An article from Do or Die Issue 7. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 97-99.
Groen Front! Stop Harbour Development
It all began over a year ago when the Dutch direct action movement Green Front! started, based upon the ideas of the British Earth First! Several Dutch activists had been over to the action camps at Newbury, Fairmile and Manchester to learn from their British counterparts. The small group of activists decided it was time for Green Front! to start, as the Dutch environmental movement was (and is) ruled by big bureaucratic organisations that have their own agendas and actions and do not co-operate much with each other or small local actions. Everywhere in the country critical mass groups had started and two Reclaim the Streets Parties had been organised in Amsterdam. But not much of a reaction from the Big Brothers of the Environment.
The actions of Green Front! concentrated around traffic and nature issues. Several times building sites for roads and bridges had been occupied for a day, and in April 1997 the group went on tour with visiting British Earth First! activists to different cities in the Netherlands; a building site for a parking garage got occupied in Nijmegen, and some climbing lessons were given in threatened trees in Amsterdam. In July the main event of the year started and the action camp groenoord was founded on 16 July 1997.
"Action is a celebration of awareness."
Ivan Illich said this once. For 5 months a Dutch action movement has challenged the Amsterdam city government, which has rejected several referenda telling them to stop building big prestigious public works like new traffic tunnels, a new metro system, new living areas where nature used to be, and finally the new Afrika-harbour near the village of Ruigoord, just outside the city. The people of Amsterdam seem to be fed up with everything the city government comes up with but the government goes on anyway. Facing major financial difficulties and sometimes: Real Life Direct Action.
The 16th July was a wet morning when close to 30 people moved into the nature area that was destined to become a concrete harbour. They walked into the area carrying pallets, tools, tent materials, and accompanied by a big amount of press. A central place was built out of wooden pallets (soon named "the pallet bar") and used as bar, kitchen, toolshed, living room, and information point. A mixed group of young and older activists moved in, Groen Front! veterans, squatters, nature friends and old hippies.
The camp was situated next to the village of Ruigoord, a well-known place for artists, summer festivals in nature, a place where the sixties and seventies are still very much alive. The village itself had to move away 25 years ago for the harbour but got squatted by the present villagers, and after an oil crisis and other problems the harbour never got built. This year the Amsterdam city council decided to build the harbour after all, it was supposed to be good for employment and economy. Rumours had it, regional and local authorities needed to get rid of a huge amount of polluted soil that they want to dump in the harbour. The villagers have been really helpful since the beginning of the action camp, they were still doing their own legal actions but were happy with "those young people" who were out there to change the world, like they did so many years ago.
The camp got built up steadily and without police interruption (it was the summer holidays), people were climbing trees - a thing they had not done since childhood - and treehuts got built. People started on tunnels which were to be used here for the first time in the Netherlands, all kinds of people and groups offered material and financial support. It was growing, parties were happening, campfire lit evenings. In the central area of the camp a new bigger kitchen got built, an info stand was made, an exposition in the village church. People lived there for shorter and longer times, new camps got built outside of the main camp, e.g. the traveller camp "120" (they found a door with that number on it), and "Iepenfront", an Amsterdam squatters' camp in high trees, (the Amsterdam squat movement seemed to have their summer holidays at Groenoord!), or the "Egeltjesfront" (Hedgehog Front) on another dike closer to the village. Waiting for the building holidays to end, with lots of media attention, Groenoord developed into a living alternative community. You could say that the Dutch action movement invented the wheel of action camps again, inspired by German and British examples but in a very Dutch way. It was a happening, for sure. For some old activists dreams came true. A new movement was born!
Of course, this mix of people brought its own kinds of tension as well, problems between visitors and people living at the camp, between those living in the camp, between men and women in the camp. For a long time the camp was totally male-dominated with few women who were also leaving faster. This changed a bit later on. The camp was set up by the Dutch Earth First! (called Groen Front!) but during the months it developed its own life, and became an independent group connected to Groen Front! Groenoord became a famous name in the action movement. Activists from all over the country were talking about Groenoord, visiting it or staying there. Groenoord activists showed up at lots of actions, mostly in groups, and not only in Amsterdam. A network was formed.
In the middle of a heatwave the campers built on, on Sunday 24th of August hundreds of people came to the place where diggers had already started on the harbour before the camp started: a canal of a few hundred meters long, officially a 'returnable activity' (government talk). The activists, lots often bringing their children, dogs, parents etc, came there to return the returnable. Hundreds of people worked on putting the sand back in the canal with spades or by hand, and at the end of the day the canal was crossed by several sand bridges and was not very deep anymore. A big action of solidarity for the action camp. That Monday the building holidays ended and the waiting began.
The action camp was prepared. People practiced what to do for an eviction. Locks and lock-ons were checked, food packets were stored in huts and tunnels. Thursday 28th of August the first digging machine came, accompanied by police, to the canal. After a short while a group of activists seated themselves in front of and on the machine, and it retreated, taking the cops with it. It was quiet again for a while. In the mean time solidarity activities for the camp were organised, the Amsterdam Autolozen (critical mass) blocked the highway west of Amsterdam to protest against the new road and harbour plans west of Amsterdam, including the harbour at the action camp, and a group of them came to visit and eat at the camp.
