By Bart van der Steen
Squatting is the contemporary term for taking over derelict or unused property with the intention of remodelling it into a living space, a venue, an activist centre or something completely different. But although the motivations for squatting may vary, all squatters have one thing in common: they have to open the door and this requires tools. In most cases, the tool is a crowbar. Thus, a website offering practical advice to squatters, describes the crowbar as: ‘Another man’s tool’.
The crowbar functions as an alternative key, opening the door to an unknown space. The Amsterdam squatters collective Adilkno described the experience of entering the vacant premise as being ‘pulled across the border into the other space’, in most cases a building ‘with all kinds of weird-looking rooms, where here and there the lights are still on’. The German squatter historian Geronimo thus defined squatting as opening ‘the door to the radically different’.
If the act of squatting is an almost mystical experience, the crowbar plays an essential role as the key to this other world. But the magical power of the crowbar reaches further. Not only does it help open doors, ‘Another man’s tool’ also tells us: ‘It is very difficult to look nonchalant when using a crowbar.’
Given all this, it is no surprise that squatters have always been fascinated with the object. The British squatters’ newspaper during the 1980s was thus called Crowbar, while the Australian ’zine The City Squatter was subtitled: ‘Crowbar, my heart’.
As well as tools, squatters also had opponents: property owners; speculators; the government; and, ultimately, the police. As property owners tried to regain control of their houses, the squatters responded with demonstrations, pickets, and court cases – but also with barricades and riots.
Through posters and publications, the squatters portrayed their opponents as a ruthless and immoral species. Police, government, and property speculators, appeared as killer robots, parasitic monsters, and even Nazi functionaries. These images emphasized the uncompromising nature of the squatters’ struggle, and aimed at mobilizing both squatters and supporters. An example of this was the Amsterdam squatter poster from 1978, on which the Dutch prime minister Dries Van Agt was depicted as a police officer with a vampiric appearance. The poster called on squatters to organize locally, ‘so that you are not alone, when he comes…’
The radical nature of squatting, and the militant defence of squatted places, has fascinated many. As squatters used crowbars to enter places, and stones to subsequently defend them, the image of defiant young militants soon gained general acceptance, and was rarely questioned.
In fact, everybody seemed to love the imagery, as it served all sorts of particular purposes. The press embraced the images of militant squatters, because they were highly mediagenic and sold newspapers. Thus, after a weekend in which squatters barricaded a street in the centre of Amsterdam, the conservative Telegraaf dedicated its front page to the ‘squatters’ war’. Not long after, the Spectrum Encyclopedia placed an advertisement in the newspaper, writing: ‘Those who want to know more … about the decades old housing misery, need only to consult the Grand Spectrum Encyclopedia.’
Conservatives, too, loved the image of militant squatters, because they provided them with ‘enemies you love to hate’, and served to legitimise calls for repression. Thus, the conservative deputy prime minister Hans Wiegel suggested in April 1980 that the powers of the central government should be extended, to enable intervention in the ‘squatters’ war’. In another instance, after armoured cars had been used to clear squatter barricades in the city of Nijmegen, Wiegel stated that the squatters ‘should be happy that guns were not fired [at them]’.
Finally, the squatters themselves loved these depictions, because they helped bolster the image of a strong, determined, and united, movement. Thus, partly in response to the above mentioned references to war, Utrecht squatters designed a posters in which squatters featured with sticks, stones, motor helmets (and cat’s tails), saying: ‘God damn it, we will keep on living [here]. … If they want a war, they will get a war.’
Recently, however, anthropologist Nazima Kadir called for a revision of this image of the movement; writing in a contribution to the volume The City is Ours: ‘The myth of the militant, organised, confrontational, anti-authoritarian, articulate, and “autonomous” activist … has become a dominant ideological paradigm in the movement. … The myth is dogmatic, exclusive, and so powerful that movement activists are regularly unable to go beyond the image and its limits.’
What struck me most, was that Kadir pointed out that the militant squatter is often portrayed 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.’
This call to ‘de-romanticize’ the image of the squatters’ movement made quite an impression on me personally, and strongly influenced my own research into squatting in Amsterdam and Hamburg in the 1980s, and the rhetoric around it. A story from the Amsterdam squatters’ movement of the late 1970s may illustrate what kind of results such a focus can yield. It focuses on the relationship between the squatters and bailiff, S. F. Braan.
In Amsterdam, squatters familiarized themselves with the crowbar during the 1970s. By the mid-1970s the movement flourished and in 1981, the researcher J.W. van der Raad counted 206 squats in the city, housing more than 1300 people. It was no surprise that one of the first squatter bars and info-centers, squatted in 1977, was dubbed The Gilded Crowbar.
House owners, speculators and the city government repeatedly tried to have squatters evicted. After a successful clampdown in the mid-1970s, however, the movement reemerged with a vengeance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Numerous eviction attempts were successfully thwarted. It was exactly in this period, that bailiff S.F. Braan was one of the people charged with the task of evicting squatters. Several house owners, including housing corporations, hired him to regain possession of their dwellings. In February 1980, Braan had the police evict eleven apartments in the Saffierstraat. This eviction, involving one hundred and fifty police officers in riot gear, passed off without incident.
