<Book Review>
The City is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present
Bart van der Steen, Ask Katzeef, and Leendert van Hoogenhuijze (eds.)
[Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014. (336 pp., 65 b&w illus.)]

The City is Ours is a collection that provides an engaging glimpse into localized, subversive, political, and performative praxis. The book brings together activists, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, historians, cultural and historical geographers, and others, where each author attempts to complicate simplistic understandings of squatters and autonomous movements by exploring several European locales. More specifically, the book focuses on the unique historical contexts of these movements, mapping their countercultural actions (and reception), and critically reflecting upon the work done by members of these movements. Contributors to The City is Ours cover Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Brighton, Copenhagen, London, Poznan, and Vienna in charting national, European, and neoliberal influences on these locations and radical movements. The chapters offer a rich collection of specific cultural studies and histories which taken together greatly contribute to broader discussions of squatting, autonomous movements, and urban issues of homelessness.

The primary contribution of this collection is its detailed evidence against preconceptions that “insurgencies such as the Occupy movement of 2011 seem to arise from nowhere” (IX). The chapters provide accessible cultural and historical contexts for each unique, localized swell of insurgence. From these narratives, the authors examine contacts between the activists and the institutions they resist as well as communication among the activists themselves. United under European left-Libertarian politics, each chapter approaches the relationship between squatters and autonomous movements as often inherent, though not without tension.

As a point of entry, readers should consider a primary issue with squatting: the dominant images of squatters often fail to reflect the reality of squatting populations, neglecting the racial and ideological diversity, an issue explored in Nazima Kadir’s chapter on myths in squatter representation. Kadir’s contribution is particularly enlightening and foundational to the rest of the volume. Her engaging description of the on-the-ground organizational labor required to squat a building grows from her first-hand experiences. Kadir’s accounts illustrate tensions that occur within these groups, aiding readers in understanding the diversity within them as an integral reminder to avoid over-generalization. Through defining some of the archetypal categories squatters may occupy – wild squatters, crusty punks, baby punks, hippie activists, student squatters, and campaigners – Kadir illustrates a youthful and varied assemblage of participants working in tandem to locate, research, squat, and maintain occupancy of buildings. She describes the Amsterdam movement as “an amalgamation of an anachronistic and myopic European youth subculture, housing activism, and a trajectory of individual self-realisation in a high-pressured urban space” (59). This useful and engaging portrait serves as a basis for approaching each of the succeeding chapters and would function as an excellent primer on the topic of performing localized activism.

Emblematic of the historicizing moves made by most of the authors, Gregor Kritidis’ writing offers a detailed timeline of the anarchist and libertarian movements of Greece, identifying specific blocks of time and their contexts across the country to better understand how a movement develops and is received in different political and economic climates. Kritidis establishes specific periods of development, linking to culturally significant trends in music as well as effects of major political events. Kritidis’ work is impressive in its ability to isolate moments where the culture at large shifted even slightly.

Many of the following chapters have similar structures to Kritidis’: sections are marked by the span of a few years to a decade and/or they are characterized by the general strides, progression, and evolution of these activist movements as well as the cultural and historical shifts that shaped them. Claudio Cattaneo and Enrique Tudela contextualize photographs of the methods of protest of Barcelona squatters, as they “hung off the walls of [Can Masdeu, a centrally historical squat]” with “more than three hundred people… mobilized for more than sixty hours” (114). Other extraordinary examples include Alex Vasudevan’s compelling chapter on “Autonomous Urbanisms and the Right to the City” in Berlin. While Kadir’s chapter provides engaging and informative storytelling, Vasudevan’s is where the volume seems to hit its stride. From this mid-point onward, the reader is offered detailed accounts of specific and intimate groups of activists and the spaces they work so hard to occupy. Local protest and squatting tactics are brought once more to the fore and activist identities and performances take center stage.

Despite the volume’s organization around specific locations, the larger effect is one of a broader understanding of European radical movements and a detailed awareness of what must happen on the ground level for this type of activism and lifestyle to exist. Taken as a series of independent essays, this collection is well-suited for a variety of readers interested in urban activism. As in most encounters with subversive and radical movements, however, The City is Ours does not manage to wholly evade troubling politics. In his forward, Geronimo unsettlingly points to German fe*male author Amantine’s “anti-sexist” accusations against the autonomous scene as falling into “the trap of the police discourse,” one that states, “squatters are ‘anarchists’ who prepare for ‘civil war,’ leading to ‘terrorism, RAF, rape, drug trade and Red Aid’” (XVIII). The claim seems to be that to bring attention to these transgressions of sexism and sexual violence within some of these communities is to hold back the entire movement. Seemingly calling for an unproblematic acceptance of the state of autonomous movements, Geronimo declares that “autonomy can only be approached by throwing off the straightjacket of victimisation and through an open stance towards all possible forms of ‘transgression,’ of which the squatting of houses is only one” (XVIII, emphasis mine). Geronimo’s position is not engaged (or even mentioned) by other contributors. However, his claims should sound an urgent call for feminist analysis of gendered relations within these collectives. The primary mitigation of Geronimo’s sexist claims takes place in Cattaneo and Tudela’s thoughtfully-crafted article, which does pay credence to women’s autonomous collectives (such as Barcelona’s Coordinadora Feminista Autónoma), but the volume would benefit greatly from pairing with feminist, LGBT, and Queer readings of urban squatting and autonomy.

Scholars, students, and casual readers alike will want for concluding remarks or some summation of intersecting points across these European histories. This is work is entrusted to the reader, since the collection ends abruptly with Robert Foltin’s chapter on Vienna. In the classroom, excerpts of this book would offer enlightening introductions to autonomous and squatters’ movements and would be especially interesting for folks interested in including readings that foreground activist perspectives and detailed historical timelines. Also, the historical structure of the majority of the chapters functions as foundation and evidence for future theorization and study. Photographs and activist posters are included throughout, usually printed in performatively “underground” style, the photographs illustrated by black, jagged, diagonal stripes. This look contributes to an aesthetic of independent street publishing, and even its inclusion of evocative graffiti merits attention, opening possibilities for engaging visual analyses in reference to localized historical contexts. As an object, the book is compelling, asking to be engaged with and admired. For those interested in urban/underground European cultures or the idea of the right to the city, it would be difficult not to pick the book up and enjoy its perspectives. Those seeking abstract theorizations might find what they desire in the “Suggested Readings” sections included at the back, but generally this book will appeal to those eager to apply forms of criticism to contextualized locales, those seeking case studies or a context for specific autonomous movements within national and European cultures. Despite the unaddressed presence of controversial attitudes toward feminist critiques, and the lack of a satisfying and encompassing conclusion, the text should be useful and engaging for scholars of space and place, urban communication, autonomous movements, local activism, and those interested in all aspects of the city and urban life.

     — Reviewed by Dylan Rollo

Dylan Rollo is a Master’s student in Syracuse University’s Communication and Rhetorical Studies program. His studies revolve around broader questions of space & place, currently finding ground in cities and architecture as they relate to the use and appropriation of space as well as aesthetics and world-building for marginalized groups.

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