New night of street protests over Barcelona squatter eviction

Former mayor under scrutiny after it emerges that he paid the rent with taxpayers’ money in a bid to avoid violence

Clara Blanchar
Residents of the Gràcia district inspect the damage caused by this week's violence.
Residents of the Gràcia district inspect the damage caused by this week's violence.Albert Garcia

After a fourth night of rioting by squatters who have been evicted from a former bank in the center of Barcelona, Mayor Ada Colau faces her most serious crisis since she was elected a year ago on a popular platform that aimed to address the city’s chronic housing problem.

The violence kicked off on Monday evening after police removed squatters from a former bank branch-turned-community center – renamed Banc Expropiat (The Expropriated Bank) in the Gràcia area in the center of the city.

On Thursday evening, local people came out on to the streets to protest, banging saucepans. Journalists covering the disturbances were insulted and a television camera was damaged

The squatters responded by erecting barricades and setting fire to trash containers. So far at least 33 people have been injured in the disturbances, and damage to property is estimated at €65,000. On Thursday evening, local people came out on to the streets to protest, banging saucepans. Journalists covering the disturbances were insulted and a television camera was damaged.

Many residents of Gràcia blame either outsiders or the police for much of the violence that has hit their neighborhood this week, with many defending the squatters. “Those kids were very peaceful. They gave English classes, organized workshops, cooked…” said María Helena, who owns a stall in a nearby market.

The US State Department has issued a warning to its citizens, telling them to avoid the area in the coming days.

Colau finds herself under fire from all sides: she did not order the eviction, nor did she authorize the squatters to occupy the former bank. On Thursday, she admitted the difficulties she faced in intervening in the standoff, calling on local residents to help mediate, and later meeting with them.

Barcelona has seen similar incidents over recent years: efforts to evict squatters from the Can Vies former labor union headquarters two years ago resulted in a negotiated settlement that allowed occupiers to remain. This time round, the building is privately owned and the squatters are not prepared to negotiate.

What’s more, the crisis comes a week ahead of a plenary session at Barcelona City Hall. The conservative CiU Convergence and Union (CiU) party, which ran the city until last year under former mayor Xavier Trias, has called on Colau to condemn the disturbances and to express her public support for the local Mossos d’Esquadra police force. In response, the CUP radical pro-independence party has demanded she “speak out against the police violence that is being used.”

Mayor inherits difficult situation

Asked about the police’s actions, Colau said she had spoken to the interior minister of the regional government of Catalonia, expressing to him her “confidence in the Mossos’ work and at the same time a certain concern related to some recent information and to a certain political formation [a reference to CUP] that have questioned [the police’s] actions.” She later added: “We have every confidence, and I don’t want to prejudge, but we ask for proportionality [from the police] and that they pursue the shared aim of protecting local residents.”

Colau insists that the squatters have refused repeated attempts by City Hall to mediate: “If they don’t want anything from the government, that makes it difficult for us to intervene. We don’t have an interlocutor.”

A mayor who paid the rent

The squatters have been in the former bank for five years, but in January 2015, in the run-up to elections, and faced with possible disturbances if evictions went ahead, former mayor Xavier Trias signed a secret deal with the bank, agreeing to pay the rent on the premises, along with other costs that amount to around €65,000 a year.

An offer to mediate

Toni Ramon, a long-standing activist in the area and a former head of the Gràcia residents’ association has said he is prepared to mediate and that local people have worked with the Banc Expropriat on campaigns over the years, but that “it will be difficult” to find a solution to the squatters’ demands: “Occupying the bank is part of the group’s collective characteristic, which is to reject the direction the neighborhood is headed.” Property prices in the run-down working class neighborhood are rising, and local people fear they will be forced out over time.

Speaking to the Onda Cero radio station, Trias explained his decision to cover the costs of the squatters with taxpayers money.

“This has to be explained properly. That property belonged to a bank, Catalunya Caixa, and had been occupied by squatters since 2011. The bank did nothing, until in 2014 it sold the property and asked for the people in it to be evicted. The squatters had not caused trouble and were well integrated into the community. We were then told by the police that the building had to be vacated,” said Trias.

“Given the situation, and not just because of the elections, but because an eviction could result in conflict, we decided to mediate. People can criticize what we decided to do, but our decision wasn’t wrong. We needed time to mediate. That’s why we decided to pay the owner rent so as to put off the eviction until a better solution was found,” he explained.

Trias is now being investigated by the police over the deal.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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