[EN] Have Squat, Will Travel: How squatter mobility mobilizes squatting

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Have Squat, Will Travel: How squatter mobility mobilizes squatting

Lynn Owens

“We will not leave!” This defiant statement is the typical re-
sponse from squatters threatened with eviction. To leave would be to
give up, to lose one’s home or a community’s social center, to lose a
building back into the real estate market, to lose autonomy, to lose
face. Thus, when eviction looms, squatters will do nearly everything
to hold on to the building, whether that involves going through legal
channels to increase their claims over the property, waging a public rela-
tions campaign to turn local sentiment in their favor, or, if all else fails, employing more militant tactics, such as barricading the space and defending it against the police. Leaving is losing. Stability is security. It is not only their space that is under attack, but also their identity, because what is a squatter without a building to squat? To successfully occupy a building, they must refuse to leave.

Except, of course, when they want to. While resistance for squat-
ters is often, and most publicly, performed simply as staying put, the
reality is more complex. In fact, as David Harvey (2005: 42) notes,
sometimes “the only form of resistance is to move.” It does not always
make sense to stand and fight to the end. Escape can be a powerful
supplement to open conflict as a response to power, and squatters often
build elaborate escape paths from their buildings as part of preparing
its defense (ADILKNO 1994). Escape, however, is simply one way to
move. Squatting provides a stable place to live and work, and by do-
ing so, it also launches various complementary and conflicting forms
of mobilities. At its simplest level, squatters must always keep an eye
towards their next location. While particular squats are not always pos-
sible to maintain, flexibility and mobility guarantees that squatting can
be. Thus movement may be from one street to another, from one neigh-
borhood to another, or possibly to new cities or countries. Squatting
provides stability by creating a resting place for transient populations;
it also creates new opportunities and desires for mobility. Squatting sets
people into motion, drawing them to cities to become squatters, to ex-
perience their culture, to learn their tactics.

If the individual squatter’s maxim might be stated as create stability while preparing for mobility, this is even more the case when examining squatters’ movements.
Squatters’ struggles emerged in many European cities in the late 1960s
and early 1970s, and quickly spread across urban, national and inter-
national spaces. The spread of squatting across Europe was more than
merely the abstract diffusion of ideas and tactics; it was driven by the
spread and physical movement of actual squatters. Amsterdam squat-
ters went to Berlin. Berlin squatters went to London. London squatters
went to Barcelona. Barcelona squatters went to Amsterdam. Sometimes
movement provides an escape, sometimes an exchange, and often both.
Squatting is about space. At its most basic, it is about people with
not enough space appropriating it from people they think have too
much. Squatting is also about place; it is a tool to defend place, as well
as to redefine it. Generally, squatting is about turning empty spaces into
meaningful places. To fill these spaces with meaning requires a lot of
hard work, both to repair and renovate the building and to convince
others that their efforts at place making are legitimate and worthwhile.
To do this, squatters draw on many resources, grounding their meaning
in the concepts of “the local” and “stability.” Despite the important role
these two bundles of practices play in successful squatters’ movements,
this should not be taken to mean that squatting is exclusively, or even
primarily, about the local and the stable. In fact, a careful reading of
the successes of squatters’ movements in Europe reveals that squatting
is at least as dependent on cultivating and strengthening strategies of
the translocal and of mobility. This tends to be underplayed in public
discourse, though, since it does not fit easily with common sense ideas
of community, which squatters appeal to in their claims, even as they
complicated it through their actions.

Using the case study of the emergence and mobilization of the
Amsterdam squatters’ movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, I will
show the critical role that activist mobility played in the simultaneous
formation of a local and international squatters’ movement. Mobility
is critical in understanding contemporary social movements, even one
as seemingly place based and resistant to moving as squatters’ move-
ments appear to be. I argue that you cannot fully explain and analyze
the emergence and activity of a social movement without paying close
attention to the actual movement of people who constitute it. Even the
most intensely local politics are the product of many forms of mobility.
It is not that the political creation of the local actually ignores the im-
portance of mobile bodies to their issue, it is just that they are too eas-
ily dismissed as nothing more than “outsiders” or as secondary actors:
belonging is placed in opposition to mobility. Mobility is not just about
difference. Movement both homogenizes and differentiates. Flows of
people, things, and ideas produce unique places, as well as spaces of
sameness, linking them together into a broader web of paths and con-
nections. I hope to show how squatting provides both “moorings” and
“mobilities,” feeding and being fed by its simultaneous local and trans-
national context. This dynamic is fundamental to understanding the
emergence of the Amsterdam squatters’ movement and how other local
and national movements emerged alongside it due to the forms of mo-
bility practiced by squatters.

Movements move

How many social movement dynamics get missed through the thor-
ough, but partial, focus on the “social” as opposed to the “movement”?
When mobility is studied, the focus is primarily either on a momentary
movement, like the protest march (Barber 2002), as well as the maps
they generate (Wood and Krygier, 2009), or on large-scale elite mobil-
ity and the formation of transnational social movement organizations
(Keck and Sikkink 1998). But as protest and protestors have globalized
in their fields of struggle, the importance of mobility for all kinds of
activists has also increased.

