Leaving the Czech Church, I run into the alternative tour group led by a tall, young, attractive man covered in tattoos. He welcomes me to join along and explains that he and a few friends were formal tour guides for tourists in Prague’s city center that broke off and formed their own tour guide company, “Beyond the Mainstream,” that focuses on underground, alternative spaces. There are about 12 people in the group following him from all over the world, some from colorado, spain, transylvania etc. They are headed to Klinika, the squat the angel from the church told me about, so I follow along.
He leads us not 800 meters from where I have been staying. Wow, woooowwww, I have to laugh a bit. How many spaces have i missed that were right under my nose? All this on my last day in Prague. The guide explains that this neighborhood, Zizkov, is the last remaining district of central Prague that has an anarchist, anti-capitalist community. Czechia has a particularly negative view of squats so at the present moment this is the only existing social center squat in Prague and potentially all of Czechia.
Klinika was founded in 2014 in an abandoned clinic by a group of explicitly political squatters. Their foremost goal was to create a social center – a space for the community. For 10 years before 2014, the state owned the building but did nothing with it so it began to atrophy. The squatters cleaned up the building and created a bookshop, restaurant, clothing shop, cafe, offering free language classes, a myriad of workshops – our tour guide had been to a tattoo workshop, movie screenings, performances, refugee assistance and aid, etc. etc. etc.
Initially the government tried to evict the squatters. People in the neighborhood would call and report a bomb in the building so the police would have to evacuate the space. Once all the squatters were out of the building the police would refuse reentry. The squatters would disperse and then reclaim the space after the police left. However, in 2015, the state finally recognized that Klinika was offering so many great services to the community and gave them a license to be in the space that expired in 2016. Instead of renewing the license, the building was bought by the rail road (I don’t really know what that means but it people keep saying it like it’s a thing). They plan on turning the space into an office building later this year so everything that the squatters have built is threatened.
In addition to challenges from the government, Klinika has been the victim of several attacks from the extreme right. Apparently during a march against Islam (😢😭) extreme right groups attacked Klinika, destroying the front, smashing windows and trying to set it on fire.
A major aspect of Klinika is that it is 100% independent, it will not take any money from the government or corporations. The tour does not go into the space, instead heading on to their final location, an abandoned factory that has been turned into a bar/club. I am more interested in exploring Klinika so separate from the group and follow the garden around to the back entrance.
I see a sign on my way for Squatting Europe Kollective’s (SQEK) 2017 conference which apparently started this morning with a discussion about squatted social centers and the housing question in Europe. I turn the corner into the backyard and see a group seated in a circle listening to a woman speaking about the squatting movement in Basque country. I join the circle and get a few side eyes. Sheila Padrones is speaking about how squatting can be a form of protest. The building of an express train tracks was planned to cut through a forest in Spain so a group of squatters occupied a house along the projected train path. As I have discussed previously squatters have extensive rights in Spain. Because they were squatting in this building, the train could not be built. However, in a surreal turn of events, the property’s neighbors began squatting in the space as well and so the building technically also became theirs so the property was able to be confiscated by the government. Someone asks her if the homeless population squatting with the protesters participated in the political activity and she says no not at all.
Holy fucking shit I’m at a conference for squatters. Squatting, something that I had no idea even existed until 2 months ago when I explored Spain, has. its. own. conference. There are so many worlds yet to explore. Not only that, a majority of those in attendance are academics whose sole subject of research is squatting and autonomous social spaces.
The concept of a conference itself could be discussed as an autonomous community space. A conference is a temporary space that strengthens communities and provides a platform for those in a specific field to reach others. In the past 3 weeks I have attended a performance art conference in Berlin, dance conference in Prague and now, a squatting conference at the autonomous social center Klinika. Each equally inspiring and now somehow integral to my life.
A man comes to sit next to me, he smiles and asks in a whisper which talk we are on. I say I have no idea and he brings out a schedule. He then asks where I am from and I say New York and he says so is he – New Yorck- a squat in Berlin. Everyone seems to know him so they open up. The talk ends and we are asked to help clean up from their lunch. I pick up some plates and take them inside following people up and over wooden crates, through a concert venue, past a bar, up a giant grand staircase, down a long corridor to the kitchen. The space looks exactly as you might imagine – tatooed in graffiti, anti fascist, vegan, political sentiments. An old clinic (I think maternity ward but not sure if I trust that information), the building is huge, long corridors of private rooms, children’s spaces, what looks like a sewing room. It is very run-down and dirty but a massive amount of people come through the space each day so this is understandable. Currently about 10 people live in the space and around 15 people might stay for a night or two on any given day. Literally anyone can live there. If there is high demand they may have to refuse but for sure you can stay for at least a night. One of the old exam rooms is now a classroom with two twin mattresses on the floor.
