Opening a crack in history

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Barceloneta residents at the demonstration reclaiming El Segle XX building, January 11 2014. Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

by Santiago Gorostiza

When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.

“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.

But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.

As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.

A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.

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Poet and Barceloneta neighbour Paco Jover, who passed away in 2015, at the demonstration for El Segle XX, January 11, 2014. Source: Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta

In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.

The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.

At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.

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Poster “El Segle XX és pel barri” (“The Twentieth Century is for the neighbourhood”). Source: Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta.

Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.

Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.

However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.

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Leaflet of Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography. Source: Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta.

Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.

In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.

Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:

“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.

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Residents of Barceloneta in front of the El Segle XX building at the end of a demonstration, January 11, 2014. Source: El Periódico.

 

Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future

In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.

But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.

Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.

After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly  is designing  its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.

Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.

This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.

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Planning the future of the El Segle XX cooperative on the base of the 1939 maps located in the municipal archive. Photo by Santiago Gorostiza.

While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.

A version of the article appeared previously on the Entitle Blog. This post is also part of a series sharing chapters from the edited volume Political Ecology for Civil Society. Santiago Gorostiza’s contribution is included in the chapter on social movements. We are eager to receive comments from readers and especially from activists and civil actors themselves, on how this work could be improved, both in terms of useful content, richness of examples, format, presentation and overall accessibility.

Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.


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In defense of common space

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Photo: La Directa

by Marina Rubio Herranz and Sam Bliss

The Banc Expropiat is an assembly-based project that has made the political decision not to delegate its communication task to any kind of media in order to keep its message accurate. First hand declarations and statements can only be found in the Banc’s twitter account and blog. Our views are our own.

On Monday May 23rd, the Catalan police evicted a beloved community space in Barcelona called the Banc Expropiat. Activists first occupied the abandoned former branch of the bank Caixa Catalunya in 2011, and during the last 5 years it has become a social center for the neighborhood of Gràcia.

The Banc serves as a shared space for organizing free activities open to all—from English and Catalan classes to tai chi sessions, from film screenings to meetings of the neighborhood assembly, from groups working on housing accessibility to sewing and drawing workshops. The Banc has a play area for kids, a free shop filled with donated clothes, and computers with internet for public use. It provides a place to share empowering skills and ideas outside the world of hierarchies, markets, political parties, or other formalized institutions. The property now belongs to a real estate speculator, Manuel Bravo Solano, who asked for the eviction.

With some of our closest friends, we participate in a group called the Xarxa d’Aliments, in which we ‘recycle’ leftover and unsellable food from local businesses to feed ourselves. In return, we help out the bakeries, market stalls, and fruit-and-veggie shops from which we collect when they need a hand, building a network of mutual support.

We would meet in the Banc once a week to discuss local food politics, organize big, free community meals, and part out the rescued fruits, veggies, bread and other tasty things to take home, always making decisions by consensus. The group also publishes articles in a neighborhood magazine and makes presentations to students at Barcelona high schools to spread knowledge about local and international food waste and the issue of food sovereignty. We’ve been so grateful to have a supportive space like the Banc where we can create an alternative vision of nourishment: food as a shared bounty rather than a commodity.

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Photo: La Directa

During the eviction that Monday, two courageous people resisted for more than 8 hours until police finally managed to remove them from the vault of the former bank. Many community members spent the day in the nearest square showing their support but unable to intervene directly because the police had blocked off streets all around the building. A helicopter materialized overhead. The chopping blades would become a soundtrack for the following days of dissent.

In the evening, after the police had sealed the façade with sheet metal and left, nearly two thousand people gathered and marched through the neighborhood, decrying the forceful seizure in various chants—“The Banc Expropiat stays in Gràcia!” “Our best weapon: solidarity!” The massive group ended up in front of the Banc, protesting with a thunderous roar created by rapping on the metal sheets and yelling.

