Interview With A Squatter - Frank Jackson

Interview With A Squatter - Frank Jackson

Interview with a participant in the West Berlin squatters' movement in the early 1980s.

Originally published in Bar Fax August 1981. Interview by Frank Jackson

How long have you been involved with in the Besetzer (squatter) scene and how did you get involved?
I became involved about November last year and I've been in this house since the end of January. When I moved back here to Kreuzberg in October I started working in the Mieterladen (tenants' advice centre) on Chamissoplatz. A lot of things were happening at the time in the area, and the more one got involved in them the more one got involved in the squatting.

The Mieterladen- could you tell'me about what you do there?
I have been involved in various projects and activities that have started from the Mieterladen. For instance, we catalogued the numbers of empty flats in the area. It had never been done before. And that escalated into another action which was organised by the Berliner Mieter Verein (Berlin Tenants Union). The idea was to get something started for the under-privileged groups here, the foreigners, single women with children, and other people which were disadvantaged in various ways.

The foreigners were in a situation where they could do very little for themselves because of the Auslandergesetzt (laws for foreigners). A lot of them had been living for a long time in squalid and terrible conditions. At the time we thought it was possible to get something done for these people. We collected lots of data and information and had discussions with the Senate, but despite the lot of hard work we put into it and the press coverage, it was a total failure.

We got together figures of about 10,000 empty flats in the city, and we tried to put legal pressure on the Senate to rent these flats. We got a lot of verbal concessions in the beginning and we thought we had gained something but nothing really positive was achieved by it.

Can you tell me something about the history of squatting?
The movement has its roots in the student revolt of '68, goes on through the Blues and the Deutchen Herbst of '78. It's a part of the left scene in the city. Places have been squatted for at least five years.

In '79 things really began to get started in the worst slum clearance areas in the east of Kreuzberg - in SO36. More and more houses began to be occupied and just before Christmas 1980 the police cleared out several houses. Then there was the reaction against this - the so-called violence.

The housing problem, only came to be publicly discussed after the first stones were thrown. Why?
Yes, the publicity did come with the first riots. I know that people in the Mieterladen have been working on the problem for nearly five years and the results have been practically negligible. They haven't achieved very much, and they put a lot of hard work into trying to tackle these problems. It escalated with the press coverage, and because of the potential of the movement - which wasn't purely concerned with housing problems but also with andere Lebensforrmen (other ways of living). The people were not just squatting houses, they were actually doing something with them.

Could you describe some of the sorts of people involved in the movement?
I can tell you about the people around Chamissoplatz. About nineteen houses here are squatted. A lot of them are students, and there's a fair sprinkling of unemployed and younger people. There are also a few older people who have been politically active for a long time. There is also the so-called militant fringe or Front Kids who are to some extent a bit disorientated. My experience with the Punks for instance; they are in some ways very naive, which is disconcerting at times, but behind the facade and the language I have found them to be really nice people. To sum up, I would say that most of them are young, intellectual and politically aware.

You are living in a house which is partially squatted. Could you tell me about that?
Ws squatted the three empty flats in the front of the house. Later on we opened up the empty flats in the back. There are still tenants living in the house, and for us that can be an advantage and a disadvantage. The tenants have a different attitude to squatting, property and rent; and perhaps that keeps our feet on the ground in some respects. The disadvantage is that it is difficult to do things in the house, in the houses which are completely squatted the people tend to look on the house as their own, and they have put a lot of work into changing the interiors and renovating them. They can have things like communal workshops. But we are fairly tied in this house.

How have the tenants in the neighbourhood reacted to you moving in here?
The reaction has been fairly mixed. We have found it difficult to overcome their suspicions. But after the first few weeks the tenants were corning by with old carpets and furniture. We organised discussions but at first we didn't have much response. We tried to explain the modernisation plans and how they themselves were affected by it.

Outside, in the immediate neighbourhood, the reaction has been rather cautious. We put tables on the pavement and invited people to coffee and cakes and tried to explain why we were squatting. Sometimes it was really good and we could really talk with them, but they still remained cautious, especially because of the association made between squatting and violence. . . but much of the violence comes from the way in which some of the people around here live. As an example, one night a 'neighbour' from across the road shot up the whole of the front of the house with his air rifle and smashed all the windows.

How has the Senate reacted?
I am still trying to work out for myself whether it has been a calculated reaction or whether it just resulted from the pressure put on them.

When Burgermeister Vogel took over, he developed the so-called Berliner Linie. This involved negotiations with the squatters, but from the start the squatters were not prepared to negotiate while the people who had demonstrated on the streets in their support were still in jail. Nevertheless, discussions did take place through third parties.

It seemed from very early on that the Senate was trying to divide the movement into houses which would negotiate and houses which would not. But looking back at it now, it seems that this was a deliberate tactic to split the movement.

During all this there were searches and evictions - while the negotiations through third parties were going on.

The Senate also had a problem with its own executive - the Staatsanwaitschaft (Pubic Prosecutor's Office) - which wanted to restore order in the houses. This was one of the reasons for the provocative searches. The police wanted to show that they had the upper hand.