Activist mobility is central to creating durable forms of collective
identity. Urry (2000, 2007) and Kaufman (2002) both argue that con-
ceptions of society and the social, including social movements, need to
be rethought through approaches based on mobility. That is, to focus
on the “social” side of social movements requires a fuller engagement
with issues of movement. Mobility, like place, is relational. That is, mo-
bility is meaningful in relationship to other forms; it is always plural,
never singular. Moreover, mobilities produce a way of relating. They are
how we form and make sense of relations to others (Adey 2009: 18).

Building solidarity across space can play a critical role in forming an
effective collective identity. McDonald (2006) points us towards new
ways of conceptualizing movement solidarity, ideas that are in line with
theorizing the practices of traveling activists. Importantly, he supple-
ments the concept of solidarity with his own, “fluidarity,” which is
based on more fluid and fleeting identifications, which are not a sign
of weakness, but rather of flexibility. Travel lends itself to such models
of collective identity – fluid because travel is at its core transient and
changing, but also solid, since travel is embodied. Bodies and politics
travel through space and are grounded, at least for some period of time,
in a specific place. “Bodies and embodiment occupy the center of activ-
ist experience…the body keeps recurring, to the point where it threat-
ens to take control of experience” (54).

McDonald builds on Urry’s (2000) concept of the Bund, based on
the German word for association, as an important basis of identification
and action, one that combines ideas of belonging and mobility. Unlike
conventional forms of community, the Bund is intense, impermanent,
and mobile (McDonald 2006, 95). This ties in well with both travel
and squatting. Not opposites, they are rather different manifestations
of the same desires. One is captured at rest (but even then still mobile,
even when promising “we will not leave”) while the other is in motion
(even while the beliefs and practices remain stable within the cycle).
Protests have always been a place where ideas are shared and commu-
nicated – not just to the larger public, but also to other activists and
participants. When activists travel, it can spark increased innovation,
information sharing and identity building. As Eyerman (2006) argues,
mobile activists create new forms of political interactions, which pro-
vide “additional space for education and political and social interaction
between activists and with the local community. Demonstrations in
other words have become extended periods of intensive political social-
ization” (206).

Mobility is a way of being in and defining space, and space matters to
movements. Tilly (2000) lays out the most important ways space affects
movements. Movement participants act in space, and are therefore en-
abled and constrained by it. Movements act on spaces. And movements
change spaces. Cobarrubias and Pickles (2009) show how movements
actively work to imagine the spaces of contention. For example, activ-
ists produce maps as a means to re-imagine and redirect political action
and outcomes. During the past decade, global justice summit protests
have played a key role in creating an alternative space of political con-
tention and discourse. Mobility is key to the strategy and identity of
these protests, as denoted by the emergence of a new political actor, the
“summit hopper.” Featherstone (2003) follows the “Inter-Continental
Caravan” in the way its movement across spaces creates new maps of
grievances. As McDonald (2006) points out, this mode of politics as
travel “underlines the importance of a grammar of experience associ-
ated with displacement and voyage” (44). And when activists arrive at
their new destination – the place of protest, which is itself a protest of
place – they seek to redefine cities to make them suitable for political
confrontation, as Shields (2003) shows in his analysis of protesters’ ap-
propriation of the tourist maps of Quebec City in 2000.

Place can be understood as either territorial or relational (Nicholls
2009). Traditionally, place is treated as territorial, as a fixed and solid
entity. Nicholls (2009) argues that such conceptions are problematic
in a world defined by mobility and flux. Rather place is better seen
as an area “where actors with different statuses, geographical ties, and
mobilities interact in fleeting and unstructured ways” (80). Massey
(2005) defines place as “always under construction…It is never fin-
ished; never closed. Too often space has been relegated to a frozen, im-
mobile state” (9). Thus, “conceptualizing space as open, multiple and
relational, unfinished and always becoming, is a prerequisite for history
to be open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics”
(59). She claims that simplistic treatments of place leave it vulnerable
to being cast as a victim in current debates about globalization, even by
its claimed defenders. While the local is often posited as the opposite
of the global, and thus both threatened by and the primary basis of
resistance against globalization, Massey shows that the reality is more
complex: “local places are not simply always the victims of the global;
nor are they always politically defensible redoubts against the global”
(101). Thus, local production of the global offers some chance to affect
global mechanisms through local politics – not merely as defense but
to reshape the global itself (102). Mobility of political actors, and the
concurrent politicization of mobility, is one way in which activists par-
ticipate in complicating how space and place are understood, opening
it up not just to flows of people, but also to new ideas and practices.

As Massey notes, “the closure of identity in a territorialized space of
bounded places provides little in the way of avenues for a developing
radical politics” (183), so when activists struggle for more immediate
demands, they are often simultaneously resisting the closures of space.
While Nicholls (2009) supports Massey’s relational understanding of
place, he argues that it also lacks a working theory of collective action
that can explain how place is made and remade by collective actors.

To address this omission, he recommends bringing mobility and
place theory into social movement research. Such a move offers impor-
tant perspectives on how place creates opportunities for diverse actors to
come together, how this coming together affects power relations, and,
most importantly for this work, how activist nodes get linked together
to form a broader social movement space (Nicholls 2009, 83). Building
on this latter point, he asserts that social movement place-making and
mobility create productive conditions for forming and cultivating col-
lective ties, increasing the number of possible contact points for diverse
actors with similar goals to come into contact with each other. “While
these complex interactions can spawn new alliances, they also play a
role in lowering cognitive barriers, freeing the flow of information be-
tween different organizations, and spurring innovation” (85). Mobile
activists spread ideas and identity, and in doing so facilitate the future
spreading of new ideas and identities.

