West Berlin youth unrest flares up

"It's a real civil war," the bellboy said and shook his head in disbelief. He was speaking a few days after West Berlin's most violent demonstration in a decade injured 76 policemen and an unknown number of protesters June 25 and 26 , caused millions of marks worth of damage, and ranged many of the city's counterculture youths behind a militant minority.

The surface issue is the squatting that has spread in the past half year to about 165 of West Berlin's 800-odd empty buildings. The underlying issue is the antipathy of turned-off youths toward what they regard as a materialistic, rigid , and hypocritical society -- and elders' impatience with what they regard as undisciplined, spoiled, and self-righteous young people.

More than his Social Democratic predecessors, West Berlin's new mayor -- the city's first conservative mayor in over three decades -- is seeking to resolve these contradictions and reestablish respect for law through police evictions.

Not all occupied buildings are being cleared; the policy of the new mayor (as it was with the old mayor) is to evacuate only those buildings that have been newly occupied or are ready for immediate razing or reconstruction. The character of the confrontation changed, however, with the new administration's evacuation in June in its first two weeks in office of the highly symbolic Mittenwalder Strasse 45.

This action waved a red flag in front of the squatters.The squatters are angry enough at the semipublic corporations that own 80 percent of West Berlin's empty buildings and keep them empty for years while waiting for the finances to renovate or construct anew.

But they are even angrier at the private "speculators" who own 5 percent of the empty buildings -- including Mittenwalder Strasse 45 -- and who either earn money from the city's generous renovation subsidies and taxes or else wait for a favorable time to erect luxury apartments for nonresidential commercial space.

Mittenwalder Strasse 45, according to registration documents found by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung's prize-winning Berlin correspondent Volker Skierka, could be refurbished for only 150,00 deutsch marks ($62,500), but its absentee owners in south Germany prefer instead to wait and carry out "luxury modernization."

Legally, Mayor Richard von Weizsaecker was not required to carry out eviction. The Berlin Superior Administrative Court, acknowledging the symbolic nature of Mittenwalder Strasse 45, had already backed the outgoing Social Democratic mayor in his decision not to evacuate the building forcibly.

Ex-mayor Hans-Jochen Vogel, who was trying to conduct a "dialogue" with moderate squatters, had reasoned that there was no pressing social need for police eviction, while there was a need to avoid pushing moderate squatters into the arms of the militants. The court ruled that the mayor had such discretionary power under the legal principle of proportionality.

The new mayor chose not to waive the eviction, however, and within a few days of the eviction the June 25-26 demonstration of an estimated 12,000 supporters of the squatters took place. Between 500 and a 1,000 of the protesters battled police with stones, slingshots, and gasoline bombs, breaking shop windows and looting, and for the first time also vandalizing individual private property. The police routed the rioters with water cannon, tear gas, and sticks. Charges were filed against seven demonstrators.

The reaction seems to be spurring some rethinking in City Hall. In the week since the big confrontation there have been no further evacuations nor any further demonstrations. And the new government housing chief, reversing an earlier position, began talking June 30 about trying to encourage regularization of squatters' occupations through voluntary contracts with building owne rs.

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