Can Vies – a symbol of resistance, from Barcelona to beyond

Si Can Vies va a terra, barri en peu de guerra!’ The authorities were promised war if the historic occupied social centre of Can Vies was evicted, and this is what they got. For seven days, an uprising unprecedented since the end of the Franco dictatorship raged on the streets of Barcelona. A week is a long time in politics and while the barricades burned, the Chief of Police resigned and a king abdicated. The struggle to rebuild not only Can Vies, but a fighting alternative to the misery of capitalism, continues. Joey Simons reports from Barcelona.

Originally occupying the site of a former church in May 1997, Can Vies has come to represent a symbol of popular Barcelona, of resistance to the speculators and elites in a city riven by inequalities. Located in the working class barrio of Sants, the site was originally liberated to accommodate the social and political concerns of young people in the neighbourhood. Over 17 years, it developed into a model of local self-management, politics and culture, forging deep links in the community across the generations. It has been a base for the defence of common struggles and liberated spaces, general strikes, migrant rights, land and labour struggles, “without the supervision or control of any institution … a focus of constant neighbourhood struggle and for a just and free world, taking over the fight of a barrio always popular and rebellious” (Can Vies communique, 20 May 2014).

That the state’s repressive forces are increasingly being mobilised as the armed wing of finance capital is nowhere clearer than in the most recent attempts to clear social centres and squats in cities such as Barcelona and Madrid. In early February, on the orders of Barclays bank a massive police operation was launched to clear the famous La Carboneria centre in the Barcelona barrio of San Antoni, squatted since 2008. Barclays has been one of the major beneficiaries of the economic crisis, turning huge profits on buying up the cheap property which has become available as tens of thousands are evicted from their homes each year. Barclays has no plans for the building; it intends to leave the property empty; dereliction and decay is to replace a living community in the interests of speculators.

As the Financial Times has noted, last year ‘more adventurous private equity buyers’ such as Blackstone and HIG Capital began buying up the first packages of property assets put on the market by SAREB, the Spanish state’s so-called ‘bad bank’. The aim of SAREB is to profit from selling off the property portfolios of those banks rescued after the country’s real estate bubble burst, transforming empty houses into financial assets. What this means on the ground is exemplified by the struggle of the Platform for Mortgage and Crisis-Affected People (PAHC) in the town of Sabadell, north of Barcelona. On 13 April 2013, PAHC Sabadell liberated an empty 40-flat block in order to provide housing for families previously evicted, eventually providing homes for 88 adults and 58 children. Earlier this year, the public prosecutor and a judge unilaterally took the decision to evict the residents from the block and once more send families onto the street.

The threat of eviction has constantly hung over Can Vies, which for years has fought to maintain its independence in the face of the lies and treachery of the City and District councils, headed by Mayor Xavier Trias of the ruling Catalan nationalist CIU party. Since the start of the year, when eviction proceedings were begun by the building’s technical owner, the Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB), Can Vies has waged a prolonged and creative struggle, with Metro stations occupied and encamped by dozens of activists, thousands regularly taking to the streets of the neighbourhood in protests, concerts, popular lunches and much else.

But above all, Can Vies has maintained a principled and militant opposition to all attempts to buy them off, refusing to accept the ‘promises’ of the Council or accept ‘legalisation’. This is one of the crucial political lessons for our own struggles and the key to its victory. Throughout its existence, with the support of the neighbourhood, the commitment of Can Vies has been only to strengthening popular resistance, not negotiating compromises which can only end in defeat. For the past year, it built its forces in Barcelona and beyond, making clear that any attempt to evict the building would result in war, that this was the ‘combative barrio’ par excellence, and the neighbourhood was prepared for battle. When the politicians chose to evict the residents and ‘do what they know best – empty it of life, bring it down and fill it with grey cement’, war is what they got.

