Youth revolts startle sedate West European nations
Week after week in recent months, various cities throughout Europe have been the scene of violent clashes between youths and police. While they seem to have little in common with the 1968 student protests, the clashes are beginning to be regarded with increasing alarm.Skip to next paragraph
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In the past few days, television audiences throughout Europe have looked on with shock at news broadcasts of pitched street battles between angry youths protesting about the inadequacy of low-cost housing in Zurich and Amsterdam and forces of special riot police.
The riots, which have stunned complacent authorities and citizens in Holland, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Britain, France and other European countries in recent months, are seen as being fundamentally different from the wave of rebellion that swept across the political firmament of the late 1960s -- rebellions associated with the names of Rudi Dutschke and Cohn-Bendit.
"They seem more mindless than in 1968," notes one Brussels-based European official who deals with the problems of young people. "They are less ideological and seem to have no intellectual or political overtones," he added. According to this expert, the riots may be reminiscent of the 1968 disturbances in that they are "a protest against the inequalities and inadequacies of society."
But despite the fact young Europeans are among the hardest hit by recession and record levels of unemployment, few of the recent disturbances have been closely linked to this type of frustration
If there is any thread to the series of otherwise random riots and clashes that began erupting in Europe in April of this year, it is the violent reaction of young people to the destruction of their low-cost housing units or youth centers to make way for middle-class projects. Such explosions against eviction have taken place in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Zurich in the past few months.
"The free state of Christiania" was created nearly a decade ago when hordes of young people and lower-class residents literally stormed and laid claim to an unused military base in downtown Copenhagen. It is a constant reminder to authorities and visitors in that otherwise picture-book city of the unrest that lies beneath the surface.
In city after city in Europe, rows of attractive but rundown 19th century townhouses or nondescript pre-war apartment complexes stand vacant because the economics of construction and housing discourage their use. They await replacement by costly housing or office space. Frequently they are occupied by young squatters until the police and bulldozers arrive to dislodge them.
The April riots in Copenhagen began on a site used as a recreation center but destined for construction of a new apartment building. The fighting led to 100 arrests and what a senior police superintendent at the time called the most violent ever seen in the Danish capital.
There have been five separate outburst in Amsterdam this year when squatters, known as "crackers," skirmished with police -- once embarrassingly during the coronation of Queen Beatrix in April. Leaflets handed out to onlookers claim that some 60,000 young people and others are squatting or otherwise ill-housed in the city while some 30,000 houses are empty. The thousands of helmeted demonstrators have been egged on by illegal pirate radio stations and even joined by older sympathizers.
The battles in otherwise placid Zurich have centered on plans for the city to spend large sums of public funds for a new opera house. Swiss youths have protested that no support had been given to alternative cultural centers. The closing of one such center this week because of alleged caches of drugs and explosive triggered another riot. The city council approved some $100,000 for a new water cannon to suppress future public disorders.
Bitter clashes between thousands of students and police also broke out in Paris's Latin Quarter in May after the government announced plans to limit the number of foreign students and workers. But one observer commented "I wonder how spontaneous they were. In France most riots and demonstrations are political and directed against the government."
Partly as a result of these and other signs of youthful rebellion, a number of governments and researchers have begun examining the seeds of their discontent and possible remedies. German and French researchers have been taking a careful look at the links between idle youths, foreign youths, and delinquency.But many experts feel that these connections may be exaggerated and that there is a vast difference between individual acts of delinquency and mass rioting, some of the latter enflamed by so-called "rent-a- crowds" of imported demonstrators.