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El Banc: squatting as urban struggle in Barcelona

New forms of urban struggle have been emerging in Barcelona. The reconstruction of the Can Vies social centre, half demolished by the state in a botched eviction, has been an inspiring example. But other sites of occupation are under threat.

E.T.C. Dee Galvão Delle Rodrigues
9 October 2014
2014 protests in Barcelona against the Can Vies evictions

2014 protests in Barcelona against the Can Vies evictions. Demotix/Lino De Vallier. All rights reserved.

In a July essay for openDemocracy, we surveyed the wave of protest that erupted following plans for the demolition of the Can Vies social centre in Barcelona, occupied by squatters since 1997. Since publication, the Rebuild Can Vies (#RefemCanVies)  campaign has gone from strength to strength. Using the crowdfunding platform Verkami, the squatters launched a request for 70,000 euros and received almost 90,000. These funds have been necessary for rebuilding and for supporting two groups (Rereguarda en Moviment and Alerta Solidària) in order to prepare the legal defence for the 67 people arrested during the week of protests following the eviction of Can Vies. 

Although social unrest has predictably grown during the austerity crisis, nobody could have predicted that Can Vies’ eviction would unleash such strong protests. In a way, this case can be compared to Gezi park in Turkey, or the self-immolation in Tunisia that started the Arab Spring, or even the small rise in the price of bus tickets in Brazil. A geopolitically insignificant event has the potential to channel the full anger of the population. Nevertheless the case of Can Vies has differed in one crucial aspect. 17 years of accumulated squatting experience has allowed for a much more nuanced and constructive response.

Simultaneously, the mighty anti-eviction movement, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) has contributed to change the collective imaginary about squatting. The PAH has managed both to channel generalised support from the population and to build up active solidarity between citizens who cannot pay their mortgage and activists who protest for housing rights. The PAH is not the same as the squatters' movement. These are social movements that are differentiated in their goals and identities. But at the same time they share certain strategies and learn from each other. One observation might be that the PAH first tries to negotiate before squatting, whilst the squatters' movement usually squats first and thinks about finding a solution afterwards.

Social centres like Can Vies are a self-managed, collective answer to state repression, making it a struggle which reaches across borders. This is one seed amongst many others which are providing the roots for a new society. In Barcelona, several squatted spaces have created real alternatives to the hegemonic capitalist system. Non-commercial relations have been created in spaces where different generations, social classes, cultures and genders live together in relative harmony. Amidst an austerity crisis, popular reactions have found a powerful voice in urban struggle and the politics of occupation. But these powerfully symbolic squats are perpetually under the threat of eviction. Barcelona's squat scene has weathered these situations in the past. But the crisis has upped the stakes for  those who do not abide by the law.

El Banc Expropiat de Gràcia, one of the squats under the threat of eviction, has declared that no eviction will go through without the usual disturbances. A web page has been set up to gather all actions in solidarity with the squat, and to keep a visual record of the popular reaction to the eviction. In the past, when El Banc has been on trial, the owner CaixaCatalunya, the fourth largest savings bank in Spain, has not been able to evict them. Now the offices where El Banc is located have been sold to a known speculator, who has finally managed to get the courts to evict this social centre.

Since 2014, six new bank offices have been squatted, most in the Eixample neighbourhood - a middle class residential district of Barcelona. It occupies most of the territorial space in Barcelona and was previously never a place where people might think to squat, let alone create social centres. Now there is an average of one new squat per month. First, l'Entrebanc came about in April. Then, in a deluge came La Vaina, La Porka, La Industria, El Rec, and others. Counted together with El Banc Expropiat and the Casal Tres Lliris (squatted as part of the campaign to stop El Banc's eviction), there are now eight squatted banking offices in Barcelona, as well as another one in Girona.

These projects are, as the squatting movement has always been, quite diverse. Still, the awareness of bringing about a new model of squatting has been acknowledged and discussed collectively. El Banc Expropriat has shown that the strategy of inclusiveness can be reconciled with radicalism, as a space where basic libertarian values are promoted by a very heterogeneous mix of people. But the eviction of the first squatted bank of this kind, El Banc, scheduled for October, will be a flashpoint in an era of collective struggle for the right to the city.

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