[EN] Introduction to ‘Squatting in Europe’

Introduction to Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Miguel Martínez, Gianni Piazza and Hans Pruijt

While homelessness is rampant worldwide, the production of
empty spaces is a regular feature of contemporary society. When build-
ings sit empty for a long time while homelessness persists, it is clear that
in these cases markets and states fail to fulfill their expected role as effec-
tive allocators of space. Often, people decided to take matters into their
own hands by squatting a diversity of spaces: office blocks, factories,
theaters and bars as well as houses. For some squatters, squatting is a
purely individual solution; others feel that the possibilities of squatting
should be developed further, feel solidarity towards other squatters and
work to build a squatters’ movement.

Squatting is also an intervention in urban development and renew-
al, i.e. urban and housing politics and spatial adjustment, which is re-
interpreted and shifted. Squatting often involves attempts to practice
non-hierarchical and participatory organizational models. Squatted
social centers offer an alternative mode of activities such as critical and
radical political meetings and countercultural events outside of, and in
antagonism with, commercial circuits. Social center activists and squat-
ters are thus often engaged in broader protest campaigns and social
movements, fighting against precariousness, urban speculation, racism,
neo-fascism, state repression, militarization, war, locally unwanted land
use, privatization of education/university reforms. By drawing atten-
tion to the existence of vacant buildings, sometimes on prestigious
locations in metropolitan areas, squatters question neo-liberal ideol-
ogy. An example is a demonstrative Parisian squat that existed just in
front of the Presidential Palace. Squatting helps to show the vacuity
of current political debate. Politicians call for social cohesion and self-
responsibility. However, when people actually take these values seri-
ously by engaging in squatting, they are often treated as criminals who
undermine social integration.

Squatting may not be seen to be a very powerful movement.
However, looking at its history and reflecting on the links with other
movements and its international dimensions makes one realize that it is
by far not as marginal as it may seem at first glance.

In the following chapters, researchers associated with the Squatting
Europe Kollektive (SqEK) present an analytical and explanatory tour of
the European squatting experience.

In chapter 2, Hans Pruijt addresses the diversity in squatting by de-
veloping a typology. Five basic configurations, various combinations
of features that fit together well and are effective, are discussed. In the
case of squatting, configurations differ with respect to the characteris-
tics of the people involved, type of buildings, framing, demands made
by activists, mobilization and organizational patterns. Each configura-
tion also entails specific problems. Deprivation based squatting involves
poor people who are distressed because of severe housing deprivation.
Typically, middle class activists open up squats for poor people to move
into. This set-up deflects accusations of queue-jumping, making this
configuration appropriate when squatting has little legitimacy. In squat-
ting as an alternative housing strategy people organize squatting to meet
their own housing needs. Entrepreneurial squatting offers opportunities
for setting up nearly any kind of establishment, without the need for
large resources nor the risk of getting bogged down in bureaucracy.
Prime examples are the occupied social centers that are prominent in
Italy and Spain. Conservational squatting involves squatting as a tactic
used in the preservation of a cityscape or landscape against efficiency-
driven planned transformation. All these four configuration have po-
litical aspects, but they are also squatting projects that are driven by ul-
terior political motives, particularly engaging in anti-systemic politics.
This fifth configuration is called political squatting.

The next three chapters are about entrepreneurial and politi-
cal squatting, especially in the shape of establishing social centers. In
chapter 3, Pierpaolo Mudu traces the development of squatted Self-
Managed Social Centers (CSAs) in Italy. Overall, 250 Social Centers
have been active in Italy over the past 15 years, especially in urban
areas. Currently about 100 are open as venues for social, political and
cultural events. He argues the main impetus was the disappearance in
the 1970s of traditional public spaces and meeting places such as open
squares, workplaces, party offices or the premises of groups involved in
the antagonistic, i.e. anti-capitalist and anti-fascist, movement. Social
centers have been opened by a variety of grassroots left-wing organiza-
tions and collectives, some have an autonomist and others an anarchist
political flavor. They are commonly organized through forms of direct
democracy and in non-hierarchical structures. The task first on a Social
Center’s agenda is daunting: it must renovate and refurbish privately
or publicly owned empty properties and turn them into usable public
spaces open to the general public. For this task it relies exclusively on
collective action, i.e. cooperative working modes which do not come
under the provisions governing regular employment contracts. There is
considerable variation in size, attitudes towards legalization, acceptance
of commercial sponsorship for performances, and orientation towards
the neighborhood.

In chapter 4, Gianni Piazza examines the decision-making processes
in squatted social centers. He approaches this issue by comparing two so-
cial centers located in the Sicilian city of Catania. These centers were very
different in terms of campaigns and activities, political ideological orien-
tations, relation to national networks, legal position and attitude towards
institutions. The methods used were participant observation, analysis
of self-produced documents and semi-structured interviews. The social
center Experia had a coherent radical Marxist political identity, careful-
ly shielded by refraining from building ties with the local government.
Decision-making was strictly consensual, which in case of disagreements
led to delays. The social center Auro had a much more variegated identity,
it united groups with cultural interests and radical political groups, and
it was legalized after striking a deal with the city government. Central
decision-making was largely confined to the building and matters of in-
frastructure, while the various groups made decisions about their own ac-
tivities. Decision-making was consensual, unless there was a stalemate as
a result of disagreement. In such cases, a switch to majoritarian decision
making occurred. This guaranteed speed, which was fitting for a social
center that opened itself up to the community.
Squatters’ movements often have links with other social movements.