As soon as hooded squatting activists began their attempt to cut open the entrance with a circular saw, swarms of police vans arrived and heavily armed officers spilled out, their faces, bodies, and nameplates covered in black. Demonstrators threw whatever they could get their hands on at the cops and made barricades with containers on fire. Chaos and destruction ensued. Encouragement from shop owners and neighbors on their balconies quickly turned to closed shutters as foam-tipped rubber bullets from the baton-wielding police chased stampedes of protesters through the narrow streets. By the end of the night, Gràcia was covered in smoldering overturned dumpsters and broken glass.

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Photo: Víctor Serri

Tuesday, we demonstrated again. This time some 2,400 marching, chanting protesters returned to the site unobstructed and a small group of activists held up a banner at the entrance as others hidden behind it went to work cutting open the metal sheets. Moments after the Banc was reopened, dozens of police vans again appeared from all sides. Cops poured out and attacked unprovoked, swinging their nightsticks at everyone in a vicious charge to retake the space and then disperse the crowd. Rather than stopping the officers from exercising their right to strike, putting one’s hands in the air exposed vital organs to being whacked by a baton.

We had lost our right to assemble completely. Militarized police broke up any gathering of people in the neighborhood up to a kilometer from the contested area. At the end of the night, they had re-sealed the Banc with a much stronger steel plate where the ephemeral door had stood.

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Photo: El Punt Avui

Wednesday concluded three consecutive nights of protest with a march that circled the Banc, which 580 police officers had been deployed to defend. Thursday was a day of reflection and planning for a weekend full of gathering support and momentum toward returning to our locale. On Friday, in front of the sealed space, we provided passersby with first-hand information and bread with chocolate. On Saturday, we set up the activities that used to take place at the Banc in the nearby square for all to participate: an improvised free shop of newly donated clothes, screen printing pro-Banc flags and T-shirts, all-level language classes, a gigantic meal of recycled food, an open mic for inspired poetry and music, and more. Sunday, police again thwarted plans to return to the Banc. About three dozen vans and the helicopter were already patrolling Gràcia before the mid-day demo. In the afternoon, reinforcements showed up. Tension remained high all day as demonstrators yelled at the police to get out of their neighborhood, their streets.

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Photo: El Punt Avui
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Photo: Víctor Serri

Today, two weeks after the eviction, the site remains sealed. The day-to-day meetings and classes of the Banc continue in the street. Supporters periodically stick flowers in the perforations of the metal sheets. Neighborhood associations, independent publishers, labor unions, feminist groups, and other social collectives from all over Barcelona and beyond show their support by spreading the word, raising funds for the anti-eviction campaign, and persistently bringing their energy to Gràcia for events and demonstrations. The mainstream media spins yarns about chaos-creating anarchists wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. Surely the authorities keep a close eye on the area.

‘Anti-disturbance’ squads and undercover cops injured 67 people during those first two days of resistance. The Catalan government pays these police officers to forcefully prevent us from reopening a social center, because the right of a real estate speculator to determine the fate of a privately owned property he will never directly use is legitimate, and the right of citizens to gather in unused space to create community-led projects for social transformation is apparently illegitimate. The Banc is a commons—a resource collaboratively managed by everyone, for everyone. Together we will continue to resist and reclaim the Banc Expropiat as a shared space, not a commodity for profit.

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Photo: David Airob

Update

The morning of Saturday, June 4th, the twitter account of the Banc Expropiat unexpectedly announced that five people had re-entered the space. No demonstration or event had been announced publicly or discussed digitally. Dozens of Gràcia residents began to gather around the Banc and the police soon followed, of course. With the brown, sheet-metal façade perfectly intact and purposefully confusing rumors swirling in the twittersphere, neither the police nor anyone else knew for certain if the news of reoccupation was real or fake. After clearing the area by force and hesitantly lingering outside the Banc for several minutes, the police officers sliced open one of the sheets, broke the glass, and clambered in. By late afternoon, the five occupants had been detained and more than one thousand demonstrators marched once more—“If they evict us today, we will be back tomorrow.”

 

Born and raised in Barcelona, Marina Rubio Herranz is working toward building harmonious and empowering ways of inhabiting this world through rehabilitation, permaculture, participation and mutual support.

Sam Bliss rode his bicycle from his parents’ house in Seattle to Catalunya to study ecological economics and degrowth at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and quickly got involved with several local groups and collectives.

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