In the kitchen there is a pile of dishes and pots and pans. I begin to wash them and hear what sounds like water falling to the floor. I freak out, forcibly shut off the faucet and look under the sink. A woman comes over and remarks on how they cleaned everything yesterday and it’s already dirty. She’s from Russia but squats in Sweden. Is giving a talk tomorrow. She is very polished, clean and well dressed with a dominant personality. I find out later that she is a professor and researcher at Uppsala University.
Under the sink are 4 buckets where water is running from the sink. She explains that they use the extra water from dishes to flush the toilets. That’s really cool. She tells me to scrub the dishes first and then turn the water on to rinse so the buckets wont fill too fast. Then she decides that we both need to be cleaning at the same time so goes in search for a sponge. There are four women in the kitchen. When she comes back she remarks on how the women always end up doing the work. A few seconds later a man comes in with a Mohawk and black tattoo bands around his quads and arms. He is also very polished and has thick black framed glasses. He begins to dry the dishes as I wash. I ask where he is from and he says Vermont. Squatting apparently is not common there but he writes about squat life for some publication. Whaaattttt is going on.
I get tired of washing dishes so she takes over and I start to dry. The woman who gave the talk earlier comes in and starts to clean the dishes. In the island in the center of the kitchen is a giant pot full of pasta and a bowl of salad. Every so often someone will come in and grab some and then take it away. All of the food is apparently scavenged. Once we are done with the dishes I head out to explore and walk the halls. A woman passes me and unlocks a door. I ask her if she lives there and she says yes this is her room. I ask if people apply to live here and she looks at me like I’m crazy. She says sometimes everyone wants to live here sometimes no one wants to live here and closes the door.
A young girl from the conference comes and finds me to let me know that we are going to the next location. I am flattered that they have included me and follow after them. The young girl used to live at Klinika but it became too exhausting for her so she now lives off site but is still very active. While she was in the space she tried to organize an inclusive art making event.
She tries to lead the conference members out of the garden but no one follows except me. It feels a little like she is herding cats. She’ll get a group of four to come and then go try to get more and then that previous four wanders off. Oh anarchists. I start laughing and feel very much at home. We slowly start walking and halfway down the street a man says no we should go the other way to show everyone a famous anarchists home. So we turn around and he begins to lead. Apparently a lot of anarchists have lived in this neighborhood. He begins to point out the architecture. During the reign of communism, all of the traditional buildings were torn down and replaced with thin walled, socialist architecture. He points out the few buildings that were not replaced and then an example of gentrification – a very yuppie looking cafe named, “Rebellion.” Oh god I love these people. I mention to him that I have felt that Prague is quite sterile and he laughs and observes that sterile is ideal for some people. He points out a giant office building with a real estate company’s name and explains that this company is responsible for a majority of the buyouts in Prague.
We continue on and I speak with more people. They ask if I have been a part of any squat and I say sort of and describe the 100 Acre Wood in upstate New York that I managed. They each get quite interested asked ask me lots of questions. Oh my god. I did a thing that was really cool in these peoples eyes. Even the most embarrassing failures I had managing that space, like having to kick someone out, they understand and explain as “burnout” and the fact that I was not paying for the space they see as necessary and politically radical. None of my friends back in the states understood what I was doing. Everyone’s first question was, “but who owns the space?” Here the first question is, “what did you offer for the community?” It was amazing. I felt so understood.