In chapter 5, Miguel A. Martínez López examines the relationships
between the Spanish squatters’ movement, especially as manifested in
social centers and the alter-globalization movement. He points to vari-
ous area of overlap:

• squatters staged protests against international commercialized
megaprojects such as the Olympic games,
• counter-information on global issues, information about pro-
tests in Europe and Latin-America and about the Zapatista
movement in Chiapas (Mexico) widely circulated in social cen-
• the Zapatista ideology of not seizing power but encouraging
self-organization in civil society extended into the social centers,
• social centers as organizations became increasingly involved in
alter-globalization movement actions.

In addition to the overlap, there were also various similarities be-
tween the two movement scenes such as the use of artistic and hu-
morous tactics mixed with street confrontations with police, the com-
bination of party and protest, a Do-It-Yourself ethic, a high level of
countercultural coherence between means and ends, a fondness of the
idea of creating temporary autonomous zones, an ideology of “the per-
sonal is political” and “think globally, act locally”, plus a willingness to
take personal risks. In terms of organization, both were characterized
by an open and horizontal model of organization with assemblies as the
platform for decision-making and a rejection of official spokespeople,
formal organization and institutionalization; both scenes consisted of
roughly half of their membership of university graduates.

Chapter 6, by Claudio Cattaneo, addresses a different configuration
of squatting: squatting as an alternative housing strategy, i.e. people
who squat a place for themselves to live in. Squatting as an alternative
housing strategy can facilitate a variety of lifestyles that cannot be easily
accommodated by the regular housing market. A prominent example
is communal living. In this chapter, the focus is even more specific,
because it is on communal living with very little money, with the objec-
tive of having a low environmental impact and in rural or rural-urban
areas. The strength of the case under analysis, Can Masdeu in Barcelona,
resides also in the combination of housing, numerous public activities
and the involvement of the surrounding neighbours in the squat.

Chapter 7, by Andrej Holm and Armin Kuhn, highlights yet anoth-
er configuration: conservational squatting. In an analysis of the history
of the Berlin squatters’ movements, their political context and their
effects on urban policies since the 1970s, they show how massive mo-
bilizations at the beginning of the 1980s and in the early 1990s devel-
oped in a context of transition in regimes of urban renewal. The crisis
of Fordist city planning at the end of the 1970s provoked a movement
of ‘rehab squatting’ (Instandbesetzung), which contributed to the insti-
tutionalization of ‘cautious urban renewal’ (behutsame Stadterneuerung)
in an important way. In contrast to this first squatting wave in Berlin,
they contend the large-scale squatting during in the 1990s – mainly in
the Eastern parts of the city – as political squatting.

The various squatters’ movements covered in this book did not de-
velop in isolation. There was international diffusion, which is the topic
of chapter 8, by Lynn Owens. This chapter reveals as the key mecha-
nism of diffusion the frequent visits by squatters to fellow activists in
emergent movements in other countries, with the explicit objective to
spread knowledge and experience. For example, the squatters’ move-
ment of Berlin (covered in chapter 7) and of Madrid (described in
chapter 5) had visits by Dutch squatters that were significant events in
their history. Between established movements, exchange of knowledges
and experiences continued through international meetings.
Deprivation based squatting, the final configurations of squatting,
i.e. middle class activists opening squats to help poor people, is at the
heart of chapters 9 and 10. In France, this is the prevalent configuration
of squatting.

In chapter 9, Thomas Aguilera maps out the squatters’
movement in Paris, clearly showing the different strategies adopted by
city officials when facing the perseverance of squatting actions, in spite
of the lack of a very unified movement.

Squatting is often shrouded in masculine ideological rhetoric
about struggle, claiming the “right to the city”, creating “temporary
autonomous zones” and so forth. Nevertheless, squatters are in prin-
ciple quite vulnerable because of the strong legal protection of private
property and the virtually unlimited repressive powers of the state.
Plus, the squatters who actually live in their squats, as opposed to
squatters who are involved in a social centers, are sitting ducks for the
forces of repression. Mostly, their fate can be determined by decisions
that authorities take about them. Within bounds defined by the legal
framework and the political alignments there is variation in such deci-
sions. Therefore, in chapter 10, Florence Bouillon presents an analysis
of the processes of categorizations of squats that applied by govern-
ment officials in France.

In the last decades, Spain and the Netherlands have seen changes
in their relevant legal framework resulting in an increasing criminal
persecution of squatting. In England, this process is also under way.

In chapter 11, E.T.C. Dee examines the role of media discourse in the
move towards criminalization of squatting in England. In spite of be-
ing a long-term and well-established practice in this country, due to
a relatively favourable legislation, recent mass media discourses have
contributed to display a rather negative image of squatters. Stereotypes
of squatters, thus, tend to hide the relevant variations of the squatting
practices as well as pave the way for a more repressive treatment by the