Left: The Barcelona city hall with the sign, Refugees Welcome. Top right: The Catalonia independence flag. Bottom right: A mural at the Germanetes park. The main slogan: Germanetes is the neighborhood. The signs, in Catalan, read: A library. A great...
Ada Colau, it has been suggested, is the world’s most radical mayor. She came to prominence via a video-gone-viral when she called a leading Spanish banker a criminal during a parliamentary hearing and, chastised, refused to back down. An activist from the anti-eviction movement, Colau last year became the first woman mayor of Barcelona, one of the world’s most glorious cities.
Part of what makes Colau distinct is her focus on linking democracy, urban revitalization, and global transformation. “[T]he best place to start this democratic, citizen revolution is from the bottom up, from our towns and cities,” she wrote shortly before her election on May 24, 2015. “But many of our concerns, like rising inequalities and a professional political class tainted by corruption, are shared by people in cities all over Europe and much of the rest of the world.”
Colau and her allies in city hall came out swinging, not only defending public schools and public health services but also taking on new battles. Faced with an out-of-control tourism boom, they declared a moratorium on new hotels and hostels. They fined banks that had left apartments empty for more than two years. In a city still recovering from the financial collapse of 2008, they promoted housing, public subsidies, and debt reductions for families facing eviction.
Along with other radical mayors, including Madrid’s, the forty-two-year-old Colau has become a leading figure in the global movement against privatization, austerity, and corruption. At a time when much of Europe is confronting rightwing parties that toy with fascism, hopeful eyes are on Spain—and Barcelona is ground zero.
“We’re living in extraordinary times that demand brave and creative solutions,” Colau said on the anniversary of her election. “If we’re able to imagine a different city, we’ll have the power to transform it.”
In a story about Barcelona, it is tempting to focus on Colau. But the power lies with Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona for All), a “citizens movement” that ran candidates on a common platform and has a slim plurality on the Barcelona city council.
Nationally, the forces coalescing around Barcelona en Comú have found expression in the political party Podemos (Yes We Can). Formed in 2014 by university professors and researchers, Podemos was an unexpected force in national elections last December, breaking the dominance of the two Spanish parties that, roughly, can be compared to the Republicans and Democrats. Elections in June, called to break the political stalemate after December, saw a slight resurgence for the center-right party. It was not enough, however, for the center-right to form a parliamentary majority, leaving Spain’s political direction still in flux.
Barcelona en Comú has now been in power for a year, with the thrill of victory tempered by the complexities of governing. Right now, there are more questions than answers.
What happens when radicals seasoned in street protests suddenly occupy the halls of power? What is the balance between overseeing a city of 1.6 million and staying true to the democratic yearnings that brought one to power? Can Barcelona en Comú deliver on its promise of a transparent and participatory democracy?
At the end of a “gap year” of travel to study public sector movements in various countries, my husband, Bob, and I settled into Barcelona for two months. While we were there, I reread Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s classic on the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939.
Orwell was struck by Barcelona’s egalitarian ethos:
“Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized . . . . Waiters and shop walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal . . . . Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.”
The Spanish Civil War did not end well for the revolutionaries, and the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco remained in power until the mid-1970s. The rightwing kept a tight grip, from outlawing leftwing parties to labeling strikes as military rebellion.
I thought of Orwell in one of my first interviews with young activists known as “Los Indignados” (The Outraged), or the 15-M Movement. The labels refer to the social protests that erupted on May 15, 2011, demanding an end to the austerity and massive youth unemployment that stifled the hopes of an entire generation. Spain’s overall unemployment at the time was 23 percent, the highest in the developed world; nearly half of young people under twenty-five didn’t have a job. Evictions reached an all-time high.
More important, however, 15-M went beyond individual issues and asked an essential question: What’s not working? The unifying answer, for both the younger and more seasoned activists: our democracy.
I initially had surmised that Franco had stamped out Barcelona’s egalitarian ethos. Or, if not Franco, the hyper-individualistic culture of consumer capitalism. I was wrong.
