Guest post by Alison Carney and Maria Olivella Quintana
“Politics is the art of resolving problems and here a problem has been created, instead of being resolved, at many levels: a security problem, the destruction of a meeting/cohesion/training space… With many people being thrown out of the system, Can Vies was not part of the problem, but part of the solution.” (Gemma Galdon, Political Scientist, University of Barcelona, Interview with El Pais 29th May 2014)
One week ago the Catalan police entered and evicted the famous squat and community centre in the Sants neighborhood of Barcelona, called Can Vies. This event, and the disproportionate brutality used by the police against demonstrators later that day, have sparked some of the biggest riots and public demonstrations in Barcelona since the Indignados in 2011. The social significance and strength of the movement that is loudly protesting the eviction of Can Vies is far greater than this one incident. Although the significance of these demonstrations and resistance is being discussed in Catalan and Spanish media, sadly, the English speaking media around the world has limited their coverage of the event and continuing movement to some very short, page-three articles that fail to even address the complexities and potential of what is happening in Barcelona this past week (not to mention that the first article in English appeared three days after the eviction). We write this piece with the intention of drawing a clear picture of the history and context of the Can Vies eviction, as well as to provide some analysis and insight into what we see as the greater social significance of this week.
The building that is now known as Can Vies was constructed in the 19th century and was property of the Barcelona metro company, which was part of the city of Barcelona. The building is near the Barcelona Sants train station and very near the national rails. It was used as storage during the construction of the city metro system and later became an office for the metro company. During the Civil War (1936-1939), the anarchists (known as CNT) took over the building and began to use it as a social centre. When Franco came to power (1939), the building was taken by the fascist union. Then, in the 1980s at the beginning of democracy in Spain, it served as a meeting place for the metro workers’ unions. By the 1990s it was abandoned and in 1997 a group of young people from the surrounding neighbourhood of Sants occupied the building. The occupation was organized so that part of the building was used as a living space for young people, and the other part as a social centre that has been used as a political organising space, and a community centre for dance, music and other activities.
Also in the 1990s, the Barcelona metro company became the TMB company, who took over ownership of the Can Vies building. The TMB company made a complaint against the squatters in Can Vies in 1998, which was rejected by the courts one year later. Social and community activities continued at Can Vies into the 2000s when the city of Barcelona began construction of a high speed rail, for this reason the city council decided that they needed the building in order to store materials for the construction of the new rail.
Can Vies before the eviction
In 2007 the TMB company filed a complaint in a second attempt to evict the squatters (The Can Vies Assembly), but the court rejected the complaint because the Can Vies Assembly provided proof that the metro authority had made a legal agreement with the anarchist union in the 1980s to give this building to the squatters. After 2007, TMB came back with another complaint to evict the squatters in 2013 and since then the Can Vies Assembly has been negotiating with the city council member who represents the neighbourhood of Sants. The negotiations continued until the day before the eviction.
Can Vies has served as a community centre for the people of the Sants neighborhood, but also for all the city of Barcelona. Can Vies hosts an independent local newspaper called La Burxa, and has been used as a base for many community groups, for example, Bastoner dancers, a Theatre of the Oppressed group, feminist groups and many political organisations. In addition, anyone can go to Can Vies and request a meeting space to conduct a workshop, host a party to raise money for a cause, or simply hold a meeting. Can Vies is one of a number of occupied buildings throughout Barcelona (and Spain) that serve as community centres and political gathering places that are completely unmediated by the state. These centres provide resources and alternative spaces to communities that the city council has failed to provide. Can Vies is part of a greater network of organisations called the Assemblea de Barri de Sants, which is where all political and grassroots organisations from Sants gather for discussion.
In March 2014, the city council and the court made a joint decision that the TMB company could evict Can Vies on any day from the first of April, 2014. At that point, TMB had already stated that when they evicted Can Vies they would tear down the building and leave an empty lot. This eviction happened first thing in the morning on Monday, May 26, 2014. Members of the Can Vies Assembly were inside and had chained themselves to the building in preparation for the arrival of the police. While the police were evicting the occupants, they were extremely aggressive with the neighbors and supporters of Can Vies who gathered outside the building in a demonstration of solidarity with the occupants. A larger and more formal demonstration was organized for 8 pm Monday evening to denounce the eviction and protest the destruction of a neighborhood space that has served as a home for community organisations and as a public space where many local people have developed their political consciousness, and built social movements.
