10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Squatter
"A society without private property would be much more humane."
All photos: Rafael Heygster
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Felix is an experienced protester and political squatter – which is why, when we meet, I'm surprised to learn that he's never actually lived in any of the four occupations he's organised. Apparently, most political squatters don't. "Squats tend to have limited space," he says. "Plus, you generally need more people to occupy a space than can actually live there."
The 33-year-old sociologist is a member of "Our House OM10" – a collective of activists in the German university town of Göttingen who took over an empty building complex in November of 2015 and bought it two years later. Their activism is focused on occupying spaces to send a political message and raise awareness of important causes in the area.
Berlin alone has seen over 600 political occupations since the 1970s. Recently in London, thousands of climate activists belonging to the group Extinction Rebellion camped out in Oxford Circus and on public roads around key landmarks in an effort to force the government to improve on its environmental pledges.
With more occupations expected this summer, I spoke to Felix about the importance of occupying and squatting, whether he ever feels guilty about taking over someone's house and why he hates the police.
VICE: Hey, Felix. Is squatting worth it?
Felix: We occupy property that has either been left empty for a really long time or is being used illegitimately, such as a public building that's being sold to investors. From my experience, squatting is a very effective means of protest. It forces the other side to react, which isn't the case with other forms of protest. It wasn't the many conversations with the University of Göttingen that got us our autonomous café in the campus, it was after we occupied the space.
Do you hate the police?
Yeah, I'd say so. In my opinion, they are an institution that uses force to uphold poor social conditions. I couldn't be friends with a cop; I've just seen too much police violence. I've been kicked, tear-gassed and thrown in a cell. It's almost impossible to physically defend an occupation if they decide to kick you out. What is much more important is PR. If you can't get the public on your side fast, then you'll be out of the building fast. You have to make being kicked out politically difficult, rather than physically tough.
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Do you object to the concept of property in general, and if so, would you be OK with someone taking your stuff?
Private property is a social construct that leads to misery. A society without private property would be much more humane.
The reason why I would not be OK with someone taking all of my stuff is because our society is currently organised in a way that would negatively affect my living conditions. But within an ideal social system, I would have no problem with you taking my stuff.
How did you learn how to break into an empty house?
I have to admit that I have never broken into a home myself – the front door has always already been open when I arrived. All I do know is that an inspection of the building is needed beforehand.
Isn't committing a crime to make a political point irresponsible?
The punishment for squatting is fairly low compared to other forms of political action. Most of the time it's just a fine, which we split between us. The annoying paradox is that squatting in empty buildings is illegal, but deliberately leaving them empty in the first place as a form of financial speculation is fine.
Is daily life in a squat boring?
The washing up and general cleaning still has to be done, but then you'd have to do that in a shared flat, too. You also have to organise night watches, regardless of whether you think a raid might actually take place or not; someone has to be awake at all times. A police clearance is uncomfortable at the best of times, let alone when you're surprised in the middle of the night. At one occupation, we were woken up by the cops hitting the roof with sledgehammers. You don't want that to happen.
How many times a day do you worry about the fact that you're doing something illegal?
I don't think about it. I'm convinced that, in certain cases, civil disobedience is necessary to change society. That's how I justify it to myself. I've been charged several times and taken to court, but I've always been acquitted. That shows you how much interest there actually is in prosecuting squatting in Germany.
Do you keep illegal substances or weapons in your squat?
Asbestos, maybe? [laughs] The police use the assumption that we're harbouring illegal items to justify clearing out occupations. And when you think about it, almost anything can be considered a weapon. But I've never seen an actual weapon at any of the occupations I have been involved with. And carrying one goes against our ethos, anyway. We don't set up to fight back.
How would you like it if someone came into your house and told you that it was now occupied?
Well, firstly I'd have to own a house, which is something I'm a long way away from being able to do. Secondly, our occupations don't normally take place in someone's personal home. It's about taking properties that aren't being used for the right reasons and giving them a meaningful social purpose. I think our occupations are perfectly legitimate.
Doesn't occupying a building raise the profile of a neighbourhood and increase the risk of gentrification?
Good question. Of course, it depends on the area. Our occupation of the Goethe Institute in the poshest part of Göttingen obviously didn't contribute to an already gentrified area.