By Eve Willis
Anarchist, anti-globalist, and anti-tourist squatters have become emblematic of the fringe political movement rooted in anarchism that has taken hold of Catalonia.
Anarchism is nothing new in Barcelona. With a rich political history dating back centuries, the city has always been a hotbed for activism. From the early success of anarchist ideas in the 1860s to the Civil War of 1936-1939, Spain witnessed the unprecedented proliferation of the anarchist doctrine, with a revolutionary Catalonia that was run at the time by anarchists, communists, socialists, and trade unions. George Orwell was fascinated by this utopian state, and he marveled at the fact that never before had he been in a town “where the working class was in the saddle”. Today in Barcelona, anarchism manifests itself in many ways, but the Okupa movement in particular is representative of Catalans reclaiming their proletarian identity and turning their backs on capitalism, corruption, and globalisation.
The Okupa movement’s method consists of finding vacant buildings in the city center, break in, and then occupy them with the intention of creating communal living areas as well as spaces for events, meetings, or social projects. On the Okupa movement’s website, they claim to be “defending free spaces for an anti-capitalist popular culture” and squatting is their form of protesting the capitalistic world. Going beyond merely professing a particular political stance, they also offer legal advice and assistance to those who want to join the movement. The number of Okupa offices that exist in the city is not known, but it is estimated that there are around 900 buildings occupied, even though this figure might also account for homeless squatters who are not associated with the movement.
The Okupa movement rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, as the Spanish extension of the English Punk House movement. The first urban occupation took place in Barcelona in 1984, and from this point onward, there has been frequent occupations in the city. In 2011, a bank in Gracia was occupied. The then mayor, Xavier Trias, paid the owners to relinquish their property to the squatters. This decision was motivated by a desire to avoid the same type of rioting that had been previously triggered by his much-criticised decision to demolish Can Vies, a similar squat in Sants district. In 2016 however, the new mayor Colau evicted the squatters as part of a broad strategy of doubling down on efforts to combat the Okupa movement. Violent riots broke out in sympathy with the squatters and in opposition to a perceived surge in police brutality.
The government has generally tolerated the Okupa movement ever since its inception. However, over the last two decades, clashes between Okupa and the police have progressively morphed into actual urban warfare, which is increasingly more violent. With a striking disparity in opinion between the government and the people, there is a dissonance in how the country deals with the squatters. Meanwhile, owners are unsure about the fate of their properties and local services are put under immense strain.
Okupa’s presence (and occupation) is felt throughout many neighbourhoods, mostly in the barrios of Poble Nou, Gracia, and Citutat Vella. The disruptive graffiti that plagues the metro, made of Okupa symbols and slogans, remain visible despite attempts to cover it up. The Okupa movement is seeping into the city ́s conscience through a steady stream of headlines, which informs the public about the squatters and reports on the tense atmosphere created by heavy police presence and riots. The Okupa movement, despite being on the fringes of mainstream politics in current day Catalonia, remains a key – and highly divisive – social issue in the city.
An ironic consequence of the whole debacle is that a growing market is developing as a direct response to Okupa and capitalises on the public’s fear of the movement. Capitalism always wins, it seems. Businesses have sprung up selling anti Okupa doors, security systems, and home protection services to deal exclusively with the threat of Okupa. Additionally, real estate agencies have listed occupied houses at a considerably reduced price, creating an incentive to rent and therefore oust the illegal tenants.
Barcelona may be very far away from another collectively-run anarchist society, but the Okupa movement has made its rebellious mark upon the city and it doesn’t seem like the cycle of occupations and violent removals will be brought to a halt any time soon. For as long as Spain ́s economic and political state continues to alienate so many groups, fringe political movements will continue to have a relevant and powerful presence in Spanish society.
Eve Willis is a third year Liberal Arts student at the University of Surrey, currently on placement in Barcelona as a Junior Events Manager.