The city belongs to those who occupy it: Okupying Lisbon

Reflections after an assembly of a new okupation in Lisbon …

Any new occupation is invariably accompanied by uncertainty, an uncertainty only intensified by a lack of clarity over means and goals, organisation and methods of functioning, and the physical and human needs for the sustainability of the space taken, over time.  The task of setting these out, even minimally, is difficult, but fundamental.

Why occupy? For housing, to create a social centre, to generate a space of political militancy, to bring media-political attention to more general social issues?  How should the occupation be carried out, by whom?  Which kinds of spaces should be occupied, “public” or “private”?  Or does this distinction make no sense in the end?  Once carried through, how should the occupation be internally organised?  How should decisions be taken?  Who should participate?  If governed by a horizontal assembly, should the assembly be open, or restricted to those who commit “fully” to the okupation’s aims?  And what of the relations to the broader society?  And what position should be assumed in relation to the State: opposition or negotiation?  Should an occupation be seen as an opposition to capitalism, or instead, as a gesture of refusal of, as a retreat or a flight from, a step aside from, capitalism? 

The questions multiply.  And without presuming that it is possible to categorically answer all of them once and for all, – the answers are discovered, change, over the course of any occupation – having no answers, for whatever reason, or only vague, unclear answers, condemns the experiment almost from the beginning.  In the best scenario, the openness leaves possibilities open, but in the worst case, it allows for the development of a “tyranny of structurelessness” with all of its accompanying vices. (Jo Freeman aka Joreen, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, 1970)  Any occupation must move towards some kind of self-definition.  Its internal cohesion and resonance beyond itself depends upon this.  It should it close in upon itself, then it also fails, for it serves only the interests of those engaged in the occupation.

There is no simple guide book or set of rules as to how all of this should be accomplished.  There are no basic, inviolable principles for all okupations.  What is constant however is the need to find a balance between inclusion and exclusion; a delicate balance (not everywhere the same, set or discovered according to circumstances and desires)  but essential if the occupation is to break both with existing social relations and dominant subjectivities, if the occupation is to contribute to the creation of autonomous forms of life.

On the 15th of September, a collective calling itself the Assembleia de Ocupação de Lisboa (AOLX), okupied an unused residential building in the Arroios neighbourhood of Lisbon, owned by the municipality; an occupation against real-estate speculation (made in part possible by a law of 2012 liberalising rents), gentrification, touristification, legalised tax evasion in the form of income tax privileges for foreign workers and pensioners (known under the name of Non-Regular Tax Regime for Non-Regular Residents).  

These four riders on the storm have radically changed the face of Lisbon, as well as other cities and regions in the country.  If the relations of power and mechanisms that carry through these changes are not unique to portugal, the speed at which they are taking place perhaps is (as narrated in the documentary film by the Left Hand Rotation collective, Terramotourism).  And the violence of their consequences can be seen in the explosion of evictions (a social and ethnic cleansing, leaving the city centre in the hands of more economically valuable populations), a rapid and ongoing increase in rents and house prices (2016 saw rents in Lisbon increase 26%, averaging out at 830 Euros per month), the recuperation of the older urban centre for exclusively tourist industry activities and the transformation of whole buildings, and sometimes streets and neighbourhoods, into “airbnb” oases, the expansion of urban transportation and tourist infrastructure into more peripheral areas of the city, threatening older a/illegal occupations and/or self-made neighbourhoods and urbanisations, and so on.  The fabric of former social relations are thus torn asunder, to be replaced by urban theme park spaces of surveilled consumption.  What local population remains is there but to serve.

In the midst of municipal elections across the country, and with all of these transformations and more in the background, the AOLX collective okupied; in recent times, a relatively rare event in portugal.  Where the occupation will go from here, remains to be seen.

The original communique read as follows:

Building in Lisbon is occupied

Number 69 of Marques da Silva Street is occupied.  The action is born of an initiative by a group of people, without any institutional affiliation, united by the desire to give life to an abandoned building.

Over the last years, the right to inhabit the city of Lisbon has been the target of numerous attacks.  In a scenario of economic-financial crisis and austerity, a change in the rental law by the previous government created new business opportunities for investment funds and other speculating entities.  At the same time, the image of the city as sunny, picturesque and peaceful, promoted by the tourist industries, contributed to an increase in the number of people interested in visiting and living in Lisbon.  The market, as well as prices, are on a high.  Neighbourhoods in which formerly rents were minimally accessible have their values rise brutally.  The destructive re-composition of ways of life in the city, now reserved for those who can pay the most, is illustrated by the repeated examples of evictions.

The municipal government of Lisbon, owner of this building (and many thousands more), holds great responsibility for this process … [The government’s program to build low cost rental housing] is far from being an effective response to the problem.  Its objective is more symbolic than material, contributing to the legitimacy of a politics without initiative, that cheapens patrimony and is complicit with investment funds, including in the very definition of supposed social policies.

Before this scenario, we are interested in deepening a critical debate about the city and its transformations that is of consequence practically.  In this sense, the occupation of this residential building is not limited to removing it from the meshes of speculation; we are desirous of making it a space of social use, whether for habitation, education or cultural activities.  The possibilities for use remain open, and will be discussed and decided upon in a horizontal assembly, to take place on the 17 of September (Sunday) at 16:00.  Everyone interested in participating in its reconstruction and dynamic are welcome.

The communique was then followed by an invitation to the assembly of the 17th of September … 

The changes underway in the city of Lisbon are the most recent expression of a political project that seeks to transform each moment of life into a business, that aims to translate in a neoliberal key all the instances of daily life.  The process that began with the austerity measures of the last government continues apace, and now the ambition is to make every square metre of the city a source of income, such that all of the possibilities of life in the city concern themselves exclusively with generating more money.

In this dynamic, the housing question becomes central and a priority.  The supposed “perfect storm” in the housing sector seeks to normalise what is in fact a concerted effort to transform the management of the city into something analogous with the management of a factory or a company.

Against the power of capital that undertakes to capture what is alive and effervescent in the city, the response cannot but involve the constitution of a collective and organised power that can oppose to it a common life project.  Against the atomisation and gentrification of cities, it becomes necessary to oppose to this forms of organisation one that can serve to construct shared mechanisms and goods, that can serve to organise in the urban territory forms of life capable of combating the expansion of capital.

The occupation of abandoned buildings has always been a tactic of public appropriation of spaces removed from collective use.  Over the course of the last decades, throughout the world, innumerable social movements appeared structuring themselves around the possibility of occupying: for housing, for the creation of cultural spaces, for common use.  In Portugal, the movement was always too marginal.  That does not mean however that it is impossible to conceive of the possibility of a vast and organised movement of occupations, in response to the advance of real estate speculation and the neoliberalisation of the city.

We will in this assembly seek to take the first steps in this direction, while at the same time deciding collectively what use to make of the building that we occupied … Everyone who wishes to participate in this process is welcome.

The ALOX collective maintains a facebook page, where these two texts, and others, can be found in their original portuguese.

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