On a section of the square behind the Stadhuis (town hall), there is a small photo exhibition set up that explores the idea of conflict resolution in day-to-day life. Whether children or adults, there are ways to try to resolve problems without resorting to violence. Sometimes, though, this is easier said than done. Martin Luther King Jr. even said, “A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.”
I mention rioting, because despite the multi-color flags in the picture above that say Utrecht Viert Vrede/Utrecht Celebrates Peace” you should also pay attention to the unusually decorated building in the background. Known as the Ubica-panden, it is actually two buildings with a long and storied history. The one on the left (in black) dates to the 1300s, while the one on the right dates from 1865, but was built upon the foundations of another building from the 1300s.
During the last century, the buildings were taken over by a company called Ubica. However, the buildings suffered through numerous fires. The last was in 1989 and no one made any attempt to restore the building. Instead, it sat empty and fire-damaged until 1992 when a group of krakers (squatters) moved in and began to make the buildings inhabitable again. They claim — perhaps rightly so — that without their intervention, the historic buildings would have been left to crumble and decay past saving. The owner of the building Wim Vloet, has been described as a slumlord, and he seems to have refused to work with both the municipality and the residents of the building over the past 20+ years.
However, last year a developer showed an interest in the building, hoping to turn it into a hotel and café. The squatters themselves had used the building in various formats, including as a concert venue, vegan restaurant, free internet workshop, and art exhibition space. Despite their long involvement with the building, they were served with an eviction notice last week by a court in Arnhem. The squatters were not happy with the ruling, obviously, and they remain concerned that Vloet has not/will not actually follow through on turning the building over to the potential developer.
All of this led to conflict last Friday night. A small riot of sorts broke out as the squatters tried to defend their building and make a strong statement about their impending eviction. A small grouping of tires were set out in front of the building (not far from the photo exhibit) and set on fire. Some of the squatters moved up to the roof of the building and began setting off fireworks and throwing paint balloons. Other squatters remained inside and chained themselves to the building.
From everything I’ve read, there were no injuries on either side, just a lot of paint. Some of the police who attempted to go inside came out covered completely in paint. You can read a pro-squatters account (in English) here. There’s another good article with photos, as well, here. You may want to look through the photos in the second article, since they show the before, while I’m going to post some of the after photos I took the following morning.
Having seen some of the photos of the paint-splattered square and town hall, I was curious to see it all for myself. However, by the time I got there, they had already cleaned up much of the paint and were in the process of cleaning more, as well as cleaning up any char remains of the small tire fire.
Even the Stadhuis wall and window that had been covered in blue paint was cleaned up and the only damage left to be seen was a crack in the window.
However, some of the squatters still remained inside. I think the scene I saw through a window was an attempt by the police to break through the chains one of the squatters was using. In the end, the last of the squatters weren’t removed until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, almost 24 hours after events began.
The squatters knew they were going to be evicted and rather than go quietly, they chose to leave on their own schedule, making their own statement. Interestingly, there’s another quote about riots from Martin Luther King, Jr. that is fitting.
The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.
The squatters knew they wouldn’t be able to remain, but by making a statement, they gained a brief chance to be heard and to express their concerns. Whether it will all be futile remains to be seen.
(For a great series of photos of that night and the following day, check out this site by a local photographer.)