Okupation is a political act, questioning as it does the very pillars of Capital and the State: rejection of private property, the economy of commodities, the State’s prerogative to enforce and defend regimes of wealth and poverty, and the enforcement of labour. Okupation is political in that it also creates, through direct action, new subjectivities are born and raised in experiences of autonomous, egalitarian self-management. If democracy/anarchy is a way of life, then it is in its practice, however fragile or incomplete, that it is learned.
The story of the self-managed collective space, Es.Col.A do Alto da Fontinha, in Porto, portugal, is rare in the recent history of social movements of this country, both for its intensity and its resonance in the city and beyond. The collective’s integration in the community was exemplary. But its weaknesses were those of portugal’s social movements more generally and a political and legal framework that makes okupations extremely difficult to carry through. Without a broader network, the occupying collective was forced to seek legal recognition, something that finally never came. If okupations can bring impetus to social movements, they fail in isolation; if they are part of broader movements/politics, then they can force themselves upon the landscape.
The Es.Col.A would see the light of day on the 10th of April, 2011. Expelled a month latter, then allowed by city authorities to temporarily return, the okupation would be finally brought to an end on the 20th of April, 2012. During its brief existence (and the collective continues its activities, now outside the okupied space), it changed the lives of those who gave an unused and abandoned school a new life.
To celebrate the Es.Col.A, we share below an article published in the portuguese edition of Le Monde diplomatique (September 2011), by one of the Collective’s members, Pedro Lima.
To Occupy is to Urbanise: About the Es.Col.A da Fontinha
The local power of cities tends to confine itself to the management of objects with a merely commercial value, that is buildings, squares, green spaces, locations and people. The discourse, the attitude or the example of the peoples’ city, constructed and lived by them, is ever rarer. The management of the city is confused with the sentiment of possession, whether it be private property, or of public property and managed by the local authority. The result is having to pay, and pay more, for acquired rights and in this social purge, to “purify the race” that lives within it, to wall empty spaces in the expectation of financial profits ever more delayed, to fill the streets with police, unsure streets because the walls that limit them have no doors and because the “mongrel” inhabitants that still resist feel increasingly uprooted, dispersed fragments of a place where they were born and where they grew, degraded. In this way, the community life of the city is substituted by a “purification”, that is also a “refining” of the way that the “race” that inhabits it is homogenised. Closed condominiums, large supermarkets and shopping centres, chain stores, private clinics, banks, insurance companies, lobbies and companies of urban rehabilitation, dictate and shape the city’s continuity.
In this amorphous city an empty soul is fed, dictated to by VIP fashion that imposes a pattern of success and of human realisation, from the erotic adrenaline of entrepreneurialism to the glamour of consumerism. This city reinvents itself in the assimilation and banalisation of all that could give rise to other fashions, such as to occupy.
The progressive abandonment of urban centres, transformed into porcelain postcards for tourists, business centres and services, has cities lose their true function, that of increasing the quality of responses to problems, the consequence of many people being together whose collective synergies can be of use. This is not an abandonment that cannot be avoided; it is a political choice against the city as a human ideal.
The abandonment of a public space is a crime against a community. Where there should be results from our collective investment, there are costs in cement bricks, the daily devaluation of a building that should belong to everyone and, above all, a permanent insult to the community from which it was removed. An unused public space is always a wasted social function. This is that much graver the poorer the community is of which the building is a part. In areas with no social spaces/equipment for any age, inhabited by the most disparaged classes of capitalism, this crime takes on even greater proportions.
Before an injustice of this magnitude, any human being, beyond any right or law, has the obligation to use whatever means s/he has at their disposal to put an end to it. For the majority of people, these means are their body and their intellect. Which is all that is necessary to occupy and liberate a space, returning it to the community; so that the very necessary alternatives begin definitively to be created in places where they are most needed.
To occupy and return the city to the community is to give incentive to participation and exchange of knowledges, in a process of realisation, growth and mutual evaluation between those who live there; it is to become richer in the contact between and respect for differences, to construct new paths, to foment horizontal and inclusive social movements, debate, and accordingly, to invert the paradox of the goal of the city, the complex and slow, yet strong and human, construction of a more just world. Only in this way does a city manage itself and re-construct itself; independently of local power, it walks, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, in the freedom of its particular differences, thus becoming unique and enriching. With this involvement of the population, relations are created and preserved, it becomes sure in a model that is human and carefree, it develops. This is to urbanise.
