People Power: Barcelona’s Can Vies

June 17, 2014

By E.T.C.Dee and Galvão Debelle Rodrigues

The Can Vies social centre in Barcelona recently hit the 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 a “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 became a well-used and well-loved community space, 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 amount 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. As 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.”

So the existence of a self-organised space appeared to be a threat to the city administration and the 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 Monday May 26. This immediately triggered protests, in Barcelona and indeed in other cities beyond Catalonia, such as Valencia and Madrid. On May 28 there were demonstrations in no less than 46 districts of Barcelona.

Inevitably, much mainstream media attention focused on the rioting, which the Telegraph laughably described as being organised by “small group of troublemakers.” In contrast, Antonio Maestre argues that the supporters of Can Vies, were merely acting in self-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.” Further he argues that “Xavier Trías, 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 May 29, 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 May 31. That day, Saturday, 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 underway. Films on youtube show the inspiring scenes. And this is the real story – the unreported conclusion to the unnecessary eviction.

Then, on Monday June 2nd, 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. Probably needing to appease the Catalan population, the council has since offered the squatters a two year lease on the building, an offer they have refused. The building is already in the control of local people again and they have no need to negotiate with the authorities.

The city of Barcelona has many squats and is no stranger to evictions, for example La Carboneria social centre was evicted in February this year. Most of the emblematic social centres are now in danger of being evicted, a clear move to shut down a important focus of struggle against the austerity measures imposed by the Spanish government. Social unrest is also being criminalised through several changes in the penal code. In fact, in July a law could be passed which would severely restrict civil liberties. NGOs, associations and social movements are all combined in opposition to these draconian measures which are in at points harder than those under the dictatorship. However, the struggle over Can Vies points to the growing feeling that everyone has a right to the city. Re-building in underway, and shortly Can Vies will launch a crowd-funding campain in solidarity with those who were arrested during the protests and to buy all the materials necessary to peacefuly re-build the Social Center.

Photo: Francesc Josep