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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

It's a rainy day. Over the past week riots have broken out all over Copenhagen Denmark, after police advanced on and then tore into the Ungdomhuset, or "Youth House", which over the past few years has become not only a focal point for punks and squatters all over Europe and the World, but became the flash point for the European squatters movement and continent-wide activistm through the summer of 2007, but wholly symbolic of movement for property and ownership rights.

Fucked Up played Ungdomhuset August 19 2005, and some of us had made travels to the squat on prior occasions. We left Amsterdam at 7am that morning and after a stop in Hamburg and a stop on the highway care of the Zoll, got the Copenhagen a bit after midnight, and set up almost immediately to play. Copenhagen is a distinct city, and the Ungdomhuset was always reflective - we saw all sorts of people that night, and people hung out to drink inside or on the steps until late at night. Food was kept warm for us in the basement, and despite being 6 hours late to the show, we ate what ranks as the best food you will be served as a guest of a squat in the entire of Europe. Traveling there in 2001 I was treated to a meal that was garnished with seaweed, among other things.

Despite the city's reputation for forward-thinking political tendencies, tending to a squat is never easy. The first time I was there, i spend the night trying to sleep in the room the police radio monitors were kept in. Each night it was someones job to monitor the feeds, to be able to intercept potential threats by the police. Closing up at night was reminiscent of the scene in Empire Strikes Back when they close the Rebel Base on Hoth for the night - you are either in or you're out until they open again in the morning. It's easy for a North American punk to take the existence of squats in Europe for granted, or as symbolic of a more managable political climate in Europe, but their ubiquity owes much to the decades long fight for squatters rights that goes on to this day.

For those unaware, the principle behind squatting a building is simple - industrialized cities are predicated on the production and disposal of waste, which can take the form of carbon emmisions, food, or in many cases, buildings. There are many reclamation movements that attempt to recuperate these wastes into positive use - for example the infamous Food Not Bombs movement that turns food "waste" into food for hungry people. Squatting acts on the same principle - cities churn out and dispose with buildings, and squatters attempt to make empty "wasted" buildings useful again. Torontonians may remember the Pope Squat, a large house on King West held by OCAP for a few months through the summer of 2002. Yet for the most part, squats in North America are non-existent.

Europe obviously has had a different social and industrial history, which lent itself better to the uprising of a fierce squatters movement. A subculture more prone to political rebellion, many countries experience with the fall of communism (and one-time state ownership of all buildings), and a glut of hospitals, bunkers, bases and factories produced on the stages of WW1 and WW2, squats are a part of urban life in cities all over Europe. In the small idyllic German town of Weimar, I counted 3 squats on a single intersection.

Squats are generally associated with living, but most also act as social centers, and draw on the work of many non-residents, acting as info shops, show spaces and gathering and eating places. In Italy we met people who had lived their entire lives within the social and physical structure of the squat, as the act transforms buildings into homes but also cultural hubs. For a North American band touring Europe, its this cultural transformation that affords such a relatively lavish experience - you play in the same place you sleep, you are fed dinner and breakfast, and eat with the people who are coming to see you play. Its as if in each city you visit the subculture has its own parliament building.

In many cases, squatting has become incorporated into the civil bylaws of the city. In the Netherlands, a building can be legally squatted after 12 months of disuse. In most cases however, squats in Europe exist in the no-mans land between legal and illegal, and between fleeting calm and the constant threat of eviction.

Such was the case in Copenhagen. The building, built in 1897, was handed over in 1982 to a group of young people for their own use, while the city would maintain ownership. Ownership changed hands in 1999, and was finally owned by Faderhuset, an evangelical Christian organization, bent on evicting the squatters. For the history of the battle between Ungdomhuset and Faderhuset over the building, please visit wikipedia.

All over Europe people know Ungdomhuset. In every city we've been to, you meet people who make treks there to see shows or hang out. This past winter we played several squats in Germany and there was a new sort of tension - Ungdomhuset was in the midts of a court battle, and all over Europe other squats were holding benefits and getting tense about the situation. The general feeling was that of an uneasy tension - everyone understood that a battle was looming.

In september of 2006 800 people turned out for a reclaim the streets event surrounding the building, and 260 were arrested. Last week, served notice and entered the building (by Helicopter). All occupants were cleared and the building was sealed, which was followed by this annoucement from the residents: "Either an Ungdomshus or a battle for an Ungdomshus — the clearing will never be forgiven". Shortly after rioting broke out all over Copenhagen and became a world news event. Despite this action, demolition of the building began on the 5th, and by now most of the Ungdomhuset is gone.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I visited Ungdomshuset over the New Year. The beer was by far the cheapest I had while in Copenhagen, and there did seem to be a genuinely friendly atmosphere within the building, although I was crippled by not speaking Danish. Didn't rate the bands much but that was only a small part of the experience I guess.

I partially agree with your points, although as an ex-squatter, I can say that squatting for political purposes is intensely problematic. In fact, it is within the environment of a political squat in which you can see a microcosm of the contradictions inherent within punk as a vehicle for political change: that is, the often (be it intentionally or unintentionally) exclusive and elitist nature of a subculture that tends to define itself negatively with regard to the rest of "society" (and thus finds itself a niche and becomes neutralised within the plurality of postmodern capitalism), as opposed to the wide appeal that is necessary for a truly mass movement.

If the place's desire is to act as a de facto community centre for local culture, then one wonders what is wrong with actual community centres (or their European/North American equivalents), which are usually cleaner with better resources. I suppose they attain a certain relevance in a location that has aggressive anti-drinking or loud music laws (or indeed when its prices are able to undercut other options), but even then it's only a temporary measure until the place starts to become popular and manifest itself as a nucleus of social change, or simply just irritates its neighbours, at which point it is inevitably shut down by the authorities.

I think you ignore the most politically relevant brand of squatter: those who do it through necessity. Within London, there is a growing underclass of immigrants (especially from Eastern Europe and Central Africa), many of whom live in horrendous squatted accommodation with unofficial landlords who are far less reasonable than those who are bounded by rented housing laws. In Paris a couple of summers ago, 200 African immigrants died in a fire in one squat. These kinds of stories get virtually no recognition within the mainstream press (despite the widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric) and by wider society. To me, they illustrate a blurring of the line between the housed and the homeless.

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