Cologne: occupation of the Barmer Block housing estate, 2006 - Wildcat

Barmer Block

Text published in Wildcat in summer 2006 reporting on the internal dynamics of a major housing estate occupation in Cologne in Spring 2006.

Cologne: 'Barmer Block' occupied. The feeling of great potential...
For over three months in the 'Barmer Block' housing estate an unusual squatting experiment took place.

It was unusual not only in its duration and size, but more than that its social composition. The space which had been opened by some lefties was taken over by 'the street'. This created an explosive mixture which not only troubled the city council administration but also created major internal conflicts. Most lefties proved themselves to be unable or unwilling to deal with the contradictions of actual social movements.

By building the Barmer Block – 260 flats around a park-like courtyard - in 1914, the Erbbauverein cooperation started the construction of a housing estate for postal workers in Deutz, a part of Cologne. Due to recent re-developments the housing estate got wedged in by the ICE (high speed train) station and the (industrial) trade-fair centre, and exactly for these two projects 381 flats in good condition were supposed to be demolished. The developers presented pompous plans for a 'trade-fair foyer' and a congress centre with towers and in order to put these plans into practice the town council bought the houses for 67 million Euros. The Erbbauverein (hereditary building association) constructed new flats in different parts of town for the 1,000 inhabitants of the Barmer housing estate. Then Unesco threatened taking the Cologne Cathedral off the list of the World Cultural Heritages if the new towers would be built in the area. By end of 2005 all investors had left the project and the plans dissolved into nothing. Only the plan for demolishing the flats was persistently held on to by the town council. If the flats were not demolished for shiny building projects then at least for new parking lots. The left in Cologne only got aware of the scandal at a very late stage and only acted when all tenants had already moved out. In February the Monday-demonstration1 called for a protest march which was rather small. Together with some people of the SSK2, the SSM3 and unemployed initiatives open assemblies were organised. The SSM registered a porter cabin as a constant demonstration on the premises of the housing estate. When the demolition date came closer some people of this group decided spontaneously on 3rd of March to occupy the building. No-one really thought that this occupation would last for more than one or two days. Mainly because of the fact that in recent years all squatting projects in Cologne got evicted within short time. This time things went differently. While the SSM acted on a political level, uncovered lies and intrigues and troubled politicians with open letters, more and more people moved into the Barmer Block, people who had little to lose and who made clear that they would defend their new homes with all their force. By themselves neither of the two groups – neither the 'punks' nor the 'politicos' – would have been able to defend the squat for that long time. It was this peculiar mixture of political experience and determination 'from the streets' which held the town council in check for months.

In the end the demolition could not be prevented. Nevertheless this occupation was important in many ways: it made public the political housing scandal; it showed that resistance is possible again in Cologne; for those who were made homeless again by the demolition alternative housing might be offered by the town; and most of all, the three months of occupation was an opportunity for making experiences and learning processes for all those people who were involved in the 'socially culturally biotope', experiences which might become useful in future conflicts. The following text deals with these internal structures and processes. The quotations are drawn from a conversation shortly before the eviction with Sabine (SSK) who took part in the occupation from the very first day.

The occupation
“We drifted into this occupation quite spontaneously. We had no time at all to built certain structures, but even if we had had the time we would not have been able to assess what it means to occupy 30 houses instead of one. All of a sudden you have this vast space which you are not able to oversee. You are not able to distinguish between inhabitants and visitors, only after two days you might notice: this person was here yesterday, as well, may be she or he lives here now. We never made people register and we did not control who went in and out. We wanted to open this space for everyone and get more people to move in. We could guess what kind of various problems might occur, but we were not able to deal with them beforehand, and even less in a theoretical way. We did not know who would turn up, and anyway we thought that the whole project would mainly be supported and pushed forward by the left. This did not happen. People came with their very own rules and laws, with very different ways to communicate and to solve conflicts, and you have to adjust to it. Your lefty formalist approach did not help much.