A capitalist city is the screen of a Playstation; a self-managed city is the genuine portrait of a society. Private property or the tutelage of public property by local or national power, whether it be a field, a building, a gesture, a word or a thought, is an instrument for the control of our lives. Self-managed property adopts itself to the real needs of the population that lives and resides in the city.
An occupied space is, firstly, an instrument for recalling and re-writing a history, given that the practice of occupying has come to be used for some time now everywhere as a means to reaffirm the superiority of life over injustices. From rural workers who have occupied and occupy lands, to neighbourhood and homeless associations and the occupation of houses, to industrial workers who have occupied workshops and factories: this is a legacy of struggle that is far too important to cease to be remembered in every new liberation of a space, principally in this country where it was once a mass practice.
An occupied space is a space where it is possible to put into practice the self-management of collectives and groups without depending on institutions. Functioning on the basis of assemblies, it permits developing a personal and collective life that aspires to including the whole world, thereby overcoming, through popular organisations, those problems that politicians and traditional politics cannot resolve.
This popular form of recuperation of one’s own sovereignty is an instrument, a tactic and a practice, that brings contributions to the social and political movements of each region; a political instrument that many social actors made theirs, a life to contest our destruction as persons; an instrument to construct a new way of life, to say enough to urban expansion, to create alternatives to property and to put them into practice.
The Es.Col.A is an example of involvement, sharing and human growth. A poor and depressed people who, by means of an occupation, organise themselves together with activists and other persons interested in the process, realises itself, becomes young again, gains energy, demonstrates its wisdom, frees its community roots, measures its strength against the local power that abandoned it to its fate.
The occupation of the abandoned school
During five long years, the population of Fontinha lived daily with the abandonment of the overlooking primary school constructed in the middle of the 20th century on the high ground amidst the maze of their houses and closed in 2006 by the municipality. One day, a group of people decided to act, motivated by a challenge from the Associação José Afonso, to Occupy April, and to take by Assault the Month of May. And, in April of 2011, they took the public building and occupied it with the sole objective of returning it to the community.
Concealing nothing, the occupation took place on a Sunday afternoon, to the sound of drums, and with an invitation to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood to participate. There were games, painting, theatre, workshops, cinema, food and drinks. In the letter to the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, published on the blog launched that day, was announced the desire to create a space where decisions would be taken by all of those involved. Thus the project’s name, Espaço Colectivo Autogestionado, and the name Es.Col.A do Alto da Fontinha.
Two days latter, under the covered patio, forty people gathered, a dozen of which from the neighbourhood, for the first assembly of the Es.Col.A, in which the desire to create an autonomous, self-managed, free, non-discriminatory, non-commercial space, open to different activities, was consolidated. With new volunteers came new ideas. The Es.Col.A became a centre of conviviality for children and adults, providing educational support in various areas, from mathematics to portuguese, drawing, guitar, reading ateliers, cinema, as well as bicycle, computer, recycling, theatre and cooking workshops. The building was slowly recuperated. Working groups were created to deal with matters related to infrastructure, logistics, communication, media, and another to reflect upon the principles of the project. Es.Col.A confirmed itself as a horizontal structure, free of hierarchies, with decisions taken by consensus in assembly, inclusive, with no political party affiliation, transparent and open.
Without giving time to register the news of the fourth assembly, on the 10th of May, one month after the occupation, the city government of Porto sent in the police to close the school. The operation involved a police presence never before seen in Fontinha. It took some two hours and culminated with the arrest of eight people who were in the building, freed after identification. The neighbours were outraged and the event garnered surprising media coverage. Some even cried at the apparent end of the Es.Col.A, asking themselves why such an abrupt eviction from an abandoned public building, that would once again be closed and left for nothing. But the Es.Col.A project would not close, as was decided in assembly that afternoon, which gathered more than a hundred persons in the Largo da Fontinha. The retaking of the building and its devolution to the community would orient the next steps of approaching the authorities. It was not an easy decision, but it was what most satisfied the community.
Six days later, the Es.Col.A represented itself in the municipal assembly of Porto. Outside, over 300 people protested, demanding the return of the building. Again, the issue was given ample media coverage. In response to an open letter, a city representative made herself available to meet with a delegation from the Es.Col.A on the 6th of June. So began the bureaucratic saga, whose first phase only came to an end on the 29th of July, with the sanctioned return to the school of the Alto da Fontinha, on the basis of a promissory contract with two representatives of the project, that ceded the building, giving thirty days to the Es.Col.A to constitute itself a legal association, so as to be able to use the building temporarily … while the municipality did not decide on a final, oficial candidate for the project.
