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Activists in Berlin warned police that evicting the autonomist housing project Liebig 14 “will be expensive.” A series of clashes between thousands of Liebig 14 supporters and police in the days leading up to the February 2 eviction date offered an idea of what that cost might be.
In recent years, such conflicts with police have become largely confined to May 1, a day annually marked in Berlin by militant demonstrations of autonomist, socialist, and anarchist groups. As the date of Liebig 14’s eviction approached, Berlin police chief Dietrich Glietsch made clear that he would spare no expense in preventing May Day from coming early to Berlin.
No such luck.
A Brief History of Squatting in Berlin
By February 2, the plight of the former squat in the east Berlin district of Friedrichshain was common knowledge throughout Berlin. Liebig 14 had become a rallying point for Berlin’s flagging anti-gentrification struggle, whose roots stretch back to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When the border that partitioned Berlin opened in 1989, a staggering number of East Berliners hastily moved west, leaving hundreds of apartment buildings throughout East Berlin completely empty. These abandoned buildings quickly became the base of a massive squatter’s movement which by 1990 occupied approximately 200 buildings – most located in the East Berlin districts of Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichsain. Among them was Liebigstraße 14.
Like the militant West Berlin Autonomen movement of the early 1980s, the post-Wall squatters movement frequently clashed with police. These confrontations came to a head in the infamous “Battle of Mainzer Straße.” In November 1990, activists squared off against 3,000 police in a violent two-day struggle to prevent the forced eviction of a row of 13 squatted buildings in Friedrichshain. The tumult resulted in Germany’s largest police deployment since the end of the second World War.
Following the Battle of Mainzer Straße, the Berlin government legalized many of the city’s squats. Berlin offered leases to residents in exchange for token rents. The rest of the squats were forcefully cleared out by police. In 1992, the residents of the 25-bedroom Liebig 14 signed their own lease and the illegal squat transformed into an autonomist housing project and cultural space. Private developers bought the building in the late 1990s, but the ever-changing residents of Liebig 14 managed to stave off eviction throughout the 2000s.
Together with a handful of other former squats on Liebigstraße and the neighboring Rigaer Straße, Liebig 14 constituted an important part of Berlin’s disappearing autonomist scene. In addition to being the anchor of a vibrant radical cultural and political milieu in Berlin, these former squats have long been the cornerstone of Berlin’s anti-gentrification movement.
Over the past five years, rents in the districts of Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Prenzlauerberg – once bastions for squatters and Berlin’s Autonomen – have risen by 20 percent. It is no coincidence that in the same period, several autonomist housing projects in each of these districts were forcefully cleared by police to make room for luxury and high rent apartments.
Liebig 14 is only the most recent casualty of this trend.
Berlin politicians have eagerly embraced the steady gentrification of Germany’s capital city. Just last month, Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit publicly praised the fact that Berlin was finally shedding its “poor but sexy” reputation. Rising rents, he claimed, were evidence that Berlin was finally coming into its own. In the days leading up to February 2, each of Berlin’s political parties spoke in support of the eviction. But as activists demonstrated in their resistance to Liebig 14’s eviction, the gentrification of Berlin would not be cheap.
“Ganz Berlin hasst die Polizei”
At 4:00 in the morning on February 2, hundreds of protestors welcomed more than a dozen police vans and armored vehicles to Liebigstraße 14. The number of Liebig 14 supporters quickly swelled to nearly a thousand as the frigid morning wore on. Banners on the balconies of neighboring buildings read: “Hands off our neighbors,” and “Wir bleiben alle” [We are all staying] – the defiant motto of Berlin’s autonomists. As police struggled to control protestors scattered throughout the district, police found the inside of the building to be an even less hospitable atmosphere.
The eviction began promptly at 8:00 AM when police attempted to enter the building through both the ground floor and the roof. Residents had fully barricaded the building’s exterior, which forced police to enter by swinging sledgehammers and axes. Once inside, it took police another four hours to clear the building of any occupants as makeshift barricades, overflowing bathtubs, and even a destroyed staircase slowed their task. At 1:00 PM, the announcement Berlin had been waiting for finally arrived: police had control of Liebigstraße 14. All 9 activists inside were in custody.
Meanwhile, the some 2,500 police deployed that day continued battling with demonstrators outside Liebigstraße 14. Elsewhere in Berlin, protestors broke the windows of luxury apartments and threw paint on department stores.
By mid-afternoon, the streets of Berlin turned quiet. But as night fell and temperatures dipped well below zero degrees, some 2,000 protestors clad in black regrouped in Boxhagener Platz for a march through Friedrichshain to Liebigstraße. They were joined by almost as many riot police.
As the march slowly snaked its way through the narrow streets of Friedrichshain, police were close at hand. Some protestors responded by throwing stones while others chanted “Ganz Berlin hasst die Polizei” [All of Berlin hates the police]. The procession remained without significant conflict until demonstrators turned onto Warschauer Straße, one of the district’s largest thoroughfares.
Skirmishes quickly broke out as several protestors hurled stones, bottles, and fireworks at police. Just minutes later, police blocked off the march route with armored vehicles and water cannons. Over a loudspeaker, the authorities announced a ban on demonstrations in Friedrichshain for the rest of the evening. Hundreds of protestors then dissipated onto surrounding streets. Scattered protests continued there, with the fiercest clashes unfolding along the nearby Straße der Pariser Kommune and the River Spree. Protestors attacked banks, supermarkets, departments stores, as well as the O2 World arena. When the night finally came to a close, 82 activists had been arrested. Preliminary police reports suggested that the damages will exceed one million euro.
Raising the Cost of Gentrification
Despite these massive protests, February 2 appeared a victory for private developers and city officials: Liebig 14 had been cleared, paving the way for Liebigstraße 14 to finally realize its putative market value.
But what was February 2 to those who find the use that residents of Liebig 14 made of of the building to be worth qualitatively more than any market value attributed to it by private developers?
Any answer to this question need recognize that the resistance to Liebig 14’s eviction did not aim at actually preventing the eviction – a nearly impossible feat given the huge number of police deployed to protect the interests of Berlin’s property owners. The protests against Liebig 14’s eviction reminded the cash-strapped city that the cost of eliminating autonomist housing projects will not be cheap. Whether the end of Liebig 14 will be enough to reignite the ebbing anti-gentrification struggle in Berlin certainly remains to be seen. But the events of February 2 clearly demonstrate that Berlin’s continued gentrification will only come with a high price tag – one set not by the city, not by investors, and certainly not by police. If February 2 is any indication of what is to come, activists will continue to do everything possible to make sure that the cost of gentrification continues to rise.
MICHAEL SHANE BOYLE is a Ph.D. candidate in performance studies at UC Berkeley. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany, and can be reached at email@example.com.