Excerpt from interviews:
Frederick: In the beginning it’s restricting [not being Dutch]. It’s hard to say where it comes from but in general, new people have to prove themselves in the activist community, I mean, you don’t get a place like this, you know, it’s not for free. When you want to come into a certain group, you need to do stuff for this group that the rest appreciate. It depends on which collective you are working with. Just being there also for a long time and showing that you are constantly interested and that you are willing to do the shittiest jobs in the beginning and then starting to do more pro-active organizing projects by yourself, or whatever. You need to come in and that takes time and it is certainly restricting if you are a foreigner, not knowing a lot of things, not knowing a lot of codes. Not understanding how people communicate culturally cause it’s sure, another culture, but there is a big difference between activist culture where I’m from and the activist culture here, which is not the same as the normal culture or the hegemonic culture or whatever you want to call it.
Dirk: The second time I ran away [at age sixteen], I went to Den Haag where there was a guy from my village who had been squatting there since he was fourteen. I thought, I am young, can I live here? Which is not how it works, of course. It’s not how it works. Of course people give you shelter for a while but that’s not the same as just joining living groups. It’s not that easy. So they advised me to go to Amsterdam to get my act together.
Despite their differences in class, education, and their structural locations in the world, both of these squatters agree that one must prove oneself to be accepted in an activist community and that activist culture has its own set of standards that are difficult to understand and fulfill at first glance. Frederick, employed as a strategic planner in an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), came to Holland from Denmark in his early twenties to study intellectual history, bringing with him a background in radical left activism in Copenhagen. Dirk, who works for an organic produce distribution company, grew up in a deeply religious, conservative, Catholic family in a village in the south of the Netherlands, and ran away from home as a teenager to find himself squatting in Amsterdam. While Frederick clearly articulates what he perceives as the hidden codes and expectations of activist culture, Dirk refers to the same set of hidden codes by emphasizing, “it’s not how it works … it’s not that easy,” and that he had to get his “act together” before he could be accepted as a member of a squatters’ community.
What does it mean to prove oneself as a “real” or authentic squatter? What are the practices, conventions, and actions that constitute this fragile authenticity? Authenticity is complicated and fraught because it is a double process of inhabiting a location, whether that is a claimed and performed identity or a seemingly natural “habitus,” while simultaneously being recognized by others as authentic. Thus, the process of being named as authentic is constantly in flux because it depends on the actors involved: those who are or consider themselves authentic and those who then recognize (or do not) that authenticity. I argue that the act of living in a squat is not enough to be recognized as an authentic squatter. Authenticity is, rather, a status that one achieves through a lengthy process of practices, actions, and lifestyle performances that must then be evaluated by the squatters movement as authentic.
Achieving the status of authentic squatter requires, first, the ability to demonstrate a complicated mix of functional skills and activist performances with a sense of naturalness and ease – which I term squatter capital.
The second characteristic of authenticity is how a squatter defines themselves, in hostile opposition, to a series of imagined Others: from the most external, such as the police, to internal squatter communities within the movement. Activist squatters share animosity towards various groups of imagined Others who are part of “the Mainstream” and perform a stance of hostility, which alters in intensity depending on whom this aggression is waged against. However, activist squatters feel restricted and are unable to display hostility during interactions with particular groups classified as “neighbors,” immigrants, and undocumented people. When interacting with these groups, squatters tend to feel uncomfortable because they are excessively authentic. As a result, squatters feel challenged in their oppositional identities by becoming aware of their privileges. This sense of restriction and paralysis results in moments of rupture. I will further explain this dynamic in the last part of the chapter.
To help analyze how squatters negotiate authenticity, I will use the work of three scholars, Pierre Bourdieu, Sarah Thornton, and Howard Becker. According to Bourdieu (1984), class is not merely an economic phenomenon, but one that is exhibited culturally and socially through taste and “habitus.”
Habitus is a set of subtle micro-behaviors that derive from a common historically produced set of dispositions of a particular social or ethnic group. It is the result of one’s family, class position, status, education, race/ethnicity, gender, and ideology (Behler, n.d). Habitus includes how one stands, moves, dresses, eats, and smiles – micro-behaviors that communicate one’s history and status. Hence, class and social position are reproduced through subtle, unconscious recognitions of affinity that are demonstrated through habitus and taste.
This understanding of habitus is essential to how Bourdieu distinguishes between various forms of “capital,” looking beyond monetary wealth to larger cultural and social articulations of class and social position. He classifies economic capital as one’s amount of financial wealth. Cultural capital refers to the amount of cultural and educational knowledge demonstrated through habitus and taste that is often associated with wealth without requiring actual finances. Finally, social capital is the strength of one’s social networks.
In the book of essays, The Field of Cultural Production (1993), Bourdieu builds upon these formulations of capital to discuss spaces in social life that have alternative definitions of capital that may superficially reject those valued in the Mainstream but actually refract them. Using the art world as an example to elucidate this process of refraction, in the essay, “The Production of Belief,” Bourdieu discusses how the financial success of an artistic product, which has value in capitalist social worlds, is inverted in the art world whereby commercial success actually has a lower status than more subtle, exclusive means of valorization among those in certain elite sections of the art world. For those within these alternative milieus, the values within the subculture dominate and those values considered external are rejected. Thus, there is a subtle process of mastery and rejection in which one understands the values of the Mainstream, masters them, and then rejects them to both conform to and reify the values of the alternative milieu (Bourdieu and Johnson 1993).
To complement Bourdieu’s more theoretical work, Howard Becker’s study of jazz musicians (1963) and Sarah Thornton’s study of ravers in the UK (1996) use ethnography to describe the social worlds of subcultures, their particular values, the process of hierarchical stratification within subcultures, and how subcultural participants define themselves oppositionally in relation to others within their social worlds. Heavily influenced by Bourdieu, Thornton appropriates the term “capital” and modifies it to apply to social worlds within subcultures:
Subcultural capital would seem to be a currency which correlates with and legitimizes unequal statuses … Subcultural capital is the linchpin of an alternative hierarchy in which the axes of age, gender, sexuality, and race are all employed in order to keep the determinations of class, income and occupation at bay.
(Thornton, 1996: 104–5)
Thornton critiques how the literature of subcultural studies often focuses on how people in subcultures identify themselves in relation to an overwhelming Other that they call “the Mainstream.” First, she states that researchers mirror subcultural participants’ characterization of themselves and their worlds uncritically. Second, researchers often reveal a bias through their representations. That is, researchers often reify subcultural participants as resistant and avant garde versus an imagined Mainstream that both researchers and subcultural informants regard as banal and conformist.
She further charges that such classifications have a hidden classed and gendered disdain, since many of the subjects of subcultural research tend to be articulate middle-class men, hiding behind a classless subcultural guise. In Thornton’s research of ravers in the UK in the 1990s, clubbers, who considered themselves heterogeneous and difficult to stereotype, uniformly classified and disdained the “Tracys and Stacys dancing around the handbag;” that is, an imagined Mainstream female Other who attended dance clubs that were not considered as hip and exclusive as the carefully marketed rave parties that ravers proudly attended.
In this instance, the Mainstream Other is a denigrated working-class female. The handbag signifies a mature woman – “the symbol of the social and financial shackles of the housewife” who exemplifies, therefore the anti-youth who “do not enjoy the classless autonomy of “hip youth”” (Thornton, 1996: 101).
Thornton analyzes the codes behind the term “Tracy and Stacy dancing around their handbag,” to exemplify what she refers to as the “social logic of subcultural capital,” which reveals more about subcultural participants by who they define themselves against than how they define themselves.
Becker’s study of jazz musicians reveals similar insights. Jazz musicians seemed preoccupied by the decision to either play as a jazz musician or a commercial musician. Working as a commercial musician meant that one could earn a living but also signified losing the respect of one’s peers for “selling out.” Meanwhile, to work as a jazz musician demonstrated a musical conviction that exceeded material concerns. Yet, this option resulted in a hand-to-mouth living. Beyond the distinction between jazz and commercial musicians, musicians viewed the audience as the third Other. They tended to feel contemptuous of their audiences who, in their eyes, lacked sufficient and knowledgeable appreciation for their music.
Furthermore, the musicians tended to feel disempowered by the audiences because of their request for music that the musicians considered commercial and vapid. Hence, the jazz musicians divided their social world twice: first, between musicians and the external world of the “squares” – all those who lacked musical knowledge; and second, the distinction continued within the intimate world between commercial and jazz musicians.
Using these ethnographic examples, Thornton and Becker demonstrate that the participants’ way of classifying their particular Others reveals more about themselves than about the people who they imagine. The contempt that Becker’s jazz musicians have for the “squares” reveals the squares’ power over the musicians. The musicians desire recognition for their talent and their hard work, yet despise the audiences precisely for acknowledging these qualities. The anguish with which Becker’s musicians contemplate going commercial versus continuing with playing jazz provides a similar model for how squatters negotiate internal identities within the movement, as I shall argue. Equally, Thornton emphasizes that clubbers identify themselves in a negative relationship to the Mainstream; “Interestingly, the social logic of subcultural capital reveals itself most clearly by what it dislikes and by what it emphatically isn’t” (Thornton, 1996: 105). In Art Worlds, Howard Becker similarly notes that the best way to find out information about conventions and practices that are considered normal is through the complaints of informants:
Fieldworkers know that complaints are especially good data about organizational activity. Why? Because organizations consist of … regularized ways of interacting, ways known to everyone taking part as the way things are done. Participants take these ways for granted … and are upset when others do not behave as expected. And they complain, their complaints making clear what had been taken for granted as “the way things are done here,” which is, after all, what a sociologist wants to know.
(Becker, 2008: xv)
In the squatters movement, I found that squatters rarely articulately illustrated who and what the authentic and ideal squatter was. Instead, by labeling someone as “not a real squatter,” they easily articulated what they disliked and disrespected about others in their community. By participating in countless conversations and listening to gossip in which squatters mainly talked negatively about each other, I acquired a sense of what kind of actions activist squatters valued and what types of skills they respected. In addition to listening, long-term participant observation that documented the discrepancy between how squatters represented themselves versus how they practiced their lives forms the basis of the composition of the ideal of the authentic squatter. This chapter relates what informants actually do, not what they claim to do, and describes how their practices reveal the values of the movement in contrast to how the movement represents these values.
I appropriate Thornton’s term, “subcultural capital,” and alter it to “squatter capital.” In Thornton’s definition, subcultural capital refers to ephemeral qualities such as hipness, which is carefully manufactured through a strategically marketed exclusivity in the dance worlds she describes. I do not deny the hugely subcultural stylistic elements of squatter capital. Many squatters dress alike, listen to similar music, and hold an ideal of “anti-consumption” while consuming identically to other squatters. However, I prefer to emphasize the non-leisure aspects of squatter capital when describing its building blocks.
Squatter capital comprises a combination of complicated practical skills that are discursively naturalized as “easy” but are not discussed openly, as well as performances of conviction through confrontations in political actions. These skills are valued in the squatters movement as different indicators of prestige and competence. After presenting a composite of the ideal squatter and the skills which are valued in this community, I explore authenticity among squatters as an ideal, negotiated in relation to external and internal Others. I further argue that inhabiting the ideal of the authentic squatter is defined more by what one is not rather than what one is. I locate the community of activist squatters where I conducted my fieldwork in relation to their internal and external imagined Others and to how they perform their identity primarily through hostility. In the last section of this chapter, I consider moments when this fragile authenticity is ruptured during interactions with “neighbors,” immigrants, and undocumented people both within and outside the squatters movement.
Squatting a house
The ideal of a good squatter is someone who is well organized, responsible, trustworthy, committed, critical, outspoken, articulate. They should confront state authorities and demonstrate a willingness to fight violently if necessary against the state, property owners, and those considered political adversaries such as fascists. The first action that reveals if someone is a “good squatter” is if they have successfully squatted a house. Such an act comprises a number of complicated and challenging tasks.
