Amsterdam squatters and police mark 1980 riots

RNW archive

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This week squatters in Amsterdam marked the violent eviction of a squat in Amsterdam city centre 30 years ago.

In March 1980 hundreds of policemen and soldiers who rushed in to keep the Vondelstraat area under control failed to maintain order. For the first time since World War II, military tanks were seen in the streets of the Dutch capital. One of the tank commanders, retired Major Tom van Erp, vividly remembers the extraordinary scenes.

Squatting became popular – and to some even necessary – in the mid-1970s, when the Dutch baby boomers needed room to live. But the housing market in Amsterdam was crippled by a lack of new houses being built, the poor state of mostly pre-war buildings in the city centre and real estate speculation. Amsterdam’s city centre was riddled with empty, decaying buildings.

Soon several of these buildings were occupied by squatters. The Amsterdam authorities did little to stop them, knowing they could offer the squatters no alternative.

Tough action
The mood changed towards the end of the 1970s, when real estate owners and politicians called for tough action against the squatters. The Amsterdam city council, led by Mayor Wim Polak, moved to crack down on the squatters, which lead to the first evictions.

At first relatively peaceful, these evictions grew more violent as more squatters and their sympathisers took to the streets to fight the riot police deployed to protect the evictors.

Vondelstraat
In March 1980, one of Amsterdam’s most prominent squats, located in Vondelstraat, was to be evicted despite violent protests from hundreds of squatters. They had erected huge barricades and more than a thousand police officers and soldiers were called in to break up the protests. One of them was Major Tom van Erp, who drove his tank through the barricades.

“Our men simply couldn’t go through those barricades by foot,” he remembers. “It would take too much time and there was a great danger of our people getting hurt. We had to do it quickly and take the protesters off guard”.

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Molotov cocktails
Mr Van Erp resorted to somewhat unusual methods, helping the squatters build the barricades. “Somehow I managed to infiltrate the squatting scene, without their realising I was from the army”, he says. “I advised them to construct huge barricades, suggesting they would make it impossible for the riot police to penetrate. I made sure they built the barricades in such a way that it would be easier for me to drive my tank through them. The squatters never realised I had a double agenda”.

When the squatters began hurling stones, bottles, sticks and Molotov cocktails, the riot police responded by firing tear gas. Meanwhile, Mr Van Erp slowly drove his tank towards the Vondelstraat barricades. Demonstrators, journalists and onlookers were surprised to see the tank as they had never seen one in the city before. For Mr Van Erp, the situation was quite hazardous:

“The barricades were burning and they were throwing Molotov cocktails. I knew that when I shoved away the rubble, it would be quite easy to throw a Molotov cocktail into my tank. So I was really afraid I could be barbecued in there! Also, if I had to leave my tank midway, I would be a very easy target, as I was unarmed”.

It took Mr Van Erp seven minutes to destroy seven barricades, and the Vondelstraat building was soon cleared by police. The riots and the ensuing police intervention left over 50 police offers injured and caused damage worth tens of thousands of guilders (the Dutch currency of the time).

Hurt
Aside from broken windows and burning barricades, there was damage of a different kind, Mr Van Erp says. “I had never expected to face other Dutch citizens. I had been trained to attack Soviets, not Amsterdammers. That hurt”.

The way some people responded to the police operation also hurt. “When we drove back to the barracks, I saw people raising their hands in a Nazi-salute as a protest against us. That was really, really bad. I could understand why these people squatted, but I just couldn’t believe they were taking the law into their own hands”.

Anti-squatting law
The evictions continued well into the 1980s, and the Amsterdam squatter movement waned as more new houses were built and older buildings were renovated in the city centre. At present, there are still squatters in Amsterdam, but they’ve become a marginalised group. An anti-squatting law is currently being discussed in parliament.