EZLN Sub-Commander Marcos received a letter from the (now deceased) Eduardo Galeano a year after the uprising against the State of Mexico twenty-five years ago. Galeano wrote: “One is as great as the enemy one chooses to fight against, and as small as the fear that one feels. Choosing
a great enemy will force you to grow to face it. Quell your fear, for if it grows, it will make you small.” More than 25 years later, in Barcelona’s Raval neighbourhood, one of the poorest areas of the city and which has been subjected to a devastating process of gentrification, a small community of local residents from the local housing union Sindicat d’Habitatge del Raval (SHR) also chose a great enemy – Blackstone – and proved just how great they were.
Financial and property speculation hides behind the mask of giant vulture fund Blackstone, the multinational with the most properties – or “financial assets” – in the world. Blackstone moved into Barcelona recently, laden with foreign capital, and purchased a vast number of properties, most of them below market price. One such property is a building that has been home to ten families for many years. The company purchased it as a financial asset, planning on evicting the families in order to sell or let it at a much higher price. It is the same old story: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But this time, the company was faced with a steely neighbourhood that took action and stood up to them. This was no mean feat as Blackstone had obtained an “open eviction” notice, a questionable legal practice ordered by some judges as a response to civil disobedience. Instead of an eviction set at a specific date and time, an “open eviction” notice is valid for a period of at least two weeks, making it very difficult for tenants to fight back.
A victory against a financial giant
Nonetheless, the SHR members took action and organised a major “open” campaign over those two weeks, aiming to achieve some kind of negotiation and keep tenants in the building. This gave rise to the #RavalVsBlackstone campaign, which mobilised the Raval neighbourhood and the entire popular housing movement in the city. Irreverent “working-class” language was used, communicated through videos, press conferences and news articles, which had more of an impact on younger people than the usual activist rhetoric. Locals occupied the street over those two weeks in a stance of preventive defence, and organised cultural and musical events, with different artists and groups taking part. Through the #BlackstoneEnComú campaign, the movement also got Barcelona en Comú’s (BEC) City Council on board and gained the public support of many political parties and MPs . In addition, the group held demonstrations in affluent neighbourhoods and put direct pressure (public harassment) on the company’s directors. Demonstrations also took place in cities such as London and Berlin.
And they won! Blackstone was forced to negotiate and agreed to the families staying and paying a social rent, part of which will be financed by the City Council. The SHR’s victory was the victory of the working classes of an ill-treated city neighbourhood beset by speculation. It is the triumph of a movement that, drawing on its roots, has fought hard and explored new forms of combat with an approach reminiscent of the Zapatists and their rebellious dignity. It definitely represents a victory as great as the enemy they chose.
Cities as a battleground between capitalism and life
This particular local conflict is a part of a wider global dynamic where an increasing amount of economic wealth is concentrated in cities, attracting more and more inhabitants (it is estimated that by 2050, 50% of the world’s population will live in cities). So, it is no surprise that there are currently a number of conflicts between those representing a capitalist outlook and those representing life in cities, areas that are fast becoming vast spaces of dispossession, but where the struggles to resist and create alternatives are also becoming stronger (Lefevbre, 1975; Harvey, 2007; Purcell, 2014).
David Harvey, in an article published after the 2008 financial crisis, invoked the “right to the city” as a collective right that all citizens have to (re)define cities with freedom, to (re)gain collective and democratic control over them and their resources which are falling into the hands of global financial capitalism (Harvey D, 2008; IDHC, 2011). Harvey gives, as an example, the city of New York, which, in recent decades, has been redesigned to meet the interests of indigenous and transnational capitalism, with figures such as multimillionaire Michael Bloomberg, who was both an entrepreneur and Mayor of the city from 2002 to 2013. Bloomberg represents a small political-economic elite that promotes the city as a tourist and business centre, and views the “right to the city” as a right that is reserved only for them. Within the logic of the capitalist system, New York, is no different from cities such as London, Paris or Barcelona. They represent business opportunities, without any consideration of what this might mean for its inhabitants. And it is in these cities where the conflict is most evident, with exorbitant rent increases, continuous evictions, public spaces overrun by tourists and noise, gentrification, resulting in an astronomical rise in the cost of living, as well as low wages and increasingly insecure working conditions.
Behind all this lies the dual impact of the tourism and real estate industries, both with extremely important global dimensions. On the one hand, the weight of the real estate sector was clearly revealed after the 2008 financial crisis. Ten years later, the financial and real estate processes that triggered the crisis continue to exist, but have taken new shapes such as the financialisation of housing, the rental bubble, and with new multinational players such as Airbnb or Blackstone itself (RLS, 2018; Fresnillo, 2019). Aside from the devaluation of wages and growing worker insecurity, the global tourism industry has been one of the drivers of a (false) economic recovery after the global crisis in Spain, and played an increasingly important role in economic and social terms  (Ill-Raga M, 2019).
