News from the debt crisis in Spain and the rise of a global response


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10 de Jul 2014

By Jordi Blanchar (@maqui_tuits), photography by Sergi Bernal | Originally published by The Occupied Times.

“The day after the Can Vies eviction, the neighbours got up as if we were suffering from the amputated limb syndrome. At the moment, the pain deriving from the loss of an essential part of our body is unbearable. They have taken away from us a place where many of us met for the first time and learnt how to self-organise, where we enjoyed small victories and coped with defeat, where we put mutual aid into practice and learnt to become active in politics. Can Vies has been an autonomous space which has transformed us into the heterogeneous community we presently are.”

These are the opening words of the communiqué released on May 27 from La Ciutat Invisible, a cooperative based in the Sants district of Barcelona. Can Vies had been violently evicted the day before by several units of the Mossos d’Escuadra – the Catalan police force – after 17 years of experimenting with autonomy and nurturing practices of self-management.

The CSA Can Vies has been an Autonomous Social Centre (hence the acronym CSA) since it was squatted in 1997. It is situated in Sants, a predominantly working class district away from the cleansed and tourism-centred areas of downtown Barcelona. The building itself and the land where it sits are property of the Metropolitan Transport of Barcelona (TMB), a company owned by the city’s Council. Throughout its existence Can Vies has had a strong link with workers organisations, first as an outpatients clinic for the municipal transport workers, and then as the headquarters of the local branches of the CNT and CGT anarcho-syndicalist unions. In 1997, as a continuation of this historical legacy, the building was taken over by an assembly composed of squatters, activists and local neighbours, with the aim of setting up a self-organised social centre that would have deep roots in the local community.

The Social Centre’s history is not only full of symbolic capital but it is also an example of continuous evolution; from its beginnings with a marked ‘autonomist squat’ identity, to gradually opening up to the local community by forging links with many other groups and platforms active in the area, thus increasingly enjoying widespread social backing and legitimisation. With an antagonistic and confrontational stand against the neoliberal city model, and with a clear commitment to collective action towards positive social change, the project’s primary focus has always been the defence of the local community and struggles for the ‘right to the city’ against gentrification, privatisation and the enclosure of public space.

It is, therefore, not a coincidence that at the time of its eviction the Social Centre played host to over 50 groups and projects. These ranged from the production of a regular local alternative publication called La Burxa to groups engaged in traditional Catalan popular culture, and from language lessons to rehearsing studios for music bands. At the same time, Can Vies has been an active participant in countless campaigns and struggles, as well as organising regular gigs, film-screenings, fund-raising activities, theatre and performances, and a regular popular kitchen. It also offered a home to many groups organising around feminism, LGBT, antifa, anti-repression, anti-gentrification and anti-capitalism struggles, to name just a few.

Given this history and Can Vies’ deep roots in Sants, it is highly surprising that when the City’s government sent the police to attack the Social Centre – at midday on Monday May 26 – they imagined they were ‘only’ evicting an activists’ squatted building. But it is perhaps for this same reason that, in a clear show of complete arrogance and authoritarianism, they did not only storm the building but they also started to demolish it straightaway, as if history itself and years of building autonomy from below could be quickly brushed off at the authorities’ whim.

Can Vies is perhaps a unique example of cohesion and correspondence between the local community and the social movements active in the Sants neighbourhood, and the City Council and police authorities should have known this. Their attitude shown towards the Can Vies project, and their general mode of governance focused on selling off the city to the global tourism industry, city developers and corporate investors clearly shows a great degree of ignorance and disregard towards the City they govern. As Gala Pin, a local activist, stated hours after the eviction: “If the district councillor and the mayor of the city can’t predict what would happen if the centre was attacked, then they clearly don’t know their city and have no capacity nor capability to govern it”.

It is in this context that the popular reaction to the attack on Can Vies’ political and social project, and to the partial demolition of the building, can be viewed. Even the Social Centre’s assembly has admitted that they did not expect such levels of resistance seen in the streets of Sants during the days and nights following the eviction. Solidarity demonstrations and actions also quickly spread to other districts of Barcelona, as well as in many other towns and cities across Spain and beyond.

