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Can Vies as a symptom

The evicted Barcelona squatters embody the mix of disaffection, a stolen future and the need for equal relationships that now flows under society’s roots

It was right there, where the railroad tracks begin their task of splitting the neighborhood of Sants in two, right under the spot where the embankment becomes a forbidding frontier, that Can Vies stood.

There was something of the fairy tale about this house with its towers, its black anarchist flag and the sign hanging from its balcony that expressed pride in the 17 years it had been “rowing” against the tide.

It was a symbol, but now they’ve been evicted. The premises are the property of TMB, the Barcelona municipal transport authority, and the official offer was for them to leave the house so the city could fix it up and draft a document allowing the young squatters to use the building later on.

The latter were willing to do the repair work themselves, but not to vacate the premises on the promise of a quick return. There were bad precedents for this in the city. Typically, when the time came for squatters to return, the space had been taken over by municipal services and all they would get was a single room for meetings.

So there was no deal, everyone was evicted, and Can Vies was (partially) demolished.

The pair told me about their way of life, self-organization, solidarity, and their permanent state of debate

Clearly, there was a desire to end this story the hard way. The neighborhood of Sants was ablaze for several hours.

A few days before the eviction, I dropped by Can Vies to ask a few questions. I found two youths dressed in black who swore it was not an official uniform. I did not ask for their names in order to gain their trust. The young man had beautiful eyes, and the young woman was very friendly.

They told me about their mistrust of deals with local authorities, explained that any disputes with their neighbors were resolved by talking, and that they had agreed to hold only one all-night party once every three months.

They also told me about their way of life, about their self-organization, their solidarity, their permanent state of debate. They did not let me into the house because there was an assembly underway, presumably for accredited members only.

“Are the utility hook-ups legal or pirated?” I ventured to ask. Pirated, they replied, we need to stay true to ourselves. They alleged that the locals support them and that the conflict was started by “them,” meaning the city, or perhaps the system. They also warned that if there was any violence during the eviction, it would be from an external source, from outside their own community, provoked, and that in any case this kind of violence is nothing compared to the violence that is committed against a poor family that is evicted from its home.

The Can Batlló center has a vegetable patch, bar, library, and a lot of people happy about what they are achieving

They spoke softly, without shrieking. I observed that the house seemed slightly fortified, as though awaiting tougher times.

I am not young enough to be in ideological sync with the squatters, whose demands are expressed through extreme language (though not completely lacking in logic) on the walls of the house. And I detest their useless, furious violence in response to police action.

But I do like their rebelliousness, and the way they work to build a different form of organization from that of their neighbors, of other people. And this is the key. The city is trying to formalize in a paper agreement – which is a form of domination – something that now flows under the roots of society and represents a combination of disaffection, a stolen future and the need to establish horizontal relations among equals without the need for an authority figure.

This feeling is now reaching the ballot boxes. The squatters from Can Vies gave me another piece of insight: this fairytale house whose walls were covered in street art was also the meeting place for the Sants Neighborhood Assembly, which is not exactly your average neighborhood association. And they also had good relations with the people of Can Batlló.

Can Batlló is an enormous warehouse that local residents are slowly turning into a social center. There is a languishing vegetable patch, a bar, a library, and above all a lot of people happy about what they are achieving. What is gone are the giant signs that a real estate company had put up depicting its future vision for Can Batlló: dozens, perhaps hundreds of luxury apartments. The deal had been struck with the previous local government, then in Socialist hands.

The crisis has put a freeze on development atrocities in Barcelona. Can Vies was also supposed to make way for more apartments, according to the plans by the previous mayor, Jordi Hereu. Now they say that is not the case.

It is these cruel decisions based on money that are making society organize itself in a lane parallel to that of the government.

Patricia Gabancho is a writer

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