This social movement space is the product of both mobility and sta-
bility. Moorings make mobility possible. They act as enablers, allowing
actors to experience the mobility of themselves and others, as well as cre-
ating destinations for movement (Adey 2009: 21). Relationships between
the fixed and the mobile are recursive: mobilities defined fixedness and
create further fixedness, albeit not without tensions (23). Mobility, es-
pecially in repetition, creates stability and formulates attachment – to
movement, but also to place, as well as the people and things one trav-
els with. Technology, which makes mobility possible, is also assumed to
render it redundant, by delinking communication from proximity. But
closeness does not replace the need or desire for “real contact” – it actual
intensifies it (18). Mobile life is constituted through a “material world
that involves new and distant meanings” (21). Mobility is not the inverse
of stability, nor does it always challenge forms of stability. Instead, to be
fixed and to be mobile are two related and interactive aspects of social
movement activity, and it is important to understand the conditions un-
der which these relations support or undermine the other.

In recent years, social movements have drawn on ideas of Deleuze and
Guattari (1980) in formulating both strategies and self-understandings,
particularly their idea of the nomad. They locate their social position
in opposition to citizens, sedentary actors, who are not necessarily im-
mobile, but when they move, they travel over familiar routes, returning
to the same places. Nomadism, however, takes a different tack, not one
of rigidity and permanence, but fleeting, free lines of flight without an
endpoint. The nomad relies on spatial features, but is not governed by
them. The nomad travels through open, smooth space, navigating not
from global knowledge (i.e., “the map”), but by localized engagement.
The nomad engages with a space that is “localized but not delimited”.
Nomadism, despite (or perhaps because of) its romantic opaqueness,
has been appropriated by numerous radical political actors. Nomadism
is equated with resistance (Adey 2009: 60). Day (2005) argues that
Deleuze and Guattari’s third category, the smith, is more appropriate.
The smith is neither nomadic nor sedentary, but is a hybrid moving
back and forth, guided by an “involuntary invention” of new tactics
and strategies (403). This actor creates both moorings and movements,
a network of connections that itself is always in flux.

Another concept appropriated from Deleuze and Guattari is deterri-
torialization. To deterritorialize is to decontextualize relations, often as
process of reterritorializing them into a new context. Fernandez, Starr,
and Scholl (2011) in their book on the social control of dissent, show
how summit protests can be seen as a conflict between police and pro-
tests to control space through processes of ongoing territorialization.
As they show, this is not limited to the space of the actual protest, but
begins long before, as activists try to move through space in order to
contribute to the action, and the state seeks to limit their movement as
much as possible, sometimes changing the laws to do so. Mobility sits
at the heart of new European spatial visions (Adey 2009: 10). That is,
the new Europe is a product of new forms of mobility, for capital, con-
sumer goods, and people. This ideal Europe is only possible, though,
through the exclusion of others’ movement, primarily non-European
immigrants, but also oppositional political actors. In the run ups to
recent summit protests, governments have suspended the Schengen
agreement which allows free movement across borders, in order to ren-
der activists immobile (Fernandez, Starr, and Scholl, 2011).

That government officials have become so interested in constraining
the mobility of activists could be taken as one more sign of the success
of such movement to the larger movements. But while travel tends to
serve certain positive needs and goals of activists, it is not without its
own costs, such as a tendency to inflate the appearance of the depth and
breadth of opposition, which can result in tactical blunders and mis-
steps, as well as organizational infighting (Katsiaficas 1997). Networks
and links built on mobility are often maintained by and oriented to-
wards the needs of the most affluent and elite participants, since they
are the ones who can most easily travel.

Mobility is riven with differences and access issues. While it is easy
to celebrate, it is not always simply positive. It is gendered, it affects
abilities to participate, it can disrupt consensus, it can erase public-
private boundaries (Adey 2009: 88). Additionally, Nicholls (2009)
argues that there are two moments in social movement mobilization.
First, forming loose connections between activists who share grievances
and identity create identification with a general cause. Second, directed
and coordinated mobilities produce a network of affiliated activists who
can participate in shared actions. This second moment often creates
tensions with the first. “The ability to overcome geographical and cul-
tural obstacles makes it possible for ‘mobile’ activists to forge a coherent
social movement space, but in doing this, they introduce new points
of antagonism that pit them into conflictual relations with their less
mobile and more locally grounded comrades” (91). Mobility – and the
control over mobility – is power (Adey 2009, 104).

Squatting: a place to move

At first blush, squatting presents a very straightforward relationship
to place, as captured in a popular slogan for squatters facing eviction:
“We will not leave.” This demands a stable conception of place, one
that resists change and disruption by staying put. Already, however, the
first signs of complexity emerge from this stance – to resist change is
also a form of making change. This is common in social movements,
where demands for larger social change are often accompanied by ac-
tivists’ efforts to protect their own most cherished values and practices.
But there is still more to the story, as place carries within it its own com-
plications. For squatters, place is about much more than stability, it is
equally about mobility. To have a place of one’s own provides more than
a place to rest one’s head; it also creates a destination for others, as well
as a home base for one’s own movement, producing a node in a larger
network of travel. Squatters, of course, recognize the importance of
certain forms of movement to the success of squatting – squatters don’t
simply occupy buildings, they also move in, move through, and when
compelled to leave, they move on. As much as squatters emphasize their
commitment to not moving during their confrontations with police and
government authorities, in fact, squatting has always been at least as
much about creating free and rewarding forms of mobility as it is about
creating a place to stay.