A squatter should have research, communication, and observation skills. First, the squatter has to thoroughly research an empty space, its history, and status bureaucratically, compiling information from the space’s neighbors, as well as watching the house to check signs of habitability. In addition to searching for information on the internet, a squatter should call various municipal agencies about the site. In terms of communication skills, the squatter should feel comfortable approaching strangers and asking them deceptively about their neighbors’ house without revealing clues that they intend to squat it. With regards to observation, a squatter should diligently keep track of a certain location and consistently check if it’s inhabited over a long period of time.
Once the kraakspreekuur1 that the squatter has consulted with has determined if the house has been empty for a year or longer, then the squatter has to show organizational skills. They should assemble a number of elements. First, a “squatting kit” of a table, a chair, and a bed to establish occupancy – by searching throughout the city’s bulk trash nights for the items. Second, barricading material, by collecting items from squats, warehouses, and construction sites. Third, an attorney for the action – by obtaining recommendations from other squatters for which attorney to use and then assertively communicating with this attorney to retain their services. Fourth, a squatter should compose a letter to the neighbors – which means finding a model for a neighborhood letter and help from a Dutch speaker to translate the letter. Last, the squatters should publicize the action to ensure a large enough group to enable its occurrence, which means that the squatters have made tiny flyers and distributed them throughout squats and social centers since squatting actions cannot be publicized over the internet due to fear of police surveillance. All of these elements have to be in place before the actual squatting of the house.
The group meets at an assembly point and once enough people arrive, someone briefs the group about the location of the house, its history, and the plan of the action. During the squatting action, everything comes together: the door has to be broken open quickly before the police are called by the neighbors, the squatting kit of table, bed, and chair are placed in each floor (for houses of more than one floor), enough people should be inside the squatted space before the police arrive, the door must be barricaded strongly enough to keep the police and others (such as the owner’s hired thugs) out who may want to evict, and enough people should stand outside the space to block the door to convince the police that they will violently resist if the police attempt to evict. Meanwhile, a member of the kraakspreekuur negotiates with the police as the official spokesperson for the action. Assuming the action is successful, everyone who participated drinks beer together or more elaborately, shares a meal provided by those who squatted the house. After everyone has left, ideally, the newly squatted house should have an occupation schedule to ensure that the house is continually occupied in case of visits by the police or the owner during the first week.
Dirk, who has been part of the movement for over ten years, describes squatting actions as primarily “social, in crowd scenes.” He characterizes squatting actions as tedious and predictable. He connects his boredom with squatting actions as one of the reasons he stopped being active in the movement:
I am bored with it. It’s always the same, you go to an action, wait for half hour, decide if you have enough people, go there [the space to be squatted], kick open the door, and wait for the police. There is lots of waiting. The police say it’s fine or not fine, sometimes with a little fight or at least an argument, and then they leave or they don’t leave and they evict you or they don’t evict you the same day. It’s always waiting. Every squat action is the same. I’m done with it. There are other people who can do it.
The predictability and the ease with which most veteran squatters describe squatting actions masks the number of details necessary to execute the action and the amount of pressure felt by the squatters and the members of the kraakspreekuur planning the action to ensure its success. Before I became one, squatters often encouraged me to start squatting. When I told them that I was afraid, I received nonchalant responses about how squatting was “easy,” “not-a-big-deal,” and “anyone can do it.”
This is not true. If one detail is missing, there are dire consequences – immediate eviction, arrests, and violence. If such consequences occur due to a missing and foreseeable element, it’s considered embarrassing and shameful for the kraakspreekuur that organizes it since they could easily have prevented this problem. In contrast, unforeseen problems are considered an acceptable risk.
At one squatting action I attended, all the elements proceeded as planned. However, the spokesperson of the kraakspreekuur (who may have been drunk at the time) told the police that the house had stood empty for less than a year. In consequence, the police decided to evict. At the time, I stood outside with the group guarding the outside door of the house, but found myself moved with the entire outside group to crowd around the newly squatted flat and line the staircase inside the house to scare the police from evicting. Instead, the police called for backup, who, finding no squatters outside the building guarding the door, surrounded the building and gained control of the entrances and exits. The kraakspreekuur then negotiated intensively with the police and decided to leave the house because the police could have easily tear-gassed the inner staircase, arrested everyone, and evicted. Plus, the squatters for that house comprised a family with a small child who the kraakspreekuur wanted to protect from the possible violence.
Immediately after the retreat, the squatters at the action met to discuss why it had failed. The spokesperson was conspicuously absent at this meeting. After a long discussion, the most experienced squatters present, who also spoke the most, decided that the combination of the lack of a bouwstempel2 propped against the outside building door, that the outside group had entered the building, and the spokesperson’s error led to the failure. Except for one experienced female squatter, Dana, who criticized the spokesperson, the rest of the group of experienced squatters speaking in the meeting emphasized other missing elements over the spokesperson’s error. For the next couple of days, I heard different members of this squatters’ community who had not participated in this action, criticized the tactical mistakes of the kraakspreekuur during the action, disdained the squatters of the action for having bad luck and their disorganization, and derided the spokesperson as an irresponsible drunk.
Another example of a failure was a house squatted by two immigrants with the kraakspreekuur. Although the action itself proceeded without incident, the two immigrants failed to continuously occupy the house during the first week. During a time when neither was home, the owner reclaimed the squat with the police’s help. After this occurred, I ran into Dana, who confided to me, “I feel sick about it. I can’t even sleep knowing that they just left the house like that. They didn’t have electricity for one night, so they slept somewhere else and now the house is lost.”
Both of these examples show the tremendous effort and attention to detail required to successfully squat a house and how a few missing details can lead an action to failure. Also, in both of these situations, news of the failure resonated after the action and circulated as gossip about the involved squatters. The impact of failure on the squatter capital of those involved depended on the position of the person in the community and the expectations of this person. In the case of the first example – with the spokesperson and the missing bouwstempel – the actual squatting group comprised a family who lost a possible home for themselves. In terms of squatter capital, their status as a family meant that the squatting community expected less from them than if they were young single punks, for example, and so they did not lose any capital by this failed action.
The members of the kraakspreekuur, and especially the spokesperson, felt the embarrassment of this failure because with planning, they could have easily prevented and avoided such mistakes. Although I never spoke with the spokesperson about this event, I imagine that he left immediately after the action rather than participate in the meeting to analyze its failure because he felt humiliated and wanted to avoid criticism. Yet, during the meeting itself, most of the veteran squatters discussing the failure took great care to avoid criticizing the spokesperson despite his absence. The veteran squatters in this case, all who knew each other for at least five to ten years, protected the spokesperson from criticism, a consideration that they most likely would not extend to squatters with less capital than the spokesperson.
These cases reveal the socialization process of the movement in which through the gossip around failures, one learns what not to do in order to learn what types of behavior and actions the movement values. One can therefore see that squatter capital is compiled not through explicit language of validation but from organization and participation in successful actions that are deceptively construed as effortless and quotidian. The fragility of that success is masked and unacknowledged by everyone who works together to enable the action. Bourdieu comments on “the paradox which defines the “realization” of culture as becoming natural” (my emphasis). He elaborates that:
Culture is thus achieved only by negating itself as such, that is, as artificial and artificially acquired, so as to become second nature, a habitus, a possession turned into being … so little marked by the long, patient training of which it is a product that any reminder of the conditions and the social conditioning which have rendered it possible seems to be at once obvious and scandalous.
(Bourdieu 1993: 234)
Bourdieu discusses how art competence is class based and how such a seemingly innocuous detail of cultural capital participates in a process of domination. Oddly enough, a parallel exists between the naturalization of the skills of appreciating art to the point of invisibility and how squatters deny the difficult and complicated production of squatting a house by either naming the tasks as “easy” or by not discussing them at all. By masking the challenge and the level of skills necessary to accomplish the tasks required to squat a house, squatters exclude others from openly discussing the complications and learning how to overcome them. Therefore, the many who either feel too afraid to squat their own house (including myself) or who had tried and failed, are left with a sense of inferiority for never having mastered this basic task of squatting competence.
The ability to consistently squat a house and master these details builds credibility and reputation, the building blocks of squatter capital. As noted, it is extremely challenging and complicated to successfully manage all the elements for a squatting action. Nonetheless, some squatters lack the capacity to execute the number of details; yet so often, a combination of luck, random circumstances and the assertiveness of others in the squatting community who intervene, enable the success of action. For example, in the squatters’ community where I lived, resided a group of three Eastern European men. None spoke Dutch and could barely speak English. In my experience with them, they were always either drunk or high from a cocktail of drugs that ranged from marijuana (commonplace for squatters) to heroin (taboo). Despite their language handicaps and their addictions, they managed to eke out a living in Amsterdam by playing music and performing on the street for tourists. To squat their flat, they required tremendous assistance from the members of the kraakspreekuur who performed the research, organizational, and communication tasks on the squatters’ behalf without being explicitly asked since these men lacked even the capacity to ask for such assistance.
Although these men could not fulfill many of the tasks to plan a squatting action, once inside the house, they had the construction skills to make the house habitable and no longer depended on others. In this case, these men’s squatter capital comprised entirely of their building skills and the fact that they did not pretend to have skills in other areas – such as research, communication, or organization, and thus, felt content to have others do such tasks on their behalf. They did have pride, however, in their construction skills. In the months before their house was evicted, a female squatter colleague approached them and offered to help with barricading, to which they responded, incredulous, “You’re going to help US barricade? No. WE are going to help YOU barricade.”
Beyond the basic skill of squatting one’s own house that forms the basis of squatter capital, an unstated hierarchy of skills valued by activist squatters also contributes to the accrual of squatter capital. These skills include breaking, building, organizing, strategic manipulation (a term that includes the skills of campaigning and research), and acts of bravery.
Squatter capital has two elements: competence and prestige. Different types of competencies give different types of prestige. Moreover, there is no direct correlation between competence and prestige. Breaking and campaigning seem to be more prestigious than building and organizing skills, which I conclude based on two observations. First, breakers and campaigners tend to be arrogant about their abilities, which indicates that these skills are considered scarce and desirable. Second, squatters who are esteemed as breakers and campaigners are often criticized for being egomaniacs, correlating with my observation that people with the most authority are also subject of the most gossip and criticism (see Chapter 2 for an elaborate discussion of this dynamic). Third, I’ve watched squatters demonstrate their appreciation of these skills during discussions of actions and campaigns, in which they nod their heads, expressing “yes,” and purring admiringly, “cool,” or “stoer” (tough/cool).
Breakers – the people who break open the door during squatting actions – are well-regarded for their skills. Knowing how to break doors has its range of intricacies from the most “brute” – breaking it down with a crow bar – to its most complicated, involving special tools and an in-depth understanding of how locks function, including tools to open specialized and expensive locks. In general, the more specialized one’s knowledge is, the more prestigious.
Women who seek to contribute to the movement and quickly earn squatter capital often decide to become breakers. During a conversation with Sjaak, a member of the squatters’ research collective, I asked why there were only men in the research group. He answered, “When women want to do anything in the movement, they go for really macho things, like being a breaker. Research is really important but it’s not macho and cool like breaking.”
Whenever I have attended squatting actions where a woman broke the door, afterwards, I spoke to the breaker about her experiences. One woman, Marjoleine, commented, “Breaking is easy and women need to see that everyone can do it.” Again, this is not true. Breaking is extremely difficult. It requires skills, concentration, knowledge, and the ability to perform under pressure since the breakers must open the door as quickly as possible (average time is eight seconds) before the police arrive while ensuring that the door remains intact to effectively keep the police out if necessary.
Women breakers charge that while they break, men often interfere and take over, believing that the women are not breaking skillfully or quickly enough. Women must then manage this extra pressure of male distrust in their abilities. Once, I watched as a small, French woman squatter was in the middle of breaking open a door when an enormous Dutch male squatter took over without her asking for his help. Startled, she tipped the crowbar backwards, hitting her face, and cutting open her eyebrow. In addition to the pressure of the police arriving before she opened the door, she found herself bleeding and injured.
