Didn’t they learn anything from the attempted eviction of Can Vies two years ago, and the popular response that ensued? Have they not yet understood that when you attack the autonomous fabric of a neighbourhood in a city like Barcelona, it will cause the underlying the social, political and economic contradictions to erupt?
These are the questions that immediately came to mind on Monday when messages began appearing that the Banc Expropiat, a squatted social centre in the city’s Gràcia neighbourhood, was being evicted in a massive police operation. Gràcia is a district towards the north of the city with strong traditions of social organising and association. An old town with a proud identity popularly known as “Vila de Gràcia”: The Town of Gràcia.
And so, we are again witnessing another popular revolt in Barcelona. At the time of writing, we are entering the fourth consecutive day of protests, demonstrations and confrontations with the Catalan riot police force (the infamous BRIMO units of the Mossos d’Esquadra) and their accompanying violence – which has so far caused injuries to at least 67 people.
The Banc Expropiat is a stone’s throw from the main market, in the old premises of the bank Catalunya Caixa, one of the major recipients of a bailout during the current crisis, hence its name: The Expropriated Bank. The premises were squatted in 2011 at the end of a demonstration against the eviction of another local social centre, when an assembly of around 40 people decided that there was enough energy and commitment to collectively manage the newly opened space. With a clear anti-capitalist and anti-gentrification ethos, the project bases its presence in the neighbourhood within the framework and the practice of autonomy, self-management and mutual support. Having been part of the community in Gràcia for the last 5 years, it now stands evicted and boarded up with metal panels.
Banc Expropriat is a space which encourages inclusivity, openness and participation, clearly departing from some other political/autonomous spaces and scenes, ‘bunkerised’ from their surroundings. The physical layout itself favours this approach, as the Banc Expropiat mainly consists of a ground floor with open access to the street and external walls that are made of large glass panels. In a video put together for their campaign against eviction, one of the centre’s assembly members states that “inside the bank we have always tried to keep it as free of symbology as possible, to make sure people feel welcome. But this doesn’t mean that, right from the moment you walk in, you don’t realise that there’s a very clear type of political practice in here. And that the main axis running through all the struggles and projects that take place in here is anti-capitalism.”
Banc Expropriat continues a local tradition of building power from below, what in Barcelona many people would refer to as ‘Poder Popular’, manifested through solidarity networks that are able to respond and find collective solutions to the problems many local people face. The rampant gentrification of the area, restricting access to secure housing for many people, is one of the main issues that people involved in the social centre understand as a collective problem that demands collective action.
This solidarity also extends to collectivised food provision. The ‘Xarxa d’Aliments’ (Food Network) that provides free access to food by recycling leftovers and donations from shops and market stall holders that participate in the network, is another of the core projects of the Banc Expropiat. Other events in the regular calendar include lessons in a variety of subjects, meeting space for local grassroots groups and campaigns and a wide range of cultural activities. Though the social centre focuses its activities in finding collective solutions to problems faced by nearby people, those involved in the space make it clear that they don’t want to be seen as a “radical NGO”, seeking to reproduce solidarity relations rather than the logics of the state or charity.
The Banc Expropiat has had an eviction order looming over it for some time. The original owners of the building, Catalunya Caixa, withdrew from eviction proceedings. Many believe this was because of an awareness of the strength of resistance to any attempted eviction. But, in 2014, Catalunya Caixa sold the property to developers represented by Manuel Bravo Solano, a well-known property speculator whose first action was to offer €12,000 to the occupiers in exchange for them vacating the building. The response was clear: the Banc Expropiat does not negotiate with the agents of gentrification.
Following failed attempts to evict another prominent social centre (Can Vies) two years ago, the then Mayor of the city made a secret deal with the current owner of the building in the run up to the local elections, offering to pay rent with public money in order to buy ‘social peace’. When this secret €65,000 deal was discovered in June 2015, the social centre made it public, restating that Banc Expropiat could not be bought.
In January 2016, Banc Expropiat once again came under a permanent threat of eviction. The council of the newly elected mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, a well-known activist and ex-spokesperson of the anti-home repossessions movement PAH, cancelled the deal with the owners of the building and stopped paying the rent. From that moment, the social centre has engaged in building an inclusive campaign to resist any eviction. The social centre has argued that everyone has a role to play in its defence. Right from the start, the main slogan of the eviction resistance campaign has been “Amb caputxa o sense, el Banc es defensa”, meaning something like “with or without masking up, the Banc will be defended”.
