squats

What Spending 24 Hours in a Squat Taught Me About Gen Z

The generation's desire to better the world is only rivalled by their need to fight the establishment – even when the establishment doesn't seem too concerned about fighting back.

by Lea Albring
03 July 2017, 7:07pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

The kids who have been occupying Squat Bochum since the 19th of May seem to embody the most cliche characteristics attributed to their generation – starting with how they operate their squat. They have a Twitter account where they call for solidarity, equality and donations, mention a phone number for press inquiries in their Twitter bio and sell tote bags at the ground floor of their building.

Squats in Germany are usually cleared within 24 hours, but Squat Bochum has been occupied for more than six weeks. What's more – Squat Bochum is in, well, Bochum. Bochum is number 16 on the list of largest cities in Germany, rent is at half of that in Berlin or a third of what you'd pay in Munich, and the last time a building in Bochum was squatted was 20 years ago. So why is this squat still standing, and why is it standing in Bochum?

To find out more, I call the number in the Twitter bio, but the person on the other end isn't eager to give their name or talk on the phone. "You can come over to Bochum and introduce yourself personally," they offer.

So that's what I do – I pack a sleeping bag, take a train fro Berlin to Bochum and introduce myself at 131 Herner Straße. Of course, whether I can stay and write about the squat has to be put to a vote – the squatters have a meeting and collectively decide I'm allowed to stay. Starting the next morning, I can stay and do as I please in the squat for 24 hours, but I have to guarantee complete anonymity for everyone there. While the squatters already go by aliases, I have to call everyone I speak to by another made up name.

I return the next morning, climb up a ladder and go in through a small window. The squatters won't tell me how they originally got into the building or how they got hold of the keys of the shop on the ground floor, but at least I'm inside.

8 AM

I can see why the squatters picked this particular building six weeks ago – it may need some renovation but it's not falling apart. The last tenant of one of the apartments upstairs moved out last year, and the owner is an elderly lady who is in debt to the city. The city plans to auction it off to a new owner, but the squatters feel the building already has new owners and a new purpose. Their plan is to start a community centre or neighbourhood-run a shop downstairs, and make the apartments upstairs available to people in need of shelter – refugees or homeless people.

On the third floor of the building is a large room with wooden beams, alcoves and wood-panelled ceilings. There's a whiteboard with notes about the next meeting – the squatters hold a few of those every day. The next point of order is the name of the squat – the options on the whiteboard so far include "Alte Dame" (Old Lady), "Grüne Freiheit" (Green Freedom) or the Klaus Jürgen Rattay House, after a squatter who died in 1981 during a police raid. It's a choice between nostalgia, kitsch and rebellion.

In this room I meet Simon, who has been keeping watch for the night. That mostly means sitting by the window with a walkie-talkie for hours, and keeping an eye out for police or angry fascists. He tells me that the police showed up once, but just to ask if they could be quiet. The officers said they had seen fascists in the area taking pictures of the building, but Simon hasn't spotted them.

Simon is not very chatty, but quite insightful: "They never vacate squats during the day, we're more at risk between 3 and 6 in the morning." I assume that's some sort of psychological warfare on the part of the police, but Simon says it's more pragmatic than that. "Blocking off the street at this time of day? That would create too much chaos. And honestly, I don't think the police even knows how to deal with the situation. "

The squatters are all aware that what they're doing counts as trespassing, which could lead to a year in prison. But walking around in the squat, it's hard to feel worried about it – the squatters' biggest concern right now seems to be that the tobacco could run out at some point.

One of the private rooms in the squat

9 AM

I notice that a couple of rooms on the third floor have name tags on them – they're reserved for certain squatters. Don't they believe that property is theft, though? I ask Isa what the name tags are about. "The squatters who are here full time need some private space to retreat in," she tells me over a cigarette. "Everyone respects that."

9.30 AM

I'm sat in front of the building with Ephraim and Weasel, just hanging out. I feel a bit like I'm at a festival, bumming around at the camping site before heading over to a stage to see the first worthwhile band of the day. Passersby glance at the signs hanging from the front of the building, reading "We are all staying" and "Peaceful occupation instead of hatred and persecution". Flex and Xuxu hand out flyers and shove them in letterboxes, inviting neighbours to an open discussion that's set to take place that evening, to decide on what should happen to the building. The squatters have thrown together some random furniture in the shop downstairs, which inadvertently makes it look like a hipster coffee shop. One of the neighbours walks up to us with a flyer in his hand. "You can keep your flyers," he says. "This is harassment."

But other residents are a lot more open to the building being squatted. I talk to Carsten, a neighbour who often comes over to sit in front of the shop with a beer. He's lived in the neighbourhood for years and is on benefits. "I watched it all happen from my window," he says. "I saw them get into the house."

Carsten, a sympathetic neighbour, did not know many squatters are vegans

He's happy something is finally happening with the building. He even cooked up a huge pot of pasta for the squatters – "But I hadn't known a lot of them were vegans." Other locals and supporters donated a fridge, a mobile cooker and a working dishwasher. Cars beep their horns while driving past. The driver of a dustcart waves his fist out the window. It seems that Germans generally appreciate a bit of anarchy – as long as they don't have to actually join in.