The police have searched a lot of houses. What does this mean to the houses being searched?
It means an awful [lot] of uncertainty, because nobody knows when the police are going to come. A lot of the houses the police have been to have been vandalised - they've wrecked some of the places they have been into. They come very early in the morning and people are hardly ever prepared for them. The squatters are usually taken to one of the larger police stations for identification and questioning. In most cases they are charged with trespassing, with resisting arrest and more recently with with stealing gas and electricity. And in some cases with Law 129a Bilding einer kriminellen Vereingung - which is conspiracy. (Law 129a was introduced specifically to suppress the RAF.) In a lot of the houses the police have been so rough and so brutal with the people and their possessions that this has caused a lot or anger.

Is there much public support for the squatters?
I think that at the beginning, at Christmas, there was a lot, particulary within the districts themelves. But it has ebbed. There is a basic sympathy but it is difficult to define.

Due to the actual housing shortage practically everyone in this area is effected, especially in this area. People at some time or another have had some sort of trouble with their landlords, or with the rents going up, or with the neglect of the houses, and especially with the problem of actually getting a flat.

But because of the press coverage, the provocation of the police, and the particular form of resistance from the squatters, this sympathy has gradually ebbed.

Do you think the press and television coverage has been fair?
No, I don't think it has. Particularly the Springer press hasn't been and they have almost a monopoly here. They tried to isolate and criminalise the squatters as Chaoten and Radikale - at that sort of level. There was no discussion of the problems which were behind the squatting, and no understanding of why people were going out onto the streets und smashing the windows of banks. But nobody was surprised by this reaction, it was the obvious one. I don't know about television - I don't have one.

Now the violence has escalated, and this week it has been almost nightly. Why?
I think the violence has been provoked - by the police and by the Staatsanwaltschaft. There is a lot of frustration in the houses and a tremendous amount of anger, particularly directed against the police, because of the searches and evictions. We decided we must always react to these attacks by the police, we can't just let them happen, because if we do, next week they come knocking on this door and we will be out on the street.

There must always be a political reaction, and most of the reactions have been directed into this 'counter-violence'. I call it 'counter-violence' because the original violence comes from the police themselves. It has escalated particularly in the last week because of the eviction of Mittenwalderstrasse. It comes from the daily provocation and intimidation.

Another factor, I think too, is the uncertainty about the future. In the long tun the CDU (Christian Democrats) may try and clear out all of the houses and if there is no pressure on them, they will be able to do that.

Is there anything which wound stop this 'counter-violence'?
Yes, certainly. If the searches were stopped, and as far as I can see there is practically no reason whatsoever for them. If the clearing out of the houses was stopped immediately and if everyone knew this. If a political solution to the whole problem was being openly discussed with us, it would certainly stop.

People don't go out onto the street and risk long prison sentences for fun - they do it to defend what they have achieved over the last six months.

Burgermeister von Weizacker said today, after yesterday's riots in front of Rathaus Schone berg (the Senate), that the non-violent houses must separate themselves from the violent ones. What is your reaction to that?
Scheisse! (Shit!)

This is well [a] known tactic, divide and rule, and it's been known to us from the start. I don't think on can separate the so-called violent houses from the so-called peaceful houses, even if one tried. I don't think people are going to fall into this trap.

What do you think well happen, this summer and in the long run?
I feel that in some way the Senate will use this political leeway they have at the moment.They have a certain amount of sympathy because the SPD left them with a great problem and they have got to solve it, and in summer a lot of the young people are away, so they might use this period in getting as far as they can in clearing out as many of the houses as possible That's certainly on the cards.

In fact, from here the future looks pretty black. but we have not given up hope. And if it comes to a mass clear-out of the houses, there will be a mass reaction The Senate knows that, von Weizacker knows that. But if he takes this easy line, it will be no solution to the problem. The people will still be there, the problem will still be there.

Is there anything you think I haven't covered?
Yes, the imagination and the work that goes on in the houses. Squaring is not just silting on your backside and doing nothing. There is fantastic potential in the houses, and given a certain amount of freedom within the environment it could really grow. It would really hurt me to see that destroyed by this mindless draufschlagen (hammering/destroying), by this clearing-out of the houses.

In many ways the houses are like small plants, in the right conditions they will start to grow and a lot will come out of them, but if you start tearing up the earth and witholding water, you destroy them. In the houses a lot of people are trying to be creative and sensitive towards their environment, but when there is continuous violence from the outside, there must be some reaction to it, they become nervous and edgy, and maybe in the long run very resigned.

The recent reactions in Mittenwald Strasse are a clear example to us that despite the promises nothing has changed in the Sanierungspolitik (rebuilding and rennovation policy) - luxury flats and huge profits are more important to them than people's needs. But we have also learnt that wer sich nicht wehrt, lebt verkehrt (anyone who doesn't defend themselves is living the wrong way).

There's a life in the houses now, the courtyards have been painted, gardens have been laid - and you can hear the laughter of the kids who come in to play. That's the kind of thing I'd like to emphasise.

Thank you!