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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“My neighbors…”

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photo and words by Cindy Milstein, chalk by Lisa Ganser

Just as I was about to snap this photo, two guys walking by stopped to read the pavement, too, and said, “Another arson. They keep happening here in the Mission.” They hadn’t noticed me, but our eyes met after the one spoke, and I nodded agreement. We all had a worn look about us, deep in those eyes of ours.

I took my picture.

The chalking is becoming too routine on the dirty concrete in my neighborhood. I know who does it, carefully, with solemn respect and raw pain. Chalking, as public and plain as the mourning in the Mission, but likely washed away by tears and time, not rain.

There is a lack of rain here. Drought they call it, as in a period that “causes extensive damage.” Yet there is no lack of people “getting killed and displaced by fires, gentrification & police.”

Minutes later, as I tried taking another shot, this time of the haphazard array of flowers clinging desperately to the padlocked security gate pulled tight across the front of the charred liquor store at Treat and 24th streets, another couple of folks strolled by, walked past, and then turned back toward me.

“What happened?” they inquired, as if somehow they knew that I would obviously know. Maybe it was those serious eyes of mine.

Burned household objects litter the street still in two big mounds, one to each side of this corner store’s entry, like sentries, like graves, smelling as if still smoldering, still dangerous.

The blackened piles are remnants of life, tossed quickly out windows in haste, one imagines, to battle flames. Yet they feel an affront now, left as if warning sign for others — by landlord? by city? by police? — as a way to spark further fear for the marginalized and precarious in this neighborhood.

Mostly, it feels like a violation, an injury, a dishonor toward the people who used to call these things “home.” This is not a fitting part of the communal makeshift shrine and quiet witnessing, quiet processing, that’s going on in between the smelly, messy heaps of disaster.

Indeed, one can still hardly take in a breath for the stench of it all.

“A 13-year-old, Amal Shaibi, died last night from smoke inhalation during the fire last week,” I tell this second pair of passersby. “Her 38-year-old dad, Mohamed Shaibi, died a couple nights ago. I heard the 13-year-old helped a younger sibling out a smoke-filled window during the heat of the blaze.”

I go into detail, too much probably, weaving in nearby evictions, nearby harassment by landlords and immigration agents and plainclothes cops, who also murdered 21-year-old Amilcar Perez-Lopez only about a block and a half away, only about three weeks ago, and wander further afield to offer the story of the enormous fire on Mission at 22nd streets that killed one and dehoused many dozens of longtime, low-income, mostly Latino residents. I repeat the words heard often these days here: arson. “Or that’s what everyone thinks, at least those who think about and are impacted by gentrification.”

I can’t quite tell if they wanted to hear this thoroughly interconnected story, but they listen eagerly, and thank me profusely. They aren’t from this neighborhood, so all this seems like news to them. I can’t quite tell, either, if it touched their hearts or not, or was simply spectacle after a nice dinner and evening walk.

Earlier today, at a public hearing at city hall about all the fires of late, politicians fell over themselves to congratulate city workers for bravery, courage, and hard work. The workers fell over themselves to cover each other least they’d made any mistakes, and speak of how they are objective in determining the cause of fires. The politician who called the hearing for his district, David Campos, mentioned that people in the neighborhood have “conspiracy theories,” by which he dismissed any thought of arson even as he vaguely noted that such theories arise from “what’s happening in the Mission,” by which I assume he means gentrification and eviction by whatever means necessary.

The closest that any of these officials, all feigning investigative vigilance, got to touching on what nearly everyone at risk of disposal in the Mission believes — that the fires are part and parcel of dispossession — was when they danced around how sometimes landlords don’t keep their buildings up to fire codes in terms of safety.

This is, I think, arson as well, by any means, whether flagrant conflagrations are the result of landlord “negligence,” or secondary-degree burning of buildings comes in the form of winking away code violations until rent-stabilized apartments, say, catch fire.

Funny, people in the Mission observe, how the huge 3-story building at Mission and 22nd got thoroughly destroyed but the extremely expensive new Vida apartment complex right next door — literally touching each other — didn’t seem to receive even a scratch.

All “conspiracy theories,” mind you, but they have a certain ring of reality down on the street level, especially around 24th and Mission these days.

Meanwhile, on Treat and 24th, two shopkeepers across the street from the vacant burned building, with plastic blowing out its windows now, tell me they are collecting funds for the family. “They keep refusing money, though. So we’re encouraging cards. But yes, we’ll insist they take the money for all their health expenses.” They explain how the family returned earlier today, briefly, and said they were doing OK.

I imagine they can barely begin to understand how they are doing, and hope they somehow didn’t notice those two sprawling heaps of burned objects, so they won’t become a memory, when memories return.

Grief settles slowly, like ash.

This family is now a woman, wife, and mom, now in a wheelchair from her own injuries, now with one husband less and one child less, no home, and no family business below it. She is left with two kids, ages six and sixteen, and too much pain to almost comprehend.

All that’s left on this forlorn building — ripe for the plundering for some new, bland, luxury project that has no community — is another chalked sidewalk soon to fade, flowers already beginning to wilt, and a cardboard sign with handwriting briefly attempting to explain the loss, attached on the liquor store door next to a beer ad with an image of the Bay Bridge, on this sad corner of a neighborhood being disappeared.

#LaMission #RestInPower

 

For two news stories about the family, fire, and their needs now, see:
http://missionlocal.org/2015/03/injuries-from-fire-take-13-year-olds-life/

http://missionlocal.org/2015/03/after-fire-shaibi-family-searching-for-2-bedroom-in-mission/

 

Cindy Milstein writes about gentrification struggles, police brutality, anarchism, and capitalism. She’s also actively engaged in “solidarity not charity” forms of anti-displacement and anti-police organizing, ranging from Eviction Free San Francisco to Coffee Not Cops, in her neighborhood, San Francisco’s Mission, alongside fighting her own eviction. Cindy is the author of Anarchism and its Aspirations, coauthor (with Erik Ruin) of Paths toward Utopia, and recently curated the zine “Revolutionary Solidarity: A Critical Reader for Accomplices” following the Ferguson uprising. 

This story originally appeared on Cindy Milstein’s blog, Outside the Circle.