The Swiss Squat March That Ended in Rubber Bullets and Tear Gas
That's what you get if you lead a convoy of electronica-blaring dancing shoes through the centre of Zurich.
On the evening of the 2nd of March, around 3,000 partygoers gathered in Zurich for the last ever party at the Binz, Switzerland's most renowned squat. However, instead of crusties giving their dogs blowbacks and art students gurning peacefully in the shadows, the night ended in what you always hope for when you're stumbling out of a party at 5AM: a haze of tear gas, rubber bullets and sadness.
It was the result of a demonstration that's been months in the making. Almost seven years ago, the "Schoch family" – the name the squatters have given themselves – took over some former factory buildings in Zurich's Binz neighbourhood. Within a few months, the abandoned industrial park had been transformed into an autonomous space that offered free housing to its 50 residents, ranging in age from newborns to 70-year-olds, and gave more than 100 people a space to do art and shit.
However, last February, the city announced that they were planning on massacring the party by converting the building into student halls, meaning the building had to be completely cleared by May 2013. The Schoch family quickly reacted with a mix of creative engagement and protest. Their (rhetorical) war cry was a political declaration of independence, encapsulated by the slogan "Crime Power instead of Prime Tower" – a pun on Zurich’s tallest upmarket commercial building, the Prime Tower.
Politicians smiled awkwardly and the local press weren't exactly getting onside, which isn't really what the Schoch family were hoping for. So, to send out one last message to city officials, the squatters decided to do what you do if you want to simultaneously celebrate and piss off the people in charge (or celebrate pissing off the people in charge?): throw a huge party.
The party manifested itself in the shape of a travelling procession of decorated vehicles – "Binzmobiles", as the crowd called them – that blasted out music and flew flags bearing slogans like "Too Binz to fail". I'm not sure that the 3,000 people invited by text message were aware that the party would be more of a rallying call against the plans to convert the Binz building than an actual party, but in true Swiss neutral camaraderie, they all happily joined in anyway.
The peaceful crowd made their way from Manesseplatz in the west of Zurich up to Wiedikon, flanked by the Binzmobiles. By this point, one vehicle sporting a huge, dancing shoe had started to blare out electronica; a hardcore band had started playing on the back of another, riling everyone up; one had a corn-on-the-cob barbecue fired up on its back and another that looked sort of like a soapbox derby jet-rocket was selling booze to anyone who could get near. Which, as I'm sure you'll appreciate, is a big deal for Switzerland, because nothing ever happens there.
Apart from a couple of walls that were redecorated with slogans, there was hardly any sign of damage or animosity at this point – everyone was far more interested in drinking and trying to find a balance between the hardcore and electronica soundsystems that didn't make them want to kill themselves.
However, as the crowd reached Wiedikon train station, things took a dramatic turn for the awful. A battalion of Swiss Robocops greeted the parade with a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets, to which a bunch of masked activists replied by hurling stones and bottles and setting up a barrier between themselves and the police with a row of flaming rubbish bins.
Protected by their ring of fire, the convoy of Binzmobiles rolled on towards Helvetiaplatz, where the police welcomed them again, this time using their Aquasplash water cannons, which sound like the kind of thing you'd sacrifice a week's worth of TV for as a seven-year-old, but are actually kind of a bum-out when it's cold and you'd rather not be soaking wet.
Among all the commotion, a few of the rioters took the opportunity to damage police vehicles, smash up the windows of banks and insurance companies, loot a supermarket for its booze and cigarettes and hurl an array of chocolate Easter bunnies into the road, because – more than anything – fuck the commercialisation of Easter, right?
The cat and mouse game between police and rioters went on until the police managed to split the crowd into smaller groups, who all promptly made their way back to the Bintz squat and partied into the next morning. All in all, rioters had caused material damage of around a couple of hundred thousand Francs. In an interview, members of the Schoch family later apologised for the damage the rioters caused to the city and stressed that those responsible have nothing to do with the Binz squat.
The next day, all that was left for the Binz gang was a severe hangover and headlines in the daily papers exclaiming that they'd gambled away any of the sympathy they still had left prior to the march. Most articles focused only on the damage caused by the parade and completely failed to mention why it was happening in the first place – ignoring the fact that the Binz is one of the few places in Zurich allowing innovative projects to be realised without commercial or legal boundaries.
At 9AM that Tuesday morning, just after the city's commuters had put down their papers, Zurich's police charged the Binz squat. Around a hundred officers using dogs and water cannons dragged the squatters straight from their beds to the street in what looked more like a medieval siege than an exercise in democratic action. The area was closed off and anyone who wanted to get in had to show ID and be searched extensively, which seems a little much when you consider that the place is almost exclusively populated by hippies.
The interior of the Binz was entered forcefully, searched meticulously, some items – mostly cameras and computers – were seized, pictures were taken of the vehicles and everybody’s particulars were recorded. No arrests were made and the squatters all retreated up to the roof of the building in a show of non-violent resistance.
The Schoch family officially have until the end of May to vacate the premises, but the actual tearing down of the building and the start of construction on the new student halls isn't until next autumn. The mood among the Binz residents is optimistic; they're willing to resist the government plans until the bitter end and have no intention of letting their self-made haven be snatched from them easily. So while the future of the Binz remains uncertain, one thing is definite: the fight for the space isn't over yet.
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