Demonstration against Can Vies eviction on the 26th of may 2014
The demonstration had barely started and had not made it more than 500 meters before the Catalan police cut off the march and dissipated the crowd by driving their fleets of vans into the middle of the demonstration, with armoured police officers jumping out of the vans and beating anyone near them. People were forced to run into the narrow streets in the neighbourhood, chased by the armoured police officers who were wielding weapons. Instead of a march around the neighbourhood to build solidarity with the local community, demonstrators were barely allowed to congregate. There were several conflicts with the police following their violent break-up of the demonstration. One of the most poignant conflicts that night was when some of the demonstrators tried to take refuge in a very well-known political bookstore in the neighbourhood, called La Ciutat Invisible. The bookstore houses an important Catalan alternative newspaper called La Directa, a newspaper that has been extremely outspoken and critical about police brutality in Catalonia. The police chased the demonstrators to the bookstore and started breaking windows, which injured several people inside. The reason the police stopped the attack on La Ciutat Invisible is that a Member of Parliament from the political party CUP (Popular Unity Candidates), David Fernandez, placed himself in front of the bookstore, in between the police and the people inside.  Following the break-up of the demonstration on Monday evening, there were riots all night in Sants in reaction to the behaviour by the police and the TMB company.
On the following morning of Tuesday the 27th of May, David Fernandez was interviewed by several local television and radio programs. He explained clearly that the initial act of violence by the police of evicting the inhabitants of Can Vies is what sparked the following violence on the evening of 26th. At the same moment, on Tuesday morning, the TMB company brought a bulldozer to the Can Vies site and immediately began to tear down the building. In reaction, people gathered around the site, banging pots and pans to draw attention to the issue, show solidarity and gain the support of neighbours. This resistance lasted most of the day, and when someone tried to set the bulldozer on fire, the police began beating people. At 11 pm, half of the building had been torn down, the police had finally left, and protesters set fire to the bulldozer. This led to the police returning to the site and the fighting started again. In reaction to this, the social movement around the city immediately organized spontaneous demonstrations in different neighbourhoods, some of these involved riots and building and burning barricades against the police. The police were incredibly aggressive in the neighbourhoods. In Gracia (the neighborhood where we live) they brought in a helicopter with a spotlight that was following people in the streets, creating a militarization and was an extreme use of force considering the small concentrations of people and their activities. Militarization in dealing with demonstrators and angry citizens has been a growing problem in Catalonia. Extremely armoured police who are armed and who do not hesitate to beat any person in their way is common at any public political gathering. This level of violence is what sparks riots and more violence, not the other way around.
The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27th may 2014
By Wednesday it was clear that the conflict over Can Vies had spread throughout the city and there were almost 50 spontaneous gatherings of people against the eviction of Can Vies throughout all of Catalonia. In Barcelona, all of the demonstration started in different neighbourhoods and walked to Sants. At 10 pm, roughly 7,000 people had arrived in Sants and the demonstration was progressing through the neighbourhood when the police announced from their vehicles that they would disperse the crowd, which was followed immediately by the armoured police rushing into the crowds, beating people and more fights between police and demonstrators broke out. During the entire demonstration, people throughout the city were standing on the balconies of their apartments banging pots and pans. The fights and riots continued until past midnight.
On Friday the 30th over 60 people had been arrested, 1 of them had been sent to prison and there were more than 200 people injured due to the clashes with the police. Everyone in the city was invested in this problem. The solidarity and support for the demonstrations continued growing from Monday and was reaching not only the rest of Spain, but also other countries. In addition, as of Thursday, the Barcelona city council announced that they would re-enter negotiations with the Can Vies Assembly. The demonstrations continue every night.
On Saturday morning the 31st May, hundreds of people gathered from all over the city of Barcelona at the site of the eviction to rebuild Can Vies. They brought materials, wore hard-hats and worked together to clear the debris from the demolition of the building and try to begin to rebuild the parts that were torn down.
Hundreds of people working together to rebuild the squat house on saturday 30th May 2014
On Saturday night the largest demonstration so far was organised in the centre of the city of Barcelona. 20,000 people marched around the centre of the city. At the end of the Las Ramblas street the police did not allow the march to continue and they warned the demonstrators that they would start attacking them unless they dissolved the demonstration. After that point the demonstration broke and riots started in different parts of the centre of the city. Helicopters could be heard all around Barcelona, and the police finally surrounded 200 people on one of the main streets of the city, Gran Via. There, they started one of the most astonishing police interventions of the last few years. The police forcibly enclosed the 200 people for more than 3 hours, making them identify themselves and forcing them to wear pieces of cloth over their faces and then the police took photos of each of them. This was conducted without the presence of any lawyer and was not based on the order of any judge, which is considered an illegal practice by the police. The police intervention provoked protests from residents and hundreds of activists who came to the site to show solidarity with the victims and banged pots and pans as a sign of protest.
