Barcelona, Spain—“When we moved into city hall, there were only paintings by men,” Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau tweeted in March, attaching a picture of her current office wall, which now featured portraits of eight prominent Catalan women—including the legendary anarchist leader Federica Montseny.
“Redecorating the walls, that was the easy change,” Colau’s second in command, Gerardo Pisarello, joked when we spoke with him in late June. “The other ones take quite a bit longer—they are more difficult and don’t just depend on us.” Pisarello’s office, too, features black-and-white photographs: one of a woman celebrating the proclamation of Spain’s Second Republic in 1931, and another taken at the country’s first LGBT protest after dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, a demonstration that, as Pisarello proudly points out, happened in Barcelona.
Colau and her team were unexpectedly swept into the mayor’s office in May 2015. Barcelona en Comú (“Barcelona in Common”), the progressive political platform Colau and others founded less than a year before the elections, won by the narrowest of margins, with a mere 11 of the 41 seats in the city’s council. It was just enough to form a minority government. Still, the BeC platform—a coalition that includes the Catalan branch of Spain’s new anti-austerity party Podemos, the United Left, and the Catalan Green Party—has faced a difficult challenge. Their aspiration is not just to alleviate the severe social and economic consequences of the Great Recession. They also want to reinvent how city government functions, from the ground up.
“I think what’s happening in Barcelona is unique,” Laura Roth, who teaches political science at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and runs BeC’s neighborhood assembly for Ciutat Vella, says. “There are struggles everywhere. There are movements everywhere. Some are more democratic and others are less democratic. Some are more active and successful and others are less. But I think that there aren’t many movements today that are rethinking how to do politics.”
Yet that, precisely, is BeC’s goal. For BeC, grassroots participation is fundamental. Drawing on a long-standing tradition of powerful residents’ associations, the party has organized itself according to Barcelona’s neighborhood-oriented map—each neighborhood runs its own local assembly—and tries to appeal to an array of people, not just the college-age, activist population with which they’re often associated.
In Barcelona, Roth says, many no longer identify with the logic of the traditional left, which is often structured around specific social movements, labor unions, and political parties. Ciutat Vella (“Old City”) is a textbook case. The district demographics skew to an older generation, which often comes from a wealthier background and shares different interests than the party’s core of young activists. Yet, Roth says, people in the district often agree on key issues plaguing the city, such as the uncontrolled growth of tourism.