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Art & Social Space
Chronicle of a Civil War inscribed on the Skin of a City
by Marcelo Expósito

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11 a.m.: we’re beginning to form a tight mass glued to the building’s skin. Suddenly there’s a commotion on the first floor: it seems Josefa and her lawyer are coming down. The press races down the stairs in a flurry and pushes demonstrators away as they come out into the street. Annoyed, we rebuke them and a brief uproar ensues. Josefa and her lawyer have come down to tell us the eviction has been postponed and will not take place today: the press tousle over positions from which to record this statement at the entrance to the building.

Let’s freeze that image for a moment, since it’s worth reflecting on. Let’s recap what literally happened: the crowd of demonstrators, standing in a tight huddle at the entrance of the building to prevent the eviction, is pushed away by the group of reporters, who flock to the door and block everyone’s view. On descending to the street Josefa and her lawyer are hounded by camera lenses. 15M has issued a call for an act of collective disobedience which, together with the repercussions of the campaign in the press, radio and television, has forced BBVA to ask the court to postpone the enforcement of the eviction. However, this successful linkage of the movement’s internal communication and the communication of the commercial mass media nevertheless turns into a conflict of priorities as we freeze this image. What this moment showsis the way the commercial media, while empowering a movement, can simultaneously affect the movement’s modus operandi: its occupation of the territory is changed by the intervention of the crowd of reporters.

Ironically, it is a reporter who, almost shouting, tries to reach a consensus: why don’t Josefa and her lawyer make their statement in the open space in front of the building so that the assembled protesters and neighbors can hear and relay it, while the reporters keep their microphones and cameras low. Then they can repeat their statements as they hold a press conference and devote time to each medium specifically. One of my photographs shows how this highly precarious balance is kept. Josefa exhibits a photocopied poster that reads: “Stop evictions. You’re not alone, we’re with you”. Surrounded by a beehive of cameras and microphones, she speaks through a megaphone held by a neighborhood activist. I think about this moment, which calls as much for a policy of openness and transparency towards society – which includes the commercial media-- as for the strictest possible control of the terms under which the commercial media take part in the mechanisms with which 15M is shaping a new kind of public sphere.

A few minutes later, I see that Josefa is about to appear live on a privately-owned TV channel’s popular morning program. The female reporter takes Josefa by the hand and they remain holding hands throughout the interview. They stand in front of the camera. Several activists stand behind the interviewer and Josefa so as to display a banner before the camera. On going live the cameraman comes closer to the two women for a close-up that makes it less easy to see the protesters in the background. The interviewer explains Josefa’s case, showing a sentimental close-up to highlight the human side of the audience’s identification with the “victim”. Paradoxically, showing support for Josefa in the interview also means engaging in an exhibitionist show of her living conditions. Later on we can see the result in the press and television of that invasion of privacy: the multiplied image of Josefa in the “intimacy” of her home, with a large crucifix on the wall in the background.

For over an hour we are overcome with emotion. When the lawyer reports on the temporary postponement of the eviction and Josefa expresses her gratitude for the solidarity, tears start appearing on everyone’s face without decorum. I love being part of this movement, in which hundreds of thousands of people are promoting a collective affection that simultaneously seeks to change the material conditions that lead to injustice. But I also feel a sense of outrage the entire day. When you form part of a direct action, your body feels a shock that takes a while to sink in. I walk back along Primavera Street and stop for a moment upon reaching an apartment on the bottom floor of a building where another demonstration is due to take place two days later. The person who lives there is being flagrantly bullied to leave the apartment. The tenant is using the façade as a large white page where he has shakily written “My electricity and water have been cut off because I demanded a legal contract. Justice! We all deserve decent housing”. The text is another succinct chronicle of a war tattooed on the city’s skin.

Josefa’s eviction has only been suspended for a while. BBVA will try again in September, after the media and the movement’s attention have subsided. The collective actions that are halting evictions are one of the 15M movement’s most powerful instruments. 15M inherited it from a previous, equally awesome movement, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgage (PAH) [see afectadosporlahipoteca ]. However, on leaving Primavera Street behind, my body furiously wants to go to where the agencies, the homes and the biographies of those responsible for situations such as Josefa’s find themselves. We don’t have to go very far: let’s just focus on the chairman of BBVA, Francisco González. A member of Josefa’s same generation, he’ll be getting a 79.9 million euro pension when he retires; meanwhile, his stated fixed salary is 1.9 million euros a year, plus another 3.4 million in variable bonds (El País, 5/2/2010). A month ago he stated that solving the crisis did not require new taxes or tax rates on banking profits, but a “strong government” prepared to tackle structural reforms “resolutely and in depth… to get this country working” and agreed with the 15M movement: “it’s not right that young people can’t find a job” (El Mundo, 17/7/2011). During the BBVA Bancomer annual directors’ meeting in Mexico City, flanked by Lula and Felipe Calderón, he criticized the Spanish government’s adjustment policies as being timid and ineffective, because president Zapatero “doesn’t believe in reforms”. The Mexican president “highlighted BBVA’s trust in [Mexico], based on Mexico’s economic stability and democratic development”(El País, 22/06/2011).

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