by Ed Sutton, Zurich
Text presented at the conference ” RECLAIMING THE COMMONS IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE, Warsaw, 19-21 April 2013 ” organized by Res Publica Nowa and Occupy.com
As tensions continue to rise surrounding housing and right-to-the-city issues in Switzerland, one squat’s struggle was derailed at a critical moment by violence. How the Schoch Family of Zurich’s Binz responded and what we can all learn from their equanimity
2 June 2013
After a disappointingly brief visit to the Binz complex on May 30th, the day before the threatened eviction of the squatters there, a friend of mine and I returned, a little shell-shocked, to his own much humbler squat elsewhere in Zurich. As we walked through the drizzle to the garden entrance of the old villa-style residence with views, on nicer days than this, over the city’s construction crane-infested West Side, one of his cohabitants spotted us and approached, grinning broadly.
Anna had been mixing paint for a banner, and her hands were brightly stained. “I didn’t think you’d be back so soon,” she said, her face changing to a look of concern. “How’s it look down there?”
“It’s pretty emotional at the moment,” Kev replied. Tensions had indeed been running high. Considering the predicament the Binz residents—who number about fifty and refer to themselves as the Schoch family—were facing, this was understandable.
“They threw me out,” I said, laughing sheepishly.
I had introduced myself as a journalist at the Schochs’ regular assembly the week before. They had been relatively receptive, but they asked me to leave then also, so they could freely discuss—in the basic-democratic, consensus-oriented style familiar to many of us now as a result of Occupy—what exactly to do with me.
The problem was that on March 3rd they had led a ‘Reclaim the Streets’ (RTS) party-demonstration which has come to be disingenuously referred to in the press as the ‘Binz Riots.’ Embarrassed and frustrated, and feeling quite rightly that the media wasn’t interested in telling their side of the story, the Schochs had decided to halt all external communications.
Still, in the meantime it had appeared they were willing to make exceptions; there seemed to be a sense among them that shutting themselves off completely went against one of their founding principles: openness. They referred to the Binz complex, after all, as a free space.
Breaking the silence: An international plea
For example, at the beginning of May they had hosted a theater performance—The Schoch Family, a fictionalized and highly entertaining telling of the Binz story, sung a capella in five languages—intended to rebuild public support they had lost after the RTS-gone-awry and to help reclaim, even redefine, their place in the community.
A surprisingly large audience had shown up—around 300 people, overwhelming the pre-show collective kitchen—and the Schochs jumped on the opportunity to spread an international call to action for the lead-up to May 31st. They distributed posters and flyers exhorting sympathizers from anywhere and everywhere to come to Zurich and help out with two weeks of ‘creative resistance’ to the coming eviction.
They had posted the call to action on the internet as well, and over a number of visits I made to the complex before my ill-conceived “I’m a writer” admission, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had gotten results.
They had apparently set up a large, dormitory style sleeping quarters in the maze-like upper reaches of the complex’s largest building, though like the other private living spaces they had built into the aging industrial zone over the last seven years, it was closed to visitors. And in the open areas—several kitchens, a machineshop, a free store, a bike repair shop, rooftop terraces connected by makeshift bridges, and two cavernous halls used for concerts and parties—I kept running into new arrivals responding to the call-up.
According to an unscientific survey of people I talked to and overheard at dinner in an outdoor corridor between buildings at Binz one rare sunny evening two weeks ago, at least seven different countries were represented among people who had shown up to participate in creative resistance, and more were on the way.
I found this heartening, because it confirmed some claims I made in an earlier piece about the growing strength and international character of European political squatting through digital communication (read it here: http://www.occupy.com/article/zurich-and-across-europe-squatter-communities-are-strengthening; it also includes more information about the ‘Binz Riots’ mentioned above).
The new faces also lent to an overall impression of fervent activity and engagement taking place in the Binz complex as they prepared for the May 31st doomsday. Every time I stopped by, in addition to people working busily on small construction projects I also observed people exchanging ideas and experiences from previous eviction scenarios in other squats all around the continent, and proposing countless possible courses of action. But the Schochs were holding their cards close to the vest when it came to what, specifically, was being prepared.
Switzerland stays cold; political temperatures rise
After years of living in a situation of fluctuating legality and under near-constant pressure and surveillance from local authorities, a certain degree of secrecy about their activities and plans had become more or less routine for the Schochs. Now, with their explicit refusal to talk to media and with their last major action having spiraled into violence (violence that is lazily assumed and repeatedly insinuated, without substantiation, to have originated with the Schochs themselves), speculation about what was in store for the 31st hit a fever pitch.
Another ingredient in the soup of wild variables was a mid-month turnover in city council leadership that put an outspoken radical leftist in charge of the police department effective June 1st. Richard Wolff is a veteran of the youth movements that rocked Zurich in 1980 and set the precedent for the right-to-the-city struggles that Binz now represents. So there was a lot of talk about how the outgoing leadership may want to ‘strike while the iron is hot,’ and carry out any eviction plans punctually and decisively before Wolff could ruin them.
On the other hand, there was also speculation that the outgoing leadership would intentionally drag its feet on the matter so that Binz would be the first thing on Wolff’s desk when he started and any sign of equivocation on his part, the Schochs having been so thoroughly tarred by the media all spring long, would embarrass and discredit him to the benefit of his rightwing opponents on the council.
