A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles
The Squatters’ Movement in Spain: A Local and Global Cycle of Urban Protests
* This is a reprint of the article published in Martínez (2007, The Squatters’ Movement: Urban Counter-Culture and Alter-Globalization Dynamics.” – South European Society and Politics 12(3): 379-398).
Miguel A. Martínez López
“A rhizome establishes endless connections between se-
miotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances
relative to the arts, sciences and social struggles.”
(Deleuze & Guattari 1977)
The emergence of the squatters’ movement in Spanish cities in
the 1980s coincided with the first important crisis of the neighbour-
hoods’ movement. The latter, a protagonist movement for a great part
of the transition period between 1975 and 1982, has been studied by
several scholars (Castells 1983; Villasante 1984) who have emphasized
its combination of demands for collective facilities and democratic re-
form. In reality, although the practice of squatting was very common in
earlier urban movements, these were composed of different generations
(age cohorts) of activists (Villasante 1984; 2004). Squatting activists
were mainly young people who started to adopt lifestyles and ideas
that had spread through other European countries in previous decades
and which they tried to imitate, albeit in a slightly diffused manner.
Although clear lines of continuity may be identified between the events
of May 1968 and the new ‘alternative’ social movements on which
they had a substantial impact, this was not a somewhat delayed revival
of the communitarian and libertarian spirit of that era (Bailey 1973;
Fernandez Duran 1993).
The practice of squatting in abandoned buildings was initially a way
of finding spaces to strengthen the most radical aspects of the new so-
cial movements (NSMs) (conventionally reduced to environmentalism,
pacifism and feminism), but also of other more fringe and alternative
movements (students’ and workers’ autonomy, counter-information,
anti-fascism, solidarity with prisoners, and international solidarity). It
immediately spread as a movement with the characteristic features of
an urban movement, an alternative political scene and counter-cultural
practices that distinguished it from other social movements.
As we shall see later, only sensationalist reports in the media seemed
to acknowledge the movement’s existence in the mid 1990s. Social sci-
entists have paid scant attention during the years of its long journey,
a journey that began more than two decades ago. It is clear that this
social movement has not mobilized large numbers of the population,
as either activists or sympathizers. However, it cannot be excluded so
easily from the political and social analysis of our urban environments.
Its relevance and significance lie in both the actual characteristics of the
movement and its relationships with other movements and with the
key problems of the social context in which it operates.
This article will affirm that the squatters’ movement is an excellent
example of an urban movement with a ‘radical left’ approach and, si-
multaneously, one of the areas to have undergone the strongest political
and social ‘counter-cultural’ innovation, largely as a prelude to what has
since developed into the alter-globalization movement.
Of all the alternative movements to have appeared during the last
two decades in Spain, the anti-militarist movement and, in particu-
lar, the insumision campaign (refusal to serve compulsory military ser-
vice) have been those that have achieved the highest level of political
confrontation and success in terms of their objectives (Aguirre 1998).
This movement managed to enter public debates, draw attention to
protests and channel the broader anti-militarist sympathy of society
in its favour, and all this with relatively few activist and organizational
resources. Its small membership and politically radical nature (reject-
ing alternative national service and calling for the full dismantling of
armies), dealing with issues fundamentally affecting young people in
the process of finding employment and becoming independent from
their families, became an extraordinary paradigm for those who were
new to squatting. The seminal work of Manuel Castells (1983) on the
issue of urban movements pointed to an interesting approach to their
structural dimensions (economic, political and cultural) and effects.
Later criticisms of his model (Pickvance 1985; 1986; Fainstein & Hirst
1995; Marcuse 2002; Mart?nez 2003) stressed the need to focus on
other social and political dimensions of their context, and on organi-
zational resources, given the difficulties of understanding urban move-
ments such as that of the squatters (Lowe 1986: Pruijt 2003).
Therefore, it is appropriate to explain the genesis and development
of these types of movements and to identify their peculiarities and im-
pacts by complementing the traditional approaches of social sciences
with others that emphasize the movements’ complexity: their networks
of transversal relationships with other movements and with different
social contexts, their own reflexivity, their capacities for creativity and
for providing public goods (Mart?nez 2002a).
From this perspective, the squatters’ movement will be presented
as a ‘rhizomatic’ movement, with multiple connections between the
‘nodal points’ of networks, composed of these people, ideas, events or
spaces, characterized by non-linear evolution based on ruptures, recon-
stitutions and alliances, with the opening up of new possibilities for
expression, entry and metamorphosis (Deleuze & Guattari 1977). Or
as an ‘immediatist’ movement: criticizing the immediate sources and
impacts of power whilst rejecting utopias and ideologies that project
liberation from the existing forms of domination onto a distant future
(Foucault 1982). Or as a movement generating revolutionary situations
and temporarily autonomous zones, creating workers’ committees that
release the working class from their alienation, experimenting with
urban design to promote community meetings (Debord 1995/1976),
protesting against capitalist domination through insurrections of ‘po-
etic terrorism’, using music and ridicule, guaranteeing the invisibility
and invulnerability of protesters (Bey 1996/1985).