During that initial week of daily demonstrations and protests that gathered thousands of people, and which often ended with burning barricades and clashes with the police, over 70 people were arrested – two of which were preemptively sent to jail, and around 200 injured. The Sants district effectively became a militarised zone with hundreds of police stationed in the area and a police helicopter continuously hovering over the neighbourhood, thus increasing the tension and the generalised sense of outrage. At the same time, several towns and cities across Catalonia and Spain called for solidarity demonstrations, thus exponentially increasing the #EfecteCanVies (the Can Vies Effect).

On Friday May 30, Barcelona Council suddenly declared that any further demolition of Can Vies would be suspended. This was seen as an initial victory in the collective defence of the Social Centre, and perhaps, the fact that the huge bulldozer that had been brought in to demolish the building was set on fire during the second night of riots has something to do with the Council’s decision?

Can Vies quickly reacted to this new situation by calling for the retake of the building, and for a weekend of active reconstruction that would focus on clearing the rubble left by the partial demolition the building. They called for the neighbourhood to gather on the morning of Saturday 31 to start “collectively rebuilding what the Council had destroyed”. Hundreds of people turned up, and by the end of the day Can Vies had effectively been retaken.

A citywide demonstration was also called for that Saturday evening, which saw columns from several districts of Barcelona marching towards the meeting point in the city centre. This was not only seen as a clear attempt to bring the ‘Can Vies Effect’ into the centre of town (the symbolic site of power) but it also meant allowing some breathing space to the Sants neighbourhood, whose streets had already seen a week full of daily confrontation. Up to 20,000 people answered the call, and, in a clear show of force, they demonstrated through the main tourist areas of downtown Barcelona behind a huge banner reading “Building Alternatives, Defending the Neighbourhoods”, even though the police operation was one of the biggest seen in Barcelona’s recent history.

On Monday June 2, the City Council’s degree of improvisation became apparent once more when they announced that they were prepared to stop the eviction and allow Can Vies to retake the building on a temporary basis (between 24 and 30 months) and under some bureaucratic conditions. In response to the evolving situation, Can Vies called the whole neighbourhood to attend an assembly on Wednesday 4, where hundreds of people discussed the latest developments. The Assembly decided to reject the Council’s ‘offer’ stating that Can Vies had already belonged to the community for many years, and that they did not need the City authorities to legitimise this fact. They stated that, in fact, it was the Council’s actions which brought a long collective process to a standstill and that they should leave and let the project “resume in peace”. At the time of writing, the rubble of the demolished annex has already been cleared, and several groups of people have been working on a daily basis to rebuild the Social Centre. Further assemblies have been called and new working groups are being set up. Even a new issue of La Burxa has already been produced and distributed in the neighbourhood, and a #RefemCanVies (Remake Can Vies) crowdfunding campaign has been launched to fund the reconstruction of the building, and to cover the legal costs resulting from the eviction and the defense of those arrested in the protests.

Only time and people’s resolve will determine what the future holds for Can Vies, but what seems clear is that the political and social project already escapes the four walls of the building that the City Council tried to demolish. Barcelona’s authorities should perhaps ask themselves why a community with such a strong social fabric goes from a long established experience of self-management to the barricades for five consecutive nights. One possible answer might be found in the profound and generalised malcontent that has been taking root in society during the last few years, but probably also in the fact that the collective political subject demands respect and it is not getting any from those in power.

Updates and more information can be found here: #EfecteCanVies / @SomCanVies / @CanViesViu / Can Vies Website / Wikipedia


05 de Feb 2013

A corrala is a residential building originally typical to several cities in Spain. The small dwellings are constructed in blocks around an internal communal patio area where much of the community life takes place. In this article the corralas being referred to are those that have been occupied by rehomed families who are no longer able to pay rent and are at risk of homelessness (an initiative assisted by the 15M movement).

