Inside the Radical Squat Pushing for Gender Equality in the Anarchist Movement
by Daniel Shkolnik MAR 1 2017 5:44 PM
Spain's economic recession has led to a proliferation of "okupas," or squats, that combine vaguely illegal housing with leftwing ideology. For the feminists of Seville's La Revolución, who occupy a 125-year-old building owned by a bank, that means no men are allowed.
The conversation had dipped into medieval prostitution. In those times, "women were considered weaker—more prone to sexual urges," the editor said. "The devil more easily possessed them, and then used them to possess men."
We were sitting in the back patio of La Revolution, La Revo for short, an okupa, or squat, in Seville where men are allowed only about once or twice a month during special mixed-gender events. Two editors of AK-69, a Spanish anarchist-feminist magazine, were there to discuss the presentation that would accompany the release of a new issue of the magazine happening later that day. A back issue lay on the table. On the cover were four women in ski masks leaning against a wall, naked from the waist down.
There were no ski masks or nudity at the release party, but the aesthetic was resolutely punk. Attendees wore patched-up clothing, thick hoops in various piercings, dreadlocks, and mullets. Artisanal beers and vegan fare came out of the kitchen while dogs trotted around looking to get a taste, or at least a pat on the head. The utility company had cut the water supply two days earlier, but the inconvenience didn't dampen the mood. Besides, revolutions don't operate on convenience.
La Revo is located on Calle San Luis, referred to by the members of La Revo as "Sin Luis"—"without Luis." From the street, the 125-year-old building looks somewhat like a pirate ship docked in the middle of town. Billowing from the balconies, sheets painted with fierce slogans and the logo of the squatting movement—a circle cut through with a lightening-shaped arrow—declare the group's intentions.
As a man, it took me a while to earn the members' trust. I sent multiple emails. I asked a friend who attended events to put in a good word for me. I even dropped a letter into their mail slot. My interviews had to be approved by the assemblea—or assembly, where okupas discuss and vote on all decisions. When I finally did step inside the squat house, it felt like a heightened amount of deference was appropriate, like walking into a place of worship that is not my own.
Though the term is helpful in conveying its general atmosphere, La Revo isn't simply a squat. It's what's known as a centro social okupado autogestionado (CSOA), or occupied and self-managed social center—an outpost of radical leftwing ideology. The women of La Revo, like members of other CSOAs, are anarchist. But rather than trying to subvert the neoliberal, patriarchal state using violence or political insurrection, they are trying to create a temporary urban utopia without any form of hierarchy, where they decide their own norms.
Professor Miguel Ángel Martínez, who has studied and participated in okupas since the late 90s, describes CSOAs as "laboratories" of sorts, but he writes, "that does not imply wandering in a limbo of theories, discourses and debates. Instead, the opposite is true. The actual experience of civil disobedience exercised through the action of squatting enables other practices to take root and reveal the counter-cultural character of the movement." The goal is to have informed action permeate all aspects of life.
At La Revo, anarchists discuss everything from neoliberalism to queer theory. Popular weekly activities include a permaculture workshop and a self-defense class. The okupa also organizes documentary screenings, poetry readings, and release parties for magazines—like AK-69—sympathetic to their cause.
On May 1, Labor Day, La Revo will celebrate its one-year anniversary on Calle San Luis. According to La Revo, the building is technically the property of Banco Sabadell, but the bank can't expel them without an official order from a judge. At the most general level, the reason for this paradox is that the Spanish constitution recognizes both a fundamental right to private property as well as a fundamental right to "adequate and dignified housing." The Spanish Criminal Code was amended in 1995 to punish squatting, but eviction proceedings can still drag on up to a year or more—something La Revo members are using to their advantage.
The members I spoke to said they decided to establish a feminist squat about two years ago, responding to Seville's lack of a space designed exclusively by and for women.
"All spaces are for men: the streets, the bars, the discotheques," says Alex*, a founding member of La Revo who identifies as non-binary. "Women, lesbians, trans, we are all vulnerable [in these spaces]."
Alex, who has participated in various okupas for the past six to seven years, always noticed that even when men would identify as feminists, they would often talk over women during debates or in the assemblea. In La Revo, decision-making aims to be less hierarchical, or as Alex says, "more horizontal." And while striving for non-hierarchical organization is an ideal found in most CSOAs, members of La Revo claim that without men, the goal is more fully realized.
"We notice the different environment when we're in our assembly and when we go to others [in which there are men]," Alex says. "It's tough to explain with words; it's something that you feel inside."
La Revo certainly isn't the first squat that's tried to bring attention to the gender inequality within the anarchist movement, and anarcha-feminism itself has roots in late 19th- and early 20th-century activists and thinkers like Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, Lucy Parsons, among others. But while La Revo's mission isn't new, neither is it redundant.
So far, La Revo's occupation has been well-received by the neighborhood. Rocio*, a member of La Revo who's studying to become a war correspondent, says that women from the neighborhood regularly come to La Revo's workshops and are in favor of what the okupa is trying to provide the local community. According to Rocio, the area is undergoing turistificación, or touristification. "The money and tourists matter more than the people that actually live here," Rocio says. Urban speculators and development companies have tried to bring tourist-centric money-making ventures like luxury hotels into the community, and La Revo has attempted to counteract those efforts.
But even with neighborhood support, La Revo's future is anything but certain. It could conceivably go the way of Casa Grande del Pumarejo, a neighborhood-initiated occupation located farther up Calle San Luis. In 2003 the neighborhood successfully resisted the building of a hotel in an 18th-century mansion and negotiated a resolution with the city to establish the space as a neighborhood social center.
But that kind of transition is rare. A far more common fate for squats is what happened to CSOA Andanza. Also located on Calle San Luis, between El Pumarejo and La Revo, Andanza was reportedly once the largest okupas in the Andalucía region. As of July 2015, its doors and windows have been filled with bricks, and some of its members have faced legal action. Even if the bank that owns La Revo's building were open to striking some sort of deal, Alex tells me La Revo—like Andanza and most other CSOAs—is not in the negotiating business, refusing to make deals with any entity they see as perpetuating a toxic (patriarchal, capitalistic, hierarchical) world order.
But even if the collective is brought down, its members won't necessarily consider it a failure.
"Duration of the squats is not the deepest concern of political squatters," Professor Martínez says. Rather, an okupa is "a place to create a utopia, for a few months, or a few years, and for some that is a victory in itself."
*Names have been changed.