The right to the city: the inspiring free space of Can Vies

The social centre of Can Vies in Barcelona, occupied by squatters since 1997, achieved global recognition when plans for demolition were met by forceful protest. The attention on rioting has masked the hard work of reconstruction by the people of Sants, in a site of urban struggle against austerity measures.

Barcelona protests against the Can Vies evictions Barcelona protests against the Can Vies evictions. Demotix/Lino De Vallier. All rights reserved.

The Can Vies social centre in Barcelona recently made headlines across the world when its eviction led to five consecutive nights of rioting. But the story is much bigger than that.

What the Guardian described as an “unofficial grassroots civic centre” is, in its own words, a “Centro Social Autogestionat” or a self-organised social centre, of the sort common to many Spanish and Italian cities. The building had been left empty by its owners, Barcelona's transport authority, and was squatted in 1997. Since then it has become a well-used and well-loved community space, and a provider of different services to the local people of Sants, a neighbourhood with a strong tradition of co-operativism. The centre hosts neighbourhood assemblies, political meetings, workshops, films and concerts. A local newspaper, La Burxa, is produced there.

The City Council planned to demolish the building in order to leave a vacant lot. Negotiations had been going on for years until they finally broke down. In the last few months Can Vies had organised a huge number of activities to demonstrate peacefully against eviction, with benefit concerts, debates and poster campaigns. It is worth noting that a previous attempt at institutionalising a social centre had not gone well, when Casa del Mig left its building to allow the city to renovate it and then was only permitted to move back into a small office.

The Revista Argelaga collective recently observed: “It is clear that in the affair of Can Vies, the municipal authorities never had any intention of offering alternatives that were not circumscribed within the bounds of the official bureaucracy, and that at every meeting all they did was engage in manipulation and lying, because by proposing an unacceptable space under government control what they really sought to do was to abolish the free space that Can Vies originally constituted.”

The existence of a self-organised space appeared to be a threat to the city administration and Barcelona’s mayor, Xavier Trias, eventually ordered the eviction. Despite huge opposition (the squat has the support of more than 200 community associations), the eviction went ahead on 26 May. This immediately triggered protests, in Barcelona and indeed in other cities beyond Catalonia, such as Valencia and Madrid. On 28 May there were demonstrations in no less than 46 districts in Barcelona.

Inevitably, much mainstream media attention focused on the rioting, which the government claimed was the work of a “small group of troublemakers.” In marked contrast, Antonio Maestre argues that the supporters of Can Vies were merely acting in defence of a centre which had peacefully existed for 17 years. He talks of the “structural violence of the City Government of Barcelona, which, with a despotic and authoritarian attitude, entirely ignored the interests of the residents of the neighbourhood.” He further argues that “Xavier Trias, the mayor of Barcelona, scorned or ignored the citizens whom he is supposed to serve and instead acted in an arrogant, intransigent and irresponsible manner that provoked a violent reaction because he denied the local residents any other channel of expression or negotiation.”

When the Council called an end to the demolition plans on 29 May, its hand had already been forced by destruction of equipment, the widespread protests and the announcement by Can Vies that the rebuilding of the centre would begin on 31 May. That day, several work groups started to clear the space and to recover as many tiles as possible. Hundreds of people formed a line, 500 metres long, to pass bricks to the site and to deposit rubble outside the district hall. The reconstruction of the centre is now under way. And this is the real story: the unreported conclusion to the unnecessary eviction.

On 2 June, the King announced that he would renounce the throne in favour of his son. More than 40 protests were called throughout the country the same day, announcing a period of political unrest. In efforts to appease the Catalan population, the council has since offered the squatters a two-year lease on the building. This is an offer that they have refused. The building is once again under the control of locals who have no need to negotiate with the authorities.

The city of Barcelona has many squats and is no stranger to evictions. La Carboneria social centre was evicted in February of this year. Most of the emblematic social centres are now in danger of being evicted, in what has been a clear move to shut down important sites of struggle against the austerity measures imposed by the Spanish government. Social unrest is also being criminalised through several changes in the penal code.

Nevertheless the people of Sants continue to rebuild their social centre. And the struggle over Can Vies throws weight behind the growing sentiment that everyone has a right to the city. At a time of draconian measures, the defiance of Can Vies is an inspiration to all social movements.

About the authors

E.T.C. Dee is involved in the Squatting Europe Kollective (SqEK), an activist-academic research collective focused on squatters’ movements in Europe and beyond. SqEK recently published The Squatters’ Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism (Pluto Press).

Galvão Delle Rodrigues is involved in the Squatting Europe Kollective (SqEK), an activist-academic research collective focused on squatters’ movements in Europe and beyond. SqEK recently published The Squatters’ Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism (Pluto Press).