After we had occupied the Block with few folks the first homeless people arrived, some of them lived on the streets for many years. They attracted other people: young kids who hang out on the streets because they are supposed to be in young people's homes, where they did not want to be or they came from emergency shelters where you have to leave the building at 2 pm and are only allowed back in for sleeping. Amongst them the news about the occupation spread in no time. The street kids brought along many people from the skin-head movement with its various sub-groups, of which I got to know more about in the meantime. Most of the skins who arrived called themselves non-political or left-wing, Oi-skins, SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) or whatever. Some students moved in who thought that for the time of the university holiday the whole thing is interesting and exciting, but who moved out once university started again. And like during any occupation the punks arrived quite early on. After about two to three weeks the first punk arrived with a shopping-trolley and a generator and within the next three, four days there were twenty punks around”.

The vast number of square metres of unembellished walls made the occupation attractive for some sprayers, of whom only a few moved in, some bikers used the Block as a meeting point. Migrants from Ghana and Cameroon got involved although they were not homeless themselves. Most of the squatters came as a result of the expulsion of homeless people from the cities, out of a situation of extreme poverty and oppression.

Synonym for all the discontent
“I see the Barmer Block as a synonym for all the discontent which is around, being it because of the HartzIV4 laws (new welfare laws) or the mentality to lock people up, which excludes more and more people. In contact with the young kids I became aware of the whole problem again. For youths under 16 there is no alternative, there is only the young peoples home. I met 12, 13 14 years old kids who tell you clearly what they want and what they do not want. They appear more like being 16 or 17. They are against the home and they count the years till they are allowed to live in a shared flat with support of a social worker, for example. They tell you that they live on the streets for two or three years, passing time and hoping not to go to the dogs. For them it is clear that there is no alternative. I met some women who came from homes in the Eifel (a near by area) where they had been locked up. They had been sent from Cologne to these homes, after e.g. being diagnosed with borderline syndrome. Escaping a young peoples home several times is reason enough to be sent to a locked-up home (geschlossenes Heim). More and more young kids are running danger of being locked up. The responsible institutions do this in order to minimise the effort and expenses for their care. They tell about metal bars in front of windows and the need to register dates for receiving visitors. It is more or less like in prison. It is interesting that a lot of the kids know about these boot-camps5 in the US. They tell each other what kind of evil measures against 'young offenders' exist, they are well informed. They also know addresses where to get some food, where to wash, where to sleep, who is friendly etc.. If they need something they now how to get it. It was revealing to see how they manage this kind of things on the street, with their connections and all. We were not really able to tell them much, practically they are much advanced and a thousand times better organised, particularly concerning spontaneous things”.

The difficult process to self-organisation
The punks in Cologne have been squatting houses for years. We do not know much about most of these squats. They occupy without making it public, without political statements. Their actions are not political-symbolic, like those of the political scene, but necessary-real ones. In the Barmer Block different ways of re-appropriation clashed and came together.

“The conflict erupted quite early on: “you lot only occupy out of your political motivations, but we do not have a place to sleep or we have to do a runner”. At the beginning there were some hard clashes and verbal conflicts. For a long time it was not possible to have an assembly together. Until amongst the punks a party of the 'non-political' formed, the ARRGH-party. They took great effort in showing to us 'politicos' how we act and behave. They protested for days with banners and signs and shouted slogans, like we do, but their slogans were rather non-political. They tried to take the piss out of our leftyness. But we did not perceive this as a provocation, we thought it was funny, partly at least. Funny was that they formed their own party in order to mock us and thereby they themselves became part of the circle of organisers – although this might not have been their intention in the first place – because now they formed their own reference group. Suddenly they were addressed by others as 'the party' and had to take over certain tasks, like making breakfast. All this resulted in all people sitting together in an assembly finally. These assemblies were terribly arduous, because there were no rules at all. If you wanted to introduce something like an assembly facilitator you were immediately accused of being 'the boss'. But even those who used to be the most persistent opponents of assemblies now want them and after the experience of everybody shouting being no use at all there now is a facilitator. Today different people from before facilitate”.

The coming together took time and was probably only possible because some 'politicos' moved in and shared the daily experience and organisation of the occupation: the tough conditions of being without water and electricity, the risk of being evicted, or the constant physical confrontations with visitors who roamed the houses after concerts, rioting and looting. In the course of the common daily activity the different groups started to understand and tolerate each other. At the beginning only very few knew what SSK/SSM stood for and some even mixed us up with SKM or SKF (social service of catholic men/women). This rather evil confusion with social work and management of poverty is finished at last. But actually after more than 30 years the SSK and SSM are treated as institutions which the town likes to address and use as representatives of such kind of occupations.

