|Amsterdam - Evictions stir up sympathy for the squatters with a social conscience
IVO AND his squatter pals pride themselves on being able to break through any door within two minutes. Heavily bolted and padlocked entrances can be penetrated in less than 30 seconds but it may take a little longer to invade reinforced steel, admits the 27-year-old Dutch university drop- out.
His impressive arsenal of high-powered steel cutters, battering rams, crowbars and hatchets are the tools of the trade for "breakers" such as himself. But it may not be long before the house-breaking implements start gathering dust.
Amsterdam's army of squatters - known as Krakers - is under siege. The Dutch still have some of the most liberal laws anywhere on squatting but the Amsterdam authorities have declared war on the Krakers. The motive is profit: property prices are soaring on the back of a mini economic boom, and aggressive commercial redevelopment is forcing squatters back on to the streets.
Many of the hundreds of squats in the Dutch capital have been relentlessly hunted down in recent weeks to make way for commercial progress and satisfy, in particular, demand for luxury apartments by wealthy professionals in the burgeoning financial services and IT sectors. The shift in policy is, claim the squatters and their supporters, squeezing the unique artistic and student life out of the city.
The Dutch squatters' movement, formed in the postwar years against a backdrop of chronic housing shortage, became a widely accepted public interest group against big commercial invasion of old city centres. In the 70s and 80s it won public backing for exposing speculation and governmental indifference to residents' needs. Its numbers soared to 20,000.
The laxity of existing laws means that when a building lies empty for a year or longer it is invariably squatted.
Daniel, 25, said: "The only illegality is actually breaking in but we have it perfected to a fine art, we are in in no time." He gave up a history degree to devote himself full time to "creating space where there was none" for the tens of thousands who spend years on housing waiting lists.
Once inside a building, squatters inform the police. "We invite them to look around and make a report," said Daniel, one of six who have been occupying a 17th-century house in the city centre for the past four years.
Traditionally, it was only when an owner intended to renovate a building that the squatters were evicted. Even then they would be told in advance of the date and time when police would arrive to clear the building.
But the squatters' spirit of non-cooperation and pitched battles with police down the years cost the movement support from a public that views them increasingly as nuisances living at the workers' expense.
The movement has an elaborate network bordering on a business empire: it publishes a guide to squats city-wide, has its own TV programme, internet cafe, fitness centre and even runs coach and bike hire services.
The squatters argue that they provide essential maintenance for many of the buildings they occupy, repairing roofs and structural damage and paying for central heating.
There is a policy, too, of occupying buildings bought with the proceeds of crime. British activists are among the squatters who have recently taken over a former hotel seized by the authorities after its Pakistani owners, convicted of laundering drug money, were jailed.
But the large number of foreign squatters - many of those evicted are Spanish, Italian, British and German - has helped to harden attitudes.
Miriam Otten of Amsterdam Municipality said: "In one recent eviction we took 17 people out of a house and 15 of them were Italians. More and more foreigners are coming here looking for a cheap or free place to stay. A lot of people think anything is possible in Amsterdam but it isn't so and they are finding that out."
A series of high-profile evictions seems to be turning public opinion back in the squatters' favour, however.
Outraged members of the city's cultural and artistic elite tried to stop the closure of the Kalenderpanden, which had provided spaces for artists and craftspeople to live and work. The former warehouse, squatted for more than 20 years, was shut down to make way for luxury flats, with the help of tear gas and water cannon.
The clearout of entire streets in the historic "Pijp" quarter followed a month later. Since then squatters have twice been evicted from the bankrupt American theme restaurant Planet Hollywood. During the second eviction on 7 January, 25 squatters were hurt, suffering cuts, bruises and bites from police dogs.
Daniel, the squatters' spokesman, said: "We wanted to convert the Planet Hollywood building back to its former use as a film house and centre for arts in a street which has become a tatty version of Disneyland with its garish amusement arcades and fast food outlets."
The next confrontation will strike at the heart of the squatters' existence. The city authorities intend to shut the bar of the Vrankrijk, a leading centre for alternative culture near the Royal Palace.
Daniel vows the squatters will not go quietly. "It proves their new zero tolerance mentality but we will fight against this attack on our whole structure and already a lot of public opinion is behind us."
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