Sunday, 7 June 2015

From Occupying Banks to City Hall: Meet Barcelona’s New Mayor Ada Colau

A longtime anti-eviction activist has just been elected mayor of Barcelona, becoming the city’s first female mayor. Ada Colau co-founded the anti-eviction group Platform for People Affected by Mortgages and was an active member of the Indignados, or 15-M Movement. Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage of $670, force utility companies to lower prices, and slash the mayoral salary. Colau enjoyed support from the Podemos party, which grew out of the indignados movement that began occupying squares in Spain four years ago. Ada Colau joins us to discuss her victory.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Stanford University in California. But we end today’s show in Spain, where a longtime anti-eviction activist has just been elected mayor of Barcelona, becoming the city’s first female mayor. Ada Colau co-founded the anti-eviction group, Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, and was an active member of the Indignados, or 15-M Movement, the protest movement that inspired Occupy Wall Street. Ada Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage of $670 per month, force utility companies to lower prices, and slash the mayoral salary.Colau enjoyed support from the Podemos Party, which grew out of the Indignados movement that began occupying squares in Spain four years ago. She’s been arrested repeatedly for her protests. I spoke to Ada Colau last week. I began by asking if she was surprised by her victory.

ADA COLAU: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by your victory?

ADA COLAU: In reality, partly yes, and partly no. It was a victory that was accomplished in a very short amount of time, it was a candidacy that was supported and driven by the citizens, with very scarce resources, and with very little money we achieved victory in the elections of such an important city, as Barcelona. But partly it was not surprising because there is a strong citizen movement, and a strong desire for change. We have serious political problems here in Barcelona, and in the entire country, and so there was a need for change which you could see in the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what those problems are?

ADA COLAU: There are problems related to the economic crisis, but this economic crisis is a consequence of a political crisis, of a profound democratic crisis. We have had a form of government where the political elites had a cozy relationship with the economic elites who have ruined the economy of the country, and the ultimate representation of this was the behavior of the financial institutions, of the banks. They have defrauded thousands and thousands of citizens, with abusive mortgages. They have evicted thousands of families and they have ruined the country’s economy. And this has happened because of the cozy relationship between the political and economical elites. In the face of this situation, where there have been losses of billions of Euros, that have caused social cutbacks in as basic as health care and education, it’s caused, for example, in a city that’s rich like Barcelona, a city where there is a lot of money and a lot of resources, the inequality has shot up. That means that there are people that are getting more and more rich, at the same time that there are more poor people than ever. So the middle class is disappearing.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, two years ago you testified at a Spanish parliamentary hearing on Spain’s foreclosure crisis. On the panel, you spoke right after a representative of Spain’s banking industry. You famously turned to the banker and said, "This man is a criminal and should be treated like one."

ADA COLAU: We’ve been negotiating with banks, with the public administration, with the courts and therefore we know exactly what we’re talking about. And this leads me to question the voices of supposed experts who precisely are the ones being given too much credit, pardon the pun, such as the representatives of financial institutions. We just had an example, I would say at the very least it was paradoxical, to use an understatement, if not outright cynical, for the representative of financial institutions who just spoke telling us that the Spanish legislation was great. To say that, when people are taking their own lives because of this criminal law, I assure you, I assure you that I did not thrown my shoe at this man because I believed it was important to be here now to tell you what I’m telling you. But this man is a criminal! And you should treat him as such! He is not an expert. The representatives of financial institutions have caused this problem. They are the very same people who caused the problem which has ruined the whole economy of this country and you are treating these people as experts

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ada Colau. Who is now the Mayor-elect of Barcelona, Spain. The speech made lawmakers’ jaws drop. And you got a reprimand from the Parliament, but your speech endeared you to millions of Spaniards. Can you talk about that moment that you decided to speak out and did you have any regrets?

ADA COLAU: The reality is that I went to speak in front of the parliament after many years of housing rights activism, and working closely with the thousands of families that were affected by the mortgage fraud which the banks had committed and by the evictions that came after that. The evictions and the interest rates have literally destroyed the lives of thousands of families. To destroy their lives means they’ve caused depression, diseases, even suicides.

