Autonomous space to counter gentrification
Former prisons are a great place for breaking out of our individualized cells, and breaking open former prisons is a specialty of the Spinhuis collective. It first squatted the common room of the University of Amsterdam’s sociology and anthropology faculty, located in a former women’s prison, the eponymous Spinhuis. In the space where inmates formerly spun thread, we served free food and allowed students to self-organize. Participants and visitors formed the community necessary to strike back against the profit-minded University; we participated in the occupations of the Bungehuis and the Maagdenhuis. After the Maagdenhuis was violently evicted, we set our sights on an even older prison, the former dungeon below the Torensluis. Over the past year and a half we tried to turn the humid grey enclosure into a place of encounter, of creative uncertainty and real community.
When we first squatted the space in September 2015, we wanted to establish a bulwark against the encroaching forces of finance capital. Having just come out of the Maagdenhuis occupation, we realized the inextricability of violence, finance, white supremacy, and real estate. We recognized that the university’s real estate policies, and its courting of banks and the business world, were a reflection of what was happening Amsterdam as a whole. The University of Amsterdam, the municipality, real estate investors and social housing corporations turned out to be a single conglomeration, attacking anything and everything that couldn’t be expressed in market value. All three were busy selling off their inner city property to speculators and the tourist industry, and slashing the non-profitable as much as possible. Tough luck for those unable to pay.
The emerging result is a hyper-financialized city that violently marginalizes its students, refugees, artists, precarious and often racialized workers. In this carefully policed city there is no room for political action: everything must be streamlined and secured for consumption. Debate is confined to the ritualized discussion rooms of the “progressive” establishment, carefully made toothless so that it can never spill onto the streets. People become imprisoned in their market niche, unable to make real social connections. This is a safe state of affairs for the financial interests that are carving up the city. We can only stop them collectively, but market forces are keeping us atomized.
The Spinhuis was an attempt to halt this trend. We are located under a bridge in the middle of the city, ground zero of Amsterdam’s selling out, right next to the UvA’s Faculty of Humanities. From our experiences in the Maagdenhuis we knew the collective power we have if we take space and make it our own. In organizing the space together, people from different backgrounds break out of their isolation and develop a shared political project. In the Spinhuis, students wanting to unleash the emancipatory potential of education found their interests aligning with refugees wanting to assert their presence, and with people who want to rent within the city ring road, and with people who like going to concerts, and with people made homeless by the criminalization of mental health issues. In organizing the space non-commercially, we figure out new ways of dealing with each other, of acknowledging the power differences imbued by our different backgrounds, of finding ways to value everyone equally.
This could happen because the space was autonomous: we did not have to be financially profitable for any larger institution. In fact, we could use the space to fight against profitability itself: we could facilitate political meetings of groups fighting the interests of Big Money. Free culture nourishes a network of people that can put up a fight. We find each other in a vegan soup kitchen, watching and talking about cinema, or while organizing a free party, and establish the connections necessary to carry the struggle onto our pier and into the streets.
Now, the city government has decided to close down the Spinhuis. It wants to give control of the space to its immediate neighbors, the inhabitants of the pricey canal houses. It is part of the general trend we see in the city, with financial interests leading to compartmentalization. But now is the time for the inmates of financialized Amsterdam to find each other and resist. If we’re going to squat another former prison, maybe we should set our sights on the city as a whole.