These theoretical approaches draw attention to aspects of the squat-
ters’ movement which are initially indiscernible and normally relegated
and undervalued in more conventional press and academic articles.
They also overcome analytical simplifications that focus almost ex-
clusively on: (a) the criminal nature of the movement’s main activity
(squatting as a violation of private property); (b) the subcultural and
fringe nature of squatting activists (squatting and squatters as an ‘urban
tribe’ with their specific dress code, discourse and original customs)
(Feixa 1999); (c) the juvenile nature of this social movement (squatting
as a passing and transitory collective action, limited to satisfying tem-
porary needs for accommodation—or temporary concerns—of young
people during their period of emancipation from their families).
Based on findings reported in earlier research (Mart?nez 2002b;
Pruijt 2003; 2004; Adell & Mart?nez 2004), this study follows an anal-
ysis of the squatters’ movement which, firstly, identifies the persistent
and consistent aspects of this set of urban practices which intervene in
local and global policies. In that sense, this article embarks on a pre-
sentation of the historical evolution of the squatters’ movement which
is structured along the basis of certain dimensions (such as claims over
the housing question and an explicit conflict with local authorities) that
have conferred its social relevance and its relationships with other social
movements and organizations.
Secondly, the analysis proceeds towards an explanation of some of
the contributions made by the squatters’ movement, such as its radi-
calism and political creativity both within the movement itself and in
relation to the urban, political and social contexts with which it has
In its aim of achieving both objectives, this article focuses on the
alter-globalization movement as the main benchmark of validation. To
this end, it asks the following questions: to what extent did the squat-
ter movement precede the alter-globalization movement, and to what
extent have its local characteristics been incorporated into that move-
ment? The final section presents evidence on these questions and pro-
vides some answers.
Most of the findings presented here stem from a long period of
participant observation within many (Centros Sociales Okupados y
Autogestionados/Squatted and Self-Managed Social Centres) CSOAs
and squatted houses in medium and large cities all over Spain. I stud-
ied squats during the period 1997-2004, though I have subsequent-
ly continued to collect documents and visit CSOAs. Sometimes my
participation took the form of giving talks or organizing workshops,
but more frequently I simply attended concerts, exhibitions, talks, mu-
sic festivals, meetings and demonstrations and visited people I knew.
My notes varied in length, as they were dependent on the length of
my stay in each city and the type of involvement and fieldwork I un-
dertook. Therefore, I made extensive use of information produced by
the movement itself through its various pamphlets, underground maga-
zines, self- recorded video tapes, internet websites and mainstream me-
dia. I conducted more than thirty in-depth interviews with activists in
different cities (mainly between 1998 and 2003, with squatters living
or working in CSOAs in Madrid, Barcelona, Vigo, Bilbao, Valencia,
Seville and Saragossa). Empirical data provided in other works (also
based on personal interviews and some focus groups) have been also
used (see Ehrenhaus & Perez 1999; Mart?nez 2002b; Batista 2002;
Adell & Mart?nez 2004; Llobet 2005). Historical examination, com-
parison with the experience of squatting in other European countries,
contextualization of Spanish social processes and urban politics, and
critical analysis of qualitative and quantitative data (basically pro-
vided by news in publications like IPA-Molotov, La Campana, CNT
Newspaper, Contra Infos, etc.) were the guidelines of the methodologi-
cal strategy adopted. Due to space limitations, the inclusion of specific
interview extracts has been avoided. Instead, a general assessment of the
evolution of this local and global urban movement has been favoured.
Missing Points in the Historical
Reconstruction of the Movement
As is the case with many social phenomena, it is not very enlighten-
ing to give an account of the history of the squatters’ movement by
simply grouping together facts in successive phases. That approach has
virtues in terms of charting events with respect to specific dates and
building an overall historical perspective but is insufficient in terms of
explanatory quality. For that reason, here, influenced by Foucault and
Guattari, there is a combination of that approach with an identification
of relevant ‘catalysts’, ‘triggers’ and attempts at ‘restructuring’ in the
development of the movement. Before considering these elements, it
should be remembered that the consideration of a set of practices as a
‘social movement’ is the result of a slightly artificial external operation.
This is particularly true in the case of squatting, not just because its
practitioners often refuse to see themselves as members of a supposed
squatters’ movement but also because the experiences of each squatted
building, district or city where successive squats have appeared include
uniquely local characteristics that force us to undertake a very accurate
and delicate appreciation of their common features.
