A strange routine developed in the Gràcia district of Barcelona this week. For three consecutive nights a crowd of people, mostly young but some old, gathered in one of the many squares that litter the neighbourhood. Once critical mass was reached they marched towards the Banc Expropriat, a social centre located in the premises of a former bank. The building is currently covered in metal sheeting following an eviction carried out by a large force of the Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalan regional police) on Monday afternoon.
Upon reaching the bank attempts were made by the protesters to re-occupy the building. This in turn prompted the arrival of the Mossos who set about repelling them using batons, police vans, and ‘foam’ bullets. With the back-up of a police helicopter the neighbourhood was then put under lockdown.
The Banc Expropriat has been squatted since 2011, providing volunteer run social services and cultural events for the neighbourhood. These ranged from language lessons to a free shop and library. Following similar disturbances in the Sants neighbourhood in 2014, the right-wing former mayor Xavier Trias made a clandestine deal to pay rent to the sites legal owner. This was unbeknownst to the squatters and was solely to maintain ‘social peace’ during what was an election year.
Despite this manoeuvre, Barcelona en Comú, the grouping headed by former housing activist Ada Colau, came to power in the local elections of 2015. Her administration refused to continue to use public funds to pay off the property speculator who owns the site. This was a decision that eventually resulted in last Monday’s eviction by police under the control of the Catalan regional administration. The timing of the eviction couldn’t have come at a more politically embarrassing moment for Ada Colau, exactly a year after the local elections that brought her to power.
However, it has proven the fallout has also hit the former mayor Trias, who is now facing an investigation for embezzlement related to his dodgy deal.
The protesters have been criticised by the media for the damage to property that has occurred; windows of banks and chain stores have been smashed, a car overturned, and bins transformed into burning barricades. However, it is apparent they can rely upon a considerable amount of support from the neighbourhood. As the demonstrations unfold on the ground, residents stand on their balconies banging pots and pans to show their solidarity.
This is an indication of how social centres such as the Banc Expropriat epitomise a major struggle in the city – the fightback against a largely tourist driven gentrification pricing people out of their own areas such as Gràcia.
This neighbourhood has been a vanguard of the gentrification that has transformed the face of the city. The increases in rents and the opening of chain stores have changed greatly what was once a working class district. However, it still has a rich history of resistance that the squatters and supporters of the Banc Expropriat have appealed to.
The protesters have several events planned for this weekend, including an public lunch this afternoon. Whether they will be successful in reclaiming the centre is uncertain. It is clear however that the fate of the neighbourhoods of Barcelona will continue to be contested.