The significance of this public fight and demonstrations goes far beyond simply wanting to protect a building. The city council and TMB have claimed their right by the legal argument of the ownership of the building, but it seems that this claim is only a façade for a deeper intention to discourage political organising that challenges the traditional government spaces. As we can see, the building has already been mostly destroyed, and yet the numbers of supporters of this movement continues to grow daily. We see this fight and the demonstrations as symbolic of support for alternative solutions to the current crisis in Spain (and elsewhere for that matter).
There are not many alternatives to representation and community resources organized and provided to the people of Barcelona by the city council and state. Can Vies is an example of one alternative that has actually been functioning as an important resource and political centre for 17 years. The council and TMB say that Can Vies is not allowed to exist NOT because they disagree with the existence of Can Vies, but because they claim that it is illegal because of the occupation of a building that is owned by TMB. The tearing down of the building, however, demonstrates that the issue is not about a need for the building (which will remain an empty lot), but that the council is threatened by self-organisation or community structures not mediated by the state.
A well-known political scientist in Spain (Joan Subirats) has argued that the destruction of Can Vies is a destruction of a symbolic capital for a certain type of population. This type of social capital is extremely important. In the context of crisis (as in Spain), it is significant that citizens have not stopped self-organising. There are centres like Can Vies all around Barcelona that demonstrate a resistance and coping with the crisis that is outside the market, the individual and the state. These spaces are a network that has found a way to exist and support a community precisely because they exist outside of the state rules. The growing solidarity and demonstrations since Monday is proof that people are perplexed by why the council is threatened by such a space as Can Vies (aside from the private property issue), and it is symbolic of the growing need and support for such spaces.
In addition the rise of alternative political parties in recent elections such the CUP in Catalonia or Podemos in Spain demonstrate that the politics of self-organisation is gaining traction and presenting alternative options to the traditional politics in Spain. We see that more and more people are drawn to self-organised politics, rather than party driven or state mediated politics.
The movement that has led to the growing support for self-organised politics in Spain has a long history, has taken enormous work and is far from being spontaneous. The creation of alternatives that strive to exist outside of the market and of traditional politics is not something that can happen overnight, or without a lot of building. Although the context and history of this type of organizing in Spain, and even specifically in Barcelona, is particular, there are lessons to be learned by communities in other countries who are equally fed-up with the same old political options that have driven many of our counties to this point of crisis and abhorrent social conservativism.
On the 4th of June, the city council of Barcelona decided to temporarily give back the space and building for a 2 year period to the Can Vies Assembly squatters who were evicted just one week ago. Council sources have added that when the squatter collective presents a project to restore the property, the council will give them a building permit so that they can rebuild the building under the supervision of architects.
Unfortunately, not all of the recent developments are good news. There is one young man who is still imprisoned and has been there since Friday the 30th. His imprisonment has been denounced by the Can Vies Assembly as a scapegoat for all the conflicts occurred during the past week. He is being used as an example of the consequences of the demonstrations and riots. Even though the council has given back the building, they retain a power over the people who protest their decisions.
Maria Olivella Quintana is a feminist activist currently carrying out PhD research in Anthropology in Spain, on the transition from ‘family planning interventions’ to ‘sexual and reproductive health’. She is part of Gap Work (http://sites.brunel.ac.uk/gap), a European research project addressing gender based violence, homophobia and transphobia in educational spaces. She has a MA in Gender and Development from IDS and has been part of the Unruly Politics thinking since then. Feedback welcome at: M.OlivellaQuintana@ids.ac.uk
Alison Carney is a sports and development consultant, with extensive experience on the role of sport for supporting the realisation of gender equality and sexual rights. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Almost all squats in Spain are social centres, providing a space for youth to meet and organize, which was something that was missing in the 1990s.
 The Can Vies Assembly is the name for the community group that orginizes and engages in politics. They are based at Can Vies, this includes squatters who live there as well as other community members.
 by demonstration, we mean a march where people gather with banners and posters and walk together in protest.
 This brings up an important point that if the police had attacked David Fernandez, a member of Parliament and therefore part of the state, it would mean escalating to a new level of violence and would escalate the conflict, and this would also mean breaking the “them” versus “us” discourse that is so convenient to the city council when trying to justify police brutality against squatters and demonstrators.
 The Popular Unity Candidates (Catalan: Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) are left-wing Catalan independentist political party active in Catalonia. The CUP have traditionally concentrated on municipal politics, and are made up of a series of autonomous candidatures that run in local elections. More information in this link http://cup.cat/