Tag Archives: protests

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.

Taking the Relationship to the Next Level: 15M Moves In

Is a protest movement like a relationship? In the June edition of Periódico Madrid15M, Stéphane M. Grueso, a filmmaker, writes about the stages he has gone through since “falling in love” with the 15M movement. While the first year of protests on the street was intoxicating, it was also exhausting. Now that the initial burst of excitement is over (and he must sustain his family and work life) he admits that he’ll spend less time on the street and at the assemblies etc. But does this mean he’s less in love? “Of course not!” “Ahora se trata de pasar del enamoramiento a la fase del a vida en común,” he writes. “Now it is time to move from the falling-in-love stage to the living together stage.”

This is an important aspect to the 15M movement today because on the outside, it may seem that the protest is slackening or that the masses have been browbeaten by continued austerity, as has been reported about the Eurozone in general. But just because people aren’t on the streets as often doesn’t mean that change isn’t on the rise. (This article on CrisisRepublic.com is particularly relevant to that discussion in Spain). As I checked into some of the legal and political efforts going on in the background, I saw first hand that the flame still exists. There are still many people  working to change the way democracy operates in the country and believe feverishly in that change.

“It’s getting stronger, but it’s not so visual, like the occupation of Puerta del Sol in the beginning,” said Bob, a British expat in his 70s who is very involved in 15M. “Now it’s the hard work, behind the scenes. And we’ve had some success.”

José, a fourth-year law student who started with 15M protests in Málaga two years ago, drew me a diagram to explain how the 15M movement had evolved over two years. He said that the initial cohesive force of the group had exploded with a “bang!” and splintered into the barrio (neighborhood) groups that function like support groups for those affected by the housing crisis. Within these groups, there are specializations, such as groups set up specifically to deal with immigration or housing etc. Then there are overarching bigger groups, pushing to analyze and work on the legal, judicial, and economic fronts.

I met Bob and a group of five others on a Thursday as they were setting up for a long evening of picking through bank and housing documents at La Morada, an occupied social center. Their group, one of the overarching ones, is called Citizen’s Court of Justice and they’ve been working for the past year and half to compile documents from citizens that indicate that banks were engaged in fraudulent mortgages and embezzlement through predatory loans and over-valuation. José Luis, another participant, showed me documents of people who were given double mortgages to jack up the price, along with fees “al portador,” meaning blank checks that were used to line the pockets of bankers with hefty commissions.

The Citizen’s Court is an example of the sustained and dedicated effort that ordinary people in Spain have taken upon themselves since they perceive the government as unwilling or incompetent to do it. Every week they doggedly stop by different neighborhoods to invite people to come submit documents, then spend hours sorting through them and entering them into a newly developed software program. They have created task force upon task force to address different objectives. With luck, they hope to take their case to court at the end of the year. Their ultimate goal is to conduct a citizen’s trial and then present the case to the courts to put bank lenders in jail and restitute money to those cheated.

I also sat in on a Housing Office meeting. This group demonstrates the more local-based approach to battling the housing crisis. They convene free-form weekly meetings in each neighborhood, (this one was also at La Morada) where anyone can come and express problems or offer advice. I kept trying to find out the ‘titles’ of the people who were offering advice, but they always looked at me a little bit bemused. No one has a specific expertise or label that designates them as an advice-giver, anyone can show up and offer information.

The day I sat in, four women stopped by to ask questions of a group of six. The kinds of questions that were asked gave me a better sense of what many Spaniards are dealing with. One woman had been involved in a stop-eviction protest, but the group had arrived at the wrong moment and the police had taken one of the occupants to jail. What were her options now, she wanted to know. Another woman was occupying an apartment. She planned to tap the electricity of her neighbor, a friend, but wanted to make sure that the neighbor wouldn’t get in trouble as an accomplice. The advice-givers helped them work through options and consequences and everyone seemed reassured, ready to face the next day of housing limbo.

These kinds of groups and projects, like the eviction-protests, funnel 15M’s energy and are giving participants the opportunity to put into practice their ideals about justice and self-government in a meaningful way.

It also might be helping create a new kind of social cohesion. Expat Bob told me that he’d never felt very integrated into Spanish culture even though he’d been married  to a Spanish woman and lived in Spain for over 30 years. In the past year and a half, that has changed dramatically. Now he pops up at all the events around town, smiling his toothy grin, patting everyone on the back, ranting in Spanish about the latest issues. Though he was an unlikely person to ever become involved in a political experiment, the tragedies of the housing crisis generated sympathy  in Bob and acted as a catalyst for him to become a part of Spanish society and to feel like he was making a difference in it.

Once the housing crisis dies down, and if the 15M movement achieves it’s initial goals, what will be left? Perhaps the effects of these group experiences and sustained efforts will be rooted in a bigger segment of the population and take on a life of it’s own on a larger scale.

Here’s an image from the Citizen’s Court of Justice that explains Spanish bank fraud in simple terms: TRIBUNAL

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.