Once again, this language proclaiming ease denies the difficulties of the task. To break efficiently, breakers require a “long and patient training” as Bourdieu had described in relation to art appreciation skills. But the investment of time and energy to train as breakers is not discussed openly. Joseph, a former squatter who retired from the movement, told me that he spent months studying locks to become an effective breaker. Stijn, a nineteen-year-old squatter who told me several times that he wanted to be “a professional squatter,” dedicated himself to practicing how to pick locks. Both of these young men privately revealed how they taught themselves to break. In contrast, Laura, a Slovenian woman who became involved in squatting through the alterglobalization movement,3 approached Joris, a well-known male breaker to teach her how to break. During the action in which they had agreed that she was to break open her first door, she arrived at the location to find that Joris had already done so despite his promise to help only if necessary. Frustrated, she stopped trying to learn and never explained why to Joris. Apparently, learning how to break must be done in secret.
Building skills such as knowledge of how to work with electricity, gas, plumbing, carpentry, and general construction are highly respected. The squatter capital of being a builder translates into material advantages. Such people are sought as housemates in squatter households because their skills contribute significantly to the quality of life within a squat – details as basic as having running water, a working toilet, a shower with hot water, indoor heating, better locks, to more aesthetic details to improve the interior decorating of a squatted house. Accordingly, squatters with building skills often have a higher position in these living groups due to their skills and the fact of their being invited. Plus, builders often exude an air of autonomy because they have the capacity to squat their own house and renovate it independently without assistance from others.
Regarding building skills, the squatting movement’s ideology is “Do-It-Yourself” implying that everyone has the capacity to learn these skills and that plenty of people will teach those willing to commit the time and energy to learn. Jenna, an “authentic squatter” who embodies this DIY ideal, shared her frustration with me about her housemate, Dora, who “does nothing. The water heater has been broken for two days and she waits for me to either fix it or ask someone else to fix it for us. She tells me that she doesn’t know how. Well, she should learn. That’s what we all do. We learn how to fix things.”
Despite this DIY ethos, building skills are difficult to master. They require significant investment of time and energy into learning; well-known squatter builders are often asked to do the actual construction work in squats rather than teaching others these skills to enable them to build independently.
In terms of gender, the ideology of the movement rejects traditional gender roles and promotes women’s equality with men. Consequently, women are expected to learn building skills, as Jenna’s comment illustrates. In practice, the builders in the movement are overwhelmingly male due to gender roles in which construction is still regarded as a male profession both in the movement and in the discursive Mainstream. While a number of capable women builders are in the movement, men are asked more often for help. Furthermore, female builders’ squatter capital is often not comprised of their building skills in contrast to male builders.4
As a result, squatter women invoke gender roles through an ironic prism of double rejection: first, the rejection of how the imagined Mainstream constructs gender roles, and second, the rejection through mockery of the expectation in the radical left of an independent, feminist, squatter woman who inhabits the DIY ideal.
When discussing building and renovating, squatter women often refer ironically to the contradictory requirements of the imagined Mainstream and the radical left. They reject the Mainstream construct of gender roles which denies women’s ability to build. Simultaneously, they mock the movement’s countercultural expectation that squatter women should be comfortable DIY builders in order to express feminist ideals. Marina, a Romanian squatter, told me that one large house that she had originally squatted with a group, lacked indoor heating because her housemate, Felipe “was too depressed to do the “man jobs.” He wouldn’t fix anything.” I once told Alexandra, a young, attractive, female, veteran squatter that I felt afraid to live in a krot – a house that requires extensive renovation – because I lacked building skills. She slowly eyed me from head to toe and joked, “That’s what your tits are for.” I overheard another conversation where a male squatter teased his girlfriend for receiving help from male builders to repair her house, “Look at you, with all of these guys hanging around because you are a cute girl.” She replied, “They don’t help me because I’m cute, they help me because I’m a good comrade.” To which he answered, “Well, you are a good comrade, but they help you because they think you’re cute.”
These examples demonstrate an ironic awareness on the part of the female squatters. They understand the expectation to master these skills to further accrue squatter capital as independent feminists who reject the stereotype that women cannot build. Instead, they opt to manipulate the unstated but ironically acknowledged practice of a number of male builders who seek female companionship. Thereby, these female squatters receive help with their repairs without learning the skills. I suspect that other than the assumption of male competence in building, women builders are not called upon for help because they most likely would force female squatters to learn the skills themselves. In my experience of receiving assistance from male builders, they rarely tried to teach me how to “do-it-myself,” because they could install and repair quickly and efficiently and my efforts to learn only delayed and frustrated them. I was also conscious of the loneliness of these builders and knew that afterwards, I was expected to hang out with them for hours, chitchatting, eating, and drinking, as a subtle and tacit way to demonstrate my appreciation. No one ever articulated this expectation but I clearly understood it.
Organizational skills also contribute to the accrual of squatter capital. In contrast to breaking, building, and campaigning, organizational skills are mostly associated with women, as in the case with many skills associated with details and facilitation in “the Mainstream.” The social and political life of the movement can function only if there are people who pay attention to details and carry out tasks to ensure that political actions actually take place.
Germaine is a Belgian woman who has been involved in the squatters’ scene for over ten years. While she lacks nearly all the other skills listed in this section, her squatter capital is entirely comprised of her organizational skills, which have enabled well-known, politically active squats5 where she has resided in the past to function. One squat was an enormous warehouse that was well known in Amsterdam for hosting multiple, public cultural events every week, providing rehearsal and atelier space to artists, in addition to housing a living group. Her coordination of these events in this house and the reputation of the other houses where she has lived as “active and political” led her to gain substantial squatter capital.
Germaine moved to Amsterdam from Flanders to attend university. To combat the loneliness and formality of university life, she participated in student leftist politics. Through this circle, she eventually became involved in the squatters’ scene. Her living situation has varied in the past few years in which she alternated between living in squats and sublet rooms. Despite having accrued a significant amount of squatter capital, Germaine has a quiet, shy, and socially awkward demeanor in contrast to men with similar squatter capital who tend to be loud, arrogant, and dominating. She doesn’t discuss the squats where she lived and how she successfully managed them. Instead, I found out about her role through others. She enjoys organizing large events such as benefits for different leftist political causes, parties as well as actions. In contrast to skills such as breaking and acts of bravery, Germaine’s skills lack luster. By investing her organizational skills in the squatters movement, Germaine finds emotional satisfaction from working with others in group projects rather than being recognized as a courageous activist.
Another set of skills that boosts squatter capital are grouped together under what I refer to as strategic manipulation. Strategic manipulation encompasses a number of activities that intend to maneuver legal, administrative, and political procedures to enable squatters to retain their houses for as long as possible. To describe strategic manipulation, squatters use military language, such as “campaign,” “defense,” “economic warfare,” and “being strategic.”
There are a range of levels of strategic manipulation. Else’s case exemplifies a basic level of strategic manipulation. Else lived in a squatted house for three years. The owner, a housing corporation, sued to evict her. In preparation for her defense, she thoroughly researched the house itself, its history of renters, and the housing corporation’s plans for the renovation of the house through the municipal archives. She found that the owner had lacked building permits to renovate the house and neglected to submit future renovation plans to the neighborhood council. Based on her research, she proved that the owner did not intend to use the space and thereby won her court case. Else’s case exemplifies basic strategic manipulation in that she used research to win her case but she limited her defense to a legal one without constructing a larger political narrative, which would have required a higher level of strategic manipulation.
A number of examples exist of strategic manipulation that similarly use legal and administrative means to retain squatted houses. One group of squatters delayed their eviction by working with a foundation that seeks to place monument status on nineteenth-century Amsterdam buildings. The series of court cases to determine the monument status sought to delay the inevitable eviction of the houses to enable the squatters to possess them for as long as possible. Another group of squatters postponed its eviction administratively by using municipal environmental clauses to protect the breeding places of bats in their house. Just as in Else’s case, these squatted houses limited their tactics to administrative and legal ones without constructing their house defenses into larger political campaigns.
Campaigning is strategic manipulation at a more intensified level in which squatters publicize a house in local political bodies, the press, and the neighborhood by constructing it as a symbolic object of urban policy measures which lead to gentrification and the displacement of low-income people from Amsterdam. As a squatter, I worked on two campaigns to “defend” the houses I lived in, and so much of this description derives from the experience of campaigning.
To be strategic is to plan actions with an eye to manipulate political and legal processes. It requires understanding that these processes are not fixed but flexible and that with enough public and private pressure, whether it is administrative, legal, or political lobbying, one can influence such processes. Jansen, a member of the squatters research collective, referred to campaigning as “creating a reality” to describe this process of manipulation. Jansen elaborated:
You create reality because it’s not possible to actually know what is happening with these houses. These are all speculators and mafia in Amsterdam real estate and they are doing shady and criminal things with these houses. You can’t find proof so you make the truth. The truth is not found but made.
When the owner of the first house where I resided attempted to evict us, we embarked on an aggressive campaign to discredit him to pressure the neighborhood council to block his efforts to evict us. This campaign successfully delayed our eviction for a year. We “created the following reality” based on existing narratives regarding the relationship between housing speculation, empty properties, and money laundering: that our owner served as a more legitimate front man for the former owner, who laundered money through real estate for the mafia. In order to “create this reality,” we produced a website for the house and posted a story on indymedia (the news media website of the radical left in the Netherlands), alternative news networks, and internet squatter forums publicizing the history of the house in which we strongly hinted that the owner laundered money. We spread flyers throughout the neighborhood publicizing this story. We lobbied the members of the housing committee, and sent press packets to the neighborhood council members. We organized actions at the neighborhood council itself, in which a representative of the squatters group declared the owner a mafia figure from whom the neighborhood council should withdraw support. We cooperated with the elderly woman renter in the house, who had a forty-year history of tenancy, publicized her support of the squatters, and prepared her to speak at the neighborhood council.
For the campaign, we courted the support of this elderly renter for strategic reasons. As a working-class and elderly Amsterdammer, she seemed more authentic and vulnerable compared to ourselves, the squatters, who we believed appeared to the Mainstream as self-serving in our manipulations to stay in the house. These tactics intended to create the house into a news item because once the house developed significance in the political and administrative consciousness, we could then exert pressure on the neighborhood council to act more carefully, and thus, postpone the eventual eviction. “For squatters, delaying is winning,” comments Jantine, a squatter with campaign experience.
After a year of campaigning, we received notice that the police planned to evict us in the next eviction wave. In the last few days before the eviction, we tried numerous tactics to pressure the neighborhood council and the mayor’s office to cancel our eviction, including meeting with the chairperson of the neighborhood council in the home of our elderly neighbor. We impressed upon the chairman that the squatters served as the only force to protect the neighbor from the bullying new owner who wanted to pressure her to leave her flat so that he could renovate and sell her apartment. We then organized an action on the city council in Amsterdam in which we occupied the main hall with hundreds of squatters and police sirens, surrounded by press, and demanded an audience with the mayor.
Despite the squatters’ interrogating the mayor and the elderly neighbor pleading the mayor for protection from the speculating house owner, he decided to evict our group of five squatters the next morning, with twenty police trucks, a water cannon, and a remote flying robotic device that cost the Dutch taxpayer several thousand euros. Meanwhile, our group of five stood outside the house and watched the police evict “us.”
These campaigning tactics are well within the repertoire of squatter campaigning for the past forty years. Talking about the mafia and its use of real estate to money launder and constructing narratives which play on populist Amsterdam sensibilities that hate real estate speculation has proved relatively successful for those who campaign by leading to either the legalization of their squat or being offered low-cost rental housing.
Despite the possible gains of campaigning, compared to building skills, a relatively small number of activist squatters engage in strategic manipulation and even less campaign. I found it puzzling that most squatters who I knew would rather move out of their house, find a temporary place, store their belongings, search for a new house to squat, squat that house, and then make their new house habitable, all under the threat of eviction, rather than campaign to remain in a house. When I have asked squatters why they prefer to move than campaign, I received answers such as, “It’s too much work to campaign,” and “Why bother, we’ll get evicted anyway.” Why do squatters consider campaigning as too much or relatively more “work” than moving from place to place under tremendous insecurity with the additional time and energy investment of rehabbing one’s house?
