Short History of Squatting in Helsinki
The cycle of squatting actions to create an autonomous social centre in Helsinki started on 1st May 2001. A group of over 50 squatters occupied an empty building owned by the Iraqi embassy for about 6 hours and left the building peacefully after that. The intention was to avoid conflict with the police and to start negotiations with the Iraqi embassy for the use of the building.
However, the negotiations never leaded to any results and the house remained empty. Despite the fact that the squatters could not keep the space, it was an important event and a significant move. Being the first squatting action for years, it started a series of squatting actions in the capital. A new squatter generation was formed - and it was clear from the very beginning that this generation was to be more radical and revolutionary than its predecessors.
Since the first squatting attempt in 2001, the aim of the squatters has been to create an autonomous space, a social centre, without compromises of principle. It was to be a concrete, not a symbolic action. The squatters rejected leadership, and even though the first action was planned by a relatively small group, at the action itself no one was in charge and decisions were made by consensus. Later on, the squatters made clear that it is autonomy they want, not compromises with authorities if they will affect the activities in the squatted space.
Forming the scene
The next squatting attempt in September 2001 was more long-lasting and a great success in laying the foundations of the squatter scene in Helsinki. The squatted house was a huge 5 storey building called Koivula, previously used as housing for the workers of the beautiful mental hospital Lapinlahti, situated in a park near central Helsinki. It was in the City Council’s interest to try to save the hospital from closing down and even though the squatters had set their goal of making the house an automous social centre, the squatting action was largely seen, by the media and politicians, as a protest to save the hospital. Many squatters agreed with this goal as well and spoke for it, but it was clear for the squatters that the main reason for taking action was lack of autonomous space and housing in the city.
During the six weeks of its existence, about 20 people lived in the house and some 30 more regurlary used the space in addition to numerous visitors, despite constant harrassment by security guards, officials and the police. The time was very empowering for all the squatters, most of which had not even seen nor lived in the autonomous social centre before. There was a cafe on Sundays as well as parties, film showings and meetings were arranged in the house. Due to the great number of people living in the house, there was always some activities going on or then just chilling out and hanging around together.
Koivula was evicted on Monday morning six weeks after the occupation and 12 people were arrested for a few hours. The house remains empty, but has been provisionally offered to a housing association for youth with mental problems. Thus, the demands of the squatters were not met.
The eviction left many people homeless, and a new house was squatted quite soon afterwards. That squat still exists without a lease, but it never was to become a open social centre but a living space.
2002: The struggle continues
The fruitless squatting attempts in 2001 did not put people down. In June 2002 a building (which had previously been a support home for recuperating alcoholics) was squatted and called Social Centre T.Ö.I. The squatters occupied the building in Kivihaka, northwest from the city center for a week, after which the Council announced that the space had been turned over to a motorcycle club that was losing its current space. Despite uncertainity over the fact whether the space had been promised to the club before or after the squatting action, the squatters decided to leave the space voluntarily.
The Social Centre Siperia was squatted on October 17th, 2002. So far, it is the only occupation in Helsinki that has lasted over two months and is still in operation. The squatting action coincided with the Night of the Homeless, an protest event against homelessness arranged around Finland and also elsewhere in Europe.
Siperia is quite a small wooden house located in Herttoniemi, in the eastern part of Helsinki. The house is owned by the Council, but since it was left abandoned in the summer of 2002 the Council has found no use for it. As their first reaction to the squatting of the house, Council officials simply sent a work team to nail shut the doors. When people inside the house objected to this, the workers announced that they would return on a specific date to add iron bars to the doors. As the workers returned, they found some 20 people sitting resolutely in front of the doors and they had no other choice but leave. After this incident, the officials agreed to sign a temporary lease for a symbolic sum of 50 euro per month.
The squatters have restored and renovated the house and improvements have been made. At the moment the ground floor of the house is nearly all of it converted into one space to make it a space for gigs and café. The upper floor houses a kitchen and a living room for the people working in the house. There are no permanent residents, the space is managed collectively and many individuals have used enormous amounts of resources, both money and time, to improve the space.
Despite having abandoned the house to its fate and thereby almost certain destruction, the officials have tried to restrict the activities that are allowed to occur in the house - activities organised by those who saved the house. The lease contracts have always been only from 2 to 4 months at each time, which has made it hard for the users to plan long-term activities in the house.
There has been no lease since December 2003 when the previous lease once again expired. The centre, however, was not evicted. Negotiations with the officials for the space are going on and it seems possible that the users of the space eventually could gain the victory over bureaucracy and repression.They have been backed by some sympathetic members of the Council Youth Department after the hot summer of squattings in 2003 that has been useful in negotiations. The squatters, however, still are not willing to make any compromises that would affect the activities in the space.
Though Siperia has been, and still is, an important place for all the squatters among other oppressed groups in Helsinki, it cleary has never been adequate to meet the needs there are for autonomous space in the capital. The house is far too small for large concerts or meetings, lacks running water and is generally still in bad repair. In addition, in as a big city as Helsinki there is need for more social centres around the city, simply because there are more activities seeking place in the city than ever can be fitted in one house.
So, squatting has continued.
