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.