Despite the discourse that squatting is a solution to the lack of affordable housing, a number of squatters do not campaign because they are simply not interested in the material rewards of a legalized low-rent house that results from campaigning. Based on my observations, many squatters choose, rather than are forced, to squat. I have sat in numerous meetings where the possibility of “getting legalized” has arisen. I have found myself one of the few interested in an affordable, low-rent apartment. Without concrete material benefits, campaigning is merely a way to earn squatter capital, which is not rewarding enough for squatters to actually engage in the politics of housing in Amsterdam despite the movement’s political rhetoric that squatting arises out of housing shortage. It seems that in the social logic of the movement, campaigning is unnecessary and potentially a waste of time and energy due to the potential of failure.
As a result, little social pressure exists to campaign in comparison to activities considered necessary, such as rehabbing one’s squat. For example, I once had dinner with a squatter, Jacob, who discussed forming a new group to squat a large space. He mentioned his friend, Ernst, who was about to be evicted and also seeking a group but with whom Jacob did not want to share space because, “Ernst is a crust. He’s lived in his house for over a year and never installed hot water. He washes himself in the backyard with a cold water hose and the [non-squatter] neighbors complain about him.” (There is a section on “crusty” punks later in this chapter.)
In addition to being “a crust,” Ernst also did not engage in strategic manipulation. He did not defend his house during his court case. Instead, he simply left after receiving the eviction notice. While some members of the kraakspreekuur criticized Ernst’s neglect of his court case, such actions are normal for the majority of squatters. Since most squatters do not engage in strategic manipulation, it seems unlikely that they will criticize others for similarly not doing so, and therefore minimal social pressure exists to campaign. Yet, Ernst’s inability to arrange for basic repairs in his house crossed a line and decreased his squatter capital, marking him as “a lazy crust.”
Hence, more community pressure exists to acquire building skills and demonstrate them through rehabbing one’s squat than to campaign, which is considered simultaneously prestigious, impractical, and unnecessary. Building skills lead to a concrete result: a toilet exists where there was none. With strategic manipulation, the result is more nebulous. Squatters can invest time and effort into campaigning without gaining the desired result, only earning squatter capital through their efforts.
Regarding the long-term investment of time and energy, squatter capital is overwhelmingly instrumentalist in which practical gains reign over symbolic ones. When examining the practice of the movement versus its rhetoric, the community networks and solidarity economy are invested in helping people squat houses to live in them rather than squatting houses as a means to protest against the housing shortage.
A key difference between campaigning and building is that squatters regard campaign skills as more elusive and associated with particular people who successfully campaign rather than as skills that can be learned. Campaigning is in fact difficult and complicated but not any more so than other squatter skills. To campaign successfully requires having knowledge about housing, legal, and administrative procedures that squatters can use to their benefit. It means understanding the court system, the rights of owners, and analyzing larger housing policies and trends in Amsterdam as well as understanding that, with enough pressure, one can manipulate any legal, political, or administrative procedure.
From my observation, squatters – especially men – seemed reluctant to take the position of learning from someone more experienced in campaigning. Because squatters categorize this skill as cognitive rather than hands on, on a subconscious level, it seems to reveal someone’s personal capabilities in a more crass and naked way than building skills. In that vein, I often heard others describe Jansen, an experienced campaigner with a number of successes, as arrogant. He was, in fact, arrogant, but not any more so than the breakers and the builders training others.
Some women who attempt to engage in strategic manipulation find that men silence and trivialize them. They connect these feelings of marginalization with machismo in the movement. Jenna, a young Dutch woman who worked on a number of high profile squatter campaigns, charged that Jansen and David, two well-known campaigners, dismissed her ideas when she once worked with them on a press release. “Everything I said, they told me was stupid and didn’t make any sense. I just felt like I was fighting the entire time, so I gave up. I will never work with them again,” she confided to me once over coffee.
Based on my observation, however, it seems that these male campaigners treat everyone badly without targeting women in particular. The difference is that these women feel comfortable articulating this treatment as sexist, while men, who most likely feel similarly disregarded, do not articulate it as such. Instead, they refuse to engage and code these feelings under the term, “It’s too much work to campaign.” Therefore, the unwillingness to engage in strategic manipulation indicates a larger discomfort in acknowledging differential strategic capabilities, knowledge, and the resulting hierarchies. While squatters deny that such hierarchies exist, the hierarchical process of knowledge transference explicitly reveals status differences that squatters prefer to avoid.
Non-instrumental acts of bravery
Squatters who seek to gain squatter capital through symbolic actions do so by participating in actions which require confrontational and illegal activity that usually target the Dutch government, foreign states, or a range of multinational corporations. Squatters refer to these acts of bravery ironically as “scene points.” In contrast to the overwhelming instrumentality of skills that accrue squatter capital, the skill of acting courageously during direct actions is mainly symbolic and has almost no functional practicality.6 Alberto Melucci (1989) explains that to analyze political activity that is primarily symbolic in terms of efficacy misunderstands the nature of new social movements. He elaborates, “Contemporary collective action cannot be assessed only in terms of instrumental rationality … When considering this type of collective action … the conflicts within the realm of collective action take place principally on symbolic grounds” (Melucci, 1989: 75)
Rather than connecting such acts of bravery in political actions with an efficacy that may or may not exist, I classify such symbolic acts as fundamental to accruing squatter capital and whose value then serves to increase the status of the activist in the squatters movement. The other skills that I have described require investment of energy and time to learn and develop and must be demonstrated reliably over a period of time to accrue squatter capital. In contrast, acts of bravery visually perform a genuine and non-instrumental conviction quickly and dramatically. The utter impracticality of these acts demonstrate the sincerity of the squatters’ convictions. As Jeffrey Alexander elaborates when exploring authenticity:
On the level of everyday life, authenticity is thematized by such questions as whether a person is “real” – straightforward, truthful, and sincere. Action will be viewed as real if it appears sui generis, the product of a self-generating actor who is not pulled like a puppet by the strings of society. An authentic person seems to act without artifice without self-consciousness, without reference to some laboriously thought out plan or text, without concern for manipulating the context of her actions, and without worries about that action’s audience or its effects.
(Alexander, 2004: 548)
In the case of squatters, it seems that the very lack of strategic practicality of an act of bravery constructs it as more honest, and ergo reflects the deeply held convictions of the activist who performs them.
I have witnessed countless acts of symbolic, non-instrumental bravery. During a noise demonstration7 in front of a police station to support people arrested during a political action held earlier that day, Christophe, a Greek squatter, spray painted “Fuck the police” (in English!) on the wall of a police station. This led to a riot between the people attending the noise demonstration and the police, and eventually several more arrests. As a result, Christophe’s act portrayed a bravery and conviction without practicality. The resulting lack of strategic consideration was harmful, yet its “bravery” led to an increase in Christoph’s squatter capital. As Karl, a German squatter, commented, “Christophe’s scene points went up.”
At another eviction, Dino, a Portuguese squatter, was part of a group blocking the police from the squat. Everyone in the group sat down and locked arms. When it became clear that the police intended to charge the group to disperse it, all except Dino left the area; the police pulled him away from the building and broke his arm. After Dino returned from the hospital, I watched as others gave him special treatment for having his arm broken.
Once, while I worked as a cook at a squatted restaurant (voku), Edwin, a former Dutch squatter who has been active in the scene for nearly fifteen years, walked into the kitchen and screamed at me because he felt that he had waited too long for his meal. Shocked, I was on the verge of screaming back when Jillian, an Australian squatter, pulled me aside and whispered, “Don’t get into a confrontation with him. He’s got a bad temper but he’s a really good activist. He’s been to tons of actions.” In this case, Edwin’s squatter capital as “a good activist” protected him from being held accountable for abusive behavior.
In general, the more arrests squatters have from political actions, the more squatter capital they accrue. Although squatters generally do not discuss this openly, activist squatters feel pressured to perform acts of bravery to maintain their squatter capital, despite their other capabilities. At a noise demonstration to support forty people arrested en masse during the eviction of a well-known, politically active squat, I spoke with Jenny, a respected squatter who has successfully squatted and legally defended several houses. In response to my asking why she had decided to participate in the mass arrest, she confided, “Well, I’ve never been arrested and I really felt like I had to at least once.” Despite her numerous skills and achievements that made up her squatter capital, Jenny still felt that without an arrest, she lacked authenticity in the eyes of the community.
How to be an authentic squatter
Sarah Thornton, in her ethnography of ravers in the UK, writes, “Interestingly, the social logic of subcultural capital reveals itself most clearly by what it dislikes and by what it emphatically isn’t” (Thornton, 1996: 105). With this negative identity formation in mind, this section describes how the manner in which subcultural participants create their social world and their identity in relation to others, reveals more about themselves than about those who they imagine. The descriptions that follow of the social world are based empirically on my observation and from how activist squatters talk about their imagined Others within and external to the movement. This means that the social world I describe is partial, describing only those against whom activist squatters find it relevant to compare themselves.
I use the term “activist squatter” to describe squatters who identify themselves ideologically as squatters (whether or not they live in squats), see themselves as members of a social movement, take responsibility for the movement by contemplating strategies and its future, have expectations for how others in their squatter community should behave as an extension of one’s identity as a squatter, and feel a sense of solidarity and commitment to their squatters community.
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman argues that people constantly perform roles during micro-social interactions in daily life. He uses the metaphor of the theater to explain how every person sends two signals, those they give intentionally and those they give unintentionally (Goffman, 1990: 2). In order to manage the impression of oneself that others have, the “actor” is aware of one’s role and intentionally alters one’s behavior depending on the audience and on how one wants to influence this audience. Even in situations where an actor is convinced of one’s performance, this conviction cannot be sustained and the actor moves back and forth from being cynical about the requirements of the performance and being moved by it.
Goffman argues that the front stage is a fixed presentation or performance involving performers and an audience. While the backstage is the space where the performers are present without an audience, and thus without the need for the performers to maintain their front stage facade. He contends that the relationship between the backstage and the front stage is pragmatic. The front stage, in which the audience is the outsider, is much more self-consciously performative, while the backstage is a place where, supposedly, more trust exists between the performers, as there is no need to disguise themselves among each other. The backstage enables the front stage because it is a place of rest, trust, and bonding between all those who perform on the front stage.
Borrowing from Goffman, I divide activist squatters’ imagined Others into two modes of performance: the front stage and the back stage. For squatters, the audience of the front stage consists of those who are deemed external to the movement. It’s the Mainstream with a capital M which mainly consists of the police, the state, the owners, and the press. The front stage is also significant because it’s the performative realm during which squatters form a united front against the Mainstream. The internal differences within the squatters movement disappear to create an impression of unity on the front stage. I use eviction waves to discuss how squatters self-consciously perform for the police, the press, and the Mainstream via these spectacles. I then consider the foil of the discourse of hatred of anti-squatters and how this contempt reveals an uncomfortable intimacy on the part of activist squatters.
I then describe the back stage of the squatters movement, which is the internal social world that squatters refer to primarily as “the scene.” Again, I do not claim to fully represent the numerous groups that comprise the heterogeneity of the squatters movement. Rather, I relate how activist squatters, primarily the campaigners, classify other groups in the squatters movement. Within the back stage of the squatters movement, I note a further division between activist squatters whose identity is based in the squatters movement versus student squatters and “hippie activists”, who invest their energies into other activist realms and whose participation in the movement is openly transient.
