Tag Archives: occupation

Okupa en España – pt 3, The Students Occupy

In an effort to round out my brief experience with occupation groups in Spain, I also took a trip up to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid to check out a different kind of occupied space. After a short walk along the university’s perfectly manicured lawns, I found spray painted signs overwriting a defunct school bookstore. “Kairós– Espacio-Tiempo Social Okupado Autónomo!” and “OMG Campus Libre!” the writing declared.

Last February a group of 19-24 year olds from different disciplines took over these three abandoned rooms and they’ve been holding free academic workshops, yoga classes, and lectures ever since. For the last three months they’ve operated without electricity, hauling buckets of water from other campus locations when needed.

I arrived just in time for the weekly management meeting. Inside the graffiti decorated room, students were settling into lumpy sunken couches as jazz music played softly on a MacBook Pro. They were opening homemade lunches in plastic containers or peeling fruits with knives, joking and chatting or making out in the afternoon heat. Almost everyone had a personal tobacco pouch, from which they seemed to be continuously rolling cigarettes and dropping ashes into homemade ashtrays. Cactus plants and bottles filled with questionable things lined the wall, along with a giant cork board calendar. It felt like the beginning of a movie set in the ‘60s.

It was interesting to observe an assembly in action. I’d been hearing about the assembly format my entire trip, but hadn’t actually attended one yet. One girl was the leader for the day and she chose who got to speak. The agenda evolved organically with the main topics being: “no one is helping clean up the trash,” and “the university will try to kick us out next month.” The trash issue was decided quickly – the group would have a giant clean up after the meeting and thereafter institute a new and more frequent cleaning schedule.

But the question of how to deal with the university caused more consternation. Some wanted to “put their cards on the table” and present an argument to the university directly. Others saw this as a pointless exercise and a betrayal of principles. Instead they wanted to only publish a manifesto and awaken the media to their plight. Since there was no consensus, they went in a circle and each offered an opinion.

I tried to understand why this space was so important to them. Didn’t they have other places to meet? Could they use another classroom provided by the university to present activities?

Sara and Diego, two participants of Kairós, explained that the issues with the university stem partly from a multi-million dollar futuristic student-services complex built in the center of campus as the height of the construction bubble. They complained about mismanagement of funds, arguing that the huge new building wasn’t needed and ended up displacing other centers on campus, like the bookstore they now occupy. The also complained about unneeded printers and soda machines, projectors that don’t work properly, speculation – all of it coming out of their tuition and taxpayer money. When the crisis caught up to the university, budget cuts hit professors, materials and activities. Now that some of the older buildings are abandoned, the students decided to make a statement by taking responsibility for managing their own projects and activities within the university, but separate from it. They explained that without a space like this, students have to go through faculty clubs or institutional groups to get spaces, and they value their independence from any interference.

Kairós is removed from the occupation movements in the heart of Madrid in terms of content – they aren’t focused on the national issues of bank fraud or people losing their homes etc – but their grievances with the university and way of operating very much mirror the larger 15M movement. They want a space to construct their own self-managed activities without depending on any outside group with an agenda.  And, like the occupied social centers in Madrid, they also say they need an independent place to practice unfettered political discourse with a self-government system based on assembly-based democracy.

Once action plans were discussed and tasks delegated, the meeting ended as fluidly as it began, with people demagnetizing and drifting back into their separate activities – the mention of a mass-cleanup effort seemingly forgotten, for now.

I went to visit the brand new student center afterwards. In sharp contrast to the lived-in retro vibe that dominated the Kairós space, the semi-circle shaped center is resolutely ultramodern. A futuristic-looking snack bar crowns the top, reflecting panes decorate the building, and lounge-trance music blasts at 3 PM. Sitting down under octagonal orange shades that splay over Coca-Cola sponsored white plastic chairs, I ordered a “natural” strawberry milkshake that turned out to be made with an undrinkable sickly sweet syrup. No wonder the students prefer their homemade snacks.

Okupa en España – pt 2 Eviction Protests

You wouldn’t expect it, walking on the ritzy looking stretch of Calle Noviciado in Madrid. It has clean spiffy architecture and period details like wrought iron balustrades and classic-arch stone doorways. Well-coiffed women pass by looking purposeful yet unhurried.

But in the building next to the dignified university library and across from a gleaming Bankia branch (the biggest mortgage lender in Spain), a rotting vacant apartment is shielded from view. This apartment has been left vacant for 40 years, to molder and decay, but recently a new inhabitant took up residence within its grimy walls. Carlos, A young activist with gauge earrings, dreadlocks and tattoos on his chest, has made it his home for the past 3 years, quietly setting up electricity wires and a makeshift kitchen with a portable gas burner. But now someone has ratted him out to the owner and he’s threatened with eviction.