“The politically responsible persons were surprised and unnerved when they had to face not the normal lefty educated spokespeople but actually the 'scum', the people from the streets. Recently we have been at the university when the students tried to disturb the university senate meeting because of the planned introduction of fees. People from the houses always join these kind of actions, they support them, get engaged. It was people from the Barmer Block who pushed the doors of the university open, not the politicos or students. These two guys from the street told the security guards “We will just go in there now”, and they did it and the students followed. The other side of the barricades notices such things and they try to play with it. They shower you with information and offers to negotiate. During the weeks some spokespersons emerged and the other side tried to address only them.

We struggle on different levels and about different issues: against the demolition, the misappropriation of money, the industrial trade-fair scandal, the whole housing problem, the replacements that people who live in the houses get once the houses are demolished. Sometimes it is difficult to keep everything transparent. Structures emerge within your group which you then have to fight against. I think in every confrontation it is a major act for spokespersons to make the whole thing transparent, as objective as possible, to encourage debates and rather to hold back with their own opinion. Right from the beginning we had the problem that we were too few to lead the whole thing into an emancipatory process and to mediate it together with the people involved to the 'outside', in the speed of the people, in their ways to communicate, not in ours.

At this point representatives of the punks took part in the “fucking political meetings” and the negotiations with the town and they reported back to the others in the house. Political actions were planned and prepared together and the heterogeneous squad of squatters became a group, the initial confrontations between politicos and punks turned into cooperation.

“Some guy from the street once told me: “You do not have to tell me anything, it is enough to walk around the Barmer Block, to see the industrial trade-fair, the fat hotel, the ICE-station, the Cologne-Arena... I know what things are about. I do not have to read books in order to know that, I do not have to know who is member of the town council. I am pissed off because of it all and that is why I am here”.

It was not only people who were looking for a place to live who moved in. For a lot of people it was a mixture: they thought it was cool to be part of a project which bothers the town council rather than living in a house individually for some days until the eviction comes. This is why people were getting involved to such an extent, because they recognised their own anger. This coming together of your own struggle and of theirs, that was great, I have not experienced it that intensely before. We went as the Barmer Block, really all groups, to the local party meeting of the SPD (Social Democrats) and scoffed their buffet, we went to the Green Party, to all meetings, we rock and rolled through town. That was a big fun factor. It was obvious for everyone that we had big power, mainly because we were all quite different and they could not really suss us out. For most of the people we meet we are just too much”.

Do not play with the scruffy kids...6
Unfortunately the composition of people was too much for the 'social centre', as well. During the first weeks a so-called 'planning assembly' of different people met and we thought about possible ways how to use the vast space we had just conquered. Groups were explicitly encouraged to take over houses, to secure them against demolition and destruction and to make their on events in them. Actually only two groups did that. The SSK established a second-hand shop in the former shop of the estate, as a kind of info and exchange point for the outer-world, given that a lot of people were quite afraid of entering the estate through the dark and sceny entrance. Another aim was to get some money for the occupation together. Another group which had been trying to open a social centre in Cologne for some time took another house. But already their initial steps aimed at confrontation. On Indymedia they dissociated themselves from the squatters and the accusation of 'anti-Semitism' was brought up. A single guy in the heterogeneous group of squatters made some shit-house remarks on 'Jewish financial capital', which the group around the social centre used as a motive in order to defame the whole occupation as anti-Semitic.

“We took some time to decide internally how to deal with the concerned person. The guy was told explicitly that such kind of slogans are not wanted here. A lot of us think that exclusion is not the right way. The guy was not taken to seriously even before he made the remarks, he was not really a guy with a solid opinion and now he had to face all these confrontations. I thought we dealt with the whole issue rather well and therefore did not understand the external accusations stating that we were not taking the problem seriously. Then I understood that we were supposed to make a public statement. We were attacked from various sides, partly from people who had never been in the Barmer Block but who had heard that there 'was an anti-semit'. At the beginning a lot of people moved in who we did not know and then one guy hung a German flag out of his window. When we talked to the guy he said something about World cup and football. But the flag was seen as another evidence for the anti-Semitic content of our occupation. There were public calls to left groups not to support us any more. People came along only to tell us what kind of shitty project we were. This provoked a kind of 'anti-attitude' against everything which appeared political or anyone who wanted to discuss, because people had the feeling of having to justify themselves or of being under attack”.