According to a number of squatters, a culture of hostility dominates the social world. Jennifer, from Canada, left the squatters’ scene early upon encountering it because of this anti-social and unfriendly atmosphere. She notes, “I never felt like I fit in. I have never met so many hostile people in my entire life.” Margit, a Dutch squatter who is an actress, describes how she deliberately behaves more reserved and less sociable when she attends squatting actions and vokus (squatted restaurants):
People are often very grumpy, wearing black clothes, that’s obviously because of their political ideas, I think they want to communicate something with it. I don’t find them very social often. Not so expressive; sometimes I come in somewhere and … everyone is sitting there very quietly looking like this [she makes a face], and I come in like, hey hello [in a loud voice] and I am about to introduce myself, but apparently it’s not a habit to do that; I learned pretty quickly that that’s not the way to go and now I go in like this (makes a face) ok (we both laugh). And I see someone I know and I go straight to the people I know and it’s like, Hello (in a loud voice); it’s kinda, I don’t know, kinda strange, not so cozy, gezellig [translates as cozy]. You don’t fit in because you are too social [we both laugh] and you’re laughing too much.
[In response to my question, why do you think people act like that?] I don’t know, the first reason that pops in my mind is that it’s this kind of social group that is not used to communicate that way. It could also be that I’m extraordinary in this. I don’t know if you notice but I’m pretty quiet there, when I go into this voku and I also adapt a little bit and go a bit lower than I normally do; like for example when I meet my art school friends, it’s more like waah [makes a number of exuberant sounds] everything is more like bursting, but there no one is going to react if you do that. Maybe they are kinda outside of society sometimes. Maybe that is also why they join in the squat scene because it’s kind of a place where it doesn’t matter if you are not so social; because the link between people is political either it’s more because of ideas that you share, it’s not because you have a social same level to talk about things. You can only have to talk about housing if you want to. If you don’t want to talk about other things, it’s ok. For me it’s a bit strange.
Margit connects the politics of squatting with what she considers as an anti-social behavior that dominates in the culture of squatters. She further hypothesizes that squatters internalize the aggression of their political posturing into how they interact with each other within the movement. The voku and squatting action meeting points are back stages for the squatters movement, and yet the pose of hostility continues in these intimate spaces despite the absence of the front stage of the external Others.
To continue this point of connecting squatters’ behavior on the front stage to communicate political ideas to “the outside” with dominant social norms between squatters within the movement, I will locate squatter hostility onto a range of posturing in relation to a continuum of Others from the most external to the most intimate. In relation to each imagined Other, squatters have different registers and intensities in which they demonstrate hostility: open warfare and hatred of the police, manipulation and disdain for the press and the Mainstream, hatred for anti-squatters and disgust of yuppies, dismissal of wild squatters and crusty punks, and mockery of baby punks. At the most external end of the continuum, the hostile pose is intact and can be expressed easily because these enemies are determinate. However, as the Others become more intimate, as is the case with internal Others within the movement, the pose becomes more ambivalent and fraught. In the last section, I consider the relationship that activist squatters have with the so-called neighbors, immigrants, and undocumented people within the movement. In terms of the continuum of Otherness, these groups are indeterminate and thus, the most problematic because they paralyze activist squatters’ sense of authenticity by disrupting the normalized pose of hostility.
Eviction waves occur approximately three times a year and they constitute the ultimate form of the front stage in the squatters movement because squatters consciously treat these events as performative rituals to communicate with the police, the state, and the imagined Mainstream. The city contracts the riot police to evict all squatted houses with eviction notices on the same day to avoid the costliness of evicting on a more frequent basis. The “riot” between squatters and police is highly institutionalized since it has occurred frequently during the forty years of the movement’s history. As a result, the primary performers comprise the squatters and the police, and the audience consists of members of the activist community, random observers, neighborhood residents, and the press, who expect particular types of performances. I base these observations on having witnessed a number of eviction waves and having been evicted by riot police twice, once as part of an eviction wave while the second surprised me and the other fifty people evicted and arrested.
To begin with, the squatters stand either on the roof or inside the squatted house. The press expects the squatters to throw Molotov cocktails or stones at the police although usually they have paint bombs. Because normal police are unprepared to handle the resistance expected from squatters, riot police evict them. Before the riot police vans arrive, the area fills with plainclothes policemen who photograph people in the area. My fellow squatters and I always easily recognized plainclothes policemen because they dressed like football hooligans. To mock them, we often waved and smiled at them while they filmed us.
Soon after, the riot police arrive with fifteen vans, including a truck with a water cannon to high pressure spray the squatters to subdue them. The riot police wear shields and helmets, and wield batons. They clear the area, block a wide circle around the squat, and violently charge anyone standing in front of the house attempting passive resistance. The police trucks surround the house and order the squatters to leave the house with a loudspeaker three times. Then the riot police leave the trucks and walk towards the house on foot, covering themselves with their shields to protect themselves from projectile objects. They then spend an inordinate amount of time and effort breaking through barricading to enter the building. Once they enter the building, they ascertain if squatters remained inside hiding or have locked their bodies structurally into the house, called a “lock-on,” which then requires more time and excessive physical force from the police to extract the squatters. Eventually, the police announce that they have cleared the building of squatters and return it to the owner.
Squatters openly view this ritual as a performance. I heard Darrel, a squatter in the movement for nearly fifteen years, complain about a photographer who asked to shoot the squatters on the roof during an eviction in which Darrel threw paint bombs at the police. When the photos were published, the caption stated that the squatters had thrown stones. Darrel felt angry about the misleading inaccuracy of the caption because, he emphasized, “it’s all just a show.”
Both Darrel’s remark and the photographer’s misrepresentation of the squatters demonstrate an awareness of and investment into the fantasy of violence and the compulsion to portray it theatrically. The squatters are aware that both the press and the squatters’ scene expect violence at evictions. They negotiate these expectations by performing a fiction of violence that it is not actually dangerous by using paint bombs instead of stones. The photographer also seemed aware of the audience’s fetishistic need for violence and so he misrepresented the squatters to make them appear more violent. The police perform “uber-toughness” in this interaction as well. They sport new gadgets, enormous trucks, and align themselves in military formation, with shields, weapons, and helmets. Each eviction wave costs thousands of euros for the city.
The press and the squatters compete with each other to control the representation of the squatters movement. Once the city announces an eviction wave, journalists often call the squatters’ press group to tape the preparation, interview the squatters, and film the resistance of the squatters against the police from inside the house. Members of the squatters press group attempt to control the press’s access by having them communicate with articulate, strategically minded squatters who choose their words carefully. Before one eviction, journalists from a national news program negotiated with the press group to embed a reporter in a house during a wave. The press group had chosen an articulate, reasonable, strategically minded student squatter to interact with the journalists. Instead, the news program pursued a tall, sexy punk with a working-class Amsterdam accent to interview. When the punk pulled out, the journalists expressed disappointment.
During another incident involving arrests of squatters on a street where I lived, reporters from a local news show camped in front of my house to interview squatters. Because of my utterly un-punk demeanor, the squatters’ press group asked me to grant an interview not as a member of the squatters group but as a respectable, expat neighbor. The reporters sought information about the foreign background of the squatters which I carefully avoided disclosing.
During my experience preparing for the eviction wave of my first squat, I encountered a number of surprises. All of us in this house were conscious of the expectations from the larger squatter community to resist the eviction with violence since the house had a reputation as “active and political” due to the success of the campaign defending the house from eviction. Based on the discourse within the squatters community about evictions, I had assumed that most squatters resisted during eviction waves. Yet, when we met as a group to plan the eviction, almost none of the veteran squatters in the group had ever “been inside,” (the term for being inside a house while the police try to evict from the outside). Knowing that none of the veteran squatters in the group had resisted in the past nor felt a need to resist this eviction, I felt less pressure to engage in violence. As one member of the group confided to me privately, “There is no point in resisting. The police are going to get in no matter what. What’s the purpose of sitting in jail for three days?”
Stijn, a member of the group, disagreed with the rest. At the age of nineteen, Stijn was a veteran squatter, having squatted and having been evicted from countless houses all over Europe. He proposed to create a “lock-on,” in the form of a giant block of concrete molded into the attic that would lock his body into the attic and make it impossible for the police to remove him. In comparison to the other members of the group, Stijn was unconcerned about sitting in jail and looked forward to the opportunity of locking himself into the house and confronting the police. Despite his enthusiasm, our group decided against violent resistance. Instead, knowing that the police feared that our group had created booby traps throughout the house against the police (we had graffitied the word booby traps outside the house to advertise this impression), we engineered what is known in Dutch as a ludiek actie, an action which intends to mock rather than result in violence. Instead of violent resistance and booby traps, we filled the house with hundreds of balloons that the police deflated before they could declare it clear of squatters. The press’s coverage of the eviction wave highlighted the balloons.
In instrumental terms, squatters who resist during evictions serve a purpose for the movement. If regular police and bailiffs can evict squatters easily, the city will stop conducting eviction waves. Eviction waves serve squatters because with sufficient calculation, squatters can reside in a house for at least three to four months – that is, if one squats a house immediately after an eviction wave, one can expect to reside there until the next wave four months later. My observation, however, revealed that instrumentality was not forefront in the minds of those who resisted during eviction waves. Rather, the resistance existed in its own right as a performance of hostility against squatters’ ideological enemies: property owners, the state, and the police.
However, as a performance of hostility, the eviction waves prove unsatisfying in their lack of drama. First off, they proceed extremely slowly. The first time I was evicted, I spent hours waiting with my housemates for the police to arrive since they toured the city to evict squats. We listened to the squatters’ radio station that reported on the police’s movements, read the updates on indymedia, and received phone calls and visits relating various rumors about the location of the riot police.
Approximately half an hour before they arrived, the atmosphere in the neighborhood seemed to electrify with excitement. I cannot explain why this happened, since this sense of anticipation reached beyond the squatters in which non-squatter neighbors gathered in the area around the squat and waited for the police. While the arrival of the riot police with over twenty trucks and their army-like presence proved dramatic, the whole scene was markedly subdued with an eerie quiet during the actual eviction. In many ways, the drama of the event was constructed by the press through clever and strategic editing of photographs and video footage and in the gossip and descriptions of the evictions among squatters afterward. Even during evictions with extreme resistance, in which the squatters barricaded every square inch of the house and the squatters inside threw objects at the police, the whole event is quiet and slow, lasting hours with long pauses in between movements.
Despite the careful preparation to perform for the front stage, the backstage of the squatters movement also serves as a more relevant audience for squatters invested in the community and who seek to obtain “scene points” and the prestige of squatter capital. In my experience preparing for the eviction wave, all of us in the house had different feelings about each member of the audience. My housemates, who had organized the balloons and had graffitied the word “booby traps” outside the house, had considered how to communicate this aggression to the police and the press. My other housemate, who talked to me about the futility of resistance, mainly reflected on the reaction of the backstage of the squatters’ scene and his lack of interest in scene points. I also felt the pressure to resist more for the performance than for the utility and was relieved that the veteran squatters in the group lacked interest in doing so, thus removing the obligation to resist and go to jail on my part since I had the least experience in the group. Stijn, although aware of all of these elements, was compelled by resistance for its own sake, disregarding scene points, and enjoying the idea of building his first lock-on in a squat with youthful exuberance.
An institutionalized legal procedure precedes an eviction wave. To evict squatters, an owner must take squatters to court and prove that he (owners are nearly always a he) plans to use the space. The overwhelming majority of owners win their court cases and, eventually, the squatters receive an eviction notice that announces the date from which the bailiff can evict. As I stated earlier, the state organizes eviction waves based on expectations that squatters will violently resist all evictions. Consequently, to continue the eviction waves and the delicate calculation of timing involved in living around eviction waves, squatters have to create an impression through barricading that they will violently resist if the bailiff or the police attempt to evict.
Barricading reveals a similar negotiation between utility and squatter capital. Instrumentally, squatters barricade to physically prevent the owner, the bailiff, and the police from entering the squat and to maintain a perception that they will act violently if anyone attempts to evict. As a result, a range exists between barricading that factually prevents entrance and “symbolic” barricading which communicates a message of resistance to the police and the owners.
