Today thousands of people marched through Berlin for the Interkiezonale Star Demo against a wave of radical centre evictions – and for the occasion we are pleased to publish this meticulous probe into the situation by anarchist investigative journalist Joe Reynolds.
The star demo, so-called for its use of a tactic where different “fingers” of a march stream towards a central point, stretching police forces across a wider area, pulled in groups from Potse–Drugstore and Syndikat among many grassroots community groups. Despite heavy police interference, the rally successfully showed a growing strength of feeling in Berlin against the rampant profiteering going on by major developers.
“Nothing worth having comes easy.” – Robert Bukvic, CEO Rent24
“Of what is lost, irretrievably lost …” – Roberto Bolaño, Chilean Writer
The eviction of Berlin’s squats and social centres in 2019 has caused a rallying cry of solidarity and action, in our neighbourhoods and across borders, against the gentrification eating at our communities. From Berlin to London we scream; one struggle, one fight.
“Do you have any memory in mind of the Drugstore?” I ask Nomi as we head to the Ü-Bahn. Walking through the streets of Neukölln where she lives, Nomi thinks for a while before answering. It is an icy winters day in Berlin.
“When I was 13 years old I woke up every morning knowing today the revolution would begin,” she tells me as we cross Karl Marx Strasse. “All I read in the news back then, I couldn’t help think that the line of shit we had to stand had been crossed.” Nomi is referring to the mass gentrification and evictions of alternative spaces across Berlin over the last 10 years – she is now 22.
We get off the train and walk together down Potsdamer Strasse past the entrance of the co-working space Rent24, covered in blood-coloured paint, towards the scream of noise coming from the entrance of number 180, the Potse-Drugstore. “Now a couple of years later I am still going to the Potse, a place I grew up in,” Nomi tells me over the noise. Two giant speakers were stacked on the pavement, blasting music to around 70 people, young and old, six riot police vans and, we hoped, vibrating the windows of our co-working neighbours.
Those who stood in the cold and electronic rage did so because their punk bar and youth centre had been evicted on the morning of New Years Eve. We watched the young punks dancing in the street, ignoring the police and coming together again, in exile. Since the building was sold to west Berlin transportation company BVG in 1987 it had been rented back to the government, transferring the power of the landlord to a private company and naturally putting the Potse-Drugstore at risk of eviction.
Using the State against the youth, BVG would simply have to raise the rent to levels it knew would be unacceptable for the state, to evict the youth centre. The Drugstore (Sozialpädagogische Sondermaßnahmen Berlin) is supposed to be protected by its ‘Free Institution’ (Freier Träger) status, it is self-organised, non-profit and provides a social service. The department for the local Schoenberg government that has responsibility for youth intiatives is lead by Councillor Oliver Schworck of the centrist SPD.
After failing for decades to evict the youth centre, BVG passed on the property to a group of secretive investors under the name Intown Gruppe. This company specialises in bankruptcy, foreclosures and ‘problem properties’ such as resistance to eviction and “acquire real estate in good locations with good prospects which are generally in poor condition,” explains Intown’s Managing Director Sascha Hettrich, describing the well-known cog of gentrification.
Faced with a such an organisation, the Potse-Drugstore asked for assistance from Schworck, requests which were either ignored or not taken seriously, according to those at the Drugstore I spoke to. After presumably some form of negotiation, Schworck admitted defeat to the youth centre, saying “he wants to get out what the market gives, the landlords have very different ideas about their target market group.” The State had failed because of the power of the market and the profit-driven will of the landlord. In Schworck’s opinion it was “clear” there would be no agreement between the tenants and the landlord.
When Schworck is not in the company of punks however, his intentions are more clear. Despite being an SPD youth councillor, he couldn’t possibly see the point of saving a youth centre and “had no desire to squander tax payers money,” or for the affair to cause him to be “personally reclaimed” from office. He was in the company of politicians. His opposite number, Britta Schmidt-Kruger of the centre-right CDU, appeared to agree and go even further threatening that the struggle to save the youth centre will end up at the expense of all children and youth projects.
