It’s not often local news events in Barcelona filter out into the international press, but the violent protests that took place in the district of Sants at the end of May during the eviction of the Can Vies squat shook Barcelona to its foundations. The events received coverage by The Guardian, The New York Times and even Fox News.
From the beginning, the Barcelona Ajuntament knew that the grassroots home of the left-wing movement would not be a run-of-the-mill squatter eviction. Can Vies had been occupied since 1997 and served as an unofficial civic centre. Talks between the owners of the building, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB), the district council and the squatters have been ongoing for several years, with the demolition order pending since 2003. During the last week of May another round of negotiations had run aground with the squatters refusing to give up the building, maintaining that after 17 years of occupancy the building rightfully belongs to them. During the talks that took place after the eviction, town hall spokesperson, Joaquim Forn said, “We had tried to find a solution to prevent any kind of conflict with the Can Vies collective, to the point where local representatives from the district were called in to mediate, but the okupas rejected any kind of peaceful solution.”The district council decided that the eviction and demolition would go ahead, citing that the building, dating from 1879, was architecturally unsound and that the occupiers of Can Vies had been offered a space to continue their cultural activities in the nearby cultural centre of Can Batlló. The Ajuntament also announced that after the demolition of Can Vies and in accordance with planning laws, the land would be used as recreational green space to complement the pedestrian area which is currently under construction: a 7.8 million euro expansion of the Mercat de Sants which will cover the disused rail tracks.
The squatters countered that the argument is a self-serving ploy by the local council to increase the value of the district’s property index. Residential property in the district of Sants is currently valued at 3,000 euros per square metre and rental prices usually exceed 1,000 euros a month. It is unknown whether these prices will increase once the current improvements to the area are completed.
When the eviction began, the mobile brigade of the Mossos d’Esquadra moved in to forcibly remove the squatters who had chained themselves to the interior of the building. An extra 200 police units from in and around Catalunya were shuttled in to provide support. Eager to get the eviction over and done with quickly, the excavator began the demolition, apparently with squatters still inside the building, an act seen by many, including local political figures, as an unquestionable kick to the hornets’ nest.
The situation rapidly descended into anarchy, echoing scenes from the 15-M indignados protests. The district went into revolt, makeshift barricades were erected and as the day wore on the squatters became more resolute. By the evening, the scene was of chaotic violence, with the police firing rubber bullets into the protestors’ front lines and the rioters retaliating with a volley of stones collected from the crumbling remnants of the Can Vies building. A TV3 mobile communications van was set ablaze along with the excavator that was being used to demolish the building.
According to Pau Guerra, an official spokesperson for the Can Vies collective, the violence that erupted in the wake of the demolition was “directly in response to police aggression.” The police were criticised for their heavy-handed behaviour during the riot. The headquarters of nearby local Catalan left wing newspaper La Directa, which openly supports left wing grassroots movements, was targeted by police and had its windows smashed in. These incidents became the last straw for the chief of the Mossos d’Esquadra, Manel Prat. With several alleged incidents of police brutality already hanging over his head, Prat announced his resignation, much to the dismay of the Ajuntament. The Mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias came out and said in a press conference that his resignation was simply, “badly timed”.
By the second evening of rioting many local residents came out to support the Can Vies squatters and protest against the police action which they saw as an occupation of the district. A domino effect of support began to ripple across the city with major protests in Clot, and in towns in and around Catalunya, quickly spreading to Valencia and Palma de Mallorca.The Ajuntament had underestimated Can Vies’ cultural ties to the community. When they issued a statement to say that they were calling off the demolition, local residents came out in force to help with the reconstruction of the building. A human chain was formed from Can Vies to Sants district hall and bricks that could not be reused were laid at the door in protest. A local resident and adamant supporter of Can Vies who camped outside the Ajuntament said, “This is to show the town hall that they reap what they sow and the local community won’t allow a police occupation of this district. This is the Can Vies effect.”Many squatter houses across the city have recently been closed. Built in 1864, La Carboneria is the Eixample’s oldest building and began life as a tenement building for metro workers. It was occupied by squatters in 2008 when the real estate company who owned the building went bankrupt. Well known for the colourful mural on its façade, the building was used as a cultural centre, where meetings and activities could take place.
Now the building is owned by Barclays Bank and, much to the outrage of local residents, La Carboneria has been earmarked for demolition. The eviction of the squatters in the case of La Carboneria passed without major incidents but more than 300 people from the district turned out to show support.With 90,000 empty properties in Barcelona the phenomenon of squatting is becoming widespread. Both private and bank-owned properties frequently resort to bricking up the entrances of empty buildings in a bid to protect themselves from illegal tenants. If squatters do gain entry, there is a lengthy eviction process. Until a court order is obtained the police are powerless to do anything about it.In an interview with La Vanguardia, Toni Sanchez, the vice president of the Sant Antoni neighbourhood (where La Carboneria is located), said, “I do not support squatting. However there are so many empty and abandoned buildings in Barcelona, and on the other hand there are people with no jobs and no housing, you can hardly blame them”.
Many locals no doubt share Sanchez’s mixed sentiments. The city receives its fair share of complaints about antisocial behaviour in some squats and private owners of empty houses have to resort to full time security to ensure the house doesn’t become occupied. These owners are not big corporations and these properties are often on the market. Yet, the reaction of local residents suggests that things are not so black and white, and when an abandoned building is put to good use and its owners are a big bank, many will sympathise with the okupas. This and the Can Vies experience will provide the Ajuntament with some food for thought for future evictions.
Can Masdeu is an occupied building in the Collserola park. A former leper hospital, the building had been abandoned for over 40 years before squatters moved into it in 2001. Shortly after, and with local community support, they resisted an eviction. The failure to evict resulted in a new court case, which the owners of the building won, though no eviction notice has since been issued. Outside the building itself, a large area of land has been converted into vegetable gardens. Some of the gardens are used by the occupants of the house and some by people from the local Nou Barris neighbourhood. Can Masdeu also offers educational programmes for local schools relating to sustainable agriculture and energy. On Sunday there is an open house in the social centre and snacks and lunches are available at a small charge. www.canmasdeu.net