In the first squat where I lived, my housemates described the barricading as “symbolic.” Additionally, my housemates contended that by symbolically barricading, they provided the police with the justification that released them from the responsibility to evict outside the waves.8
I have heard squatters describe the police in two ways: first, as “pigs” who they hate; and secondly, as “lazy workers.” During negotiations with the owner of my first squat, we learned that our court case was scheduled after the June eviction wave, the last eviction wave before the summer. During the negotiations, my housemates felt that they held an advantage over the owner because they knew that our group could remain in the house for another few months until the next eviction wave. I asked my housemates, “How do you know that the police will not try to evict during the summer?” My Dutch housemates responded incredulously, “Do you think the police want to organize eviction waves and do heavy stuff during the summer? They don’t want anything to jeopardize their vacations.”
Each type of barricading emits different symbolic meanings and communicates messages about the squatters to the backstage of the squatters’ scene. To enact the ideal of “defending a house until the end,” is to barricade a house in a way that factually prevents entrance, notify the squatting community to prepare themselves to be on “pre-alarm” in case of an attempted eviction, and to maintain an occupation schedule to ensure that the squat is never empty. Such preparations lead one to accrue squatter capital.
Hermance, a veteran squatter, believes that such barricades give the movement a tactical advantage, “Barricading is important for the movement because it forces the police to work hard to take a house back.” When I asked Maartje why she had invested time and energy to barricade and defend until the end, she said with conviction and passion, “I’m not going to give one inch of this house back to that fucking owner. He’ll have to take it from us.” I decided to barricade and stay until the eviction of my first squat for practical reasons: I found it more stressful to move out of this house, live as a guest somewhere else, and find a new house to squat than barricade and time my residence around the eviction wave.
Defending a house until the end is unusual for squatters – most squatters leave a house shortly after receiving the eviction notice. Although this is common practice, it is less respected than staying until the eviction wave. A group of student women who squatted a house agreed to leave on a certain date, months before the eviction wave. I heard much criticism of their decision, so I asked them why they left. Alicia, a German squatter, told me that everyone in the group had various vacation plans which they did not want to alter in order to defend this house.
In contrast to the practices of barricading and resisting during eviction waves, squatters identify themselves against anti-squatters discursively rather than through a performance. The anti-squatters are equivalent to Thornton’s “Stacy and Tracy dancing around the handbags,” of UK ravers because the discourse around anti-squatters reveal more about squatters themselves through their way of classifying than about the empirical reality of who anti-squatters are and what anti-squatting is.
Squatters generally position anti-squatting as the opposite of squatting and taboo in the movement. Calling someone an anti-squatter is an insult. Within the movement, different understandings exist for what it means to anti-squat. Depending on the definition, anti-squatting can encompass nearly every form of housing outside of squatting and legal, permanent rental contracts. In addition, squatters imagine themselves in relation to one stereotype of an anti-squatter but also acknowledge the diversity of what it means to anti-squat and who is an anti-squatter.
The dominant definition of anti-squatting is that to prevent a building from being squatted, owners contract people – known as anti-squatters – to live in their properties who they generally find through anti-squatting agencies. Anti-squatting agencies abound in the city and target mainly white, Dutch, higher education students. To anti-squat, one undergoes a screening process by the agencies and pays to place oneself on a list of potential anti-squatters. Samuel, a former Dutch squatter active in housing politics, comments that to be an anti-squatter, “You need to be in a network of white families to get into them [anti-squats]. You must be in a social network and introduced to become an anti-squatter, which means that you must be middle class.”
People who anti-squat live a nomadic life in which they move from anti-squat to anti-squat. In order to prevent anti-squatters from claiming extensive Dutch tenancy rights, their contracts define them as guards rather than tenants. Lifestyle clauses that prohibit smoking, posters on windows, and parties, feature prominently in anti-squat agreements. Anti-squatters can be asked to move with little notice, residing in a space from two months to years, depending on the space and its owner’s intentions such as whether the owner plans to demolish, renovate, or keep it “vacant” until it’s sold. The fee one pays as an anti-squatter also varies from the cost of utilities to the equivalent of market rent.
Squatters display a continuum of feelings about anti-squatters. Damien, who identifies himself as an ideologue, calls anti-squatters “strike-breakers and scabs.” I have heard others mock anti-squatters with vicious pleasure, criticizing their lifestyles and how they dress. Joris, a Dutch squatter, told me, “You can always tell an anti-squatter by how he dresses. Just look at his shoes. Only anti-squatters spend so much money on shoes. The fuckers.” Other squatters defend them. Thijl, a veteran squatter of fifteen years, says, “The movement should be more open and try to understand the position of anti-squatters. They are doing their best. We are all victims of this [housing] situation.” Hermance similarly criticizes the overall movement’s disdain of anti-squatters, “Not everyone can handle squatting. It takes a lot of psychological strength and if you are weak, you can’t handle it.” Although she dislikes the movement’s stance, I have heard Hermance curse, “these fucking anti-squatters,” a number of times.
Beyond competing for the identical empty spaces, one reason for this overt hostility is that anti-squatters’ reasons for choosing anti-squatting over squatting seems hypocritical, since anti-squatters cite insecurity and nomadic living as reasons for not squatting. According to Gerd, a German student squatter:
Anti-squatters have fewer rights than squatters. An owner can ask anti-squatters to leave without legal protection while with squatting, there is a legal process that owners must use to evict. Anti-squatters say that squatting isn’t stable. Meanwhile they are moving every few months, sending SMSs to everyone they know a week before they have to leave to find a new place.
Furthermore, Samuel contends that “anti-squatting is popular being its considered more civilized than squatting. It has a contract without rights while squatters have rights without a contract.”
Generally, squatters imagine anti-squatters to embody a middle classness that they reject. Thus, the hatred of squatters towards the imagined anti-squatter – a white, Dutch, middle-class university student – stands in for all that squatters find repugnant about middle-class life. Based on my observation and countless conversations, here is a composite of all that anti-squatters represent: compliance, a desire to choose what is easier, comfortable, and socially accepted over what is oppositional, defiant, and difficult since anti-squatting has the appearance of a more legitimate industry with agencies and contracts; conformist, uncritical, yuppies-in-training, naively believing in “the system” as something that they can eventually use to their advantage, and cowardly participating in their own exploitation.
The unrestrained hatred for anti-squatters reveals an uncomfortable intimacy on the part of squatters. Samuel comments on the history of squatting and anti-squatting and how the current anti-squatter fits the profile of the Dutch squatter during the movement’s height in the 1970s and 1980s:
Squatters at the end of the ’70s have the same profile as the current anti-squatters. Back then, more people got housing through squatting than official means. Now it’s easier to find anti-squat. During the ’70s and ’80s, squatting wasn’t subculture, but Mainstream, so that it attracted middle-class people who are now currently anti-squatting. Current squatters are marginalized groups such as immigrants and poor people.9 The middle-class who do squat do so because it’s fashionable and a wild adventure, while for marginalized groups, it’s difficult to get power, legitimacy, and influence.
Beyond the uncomfortable intimacy that some squatters share with anti-squatters, the contempt for anti-squatters is ironic considering the superficiality of the anti-squatting/squatting opposition. In actuality, many squatters have anti-squatted in some form. They may have illegally sublet or had a temporary contract or even been an anti-squatter. After losing a court case, a number of squatters sign a temporary contract, agreeing to leave until the owner needs the space, converting the squatter into an anti-squatter.
Squatters who can anti-squat openly without being labeled as such have significant squatter capital, are well-liked, or are deeply embedded in movement and community networks. Those who lack such squatter capital then hide their anti-squatting past to avoid community judgment that they are weak and have compromised on their ideals. Anja, a German squatter, signed an anti-squat contract after she received an eviction notice to stay in her flat. She kept this a secret. Through interviewing and socializing, I met a number of squatters who had signed anti-squat contracts but hid this information to avoid being criticized. Also, they knew that the kraakspreekuur would most likely refuse to help them squat again with the rumor of an anti-squat contract in their past. On the other hand, squatters with tremendous squatter capital can sign an anti-squat contract or make an anti-squat agreement without receiving harsh criticism. Maaike, a veteran squatter who has squatted a number of houses all over the Netherlands independently and has accrued enough squatter capital as a resourceful and responsible person, openly admits to having signed an anti-squat contract in the past to prolong her stay in a squatted house rather than get evicted.
How the squatting community judges anti-squatting is also mixed with the perception of the anti-squatter. If it’s someone who is capable and “empowered” such as a middle-class, emotionally stable (not drug- or alcohol-addicted), white, Dutch person, then they are harshly judged. The assumption is that such a person has enough internal and communal resources to draw upon so that they are not forced to anti-squat. Internal resources include one’s own conviction in oppositionality, a critique of the state and the housing crisis, and one’s emotional strength to manage the stresses of squatting. Such a person has the strength, the energy, and the skills to find a housing arrangement other than a temporary contract. If the anti-squatter is structurally underprivileged – by being poor, undocumented, or is a mother with children – then such people receive more sympathy and are not as harshly judged because they are seen as compromised structurally rather than internally. In such cases, the act of anti-squatting is separate from being labeled an anti-squatter.
In fact, one can be labeled an anti-squatter without actually being an anti-squatter. Once, I was drinking in a squat bar with some squatters before going to the birthday party of Jonas, a young, Dutch man who socialized in “the scene” but was not a squatter. When I told the squatters where I was going, they identified Jonas as “that anti-squatter.” Jonas had a permanent and legal rental contract but the squatters labeled him an anti-squatter based entirely on his non-punk style of dressing and his mannerisms. Ludwic, another Dutch squatter who was often ejected from squatter living groups, once called his ex-housemates of a squat, “a bunch of anti-squatters.” The group of four occupied an enormous building and hesitated to accept new housemates, which Ludwic considered equivalent to anti-squatting since a small number of anti-squatters often occupy entire buildings. Janneke, a female Dutch squatter, frustrated with her housemates, told me that they were “weird. They’re not real squatters. They’re more like anti-squatters. They party all the time and go to Mainstream bars. They don’t do anything for anyone.”
Within the movement, the negative identification continues in which different groups of squatters identify themselves against other groups of squatters, whose differentiations are based on a complicated matrix of style, ideological commitment, and expression of political conviction. In addition, the community where I conducted my fieldwork had its own peculiarities and identity in relation to other activist squatter communities in Amsterdam. This community, identified primarily by its neighborhood as is customary for squatters’ communities, has a reputation for conducting campaigns by engaging in local housing politics and for “being older and not so punky” as described by Laura, a squatter who is politically active in a more punk-oriented squatters’ community. For the purposes of classification, I refer to this community as “the campaigners.” Although a number of activist identified squatters in other communities refer to this group disparagingly as “the social democrats,” because they engage with political parties. It is from the perspective of members of this community from which I classify other squatters within the scene. Based on the discourse of the campaigners, activist squatters classified themselves mainly against wild squatters, crusty punks, and baby punks. They also mentioned hippies and student squatters but discussed them with a higher sense of respect. Similar to how squatters imagine anti-squatters, these various classifications reflect more about how activist squatters imagine themselves than about the empirical reality of the people who they classify.
Methodologically, this means that the description of these groups are not articulated by squatters, but rather I have compiled and distilled these descriptions from prolonged observation and listening to how activist squatters described these groups in casual conversations. The following conversation between myself and Dana, a veteran squatter, about Bonnie, a twenty-year-old Portuguese squatter, illustrates the types of conversations from which I drew conclusions:
Dana: Where does Bonnie live now?
Nazima: I think she’s staying at the Marcusstraat.
Dana: Why isn’t she living at the Transvaalstraat? (a squatted house where Bonnie resided for months).
Nazima: I don’t know. I guess she moved out.
Dana: She didn’t move out. She was KICKED OUT. She’s just a little punk.
By calling Bonnie “a little punk,” Dana legitimated her dislike of Bonnie and referred to a set of behaviors known as punklike: to constantly party, spend most of the time drunk or high, lack financial responsibility, neglect repairs and household chores, and lack reliability. Lastly, by emphasizing that her housemates kicked her out of the house, Dana showed that Bonnie’s behavior was so problematic that it forced them to kick her out, an act that is generally avoided in squatter households. Another example is a conversation that I had with a housemate about a squatter neighbor who had been an adolescent punk but saw himself as an adult bohemian artist well integrated into society:
Nazima: David is worried because Matthijs didn’t show up for work today. He called asking about him. Have you seen him?