The families of "Freedom Corrala", in Seville, will now be associates in a housing cooperative to which the entire building rented.

By Editorial Andalucía, Hazeina Rodríguez / Translation: Rob Dyas & Susana Macías Pascua

The "Freedom Corrala" will soon be converted into a housing cooperative following an agreement with the owner of their building located in calle Evangelista 12, in the neighbourhood of Triana in Seville. Seven families will now be housed there who had previously been evicted from their repossessed homes. Amongst them are young children and one person with a severe disability. The agreement was announced at an emotional press conference, interrupted with shouts of "yes we can" and culminating in applause from other tenants and members from the 15M assemblies.

The families will now change from "rehoused" status to "associates" of the "Freedom Corrala Cooperative Society of Andalucia", a legal entity to which the owner "has granted the rental of the property at a rent fixed according to the payment capacity of the families in the cooperative", in the words of Eva, a member of the 15M housing group. The whole property will be let to the new cooperative at €600 a month. According to their explanation, the cooperative itself will then grant use of the homes to each family involved.

"A housing cooperative is a collective of people that, due to a communal necessity of shelter, decide to work together to find a solution to this basic necessity, according to values of mutual aid, equality, democracy and social responsibility", this is how Eva defines the model. "This is the legal entity that has proved to be the best in managing the process to date", and with which they are trying to "recuperate the house as a social asset and detach it from the logic of the market, a logic more concerned with the economic returns than the fundamental rights of the population which the home is part of".

One of the occupants of the "Freedom Corrala" also stated that she was grateful for all the support received and sent a message to the families "that find themselves in the same situation as us", to tell them that "they should know that the struggle is possible, that we are here for anything they need and that yes they can". Paco, another of the new "associates" of the Corrala, points out that "this collective is the thing making us strong and without it we wouldn´t achieve anything".

Enrique, the lawyer for the 17th March Group, who legally assists several corralas, has indicated that when "we adopt a legal assistance and possible defense of the persons that have decided to work on these corralas, we always have in mind that it could end in a penal process, we never imagined this result that has become a test case experience".

He explained that it was the owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, that contacted the families "as a result of the pressures from the police since Christmas Eve for him to report the occupation".

Adela, from the Intercomission of Housing 15M Seville, has welcomed this agreement as "very positive, because besides the fact that it stabilizes the families' situation, it may set a legal precedent for the rest of the corralas and the thousands of families who are in the streets". She insisted that "both the Government of Andalusia and the State must respond once and for all". To that end, she has urged the Government of Andalusia to declare "a state of Habitacion Emergency", which would allow for the "putting at the people's disposal many empty buildings currently in the hands of the banks, not just because these people need them but because they are entitled to them".

Manuela, from "Utopia Corrala", a pioneer in this fight, is overjoyed at seeing "an exciting new future in prospect". She couldn't avoid being overwhelmed by emotion several times during her statement, as "we have been through extremely tough times for eight months now". However, she finishes by pointing out that "we will carry on and we will succeed; with or without jobs, without water or electricity, we will carry on".

This is the first agreement reached between a corrala of rehomed families and the building ownership. Contributions from the Intercomission of Housing, the 15 M local assemblies, together with the exisiting Housing Information and Meeting Points in Seville city and province were also mentioned, as well as gratitude for the great welcome provided to the families of the "Freedom Corrala" by the neighbourhood of Triana.

"Utopia Corrala" is still trying to reach a solution with Ibercaja (Savings bank), the current owner of the building which gave shelter since May 2012 to the first of the six Corralas that now exist. For that purpose, the Housing and Urban Development Office of the Government of Andalusia, the City Council of Seville together with the Andalusian Ombudsman are keeping negotiations open. Another two corralas, "Expectation" and "Hope", have been in contact with this last institution so that it might mediate between them and the title holders of the flats that are now their homes.

[This article was originally published in Spanish on January 30th, 2012]

08 de Jun 2012

By Marta G. Franco (DIAGONAL editorial) / Translated by Robert Dyas

The 15th May 2011 was the start of the increase in activity within social movements that we have witnessed in recent months. The governing parties have yet to pick up on the atmosphere in the street. Contempt for them grows as initiatives of self-organisation abound.