Activists have long been travelers, whether they are the revolutionar-
ies of old, who traveled both to foment revolution and to join already
existing rebellions, or today’s global justice activists, who travel to eco-
nomic and political summits to protest the decisions and decision mak-
ers there. Likewise, travel offers escape for political actors, whether it is
to be on the run from the law or just to get a break from the grind and
potential burnout of feeling “stuck” in the same place. In this chapter,
I use the history of the squatters’ movement of Amsterdam to explore
the ways that squatting is used as a tool to redefine both urban place
and social movement space through creating new forms of both stabil-
ity and mobility.

Stabilizing squatting

Mobility is a political tool, but it can also be a severe liability.
Amsterdam squatters initially had to do an enormous amount of work
to link an effective politics to their actions, and much of this effort was
directed at grappling with the relationships between squatting, stability,
and mobility. In the 1960s, Amsterdam squatters could count many
enemies – the police, the landlords, the property speculators, the gov-
ernment. Yet they also faced a less likely foe: the countercultural tourist.

The Provos, a small but influential anti-authoritarian group, staged fan-
tastic “happenings” during the early to mid 1960s, fueling a burgeon-
ing youth culture based on opposition to authority, creativity and drug
use (Mamadouh 1992). As post-war Europe recovered, mass tourism
returned. Tourists flocked to Amsterdam. While some came for the ca-
nals and the Rembrandts, others were more interested in the drugs and
the hippie scene. The Provos, a precursor to the squatters’ movement,
proposed the White House campaign in late 1960s in response to the
growing housing crisis, where they urged people to live in abandoned
buildings to save them from disrepair and provide cheap housing for
those in need (Duivenvoorden 2000).

Although activists were slow to take up this call, countercultural
tourists were already way ahead of them in terms of occupying empty
houses. “Tourist squatting” was quite popular in Amsterdam (Pruijt
2004), with travelers sleeping in Vondelpark or Dam Square, as well as
any empty building they could find. These tourists showed little inter-
est in repairing buildings or helping neighborhoods. In fact, their goals
were often the opposite: destruction could be far more entertaining.
Squatters, more interested in addressing the housing situation than in
no-frills tourism, bristled against intrusions into their physical and po-
litical space. In the early 70s, Nieuwmarkt squatters distributed posters
proclaiming, in Dutch, English, German, French, and Arabic, “Our
neighborhood is no campground” (Duivenvoorden 2000: 85), hoping
to drive tourist squatters out, and to distinguish themselves as a “good”
type of squatter: one who intended to stay and contribute to the com-
munity over time. Culturally, activists and tourist squatters were quite
similar, and the activist milieu even attracted their own tourists. But
activists and tourists clashed over squatting’s meaning. Activist squat-
ters worried tourist squatters hindered their goals, leaving destroyed
buildings and public outrage in their wake, and confusing the public
by conflating cultural changes advocated by the youth movement with
social and structural changes to buildings and neighborhoods. Making
squatting the basis for a political movement required successfully shift-
ing the tactic from the domain of tourists to activists, which meant
that squatting had to be made about stability rather than mobility.

Activists argued that the value of squatting came from the ability not
just to move in, but also to stay. Their public missives were increasingly
marked by commitments to the long term – to being good neighbors,
to being good caretakers of buildings. In this formative moment of the
squatters’ movement, the need was to connect squatting with a very
fixed and stable conception of place, one that minimized mobility.

This battle was most hotly contested during the early periods of the
political movement, as it sought to stabilize itself as a legitimate pub-
lic actor, emphasizing the stabilizing effects of squatting. As political
squatting grew in size and influence, direct challenges to tourist squat-
ting dissipated. But the tension remained, as evidenced by the defense
of the Groote Keijser. Following a particularly violent eviction at the
hands of the police in 1978, squatters decided that they were no longer
willing to vacate buildings without a defense when the eviction orders
came. When the eviction for the Groote Keijser was ordered in 1979,
squatters decided this was where they would make their stand: “We
will not leave.” To transform the building into a symbol of stability
and steadfastness required work, not just in barricading the doors, but
also in replacing and changing the residents and their commitments,
since many living in the building at the time were either apolitical or
traveling tourists. ADILKNO (1994: 47) asks, “But why should those
houses whose front-door keys had been handed around by tourists just
last summer, houses that had had Israelis barbecuing on the floor, start
to function as a symbol of the people’s will?” The reasons were prag-
matic: the building was big enough to hold a lot of defenders, strategi-
cally located on a canal, and owned by a particularly reviled speculator.

Securing the building, however, meant expelling the tourists. Squatter
Theo remembers giving them a deadline to leave, warning that if they
did not leave willingly, he would return “with a larger gang to throw
them out” (De Stad 1996: 126). With the building barricaded, the
tourists and apolitical residents removed, the squatters waited in their
fortress for the police. But the police, and the expected confrontation,
never came. Instead, the showdown occurred elsewhere. After resquat-
ting an evicted building on Vondelstraat in early 1980, squatters suc-
cessfully drove off the police with a spontaneous explosion of violence.

