When Organizing is Met with Violence

"We’ve won broad popular support. We’ve engaged in peaceful civil disobedience. We’ve forced the political parties to pass laws. We’ve obliged the powerful—banks, vulture funds and multiple property owners—to negotiate with us and accept our demands."

- PAH Handbook

 “Shit,” I thought in the split second before jumping away from the pillar I had been leaning against. “This doesn’t look good.” 


I raced backwards with 200 others as Riot Police charged forward into the crowd, their balaclavas pulled up to cover their faces and intimidating black helmets glinting.


We surged away as the police raised their batons and brought them down violently on those in the front. They pushed forward into the crowd until they reached their target. From the chaos they pulled a tall man with straight brown hair who would have appeared immaculately dressed had he not just been covered in bright-blue powder and caught in the crush of humanity racing backwards away from the black batons. 


The police formed a tight circle around him and retreated back to safety of the five-foot wide barricades that had been erected in a defensive perimeter around the convention center. The man in the middle of the black guards was ferried through the perimeter and deposited at the entrance. Smoothing down his hair and attempting to regain some composure, he shot one final irate glance over his shoulder and passed through the glass doors under a banner announcing, “WELCOME TO THE DISTRICT: WHERE REAL BUSINESS HAPPENS.” 


On the other side of the barricades, small groups formed around those who had faced the worst of the onslaught, washing cuts with alcohol, and dabbing them with gauze. 


I am here to explore another side of organizing in Barcelona. 


Since arriving in Barcelona, I have spent many long evenings with the largest housing rights movement in Western Europe: The Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (La PAH for short).

La PAH was formed in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis, as the recession was forcing more and more families into mortgage default and onto the street. Out of desperation, a small group of Barcelona residents began putting up posters calling on all “People Affected by Mortgages” (PAH) to come to a public assembly and discuss what could be done.

Out of the discussion at this first meeting, the assembly agreed first and foremost that people needed greater access to the legal advice that would help them negotiate with the banks that were foreclosing on their homes. Individuals with personal experience navigating the system were asked to share their testimony and slowly a collective knowledge base began to form as the assembly continued meeting week after week.  

As the movement grew in Barcelona and expanded to new cities, La PAH branched beyond legal means to prevent or delay evictions and launched the Stop Desahucios (Stop Evictions) civil disobedience campaign.

To prevent families being thrown onto the street, PAH members began to rally by the dozens at the entrance of houses belonging to people due to be evicted, physically preventing bailiffs and police from dislodging families. This strategy quickly became so effective that these interventions became regular features on nightly news, and the number of evictions prevented this way soon reached into the thousands.

A strong defensive strategy allowed PAH to take on more offensive tactics as well. Seeking to change Spain’s “anachronistic” mortgage law, reign in bank speculation, and implement protections for mortgage holders, PAH partnered with other housing rights groups across Spain to write a Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP) that carried their wish list of policies. In 2015, PAH’s coalition presented this proposal to the Spanish government along with 1.4 million signatures supporting the measure. Through a combination of direct action and political negotiation, in 2015 the regional government of Catalonia voted to adopt the law. 

Throughout this legislative success, however, PAH’s focus remained working on the individual level to ensure people have safe and fair housing. Today, their main tool is still the assembly. Every week, local PAH chapters host public assemblies open to all individuals who are facing housing emergencies (be it an eviction, illegal rent hike, broken contract, etc). 

The assembly then goes case by case, giving newcomers time to share their situation, and veteran members collectively recommend a path to resolve the issue, assigning specific tasks for the person to complete before the next week’s meeting. Tasks often include finding out who owns the property and going to court to find the proper legal documents they will need to defend themselves. Every resident is encouraged to contact their neighbors, see if they have similar problems, and determine if they are willing to organize. For those newcomers who feel unsure, a veteran member of PAH is appointed to go with and provide support.


“Our purpose here at La PAH is to FIGHT,” the facilitator reminded the assembly during last Monday's meeting. “We fight here, by coming together and collectively supporting one another. We fight by collecting information and legal strategies to defend ourselves. And when all else fails, we fight by showing the world that the system is broken and doing what we have to to make sure our families are safe and healthy.”


Wednesday’s action at The District was a demonstration of the last option. One of the largest real estate conventions in the world, The District annually brings together executives from firms such as Blackrock, CBRE, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Blackstone. As such, it was an ideal platform to convey a simple message to the world: corporations like these are “buying up our grandparents' homes, our student’s residences and our hospitals." "Their goal is to get as much money as possible” bluntly stated Sergio Barrios, a spokesperson for the protest. The consequences, he continued, are "increases in rental prices and more evictions." 

And so, at 8:30am on Wednesday morning I find myself standing in the grey morning light outside of The District, surrounded by members of PAH, as well as neighborhood associations from across the region, local unions, and other housing rights advocates. Brightly colored flags wave above the crowd like coats of arms marking each delegation. As we regroup after each police charge, individuals retreat to their specific standard-bearer in the crowd. Shouts of “speculators get out of our neighborhoods!” echo as the protest continues and one blue-suited businessman after another is chased down and covered in colored powder. 


I am extremely grateful to those who invited me to take part in this action, and was deeply impressed with the courage and determination I saw. At the same time I have strong professional disagreements with organizers at PAH about the effectiveness of this type of direct action. It does not have specific demands, there are no specific "targets" who could grant those demands (instead it broadly addressed the conference as a whole), and there are no next steps. Physically confrontational tactics also restrict those in more vulnerable positions from participating (often this means undocumented immigrants, members without healthcare, or communities of color with reason to fear disproportionate violence from police). 

Contrast this with the current United Auto Workers Strikes in the US which have utilized similar tactics of mass mobilization, marches, and public shaming of corporate executives but to a much different purpose. The UAW actions are all aimed at one thing: bringing three specific automakers to the negotiating table. In this case, both sides are clear about 1) what the workers want, 2) who has the power to give it to them, and 3) what will happen if the Union is ignored. 

Five days later I am still wrestling to reconcile these thoughts in my own mind. But one fact is certain: I have immense respect for an organization that can simultaneously help thousands of people find safe housing, pass ground-breaking legislation in favor of renters, and mobilize hundreds of people to face down the most powerful corporations in the world. As the Prologue to the PAH Handbooks states: 

"We’ve won broad popular support. We’ve engaged in peaceful civil disobedience. We’ve forced the political parties to pass laws. We’ve obliged the powerful—banks, vulture funds and multiple property owners—to negotiate with us and accept our demands... [All a result of] years of peaceful civil disobedience, of legislative proposals, of demonstrating that organized citizens have far more power than they would like us to believe."