Not many tourists know this, but Madrid is a capital city of squatting.
In all societies, in some form or another, there are young people who live in abandoned properties without the consent of the property owner. Political squatting, however, only really started after 1968, and arrived in Spain in the 1970s.
Kasa de la Muntanya, Barcelona, has squatted since 1989. Image via Wikicommons.
Since 1995, there has been a legal and cultural split between housing squats and squatted “social centers” (centros sociales okupados, or okupas for short) in Spain, as a result of a change to the penal code, which dictates specific punishment in the form of daily fines if squatters intended to reside in a property. While live-in squatting has largely become a clandestine activity, political squats that use occupied spaces for various social activities try to make themselves highly visible, as models of alternative lifestyles and radical approaches to private property. Barcelona has historically had more squatted spaces than Madrid, but the capital city has been quickly catching up as a swath of new sites have been taken over in recent years. Miguel Ángel Martínez, a sociologist at the Complutense University of Madrid who specializes in this topic, says squatting in Madrid is currently experiencing “a sweet moment.”
At the moment, there are more than thirty social centers in Madrid occupying entire buildings. These spaces are used to organize concerts, practice yoga, teach new dance steps, rehearse theater shows and plan demonstrations. Counter-cultural leisure goes hand-in-hand with neighborhood services and political activity. The guiding principles of these okupas have to do with self-management and assembly-based decision making. Anarchy and autonomy are the prevailing ideologies but many people involved reject political labels, and prefer to build their own theory through actual modes of operation within the okupas.
A concert held in okupa Casablanca, for the space’s first anniversary. Image via.
The squatting movement has been very influential in the structure of protest in Madrid. Several of the forty people who decided to sleep at the Puerta del Sol (Madrid’s central square) on May 15, 2011—the event that gave birth to the 15M movement, Spain’s precursor to the Occupy movement—were already part of the squatter scene. The protest camp that subsequently formed and occupied the square for nearly a month followed the self-management methodology of the squatters’ social centers: in okupas, people come together in working groups that form committees to discuss issues. Decisions are made at general assemblies, and are based on consensus. Members of the squatting community brought these organizational principals to the 15M encampment, where they were widely popularized, becoming the structure of Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park occupation. This use of okupa culture in mass protest, it turned out, also generated a renewed impulse to appropriate empty urban spaces.