Barcelona is a city entangled in urban conflicts. As one walks through the city’s streets, each housing block has at least a few esteladas (the flag symbolizing Catalan independence from Spain) hanging from its balconies; accompanied by banners denouncing hospital closures, education cuts, immigrant detention camps, capitalism, or simple calls for a decent neighbourhood (“Volem un barri digne!”). While the colourful graffiti that beautifies the city’s otherwise bland, grey walls is more often than not accompanied by indignant slogans. “La vida es una passion inútil,” reads one singularly powerful example, “Life is a useless passion.”
For many, the weeks spent camping in Plaça Catalunya in 2011 represented something absolutely new in Barcelona, a rejection of such pessimism. Yet, while the occupation of the plaza certainly marks both the “pre-indignados” and “post-indignados” period of social agitation in the city, the public space surrounding the plaza has been hotly disputed both physically and symbolically for years, by Barcelona’s famously valiant social movements.
The plaza itself is surrounded by several prominent banks, including the Spanish Credit Bank and the Bank of Spain, and connects the glamorous Passeig de Gràcia with the Portal del Àngel, a wide street dominated by high-end shops, a street band that plays Dixieland jazz almost daily, and a giant thermometer. It is a poetically precise point of departure from which to consider the manner in which the city’s social movements both before and after the indignados camps in spring 2011, activated public space in response to the global crisis of capitalism.
Fighting for meaning at Plaça Catalunya
During the days prior to the general strike that brought Spain to a halt on 29 September 2010, many of the city’s autonomous groups, including activists, community organizations and anarchist labour unions, occupied the Spanish Credit Bank for four days. While there, the bank was opened up to curious passers-by who came into contact with many of the city’s social movements for the first time. The bank was subsequently violently emptied on the day of the general strike, sparking scuffles that spread throughout the city’s centre for most of the day, despite this, the 4-day occupation left a mark that would outlast the melted plastic bins and spray-painted shop windows reported in the media: for the next few months, one could see playful, colourful slogans written on the façade of the empty bank, proclaiming, “This is not a crisis. This is capitalism.”
From that point on, the façade of the bank became a heavily contested symbolic space. And while this may have initially seemed like a petty dispute, symbolic spaces are especially valuable in cities like Barcelona, where much public space has been swallowed up in the rush to sell the city as a ‘global’ brand for tourists and finance.
It took some time for the city-government to cover up the slogans scrawled across the bank, but by the time the indignados had set up camp, the entire front was blocked from view by scaffolding and advertisements, including a car advertisement, jarringly featuring an infant gorilla looking the viewer in the eye from the arms of its mother, accompanied by the phrase, “Do you still think animals can’t love?”
The indignados were delightfully crafty in their approach to the city’s appropriation of the space they had claimed. On the night the camp defied the electoral board, an intrepid group of protestors climbed the scaffolding and cut out the logos from the advertisements. Another group altered the advertisement so that it read, “Do you still think bankers love you?”.
After the Catalan government’s failed attempt to evict the indignados, which left several people in hospital and over a hundred injured, efforts to at least re-claim the visual space around the plaza were ramped up. Indeed in one particularly crude (and failed) attempt to appropriate one of the indignados’ most distinctive symbols, the telecommunications company MoviStar replaced the tattered advertisements the indignados had left them with a multitude of anonymous hands waving in the air, calling for a new mobile phone plan.
Finally, months after the camp had decentralized and spread out to form neighbourhood assemblies, the newly elected, conservative city government built an ice-skating rink in the plaza, preventing protestors from gathering as the government passed one unpopular measure after another.
Living in the 'rose of fire'
Barcelona is not known as la rosa de foc (“the rose of fire”) for nothing. Its history of radical, emancipatory politics is well-known and well-documented. And as Barcelona was riding the housing bubble towards becoming a ‘global’ city, the city’s governance was characterized by large-scale urban renewal projects that brought gentrification and restrictive civic bylaws to many of the city’s neighbourhoods. Social resistance to these urban transformations was most visible in the okupa (or squatters’) movement, which would strategically occupy the proliferation of empty buildings that the construction boom was leaving throughout the city, turning them into social centres servicing impoverished communities.
The historic Ciutat Vella district is home to a paradigmatic example of neighbourhood resistance to urban renewal in Barcelona. For years, the area in the Gothic quarter known as La Ribera was home to working class Catalan, Andaluz and foreign-born families. Yet city officials had ignored the area for decades, allowing its medieval buildings to simply crumble to the ground.
In the early 2000s, as post-Olympic gentrification began to shape the neighbourhood, an urban renewal project designated one block, known to neighbourhood residents as el Forat de la Vergonya (“the Hole of Shame”), as a private parking lot. The residents had been demanding the area be cleaned up and turned into a green zone for years. In protest, the local community planted a tree amongst the rubble, which quickly became a call to residents to simply treat the space as if it were already designated a green space. The area around the tree proceeded to be occupied daily by elderly women gossiping, children playing football, 'Okupas' making paella for neighbourhood residents, and together they started a community garden.
As construction crews, city officials and speculators visited the zone to survey the terrain, they were greeted with insults, trash and occasional violence by local residents. Police officers responded in kind, with heavy displays of force, even uprooting and poisoning the residents’ tree. Finally, a cement wall was built around the area; the neighbourhood residents and the okupas responded by tearing it down. The city eventually cancelled the plan to turn the area into a private parking lot, and today the Forat de la Vergonya is a self-managed park that belongs to the community, with benches, basketball goals, a football field and a considerably nicer garden. Where the residents had planted a pine tree, there is now a water fountain featuring the tree rendered in Catalonia’s characteristic trencadís mosaic style, proclaiming the space a liberated, self managed park belonging to the community. The city has yet to recognize the area in its index of parks and urban gardens.
Since the spring of 2011, Barcelona’s social movements have changed both quantitatively and qualitatively. While protest camps and mass mobilizations demonstrable in the indignados movement, were evidence to mass support for social change, slightly less spectacular, yet nevertheless daring actions were operating on a daily basis. Neighbourhood assemblies still gather in public spaces with symbolic resonance. Public sector workers are now more likely to organise using the horizontal, open assembly structure pioneered by the indignados and anti-authoritarian movements, rather than operating strictly through union negotiations. And while there have been relatively few incidents as striking as the battle for the Forat de la Vergonya, squatting has to a large extent, been normalized as a legitimate form of civil disobedience. On several occasions, the indignados have occupied and cleaned up entire housing blocks for evicted families to live in, with little resistance from neighbourhood residents (and considerable opposition from the Catalan and city governments).
Perhaps the best example of the “post-indignados” change in social movements is the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) and Stop Foreclosures campaigns. While these groups started in Barcelona in 2009, since 2011 they have spread throughout Spain, occupying bank offices to pressure banks into renegotiating mortgages with people facing foreclosure, quite successfully.
In recent weeks, they have been at the centre of public debate due to their mass mobilizations in favour of citizen-initiated legislation to change Spain’s atrocious mortgage laws. Through bottom-up, non-hierarchical organization, direct democratic praxis and massive popular support (surveys report up to 90% of the population back the PAH proposals) the PAH have managed to turn their campaign of civil disobedience into a direct confrontation with Spain’s institutional structure. What that institutional response will be remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that the indignation present on today's streets is less and less willing to give way to a passive acceptance of the status quo.