“We are gone and yet we remain”: the last days of Zurich’s binz squat

As tensions continue to rise surrounding housing and right-to-the-city issues in Switzerland, one squat’s struggle was derailed at a critical moment by violence.  After a disappointingly brief visit to the Binz complex on May 30 […]

As tensions continue to rise surrounding housing and right-to-the-city issues in Switzerland, one squat’s struggle was derailed at a critical moment by violence. 

After a disappointingly brief visit to the Binz complex on May 30 — the day before the threatened eviction of the squatters living there — a friend of mine and I returned, a little shell-shocked, to his own much humbler squat in Zurich. As we walked through the drizzle to the garden entrance of the old villa-style residence, one of his cohabitants spotted us and approached, grinning broadly.

Anna had been mixing paint for a banner, and her hands were brightly stained. “I didn’t think you’d be back so soon,” she said, her face changing to a look of concern. “How’s it look down there?”

“It’s pretty emotional at the moment,” Kev replied. Tensions had indeed been running high. Considering the predicament facing the Binz residents—who number about 50, and refer to themselves as the Schoch family—this was understandable.

“They threw me out,” I said, laughing sheepishly.

I had introduced myself as a journalist at the Schochs’ regular assembly the week before. They had been receptive, but they also asked me to leave so that they could freely discuss—in the basic-democratic, consensus-oriented style familiar to many of us now through Occupy—what exactly to do with me.

On March 3, residents of the Binz squat had led a „Reclaim the Streets” party and demonstration that came to be disingenuously referred to in the Swiss press as the „Binz Riots.” Embarrassed and frustrated, and feeling quite rightly that the media wasn’t interested in telling their side of the story, the Schochs had decided to halt all external communications.

Still, in the meantime it appeared they were willing to make exceptions; there seemed to be a sense among the squatters that shutting themselves off from outsiders went against one of their founding principles: openness. They referred to the Binz complex, after all, as a free space.

Nie znikniemy!
Nie znikniemy!

Breaking the silence: an international plea

For example, at the beginning of May the squat had hosted a theater performance—The Schoch Family, a fictionalized and entertaining telling of the Binz story, sung a capella in five languages—which was intended to rebuild the public support they had lost after the demonstration-gone-awry and to help reclaim, even redefine, their place in the community.

A surprisingly large audience showed up—around 300 people, overwhelming the collective kitchen—and the Schochs jumped on the opportunity to spread an international call to action for the lead-up to May 31. They distributed posters and flyers exhorting sympathizers from anywhere and everywhere to come to Zurich and help with two weeks of „creative resistance” to prevent the coming eviction.

They had posted the call to action on the internet as well, and during a number of visits I made to the complex before my ill-conceived “I’m a writer” admission, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had gotten results.

They had set up large, dormitory-style sleeping quarters in the maze-like upper reaches of the largest building in the complex; like the other private living spaces they had built into the aging industrial zone over the last seven years, it was closed to visitors. But in the open areas—several kitchens, a machine shop, a free store, a bike repair shop, rooftop terraces connected by makeshift bridges, and two cavernous halls used for concerts and parties—I kept running into new arrivals responding to the call-up.

According to an unscientific survey of people I talked to and overheard at a dinner, which happened in an outdoor corridor between buildings at Binz one rare sunny evening two weeks ago, at least seven different countries were represented among people who had shown up to participate in creative resistance, and more were on the way.

I found this heartening, because it confirmed some claims I made in an earlier piece about the growing strength and international character of European political squatting helped by the tools of digital communication.

The new faces also lent to the impression of fervent activity and engagement taking place in the Binz complex as they prepared for the May 31 doomsday. Every time I stopped by, in addition to seeing people work busily on small construction projects, I also observed many of them exchanging ideas and experiences from previous eviction scenarios that have happened in other squats around the continent, and proposing possible courses of action. But the Schochs were holding their cards close to the vest when it came to what, specifically, was being prepared.

Switzerland stays cold; political temperatures rise

After years of living in a situation of fluctuating legality, and under near-constant pressure and surveillance from local authorities, a certain degree of secrecy about their activities and plans had become more or less routine for the Schochs. Now, with their explicit refusal to talk to media, and with their last major action having spiraled into violence (a violence that the media lazily assumed and repeatedly insinuated, without substantiation, had originated with the Schochs themselves), speculation about what was in store for the 31st hit a fever pitch.

Another ingredient in the soup of wild variables was a mid-month turnover in city council leadership that put Richard Wolff, an outspoken radical leftist, in charge of the Zurich police department effective June 1. Wolff is a veteran of the youth movements that rocked Zurich in 1980 and set the precedent for the right-to-the-city struggles that Binz now represents. So there was a lot of talk about how the outgoing leadership may want to „strike while the iron is hot” and carry out any eviction plans punctually and decisively before Wolff could ruin them.

On the other hand, there was also speculation that the outgoing police leadership would intentionally drag its feet on the eviction, making Binz the first task on Wolff’s desk when he started his job — so that any sign of equivocation on his part would embarrass and discredit him to the benefit of his rightwing opponents on the council.

To make matters more complicated, last weekend another party and demonstration in Bern, called Tanz Dich Frei — which is now in its third year and typically attracts tens of thousands of people — turned uncharacteristically violent. Press reports the next day emphasized the presence of pro-Binz signs in the crowd and Zurcher accents being heard among the „rioters.”