The initial eviction, on Monday 26 May, took several hours as the Mossos d’Esquadra, the notorious Catalan riot police, and one of the best trained units in Europe, moved in, lowering themselves onto the roof by crane and struggling to remove activists barricaded and buried inside. The building was not only emptied but half-demolished as diggers immediately began to tear Can Vies down. The next six days and nights witnessed some of the most serious rioting ever seen in Barcelona; an inspiring example of creative urban struggle in the face of brutal police repression, rooted in the popular support of a working class community. Thousands upon thousands took to the streets day after day not only to demand an end to evictions but under explicitly anti-capitalist slogans. While the majority of the resistance was sustained by young people, the protests encompassed everyone, young and old, workers and unemployed, with women at the forefront and local residents the backbone. By Friday evening, there had been protests in over forty different neighbourhoods and towns, rioting in Gracia, Sant Andreu, Noubarris and other neighbourhoods had broken out, tens of thousands had marched through Sants, five nights of consecutive rioting and intense street fighting had occurred, with hundreds of barricades erected and set alight, over 80 arrested and 100 injured, many hospitalised. Every riot cop in Catalunya was drafted in together with specialised squads from Madrid’s National Policing Unit, tear gas used for only the second time in Catalunya, hundreds of high velocity foams bullets fired, acoustic sound cannon deployed, the offices of the progressive La Directa newspaper attacked and smashed in by Mossos, and the neighbourhood placed essentially under military occupation, with Metro stations closed and public transport shut off.

Since the turn of the year, there have been hundreds of demonstrations throughout the city, and every month has seen barricades erected and fires set: in solidarity with the Gamonal uprising in the northern town of Burgos; on the huge protests in support of civil disobedience and arrested protesters in March; on May Day’s anti-capitalist demonstration. For the first time, however, the resistance did not peter out after a day, but continued to build and gain momentum, both politically and on the streets. Crucially, at no point, as is so often the case, did Can Vies issue any condemnation of ‘violence’ or was any wedge driven between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protest. The only line drawn was the class line: between the institutional violence of capitalism and those determined to resist. It was this that allowed momentum to build, and far from putting people off, the extent and militancy of the resistance is precisely what inspired others to join. The rioting was no work of ‘mindless destruction’ or a ‘tiny minority’. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were actively involved in defending the barrio from the police and destroying symbols of corporate and political power. Local neighbours jeered at police from their balconies and banged pots and pans in support of the youth throughout the night, blasted protest songs from windows and supplied activists with fireworks and shelter when needed. It was an atmosphere of liberation which emerged, as people truly felt the streets were ours.

The effectiveness of such a strategy, in total opposition to liberal and social democratic dogma, is clear: by the end of the week, the local council was in disarray. Calls for Mayor Trias to resign for his handling of the crisis emerged from all sides. The police union issued statements condemning the authorities for exposing them to ‘unprecedented violence’ while the Mossos themselves were criticised both for failing to contain the protests and for their obvious brutality. From demolishing the building on Monday, by Thursday the council was desperate to establish contact with Can Vies, who refused all negotiations, while other social centres with legal status broke off their own contacts with the authorities in solidarity. Finally, in a desperate bid to quell the unrest, it was agreed to halt any further demolition of the building.

On Saturday, the call to rebuild Can Vies was met in inspiring fashion. This was no mere symbolic gesture. From 11am, hundreds started gathering, clearing the rubble of the building and forming a human chain to dump several tons of bricks in front of the local council building. Sound systems blasted out songs of resistance as debris was cleared, bricks cleaned and restacked, workers in harnesses and hardhats worked on site and the digger, set alight and destroyed on the second night, was garlanded in flowers and plants. The riot police had evacuated the area, successfully demilitarised by sustained resistance. A free popular lunch was provided to the hundreds volunteering, a wall covered in pictures drawn by children in solidarity, the streets all around chalked and covered in symbols of the struggle. Chants and speeches went out in support of those still in custody. In the evening, upwards of 25,000 people marched through the streets of the city centre on an illegal demonstration, coming face to face with the Barcelona of tourism, luxury and speculation, headed off by riot police into the narrow streets of the Raval where neighbours took to the balconies to bang pots and pans in support.

For the past month, the rebuilding of Can Vies has continued every day. A fund of 70,000 euros is being raised not only for the reconstruction, but also for the legal costs of the dozens and dozens facing charges and court proceedings as a result of the protests and the determination of the authorities to criminalise opposition. One of the detainees – Sergi Rubi – was only released after spending 23 days in prison despite having no previous convictions, while the vast majority of those released on bail are banned from attending any further protests. Can Vies agreed at the end of June to allow firefighters and municipal workers on site to clear the destroyed digger but has maintained total independence, and a new chapter in the struggle has been opened. The contradiction between the living, breathing struggles of the working class and a collapsing, corrupt capitalism has never been clearer.


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