My second day in Madrid I attended the “desahucio,” (or eviction) protest, for Carlos. When I arrived around 9 AM a crowd of almost 100 thronged the front door, ready to see what the day would bring. People with ratty dreadlocks and piercings lounged around in clouds of smoke, an old routine for most by now. Some sang and danced, others chatted excitedly with friends, looking around just in time to press themselves aside for the bent old ladies with canes trying to get through.

Before my trip I had read that ever since the housing bubble crashed and the 15M movement began, Spaniards have been turning out in huge numbers to impede the police from entering and evicting families who defaulted on their mortgages. The more I’ve met people involved, the more it seems like the stop-evictions movement is a key ingredient in the power and scope of the 15M’s evolution and current state today. Instead of splintering or withering away, as many spontaneous protests movements are liable to do, there is still a core group of activists working to advance change in Spain and seeing the fruits of their efforts every day.

The groups set up after 15M to help families affected by the housing bubble, like Platform for Those Affected by Mortgages (PAH), the Housing Office, and Citizen’s Tribunal for Justice, have grown from disorganized rag-tag bands of energy into cohesive and effective groups that operate through assemblies and mobilize to affect citizens’ lives. Besides protesting evictions, they hold meetings to dispense advice to those facing eviction or looking to occupy, and they work on developing legal solutions to the problems they perceive (more on that later).

As an American, it’s a bit hard to wrap your head around the whole occupying-homes-being-OK argument at first. I’m sure people squat in places around the U.S, but it’s hard to imagine hundreds of people turning up to try to protect their right to do it. But the situation in Spain is so out of whack and widespread that it’s almost surreal – so it’s easier to see how people have transformed occupation into a grassroots political response to a situation caused by corrupt institutions. The argument “no people without home and no homes without people” becomes plausible when you learn that over 250,000 families have been evicted since the start of the crisis in 2008 and 20% of housing stock was deemed vacant in 2011.

I was  surprised how many Madrileños came out to support for hours that day – apparently it was considered a lower turn out because another eviction was happening at the same time so the group had to split up . How widespread was this kind of activity and what kept them involved? I asked Paola and Julie, two students hanging around outside, how they’d heard about the eviction that morning. They weren’t affiliated with a specific group, but they said they’d been attending these protests for about two years. They keep up on twitter with the stop-eviction organizers or talk with friends and when they hear about an eviction protest that fits their schedule they come to support.

Paola and Julie fit the mold of most of the protesters that day – young and dressed in punky clothes , with time on their hands because they study or are unemployed, but I also spoke with people who were taking the morning off from work to be there, people who had gone through their own eviction troubles, foreigners, and retired people. But while all types participate in these eviction protests, it can also begin to feel like a roving house party where everyone knows everyone. Most people I spoke with that day said they felt like they “knew” the majority of the people  in the crowd. Even if they had never really spoken with them, they recognized them from other events related to housing issues.

So at this point, maybe 15M  is a relatively small committed circle of people, not a truly mass movement. I could also see from all the people that walked by with passive faces that, however much the protest movements in Spain are making waves, there are still plenty of people content to go about their daily business without being involved. Bob, a retired engineer from the UK who has lived in Spain for over 30 years, attends many events, always wearing his Stop Desahucios T-shirt. He believes that about 65% of Spaniards know about 15M and are supportive. But he explained, “It’s one thing to agree with common sense and the principle, and another to support it. Many do in Madrid and come to stop evictions,…but some people don’t want to because it can get rough. “ Bob, who has attended at least 30 evictions, said that the majority had been successful, though a few more contentious ones had turned a bit violent, with the police dragging people by their hair or arresting them. Now they’ve had so much success that they are often able to avoid the street protest part and go straight to negotiating with the bank on behalf of the homeowners. (In Carlos’ case this wasn’t possible because he was occupying.)

It was exciting to speak with so many people who are still inspired and active in the movement two years after the massive 15M street protests. I think that the eviction-protests and the success they’ve had with them has probably been a big factor in retaining the momentum generated from the original protests. All these people with ideals and energy have a specific target to unite against and the opportunity to experience building a different kind of democratic organization. The strength of the movement has to be based on the active participation of the people, and in Spain they have the perfect equation: the big bad villan (banks and politicians who stole money)  to rail against, the vulnerable good guys (average joe families that are going to get kicked to the street because they were duped) to protect, and concerned citizens (highly educated young people with plenty of time) to participate. Every time they stop an eviction and see a family protected, more people learn what the power of the masses feels like.