The people from the social centre only came for their own events. They did not share the daily life of the occupation nor did they sleep in the squat. For their concerts they took up to 5 Euro, which a lot of the squatters were not able to pay. Thereby inhabitants were excluded from events in their houses. The impression arose that some people occupied a ready-made nest, make money out of those who actually keep the occupation going and who hardly have any money and on top of it have to take shit from the very same bourgeoise kids. During the clashes between these two different worlds the social centre did not display too much sensitivity for social relations. The reactions were not nice either.

“The social centre got more and more wound up because of all these evil squatters punks started writing things like ”88 means Hey Hello”7 next to the “No space for anti-Semitism”. Some of them are real idiots, but some do it out of mere provocation and if you react in the usual lefty way you will never be able to exit the loop. I really thought they were hard to take. As soon as the social centre arrived they acted like they were extremely right-wing. I did not like it, particularly because I tried to mediate between the groups, tried to construct something common, but on the other hand I understood that the kids resisted being pigeon-holed. This is how things are on the streets: If you try to give me shit, I will give you more”.

After three weeks of acting against each other and an escalation after a burglary the social centre left the Barmer Block in mid-April.

“The social centre was the only locked house in the whole block. Twice guys tried to break in. Some people of us got bashed up badly trying to prevent it. At some point they could not be asked to secure this house any longer. Then another burglary happened and we were accused of being responsible for it. Out of the blue a raid-squad of fifteen people from the social centred rummaged in peoples flats. That was over the top and there were some violent attacks from both sides. That was the end of an attempt to bring more left-wing content or culture into the project”.

Some of these events and confrontations were reminiscent of the beginning of the SSK. At the end of the 60s the so-called “home/asylum campaign” focussed on the scandalous conditions in the public homes for kids or “mentally disturbed”. The youths escaped the homes in masses. Students who were disappointed by the proletariat because it did not show the will for an upheaval discovered on their look-out for a new revolutionary subject the so-called 'marginalised groups”'. Marcuse8 and Fanon9 provided the theoretical frame-work for the focus on the 'de-classified'. In the practical relation with kids from homes and former prison inmates many disappointments had to be faced. At the Conference of Marginalised Groups in 1970 various collectives exchanged experiences and declared the 'marginalised group strategy' as failed. Instead they propagated political work in the proletarian neighbour-hoods and on the shop-floor. In their explanation of this step they partly used the same stigmatising vocabulary which is also used by the administrating bodies and they declared the kids as being cases for social work.

The SSK did not follow this u-turn, neither theoretically nor practically. For them the homeless kids were not 'lumpen', but part of the working class, an impoverished young part, and the institutional care and education was criticised as 'disciplinary measures against the workers'. Out of the critique of the welfare state the concept of self-aid evolved and out of the critique of social work the intention to fight permanently against the hierarchy between 'bourgeoisie' and workers within their own organisation. A lot of the contemporary self-proclaimed revolutionaries treated that this approach as non-political. The arguments resembled those against the Barmer Block: to fight only for cheap living space is not revolutionary and people from the streets are useless co-combatants, because they are entangled in alcoholism, drugs and violence. But we have to admit that these arguments, at that time at least, were still part of a search for a strategy towards revolution. In contrast to that the self-proclaimed extreme left today – the so-called anti-Germans – only secure that the use of language is politically correct and any action from below – not only 'from the streets', but also of workers – is under general suspicion of being anti-Semitic. Such an attitude might help to feel morally on the right side, but is no way to overturn the social relations which bring forth such atrocities.

Where violence rules
The experiences of homeless people with the state force are essentially much harder than the violence with which the political scene is usually treated. A lot of the squatters have experienced prison, homes and some even war.