The only thing I did was describe what I knew, and what I had been living on the front lines for many years. When I encountered this banker who denied the reality and said that there were no problems in Spain, when there were thousands of families in a dire situation, the least I could do was to denounce these lies and talk to them about what the reality was. I think what surprised people more and what generated a media phenomenon after this appearance in the parliament was that someone was telling the truth at the Parliament because, sadly, this was something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

In Spain you have the paradox that while the corrupt politicians see the statute of limitations for their crimes lapse and they make off without going to jail, the families who got into debt for something as basic as accessing housing become indebted forever, because it is impossible to forgive this debt. So, in the face of this barbarity what happened is that hundred of thousands of hard-working families that just wanted was to have a normal life, suddenly lose their jobs, they lose their house, and they become indebted for life, and becoming indebted means economic and civil death. This leads to people committing suicide, to diseases, to broken families, and the positive aspect of this was the birth of an exemplary citizen movement, which has succeeded in stopping thousands of evictions. 

That forced the banks to negotiate. And it showed that if our institutions did not resolve this problem it was because our institutions were accomplices in this fraud.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, you have broken through so many ceilings as the first woman Mayor of Barcelona, together with the new Mayor of Madrid. In your victory speech, you talked about a democratic revolution all over the south of Europe. Can you start there? What do you mean?

ADA COLAU: What is happening in Spain and in Barcelona is not an isolated event, rather there is a crisis in the way we do politics, there is a political elites which has become corrupt and have ended up as accomplices of a financial power which only thinks to speculate and to make money even at the expense of rising inequality and the impoverishment of the majority of the citizenship. Fortunately, there has been a citizen reaction, here and in other parts of the Mediterranean, for example in Greece, to confront the neoliberal economic policies, which are not only a problem in Spain but in Europe and around the world. We see very clearly that the city councils are key to confronting this way of making policy, meaning, that is where the everyday policies are made and where we can prove there is another way to govern, more inclusive, working together with the citizens, more than just asking them to vote every four years, and that you can fight against corruption, and you can have transparent institutions. So we think the city governments are key for democratic revolution, to begin governing, with the people, in a new way, but on the other hand we are very aware that the real change must be global, that one city alone cannot solve all the problems we are facing, many of which are global because today the economy does not have borders, that big capital, and the markets move freely around the world, unlike people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, what would a public banking system look like?

ADA COLAU: I think, in the financial world there has been a problem of absolute misrule. You cannot leave something as important as economic policy and money which has a social function, in the hands of speculation and private interests. Here there has been a democratic deficit and a lack of global, collective and democratic control over money and the economic system in general. So, we have to take back that democratic control, and that doesn’t meant that all the banks have to be public, it can be implemented in different ways. What we need are laws that make private banks comply with the law, because now in Spain we have a banking system that breaks the law systematically and nothing happens.

For us, the citizens, they don’t forgive anything, they make us pay all our debts, they make us pay all our taxes, they make us pay each small traffic ticket, they don’t forgive anything. But the big banks on the other hand, which have lied, defrauded and destroyed thousands of families are forgiven for, for example, breaking the European consumer protection regulations. So, this is unacceptable. The first thing we need is governments that serve their citizens, not the private interests, and that enforce the law. We are talking about something as basic as enforcing the existing law. The first thing we need is to force the financial power to comply with the law and to obey the democratic powers, something that is not happening now. It’s also true that it would definitely be good if this private, financial power, is complemented by some form form of public bank that offsets and guarantees that there is financing for what is in the public interest, because if not, what happens is the private financial system has the power to decide what is funded and what is not funded.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, one of the most tweeted photos in Spain these days shows riot police hauling you away. The image is from July 2013 when you are trying to occupy a Barcelona bank that was foreclosing on homes. The caption added by Twitter users reads, "Welcome new mayor." Can you talk about that moment that you were being dragged away?

ADA COLAU: There were many similar moments in past years, because when we have unjust laws, like the ones we have now in Spain, one has to massively disobey these unjust laws to protect human rights. Here the right to housing is being infringed upon and that’s why thousands of citizens, in a peaceful manner, we have had to practice civil disobedience to defend human rights. In this sense, this action was one of the many that have been performed in this country, and not by me, but by many other people who have been defending the human rights of all of the others. Throughout human history, it has happened this way. In order to defend rights and to win rights, many times it has been necessary to disobey unjust laws. Of course, now, as future mayor of Barcelona, I hope the police are going to be at the service of human rights, and not of the banks.

AMY GOODMAN: In the United States there’s Occupy. You were part of the Indignados. Talk about the different protests, from anti-war to anti-corporate globalization, that have shaped you.