A year on from the protests of 15th May 2011, it might appear as though none of the demands have been met. However, a closer look reveals real changes that the 15M movement has achieved in several areas.


Housing: Repossessions and Occupations

The most constant, visible and successful actions carried out by the 15M activists have been the repossession blockades. Although the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH)  (Platform For Those Affected by Mortgages) existed before, their activity has grown in the past 11 months and, with the assistance of the popular assemblies, they have been able to impede 230 repossession orders across the country. Using popular pressure and legal advice, the PAH lends effective support to those affected so they are able to renegotiate debt and find affordable rentals.

The platform concentrates specifically on mortgaged homes but other groups also act to prevent repossessions. The Associació 500x20 in Barcelona for example, "In the neighbourhood of Ciudad Meridiana, the indignants and neighbours have succeeded in preventing all repossessions in March", says Antoni from the association. His colleague Salva explains that the "15M has found in the home a more practical means (of struggle) than on other fronts. Prevention of repossessions are small triumphs that help ordinary people".

Some of those subject to repossession are choosing to squat homes. The 15M has facilitated this with initiatives such as Edifici 15O in Barcelona and the Hotel Madrid. Although the latter was evicted, in its time it contributed to the improvement of the public perception of squatting and generated a network that continues to make flats available. In addition, the assemblies founded in the plazas have been occupying empty buildings since autumn from where they operate. In Madrid there are 7 new social centres and at least 8 assemblies from other cities have done the same.

Support Networks: Neighbourhoods Out in the Street

Upon the lifting of the campsites, the 15M wanted to expand its assemblies into the neighbourhoods. Carmen Espinar, from the Madrid neighbours association La Flor (the Flower) and expert in neighbourhood participation, commented that in some areas the "life of the neighbourhood has been revitalised". From the packed assemblies of the first weeks, "that served as a reminder that the plazas are not simply places of transit", have evolved more operational meetings; "they are working in small affinity groups and there are more activists that a year ago although you may not notice them". For Espinar the associative fabric of the community was dormant and "the 15M was the injection that has led to different things now happening, more dynamic and beautiful things".

One of the collectives that felt that push was the Brigadas de Observación de Derechos Humanos (the Human Rights Observation Brigade). For 2 years they have been documenting racist police controls and are now seeing more interest in their work. "It would be unusual now to find someone in Madrid who doesn’t know about the racist raids", confirms Ana, a brigade member. They have given workshops at many neighbourhood assemblies and alerted them to the task of sending out warnings about raids.

The 15M has also turned its gaze upon the Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros (CIE) (Foreign National Internment Centres). They have set up condemnation campaigns and, in Malaga, set up camp infront of one of the centres. In this way the expulsion of Sid Ahmed Bouziane was impeded; a young man from Algeria whose life was in danger following an attack by a violent gang in his native country.

Social Economy: It’s not the crisis, it’s the system.

Encouraged by the questioning of the economic model itself in assemblies, new alternatives of consumption are being sought and social economy projects are being formed. For example, the Cooperativa Integral Catalana that provides for all economic needs (products, services and social currency) in the form of self-management (autogestion). The cooperative had been going for a year when 15M began but has really picked up in recent months. Its model is being reproduced in Madrid, Andalucía, Valencia, Cabo de Gata, La Rioja, Valencia and Aragón.

Criticism of the financial system has resulted in a good year for ethical banking which, at least, meets the principal of transparency. Triodos has doubled its profits in 2011, increasing its client base by 24%. The network Fiare, that operates in Spain as the agent of Banca Pololare Etica (from Italy), and the cooperative of financial services Coop57, have also increased their deposits and credits substantially. The latter speaks of "an incessant demand for talks, workshops and seminars" from the 15M collectives.

