‘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.
On 30 April, the Spanish Minister of the Economy announced economic growth of 0.4% in the first trimester, and an expected 1.2% for the whole year. He boasted of a reduction in unemployment by just over 50,000 people. He avoided, however, explaining that this is based on a sky-rocketing increase in temporary and low-quality jobs, coinciding with the lowest number of workers on payroll in the last 11 years. Or that the country’s policies of austerity have pushed public debt from 36.3% of GDP in 2007 to 93.7% in 2013. The so-called ‘recovery’ is in fact entirely based on speculative growth, increased exploitation of the workforce and a growing dependency on European capital. From Madrid, Juanjo Rivas reports on Spain’s continuing crisis.
Far from the living standards of the working class improving, the rate of poverty keeps increasing; almost 50,000 families lost their homes in 2013, 11% more than in the previous year. All main industries have carried out mass redundancies and there is a visible decline in the provision of basic public services. For instance, the budget for education has been cut by 30.5% since 2010 and university fees have risen 67% in Catalonia and 58% in Madrid. Families with disabled members have seen most of their benefits withdrawn.
Corruption and fraud
For the impoverished working class, the continuing privileges of corrupt politicians and bankers are an insult. Miguel Blesa, former president of Bankia, currently in prison for misappropriation and corruption, visited London prior to his trial. He and his family enjoyed a luxury stay, hosted by the Spanish consul, and funded by taxpayers’ money. Not surprisingly, the consul’s son worked for Bankia. The consul has since been forced to resign.
May 2014 saw the start of the trials of more than 100 banking executives, accused of misleading customers by stripping them of their savings while securing their own millionaire retirement schemes. Recent investigations suggest that even the headquarters of the ruling conservative Partido Popular were rebuilt with money from ‘B accounts’ (a form of parallel accounting). Two former treasurers of Prime Minister Rajoy’s party were imprisoned and Swiss authorities hint others could be implicated in monitoring accounts hidden from the Spanish tax office. Not surprisingly, there is an increasing disaffection with the main political parties and a 60% abstention in the 25 May European elections is predicted.
Strikes have continued in a number of regions, as important sections of the working class understand that resistance is the only way forward. Continuous pressure by workers has forced one mining company to reach an agreement with unions, postponing redundancies until 2018 and accepting the demand to invest in alternative economic strategies.
Meanwhile, 1,190 workers at a Coca-Cola plant near Madrid face mass redundancy: their futures rest on a court ruling due in early June. They have called for a boycott of the company and organised campaigns in the centre of Madrid. Coca-Cola Iberian Partners has been condemned for infringing the right to strike, after supplying products from factories in other parts of the country to undermine the protest. Workers at factories in Valencia and Catalonia have launched solidarity strikes.
Since 2011, the increasing level of organisation by social movements and general population has been evident. In June 2011, thousands of people blocked the entrance to the Catalonian Parliament, forcing the president to arrive by helicopter. On 31 March this year, the political trial against 20 activists from that protest started: they could face prison sentences of between three and eight years.
The government’s disdain for the conditions of the poor is provoking increasing outrage. On 21 May, as the Minister of the Economy and the Catalonian conservative leader left a meeting in Barcelona, protesters picketed the exit and threw stones at the official car.
Racism and police brutality
On 22 March, about 1.5 million people from all over the country poured into the streets of the capital (see FRFI 237). Police attacked demonstrators and arrested 24 people; rubber bullets were used against protesters resulting in one losing 90% vision in one eye while other received an impact that resulted in the loss of a testicle. The pre-emptive imprisonment of two young men sparked the peaceful occupation of buildings at a university in Madrid on 26 March, leading to a police charge and the arrest of 54 people.
As in November 2013, security forces scanned videos for a week to identify people clashing with police on 22 March and then arrested activists at their homes. On 4 April, police carried out Operation ‘Puma 70’ in which 11 people were arrested and charged with incitement to violence. This witch-hunt included systematic mistreatment at police stations, as well as the intimidation of relatives and lawyers. Police officers feel increasingly uneasy about documented evidence of their abuse and brutality and have taken to targeting independent journalists and photographers at protests. Some reporters have been pushed, beaten or detained in spite of showing their press credentials.
On 6 February, the Spanish coastal police (Guardia Civil) killed 15 African immigrants who tried to swim to Spain (see FRFI 238). This has not prevented deprived and desperate sub-Saharan Africans from risking their lives on the barbed wired fences around the Spanish colonies of Ceuta and Melilla. Even when they reach Spanish territory, police beat them and deport them in breach of international law. Immigrants are also mistreated in between the national fences by Moroccan police, while their Spanish counterparts prevent NGOs and the Red Cross from gaining access to the area. Even so, some have managed to take photos and videos documenting state racism and brutality.
Although activists are already being heavily fined and sentenced, the government is currently drafting a law that will further criminalise protest. Meanwhile, the system seeks to grant impunity to state forces, and cases of police abuse or torture are dropped before they even get to court, or even enjoy a presidential pardon. These are the double standards between oppressed and oppressors, between the poor and the rich, and between the major imperialist European countries which manage the Troika and the crisis-stricken capitalist countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Greece.
On 5 March, the European Commission released an analysis of the Spanish economy, praising the government’s success in protecting foreign investment and complying with orders from Brussels by cutting the provision of social services. It also requested more structural reforms focused on the labour market and specifically on slashing salaries. While multinational corporations notch up record profits, the majority of businesses are implementing mass redundancies and the poverty rate has soared to unprecedented levels. However, the Spanish working class continues to fight back and on 22 March a wave of about 1.5 million people marched from all over the country to seize the centre of Madrid in a militant protest that ended with severe clashes with the police. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Madrid.
On 13 January 2014, Spanish President Mariano Rajoy visited the US White House for the first time. The Spanish delegation brought entrepreneurs from major companies to meet their US counterparts, in the hope of persuading them to invest in Spain. Rajoy tried to enhance the figures, which show a slight economic growth of 0.3%. Obama praised the effort but pointed out the challenge of reducing unemployment. The most recent official figures show an employment rate of only 44%, with many of these underemployed. Overtime is unpaid and there is a worrying growth of one-day contracts. The arrogance and corruption of the political class, in conjunction with the appalling conditions in some working class areas are fuelling popular unrest. JUANJO RIVAS reports.