ADA COLAU: In reality there has been a continuity in the past 15 years at least. In the early 2000s, late 1990s when they began the anti-globalization movement, Seattle, there a wide cycle of protests began, that continues to the present day. During this time there has been the anti-globalization movement, the international anti-war movement, there’s been the Indignados, there’s been many fights for housing rights, for peace. And all these mobilizations, not only here but also on the global level, have had many things in common. First, the global dimension, the awareness that there are political and economic problems that have a global dimension, so we need to work as a network. Because there is a single global and economic reality and it’s essential to work in alliances.

Also, the necessity for a real democracy, the awareness that even if we have formally democratic institutions, we have the sense that the decisions are not being made in parliament, but by the boards of directors or by international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, which are profoundly anti-democratic, and which the citizens do not control, and that they also make decisions against their own people, generating misery around the world.

This awareness that we have a kidnapped democracy has lead to the rise of many grassroots mobilizations, propel from the bottom, from the citizens, that saw the formal democracy is not enough, that we need to find new ways of democratic participation where everyone can have a place, and contribute what every person has to contribute.

So, I think all the mobilizations that have happened in the past 15 years, that have also increasingly used the new technologies, Internet, the social medias, that has find new forms of direct communication, innovative. In some way we are seeing an update of the democracy, an update of the forms of political participation that have had many different expressions in different global movements but there is maybe a nexus that unite them all.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, you are the first woman Mayor of Barcelona, Spain, you’re a woman, you’re activist. Also a female activist is now going to be the Madrid Mayor. Talk about the significance of this.

ADA COLAU: Without a doubt it is important because half of the population are women, is completely illogical that after 40 years of formal democracy I should be the first woman mayor. This is not normal because we, the women, built this city and we are crucial actors of it, but it is not reflected in the political representation, in the places where the political decisions are made. Clearly, we live in a sexist society, this in not an exclusive problem of Barcelona or Spain, it is a global problem, but we are seeing now are signs of a change, as a result of many fight to conquer our rights, from many women who went before us, and now we take this testimony, and we keep moving forward.

It is clear that women are overrepresented in the care sector and household environment, and the time has come for women to achieve more representation in the decisions places of the political and economic power. But, in addition, I think we have much to contribute and that we can learn a lot from the feminist struggle, and that in this moment of change we can contribute by feminising politics, and for this we need not only to put more women in the decision-making places, but also transform the values in politics and to prove that cooperation is more efficient and more satisfactory than competitiveness, and that collective social policy making is better that individualism. I think this are the collective values we can contribute to feminize politics, and with this no only women will win, men and women will win.

AMY GOODMAN: What do think your victory means for Podemos possibly winning and in the national level later this year?

ADA COLAU: I think a political change is happening, a change in the ways of making politics, again, not only in Spain, across the south of Europe, and we hope in all Europe. What happened in Spain is a democratic revolution. The citizens have been empowered, and have taken the floor. That’s why I think the main actor here is not any political name, it is not “Barcelona en Comú”, it is not “Podemos”, it is not Ada Colau, it is not Pablo Iglesias, the main actors here are the citizens, the people who have decided to take back the institutions to recover the control of policy making, to give to the people the power to make the decisions, in this grassroot movement of democratic revolution there are differents political parties, differing names which must be a tool in this process of empowerment and democratic revolution. This is why Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, Ada Colau, and some other parties that are emerging are just tools at the service of this broad citizen’s process that has decided to take back the institutions for the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, finally, what will be your first act in office as the new Mayor of Barcelona?

ADA COLAU: Well, we already elaborate an emergency action plan that have 30 measures perfectly viable, ambitious but perfectly viable, for the first months in office. This emergency action plan consist of three main measures: first to create jobs and fight against job insecurity, another is to guarantee the basic rights, and the other is to fight against corruption, make a city council more transparent and end with the privileges, for example: low the salaries of the public officers, of the elected officers, eliminate the expenses and the official cars, things that can seem simples, but are very symbolic because they send a message of an end of impunity, of an end of a political class distant to the reality of the citizens. So, end with this privileges is something that we can do immediately, is only a matter of political will. Without a doubt one of the first decisions as mayor will be to convene publicly to all the banks who works in the city to sit them around a table of dialogue in order to stop the evictions, and to demand that the empty dwellings they have in the city to be available for rent, as social rental (social housing) for the families that need it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, thank you very much for joining us, and congratulations as the first woman Mayor of Barcelona, Spain. Thank you.

ADA COLAU: Thank you very much.

First published at Democracy Now

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