Financial funds and real estate vultures fuelling the tourism industry
We are facing a scenario in which cities across the world vie with each other in a global market to attract more tourists and more financial-real estate business (and their derivatives). It is therefore not by chance that the World Travel & Tourism Council, along with the second biggest company in the real estate services sector, JLL, have published a report entitled Destination 2030. Global Cities’ Readiness For Tourism Growth which lists, selects and classifies 50 international cities into different categories, based on their potential for tourism growth, and Barcelona is one of them. In other words: they sell cities, they sell our city to potential investors from the tourism and real estate sectors. The WTTC has also published another report explaining how the emergence and consolidation of platform capitalism plays an important role in the tourism industry. The example of Airbnb is a prime example: it is a multinational corporation that has promoted real estate speculation associated with a tourism boom, and, as several studies suggest, is responsible for the rise in rents in cities such as Barcelona (Garcia-Lopez, 2019). In fact, these platforms now represent an increasing number of jobs. According to some predictions, in a few years, more than half of the USA’a working population USA will form part of the “independent workforce”. They will be (false) freelancers, with all that this entails in terms of job insecurity and related inequalities (Fontana J, 2019). We are, therefore, facing a global conflict with a class dimension that has resulted in a confrontation between citizens and workers on the one hand, and international capitalism and its interests on the other.
After joining the EU and losing its industrial and agricultural competitive edge, Spain has become increasingly specialised in urban tourism, positioning itself as the global capital of financial, property and tourism capitalism. Faced with growing inter-regional competition, the tourism sector has become a key focus for the accumulation of wealth following the 2008 economic crash (Murray I, 2015). And this has occurred not only in coastal tourist areas or as the result of large-scale urban-tourism projects, but also in many cities which have been converted into tourism havens. Barcelo- na, along with its brand name #MarcaBarcelona, is a paradigmatic example (Murray I, 2014). After the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona was positioned as one of the most important European tourist cities along with London, Paris and Berlin. It is currently the main destination of Mediterranean cruise ships, and its airport is the seventh biggest in Europe, with more than 55 million passengers a year. The number of visitors has risen from 3.7 million in 1990 to over 31 million in 2016. And the numbers continue to grow. The pressures caused by tourism and gentrification are enormous in the Raval neighbourhood. Life is harder for the locals, with a loss of social and community fabric, soaring rents, unbearable air and noise pollution, traffic issues, local stores focused on tourism, etc. Yet locals are fighting back, preventing evictions on a daily basis, actively reclaiming public space and closing down tourist apartments that prevent them from sleeping at night and cause ongoing insecurity.
Those driving this systemic conflict are vulture funds, multinational service companies, real estate firms, travel and banking groups, with governments and major international players also complicit (e.g. European Union, World Bank and International Monetary Fund). Blackstone is one example, but there are others such as Divarian, which is directly related to BBVA and other banks. Their operating model is similar: “buy it, fix it, sell it”. Thanks to real estate investment trusts (REIT) and favourable reforms/laws such as the Urban Lease Act (LAU) in Spain, they buy buildings, evict their occupants and sell or let them to reap huge profits, while paying ridiculously low taxes. This is a global problem which has its roots in the underlying system, but which also requires co-operators and executors. The list of names linked to urban development in Barcelona over the past few decades is long. It includes politicians from various parties along with bankers, hoteliers and property developers . This complicity between the public and the private sectors is also clearly reflected in entities such as Turisme de Barcelona , a publicly-funded public-private consortium dedicated to the promoting and protecting the interests of the tourism industry (Aznar L, 2017).
What can a progressive city council actually do?
In 2015, Barcelona en Comú, a party rooted in the social movements of 15M/indignados, took over the city’s government. What followed was a four-year term during which they promoted a 2020 Strategic Tourism Plan intended to foster “sustainable” tourism in the city with better regulations and management, and which aimed to mitigate its negative effects while promoting a more social, ecological and feminist approach. But many deemed the Plan inadequate. One example was the “Special Tourist Accommodation Urban Development Plan” (PEUAT), designed to curb, restrict and restructure tourist accommodation in neighbourhoods like Raval. However, despite this and other measures, issues related to tourist accommodation still exist, and have increased and extended to other previously unaffected areas of the city and even to municipalities in the metropolitan area.
In Barcelona, dozens of evictions take place every day, and the Raval neighbourhood is among the most affected. The City Council is often torn between citizens and corporations such as Airbnb or even Blackstone. They try to play the role of “mediator”, but with disappointing results. The reality is that they are a minority government with limited jurisdiction. The imbalance of power between corporate power and the working classes is so great that the only option is to valiantly take sides and support the latter, regardless of the consequences and potential legal battles that may ensue.
