Fighting police, with room for improvement

For two years, on the corner of Black Forest Avenue and Alder Street, the “Black Alder” squat sat within proud view of Basel Central Station. This former brothel became home to squatters who made a housing and social project out of it. Last Wednesday, a man who called himself the building’s owner entered the house, shadowed by five imposing private security men. Barging into the residents’ breakfast, he declared that they had ten minutes to leave. He photographed and filmed them without permission and when a resident who had been out walking came into the building, the owner shoved her back, assisted by his entourage.

As residents refused to leave, he called in the last weapon of the scoundrel — the police — to turn the house back into whatever sordid business he desires to operate there. Or perhaps he’d rather keep it empty, as it was before it was taken over by squatters. In any case, the police promptly executed his will. The house was cleared. One person was dragged out in handcuffs, held incommunicado for two hours and made to strip naked before being released without charge.

When I walked by the house in the evening, dispirited and bewildered squatters stood outside. Police guarded the street and took care only to let in a handful of people at a time. Some were crying, others wondering where they should sleep that night. Occupying houses is always a precarious way of life, but ten minutes’ notice to leave your home is more Gaza than Basel, no matter how volatile your circumstances.

In the evening, a spontaneous demonstration was announced in the center of town. People gathered around ten o’clock and headed to the site of the Black Alder. Fireworks, improvised mini-bombs and flares accompanied polyglot chants (Basel is at the border of France, Germany and Switzerland). The chants expressed the anti-capitalist and libertarian worldview of the squatting scene — “Whose streets? Our streets!”, “A-Anti-Anticapitalismo”, “Wir sind wütend, wir sind laut, weil man uns die Erde klaut”, “Tout le monde déteste la police” — with the additional jab at lease agreements. As we approached the police, another chant broke out: “Für die Bonzen steht ihr da, Marionetten, ha ha ha!” (“For the fat cats you stand there, puppets on strings, ha ha ha!”). An evictee led chants with fervor.

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As we stopped near the line of police, people gazed down at us through the windows. Some filmed the march, others smiled. One or two along the route threw water on the marchers. At one point, a glass bottle was thrown from the roof of a building straight into the crowd. It strafed the arm of a friend of mine, barely missing his head. No response came from the protesters, apart from some shouts.

After the police had been pelted with the small explosives and flares for a few minutes, an order was given for the crowd to disperse. It was met with yet another explosive device, thrown into the ranks of the police.

Rubber pellets were shot into the mass of people. A black bloc member shouted at people not to run away immediately, and some held relatively still and tried to back away calmly rather than surrendering to panic. The continued rain of rubber pellets made that difficult. The black bloc became more clearly separated from the unprotected protesters, who retreated slightly farther away.

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Any hope of getting to the Black Alder was snuffed out when masked policemen wielding clubs charged into the remaining and slowly retreating crowd, beating the legs of those they could reach. This time nobody shouted at the crowd to stand fast. People simply ran.

It must be said that telling people to stand still in the face of overwhelming violent force is not just irresponsible, but also counterproductive. The only strength of guerrilla-like groups is not in their resistance to concentrated force, but in the rapidity of dispersal and regrouping. This was evident at the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg. There the police tried to violently attack and arrest the entire thousand-strong black bloc, located in the middle of the Welcome to Hell march. The black bloc largely escaped, mostly by jumping over a fence that broke down under the pressure. This unaccountably shortsighted adventurism of the police was not only ineffectual, but caused innumerable injuries, which soaked up all the supplies of the protest’s medical team. The uselessness of the police’s assault became evident in the night, when furious protesters descended on the Schanze, looting supermarkets and barricading themselves in. On the other hand, ending up in the Schanze, rather than choosing a strategic target, was a miscalculation on the part of those who took over the quarter.

In Basel, on the other hand, the violent attack on protesters ended the evening’s action. Policemen drove around the area afterwards like conquerors, proudly shouting “Run home, pant-pissers!” and checking a few people’s ID. (Whose streets? Their streets.)

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It’s hard to estimate whether this action was a success or failure, not least because the aims weren’t really clear, at least to me. Popular opinion wasn’t guaranteed to be on the squat’s side to begin with, and throwing fireworks at the police was as good an excuse as any for it to return fire. Seeing the balance of physical force in that street should have made it clear that winning in a street fight (or getting to the squat) wasn’t an option, unless the police held their fire. A strictly nonviolent march with media presence could possibly have succeeded in that, though getting into the house would have been a long shot.

In any case, the invitation to a violent response from police was always bound to end in their victory. There were two dozen organized and heavily armed policemen on one side and only about a hundred disorganized people in evening dress on the other. (The crowd was initially bigger, but had thinned out somewhat when the confrontation with police started.) It would have needed a far bigger crowd to overwhelm the police, and that kind of mobilization is crippled if protesters are seen to be provoking the police. (A second protest is planned for tonight.)

Another, different purpose of this protest may have been revenge. A few weeks ago, the eviction of a squat in Effingerstrasse in Bern was to be protested by marching through the city. Reitschule, in the center of town, was the march’s starting point, but the police closed off all avenues away from it. This forced the demonstrators to make their point where they stood. They did, by rioting. That response is not necessarily directed at the public, but at the authorities, making it clear what consequences will follow from evicting squats or preventing protest. (The banner of the demo on Wednesday read: “Alder gone — onto the streets!”.) The risk there is in alienating the neighborhoods, turning them against the squats, and adding to the pressure for their eviction.

In any case, one hopes that the protest tonight will be more fruitful than the one on Wednesday. Perhaps the house will be re-squatted at some point, demonstrating the anarchists’ favored and most effectual method of operation: direct action, creating the world they’d like to live in day by day, and offering anyone who wants to to join in.

The best reporting on the eviction and demo was offered in Basel’s TagesWoche. I lifted the photos and audio from them.

Fighting police, with room for improvement

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