According to the aforementioned three concepts, the approach pro-
moted here may be summarized in the following way.
The young people behind the emergence and development of squat-
ting in different cities during the 1980s and 1990s shared a common
experience of unemployment, job insecurity, difficulties in access to ac-
commodation, and the development of cultural outlets independent of
state institutions or other formal organizations. Certain circumstances
and social phenomena operated as ‘catalysts’ for the consolidation of
the movement, such as the relative lack of a precise legal and political
framework for the definition of squats, and the extraordinary survival
capacity of certain squats which served as a benchmark for others in the
same city and elsewhere.
The squatters’ movement endured strong judicial and political repres-
sion following the introduction of the Penal Code of 1995. Although
the Penal Code established stronger penalties and laid down the frame-
work for a more severe persecution of squatting, in the years immedi-
ately after its introduction the number of squats, and naturally, evic-
tions increased. That led to a stronger presence of squatting as an issue
in the mainstream media. The movement diversified and multiplied as
it suffered unprecedented criminalization and stigmatization. As ten-
sions with local authorities increased, the consolidation of certain in-
ternal tendencies within the movement, such as a rejection of what was
seen to be its institutionalization, the possible legalization of squats,
and a preference for urban districts targeted by planning authorities for
restructuring and development, became apparent.
Continuities and Restructuring
The squatting of buildings for housing purposes has always been a
feature of the movement. However, the strength and public significance
of the movement have been achieved through the use of squatted build-
ings as CSOAs. In them, the functions of residential buildings have
been integrated, subordinated or eliminated in favour of a broad range
of counter-cultural, political and productive activities open to other
social movements and sectors of the population beyond the ‘alternative
scene’. As the development of the movement was marked by a diversi-
fication of the social networks involved and greater experience of the
participants and activists, the squatters’ movement began to establish
new alliances and embrace non-squatted social centres and social orga-
nizations from a broad spectrum of the alter-globalization movement
or from the districts and cities where squats had appeared.
The article now moves to a diachronic evaluation which is accompa-
nied by a guiding chronology.
First Phase (1980-95)
This period can be traced back to the very first squats that appeared
in residential buildings and were publicly claimed as part of protest
activities by the young people involved until the introduction of the
so-called ‘Penal Code of Democracy’ which criminalized squatting in
abandoned buildings and refusal to undertake military service, in a
clear political U-turn designed specifically to persecute these two alter-
native social movements.
Multiple squatting in residential buildings began to spread in the main
Spanish cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Bilbao and Valencia) and
slowly a different type of squats, which were also used for other activities
(concerts, discussions and debates, meetings of specific groups) open to
non-residents of the buildings in question, began to make their appear-
ance. Although there had already been some similar ‘squatting’ experi-
ences with an exclusively ‘social centre’ role during the transition period,
the squatters’ movement started with young people who lived in squat-
ted houses and who became increasingly committed to the dynamism of
the CSOAs. This mutual relationship produced a tension that was often
resolved by a drastic separation of squatted buildings used for housing
purposes and others used as social centres. In fact, it was the CSOAs
that gradually attracted more young people to the squatters’ movement
(and other social movements that used squats to meet, raise funds and
promote themselves) and made sure that new activists were recruited to
the movement in order to guarantee the survival of the squats, providing
support during evictions and then squatting in the buildings themselves.
Due to the high intensity of militancy in all facets of daily life and
the insecure nature of living conditions and survival within the CSOAs,
and even the elevated rhythm of organizing and performing all types
of counter-cultural activities, activists were constantly leaving (but re-
placed by others). However, the personal satisfaction offered by the ex-
perience of immediate emancipation in terms of accommodation, social
relations and political activity, coupled with the stimulus of emblematic
squats that had already been around for more than 3-5 years (some are
now more than 15 years old), were some of the main attractions for the
squatter activists who were multiplying in many Spanish cities.
Attention must also be drawn to another relevant element oper-
ating as a catalyst, i.e. that is that the number of squats (more than
80) was at least double the number of evictions (around 40) and that
these took place at a small personal cost, and relatively little repression,
though in many cases they took place without any legal guarantees.
Eviction processes during that period were slow and allowed squatters
to find alternative squats with relative ease. The authorities were only
able to penalize squats with fines and, at most, force eviction but many
squatters were arrested because they refused to do their national service
rather than because of their participation in squatting. The mass media
gradually and in a rather ambivalent fashion began to present a highly
stigmatized image of squatters, without, however, ever treating them as
either a social movement or a threat to social order.
