Tag Archive | opposite of theft

Amsterdam Squatting Stories

We met at the Molly (short for Molotov Cocktail) which is a squat cafe in the “De Pijp” district of Am*dam.  What makes it a squat cafe is that 1) it is squatted itself and 2) it is a place where those who are interested in squatting get together and plan their next break in.

Security is important, in this town, with squatting timing is everything,  If the police know we are coming, they can easily repulse us and our effort to take unused housing and put it back into service will fail.  So all during the discussion of what we would need to do to retake the apartment, we never mention the street address.

squatting symbol

Every Sunday they go out.  And this Sunday I am happy to be in tow.  We meet at a cafe which is a handful of blocks away from where we are ultimately going.  No one is ordering anything from the cafe.  The groups consists of perhaps 30 people. Lots of black clothes and exotic hairstyles and piercings and tattoos. I look incredibly out of place (because I look nothing like these fine folks), but everyone is friendly.

And everyone knows someone who can vouch for them.  Wim is my sponsor.  He is the lock guy, and a bit of a legend in the squatting community.  Wim lived upstairs from us in our Am*dam flat some years ago.  I remember a yankee guest who was staying with us asking him for help with her bike which was locked and she had lost the key.

From the people who brought you the original occupy.

“Can you get it unlocked?” she asked hopefully.

“It is the wrong question,” smiled Wim. “I can always get it unlocked, the question is do you ever want to be able to use the lock again?”

Wim said I was okay (despite my preposterous attire) and if Wim said I was good, no one was going to question it.

We headed out of cafe area walking down the street with a chair, a table and a mattress. These are the requirements by Dutch law for you to be in residence. The mattress needs to be 10 cm thick. These are some of the tools of the professional squatters.

When housing is a luxury, squatting is a necessity.

Within minutes we reach the place. We ring the three doorbells hoping that someone will let us in, but no luck.  But no matter. Within less than a minute Wim has picked the first lock and we are through the downstairs door. The furniture rushes in and the others stay below.

We are in the building for less than a minute when the police arrive downstairs. This is a problem.  During the period before we are inside our prospective squat we are guilty of breaking an entering, which is a serious crime.  Our comrades are chatting up the police and clogging the hallway, slowing their progress.  Fortunately, the Dutch have tiny hallways and steep stairs; we have perhaps two minutes before they are with us.  I am quietly panicking.

One table, one chair and one mattress.

Wim is not.  Cool as a cucumber he grabs from his bag a modified car jack, which has two plates that he slips between the door and the jam.  He starts spinning the bottle jack and in 30 seconds the door pops open.  This is the moment when squatters are the opposite of thieves.  What a thief wants to see when they break through a door is treasure, what a squatter wants is dust.

We are in luck. This apartment, which none of us have ever been in before, is empty.  The furniture rushes in.  The police arrive moments later.  They look around, establish that there is nothing of value in the apartment and then, like nothing I have seen before in my long life, they wish the squatters luck and leave.  They don’t take names, they don’t arrest anyone.  They just recognize they have “lost” this one and head on their way.

Heroic squat art.

It is nearly impossible for US Americans to understand.  But in Am*dam, the rights of speculators looking to make money on empty housing when the market turns are considered lower than are the rights of people to have housing.    The squatters might hold this place for a few months, longer if the owners have not paid their taxes or the ownership of the space was somehow in dispute.  But squatting is ephemeral, you don’t do it for forever, you do it for now.

After our first success a slightly smaller group went to the second house which had been scoped out.  This time we did not have the police on our tail, and it was for the best.  One of the folks in the building buzzed us in, so we did not have to force the first lock.  When we broke into this second flat we found treasure.  It was fully furnished and the people who lived there apparently had been out of town for a couple of weeks — which had fooled the squatters who were watching their lights at night.

So Wim did the other part of his magic.  He replaced the damaged lock with a new one.  We put two keys on the kitchen table, and left a note apologizing for breaking in, and informing them that they had these new keys.  We left the apartment unlocked (but the street level lock secures them) and then dispersed, vanishing into the crowded city.

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Sadly, this story is not contemporary and the landscape around squatting is shifting in the wrong direction.  This was in 1996, when I was spiting my time between Brno, Czech Republic and Am*dam.