On New Year’s Eve Oliver Schworck came to pick up the keys. The youth were in tears as they handed over access to a youth centre that had existed since 1972, that demanded self-organised housing from the State, and got it, with the Tommy-Weisbecker-Haus opening a year later in 1973. At the turn of 2019 they were welcome no more. They were the wrong “target market group.” They had blue hair.
So who exactly are Intown Gruppe’s target market group? The answer is covered in blood coloured paint – Rent24.
A thoroughly modern tech cult-parasite
On the face of it, Rent24 is a co-working company. That is an office for people who don’t have an office, offering start up capital for its resident businesses. It is also a “community” offering “a platform for everyone” that will “bring people together.” It almost sounds like a cult because Rent24 is much more than an office. “We offer services for every aspect of your life” says Robert Bukvic, ex-basketball player, founder and CEO of Rent24.
Behind the mask, what he is describing is a form of colony, a gated community that also offers housing (co-living), food, entertainment, leisure and sport, social life, networking and, most controversially, its own currency. This kind of environment would be completely cut off from the local community, placed in major cities around the world including London, New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and by the end of the year 150 locations, all creating an international exclusive network based on it’s own cryptocurrency, Primary (PRY). [pdf]
Using Artificial Intelligence (AI), the firm works out what value each member of its “community” has based on their economic activity. They are then rewarded in cryptocurrency, which the company believes will trickle out into “real world” economic activity – a kind of vague assumption that society will benefit from this sharing of wealth. The main potential for Primary however is actually in decreasing Rent24’s obligations to the tax man – a “blockchain” that is anonymous and international – providing the opportunity for Rent24 to become a local tax haven.
Tax avoiding companies bleed our communities and it is no surprise that Rent24 is supported by companies that bleed our workforces, such as Deliveroo. After Schworck collected the Drugstore’s keys, he turned to the Potse, the punk bar situated on the same floor, and was instead handed a letter from their lawyer declaring their intention to stay. They had surprised the youth councillor and occupied the space, eventually reopening it for the first time in February. The beer was flowing again, cigarettes lit with laughter and music.
Earlier in the day, the walls of the bar were painted white, and then repainted by the youth who had come for the reopening. “Now looking at the sparkling eyes of these teens going crazy, freaking out, finally having found their place to do whatever they wanted,” Nomi tells me “the first re-opening of the Potse was an explosion!”
“We repainted that room for what, like nine hours? Throwing paint around as it gets more crowded, the teens climb the walls, sit on top of doors and scream: “Hoch die Interkiezionale solidarität!” Up with Inter-neighbourhood solidarity!
In the evening there is a hush among the punks as other housing projects and squats take to the stage. Poste-Drugstore, Leibig34, Meuterei, Grossebeerenstrasse 17a and others have all been handed eviction notices or are currently at risk of eviction. One of the spaces under threat is Syndikat, a bar in Neukölln who has already been handed an eviction notice by their landlords, Pears Global.
The William Pears Group is a more traditional landlord than Intown Gruppe, a family company that in the 1990s paid itself a dividend of ₤42.4 million making the personal fortune of Clarice Pears greater than the Queen, both landowning pensioners. Last year, it was estimated that the company had a wealth of ₤3.14bn, a fortune split over 200 companies, sub-divisions and shell companies in tax havens such as Luxembourg.
One of the 200 odd property companies that has gained notoriety in the UK is Bankway. This company has been described as using the “repugnant device” of focusing on buying properties rented by protected tenants – the elderly, disabled, unemployed and single mums – receiving tax exemptions, deceiving their tenants with deliberately obscure contracts and then increasing the rent to such a level that it knew the State would refuse to pay for housing support there.
Using local councils against their tenants, they demonstrated the power of the market and the profit-driven will of the landlord. “We are not social landlords” Nick Stanley, Bankway’s Estate Manager defended, “we’re in it to make money. The idea is to maximise the income from the building.”
The English catastrophe
It was this destruction of social housing that caused me to leave London, priced out first from Hackney in the East and then Camden in the North. In England this was part of an ideology that was supported by the press and reinforced with a government, that together would portray the poor as thieves, stealing the social security they were entitled to with fraudulent disability claims. The responsibility of the economic crash of 2007 fell on the poor, a political choice made by David Cameron’s Conservative government in 2010.
