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Police Raid Berlin’s Volksbühne Theater, Ending Six-Day Occupation

Activists took over the revered theater on Friday to protest the city’s accelerating gentrification.

Police outside the Volksbühne (photo by and courtesy Gulnara Petzold)
Police outside the Volksbühne (photo by and courtesy Gulnara Petzold)

BERLIN — This morning, activists affiliated with the group “Dust to Glitter,” who had occupied the Volksbühne theater since last Friday, were forcibly evicted by police. Ten police vans arrived on the scene around 10am to clear remove activists who were occupying the theater — one of Berlin’s most culturally relevant institutions — to protest the city’s accelerating gentrification.

“It seems that the theater workers were not entirely supportive of the occupation,” Sarah Waterfeld, one of Dust to Glitter’s organizers, told press assembled outside the theater after the eviction. “The collective wants to stay in the house and they would like to invite to a performance. Nobody wants to leave.”

Chris Dercon, the recently appointed director of the Volksbühne, filed a compliant against the occupiers late Wednesday night and asked the police to intervene after negotiations between theater staff and the occupiers failed to reach an amicable solution, a spokesperson for the Berlin Police said in a statement this afternoon.

Protesters associated with Dust to Glitter had been occupying the theater since Friday night, declaring the building “property of the people” in their initial statement. They intended to develop a “People’s Stage” over the next three months, as well as an “anti-gentrification center” and a “parliament of the homeless.” Dust to Glitter activists had also been planning a production in the context of the occupation, B61-12, whose title refers to a nuclear bomb. Speaking with Hyperallergic, Waterfeld  framed the occupation as a “transmedial and mimetic theatrical production.”

On Tuesday night, negotiations took place between Dercon, members of Dust to Glitter, two Volksbühne employees, Berlin Secretary of Culture Klaus Wöhlert, and other representatives of the Senate Administration, including Klaus Lederer, Berlin’s senator for cultural policy. Negotiations centered on “de-escalation instead of confrontation,” theater management said, but according to activists an ultimatum was given, allowing them use of the Green Salon and the Volksbühnen-Pavillon for their events, under the condition that “no techno parties” were held and that their actions would not disrupt the theater’s administrators, dancers, and stage workers as they prepared for scheduled premieres in November. Dercon’s program this year includes new productions by Tino Sehgal, Mohammad Al Attar, and Ari Benjamin Meyers, among others.

Police vans outside the Volksbühne theater (photo by and courtesy Katrin Riedel)
Police vans outside the Volksbühne theater (photo by and courtesy Katrin Riedel)

However, by Wednesday evening, talks had reportedly broken down after Dust to Glitter’s central demand — that the Volksbühne be operated not according to a top-down, hierarchical structure, but rather as a collective, on the basis of a two-year interim council — was deemed “unfulfillable” by theater management.

During this morning’s eviction, most activists left voluntarily, while five had to be carried away by police. According to activists present during the eviction, approximately 50 members of the group were present when police arrived and several were taken into custody, yet it’s unclear what they will be charged with or if they have been detained for questioning.

Police vans outside the Volksbühne theater (photo by and courtesy Katrin Riedel)
Police vans outside the Volksbühne theater (photo by and courtesy Katrin Riedel)

In a statement posted to Facebook late Thursday, Lederer, Berlin’s senator for cultural policy, said that while he supported the underlying concerns of the activists, he did not agree with their methods:

I regret that the occupants and occupiers did not accept the offer of the Volksbühne. It would have enabled a side-by-side without affecting the work of the Volksbühnen artists. The debate about displacement and defending freedom will continue. But I want to say once again: the Volksbühne was and is a public cultural institution, which belongs to all Berliners alike. It can continue to be a place for urban and social discourse. However, this must not be carried out in a manner seen by the employees of the house as an unfriendly act, if not as a hostile takeover.

By the time news of Dust to Glitter’s eviction spread on social media Thursday afternoon — largely via the Dust to Glitter Twitter account (@VB_6112) — activists associated with the occupation called for solidarity and for people to assemble on the lawn in front of the Volksbühne for a plenary. They remained throughout the afternoon and into the evening.

News of Dust to Glitter’s eviction brought widespread condemnation from artists and activists on social media, who also criticized Dercon for filing a criminal complaint against the occupiers. By late Thursday afternoon, an open letter began circulating online in support of Dust to Glitter, collectively authored by cultural workers in Berlin. One of them, Ivor Stodolosky, wrote: “Dialogue is at the core of Berlin’s post-war culture. If the art world is to be more than an entertainment industry backed by a police force, Dercon needs to talk. By letting violence talk, he is losing all credibility.”

The scene outside the Volksbühne theater on Thursday (photo by and courtesy Katrin Riedel)
The scene outside the Volksbühne theater on Thursday (photo by and courtesy Katrin Riedel)

In response, the Volksbühne issued a press release that quoted Dercon as saying, in part: “Our offer from Tuesday until now to use the Green Salon and the Pavilion was rebuked … . Tomorrow we will try again.” As darkness fell over the German capital today, Dust to Glitter activists remained on the lawn in front of the Volksbühne, surrounded by a significant police presence. For now, calm seems to have taken hold on both sides. Only time will tell whether plans to de-gentrify the theater will lead to more negotiations or friction between theater staff and activists.

Ironically, in 2014, Dercon was part of the jury that awarded Teatro Valle — an occupied theater in Rome —the European Cultural Foundation’s Princess Margriet Award.

“For many countries, these new models of cultural collaboration and not to forget self-organization are ways to lead us out of the mess,” he said in a statement at the time. “The future of cultural institutions and cultural makers will be determined by these initiatives, and the question of the commons, which has political questions beyond art, is a very important message of solidarity.”

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