Okupa en España – part 1, Occupied Centers

For many of us in America, the word “occupy” immediately brings to mind the Occupy Wall Street movement that shook New York two summers ago. And while the downtown protests were provocative and energizing for many, the movement’s activities quickly faded from the public consciousness, a testament to the difficulties of harnessing and directing the energy of a protest movement comprised of so many disparate agendas.

But in my five days in Madrid, I found that the concept of occupation is very much alive in different forms here, and thriving as part of political response to the ravages of the crisis. It can be a way of life, an opportunity, a philosophy, and for some people, an answer.

There’s been a history of squatter groups from long before the 15M movement took to the streets two years ago, but the word “occupy” has taken on an even stronger meaning in the face of the housing bubble crash, with thousands of families evicted because of predatory mortgage loans and widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s response. In my next few posts I’ll explore the concept of “occupation” in Spain and profile some of the groups and movements I came into contact with.

My first stops in Madrid were to two Centros Sociales Ocupados (occupied social centers), La Morada and Patio Maravillas. I spent the most time at Patio Maravillas and it seems to be the most established squat in Madrid –a “Metropolitan center for all of Madrid,” instead of a neighborhood center for the barrio, as Lucia, a long-term supporter of Patio, described it to me.

Lucia works for an NGO in Madrid and has been involved with squatter movements since she was in high school. According to her, Patio Maravillas represented a break with the established squatter culture when it first started six years ago. In the past, squatter groups were usually much more exclusive and focused on their way of life or a specific left-wing political agenda. Patio was meant to be an inclusive community space where all kinds of groups could gather to “construct democracy” (hopefully subverting the left-right dialogue with an up-down framework), and plan independently whatever kinds of activities they wanted, as long a they adhered to a few basic rules – no racism or homophobia, respect diversity, etc.

When I visited on a Friday night, the Patio was a buzzing hive of activity. On the ground floor, people were trickling in with their friends to enjoy an early evening at the bar. Across the hall, musicians took turns practicing classic rock covers or folk-indie  solos. Upstairs, a warren of rooms in various states of rickety disarray and punk-bohemian decoration housed groups planning workshops or discussing political activities. There’s a “free shop,” where people leave things they don’t want anymore, and a TESLA shop that sells locally made beauty products, clothes, books, and zines, to raise money for the Centro.

Signs advertised for free yoga classes and DIY bike-fixing workshops. In the kitchen, a group of women from an orchard-occupation collective excitedly prepared vegetarian dishes like guacamole, Spanish tortilla, and hummus to sell later that night to raise money for their group. Johnattan, one of the three paid elected managers of the Centro, told me that many people who are out of work also use the space to work on small-scale self-employment projects to make a bit of money, like T shirt designing or baking.

Though the Patio has an overt punk vibe – it’s covered in graffiti, sells anarchist books in the shop, and is crowded with the requisite weird and wonderful haircuts and body art – one of the things that struck me was that it really seems to gather all kinds of people into the same space.  Johnattan said that people in the neighborhood will often have their birthday parties there, and on the night I visited, people of all ages and styles were hanging out.The women selling food looked so tame they could have been housewives at a school bake-sale, but they told stories of  occupying orchards and combatting multinationals. I sat down for a drink with a group that must have been reaching their mid 50s. Some of them were dressed like punks that never grew up, others perfectly mainstream. They were members of the two choirs that practices at Patio. Clean-cut Dario, a meteorologist for the airport, said that they were regulars and had recently performed pieces by Mendelssohn and other German composers. –  not exactly the revolutionary punks you normally think of hanging out at a squat!

I was amazed at the four entire crumbling floors were throbbing with life and excitement. How does all this activity and energy flower in an illegally occupied space? The Patio seemed to be completely self-sufficient despite being located on a busy city street, with hijacked electricity, makeshift bathrooms, and free WiFi to sustain it. But I wondered if the group was afraid of being shut down at any moment. What was stopping the government from kicking them out?  No one who I spoke with was entirely sure who owned the building, but most believed it was either a ruined businessman, hiding from corruption charges, or the bank, and believed that both were probably too embroiled with their own problems to waste time wrangling the courts and police to cooperate with an eviction.

Johnattan acknowledged that losing the Patio was always a possibility – their current building was already their second space because they had been kicked out of a first location four years ago. But, he explained, any action against them would likely be a lengthy and drawn-out process, unlikely to happen any time soon. In this case, it seems that Spain’s slow-moving bureaucracy is a boon to occupiers. Anyway, he said, if they do get evicted, it just means they are on to the next location…