To make matters worse, last weekend another party-demonstration with similar political orientation to the March 3rd RTS in Zurich—an event in Bern called Tanz Dich Frei that is now in its third year and typically attracts tens of thousands of people—also turned uncharacteristically violent. Reports the next day, again disingenuous, emphasized the presence of pro-Binz signs in the crowd and Zurcher accents being heard among the ‘rioters.’
Schochs under pressure: sadness and calm
It was in this charged atmosphere that I arrived at Binz to find Kev on May 30th. As I walked down the driveway towards the front entrance of the complex, it was immediately apparent that the Schochs’ mysterious preparations were in high gear. There were people hauling material up on the rooftop terraces; old beat-up trucks were snorting in and out of the alley leading to a loading area in the rear of the complex; power tools and welding torches whined, clanged and hissed from inside the nearer buildings; and, most significantly, the front entrance itself had been completely barricaded with layers of junk.
Piles of bicycle skeletons, metal piping and sections of scaffolding, kitchen appliances, wooden palettes, shopping carts, oil drums, furniture, and hanging tarps blocked even visual access to the Schoch family home. Converted vehicles I had seen used as ‘floats’ in the March RTS—including a flatbed truck upon which a punk band had played (the drum set still sat dejectedly atop it)—formed the front line of the barricade, and oft-used protest banners adorned the morass. Binz bleibt Binz. Repression macht Aggression.
I hadn’t heard what the Schochs had resolved at their assembly the week before (that I was welcome to write what I liked, but only from outside the premises—they wanted to stay consistent in their posture toward the media and had been turning journalists away for weeks), so I followed a truck around to the rear entrance.
As I entered one of the large hangar-like halls, activity appeared to be ebbing. I approached a group of people gathered in quiet conference, their dust masks and ear protection pulled down around their necks for a break. Their worried, exhausted faces reflected none of the threatening, stubborn rebellion that had characterized the Schoch family in media reports over the preceding months.
It dawned on me that their current struggle was touchingly familiar, even mundane. Many of them had lived in the Binz complex for nearly seven years, in rooms and arrangements they had built with their own hands. Their stress now was the stress of leaving home: what do I take along, what do I leave behind, what do I throw away? What will become of this place? What will become of us?
Needless to say, they weren’t in the mood to chat. I spotted Kev in an adjoining room, so I went to greet him and to ask, foolishly, if there would be a collective kitchen tonight. Not two minutes into our conversation we were approached by two women I recognized from the assembly. They politely explained what they had decided the week before and that I had to go. I was more than welcome to come back the next day, especially if there was a police action (which stood no chance of being covered fairly in the press—I understood this after Occupy Zurich’s eviction from the Lindenhof in November 2011), and observe from outside.
A lesson in defiance: truly passive resistance
So I left with the impression, shared by the rest of the city, that there would be a real spectacle at Binz the next day.
But the 31st came and went without any big news. Various media outlets reported that the squatters had completely sealed the premises—barricades similar to the one in front had also been erected overnight at all other points of entry—and left. Deducing that the longed-for police confrontation was no longer in the cards and not eager to stand in the unseasonably chilling rain, the reporters took their cameras and went home with a shiver and a yawn.
Naturally, they missed the significance of the non-event. It doesn’t fit into their narrative that these ‘hard-line anarchist provocateurs’ would leave without a fight. It certainly wouldn’t occur to them that leaving without a fight was the most powerful thing the Schochs could do.
Over the seven-year existence of the squat in the Binz complex, the Schoch family made an art of defying expectations. They had fended off a previous eviction threat in 2009-10 by meeting Canton Zurich’s demand of a security deposit, delivering eight wheelbarrows full of five-rappen coins (the equivalent of nickels) to the Canton’s administrative offices and thus overpaying by about ten Francs the CHF 20,000 required. Without exception, they always promptly paid their water and electric bills—to the tune of 3,000 Francs a month.
Routinely portrayed as layabouts and outcasts, destitute ne’er-do-wells with a militant ideology rejecting the society that rejected them, they nonetheless focused diligently on the quite personal and humane tasks they had set for themselves: establishing and maintaining a self-organized autonomous space free of the profit- and security-hysteria rampant in the rest of the city and open to anyone who wanted to contribute to communal life there.
To whatever extent that, in order to survive, they had to cooperate with a sneering broader society and the repressive, alternative-phobic state, they consistently did so—just always on their own creative terms. Sadly, the politics of urban free space and squatting in Switzerland have gotten hotter since the onset of the Eurocrisis, and groups with political alignments similar to the Schochs’ (but lacking their pacifying, rational internal decision-making process) have increasingly begun responding to escalating state repression in more violent ways. In effect, actions have been taken in the Schochs’ name but not on their terms. The blowback from this, as seen both in March and last weekend in Bern, made it impossible for the Binz struggle to continue in its desired form.
The Schochs’ voluntary (though surely agonizing) relinquishment of the Binz complex, born of their insistence on creative resistance and non-escalation, should be a signal to the belligerent bourgeois masses—and to the impetuous, short-sighted street-fighters who have recently played right into these masses’ low expectations—that the Schoch family wants to remain above the fray. They want nothing to do with the childish, non-stop, tit-for-tat slap-fight currently occurring between authorities and self-anointed ‘revolutionaries’ and being pumped up by the spectacle-seeking press. They are tired of being seen as part of the problem when it is solutions that they seek.
In short, they want to survive. To continue the struggle, to fight another day. As they put it in a statement they posted on their website on June 1st to accompany the enormous metal sculpture they left behind at the fortified but eerily empty Binz complex: “We are gone and yet we remain…there is still a lot to do.”