Violent squatters keep W. Berlin on its toes
West Berlin — On Saturday afternoon some 10,000 young demonstrators from West Berlin's lively counterculture gathered in Wittenberg Square to protest the current housing shortage. Some wore clown paint. Many carried banners: "'Amnesty for all Squatters;' 1981 1933, Cops SS, Prison Concentration Camp." Many more brought guitars, clarinets, drums, and castanets. Children and dogs abounded. It was grand street theater. Nobody got hurt.
On Sunday night some 500 young demonstrators gathered near Wittenberg Square to sympathize with the two-month-old hunger strike of jailed terrorists. They went on a rampage, smashing store windows, burning cars, battling the police. There were injuries. There were arrests.
What accounts for the difference? The basically peaceful counterculturalists , bored with and disdainful of their affluent society, are a fertile soil. How can the violence of the "chaotics" be prevented from spreading?
These are the questions confronting West Berlin and some two dozen other Western European cities as house squatting and other youth protests have spread across northern Europe in the past half year.
France, a leader in the 1968 youth revolt, seems curiously immune this time around. Britain, with its racial antagonisms leading to unprecedented violence in south London, is a special case. But West Germany, the Netherlands, and even Switzerland, are altogether typical of the 1981 youth revolt that has hit northern European cities.
The government of West Berlin -- which vies with Amsterdam and Copenhagen as a magnet for disaffected youth -- has answered the challenge with attempts at dialogue, with flexible law enforcement, and with belated help with apartment renovation.
The experiment has raised no cheers either from the squatters or from Berlin property owners. Yet policymakers here contend that any other course would only drive the more peaceful demonstrators into the arms of the militants.
City officials, of course, cannot pretend to address the protesters' basic complaints about a soulless, commercial, rigid society in which conformist careerists are expected to stay on the hierarchical treadmill.
Officials are tackling the key issue of inadequate housing, however, to try to halt the momentum toward ever more violent confrontation.
In accord with this aim the Social Democratic-Liberal West Berlin government has refrained from mass evictions of squatters from the 130-odd occupied apartment buildings out of the 800-odd empty structures in the city. In a few cases it has evicted squatters immediately after their occupation of a building. But in other cases it has tried to regularize occupant agreements if squatters are fixing up their apartments, if there are no immediate plans for razing or reconstruction, and if the buildings in question belong to semipublic renovation firms. (As 80 percent of the empty buildings do).
West Berlin authorities are also trying to speed up improvement of the half of all city apartments with inadequate plumbing or heating. And they are trying to explain the reasons for the actual housing shortage in a statistically well-provided city of 2 million inhabitants and 1.1. million apartments.
Housing ministry spokesmen give several reasons. Part of the fault lies with Berlin's antiquated 19th-century buildings. Construction costs are 20 percent higher in isolated West Berlin than in West Germany. West Berlin's many single pensioners are increasingly disinclined to sublet rooms in large flats if they can afford not to.
The postwar baby boom has created a 1980s short-term crush of apartment seekers but a 1990s decline in West Berlin's population and housing needs. And a growing number of 19- and 20-year-olds are moving into apartments of their own rather than staying with their parents.
Above all, policymakers are trying to deal civilly with those squatters who have simply rejected the affluent society while curbing the influence of those who have declared war against it. (Officials say 40 percent of West Berlin squatters are involved in illegal acts other than squatting, with a hard core actively seeking battles with the police.)
The counterculture's response to the city government's efforts is largely one of derision for officials and solidarity with peers. The squatters accuse city hall of doing little for housing until the squatters' movement and sporadic violence forced it to act -- and of permitting decay of rent-controlled buildings as speculators planned on erecting future luxury apartments or shopping complexes.
The squatters further charge the government with abusing its vaunted dialogue with the squatters by conducting police searches of several of the squatters' apartments the first week in April. (The government's version is that is was looking for evidence of criminal acts unrelated to squatting. The opposition's version is that the government publicized its intention of making a sweep so far in advance that there was ample time to remove incriminating evidence. Wherever truth lies, the government-squatter dialogue has certainly been interrupted.)
A further problem is that so many young West Berliners who cheer squatters and jeer police suspect or even hate authority. These thousands regard the state as the oppressor in a series of issues ranging from environmental protection to the refusal of the state to treat those hunger-striking jailed terrorists as prisoners of war.
For West Berlin, long a flashpoint whenever East-West tensions have risen, having other problems to worry about than sheer survival may be some comfort. But not much.