When we visited Can Vies, a building “occupied” by young activists and used as a community center, I wanted to set up interviews and asked for a spokesperson. The activists I spoke with responded with amusement, but not malice. “No one is the main person, we are all equal,” they told me.
It was a response I received consistently while talking to occupiers, anti-eviction activists, neighborhood organizations, even lawyers. At the grassroots level, the principal form of decision-making in Barcelona is through assemblies that focus on consensus. They are grounded in a commitment to a participatory democracy that goes beyond the right to elect political representatives. Participatory democracy is seen as a counterweight to top-down decision-making, which limits popular input and allowed the corruption that ran rampant within Spain’s traditional parties.
I admit, I was a skeptic about the assemblies. I had been in too many meetings in the United States that claimed to honor consensus but in fact were controlled by the best, or the loudest, debaters. But I also knew that across the globe, the problem is too little democracy, not too much. I decided to see how an assembly worked.
It is 6:30 p.m. on a beautiful spring evening in a working-class neighborhood of Barcelona. Inside what seems to be a former garage, about seventy-five people sit on white plastic chairs arranged in concentric circles. The attendees are of all ages, including a few babies. About half are women.
It is the weekly decision-making meeting of the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, known by its Spanish acronym PAH. Colau and other activists in Barcelona started the group in 2009 and it now has chapters throughout Spain.
It’s unclear who is in charge—there’s no podium or table with official-looking people. A bearded young man passes around a hand-held microphone to whoever wants to speak, and a woman stands in front of a white board with the agenda. Neither intervene in the discussion and instead act as facilitators.
There’s no Robert’s Rules of Order, no formal votes. Confused at first, I soon realize there is an unwritten formality. If you agree with the speaker, you raise your hand and wave. If you really agree, you raise both hands. If lots of people raise their hands, it’s taken as agreement. The woman at the white board gathers the sense of the crowd, and, when appropriate, moves to the next topic.
I am impressed with the group’s patience and respect. No one dominates and speakers generally keep their remarks short; those who don’t will find the crowd rolling their hands, the signal to move on. What I feared might be an endless succession of people enjoying the sound of their own voices turned out to be impressively efficient, through a process honed by years of practice.
In the main presentation, a lawyer discusses strategy for an upcoming eviction trial, including what public demonstrations might be best. Afterward, I ask about this. Why would a lawyer publicly discuss strategy? What if the other side found out?
“We want to train people not just to resist, but to learn the law and be involved in our strategies,” explains Elisa Miralles, a thirty-six-year-old PAH lawyer. “We believe it’s important to give power back to people, to let them know they are not alone but part of a community.”
The assembly lasts just over three hours. Such decision-making assemblies are held every Tuesday and on every other Friday, with usually fifty to seventy people, according to Miralles. There are also weekly support and informational meetings.
It’s easy to romanticize the social movements of Barcelona. But they rest on countless hours of involvement by thousands of people willing to not only take to the streets but also sit in meetings and hammer out platforms, strategies, and tactics. Participatory democracy requires significant grassroots participation.
Kate Shea Baird, with dual British and Irish citizenship, came to Barcelona as a twenty-two-year-old in 2008, expecting to stay six months. Eight years later, she is still there. Her day job is with an NGO on urban issues. Her free time is consumed with volunteering for Barcelona en Comú, where she facilitates the international committee and is also part of its overall coordinating committee. She was drawn to the group after attending a presentation.
“Like many people, I had never been involved in electoral politics,” Baird says. “For the first time, I identified with a political project. It was the right people, the right time, the right place.”
Baird and I meet at one of Barcelona’s ubiquitous and charming cafés. Dressed in a black leather jacket, black skirt, tights, and boots, with shoulder-length hair, she looks as if she would be equally comfortable in Barcelona, Brooklyn, or London.
Barcelona en Comú, she tells me, uses a neighborhood-based structure, with residents in different areas meeting, organizing, and electing representatives to a forty-person coordinating committee. A ten-person executive committee makes day-to-day decisions.
