Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Following a major police raid last week, the city’s former alternative centers seem more fragile than ever.
“R94 Lives!” read the fresh graffiti.
Daubed in red paint across several of Berlin’s political party headquarters last night, the slogan (since scrubbed off) referred to a massive police raid on an East Berlin squat last week, one of the largest and most controversial in Berlin’s recent history. Following an attack of a police officer nearby, a 500-strong anti-riot team backed up by dogs and helicopters stormed into the so-called “occupied house” at 94, Rigaer Strasse (or “R94”) on Wednesday night, making 100 arrests. Police raided the two houses next door the following day and kept up a heavy stop-and-search presence over the weekend.
Taking place at one of Berlin’s best-known alternative centers, the raid has sent shockwaves through the city, sparking a heated debate on whether it was a case of necessary public safety or unlawful police overreach. For the police and their defenders, the raid was an inevitable consequence of continuing disorder and antagonism coming from the squat. For their critics, the assault on the officer was an excuse used by the police to launch an only quasi-lawful attack on people who they disliked.
The incident nonetheless has more resonance than as a local street battle alone. While they’ve been in retreat for years, Berlin’s squats were long a high-profile part of the city’s fabric, forming a cornerstone of the city’s alternative mythos. The raid on Rigaer 94 suggests that the city’s authorities are no longer prepared to tolerate what they see as safe havens for lawlessness. The communes have been fighting a downhill battle for some time, so could this high-profile struggle signal their last stand is nigh?
To someone unfamiliar with Berlin, it might come as a shock to know that such things as squats still exist within its inner city. Springing up across East Berlin in the post-reunification period, and in rundown parts of West Berlin since the 1960s, these communes typically took over large, dilapidated pre-World War I tenements whose former tenants had fled to better conditions. In the early 1990s there were plenty of such buildings to go around, as Berliners with options understandably tended to prefer modern buildings with central heating to leaky, drafty old piles heated by coal stoves.
Often populated by left-leaning people connected to Berlin’s anarchist scene, these occupied houses, as the Germans call them, frequently became informal cultural centers—creating a network of “people’s kitchens” where anyone could buy a hot meal at close-to-cost price. They were also, at times, launch pads for street battles with the city’s neo-Nazis. So common were they at one time that Rigaer Strasse’s many occupied buildings saw it become a sort of squatters’ Champs Élysées.
Berlin nowadays is a very different city. Across Germany, extreme right views are arguably more popular than ever, but the city’s days of orchestrated skinhead street violence have largely passed. Neighborhoods once shunned for their cold, leaky houses are now refurbished and highly sought-after by the middle class. Rigaer Strasse is in a gentrifying, well-to-do area that frequently acts as a second choice overspill for people who’d really like to live in the expensive neighborhood next door.
Squats inevitably have little place in this changed cityscape. But to their credit, they have also tried to move with the times. While large numbers of occupied houses have been dissolved, often following violent evictions, most had already shifted peacefully over to paying some rent by the end of the 1990s. That didn’t stop owners evicting the occupiers to refurbish and gain a higher rent, but it did for a time create a stable environment in which residents could pursue an alternative lifestyle without unmanageable friction. They’ve maintained an uneasy balance, neither part of the city’s mainstream life nor antagonistic to surrounding neighbors who are.
The future of the few that remain is still highly fragile. The potential profits from refurbishing and re-tenanting old buildings are huge, while city authorities often tend to see the old squats as a potentially lawless nuisance.
And according to the police’s account of events, that opinion is entirely justified. Berlin police say that the four assailants that attacked their colleague were seen escaping into Rigaer 94. When backup officers arrived and entered the building, they found the courtyard and basement massed with potential weapons including metal rods, fire extinguishers, gas cylinders, and a shopping cart filled with cobblestones—a horde they immediately shared via photographs on Twitter. In the interests of public safety, the police returned in greater numbers five hours later, clearing the building and making arrests.
The attack on the officer was, for them, just the last straw in an ongoing campaign of low-burning hostility coming from the squat, hostility that had seen them insulted and called out on false errands. Critics of the police, including squat residents and representatives of the local Green and Pirate Parties, see things differently. For them, the police have used the assault on the officer as a way of lashing out at people with no involvement in the incident.
By the time of the police raid, even the police themselves were aware that the attackers had long disappeared (they have not as yet been identified). They nonetheless instigated an almost-military operation against the squat—all to protect the public from a supposed stockpile of weapons that residents say was actually just scrap left around for ultimate recycling or house repairs. For Rigaer 94 residents, they are victims of police brutality targeted for somebody else’s crimes solely because officialdom sees them as an inconvenience. One Pirate Party representative went as far as calling a city commissioner who applauded the raid a “danger to security and order.”
While things may soon calm down in the city, the position of the squat and others like it now feels more tenuous than ever. The graffiti may swear that “R94 lives,” but that increasingly reads more like an expression of defiance than a prediction for the future.