Social centres, squats, infoshops, free parties, protest camps, hacklabs and convergence centres… Autonomous spaces come in many forms and have often served as important bases of resistance for popular movements and struggles. In this newsletter we take a closer look at social centres around Europe, examining some of their potential strengths and weaknesses as projects for social change and looking at current struggles around protecting autonomous spaces.
- What is a Social Centre?
- Some Examples of Social Centres Around Europe
- Days of Action for Squats and Autonomous Spaces
- The Role of Autonomous Spaces – Strengths and Challenges
- Upcoming Events
- (Many) More Links to Social Centres and Autonomous Spaces in Europe
- Links to More Information
What is a Social Centre?
A social centre is an autonomous space where people can come together to share, exchange, create, experiment, communicate and conspire. The idea is to create a visible, critical presence in the community, where people can engage in radical ideas and events.
Like all autonomous spaces, social centres are self-organised and self-managed. This usually means a commitment to horizontal organising (no leaders and no fixed executive roles), open discussion (where everyone can have an equal say), consensus decision-making, and shared labour (both rote tasks and empowering work are divided equally).
A social centre can be owned, occupied or leased. They take many different forms – from small resource centres of alternative literature, to sprawling multi-use complexes. Commonly they include some or all of the following: free meeting space, a cheap (veggie/vegan) café, cinema space, gig rooms, a radical bookshop or library, free shops, internet access and bike workshops. Some have free language classes or a community garden, others offer support for asylum seekers or equipment loans.
Social centres offer a sense of community and solidarity, affordable food and entertainment, a non-commercial place to relax, talk, meet people or find information on political campaigns, issues and actions.
At their best, social centres act as a direct resistance to the dehumanizing and profit-driven logic of capitalism: by taking back control of our lives, and practicing and promoting our political ideas, we demonstrate alternatives to the exploitative and alienating system of private profit. It’s not just about the program of activities, but also the process of learning and developing our politics as we set up and organize a project together as equals.
Some Examples of Social Centres Around Europe
Rote Flora (Hamburg, Germany)
The social centre Rote Flora has been squatted for more than 20 years. Before it was taken as a space for grassroot activities in 1989, it had been abandoned. Before that it functioned as a supermarket. Originally, it was a theatre called “Flora,” and was named “Rote Flora” (Red Flora) by activists when it was turned into a social centre.
From the beginning the struggle for Rote Flora has been related to gentrification. A huge commercial music venue was planned to be constructed at the end of Schulterblatt Street, but neighbourhood resistance against the project began, including resistance to the demolition of the Flora theatre. Only part of the theatre was saved by these actions, and this is what makes up the Rote Flora today.
Two floors and a cellar, several rooms for meetings, a DIY printing workshop, a motorcycle workshop and a sports room were established in the Rote Flore. The ‘archive of social movements’ also moved to the space, and is still part of the project. Today there is also a bicycle workshop and twice per week a people’s kitchen takes place. There are also various concerts and parties happening, including a weekly Dub Cafe.
The newspaper project ‘Zeck’ is still named ‘information from the Rote Flora’ and has been going for almost 20 years as a left-radical, non-official but tolerated media, in which to publish texts from various autonomous, anarchist and undogmatic radical-left groups and structures.
In 2000 discussion and debate took place around the issue of legalising the space. The issue wasn’t about money, but about the politics of having a squat. There are other legal social centres in Hamburg, some of which started as squats. Most are not particularly political now, and people argued that legalising Rote Flora would create conflict as more pressure was created to ‘stick to the rules.’ On the other hand, others were in favour of legalisation to make sure the space would not be evicted. In the end, the group decided not to legalise and so far it does not seem like the authorities are willing to risk an eviction.
In the last years, the street in front of the Rote Flora has been reconstructed as a ‘piazza,’ increasing the number of people coming to consume in the area’s cafes. Prices to live and prices of food and drink are increasing drastically. In the last ten years the feel and look of the quarter has changed significantly. The Rote Flora can also be seen as part of the problem, as ‘creative yuppies’ are attracted to the space, shooting photos in front of the space or drinking cocktails at parties. On the other hand, the left-liberals see it as a poorly functioning cultural space. A legal, commercial culture centre opened next to the Rote Flora a number of years ago and is used to split cultural activities into those which are acceptable and constructive, and those that are unacceptable and destructive. It still remains to be seen how this will affect the project in the upcoming years…
Edited from a longer text by a3yo (www.a3yo.noblogs.org)
Seomra Spraoi (Dublin, Ireland)
Seomra Spraoi, which means ‘play room,’ is a radical social centre that “seeks to be a hub of positive resistance in a city and society where public spaces have been eaten away by consumerism, property speculation and the culture of the car.” (From the website: http://www.seomraspraoi.org)
The collective formed in 2004, opening their first space in 2005. Since then, they have moved two more times and are currently renting their space. The space has a cinema room, gig space, meeting rooms, kitchen and café area, a bike workshop and more. Many groups use Seomra Spraoi for their meetings, including Revolutionary Anarcha-Feminist Group (RAG), Workers Solidarity Group, Climate Camp Ireland, Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Soupstone Kindergarten. There are regular Spanish, English and German classes, as well as free computer access and wireless internet.