They barricaded the street, holding it for a weekend, and transformed it
into a carnivalesque zone – the “Vondel Free State.” But the end came
as suddenly as the beginning. Monday morning, tanks crashed through
the barricades, sent by the city to restore public order (Andreisson
1981). Despite this massive show of force, the movement prevailed,
saving the Vondelstraat squat and increasing their presence and influ-
ence in Amsterdam city politics (Duivenvoorden 2000).

To effectively politicize squatting meant a focus on stability, in rela-
tion to the building and to the neighborhood, as well as to the identity
of the actors and the movement itself. To be a good squatter meant to
stay. To be a successful movement meant to stay. However, as soon as
the movement experienced its first major successes, this same stability
became the basis for a dramatic increase in mobility, both into and out
of Amsterdam.

Mobilizing squatting

“Help! The squatters are coming – Cologne falling into chaos?”
(quoted in Duivenvoorden 200: 179). In Amsterdam, during the early
months of 1980, squatters’ efforts to hold on to their squatted homes
escalated into a series of violent standoffs with authorities. And the
tactics were not just heavier, they were also more effective, as squat-
ters held on to their buildings, beating back not just the police, but
also real estate speculation in the city as a whole. But following their
triumphant stands, members of the movement were doing more than
simply basking in their victories. Their performances on the streets of
Amsterdam had been so successful, they decided to take their show
on the road. Establishing their travel itinerary was not difficult, as the
invitations to visit other activist groups were pouring in from across
Europe. While local activists tended to treat them as conquering he-
roes, many other residents were far less enthusiastic about their visit.

A November 1980 trip to Hamburg prompted the local press to warn,
“The rioters are coming!” (quoted in Duivenvoorden 2000: 180). While
admittedly sensationalistic, such alarm was not wholly unfounded. The
trips by Amsterdam squatters sparked a string of political riots through-
out Germany and Switzerland, culminating in fierce fighting between
squatters and police in Berlin in mid-December of that same year. And
the travel kept coming. In 1981, Amsterdam squatters added France,
Italy and Spain to their destinations. These political tourists success-
fully exported their ideas, identity, and tactics across Europe, much to
some locals’ dismay. On one level, this is simply a tale of how activists
used mobility to share tactics and strategy. On another level, though, it
reveals the complex ways in which a local place can be constructed and
contested, as well as how mobility shaped, for better or worse, the way
squatters mobilized across Europe.

By the time Amsterdam squatters took to the road in 1980, travel
was already responsible for existing relationships with foreign squat-
ting groups. While most traveled as squatters or activists, early forms
of travel primarily took the form of individuals going to meet and stay
with other individuals. That is, squatters traveled just as friends travel,
but gaining political skills and insight in addition. For example, one
of the more prominent Amsterdam squatters spent time in Frankfurt
during the early 1970s, a time of widespread unrest over housing is-
sues, as well as staying for long periods in the squatting underground
in London during the mid 1970s (Theo, de Stad 2000). He not only
learned how things were done in each location, but also got to know the
people involved; both types of connections would play a key role in his
contributions to the Amsterdam squatters’ movement, as well as its ef-
forts to spread its gospel beyond its own borders. Furthermore, during
the 1970s, calls for solidarity were already crossing borders. Christiania,
the squatted “free state” in Copenhagen, was calling for international
support and for sympathizers to travel to help resist threatened evic-
tions as early as 1975. At this point, though, travel was either individual
or sporadic and based on big evictions. Systematic and representative
travel did not emerge fully until 1980, with the success of Vondelstraat
and the subsequent rise to prominence of squatters as a political force
in Amsterdam.

The politics of Amsterdam spilled over into other cities, first by
the media images that spread throughout Europe and the world, and
then through the movement of squatters as they toured other squat-
ting hotspots. The dramatic Vondelstraat victory, coupled with April’s
coronation riots (Duivenvoorden 2000), drew worldwide attention
(Andreisson 1981). Amsterdam squatters exploited their notoriety.
In fact, the touring had already begun before the confrontations on
Vondelstraat. Only one week earlier, Amsterdam squatters were in
London, at the “International Squatters Festival” organized by the
London Squatters’ Union. There they brought films of recent protests
and evictions, as well as squatting handbooks and other bric-a-brac to
sell in order to finance the trip. They were joined by squatters from
Berlin at the all day meetings and presentations, one of the first ex-
amples of an international convergence of squatters.

The summer of 1980 was a busy one for Amsterdam’s squatters,
and not only because the political situation was heating up in the city.
Through travel they forged stronger ties with their German “fellow
travelers.” In May and June, they paid visits to Cologne, Hamburg, and
Münster, followed by trips to Darmstadt, West Berlin, and Nürnberg in
the months that followed. As stated in a travel report published in the
Kraakrant, the local squatters newspaper, travel and exchange between
the Netherlands and Germany was both informal and organized, with
the goal being both to teach and to learn.