“One evening the guys from Cameroon talked about their experience as child soldiers. We sat at the fire, people from all kind of backgrounds. The guys from Cameroon talked for a long time, there was total silence, everyone was listening. Bit by bit people started to talk about their experiences. Very quickly they were aware of the connecting elements. Surrounded by all these tough stories I felt like a total outsider. This evening there was an amazing atmosphere. The next day the relation-ships were different, a new group of solidarity had emerged. When people with such kind of personal histories are around, of course there is also a lot of aggression connected to that. When this aggression bursts out, you have to be able to deal with it. Street people mediated for persons who had caused trouble. There was incredible social work going on amongst them which you are not aware of from the outside. They would not call it that themselves, but this is happing on the street all the time. During the occupation I had a feeling of a great potential which did not originate from the left, but from the base, from the street people. Maybe as a lefty you have to channel this potential a bit in order to help that it does not explode randomly ten meters after leaving the squat, but at the right time and place. Meaning that you have to move to these right places. I have various nice memories of situations where we partly succeeded in doing that. But not with your usual suspects, but completely different comrades – and with much more clout. It was a bit like during the anti-deportation actions which were organised together with immigrants, with people from organisations like The Voice or Karawane. There was much more force in it. The demonstrations are much more riotous, although people would have to face much more repression. On the evening when the security guards started to provoke us and people first thought that they where fascists, all of a sudden thirty people with clubs stood on the street and the cops were between the front-lines. And I thought: if things go off we might not be that helpless after all. It showed a real power which I have not perceived during other occupations, an impressing willingness to defend the house physically, if necessary. This is not my style, I am too afraid. But I realised that we often only use empty phrases when we talk about what to do after the eviction and that normally we end up doing some fun actions or get entangled in small legal arguments. During this situation it became clear that once the eviction starts there will be a wired mix of people, some who will stay peaceful, some who make fun actions and some who defend themselves violently”.

The Barmer Replacement Group 10
The Barmer Block was evicted on the 1st of June. Obviously the state was afraid of the mixture, as well. Hundreds of cops were involved and the eviction started when special riot cops stormed the house at four in the morning, pointing their guns at people. Facing such a force no-one tried to get engaged in senseless resistance. But on the very same day the Barmer Replacement Group established a camp-site of tents and made-shift shelters right next to the housing estate. They demanded from the town to provide proper housing for all people who were made homeless, housing which would enable people to continue living together as a group. After a short occupation of a different house and in time for the start of the World cup the town offered two storeys in a tower block which is supposed to be demolished in September. As a temporary solution this was acceptable. But the actions continue and in case the town will not offer a long-term shelter soonish, other occupations will follow. Arrgh!

Footnotes
1 In some towns still small demonstrations take place every Monday against welfare cuts, a heritage of the protests against the welfare reform HartzIV – see earlier issues of ppnl.

2 SSK: Sozialistische Selbsthilfe Köln (Socialist Self-Aid Cologne), a living and working commune which exists since the beginning of the 70s. (German web-site: www.ssk-bleibt.de)

3 Sozialistische Selbsthilfe Mülheim, a group which split from the SSK in 1985.

4 Welfare reform implemented in 2004 which cut the unemployment benefit and increased the pressure to take any job.

5 Camps for re-education of young prisoners, the young inmates are subjected to military drill and have to face barbarian humiliation. These camps were opened in the 1980s and there are reported cases of abuse and deaths in custody.

6 German lefty song title of the 70s

7 88 is used by neo-fascists as a symbol for the eighth letter of the alphabet. In their terms HH stands for “Heil Hitler”, the nazi greeting.

8 Herbert Marcuse describes in his work; The one-dimensional man (1964) the industrial society as a society without opposition in which the proletariat got integrated and became a buffer of the system. Only the marginalised groups still had nothing to loose, but their chains.

9 Frantz Fanon emphasised in his anti-colonialist manifesto; The Wretched of the Earth (1961) the importance of peasants and urban lumpen-proletariat for the liberation movements, given that the workers in the colonised countries had turned into workers aristocracy.

10 Pun in German (Barmer Ersatz Gruppe) which refers to a known health insurance.

Wildcat no.77, Summer 2006
[prol-position news #7 | 11/2006]