We get to a small storefront that appears to be a free clothing shop and bookstore. The back opens up into a speakeasy of sorts where there is a vegan kitchen, cinema to screen films and a large backyard. This is a secret alternative community that hosts Food Not Bombs – an international organization that focuses on rescuing wasted food and feeding the hungry. Two tall men are making food. We settle outside and i begin learning about the others through bits and pieces. There’s the squatting veteran who knows every squat everywhere. She tells me about spaces in the Balkans and Croatia that i need to visit. She also says some of the largest squats are in america – there’s apparently a space in New York called c-squat that’s very famous, many in New Orleans but a lot are drug based, Chicago has a pretty large one and San Francisco has quite a few. A short haired blond fairy adds that I should just check reddit because they are really always updating where squats are. She is currently squatting in London where many real estate developers are inviting squaters into spaces to be property guardians – to maintain and protect the shops while they wait for licences or get money to develop the property. I remember immediately Jackie, a 6 foot dreaded character from New York who owns ~25 buildings in soho and had offered me an entire building on Orchard street to turn into my space but I felt uncomfortable because I thought he would want something in return. If only I knew then what I knew now. Then there is the student writing her dissertation on squat culture in Budapest, my location, who tells me about the political state of that country. Then there is the Swedish bro who laughs and tells me about ANAL – Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians. The fairy immediately pipes up and says not to listen to him. But he explains this is a Squatting group in London that’s goal is to squat the largest, richest mansions they can find – often in view of the royal residence. They apparently usually get evicted within 24 hours but make a lot of funny videos and do things like hearing about a drug raid at a nearby mansion and showing up, running into the house and grabbing giant bags of weed while the police are detaining the owners. Their mentality appears to be more fuck the system, face the rich head on, life is absurd. The fairy doesn’t like that and says that if they were serious about creating social centers they should focus on spaces that are more reliable. She has a layer of toughness and strength in her body that mismatches her appearance. I wonder if that is how people see me.
We are invited to make a plate of food and donate whatever we can. The food is vegan and delicious.
A chiseled Greek God who cooked the food in a blue tank top comes out to the back yard and introduces the space. The collective he is a part of founded a squat in Prague that was evicted after 2 years in 2012. They found this space and currently rent it for a very low amount because they wanted some semblance of stability. However, with gentrification it is very likely that they won’t be able to afford the space when the building is renovated within the next year. They own the entire first floor and half of the second. Food Not Bombs operates out of the first floor 3 days a week. They serve vegan dinners 4 nights a week where you can pay as you wish, the space serves as a base for demonstrations and political organizing for the city. 10 people live in the space, pay rent and help run the space. An an additional 10 people who live off site also help to run the space. All of these people come together with the focus of creating alternative community centers. Oh my god I’missed in love. He invites us inside for the first film screening.
The first film is about a specific squat in Prague’s history. The film acknowledges the importance of space for self realization. This is my first exposure to seeing the documentation of squatting viewed from the squatters perspective. At the end of the film in the credits it is acknowledged that volunteers made the film and that access to knowledge and art should always be free so the film is available for free online. Oh I love these people.
The second film is incredible. It is called Squat Wars and documents a day when the anarchist community in Prague drew up a map of all the abandoned spaces and then took to the streets en mass to occupy all of the spaces. It was incredible to watch how the police responded. It was also made clear that there are so many mafias of real estate developers that buy up property, driving up rents in the area but then leave the buildings empty so they begin to atrophy and then by the time the developers get around to selling or occupying the space they have to tear down the building and rebuild. This is unnecessary and wasteful labor especially when there are so many people in need of space and community. Each space that was occupied during this action was cleaned up and turned into a social space. One had a barbecue, one had dinner prepared by homeless female chefs, one had a language school, one had a clothing shop, one had a death metal band etc. Some were shut down immediately and some took a while.
In Czechia squatting is punishable with jail time. Yet to occupy an empty space, maintain the building and provide a public good seems like something the community would want to encourage not discourage. The footage that was most shocking was of police officers explaining why they would not allow cameras into the space as it was being evacuated with strange excuses like illicit drugs are being used etc. while someone in the space had snuck phone footage showing the police dragging people and becoming violent.
I am still processing all that I learned. This conference was a bit of a shock to my system. Coming from America and conditioning of private property, there is part of me that still judges squatting, but I met so many people who are using squatting as a fundamental means of resistance and rebellion. The women I spoke with give me their cards or contact info and I head back to my airbnb to pack.
What we learned
- Squatting has an extensive history and is increasingly being documented and becoming the focus of academic study.
- These groups are becoming increasingly organized
- Every single person at that conference cared about other people.
- Alternative tours are connecting communities
- Wow so much emotional labor going into these spaces.
- There is a HUGE network of squatting.
- Reiteration that squatting is a powerful political tool and that space is necessary for underserved populations.
- Put a face to the mafia of real estate.