Eviction / Resistance
Mon 23 May #ElBancResisteix
The neighbourhood awoke to the sounds of the eviction taking place. A call was immediately sent out to resist it. #ElBancReisteix began trending and people started gathering in front of the police lines almost immediately. Meanwhile, two people locked themselves inside the old bank’s safe. It took up to 8 hours for police to break into the safe and take over the building.
Crowds gathered in the streets surrounding the social centre throughout the day. Later, a march of 1,800 people proceeded through the main streets of the neighbourhood. When protestors carrying an electric radial saw tried to remove the metal boards covering the evicted social centre, police charged with batons and shot foam bullets into the crowd. The crowd, now dispersed, were met with further police violence across the neighbourhood until past midnight. By the end of Monday around 50 people had been injured – including four hit by foam bullets to the head – and one arrested.
Tues 24 May #TornemAlBanc
Reactions to the violence of the police on Monday were varied, with mainstream media platforms led attempts to divide protestors between “peaceful” and “violent” so as to excuse the violence of police. Social media overflowed with imagery captured the night before in an attempt to counter this, much of it filmed from the balconies of Gràcias’s neighbours outraged at the police violence they had seen the night before, as well as alternative media platforms. The Banc Expropiat published a communiqué entitled ‘Tornarem al Banc’ (“We’re going back to the Banc”). The communiqué expressed gratitude at the solidarity expressed in the streets of Gràcia the night before, restating the determination to re-take the social centre and pointing out that the popular rage seen the night before was a direct consequence of police brutality and impunity.
#TornemAlBanc called for a series of solidarity demonstrations that evening in several districts of the city. People from the Sants and Raval districts marched together towards Gràcia, and at around 9pm several hundred people started marching again towards the Banc Expropiat.
When the demonstration reached the social centre, a group of people managed to force open a metal gate creating a loud cheer from the crowd. At that point, riot police moved in with a brutal charge causing injuries to many protestors. The police re-took the building as the crowd dispersed to different parts of the neighbourhood and smaller groups of people kept gathering and confronting police till around midnight.
Weds 24 May #RodegemElBanc
Protests spread to several other districts of Barcelona, followed by calls to ‘surround the banc’. Columns from Clot, Sants, Vallcarca and Poble Sec made their way to Gràcia in the evening and at approximately 9pm, around 2,400 people gathered in a square near the Banc Expropiat. This is the biggest demonstration seen so far.
Lines of riot police blocked all streets leading to the social centre, so people marched around the police lines. At around 11.30pm police charge the crowd once more, prompting groups of people to break away again. Several bank offices were attacked and by midnight, people dispersed. A call was also put out for neighbours to record images of police violence from their homes and to publish them on social media in an attempt to counteract more apologetic reactions in the media. Alternative media projects Contrainfos and La Directa publish daily video summaries.
The struggle to re-take the Banc Expropiat is ongoing. A new communiqué entitled ‘Tornarem a Intentar Entrar” (We are going to try to break in again) says “we have nothing to negotiate … the Banc is ours because we have built it minute-by-minute between all the people that have come in during all these years and have been contributing with hundreds of different experiences; the Banc is ours and we will defend it till the end.”
A #TornemAlBanc (“We’re going back to the Banc”) day of action was launched again on Sunday 29 May, with a call to gather in Gràcia from midday. Meanwhile a variety of street activities and events have been organised in an attempt to continue with the social centre’s regular activities.
How all this will unfold, and what the future of the Banc Expropiat will be is yet to be seen. On the one hand we are witnessing in Gràcia an undiminished collective determination to regain a five year old, well established project. It seems that negotiation with institutions, political parties or representatives is not considered an option for those defending the Banc Expropiat.
On the other hand, there is the new ‘Council of Change’ of Barcelona recognising the ‘social value’ of the social centre’s activities, and stating that they are doing all in their powers to negotiate a settlement that is acceptable to all parties.
The actions of the police against those defending their spaces this week has been brutal and violent. The social cleansing of the city is one mediated via multiple processes of state violence and dispossession, though it has been some time since such a naked display of state violence has been witnessed in Barcelona.
In an article published this week in ‘Critic’ called “Making the Invisible, Visible”, the journalist Sergi Picazo argues that what we are seeing this week in the streets of Gràcia “is not only the result of the eviction of a squatted social centre,” but rather, “the result of such a dire, deteriorated, unequal and conflictive situation” in today’s Barcelona.
by Jordi Blanchar | @maqui_tuits
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