In the previous year many Amsterdam squatters traveled to Germany
in order to see how squatters organized there. Also, people have on
their own initiative made “tours” through German squat-cities, in or-
der to describe squatter activities in Amsterdam, accompanied by films
and video. There was a great interest for such information in Germany.
(“Duitsland,” 1980: 5)

Cologne squatters were to first to invite their Amsterdam comrades
for a visit, creating a public meeting for them to show their films and
speak about the conditions in Amsterdam and the keys to their strategic
and organizational successes. The organizers promised an opportunity
to learn from Amsterdam’s accomplishments, and to spark discussion
over local squatting politics. The visiting squatters shared information
at 2 different meetings – one with about 30 people, the other with
several hundred – on specific actions, but also on their general shift in
tactics, from passive to active resistance, which had proved so successful
and was being touted as the model for squatters elsewhere (Erik, Tara,
John, & Vincent 1980). Weeks later, squatters arrived in Hamburg; the
poster for the event promised,

As you know, the housing struggle in Amsterdam is at a high point:
just during the coronation of Beatrix, 220 houses were occupied by
squatters. The squatters struggle against the vacancy of living spaces
and against real estate speculation in the Netherlands. Despite massive
police and military force the squatters won’t let themselves be repressed
– they simply need a roof over their head. In Amsterdam 50000 people
seek housing. Just as many people in Hamburg have been seeking hous-
ing for years. Must Hamburgers also soon start squatting? The Dutch
squatter has existed for already 10 years. We want to learn from them
how they fight the housing crisis. Therefore we have invited them to a
discussion with squatters from Amsterdam. They are bringing a film
along, reports over their actions, e.g., the coronation day, and informa-
tion on how the organize themselves.

The local press was not amused, warning, “The rioters are coming!”
(quoted in Duivenvoorden 2000: 180). When the Amsterdam squat-
ters took to the road, they represented more than just simply a success-
ful political movement; they also represented the fears of those invested
in protecting the status quo. They symbolized the fact that no locality
was fully safe from political disruption and destabilization, because the
boundaries of each local place were fluid and contested. However, they
also called into being the most dangerous political actor: the outsider.
While they certainly sought to help their squatting comrades, the pres-
ence of outside activists was at odds with efforts for local actors to create
a basis in stability and locality that was so important to the Amsterdam
squatters during their formative stages.

The Amsterdammers were ostensibly teachers, but they also learned
critical information about the different conditions for squatting in
other national and local contexts. For example in a report about their
trip to Cologne, the squatters related the hysteria surrounding their
visit; “the way the press criminalizes squatters was highlighted by the
visit of 4 squatters to town and the headlines, “Help! The Squatters are
Coming!” and “Chaos in Cologne” – as if the Amsterdam squatters had
come to participate in violent defense of the big squat in town” (Erik et
al., 1980: 23). Still, they left town hopeful for the future of squatting
in that city, as they felt that “lots of people coming to the talk were also
first exposed to the new squat Stollwerch, which they hope will be the
start of larger involvement in the movement there” (23).

Information and people were flowing across borders, but so far the
effects on action were negligible. Amsterdam squatters came, spoke,
then went home, leaving their hosts to plan their own actions. With
time, possibly from a combination of intensification of the situation
in Germany, the changing expectations of the presentations, or simply
the motivational power of the speakers, these presentations became pre-
ludes to more “hands-on” actions. For example, a visit to West Berlin in
December coincided with an episode of fierce fighting between squat-
ters and police in the heavily squatted Kreuzberg district. The finger-
prints of Amsterdam squatters were all over the event. “German police
reports pointed not only to the presence of Amsterdam squatters, but
also that the fighting methods employed looked to be transplanted di-
rectly out of the Netherlands” (Duivenvoorden, 2000: 180). A news-
paper story covering the event noted, “the presence of Amsterdammers
on the fight stage is no surprise to German police, because Amsterdam
squatters were already active in West Berlin. Also, Dutch squatters took
part in the occupation of a chocolate factory in Cologne in May and
June earlier this year.”

The situation intensified with a March 1981 visit to Nürnberg.
There was very little actual squatting going on in the city at the time,
and local organizers wanted to change that. The head of KOMM, a
youth center in the city, traveled with friends to Amsterdam and got in-
terested in the housing crisis and squatting, and started squatting upon
returning home. The first visit by the Amsterdammers in late Juanuary
1981 generated a successful talk at KOMM, with about 200 people
attending (Muller 1980). The Amsterdammers taught about their own
movement, as well as shared techniques for those who wanted to squat
themselves. Originally, they had planned to show films of recent ac-
tions, such as the Vondelstraat defense, but because KOMM received
money from the city, city officials forbid the films to be shown at the
center. What they were learning was already worrisome enough to au-
thorities. The local police chief voiced concerns,
the youth were told precisely how the squatters in
Amsterdam work, the tactics against the police, how to best
barricade their house, or how to resist eviction by the police…I
find that a scandalous affair. There are only a few empty houses
here. It is very dangerous, what the Dutch squatters are doing
now in Germany. (Muller 1980: 1)

The concern was not that the Amsterdammers were meeting with
other squatters, but that they were trying to create new squatters’ move-
ments out of thin air. About a month later, they returned for another
effort to show the films at a different venue. When the police arrived
to shut the meeting down, the people present reacted with spontane-
ous demonstration, marching through the city, breaking windows, and
damaging cars, doing extensive monetary damage. The disturbance was
blamed on Amsterdam squatters, with authorities anxious that their
influence was spreading beyond the main German squatting centers
like West Berlin.

