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A Short History of the Copenhagen Squatters Movement
Sunday September 03, 2006 19:30 by Michael Scølardt
An original edited translation of an article on leksikon.org
The acquisition of Ungdomshuset was part of a large and radical squatting movement that challenged property rights and developed a vibrant culture based around these squatted houses.
The squatting-movement emerged in Copenhagen in the summer of 1981 through the formation of "initiv-gruppen for et ungdomshus" (the initiative group for a youth house). Later on several similar groups started in provincial towns such as Aalborg, Århus and Esbjerg. At this stage, youth groups like these had already been formed in many bigger cities in western Europe, especially in Holland.
"Initiv gruppen for et ungdomshus" was a movement for the creation of a self managed free space for the youth of Nørrebro. The group consisted of youths mainly from the punk-scene, Child Power and later on, youths from the left-wing scene. At first, "initiv-gruppen" tried to get a free space through negotiations with the municipality, but the city council, led by Mayor Weidekamp, rejected the idea. In October 1981, the derelict bread factory Rutana and later the derelict rubber factory Schiønning & Arve, were squatted. On the request of the municipality of Copenhagen both were evicted by the police using beatings and teargas. It turned out a bit different with the squatting of "Abel-Cathrine Stiftelsen" on Vesterbro, which was kept for three months. A lack of internal organisation and responsibility broke down the house from inside and made it possible for the police to evict the house without resistance from the squatters. After a couple of months of soul-searching "BZ-brigaden" (the squatting brigade) emerged with renewed power and in March 1982 Mekanisk Musik Museum (Mechanical Music Museum) and its neighbour "Sorte Hest" (Black Horse) in Vesterbro were squatted, this time with the strategy that active organisation was necessary, and that the houses would not be given up without a fight.
In the spring of 1982 more abandoned houses were squatted, occupied and named: "den Lille Fjer" (The Little Feather), "Bazooka" and "Allotria". "Allotria" made Danish history in 1983 when the police, in a military scale manoeuver tried to evict the house, only to find that all the squatters were gone. A long time before the eviction, they had dug a tunnel that led out of the house under the road. For a moment the squatters were heroes and the police were a laughing stock.
To be a squatter had now become a life form; people's whole lives were focused on squatting a house and making it work as an all embracing community. As in the silent squatting movement in the '70s it was about creating alternative, antiauthoritarian living and life forms, collectively but with respect for the individual - in contrast to the surrounding conformist and controlling society. In the beginning the squatting movement was in its own understanding a youth-movement, and only wanted to relate to subjects concerning this segment, but after a couple of years it developed and turned in to a political movement in which several of the society's oppressive mechanisms were examined and used as a basis for actions. The squatting movement participated in parts of the left wing's activities and wrote its own political agenda with feminist political action that fought radically against women's oppression, with "take- it-yourself" actions, and many anti-capitalist actions.
Bourgeois propaganda made a hateful and very critical image of the squatting movement. Parts of the left wing participated in the creation of this image and were very critical to the squatting movement and its methods. The critique was often directed to the movement's use of masks during demonstrations. Correspondingly, the squatting movement kept a critical distance to the traditional left wing, which was considered conformist, focused on gaining power and without interest in the problems of the youth. This distance gradually disappeared at the end of the 1980's, when the left wing and the squatting movement started to make common actions.
In 1983 the Social Democrats decided on giving a house for the purposes of the youth movement. They chose the empty "Folkets hus" (the peoples house) on Jagtvej which had been built by the worker's movement in 1897 as a headquarters and social centre. It played host to many historic meetings and provided a base for the demonstrations of the worker's movement as well as hosting dances and boxing matches. During the second world war it was a centre of the resistance to the German occupation. It now became Ungdomshuset (the youth house) and has since provided a centre for the counter culture in Copenhagen.
originally written in danish by Michael Scølardt, published at leksikon.org. Translated by S.S.I.N.V.
Fugle større end vinden, VS-forlaget, kbh. 1986
De Autonome, Autonomt forlag, kbh. 1995