Spain: Hands off my house!
1 April 2013
Publicly denouncing politicians who refuse to revise the law on mortgages, Spaniards lobbying against the soaring number of home evictions have adopted a technique used to put pressure on the Argentine military, nicknamed "the unmasking".
One morning, amid great secrecy, they meet up at Atocha station, Madrid, to lie in wait for their “prey”: members of parliament arriving from their constituencies to attend a plenary session. Around 7.30am, equipped with whistles and loudspeakers, dozens of the activists converged in the lobby of the train arrivals hall. Each one carries two cardboard signs, a green one proclaiming “Yes, it can be done” (referring to the halting of home repossessions), and a red one declaring, “But they don’t want to” (referring to the politicians).
At around 9am, the trains begin pulling in, from Valencia, Barcelona and Seville and the tension ratchets up. “Cancel the debt and provide social housing for the evictees,” yell the activists. Police officers, just arriving, improvise a security cordon. As MPs appear in the distance, officials hasten to shield them as they escape to the taxi ranks.
After four years of struggle to put an end to the repossessions drama – 510 per day since the start of 2013 – hundreds of anti-eviction collectives across all of Spain have come up with a new strategy: "unmasking" (or escrache), or public shaming. This term from Argentina comes from the 1990s demonstrations that were intended to shine a spotlight on officials who were involved in the military repression from 1976 to 1983, generally by gathering outside their homes or at their offices.
Shaming the foot-draggers
In a Spain revolted by the sight of people being thrown out of their homes into the street after losing their jobs (26 per cent of the evicted are unemployed) and being unable to pay their mortgages, the "unmasking" method was revived to denounce politicians unwilling to substantially amend the mortgage legislation currently in force. “We’re still warming up,” confirms Guillem, coordinator of the action at Atocha. But we’ll get better at shaming those foot-draggers. We’ll catch up with them as they’re heading home, or surprise them in a restaurant or a hotel. We’re going to keep at it.”
Since mid-March, the Indignados have occupied the Ritz hotel in Madrid and organised a noisy sit-in in front of the Barcelona apartment of a Conservative MP. “Our strategy is absolutely peaceful; this is not about striking out at or insulting them, but about keeping up the pressure from the people. If our voice, which is supported by the vast majority of Spaniards, goes unheard, then it means there's no democracy," warns Ada Colau, a prominent spokeswoman for the anti-eviction collectives that have collected 1.4m signatures in three years.
On February 12, these signatures allowed the organisers to submit a popular legislative initiative (ILP) with three main demands to the Chamber of Deputies. It called for a moratorium on evictions, retroactive cancellation of arrears after a property is vacated, and the establishment of social housing stock. The objective of the "unmasking" is to force the hand of members of the Popular Party (PP, conservative), the party in power with an absolute majority, and the only one to oppose the ILP.
Since last week, the ferocity of the shaming campaign has picked up pace. Dozens of anti-eviction activists have been following Conservative MPs, including senior leaders of the PP: in front of the parliament, below their office windows and, increasingly, to the doors of their homes, accompanied by boos and jeers and a banging of pots and pans and slogans amplified though speakers. “The people in the street are reminding them of their democratic duty,” says Ivan, a coordinator. The politicians, though, consider the method unacceptable.
“This harassment of politicians is anti-democratic,” said a furious Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on March 25. Rajoy, who has not set the date for the vote on the ILP, has his back to the wall. Despite the popular pressure, he refuses to take the petitions into account. “This would make it even harder for people to get mortgages. Given our financial fragility, it's just too risky,” he insists.
However, the wind is behind the protestors: a February survey by the Metroscopia Institute revealed that 85 per cent of Spaniards, moved by the plight of families camped out on the public squares, support the anti-eviction struggle. The opposition parties are forming a united front, and judges are practising a form of conscientious objection. Since December, six people who were about to be thrown out on the street by bailiffs have committed suicide.
Furthermore, on March 14, the European Court of Justice came down on the side of a Spanish plaintiff who had argued that the country’s legislation was "wrong". The legislation, in force since 1909, allows very speedy evictions (from the first notice of arrears), prevents the owner from taking legal action against the often abusive terms of the contract signed with the bank, and forces the evictee to pay the arrears at prohibitive interest rates. “This ruling from the European Court opens up new perspectives,” said Judge Fernandez Seijo, who had sought the opinion of the Court. “It will let us block repossessions more easily.”
Cornered, the Rajoy government announced that any new law would "take into account certain objections” made by the European Court. However, it added, “under no circumstances will any retroactive annulment of arrears be possible”. And so the fight with the anti-eviction collectives, for which this point is non-negotiable, is on. The "unmaskings" will, no doubt, continue.