In Zurich, and Across Europe, Squatter Communities are Strengthening


We can all stop wringing our hands about "the next Occupy." Whatever our reasons for doing so—worrying that it might sweep the globe with irresistible force, or worrying that it won’t—we can rest assured that it is coming, just in a form we haven’t imagined yet.

We must remind ourselves that the global phenomenon we called "Occupy" was the (far from spontaneous) coalescence of various currents and codes based in self-organization that had already been around for decades—and are still around. This anarchistic ethos burst into the broader public consciousness in a new way, and though it was beaten back underground by astonishing state repression on a global scale, it will emerge again.

And if this coalescence called "Occupy" was in part a product of advances in communications, a brief moment when people were a step ahead of authorities—organizing using technologies not yet fully understood, monitored, or otherwise compromised by state power—the next global coalescence will be too. The democratization of communication technology continues to barge forward, and movements continue to develop in parallel.

Where are these movements, then, these communities and networks of self-organized resistance in opposition to the stronger-than-ever forces of militarized global neo-liberalism and corporate fascism?

Right before our eyes, frankly. I can only speak to what I know: for example, in my hometown of Minneapolis, which I have been following with interest from afar, Occupy Homes has been active and successful in the ongoing struggle against evictions, sometimes using the tactic which their name describes and which has been practiced in Europe for decades: squatting.

Living in Switzerland, my activities with Occupy Zurich brought me in contact with the local squatter scene here. Note: the affinity between these movements is well expressed by the fact that the same German word is used for "occupy" and "squat:" besetzen. And it is worth briefly exploring these so-called "self-organized spaces," since my impression is that squatting is a phenomenon taken largely for granted in Europe, but relatively unknown in the United States.

Seen as a threat, and threatened with extinction

Autonomous communities and the buildings they occupy are a particularly pressing topic in Europe at the moment. As austerity sweeps the continent, squats—among the last remaining scraps of common space (Freiraum) and therefore burrs in the saddle of neo-liberalism’s charging horse, privatization—are being systematically cleared out.

In Greece, the wave of squat evictions has been largely driven by the need to eliminate real centers of active opposition that threaten the status quo (see my January portrait of Athens’ antagonist movements, http://www.occupy.com/article/dispatch-greece-meeting-antagonist-movements andhttp://www.occupy.com/article/thank-god-fascists-dispatch-weimar-greece).

In Switzerland, however, the threat to the status quo by the existence and activities of autonomous communities is not as deeply felt; anarchists are seen as an amusing if sometimes annoying minority worth scant attention in the political sphere. But the moves to eliminate these communities here are equally hysterical and harsh.

Even self-organized spaces that have a widely recognized and appreciated function in city life—like the Autonomous School of Zurich (ASZ), which provides language courses and legal advocacy help for severely under-served migrant communities—are being threatened by encroaching "development" and often face disproportionate police violence when they resist eviction or attempt to squat new spaces.

Where there was a mysterious fire last month at Villa Rosenau, a squat beloved enough in Basel that supportive editorials even appeared in the right-leaning Basler Zeitung, the building was simply demolished by police with no warning or explanation.

And last weekend, residents and supporters of Binz, Zurich’s longest-established squat (and the one more or less carrying the torch of the Freiraum movements from the late ‘60s and early ‘80s through today), were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons when a party turned into a march towards the city center to protest their imminent eviction.

This all reminds me very much of what I saw in Greece this past winter. Perhaps as a result of examples in Athens, there is a growing awareness and fear among Swiss authorities about what autonomous communities can become, should conditions be allowed to change. There seems to be a compulsion to "nip it in the bud," to crack down early while these groups are still small, disorganized and vulnerable.

Strength in numbers: Building networks, changing the narrative