It was in Germany that the Amsterdam squatters forged the clos-
est bonds through the most frequent travel. But their travels extend-
ed across much of Western Europe. The same week as the events in
Nürnberg, other Amsterdammers were in Barcelona giving a similar
talk to squatters there. At the same time, a large-scale convergence
in Paris brought together squatters from all over Europe to meet and
discuss strategies, tactics, and political goals, as well as build stronger
personal networks within the movement. The meetings in Paris were
the first major international conference of squatters in Europe. It was
quickly followed by another conference in Münster, Germany. Both
featured significant participation by Amsterdam squatters, who were
generally recognized as the largest, most organized and most successful
of the European movements. Thus their knowledge and experiences
were consistently sought out. These early meetings grew larger over the
course of the early 1980s, later growing beyond the confines of local
and national borders, as well as expanding the issues into a more gener-
alized oppositional ideology and politics. They provide a model for lat-
er, and much larger, protest meetings that brought together European
radicals in a transnational forum, such as the anti-EU summit held in
Amsterdam in 1998, as well as the summit protests of the 21st century
(Fernandez, Starr, and Scholl 2011).

Although the visitors from Amsterdam were tasked with providing
an inside view of the movement, they were far from the only travel-
ers offering such information. In fact, many Germans were also mak-
ing less formal forays to Amsterdam, such as the authors of the piece,
“Amsterdam in Autumn” (1980) who visiting the city for a week in the
fall of 1980 to stay with friends in a squatted house and gain a better
understanding of both the tactical side of the movement and the ev-
eryday life of squatters in the city. It seems it was not just the squatters
who were traveling either, as “The West German police have already
sent researchers to Amsterdam to study the methods of the squatters”
(“Amsterdamse Kraker” 1980: 1) in order to better contain the growing
German squatters’ movement.

In their efforts to legitimize and strengthen their burgeoning move-
ment, Amsterdam squatters focused on developed a practice and im-
age based on stability and spatial fixity. However, successfully achieving
these goals launched them out into the world with new forms of mobil-
ity. It was their ability to stay put in the face of forces, both physical
and ideological, that were trying to pry them lose that produced the
conditions for unleashing waves of mobile squatters out into the larger
European social movement space. They toured the squatting cities of
Europe, teaching strategy, forging stronger organizational ties, and edu-
cating and being educated on the general and the specifics of squatting
in Europe. The same connections built during these travels created new
networks for other forms of travel, this time bringing non-local squat-
ters into the city – sometimes for a quick visit, and sometimes for much
longer stays.

Squatting, despite being intensely local in focus, grew and survived
as a movement in Europe because of the mobility of activists. They
helped form a translocal network of actors who not only could draw
on each other’s knowledges and numbers, but also created a larger
European squatter identity. This larger burgeoning European squatters’
movement drove new forms of mobility both by creating destinations
and by creating a general social movement space that facilitated travel
by making it possible to move from city to city and never fully leave
“the movement.” As this case also shows, there are risks with creating
a space of mobility completely encapsulated within social movement
space. You risk cutting off ties to “the local” and creating yourself as
an outsider. When squatter tactics become “Amsterdam tactics,” this
reveals the limits of mobility in movement building. However, refusing
the advantages of mobility is no guarantee of being spared its costs.

Travel Souvenirs: Something to Remember

This is only a very narrow window into the complex travel patterns
among European squatters. These early trips coming from and to
Amsterdam in 1980-1981 show how quickly mobility became inte-
grated into basic squatter practices. Even in this small slice, we can
see the emergence of the key role travel played in building not just the
content of the movement, but also its symbolic power. Activists are no
different from anyone else – they travel, and they do so for a lot of dif-
ferent, and sometimes even conflicting reasons. Thus, activist networks
can closely resemble friendship networks, connecting individuals across
movements, even when the movements themselves have no formal ties.
Information and tactics can flow through such channels but can be spo-
radic and unreliable. Still, these ties provide existing connections which
can help facilitate more formal travel and interactions when needed.

While these informal networks based on individual travel were key
to later travel of activists as representatives of movements, there were
other important precedents worth noting. That is, before Amsterdam
squatters started traveling, their reputations preceded them, as images
and stories of their actions circulated through mainstream and alterna-
tive media alike. Thus, they were already well known before trying to
make their tours, a fact that certainly made planning easier, as well
as receptions more welcoming, at least on the part of other activists,
if not necessarily the authorities. Therefore, what the Amsterdammers
brought with them was not necessarily completely new to the audi-
ence – most were likely familiar with the famous images of the tanks
at Vondelstraat – but rather to provide depth to issues already known,
as well as organizational and tactical lessons from a movement that was
enjoying victories. When the Amsterdammers traveled, they traveled
not as individual squatters, but as representatives of an entire move-
ment, a movement that was winning and thus appeared to offer impor-
tant lessons to other similar movements and their participants.

As travel became more common, as well as being recognized as an
effective means of building networks to facilitate the flows of informa-
tion and resources, even more formal solutions emerged. Conferences
and convergences provided new destinations that opened up the dis-
cussions beyond the one-way, teacher-student model employed at the
beginning. At these squatter conferences, most activists met each other
as travelers all occupying a neutral place, where the exchange of ideas
was opened up even wider. At the same time, while building new sorts
of relationships at the organizational and movement level, new affec-
tive and friendship ties were being made as well, ties that would help
to facilitate not just future travel and action, but also a growing sense
of collective solidarity – not just as squatters, but also as holders of an
oppositional transnational and translocal European identity.