Seomra Spraoi has a clearly developed set of principles under which it organises: autonomy and self-management, openness and inclusion, horizontal (non-hierarchical) organising, collective decision making, cooperation and mutual aid, not-for-profit and environmental sustainability. Open meetings are held regularly, where all can participate in running the space on an equal basis.
Rozbrat (Poznan, Poland)
Set up in 1994 on the site of a bankrupt warehouse complex, the original idea of Rozbrat was a commune for people who did not accept or believe in “a world based on the rat race.” Initially Rozbrat was a housing squat, providing a shared place to live outside of the for-profit housing market. But quickly the aims of the project broadened to include all kinds of cultural, social and political work.
Today Rozbrat is at the centre of alternative culture not only in Poznan, but also the whole region of Wielkopolska. It is a social space where activities that could not take place in commercialised world thrive. The building includes a living area for 15-20 people, an anarchist library, a two room concert hall, the anarchists’ club and some other smaller spaces. Various festivals, workshops, meetings and lectures take place in the space. Many radical political initiatives, such as Food Not Bombs and Workers’ Initiative, use Rozbrat as a base for organising their work.
Rozbrat has been under threat of eviction since 2008, with a ‘Rozbrat stays!’ campaign active since the beginning of 2009. On May 9th 2009 more than 1000 people took part in a demonstration in Poznan organised by the Rozbrat Collective, with solidarity actions at Polish embassies in countries like Greece, Hungary, Romania and the Netherlands. Right now is a critical time for Rozbrat since an auction to sell Rozbrat is supposed to take place on March 26, 2010. Another demonstration is planned for March 20th.
Patio Maravillas (Madrid, Spain)
Patio Maravillas is a social centre in central Madrid, in existence since 2007. The collective squatted a long-abandoned building on Acuerdo Street, in the university area, from summer 2007 until January 2010. On January 26, 2010 police moved in to evict the squat, after legal action was taken by the owner. On the same day, hundreds of people protested against the eviction, and a new building was occupied nearby on Pez Street. Activities of the social centre were quickly resumed in the new space.
Patio Maravillas has acted as a busy local cultural and political centre Regular activities include a bicycle repair workshop, film screenings, a hacklab, free classes and workshops, political discussions, children’s activities, a photography workshop, legal advice, meeting space and a café
Days of Action for Squats and Autonomous Spaces
In 2007 a call to action in support of squats and autonomous spaces was made, proposing a weekend of decentralised actions April 11-12, 2008. The idea was to promote and disperse the ideas and ideals of autonomous spaces, whilst also feeding on one another’s energy to fight in people’s own localities. A meeting in Dijon, France was attended by approximately 130 and the call out was translated into 18 languages. Many people will eager to show that their struggles are not only about isolated spaces, but a movement without borders that requires international solidarity.
Actions were reported in 95 cities, in at least 26 countries – mostly in Europe and often in places that didn’t already have a social centre Everything from banner drops, food not bombs, new squatting actions, street theatre, parties and discussions took place. More than 30 new squats were taken over the weekend (although quite a few were also quickly evicted).
Since then, there has been a follow up meeting in Berlin and in September 2009 a smaller weekend of actions took place, mostly in the UK.
You can find a full report from the 2008 actions days here: http://april2008.squat.net/
Interspace Coordination List
Original the April2008-coordination list set up in the lead up to the decentralised days of action for squats and autonomous spaces. The list now provides a communications tool for autonomous spaces throughout Europe and beyond.
The Role of Autonomous Spaces – Strengths and Challenges
The strengths and advantages of organising a social centre or other autonomous space are clear. They act as a physical space to unite social movements and strengthen activism in our communities – a place to plan and strategise together, and to make links with other struggles and activists. They can contribute to the development of horizontal politics and autonomous movements, by acting as spaces where self-management, mutual aid and solidarity can blossom. And of course, by reclaiming private property and opening it back to the public in a not-for-profit way, social centres are a direct intervention and confrontation to the logic of capital. Autonomous spaces expose the madness of property speculation and gentrification; they provide an alternative to city centres where the only places to meet are corporately controlled and owned.
But there are also tensions and problems when it comes to organising autonomous spaces. First, there is the question of the project’s sustainability. Often the day-to-day work in these projects is carried out by a very small group of people. Everyone turns up when there is a good gig on Friday night, but when it comes to fixing the leaky roof or administrative work like paying the bills, the group suddenly seems a lot smaller. This can lead to burnout and resentment. And even in projects committed to ‘doing it without leaders,’ it is an easy way for informal hierarchies to form. Those who have more experience or knowledge about the project can end up with more influence over decisions.
Sustainability can also be a matter of money – without any formal funding it can be a struggle just to keep the lights on from month to month. Many spaces come to rely on bar nights and alcohol sales to keep their space going, which can also bring up questions about the role of alcohol in our movements.
