The Keizersgracht with its magnificent buildings from the 18th century is located in the historic center of Amsterdam. Stately houses with bay windows, pillars in front and wide staircases up to the front door. Everyone in Amsterdam liked to live in such a canal house. But for most of them it remains a dream, because the rents here are astronomical.
Except for those who don’t pay rent. Such as the group in Keizersgracht 318 that has been occupying the building since July 2020. Since it had been vacant for several years, the squatters – called Krakers in Dutch – decided to use it as living space. A procedure that has been a tradition in the country since the 1960s.
On the facade hang banners with inscriptions: “Kraken gaat door” (squatting continues) and “We are back” (we are back). A note is stuck to the massive wooden entrance door. The text, in Dutch and English, explains that the building has been unused for years, while rents have exploded in Amsterdam, more and more hotels are being built and the waiting time for those seeking social housing can be up to 20 years. There is an electronic bell above it. Nothing happens on the first ring, the second time a voice from inside asks in English for names and wishes.
The door opens only hesitantly, just enough for a slim man to squeeze between the door and the wall. He is small, less than 1.70 meters tall, wearing a light blue, frayed denim jacket with black patches and black, laced leather boots. The dark hair is shaved to a millimeter length, the nose is pierced with a ring, and a thick silver link chain with a padlock hangs around the neck. He doesn’t want to talk to the press and is suspicious. Bad experiences have been made there. When asked, he reacts annoyed, but not aggressively, always withdraws behind the door, but does not close it. Finally a woman with dyed green hair comes out with a boxer hybrid on a leash. While the man is still quickly watering the plants in front of the house with a water bottle, she rolls a cigarette. Then the two walk away over one of the bridges.
Owner: “I can already understand people”
Squatting like this has existed in the Netherlands since 1964. Over the years, the number of members of the scene grew and the organization became more professional, until the situation escalated in 1980 and the police came with a tank to break through the squatters’ barricades and clear buildings. In 1994 a law was passed that prohibited occupying a building that had been vacant for less than a year. But only since 2010 has octopus, ie squatting, been generally considered a criminal offense. There is a threat of one year imprisonment, or two years and eight months in the event of violent resistance. In 2012, fueled by the arrival of many refugees, the scene strengthened again and the collective “We are here”, consisting of migrants and asylum seekers, occupied more than 30 buildings and parks in Amsterdam by the end of 2017.
One of the affected owners is Salih Ozcan. In the summer of 2019, his company hall in an industrial area in West Amsterdam, which was to be converted into a showroom for cars, was occupied by 40 men. “The police explained to me that they were professional squatters and therefore advised me not to go in there alone, as experience has shown that the situation often escalates,” he says during a conversation in the office of his garage in a suburb of Amsterdam. “Until then, I didn’t even know there were such groups. I found out later that the squatters had people looking for empty objects. “
Ozcan enlisted assistance from an AT5 television crew. “Actually, I wanted to show the responsible community that they have to find a solution for these people. But no sooner were we in the hall with the camera than we were thrown out again. “
Usually the asylum squatters stay for at least eight weeks, because that is how long it takes before the owner of the property can obtain a judge’s decision for an evacuation with the help of a lawyer. Only then do the police take action. In the case of Salih Ozcan, however, it went faster. After eleven days, accelerated by the great attention of national and international media, the police stepped in and cleared the building, in which there were already 100 people. A year later, Ozcan says: “I can understand people, but that’s not a solution either.”
Occupier: “We create living space, even if it is only for five people”
“Actually, buildings that we think are empty are observed over a long period of time. But there is a different urgency with the asylum squatters. Anything that looks empty promises to survive a little longer, «says Annemarie Dijkstra, who keeps her real name to herself because she prefers to remain anonymous. She has been part of the squatter scene for years. Dijkstra also wears black and the typical heavy, laced leather boots. Her nose is also pierced with a small ring, and she drinks her coffee – of course – black. “There is enough space in Amsterdam and the city would have enough money to accommodate the people,” she explains at a meeting in a café.
She has noticed that the squatter scene has shrunk noticeably in recent years since the law was changed. “Houses are cleared faster. Our entire infrastructure was taken from us. ”This also made it more difficult to ensure the safety of the members of the movement. »It can be dangerous, especially during the weekly consultation hours that we offer for people with living space problems. We never know who’s coming. ”The situation is particularly delicate for the women’s group in the“ We are here ”collective, as the young, often pregnant women, could easily become the target of right-wing extremists.
Annemarie Dijkstra admits that there is also fear of the squatter scene in society. That has mainly to do with clichés and the presentation in the media. “We’re always portrayed as drug addicts parasites who take something away from other people. We want to help. We create living space, even if only for five people. Then we just helped five people. “
Property that is now open to everyone after risky action
Ivo Schmetz, who in 1999 occupied the empty house OT301 on Vondelpark in Amsterdam’s city center, also wanted to create living space and space for creativity. Today it is an important part of the city’s cultural scene, as are the formerly occupied houses Paradiso and Melkweg, which are now used as concert halls. “The building was perfect for us. The only problem was that it hadn’t been empty for a whole year, which would have made us a criminal offense for trespassing «, he explains in the office of the OT301 with a view of the inner courtyard with its colorful graffiti art, bicycles and plants. Today the man, who has been a member of the scene for 20 years, no longer wears an anarcho look, but a green outdoor jacket and sneakers. “It was a risky occupation. The owner of the building, the city of Amsterdam, could have had it evacuated very quickly. «Fortunately, the idea of the artist squatters’ group met with public approval, and so living space, work areas, studios and rooms for cultural events were created in the three-story house with an area of 2,000 square meters.
In 2006 the group bought the house and became legal collective owners. »There are currently six people living in the front building and as many in the main building. But it is important to us that our house is open to people. We are usually open six or seven days a week for exhibitions, readings, film screenings, yoga classes or self-defense courses. “
Although Ivo Schmetz officially no longer belongs to the squatters, he still supports their actions to this day. »I’m glad that there are still active squatters because the 2010 law changed Amsterdam. So it’s good that the movement is showing up again. People seem to forget that this culture has also given the city of Amsterdam a lot of good. Many buildings would have been demolished without the squatters – and thanks to the squatters, numerous cultural centers have emerged that still exist today, «says Schmetz.
Occupying houses creates space for diversity
It is important to have diversity in the city, with opportunities for everyone. “Occupying houses has always been a catalyst for bringing new things to life. But hardly any buildings of this type have been added in the past ten years, many have been evicted and closed. “
The way out of the OT301 leads through the inner courtyard and a corridor that runs under the front building, past black and white graffiti with Siamese cats and the friendly robot R2D2 from the “Star Wars” film. In the corner of an old cupboard is a small robot welded together from scrap metal. The heavy metal door to the main street slams into the lock. It is always open to those interested. Unlike in the Keizersgracht, where the house-to-house fight rages behind closed doors.