Yesterday, my girlfriend and I went down to see the squatter protest. It was a ridiculously warm and sunny out, and we’d already been enjoying the day. First, we’d been to the Noordermarkt shopping for something to give some friends who just had a baby. Then we bicycled to Hanneke’s boom for a drink by the water. Lieke (my girlfriend) had to work that evening, and I was meeting some people for drinks around the corner from the Spui, so we thought we’d have a quick stop in at the protest first.

The protest

When we arrived the protesters were marching down Spuistraat on the way to the square. There was chanting, a good number of people (police said about 100), some flags and big banners in front and back. We walked along beside them until they reached the square itself where a large number of riot police were waiting. Lieke and I decided to stand with some beer drinkers in front of a bar where we had a good view of what happened next.

The squatters stopped a good distance from the police, and then backed off a bit. One of them went and spoke with a police officer. After that she got on a megaphone and said the police weren’t going to keep their agreement to allow the march and that the police said the banners were not allowed. (In the news articles I read, the police said the protesters didn’t stick to their agreements and were not supposed to march to the Spui.) The woman said, “they won’t let us through, so I guess we’ll stand here a while ”, which was met by cheers.

The police line advanced, and the protesters in front started moving back. Then, the police charged – swinging hard with riot batons. Some protesters in the front fell down, but the cops kept hitting them. A few police grabbed the banner and dragged it away like it was a trophy.

They also arrested a few of the protesters, but the point of the maneuver seemed to be getting the banner. I learned later that only 17 people were arrested in total.

Next came a horse charge. During all of this, a bright red tour bus had come up behind the protesters. After the banner, it seemed this was the next priority. Police horses charged into the crowd of protesters, splitting it in half and clearing the street for the tour bus. I can only imagine what the people on board thought of all of this.

What is it about?

By now, the protest had been pushed away from us. A crowd had joined the beer drinkers to watch and boo the police. Lieke was so upset she was crying. Many of the people watching were similarly horrified by the violence. Others seemed to find it good entertainment. Some were just confused at why it was happening.

One woman, a fellow America, asked me what the protest was about. I hurriedly explained that there is a shortage of housing in the Netherlands, but a lot of empty buildings at the same time. If a building was empty for a year, then people had been allowed to move in and use it without the owner’s permission. The owner would then have to go to court to get it back, and maybe the court would decide the new occupants were making better use of it. This was partly to keep real estate speculators from buying up properties and leaving them empty until they wanted to sell them again.

Then, a year ago, they changed the laws in favor of the real estate owners. To me, this was crazy. Lieke and I just bought a house together ourselves. So we have learned a little bit about the housing market here. (Short version: it’s insane.) It’s obvious that a lot of real estate owners are just holding on to their buildings and waiting for the market to go back up. They either don’t rent them at all, or they rent them “anti-squat” with contracts that give the renters little to no rights.

Well, I tried to explain all of that. Actually I was pushed aside by more police on their way to the protesters and we got separated by the crowd. Hopefully someone was able to fill her in.

Why we are so angry

At one point, as we were leaving, Lieke broke down and screamed, “What the fuck are you doing!!!” at a group of police who looked very surprised as I pulled her away. Surprised, I think, because Lieke was nicely dressed, obviously not a squatter, and they probably assumed we are on the ‘same side’.

Well, we’re not. We’re not on the side of anyone that beats people just for standing where they are not supposed to stand. We don’t care what uniform you’re wearing. We don’t care who is giving you orders. It’s wrong.

And for that matter, I think the squatters are right. The system is obviously broken. Squatting wasn’t really fixing it, but at least it serves as a partial check against rampant real estate speculation. Instead of fixing the system, the politicians removed one of the few checks that, in my opinion, was working.

All of this gets me thinking about other protests happening an ocean away on Wall Street, and how the police there have also been used to protect the interests of bankers, stock market speculators and other big money interests. The right to free speech apparently comes second to the right to make money in both cases.

At one point, Lieke asked me, “If the police’s job is to protect people, and they are to ones beating the protesters, who’s job is it to protect protesters?”

I couldn’t come up with a good answer. Posting this is about as good as I can do.