After the recent municipal elections (2019), we are now entering a new political cycle. BEC has succeeded in continuing to lead the city government, but in a coalition with the PSC-PSOE party. Aside from being behind the #MarcaBarcelona brand, the party has put all its energy into criminalising poverty and implementing security policies typical of the far right . All this offers a disparaging outlook if the idea is to wait for the City Council to stand up to financial, real estate and tourism powers such as Blackstone and Airbnb. The correlation of forces will not work in favour of citizens, and much less so at national level, where the government alternates between the two regime parties, PP and PSOE, both invested in measures with a profound antisocial impact, such as the bank “bail-out”, prioritising debt repayments over social expenses or the approval of REIT .
Fighting on the ground
Fortunately, the city has a vibrant social fabric that means it is fighting back. Citizens are coming together and campaigning through multiple social movements and citizen platforms (e.g. anti-overtourism, ecologists, feminists, campaigners for the right to housing, etc.), local groups, local associations and workers unions. Many of these spaces and groups have been reporting injustices and inequalities for some time, pointing to those responsible and putting themselves on the front line. The housing movement and the anti-tourist movements are good examples of this.
The mortgage crash that took place ten years ago also brought about the existence of the platform Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) , an example of popular organisation and struggle. Years later, in the new post-crash era, new spaces emerged such as the union of tenants known as Sindicato de Inquilinas and a number of housing groups and unions – including SHR, which work from the neighbourhoods up. They all bring energy, ideas and political strategies , and build a community power that is essential in cities under the yoke of capitalism.
Aside from its specific victories, the entire popular movement for housing – and for the right to the city – has managed to change the hegemonic narrative and make us see housing as a right and not as a privilege. It has also created a strong consensus on the need to regulate housing prices, although there has not yet been any legislative or governmental action. In view of this situation, interesting proposals have emerged such as the Primer Congreso Catalán de la Vivienda (First Catalan Housing Congress), advocated by the popular movement, which took place in the autumn of 2019. It is dedicated to networking and building unity of action, (re)thinking common strategy and tactics, updating and improving activist practices and sharing knowledge and references – basically pulling out all the stops in order to achieve more structural victories (like rent regulation) and guarantee rights and security. Accessing municipal government in order to implement progressive policies continues to be a legitimate objective, but this must not be the sole avenue for change, and it must not lead to giving up on objectives and principles that will create a disconnection with grassroots movements. On the contrary; it must be a place from which to demonstrate the contradictions of an unjust system, consolidate the counter-powers of the street and denounce the agents of this system, their roles and the mechanisms they use to undermine people’s right to the city.
An accumulating force of counter-powers is essential, and requires creating alli- ances with other resistance movements and spaces in the city. The anti-overtourism and right to housing movements, for example, have many aspects in common. In Barcelona, the Asamblea de Barrios por un Turismo Sostenible  (Assembly of Neighbourhoods for Sustainable Tourism) has been denouncing the tourism model and its impacts for years, organising conferences, launching campaigns and submitting proposals to change the model and halt and reverse its negative impacts. They work collectively with other movements and groups in the city, not only on housing but also on issues such as ecology and climate change. For instance, they are blowing the whistle on the negative impacts of cruise ships and air travel, and are involved in wider networks such as the European network StayGrounded, which advocates a no-fly philosophy, highlighting the role air travel plays in a harmful tourism model. They are also active in new emerging movements such as those grouped around the latest Global Climate Strike of 27 September, which was highly successful in Barcelona. Another current example is the online campaign #LaFiraOLaVida .
Networking is part of the city’s DNA, and what gives it so much strength. It also adds an international dimension. ABTS, for example, is a member of the SET network (Southern Europe against Touristification) . The housing movement is also about networking. As mentioned above, the campaign against Blackstone roused the solidarity of many other groups and even reached cities such as Berlin and London. The phenomenon is a global one, and as such, it also requires a global response.
These self-directed movements and groups have few economic resources, but their work is of fundamental importance . The victory of the Raval community illustrates how, despite limited resources, community activism, collective intelligence and solidarity can back the giants of the system into a corner. It requires politicising the public space as well as our own lives in order to highlight the conflict inherent in a system based on greed, while opening up new, fairer worlds through empowerment and struggle. #RavalVsBlackstone is a breath of fresh air in times of darkness and obscurity. The force that knocked Blackstone off-balance is now having a ripple effect in other cities. In Madrid, more than 200 families in similar situations have formed a tenants’ union called Sindicato de Inquilinas de Madrid and, along with other groups, have initiated the #MadridVsBlackstone campaign, following in the footsteps of Barcelona.
The capitalist offensive will continue, but so will the forces that oppose it. The case of #RavalVsBlackstone is an example of the need to create and strengthen political counter-powers that are self-managed from the bottom up, to lead the battle and win. The Zapatists also refuse to give up the fight, building community and autonomy, and defending their lives in the trenches of the Lacandon Jungle. In the Raval neighbourhood, the working classes are also digging trenches and fighting. To fight is to win and, as they say in Latin America, the fight goes on.
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