Braan did not only undertook evictions, as a bailiff he received various assignments. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was in charge of ensuring that Reader’s Digest prize winners got their money. In 1984, Braan was also responsible for seizing pornographic pirate copies of Asterix and Obelix comics. Years earlier, in 1980, similar pirate copies had been made of both Tintin and Spike and Suzy, with the latter set against the background of a large and infamous squatted complex, the Grote Keyser.
The task of confiscating the Asterix and Obelix comic books may have reminded Braan of the Grote Keyser. After all, he was in charge of its eviction; one that never happened. On 29 August 1980 the Dutch Leeuwarder Courant informed its readers that: ‘The Amsterdam bailiff Braan has an eviction notice on his desk since August 20. But he cannot proceed, because Mayor Polak refuses to offer police assistance.’
Officially, Mayor Polak refused to offer assistance because the owner of the property insisted that the city pay the possible damage done to the building in case of an eviction. In reality, the mayor feared casualties on both sides, should the police have to move against this heavily fortified symbol of squatters’ determination. In the end city bought the complex and turned them into apartments for young people.
All this may lead one to assume that Braan was highly unpopular among the squatters; he was after all responsible for the Saffierstraat eviction and associated with the attempted eviction of the Grote Keyser. Yet Braan was not the stereotypical bailiff of the squatters’ posters. And the squatters, too, soon showed that they were not always as militant and uncompromising as their posters suggested.
In the late 1970s, Braan was charged with numerous evictions in the Staatsliedenbuurt, a run-down neighbourhood with a strong squatter presence just outside the city centre. It is rumoured that every time he received an eviction notice Braan tipped off the Staatsliedenbuurt squatters. On such days the squatters would peacefully block the way to the door. Braan then refrained from further action, citing the obvious force majeure. It was not until the mid-1980s before the police were able to effectively carry out evictions in the neighbourhood.
Even though Braan was not successfully evicting squatters in the Staatsliedenbuurt, the housing corporation kept sending him eviction notices. By the end of 1981 the squatters could celebrate their fiftieth obstructed eviction, and offered Braan – who later stated that the squatters had always acted properly towards him – a cake and a gilded crowbar.
Bailiff Braan was obviously not carrying out the assignments he had been given. He was not alone. In March 1980, Maastricht riot police abandoned an eviction after they found out that one of the police officers had tipped off the squatters. For both Braan and the Maastricht police officer, ethical considerations may have played a role. The police actions against squatters were controversial at the time; critics claimed that instead of suppressing squatting, the government should address the housing crisis, with pressing housing shortages adjacent to swathes of empty property. These problems were especially grave in the Amsterdam’s centre, and old working class boroughs, such as the Staatsliedenbuurt.
In response to Braan’s actions, squatters also varied their tactics; instead of uncompromising resistance, they acted jovially, deployed humour, and fraternized. Countless other humorous, as well as more sober or even tragic stories, from the squatters’ movement could be told and used to adjust the historical view of the squatters’ movement. However, the times were changing. Even though the squatters and Braan coexisted amicably, others felt that this situation could not continue. In 1985 the city started a crack-down against the Staatsliedenbuurt squatters. During a violent eviction one squatter was shot in the arm and thirty three people were arrested. One of them died in his cell, causing days of riots throughout the city.
By that time, Braan was no longer active in the neighbourhood. According to the Telegraaf, he was ‘replaced by a civil servant with bailiff certification … because his doomed-to-fail activities had become too expensive for the city government.’ By the end of the 1980s, the militant squatters’ movement in the Staatsliedenbuurt was defeated.
Throughout the 1990s, and after, squatters remained fascinated by the crowbar. In 1994 eleven friends from London set off for a techno party in the Czech Republic with a repurposed double-decker bus named Le Crowbar. For two years they travelled and made a living ‘selling veggie burgers to festival crowds’, moving from party to party ‘with no greater responsibilities than the food in their stomachs and the fuel in their tanks’.
The aura of the crowbar is still regularly evoked; For example, a London all-women squatter collective calls itself the Crowbar Sisterhood. Although squatters waste no time in proclaiming their love for ‘another man’s tool’ or ‘crowbar, my heart’, the instrument itself was less discerning.
Bailiffs operating illegally, or hired muscle, are not afraid of picking up the crowbar against squatters. In February 2013, the morning after squatter action in South Bermondsey, twenty ‘large men’ stormed the house, subsequently ‘going from room to room’ to force everyone out. A female squatter recalled: ‘When they came to my room, my partner asked them how they could remove people from the building without a court warrant. They replied by threatening to “do him in” with a crowbar.’
Of course, similar stories of muscle evicting places illegally date back to the late 1970s. But while these hired hands often used an array of objects to expel squatters – steel bars, knives, and even guns – the squatters had a more delineated arsenal and repertoire. And as opening the door to the ‘radically different’ remained the starting point of the squatters’ journey, the crowbar retained a warm place in the squatters’ hearts.
Bart van der Steen is lecturer in modern history at Leiden University, the Netherlands. His research has focused radical labour movements, radical philosophy and postwar social movements. He has co-edited The City is Ours, on squatter and autonomous movements since the 1970s, was co-author of a history Trotskyism in the Netherlands and co-editor of Linke Philosophie Heute, on the philosophies of Butler, Negri and Žižek. He currently works on a comparative study on squatter and autonomous movements in Amsterdam and Hamburg.