Schochs under pressure: sadness and calm

It was in this charged atmosphere that I arrived at Binz to find Kev on May 30. As I walked down the driveway towards the front entrance of the complex, it became apparent that the Schochs’ mysterious preparations were now in high gear. There were people hauling material up on to the rooftop terraces; old beat-up trucks were snorting in and out of the alley leading to a loading area in the rear of the complex; power tools and welding torches whined, clanged and hissed from inside the nearer buildings; and, most significantly, the front entrance itself had been completely barricaded with layers of junk.

Piles of bicycle skeletons, metal piping and sections of scaffolding, kitchen appliances, wooden palettes, shopping carts, oil drums, furniture, and hanging tarps blocked even visual access to the Schoch family home. Converted vehicles I had seen used as „floats” in the March demonstration — including a flatbed truck upon which a punk band had played (the drum set still sat dejectedly atop it) — formed the front line of the barricade, and oft-used protest banners adorned the mass. Binz bleibt Binz. Repression macht Aggression.

I still hadn’t heard what the Schochs had resolved at their assembly the week before. I was welcome to write what I liked, they said, but only from outside the premises, as they wanted to stay consistent in their posture toward the media, and had been turning journalists away for weeks. I followed a truck around to the rear entrance and as I entered one of the large hangar-like halls, the activity appeared to be ebbing.

I approached a group of people gathered in quiet conference, their dust masks and ear protection pulled down around their necks for a break. Their worried, exhausted faces reflected none of the threatening, stubborn rebellion that had characterized the Schoch family in media reports over the preceding months.

It dawned on me that their current struggle was touchingly familiar, even mundane. Many of them had lived in the Binz complex for nearly seven years, in rooms and arrangements they had built with their own hands. Their stress now was the stress of leaving home: what do I take along, what do I leave behind, what do I throw away? What will become of this place? What will become of us?

Needless to say, they weren’t in the mood to chat. I spotted Kev in an adjoining room, so I went to greet him and asked him, foolishly, if there would be a collective kitchen tonight. Not two minutes into our conversation we were approached by two women I recognized from the assembly. They politely explained what they had decided the week before, and said that I had to go. I was more than welcome to come back the next day, especially if there was a police action (which stood no chance of being covered fairly in the press; I understood this after Occupy Zurich’s eviction from the Lindenhof in November 2011), and to observe from outside.

A lesson in defiance: truly passive resistance

So I left with the impression, shared by much of the rest of the city, that there would be a real spectacle at Binz the next day.

But the 31st came and went without any big news. Various media outlets reported that the squatters had completely sealed the premises—barricades similar to the one in front had also been erected overnight at all other points of entry to the complex—and left it. Deducing that the longed-for police confrontation was no longer in the cards, and not eager to stand in the unseasonably chilling rain, the reporters took their cameras and went home with a shiver and a yawn.

Naturally, they missed the significance of the non-event. It doesn’t fit into the media narrative that these „hard-line anarchist provocateurs” would leave without a fight. It certainly wouldn’t occur to them that leaving without a fight was the most powerful thing the Schochs could do.

Over the seven-year existence of the squat in the Binz complex, the Schoch family made an art of defying expectations. They had fended off a previous eviction threat in 2009-10 by meeting Canton Zurich’s demand of a security deposit, delivering eight wheelbarrows full of five-rappen coins (the equivalent of nickels) to the Canton’s administrative offices and thus overpaying by about ten Francs the CHF 20,000 that were required. Without exception, they promptly paid their water and electric bills to the tune of about 3,000 Francs a month.

Routinely portrayed as layabouts and outcasts, destitute ne’er-do-wells with a militant ideology that rejected the society which had rejected them, they nonetheless focused diligently on the personal and humane tasks they had set for themselves: establishing and maintaining a self-organized autonomous space free of the profit- and security-hysteria rampant in the rest of the city, and open to anyone who wanted to contribute to communal life there.

To whatever extent that they had to cooperate with broader society and the repressive, alternative-phobic state around them, the Schochs consistently did so—but always on their own creative terms. The politics of urban free space and squatting in Switzerland have gotten hotter since the onset of the Eurocrisis, and groups with political alignments similar to the Schochs’ (but lacking their pacifying, rational, internal decision-making process) have increasingly begun responding to escalating state repression in more violent ways. In effect, actions have been taken in the Schochs’ name, but not on their terms. And the official blowback, both in March and then again last weekend in Bern, has made it impossible for the Binz struggle to continue in its desired form.

The Schochs’ voluntary relinquishment of the Binz complex, born of their insistence on creative resistance and non-escalation toward violence, should be a signal to other urban squat communities engaged in similar battles for survival. Their community wants nothing to do with childish, tit-for-tat fights with authority. They are tired of being seen as part of the problem when it is solutions that they seek.

In short, they want to survive. To continue the struggle, to fight another day. As the Schochs put it in a statement posted on their website on June 1, which accompanied a photo of the enormous metal sculpture they left behind at the fortified but eerily empty Binz complex: “We are gone and yet we remain…there is still a lot to do.”

Follow the author on twitter at @EdSudden.

This is a series that emerged from the Warsaw conference „Reclaiming the Commons in Central and Eastern Europe” looking at challenges to the commons and public spaces in Central and Eastern European cities and the kinds of resistance that are emerging to defend those communities’ rights.

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