On a smaller scale, the popular assemblies are recreating consumer forms: banks of time, barter markets, self-managed learning workshops and pastimes, etc. The assembly of Carabanchel for example takes leftover food from Mercamadrid [biggest food retail market in Madrid] and gives it out in the neighbourhood.

Party Politics: The limits of democracy.

The 15M has never massively supported any voting option. It has however had an influence in the 2 elections while it has been in existence. According to the CIS, 18.8% of voters took it into consideration on 22nd May and the minority parties saw increased support; in other words, the movement contributed to the reduction in the bipartisan vote. A study by Manuel Jiménez Sánchez, of the University Pablo de Olavide, identified that it resulted in the greatest number of spoiled and blank votes since 1987, with higher incidences in towns where there was an encampment set up.

In the general elections of November these votes continued to increase and the total votes for the PP and the PSOE [the two major parties in Spain] carried on falling. The 15M has not contributed to abstention, according to Carolina Galais of the University Autonoma Barcelona. On the contrary, their contribution has given a protest angle to the vote: "Democracia Real Ya, #nolesvotes, #aritmetica20N and other related camps have energised the vote with initiatives such as apartisanism, recommending a critical vote as an expression of non-accordance with the current system".

To try and stop the drain of support, the PSOE and PP have paid lip service to the demands of the 15M. In June, Rubalcaba announced the Transparency Law which, after years of silence, will reach Parliament. It was not until April that the project was published. Organisations such as X.net have identified many deficiencies but at least the debate has been opened. Along similar lines, the subject of the debt swap (dación en pago – where a mortgaged property is surrendered in return for cancelation of the debt) has reached Parliament on several occasions (although the PP’s code of good practice has meant that few cases have actually been resolved). At least there has been a small legislative advance: the upper limit of a balance that could not be reclaimed due to unpayments on a mortgage was increased. It remains to be seen how successful will be the Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP) for retroactive debt swaps, the moratorium on repossessions and affordable rents, for which the process of collecting signatures has just begun.

The 15M has already had experience in this field: an ILP was registered in the Parliament of Andaluzia precisely to modify the process of these laws (ILPs) and help them to succeed. The government of the PSOE remixed the proposal and it was eventually approved with votes from all parties. The proposal was for a law reducing the number of signatures required for an ILP but it was "too light" in the end and, in the opinion of 15M, did not really promote participation as originally intended.

Meanwhile, the political class continue to be discredited and the response continues in the streets. The CIS has confirmed the perception of the political parties and the government as being one of the principal problems and specificies that there has been an increase of 4.7% in participation in protests since May. According to information published in 20 Minutos, 2012 is on its way to becoming a record breaker with 60 protests to date. In Valencia in January and February, 5 times more protests were recorded than in the same period the previous year.

Cultural Change: Disrepute and collaboration.

Disrepute is splashed across the means of communication. The use of social networking sites is often cited (as well as free networks: N-1.cc has increased user numbers from 3,600 to 40,500 since May) along with a proliferation in alternative mediums. Some media show the influence of 15M, such as Mas Público, a group of ex workers of Público [second-largest left-wing newspaper in Spain, recently folded its print edition because of financial losses] that want to recover the project as a workers’ co-operative.

Away from the internet, the periodical Madrid15M, edited by its own assemblies, is now onto its third edition, reaching 40,000 copies distributed, Rebelaos, a publication for self-management (autogestión) has printed 500,000 copies. Collaborative cultural projects are appearing that use the same structures as the 15M, such as the documentary 15M.cc, the musical project Fundación Robo or the online library Bookcamping.

Luis Moreno-Caballud, professor at the University de Penn and participator in Occupy Wall Street, describes 15M as a "a knowledge diffusion machine" and lauds its capacity for "collective and anonymous production of sense; usable discourse, inclusive and powerful due to being so difficult to pigeon-hole". The contribution of the 15M, in his opinion, relates to a cultural change: "the primary victory is precisely in having found a way of life in which the victories and defeats are not important. It has given new force to a means of existence based in collaboration and not in competition".

[This article was originally published in Spanish on May 12th 2012]


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