Intramovement, international travel provided a means for build-
ing identity at multiple levels. First, individual activists gain identity
through traveling as a squatter and being recognized upon arrival as a
squatter and by being recognized upon return as a squatter with new
insights. That is, they traveled as someone with something to teach, but
arrived also as someone with something to learn, which becomes some-
thing new to teach upon their return, setting up a cycle of education
and information diffusion. Second, places and their local movements
gain identity through the contact and collaboration with other places
through travel – they become places that are both similar to other plac-
es, through the shared experience of squatting, but also unique: differ-
ences that only become meaningful in the context of the larger field.

Moreover, activist travel becomes a way to participate in complicating
conceptions of place and the local, while still acting to defend them.
Finally, the larger “squatter movement” also gains a broader identity
that transcends local differences, even as it celebrates them – primarily
by keeping the idea of “destinations” and a defense of the local alive
inside the larger collective space and identity.

Thus, the movement of movement actors creates destinations, new
places to go to, and worlds, new places to be in, as well as the subject
position of the agent that travels between and within them to hold
them together. That is, although cities and scenes get made into desti-
nations worth visiting (either because they have a surplus or a deficit of
information), the travel network being constructed allowed squatters to
“stay in the same place” i.e., the larger squatter movement itself – with
its own culture, rules, tactics, and goals, all converging through the
interplay of activists across borders. This network of squatters’ move-
ments contributed to the formation of an alternative European identity,
one that emerges alongside other competing Europes, including the
hegemonic EU vision of a united Europe. Their Europe matched the
broader trajectory of globalization, which is to link the local to the
transnational, bypassing the central role of the state, as well as resistance
to the state, which had traditionally regulated these relationships.

Travel certainly built complex activist identities, but it also embod-
ied a symbolic enactment of the politics of the broader squatters’ move-
ments. Squatting was at its heart about the creation and defense of
home. At the same time, though, it played out an entirely new vision of
what a home could be: home did not imply a static place to live in, but
also provided room for movement (as well as movements). The choice
to stay or to leave was always present in the squatted vision of home.
To resist the police was not always about the need to stay, but more
often about the need to defend the autonomy of choice – one should
be able to choose when to stay and when to leave. Such a politics takes
a skeptical view of borders, particularly the political borders which con-
strain the autonomy of the individual. Squatters celebrated the power
of a DIY (do-it-yourself) practice, so they always sought to do their
politics, not just espouse it. Therefore it is no surprise that the squatters’
tactics would combine the demand to stay with the freedom to leave,
always trying to strike a balance between the two, a balance further
reflected in the desire to create a space where the individual and com-
munity contribute to each other, rather than repress or reject.
While these flows of people and ideas through movement safe spaces
produce a network of horizontal connections connecting the local to
the transnational, places that are safe for both escape and recovery, there
are negatives to the geographic expansion of the movement, particu-
larly a geographic expansion that is not matched by a similar expansion
of numbers. Thus, if the space of the movement and its politics grows
faster than the population – and in some cases, as happened in the
later part of the 1980s, in the opposite direction of membership – then
growth will create a lot of “empty space” between activists. This allows
for the “illusion of mass militancy” which undermines the local and
connections to the “actual” audience of action, as politics, particularly
at this time remained under the control of the state and local authori-
ties. Moreover, such freedom of movement allows, as well as fosters,
internal splits, which can only be solved through making links to like-
minded actors in a different city or country, a process of factionaliza-
tion that wrecked not only the squatters’ movement as time went on
(Owens 2009), but also similar autonomous movements in Germany
and Denmark (Katsiaficas 1997).

Travel continues to play an important role in the formation of both
local and transnational radical movements, embodying the movement’s
dynamicism and global reach, raising consciousness, spreading tactics,
and effectively knitting communities together. Yet travel in movements
remains contested. Some critics argue that mobile activists are bad for
movements, as they disrupt local communities, reproduce privilege, and
emphasize escape over engagement. But the situation is more complex.
Travel connects people across places and places across people, thereby
offering a means of bridging diffuse global networks with dense local
networks, pulling the two towards each other. These connections, how-
ever, are not seamless, creating new tensions and contradictions, calling
for a deeper investigation of an anarchist politics of place and travel.
What kind of practices and knowledges does travel produce or obstruct?
A key point of contention is over the politics of place, which is more
complicated than the simple traveler/local distinction. Activists straddle
the difficulties of defending old conceptions of place and locality while
creating new ones. As globalization expands the reach of both the issues
and voices of radical politics, increased access to travel creates new po-
litical identities. For the squatters of Amsterdam, and those of Europe,
travel played a central role in establishing both the uniqueness of the local
context as well as the generality of transnational identities and representa-
tions. Travel helped produce powerful forms of political action, based not
on integration, but on “experiences of alterity, of the in-between. We can
see this in the tension between travel and emplacement, between speed
and stillness, between the virtual and the embodied” (McDonald 2006:
223). Squatting is principally about residence and stability, about local-
ity and community, but to build and protect those, it also became about
mobility and flux. This allowed for the creation of a broader social move-
ment space that let squatters move between buildings, between cities, and
between states, carrying information, strategies, and tactics across these
borders. Squatting made new mobilities possible; new mobilities, in turn,
made squatting possible. The importance of mobility for a movement so
bound to a strong sense of place highlights the relational aspects of place and how activists contribute to building and expanding that open sense of place.

However, even open places remain bounded, and the successes
of mobile squatters brought with them new tensions to the movement,
because the strongest language of defending the local remains one of a
stable territory. Squatting continues to struggle with and respond to this
tension openly, which is why it remains such a fruitful case for examining
how place and movement get built though and into social movements
more generally.


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