One of the biggest questions in many countries is often about whether or not to squat. One argument says that the bureaucracy and financial costs of legal autonomous spaces divert energy and resources away from ‘real’ activism and social change activities. There is also a concern that the group will become professionalised or institutionalised. Another argument against legalisation says that the direct confrontation of occupation and squatting is necessary for the growth of radical politics, and to avoid engaging with the system one is objecting to.
But squatting can have its own issues. The instability of constantly having to move to a new building can be tiring. In many places, squatting is becoming more difficult with new laws being passed to make it illegal or more enforcement of laws that already exist. Many activists, especially as they get older, want to create a more permanent base. Buying or renting a property can allow them to make their politics more open and accessible, and is often seen as a tactical compromise.
The debate around squatted versus legal spaces continues, often with these spaces working and networking together, feeding off each other and building solidarity.
Finally, there is a question of who these projects are for. Are we satisfied with youth-oriented subcultural ghettoes, or are we really serious about connecting our politics with ‘regular people’ and their day-to-day concerns?
Read more about the issues surrounding autonomous spaces: http://trapese.clearerchannel.org/chapters/HandbookForChangingOurWorld_chap13.pdf
And a guide about how to set up your own social centre:
Frontal Attack Intersquat Festival (Grenoble, France)
March 20-28, 2010
An intersquat festival against evictions and private property, to reclaim the city. Numerous activities will be organized by/in different squats in and around Grenoble: a week of live shows, movie screenings, walks, vegan meals, discussions and more, to confront the political managers who are ruining our city and lives.
Social Centres in a Time of Crisis – National Social Centres Meeting (Leeds, United Kingdom)
April 17-18, 2010.
A weekend of workshops, discussions and socialising for everyone with an interest in radical autonomous social centres.
- How can a new generation of social centres learn from the successes and failures of established ones? What are the ways in which we can best face up to the challenges?
- How can we sustain energy and dynamism? Can we stop the daily grind of actually running a social centre from eclipsing the politics and passion behind it
- Is there a way in which we can capitalise on the current widespread disaffection with mainstream politics? What is the role of social centres in a time of crisis?
- What is the current situation with your social centre? What’s going right, what’s going wrong, and what support do you need?
(Many) More Links to Social Centres and Autonomous Spaces in Europe
This list is by no means comprehensive, and spaces are opening and closing all the time. Send an email to eyfa [at] eyfa.org if you’d like to see your space added to the list.
Ernst Kirchweger Haus (Vienna, Austria)
Infocenter Ecotopia (Razgrad, Bulgaria)
Infoshop Škatula (Rijeka, Croatia)
Jolanda Club (Brno, Czech Rep) http://www.jolanda.cz/ Revolver Infoshop (Prague, Czech Rep) http://www.infoshop-revolver.cz Truhlarska (Prague, Czech Rep) http://www.milada.org/truhla/
Folkets Hus (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Ungdomshuset (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Sosiaalikeskus Satama (Helsinki, Finland)
Hirvitalo (Tampere, Finland)
Les Tanneries (Dijon, France)
Calendar of Berlin events (including address listings) http://stressfaktor.squat.net/
KØPI (Berlin, Germany)
Au (Frankfurt, Germany)
Villa Amalias (Athens, Greece)
Fabrika Yfanet (Thessaloniki, Greece)
CSA Vittoria (Milan, Italy)
Officina 99 (Naples, Italy)
CSA La Torre (Rome, Italy)
Forte Prenestion (Rome, Italy)
Fuori Controllo (Savona, Italy)
Zabadaks (Kuldiga, Latvia)
Teror 13 (Macedonia)
Joes Garage (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Molli (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Grote Broek (Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
ACU (Utrecht, The Netherlands)
Information about what’s happening in many Dutch squats.
Blitz (Oslo, Norway)
Hausmania (Oslo, Norway)
Ivar Matlaus Bokkafe (Trondheim, Norway)
UFFA (Trondheim, Norway)
Warsaw Infoshop (Warsaw, Poland)
DeCentrum (Bialystok, Poland)
ZAKAŹN (Biala Podlaska, Poland)
CRK [Centre of Culture Reanimation] (Wroclaw, Poland)
Elba (Warszawa, Poland)
Metelkova (Ljubliana, Slovenia)
Utkanten (Malmoe, Sweden)
Kafe 44 (Stockholm, Sweden)
Newsletter of activities in Barcelona squats.
Can Masdeu (Barcelona, Spain)
Espace Noir (Saint-Imier, Switzerland)
Haymatlos (Istanbul, Turkey) http://www.haymatlos.org/
London Social Centers Network (London, UK)
UK Social Center Network
Links to More Information
Prague Squats Under Attack: some articles on squats in Prague
What is This Place? Stories From Radical Social Centers in the UK and Ireland
Some words on the movement of political squats in France: http://europe.pgaconference.org/en/france_06/topics/autonomous_spaces/some_words_on_the_movement_of_the_political_squats_in_france