Mindy: Well, he’s probably passed out drunk somewhere from a party last night.
Nazima: That doesn’t sound like Matthijs. He always shows up to work.
Mindy: Well, not really. You never know. At the end of the day, he’s a punk.
In this case, by referring to Matthijs as a punk, the term encompasses behavior such as unreliability and irresponsibility (not showing up for work) and excessive drunkenness (passing out). Mindy also suggests that despite Matthijs’s adult identity, beneath the exterior, lies a punk. The following descriptions of internal others within the squatters movement is information that I have deduced from countless conversations such as these.
Wild squatters are squatters who do not consult with a kraakspreekuur before squatting a house and who locate themselves outside the movement. The stereotype of wild squatters are that they are not Dutch and originate mainly from Eastern Europe. Activist squatters see them as marginal, often alcohol or drug addicted, and disorganized. Once, immigrant youth hired by the immigrant owner attacked a house taken over by wild squatters. The wild squatters went to an active and political squat for help who refused to assist because they were wild. The situation escalated, leading to the wild squatters fleeing the building, a riot between the police and the immigrant youth, and the police arresting the youth and jailing them for several days. When describing the incident, Maaike, an activist Dutch squatter, commented, “The whole incident was very shameful for us, the squatters in the neighborhood.” Maaike’s shame derives from a discursive solidarity that activist squatters have with people who live in a neighborhood where they squat, especially immigrant neighbors.
Wild squatters are seen as not active in the political spectrum of the movement. They do not campaign nor do they resist evictions, which in practical terms means that wild squatters occupy a space for as long as possible, but leave as soon as pressure arises. They are not considered a part of the solidarity network in the squatters movement. Yet, wild squatters often use the squatters alarm phone tree for emergencies and organized squatters equivocate on helping them. Although wild squatters are absent in the political life of the movement, they participate in its social life. In the north of Amsterdam, there are massive industrial buildings and warehouses that are wild squatted, known as party squats that host enormous techno party featuring prodigious amounts of drugs.
Crusty punks are in a separate category from wild squatters because although activist squatters imagine that all wild squatters are crusty punks, a significant number of squatters within the organized squatters movement are also crusty punks. Activist squatters use the word “punks” as a shorthand to refer to squatters as a group, although they distinguish between who and what behaviors are authentically punk. Being punk refers primarily to a clothing style and attitude, such as wearing all black, sporting a number of piercings, tattoos, and wearing ripped clothing. “Squatters with dogs,” a term used by the Amsterdam media to describe crusty, foreign squatters is another synonym for crusty punks.
To be crusty refers to being dirty on a bodily level by showering infrequently, laundering rarely, and residing in filthy spaces. Often punks are crusty but some people who look netjes (decent) are quite crusty without appearing dirty. The term summarizes a whole set of assumptions. Crust, crusty, and sometimes, punk, are synonymous for someone who is generally seen as lazy, disorganized, and irresponsible (see earlier story about Ernst who bathed himself –infrequently– with a hose in the backyard of his squat). A crust is most likely an alcoholic and possibly some type of drug addict, exemplified by waking up and spending the day drinking, partying all night, and intermittently earning a salary through wage labor. Crusty punks are defined by how much they do not care.
If punks live in a group, they hang out together and feed themselves by skipping food and dumpster diving. They frequent squatter bars and cafes to eat and drink because these spaces are cheap and depend on voluntary donations for food. Crusty punks can easily succeed in not paying for their food in squatter cafes because people who run the kitchens rarely ask them to pay. If the cook regularly requests payment, they stop patronizing such spaces. I know this from having worked as a cook at a voku in which I witnessed how crusty punks avoided paying and how they reacted when I asked them to pay.
Despite the lack of responsibility and accountability of crusty punks, many manage to organize themselves to squat houses with a kraakspreekuur. As noted earlier, squatting with the kraakspreekuur means that complying with the multiple requirements to gather sufficient information before squatting a house. Kraakspreekuren are neighborhood based and one in particular works best with crusty punks. This neighborhood squats the most in the city but also has the most evictions, which some squatters critique is the consequence of lack of adequate preparation. Although crusty punks have a reputation for lacking interest in campaigning or research, many crusty punks have substantial squatter capital through formidable building skills, their efforts in creating social spaces (especially bars), and by their solidarity with other squatters through mutual aid and sharing resources. I lived in a community of crusty punks and although my style of dressing and habitus characterized me at best as a student, and at worst as a yuppie, my punk neighbors treated me kindly and were available to help when I needed it.
Crusty punks who are recognized by others as political and see themselves as political activists are known for their willingness to participate in potentially violent actions, their enthusiasm for rioting, and the pleasure that they experience in fighting the police. The skill to riot is one that is highly valued, as noted earlier, and leads to increased squatter capital. However, for people who organize violent actions and riots, relying on the participation of crusty punks in an action proves challenging, so that their lack of dependability diminishes their squatter capital.
Baby punks are yet another group of punks, some of whom are also crusts. The difference between baby punks and crusty punks is that baby punks are defined by a combination of their lifestyle and their identities as political activists in the movement while crusty punks are mainly known for their lifestyle. Crusty punks may be identified as crusty out of laziness. For example, by failing to connect the water pipes and build a shower due to a lack of interest or energy. In contrast, a baby punk may claim to be crusty out of political conviction by stating that it’s unhealthy to shower frequently and environmentally irresponsible to waste water. According to Jurgen, a veteran Dutch squatter, “The term baby punk arose because all of a sudden in the scene, there was a flood of young punks who were very politically active. The next generation that followed are called embryo punks.” Jurgen also claimed that the term intends primarily to name this specific generation rather than a style of being punk. I have encountered the term to reflect a combination of age, attitude, and lifestyle.
Baby punks refer to people who are young, either adolescent or barely adolescent, and have chosen to become squatter punks. Baby punks express enthusiasm about fighting, learning, and inhabiting the tropes of the squatter world, and then reifying this identity in a confrontational way to the rest of the squatters’ scene. This attitude, often called dogmatic by squatters who were not baby punks, is compared to punks who feel more comfortable in their identity without feeling a need to prove themselves. Being a baby punk is a life of evictions, squatting actions, anti-fascist and other political actions, noise demonstrations, getting arrested during actions, the labor and time intensive process of squatting a house and making it livable, parties, vokus, information evenings, giveaways shops, and day cafes. It’s a life entirely in the movement with its waves of stability and instability.
I encountered the term “baby punks” in a number of contexts. The first time was at a party where I sat with a group of squatters inhaling speed. Since I felt nervous, one woman present joked to the rest, “She’s like a baby punk.” This comment refers to a bundle of meanings. First, to the naivety and lack of experience of baby punks shown most in how they first react to the quotidian act of drug use. Second, to the incongruity of the image of the baby punk in contrast to myself, an utterly non-punk PhD student in my thirties.
Another time, I sat with a former housemate, discussing Geert, a Dutch squatter in his thirties who often lectured us on how he enjoyed attending anti-fascist actions to beat up fascists. Maaike commented, “He’s so annoying these days. He’s like a baby punk.” In this case, baby punk indicated the banality of someone who finds violence pleasurable and uses it to show his toughness to increase his squatter capital. Maaike mocked Geert as well since the term baby punk connotes a temporary phase that eventually should end for someone to develop and mature in the movement and that Geert, a man in his thirties, should have overcome such a stage. Once, I drank coffee with Stephen, a punk neighbor (not crusty or baby). I handed him a coffee with milk and he said, “Oh no, you have infected my coffee with that disgusting cow’s milk.” I replied, “I didn’t realize you were vegan. Do you want coffee without milk?” He then said, “I’m just kidding. I don’t care.” His joke was intended for those inside the scene, mocking dogmatic baby punks. To act “dogmatic” means to express a particular form of zeal in which one verbally criticizes those who do not share consumption decisions that symbolize political convictions (vegetarianism, veganism, animal rights, environmental protection).
Last, baby punks are well known for their enthusiasm for potentially violent actions. This love for violence is also a trait of crusty punks, but baby punks are more reliable. For example, in 2007, radical left youth from all over Europe participated in riots in Copenhagen, Denmark about the upcoming demolition of a social center. At the time, I noticed that almost none of the campaigners had gone yet the riots were full of Amsterdam squatters. I asked why and received the two word answer: “Baby punks.” The campaigners discounted the baby punks’ participation because they saw it as a phase of expressing the fury of youth that they had already overcome.
Hippie activists and student squatters are members of the activist and squatters’ scene but have higher statuses because of their openly transient participation in the movement. The stereotypes that campaigners hold of hippies are that they tend to originate from outside the Netherlands, that they attend political and squatting actions regularly, are primarily active in the radical environmentalist movement, and actively promote vegetarianism or veganism. Hippies often display a “hippie” fashion style that is not punk, Mainstream, or yuppie. This fashion style refers to wearing loosely fitted clothing with bright colors in an Indo-West cut, possibly with dreadlocks. The classification of “hippies” include people who work at direct action-oriented, small NGOs based in Amsterdam, such as ASEED, a European environmental action group, and EYFA, the European Youth For Action. Such organizations offer low-paid or stipend-based volunteer positions. As a result, internationals who work for them often live in squats and then integrate into the social scene of activists.
Traveling is a constitutive aspect of being classified as a hippie. They often travel to attend action camps, such as a climate camp or a no-border camp, or to riot in large-scale alterglobalization actions such as the G8. They travel widely, connecting with other activists and often visit regions in the Global South – which the radical left laud as autonomous, such as Oaxaca, Mexico – and the squatted, organized areas of post-economic crisis Argentina. Although hippies form part of the squatters movement because they often squat for housing, squatting does not define their activist identities. Squatting had not brought them into the international, leftist, alterglobalization movement; that network led them into squatting. Regardless, activist hippies play important roles in the scene, organizing benefit parties for various autonomous groups in the Global South in squatted social centers, attending parties, working in social centers, and regularly attending vokus.
In addition to clothing style and their way of participating in the squatters movement, activist hippies tend to have a gentler and kinder demeanor than squatter punks. Hippie activists tend to act more physically affectionate, smile more, and attempt to treat others more inclusively.
Miles, an Irish squatter who originally moved to Amsterdam to work for a grass-roots NGO and then became gradually more involved in the squatters’ scene until he left the activist hippie network completely, commented, “When I first became a squatter, I was shocked by how mean everyone was. The antiglobalization scene is much nicer. The Dutch squatters are more macho. It took me some time to get used to it.” The activist hippies are almost entirely women. Although activist hippies behave as violently in riots and actions as squatters, they refrain from discussing this behavior. They generally are arrested but downplay the experience as quotidian rather than a way to accrue squatter capital.
The term hippie activist includes those who participate in direct actions for refugees, international human rights, and environmental issues. People who regularly participate in actions and are part of such networks but do not squat often refer to “the scene” as the activist scene or activist community rather than the squatters’ scene. Although the activist scene and the squatters’ scene socially seem to comprise “the scene,” a division exists. The activist scene is more international in addition to the core of Dutch people. It is also more transient. The Dutch squatters’ scene (versus the Polish and Spanish) is more stable. Those in the former (which includes non-Dutch people) have long histories together built through the intense cycles of squatting a house, living together, creating communities, campaigning, and getting evicted.
Student squatters belong to the second category of openly transient members of the movement. A separate student kraakspreekuur serves the university population. A squatter is classified as a student due to their style and habitus more than the actual fact of being a student since many punks also study in the Dutch higher education system. Student squatters who function as activists in the movement are perceived as squatting to solve their housing problem and out of a sense of conviction equally. The perception of student squatters is that they are ambitious and by default, in the movement temporarily since by studying, it is assumed that they will move on to another phase of professional life. Despite the fact that for most squatters, their involvement in the movement is a phase, student squatters are characterized by the transparency in which squatting is short term in their biographies. Yet, this transience does not diminish their squatter capital. Student squatters who are activists are taken seriously and seen as valuable members of the movement versus those who squat for housing but do not contribute to the movement. Student squatter activists do not need to constantly perform their conviction because the mere fact of participating in the movement attests to their conviction since the majority of students choose to anti-squat over squatting.