The Conservatives had received hundreds of thousands in political donations from property landlords such as William Pears and after a vicious campaigning of evictions and sanctions to benefit payments, there was a 30% rise in rough sleeping in England. Squatting was the only alternative.
After a campaign of misinformation and fear supported by landlord associations, property companies and the media however, LASPO Section 144 was passed, criminalising squatting in residential housing (though not commercial buildings) marking the end of whatever “squatters rights” remained in the UK. Even the Metropolitan police were against 144, saying prior laws already dealt with squatters who enter already occupied buildings – the misconception reinforced in the populist media being that squatters take people’s homes away, rather than occupying vacant buildings.
The law was passed despite the government admitting that it “held little information centrally about the number of people who squat, their reasons … and the types of buildings that attract squatters,” ignoring research by homelessness charity Crisis which showed that up to 40% of the total homeless population squat, with 41% of those squatters struggling with mental health issues and the vast majority occupying buildings that are vacant.
An estimated one million homes that remain empty in the UK. This warping of the law and consequences to society (₤790m as predicted by squatters campaign SQUASH) by landlords and property giants is so internationally widespread that it is seen as acceptable.
“We have done nothing wrong,” says Nick Stanley, “We have nothing to be ashamed of” commenting on William Pears’ “repugnant” eviction of elderly residents in London by a pensioner with a wealth of ₤260m. The tax bill for Pears came to ₤4.1m in 2010.
The next year, Mark Pears announced to the right-wing Sunday Telegraph that he would be investing millions of Euros into European markets, particularly the German residential market which had brought Pears success in the past. He is highly secretive about his business practices despite telling the Telegraph “we are a private company but we have got nothing to hide.” The move would eventually create 6,000 “letter box firms” in Berlin, including potentially the shell company which owned the premises of Syndikat.
It was a “compelling investment for private individuals in the UK”, Mark said. Those who had priced me out of London were doing the same in Berlin. It will only add to the increase of rents in Neukölln that will push Nomi from her home. She has already been kicked out of Kreuzberg because of the mass of gentrification that completely consumed her entire neighbourhood, a process that is trying to eat the local Meuterei.
“We (politicians) look everyday for alternatives …” Schworck told the Drugstore after admitting defeat, “… suitable housing, even in our circle of friends and acquaintances.” It was a sick joke, like someone who was kicking you off their sofa but didn’t have the guts to tell you to fuck off. After making you homeless he somehow absolves himself from guilt with the fact that has asked around, looking unsuccessfully for charity from the friends of politicians.
The Potse, or any of the other squats and associations, do not share the same defeatism. Joining together in the “Interkiezionale” rally was a day of action across all of the affected Berlin squats, calling against the “global restructuring of the rich” with the destruction and social cleansing of our communities, “for a little bit of chaos in the order, against the city of the rich … one struggle, one fight,” as the Interkiezionale announced.
“This feeling is something that keeps you going not matter what’s going to happen,” Nomi tells me about what the re-opening of the Poste meant to her. “It’s something that can’t be taken away from you. It’s our little revolution.”
From London to Berlin, it is time to evict these landlords from our neighbourhoods. At great expense, the government’s of both Germany and the United Kingdom has been shown to protect the interests of the market or landlord over the social causes it is elected to protect. The Potse has been handed their eviction notice, the riot police sit and wait in their vans for the order to come through.
This is an international struggle for the right to community self-determination. A scream for dignity, evict Intown Gruppe and William Pears from our neighbourhoods! Protect our community!
On Saturday we shout; Wir Bleiben Alle! We all Stay!
Joe Reynolds is an anarchist investigative journalist living in Neukölln, Berlin. He focuses primarily on stories examining the housing crisis and the movement of refugees across the European Union. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, he has been based across Europe, investigating struggles in Greece, France, Spain and Germany.
Joe is a journalist without a guild or union. The core of his principles are held in the protection of his sources and a flat refusal to send documents and photographs to local police authorities. He is ‘Free’, independent but bound to the principles of his association with anarchism – the application of the tools of journalism to challenge those in power, not reinforce the lies that keep us all oppressed.
If you wish to challenge the journalist on his investigation, discuss the issues here or contribute/collaborate to a story, please contact Joe at freeassociation(at)riseup.net.