The battle was exhausting, some people distanced themselves from the project, as others approached it. Apparent divergent ideologies confronted each other; some insisted on re-occupying, without waiting for consent to do so. In the meantime, the volunteers of the Es.Col.A sought to keep activities going in the main square of Fontinha, even given the precarious conditions of the location, with unmaintained flower beds, broken walkways, with no fixed urban furniture, or even garbage bins. The square became the space for self-managed meals and the assemblies, in total, thirteen. And there was celebrated, as would be remembered, a S. João the likes of which had not been seen in more than 20 years.
After eleven difficult weeks in the street, Es.Col.A began a new stage, of internal consolidation and with regards to the neighbourhood, preparing itself for a new struggle with the bureaucracy. Independently of the outcome that it may have, it marked a new direction in the neighbourhood of Fontinha and demonstrated that it was possible to act without having to wait for the paternalism of institutionalised power, that civil disobedience is a path, a path consecrated in the constitution of the republic to defend the goods of the State, in a country where the architectural patrimony of the principal urban centres is consigned to abandonment and particularly in a city where cultural values are surpassed by racing cars.
From Viva Films, a video that tells the protagonists’ story of the Es.Col.A da Fontinha: Abandoned for 5 years it was squated by a group of local people who during that process were evicted 3 times by the Porto City Hall. The squating of a public school, in, by and for the neighborhood of Fontinha. The movement that started others around the country which joined it in solidarity. Let it become a habit! …
A song for the Es.Col.A …
“Desobedece” – Expeão, Rey e Chullage.
(Dedicado ao colectivo Es.col.a.)
Musica produzida por Expeão.
Guitarras: Miguel Azevedo.
Baixo: Guito Maldiva
Letra: Expeão, Rey e Chullage.
Jorra sangue do nariz,
é só mais uma cicatriz,
rosto silencioso e triste,
vida abaixo de cão, ninguém desiste.
Pra todos os que olham para o chão,
estômago vazio, hora de insurreição,
camisolas pretas a tapar a face,
essa manhã foi bem real, repare-se:
disseram que alguns vinham ás 4,
o silêncio apoderou-se do quarto,
estavam todos acorrentados,
os heróis de uma geração de rastos,
vontade de liberdade reprimida,
berros e gemidos enchem a avenida,
limpo o sangue da cabeça de um rapaz que gritava paz
e manchou o cartaz de Rey, Expeão e Chullage.
Uma mãe levanta a sua mão pra limpar o suor,
olha pró céu mas não entende o senhor.
Se pensas que és livre
estás longe de tal
porque neste regime
a última medida
Ainda que haja quem nos governa
que afinal só nos desgoverna,
nos faz viver com grilhões na perna,
nos tem a morrer à espera de ressuscitar e ter a vida eterna.
O povo poderá voltar a ser quem mais ordena,
votos – o nosso querer não cabe nessa caixa.
Marchamos com palavras incendiadas
Marchamos com palavras incendiadas
De Sta Filomena à Fontinha
Marchamos com palavras incendiadas
Não tenhas medo, aparece, desobedece
Invadem o recinto logo cedo,
destroem literatura e brinquedos,
crianças choram com o medo,
homens com máscaras, armas e fatos pretos.
Tudo começa com o spray,
é o que manda a lei,
tratados como insectos e vermes ,
manchas vermelhas no cimento e nas mentes,
são difíceis de limpar, são permanentes,
cânticos mais altos que sirenes,
pimentos doces em abril,
lançados aos leões no covil.
As nossas ambições levaram-nos a isto,
o nosso único deus: materialismo.
Quem é que está a subir pra não cair?
Quem é que está a um passo do abismo?
Se pensas que és livre
estás longe de tal
porque neste regime
a última medida
Eu vi o batalhão, cães de repressão,
sedentos de acção, querem sangue no chão.
Dou o braço a um irmão,
aqui ninguém recua oblá, aguenta a posição.
A nossa luta é pela população, não tenhas medo da agressão.
O bloco negro aguenta pressão
enquanto a rua toda em peso grita: mais não.
A tensão aumenta entre os protestantes,
corpo de intervenção, espírito de sangue,
barricada nas escadas de uma utopia,
uma criança brinca com tinta e pinta
um sol, uma casa e uma menina,
uma bandeira pirata e uma grande família,
sem saber o terror que se avizinha,
último dia de escola no bairro da Fontinha.