Most of the squatters here are very young. There are kids with braces, some of them come only in the afternoons because they still go to school. I ask Ephraim if his parents know he's here. "I invited my mum to visit but she hasn't shown up – at least not yet," he says.

"I live on my own anyway, my mother isn't bothered," Flex says. None of the squatters are homeless, they all rent their own flats, live in a flat share or with their parents. I ask Flex what they hope to achieve by squatting this building, exactly. "We want to take back the building from the capitalist exploitation of the government and create a free space for the people of the city."

Weasel's answer sounds a bit less rehearsed: "I used to just be a drunk punk, but I recently became more politicised. In my opinion, freedom is everything. If something isn't being used for such a long time, why can't we just take it and turn it into something good?"

Three police cars drive past, but that doesn't seem to worry anyone. "Naw, there's a police station by the motorway exit," Weasel says.

1 PM

It's the first official meeting of the day. Ten people have gathered in a circle in the large room upstairs. One by one, they open up about how they're currently feeling – whether they slept well and feel motivated.

After a while, Lisa nervously asks if we've made sure there are no mobile phones in the room. Her worry that the police might be monitoring them is understandable – they're technically trespassing and some of them have been arrested before.

But the conversation moves on rather quickly to the question of whether or not to have a jam session in the squat. "A few musician friends of mine could organise it, but they don't want to open up the stage to just everyone. They've had some bad experiences with people drunkenly walking on stage and not being able to sing or play at all," someone says. "But don't we want to give everyone an equal chance?" someone else asks. That conversation goes on for about 15 minutes – I can't imagine it's thrilling stuff for any officers who may be listening in.

The shop floor downstairs, which the squatters are hoping to turn into a cultural centre

7 PM

Roughly 20 people showed up for the open discussion, the squatters were advertising earlier. "I have to say," a man in his fifties who wears a beret, says after introducing himself as a squatter from the 80s, "you guys have occupied a great house. The shop downstairs is the perfect place to become a social or cultural centre in the area." Another guy in his forties chimes in, "I squatted a house once. I could give you some pointers on how to fight the police when they come?"

He starts giving suggestions, but moderator Kati thanks him as soon as she can and quickly changes the subject to the main point of the conversation – what should happen to the building. I feel the whole exchange shows what happens when three types of squatters meet – the first type is the ex-squatter who shows up out of nostalgia and sympathy, the second type is again an ex-squatter who just wants to share war stories, and then the third type are the new generation who mostly just care about the present and the future.

0.45 AM

There's another meeting at midnight, but this time there's no talk of jam sessions. The squatters discuss strategy in case of an eviction. Should they resist or leave peacefully? The mood has changed significantly – people are nervous and worried. Nine people will stay in the building overnight. "If the police turn up, know that you have at least half an hour before they've made their way upstairs," Weasel says.

If the doors get knocked down and the barricades upstairs are torn down, everyone upstairs has to follow a strict plan. "The mobile phone we use to talk to press has to be destroyed. But the most important thing is that we all meet here and all agree on a version of our story to tell police. Whether you leave willingly or let yourself get carried out is up to you. But remember that being carried out can be dangerous; If you slip or make any unexpected movement it can be taken as a sign of resistance. And then you're fucked." All occupants agree: No violence at any point.

1.30 AM

I take my sleeping bag and go in search of a place to sleep. "Look for something comfortable to lie on," some helpful soul tells me. I decide to retreat in a room on the top floor, next to an old kitchen. There's no light anywhere, so I bring a candle I found in the bathroom.

The people keeping watch tonight have taken their positions, the ladder to the shop downstairs has been pulled up. I realise that if no one can come in, no one can get out either. That makes me think of all the lit candles everywhere in the building. What if the whole place burns down? I have to say that I find the idea of a fire starting from a mishandled candle more worrying than police kicking down the door. But before I have a chance to really mull that thought over, I fall asleep.

7.30 AM

"Hey, I don't know how long you plan to sleep, but your 24 hours are almost over," Vick wakes me, standing next to my sleeping bag. "Coffee?" He was up all night on watch. The doors haven't been kicked down, the squat still stands – as it has been, for about six weeks. I have my coffee, say goodbye and go home.

A few days later, I call Bochum police to ask if there are any plans to evict. The spokesperson tells me they currently don't monitor the building and don't see the squat as an imminent danger to the community. "An eviction really is the last option for us, we hope that it won't come to that."

So there's a simple reason for why the squat still stands – it's not a priority for Bochum police. They haven't dealt with a squat for 20 years, and aren't in a rush to break with this one. The threat of eviction serves as a bond for the group of squatters, and it doesn't really matter if that threat is real or imagined. Still, both squatters and sympathisers plan to have a demonstration in the centre of Bochum in case the squat is cleared. I guess Bochum should start getting used to the fact that it has a squat scene now.