The hot summer of 2003
On the 7th of June 2003 after a Reclaim the Streets party in the city centre approximately 400 people occupied a disused repair hall for trams at Töölönkatu 51 B. The space, a huge industrial hall built in 1909, was designated for public use and had been empty since 2000. The occupation lasted for five days, opened up as the Occupied Social Center T-51, before a phenominal massive eviction operation. This was the first time the riot police was used to evict squatters. However, no-one got hurt except blockaders locked on together got some minor injuries. The building was boarded up and remained unused for months. Nowadays it is used for commercial purposes.
Whereas Siperia was squatted by only a few people and at first didn’t receice much media attention, the squatting of T-51 was a massive event. Flyers about a party were given out in the Reclaim the Street party and as a result hundreds of people came around in the evening. The plan to break in before people started to arrive failed as the police were waiting for the squatters. There were hundreds of angry people shouting at the police who wouldn’t let the crowd in. Suddenly, someone broke a window and people started to climb in. In the end there were 1000 people at the party that night and there was nothing the police could do about it.
Over 70 people came to the meeting following day. There was a lot of enthusiasm and plenty of new faces. During the occupation, media coverage was extensive, even though the occupation was mainly described as young people’s attempt to create a space for cultural activities and a protest against closing down Council youth and culture services - despite the squatters stressing their aim to build a political, autonomous space as well. It started to become obvious, at least for the more experienced squatters, that they had to state their aims clearly from the very beginning. They wanted the space for themselves - not just for some undefined use. They wanted to create an autonomous space, not the Council to give the place to its own youth departments or some other youth organisation.
After the eviction there was demonstration followed by another squatting action on the same week. The action failed and ended up as a big party in Siperia. People didn’t lose their heart but started to plan future actions. Many people ended up in spending time in Siperia.
On the 23rd of August 2003, about a hundred people gathered together for a Reclaim the City party, occupied a disused youth club in Herttoniemi in the eastern part of Helsinki. The space had been empty since June the same summer, and was about 450 square meters large, with a concert hall and stage. Negotiations concerning this space were in progress with two members of the city council (from its youth and culture departments) when police, in a surprise raid, evicted the building after it had been in use for five days. Everyone inside, 31 people, was arrested, including the two negotiators from the Council. Almost all the squatters were detained for over 24 hours and mistreated and intimidated by the police. It seems clear that the attempt was to scare the squatters, some of whom where underaged or never spent time in a cell before. However, it turned to be the other way round. More than frightening, it was a uniting and strenghtening experience for the squatter scene in Helsinki.
After this debacle, the city bureaucrats once more agreed to negotiate for the use of OSC Siperia. The conclusion: three more months of occupancy. No promise of reasonable facilities, no guarantee of occupacy afterwards. It seems that they want the squatting actions to continue.
Legal situation of squatters in Finland
Squatting is not legal in Finland. Breaking a window, forcing a lock or other means of entering a space is concidered burglary. Entering a space which you have no right to enter is a crime, but it is only punishable if "considerable damage" has been caused by the occupancy. Squatters may also be charged with refusal to follow police orders, as refusing to leave an occupied space when asked.
As legal procedures take their time, only the first squatting action has been brought to the court so far. A year after the occupation of the Iraqi embassy, most of the squatters got asked to appear in police interrogations and part of them were charged. According to the law in Finland, charges of trespass expire in two years and many squatters got away with the case. However, five of them appeared in court in November 2003 and were fined 60-120 euros each.
When arrested and charged with refusal to follow police orders, many squatters have also got fined right away at the police station. Some of the fines have been paid collectively, some of the squatters have refused to pay their fines.
Vapaa Katto ry.
After the first squatting action by the "new generation" of squatters on the first of May 2001, a legal body was founded. It is a negotiating tool towards bureaucrats, not a political identity, nor a decision making structure. In fact, the less attention it receives the better, since it is and will always be the people involved in any place or any action who give the meaning for the space or action - this will never be done by any associations, names or identities.
The Night of the Homeless
The basic idea of the night is to bring the homeless out of the margins, into the center of the cities, and make their bonfires on a central square or near a position of power, to remind those in power that the nights are getting cold and that not everybody has adequate housing. The Night of the Homeless will be arranged again this year in cities around Finland and elsewhere on the 17th of October, the U.N. day against poverty and exclusion. The fires will be kept burning through the night.
ON EVERY SECOND MONDAY (May 24th...) at 18hrs House meeting. Wanna know more about Siperia or organise
something in the house? Come to the meeting!
If you wish to arrange a concert, a course or a film night in Siperia, read this!
Wed 19.5. Pirate Cinema: MIGRATION & MOVEMENT. La Haine, Dirty Pretty Things, Lilja
4-ever. Free entry, movies start at 18.
Fri 21.5. Summer opening - Live @ Siperia: ELINVOIMA, ÄSSÄMIX & PAARMA. Dj's:
Sat 22.5. Live @ Siperia: ECHO IS YOUR LOVE, BLACK CHAPLIN, HERO DISHONEST,
AIVOLÄVISTYS, RAKKAUS. Entrance 4e.
Sun 23.5. Squat cleaning day. Free entry, everybody welcome.
Ma 24.5.- June Two weeks of house repair and yard cleaning. Everyone is welcome to
help and work for a better Siperia.
View past events