A month passed. On Saturday 27 September saw a big benefit party in one of Amsterdam's most famous squats, Vrankrijk. Bands, videos and people from the camp performed. That Sunday the camp prepared itself once again for eviction. Monday 29th September phones and faxes were ringing all over The Netherlands that the action camp was being evicted; police were at the area, everyone was worried. People and press came from all over the country. It was more of a last warning, the police wanted to make appointments for the safety of the camp and its inhabitants during possible eviction. That Thursday most people from the action camp were at a protest against EU leaders in Amsterdam when an alarm came in from the camp. A bus was organised and up to 60 people went to the camp. The police had left already, it was a false alarm.
Monday 6th October they came: an army of 850 riot police, with shovels, diggers, cherry pickers. The camp prepared, the media checked their cameras. People chained themselves to the roads, climbed into their trees and down tunnels, put up barricades of burning wood. An important looking police officer offered the campers a last chance to leave the area. They refused. The police left the camp alone for a while but started closing it off from the outside world. Several kilometres of fence were put around the area and guarded. Shovels started making room for parking places for the police, making roads for the other machines. Activists who jumped on the shovels were beaten off by the police. People came to the camp and tried to get in with supplies, climbing over fences In trees and huts people sat, listening in to the police radio and talking to each other by portable phones. The press called it "activism by satellite". Monday night, the police had cleared the ground, people were taken off the area and put onto a bus to the nearest railway station. Most of them came back. The area looked like a prison camp: long fences as far as you could see, big lights and guards with dogs. Some people did manage to sneak in still, one activist was arrested for destroying three of the lights.
Early Tuesday morning the police started on the tunnels and treehuts. A careless shovel drove over a tunnel and it collapsed; the activist in there could get away in time. He stayed. The police already cleared out the area around the camp, leaving an open space where beautiful nature with rare plants and animals used to be. It was whispered that the city government allowed hunting in the area to get it 'cleaned out'. One by one people were taken out of their tree huts, some of them climbing in tops of trees to keep the police off. The police sent in a crane with a container hanging from it to get to the tree people. Tunnels were dug out by hand mostly. The last activists were taken out of the camp at around 6pm. They gathered in the village, at the church. The area was destroyed and locked off, guarded heavily, the camp was gone, was it all for nothing?
Some people did sneak into the area by night, making the guards nervous. Attempts were made at having demos in the Amsterdam city centre, and a press conference. This came together on the Saturday after, when a press conference took place at the local environmental centre, and close to a thousand people protested in Amsterdam city centre against the destruction of the camp, the nature, the village. At the demonstration a group of dockers from the Amsterdam harbours joined in. They had just been fired and did not believe the talk of employment in the new harbour, they did not believe the talk of new jobs. Interesting coalitions
The demonstration stopped at the Dam square, where some climbers from the camp climbed onto the national monument and let down banners with the text "Groenoord Leeft Voort" (Groenoord lives on!). Arriving at the city hall, the mayor was not in and the deputy mayor (who is very well known for all kinds of infrastructure projects) took a petition for a referendum on the harbour, and a stop on destruction of the area and dumping the soil. He "would discuss it", was all he could say.
On the same day an empty shipwharf in the nearby harbour was squatted as support for Groenoord. The place had been a squat before but was evicted 4 years ago for 'storage room' but was never utilised, showing that even the existing harbour was not totally used (the city government keeps telling us the new harbour is needed 'because the old ones are full'). In the weekend the fences and guarding police disappeared from the camp area. It was costing hundreds of thousands a day. (The eviction was rumoured to have cost over a million guilders.) On Sunday a walker's action group walked the area, and a requiem mass was held in the village church.
The place where the action camp once was was a muddy moonscape. Some people lived in tents at the edge of the area, and slowly they started collecting building materials for what was soon known as Groenoord II. Ideas developed, and the activists started to build a big fortress out of old wood at the same place where Groenoord I used to be. The Green Fortress was born. It was a place with high walls, towers, lock-ons, tunnels and a good roof and heating, really important in the cold days. A smaller group of people were living here, and had a comfortable home in the desert-like area that used to be a nice piece of nature. People were building and extending the fortress during the weeks. In the end of November the harbour authorities started digging, heavily guarded by riot police. The activists of Groen Front! occupied their main building for a day.
Monday December 1st saw the end of another chapter of the Groenoord story. Activists from the fortress were blocking the entrance of the working site, and climbed on machines. 20 of them were arrested, and the police decided to take the fortress. In the dark a grim struggle took place, resulting in the eviction of all 25 inhabitants of the fortress and total destruction of the building. No more arrests were made, but the eviction again resulted in destruction of personal property, and great personal danger for the tunnel people who saw their roofs lowering when shovels drove around the area, and for those who the police tried to pull out of their lock-ons by force. It was lucky no one got hurt. The police spoke of a 'peaceful, easy and neat eviction'. Reactions came soon, lots of complaints have been filed by the lawyer of Groenoord, the construction company saw an occupation of their main entrance by a group of Groen Front! (reaction: "but we are only doing our job...") and around 50 people went to a demonstration in the city centre against the second eviction of Groenoord. The demonstration walked through city hall on its way.
Some people were carrying a banner saying "Groenoord III". Lots of activists met each other again in the weeks after the eviction and started making other plans, including ways of passing on the knowledge of Groenoord to other activists. The harbour building may be starting, but the protests will not stop here...
Groenoord Leeft Voort!
For Groen Front! contact details see International Contacts at the back of this issue.