Yuppies, neighbors, immigrants, and undocumented people
The final section of this chapter regards activist squatters’ relationship with the people with whom they live side by side in a neighborhood. I hesitate to call them “neighbors” because squatters imagine “neighbors” differently from those they classify as “yuppies” who are also factually their neighbors. Squatters consider yuppies nearly identically to how they imagine anti-squatters, that is, white, Dutch, middle-class, university educated, working professionals, and Mainstream, except that yuppies are older homeowners who often have families. Squatters despise yuppies, viewing them as agents of gentrification who push low-income people, including squatters, out of the city. This feeling of threat derives from the Amsterdam municipal policy to transform the city from a majority of renters to a majority of owners by selling a substantial percentage of social housing as private condominiums. Although squatters articulate this hatred of yuppies within a context of urban policy, squatters mainly express their quotidian repulsion in relation to micro levels of consumption characterized as “yuppie.”
For example, Jens, a Dutch squatter, once mentioned to me that he works full time to support his “yuppie lifestyle.” This code referred to a lifestyle in which he regularly consumes in Mainstream restaurants and bars. This behavior contrasts with how squatters are expected to consume in the movement by eating, drinking, and partying entirely in squatter bars and cafes while simultaneously articulating an anti-consumption and anti-capitalist rhetoric. By openly admitting that he lived a yuppie lifestyle, Jens demonstrated his ironic awareness that other squatters judge his preferences. He also attempts to prevent a critique of his lifestyle from the person with whom he speaks, in this case, me.
This conversation reveals how every expression, whether it’s overtly political or on the minuscule level of consumption, becomes fraught because it’s always measured against an invisible but ever-present subcultural public opinion. While I was a squatter, I regularly went to a cafe well known in Amsterdam for being beautiful and relatively expensive. Squatters considered this a “yuppie cafe.” Once, I ran into a few squatters in front of this cafe. As I was about to enter, they said, “What are you doing here? Are you actually going in there (pointing to the cafe)?” I genuinely felt embarrassed since I was aware that I should not frequent yuppie cafes.
Versus the threat of the white, middle-class, yuppie, the discursive “neighbor” is thoroughly working class and can be either white Dutch or working-class immigrants mainly from Turkey or Morocco. While calling someone a yuppie is an insult and a term of contempt, referring to them as neighbors reflects a relationship of attempted solidarity – whether or not such solidarity exists. Squatters who communicate with the neighbors and work with them together on campaigns receive respect and accrue squatter capital. As in many aspects of squatter capital, this valorization signifies that it is generally unusual for squatters to put energy into creating good relationships with their neighbors.
Squatters often mythologize “the neighborhood” as the honorable working poor or the unfairly marginalized immigrants. They idealize “the neighbors” as people with whom they purport to share the same financial, housing, and labor struggles. Yet this presumed solidarity is fragile because working-class people and migrants jolt squatters into an uncomfortable self-awareness. Their structural marginalization leads squatters to feel guilty in the awareness that their oppositional identities and marginal living are acts of privilege. As a result, the presumed solidarity usually only exists in an imaginary realm since it often falls apart during actual interactions with neighbors, especially when the ideologies of the neighbors clash with those of squatters.
The contradiction between who squatters classify as a neighbor versus a yuppie lends insight into the fraught nature of naming and the ease of contempt. Squatters can hate yuppies because they believe that they understand the totality of who a yuppie is and what a yuppie represents. Such a person becomes frozen symbolically as a Mainstream, consuming fiend. Neighbors, on the other hand, create problems for classification when their ideologies clash with squatters. Because the squatters idealize the neighbors, they have difficulty handling the neighbors’ behavior that squatters ideologically oppose including sexism, racism, and religious fundamentalism. Regarding immigrants, a silenced tension and totalizing paralysis exists between squatters and their immigrant neighbors. The squatters realize, but refuse to acknowledge, their relative privileges of whiteness, European-ness, class, and the multiple entitlements that allow them to live on the margins to reject the Mainstream. The combination of the guilt of privilege and the ideal of presumed solidarity masks the ever-present tension and anxiety in relations between squatters and the neighbors.
Once, when I was cooking at a squatter cafe, Dino, a punk Portuguese squatter with considerable squatter capital, entered the kitchen to hang out with the cooking team. He related a story about how one day, a neighbor came to the door of his squat to complain about the noise. She said to Dino, “You squatters come here to our country, make a huge mess, and don’t respect anyone. Go back to your country.” Dino responded (and he related this detail to us proudly), “Look at you, with your black skin. You’re not even originally from Europe.” He then shut the door in the neighbor’s face. The other squatters listened to this story, sat in silence, and didn’t respond to Dino’s racism nor the neighbor’s xenophobia. The silence reflects a rupture: the squatters were disturbed by the neighbor’s aggression towards the squatters; however, Dino’s xenophobia was also prohibited in the movement.
Another afternoon, I sat with a few squatters on the balcony of their house. One of the squatters was black Surinamese. We watched as Moroccan Dutch boys on the street made gorilla noises at the black parking officers issuing tickets to the cars on the street. The Surinamese squatter felt offended so one of the white Dutch squatters (to support her) yelled to the boys, “Fuck off goat fuckers.”
These are exceptional moments in which, in response to xenophobic and racist behavior from neighbors, squatters use the same language back to attack. However, normally, during such incidents of conflict, squatters fail to respond due to discomfort interacting with people who are in a more vulnerable structural position. As a result, they are unable to communicate directly and with hostility towards those classified as neighbors and migrants.
I have witnessed, during a number of squatting actions, working-class immigrant boys screamingly mock squatters and make sexual remarks to squatter women. With few exceptions, squatters generally respond by ignoring the boys. Once, Jop, a Dutch squatter, scolded the youth, “Why don’t you bring your sister with the veil to our squat?” Afterward, squatters circulated and laughed at this comment, but in general, the anxiety producing interactions between squatters and immigrants are unacknowledged and silenced. If the people who screamed abusively at the squatters or yelled sexual comments to the women were Dutch and middle class, the same squatters who stood silent would have responded more aggressively, and then retold the incident later at squatter bars.
This paralyzing silence includes uncomfortable interactions when white, working-class Dutch neighbors express ideologies that counter those of squatters. Damien, a French squatter who, exceptionally among squatters, actively maintains relationships with his neighbors, found himself arguing with two working-class, white neighbors about an Amsterdam city policy to randomly block areas in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods and search residents for weapons and identification. The neighbors supported the policy, felt safer as a result of it, and agreed with the police’s authority to randomly search people in public spaces. Damien espoused the opinion of members of the left activist community who opposed the policy as racist because it targeted immigrants, violated individual privacy, and increased the police’s authority. Although Damien argued his points with these neighbors, if he had considered them to be “yuppies,” he would have confronted them openly, angrily demolished their arguments and gleefully torn apart their lifestyles. Since these were white, working-class neighbors, he did not argue with them and was instead silent, dismissing their points of view as not worthy of rebuttal. Again, Damien’s silence and refrain from dismantling the working-class neighbors reflected his awareness of his higher social position such as his education, his verbal skills, and his class.
In another incident, in which squatters received assistance from their neighbors while squatting a house, the white, working-class neighbor expressed racism by complaining about the dominance of non-white people in the city. Of the two squatters who heard this, one became upset and reported it to the others in the group, while the other squatter denied that the neighbor had made such statements. This was another example of a rupture. One squatter reacted within the norms of the community by reporting the neighbor’s remarks to communicate her unsuitability as a partner for political actions. The other squatter’s denial reflected a desire to continue working with the neighbor, with the understanding that if he were to classify her as a racist, he would no longer be able to collaborate with her due to political untrustworthiness.
The anxiety around the inability to perform hostility pertains also to legal and undocumented immigrants from the Global South within the movement. For example, at one squatter party, I watched as Diane, a French squatter woman of Tunisian parentage, sat drunk on a table and flirted with Marcos, a Dutch squatter whose squatter capital is comprised of his enthusiasm for rioting violently against the police and beating up fascists. Squatter parties tend to have a diverse but standard mix of squatters, students, residents of legalized squats, people who identify themselves as activists, and random people who hang out in the squatters’ scene.
At this party, a man in his forties, who regularly attends squatter parties, brought his friend, a Moroccan immigrant in his late thirties. This man then approached Diane to flirt with her, I presume, partially because of her looks and partially because she was one of the few non-white people present. Diane, inebriated and interested in someone else, ignored him. The man then became angry and called Diane an ugly bitch. She then turned to Marcos and told him what the Moroccan man had said to her.
I watched Marcos, who usually revels in violence, caught in a conundrum since he suddenly did not know how to behave. If he acted by telling the immigrant to leave, then he would be behaving in a way that others could interpret as macho and racist, which is prohibited by the scene. He would also be acting aggressively against one of the three non-white people at the party, which was actually a relatively high number for a squatter party. Finally, after Diane pushed him several times to act on her behalf, he then encouraged Diane to inform the barperson if she wanted to throw the man out. The barperson approached the man, who left before being asked to leave.
In this context, this was the optimal solution because it fit in with the DIY philosophy, in which a woman should Do-It-Herself and resolve a problem on her own initiative rather than rely on a man to solve a problem, especially one related to sexist behavior. Marcos avoided the macho role and the ensuing gossip that would have inevitably charged him with racism and sexism if he interacted with the man. By placing the responsibility to resolve the problem with the bartender, the situation developed into an ideological matter in which a squatted space advertises itself as promoting a woman’s right to safely express her sexuality and prohibit unwelcome attention upon women by men.
Authenticity as a status in the squatters movement is complicated, fraught, and full of contradictions. I have posited that to understand who and what the ideal squatter is, it’s important to first understand squatter capital and to explore the external and internal Others in the social world of the movement. With the external others of the police, the press, and the Mainstream, the roles are clearly performative and institutionalized, to the extent that squatters and their external Others use each other for their own means. Whether it’s the police using the squatters’ supposed resistance as an excuse not to spend energy in evicting or jeopardizing their vacation plans, or the press calling the squatters’ press group and asking for inside information on upcoming actions on a slow news day. The hatred of anti-squatters reveals squatters’ intimate knowledge of the demographic profile of anti-squatters. The ensuing revulsion of anti-squatters persists despite the myriad of contradictions within the squatter/anti-squatter dichotomy as well as the heterogeneity of anti-squatters to include people with whom squatter feel an affinity and solidarity.
The internal Others reveal similar contradictions and negotiations. Wild squatters are dismissed for their total rejection of the movement, their lack of ideological conviction in squatting, and their exploitation of movement solidarity networks for their own purposes. Crusty punks represent an uncontrolled excess of parties, drugs, alcohol, and violence and whose strengths cannot be reliably channeled to promote the movement’s goals. Baby punks are too eager to prove themselves as political activists to be taken seriously and, therefore, lack the subtle habitus of mastery and rejection of radical left lifestyle choices that mark a mature and sophisticated squatter. Student squatters and hippies are not disparaged because they are transient and are not invested in being authentic squatters. Their social and professional opportunities and commitments outside the movement gloss their participation as acts of conviction, giving them squatter capital compared to those who retreat into the movement because of their inability to function in the Mainstream. The hostility towards yuppies is similar to the hatred of anti-squatters, revealing an uncomfortable mirror of squatter’s tastes and lifestyle outside the movement. Finally, neighbors and undocumented people due to their excess of authenticity, disrupt squatters’ constant oppositionality and thus, can never actually be taken seriously in the movement. In a movement where the performative pose is one of articulated hostility and argued dogma, the uncomfortable silence temporarily dismantles the social world.