About 1,700 active members regularly volunteer, attend assemblies, and are involved in decision-making. About 10,000 members take part in major votes. The first and most important was on the electoral platform and code of ethics for the 2015 elections, which went through months of drafts, discussions, and in-person debates before an online vote. The membership also voted this May to broaden the governing coalition to include a left-centrist party.
I ask what party members have learned after a year in power. For Baird, the main tension is between being a movement and being in government. “We’re used to being activists and having a confrontational relationship with power,” she says. “There is this fine line between having an activist critical spirit and also supporting the people on the front line dealing with the political opposition and with the media.”
One of the challenges is that Barcelona en Comú won the election, but barely. It has a plurality of eleven out of forty-one city council members, and governs through a coalition with other left parties. “This has limited the capacity for our councilors to be on the street and neighborhoods, where they want to be,” Baird says. “We are spread very thin.”
At one point, Baird stops me as I am about to ask another question. Her body language makes clear it is important.
“I think it’s great we have the first woman mayor, but sometimes that can happen as an anomaly,” she tells me. “But if you look at any area of Barcelona en Comú, women are on the front line. Feminism is not just a political philosophy, but a way of doing things.”
Child care is provided at Barcelona en Comú assemblies. Women make up at least half of all members of various committees. Six of Barcelona en Comú’s eleven city council members are women. When the coordinating committee noticed that the men were speaking more than women, “We started to experiment with mechanisms to help prevent that.”
A recent publication by Barcelona en Comú on how to build a citizens’ movement declares: “It’s essential that there is a gender balance in all areas of work from the very beginning. A revolution that isn’t feminist isn’t worthy of the name.”
With his gray hair, corduroy sports jacket and button-down shirt, Xavier Riu Sala is not likely to be mistaken as a youth activist. But the sixty-one-year-old former teacher symbolizes an important link between the 15-M movements and Barcelona’s long history of neighborhood activism.
More than three decades ago, Riu helped found an association in his Esquerra de l’Eixample neighborhood. But over time, he notes, the group “became a little lazy. It became unclear how to move forward.” Then the 15-M movements erupted.
In some neighborhoods, the two movements did not mesh well. Not so in Esquerra de l’Eixample, thanks in part to people such as Riu.
One example of disparate forces working together in l’Eixample involves a 5,500-square-meter plot of land known as Germanetes, formed after a Little Sisters of the Poor convent was torn down in 2003. The city bought the land, promising a neighborhood park, school, and elderly housing. But nothing happened. After the 15-M movements, the young people had had enough talk and were planning an occupation.
Riu knew many of the young people; they had been his students. He reached out, and before long they were meeting weekly at a nearby café. The combined pressure of the neighborhood association and the young people worked, and development plans moved forward.
The project has two finished components. One section is self-managed by the 15-M activists and includes gardens, a geodesic dome for meetings and performances, and a rock-climbing wall. The second section, known as Jardins D’Emma, is overseen by the city. It opened in May and includes everything from a children’s playground to a dog park, gardens, and ping-pong tables. The groups are negotiating with the mayor’s office to comanage the park, with decisions subject to neighborhood control.
Plans are also in the works in Esquerra de l’Eixample for “superblocks,” each covering nine square blocks. Within each superblock, car traffic would be channeled to the perimeters to allow more green space and pedestrian walkways. Plans also include renewable energy and urban agriculture projects.
There are two main types of struggle in Barcelona, Riu tells me. One involves the unions, neighborhood groups, and traditional parties, mostly run by older people. The other includes social movements that have sprung up in the last five to ten years, mostly involving youth.
“In this neighborhood, we worked together,” says Riu. “And when you work together, you have power.”
In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell writes about “breathing the air of equality.” He admitted there was much he did not understand about the complicated politics of the anarchists and communists in Spain, and some things he did not like. “[B]ut I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for . . . . Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”
Despite Franco’s victory, Orwell’s views did not change: “Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.”
It is unclear how the twenty-first -century people’s movements in Barcelona will end, and it is only
natural there will be ebbs and flows. But Barcelona demonstrates that it is the struggle, not just the victory, that defines who we are as citizens.
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based writer and photographer. Special thanks to Bob Peterson for his help with this article.