“The day after the Can Vies eviction, the neighbours got up as if we were suffering from the amputated limb syndrome. At the moment, the pain deriving from the loss of an essential part of our body is unbearable. They have taken away from us a place where many of us met for the first time and learnt how to self-organise, where we enjoyed small victories and coped with defeat, where we put mutual aid into practice and learnt to become active in politics. Can Vies has been an autonomous space which has transformed us into the heterogeneous community we presently are.”
These are the opening words of the communiqué released on May 27 from La Ciutat Invisible, a cooperative based in the Sants district of Barcelona. Can Vies had been violently evicted the day before by several units of the Mossos d’Escuadra – the Catalan police force – after 17 years of experimenting with autonomy and nurturing practices of self-management.
The CSA Can Vies has been an Autonomous Social Centre (hence the acronym CSA) since it was squatted in 1997. It is situated in Sants, a predominantly working class district away from the cleansed and tourism-centred areas of downtown Barcelona. The building itself and the land where it sits are property of the Metropolitan Transport of Barcelona (TMB), a company owned by the city’s Council. Throughout its existence Can Vies has had a strong link with workers organisations, first as an outpatients clinic for the municipal transport workers, and then as the headquarters of the local branches of the CNT and CGT anarcho-syndicalist unions. In 1997, as a continuation of this historical legacy, the building was taken over by an assembly composed of squatters, activists and local neighbours, with the aim of setting up a self-organised social centre that would have deep roots in the local community
The Social Centre’s history is not only full of symbolic capital but it is also an example of continuous evolution; from its beginnings with a marked ‘autonomist squat’ identity, to gradually opening up to the local community by forging links with many other groups and platforms active in the area, thus increasingly enjoying widespread social backing and legitimisation. With an antagonistic and confrontational stand against the neoliberal city model, and with a clear commitment to collective action towards positive social change, the project’s primary focus has always been the defence of the local community and struggles for the ‘right to the city’ against gentrification, privatisation and the enclosure of public space.
It is, therefore, not a coincidence that at the time of its eviction the Social Centre played host to over 50 groups and projects. These ranged from the production of a regular local alternative publication called La Burxa to groups engaged in traditional Catalan popular culture, and from language lessons to rehearsing studios for music bands. At the same time, Can Vies has been an active participant in countless campaigns and struggles, as well as organising regular gigs, film-screenings, fund-raising activities, theatre and performances, and a regular popular kitchen. It also offered a home to many groups organising around feminism, LGBT, antifa, anti-repression, anti-gentrification and anti-capitalism struggles, to name just a few.
Given this history and Can Vies’ deep roots in Sants, it is highly surprising that when the City’s government sent the police to attack the Social Centre – at midday on Monday May 26 – they imagined they were ‘only’ evicting an activists’ squatted building. But it is perhaps for this same reason that, in a clear show of complete arrogance and authoritarianism, they did not only storm the building but they also started to demolish it straightaway, as if history itself and years of building autonomy from below could be quickly brushed off at the authorities’ whim.
Can Vies is perhaps a unique example of cohesion and correspondence between the local community and the social movements active in the Sants neighbourhood, and the City Council and police authorities should have known this. Their attitude shown towards the Can Vies project, and their general mode of governance focused on selling off the city to the global tourism industry, city developers and corporate investors clearly shows a great degree of ignorance and disregard towards the City they govern. As Gala Pin, a local activist, stated hours after the eviction: “If the district councillor and the mayor of the city can’t predict what would happen if the centre was attacked, then they clearly don’t know their city and have no capacity nor capability to govern it”.
It is in this context that the popular reaction to the attack on Can Vies’ political and social project, and to the partial demolition of the building, can be viewed. Even the Social Centre’s assembly has admitted that they did not expect such levels of resistance seen in the streets of Sants during the days and nights following the eviction. Solidarity demonstrations and actions also quickly spread to other districts of Barcelona, as well as in many other towns and cities across Spain and beyond.
During that initial week of daily demonstrations and protests that gathered thousands of people, and which often ended with burning barricades and clashes with the police, over 70 people were arrested – two of which were preemptively sent to jail, and around 200 injured. The Sants district effectively became a militarised zone with hundreds of police stationed in the area and a police helicopter continuously hovering over the neighbourhood, thus increasing the tension and the generalised sense of outrage. At the same time, several towns and cities across Catalonia and Spain called for solidarity demonstrations, thus exponentially increasing the #EfecteCanVies (the Can Vies Effect).
On Friday May 30, Barcelona Council suddenly declared that any further demolition of Can Vies would be suspended. This was seen as an initial victory in the collective defence of the Social Centre, and perhaps, the fact that the huge bulldozer that had been brought in to demolish the building was set on fire during the second night of riots has something to do with the Council’s decision?
Can Vies quickly reacted to this new situation by calling for the retake of the building, and for a weekend of active reconstruction that would focus on clearing the rubble left by the partial demolition the building. They called for the neighbourhood to gather on the morning of Saturday 31 to start “collectively rebuilding what the Council had destroyed”. Hundreds of people turned up, and by the end of the day Can Vies had effectively been retaken.
A citywide demonstration was also called for that Saturday evening, which saw columns from several districts of Barcelona marching towards the meeting point in the city centre. This was not only seen as a clear attempt to bring the ‘Can Vies Effect’ into the centre of town (the symbolic site of power) but it also meant allowing some breathing space to the Sants neighbourhood, whose streets had already seen a week full of daily confrontation. Up to 20,000 people answered the call, and, in a clear show of force, they demonstrated through the main tourist areas of downtown Barcelona behind a huge banner reading “Building Alternatives, Defending the Neighbourhoods”, even though the police operation was one of the biggest seen in Barcelona’s recent history.
On Monday June 2, the City Council’s degree of improvisation became apparent once more when they announced that they were prepared to stop the eviction and allow Can Vies to retake the building on a temporary basis (between 24 and 30 months) and under some bureaucratic conditions. In response to the evolving situation, Can Vies called the whole neighbourhood to attend an assembly on Wednesday 4, where hundreds of people discussed the latest developments. The Assembly decided to reject the Council’s ‘offer’ stating that Can Vies had already belonged to the community for many years, and that they did not need the City authorities to legitimise this fact. They stated that, in fact, it was the Council’s actions which brought a long collective process to a standstill and that they should leave and let the project “resume in peace”. At the time of writing, the rubble of the demolished annex has already been cleared, and several groups of people have been working on a daily basis to rebuild the Social Centre. Further assemblies have been called and new working groups are being set up. Even a new issue of La Burxa has already been produced and distributed in the neighbourhood, and a #RefemCanVies (Remake Can Vies) crowdfunding campaign has been launched to fund the reconstruction of the building, and to cover the legal costs resulting from the eviction and the defense of those arrested in the protests.
Only time and people’s resolve will determine what the future holds for Can Vies, but what seems clear is that the political and social project already escapes the four walls of the building that the City Council tried to demolish. Barcelona’s authorities should perhaps ask themselves why a community with such a strong social fabric goes from a long established experience of self-management to the barricades for five consecutive nights. One possible answer might be found in the profound and generalised malcontent that has been taking root in society during the last few years, but probably also in the fact that the collective political subject demands respect and it is not getting any from those in power.
By Jordi Blanchar | @maqui_tuits
Photography by Sergi Bernal