Second Phase (1996-2000)
The accumulation of strengths, experience and generational renewal
within the movement led to the establishment of CSOAs as the main
structural elements of all squats, counter-cultural activities and related
social movements. With the enactment of the Penal Code, some CSOAs
openly challenged the new legal and political framework, increasing
their public presence, protest repertoire and alliances. Passive and active
resistance to evictions also increased, with more street confrontations
with the police. The ‘Battle of the Princesa Cinema’ in Barcelona, the
death of a squatter during eviction from a theatre in Valencia and the
successive evictions and re-squatting of the ‘Gaztetxe’ in Pamplona
drew the attention of the mass media and authorities to the movement,
prompting a quantitative leap in terms of its public visibility.
Housing was still a structural problem in Spanish society. There
were also other serious crises in the late 1990s (inflation, downturn in
the construction of social housing, among others), with a worsening
of the prospects for young people. However, the squatters’ movement
embraced these issues within a broader lifestyle perspective in which all
productive, reproductive and civic aspects are questioned. During that
period, residential buildings and CSOAs continued to be squatted, but
the new legal panorama led to numerous evictions and much harder
repression with documented cases of abuse, illegal eviction, prison sen-
tences and personal persecution. What is surprising is that the cycle of
squats, evictions and new squats did not cease with stronger repression.
As a result, there were more than 130 registered squats compared with
100 evictions in this five-year period.
The CSOAs organized a wide variety of activities and their po-
litical and counter-cultural specialization separated them even more
from squatting in residential buildings for housing purposes, though
not necessarily from people who lived in squats, as sometimes the two
worlds continued to mix. Due to increasing levels of repression suf-
fered by the movement, coordination meetings between the different
squats were considered more important than ever in many cities but
they rarely achieved continuity over time. Nevertheless, during this
period, political contacts between squats in different cities increased
through participation in joint demonstrations and the creation of the
first online communication lists.
Finally, the most significant trends during this period were the evi-
dent restructuring of the movement with an increase in rural squats
with many links with urban squats and, in particular, a convergence
of the squatter movement with alter-globalization protests in which
squatters had participated in previous years. Despite the fact that these
protest events were not particularly well attended, they included more
artistic protest activities and more resources (lorries, music, etc.) and
were much better prepared given the ever present potential for violent
repression by the police (Adell 2004). However, the dramatic increase
in the number of attacks on public amenities or companies during
some of these demonstrations, together with the strategy of some po-
litical authorities to associate the movement with armed groups, such
as Euskadi ta Aslatasuna (ETA), prompted the mass media to transmit
a more negative image of squatters and promoted an increase in their
criminalization and persecution (Gonzalez et al. 2002; Alcalde 2004;
Asens 2004). All this partially undermined the movement’s social le-
gitimacy. However, its long history had already become well known
among young people and especially among social movements from
which squatters obtained new support, regardless of any negative media
stigma attached (Alcalde 2004; Asens 2004).
Third Phase (2001-2006)
Recent years have been dominated by a crisis in the squatters’
movement in both Spain and other European countries (Pruijt 2004;
Herreros 2004). Nevertheless, we cannot easily proclaim its demise be-
cause new squatting and networking initiatives continue and the move-
ment’s philosophy has come a long way. What is true is that squats
have disappeared in some cities whereas in others there has been no
squatting for several years. Evictions have been more conclusive, with
fewer opportunities for re-squatting or the stability of collectives with
evicted CSOAs. A high density of squats and evictions similar to those
in previous years has only been maintained in the metropolitan area of
Barcelona and in various cities and towns of the Basque Country.
Another aspect worth highlighting is that prison sentences have
only been applied in rare occasions and since the previous period the
courts have often been more lenient (or, at least, divided) with respect
to the application of the law. In this sense, eviction proceedings have
been more repressive and have been concluded more quickly but on the
other hand, rulings and sentences have often been delayed for years,
once again favouring attempts to take as much advantage as possible
of squatting without any great fear of immediate penal repercussions.
During this period new and sporadic negotiations were also held with
the owners of squatted buildings or with authorities, but practically
no rulings in favour of squatters have taken place (Gonzalez 2004).
In addition, no formal organizations were created for channelling the
claims of squatters through institutional channels, since in Spain hous-
ing has not been a highly specialized area of voluntary social work, in
contrast to the situation in The Netherlands or the United States (Corr
1999; Pruijt 2003). In fact, demonstrations, joined by the squatters’
movement, against urban speculation and housing shortages have only
recently, since 2006, become widespread.
The two main aspects of restructuring in this phase were: (1) the
appearance of new self-managed but non-squatted social centres (ei-
ther rented or purchased) that prolonged the activities performed in the
CSOAs or which continued to be linked to them in a new, more varied
and open network of activism (Herreros 2004; Mart?nez 2004); and (2)
the convergence with part of the alter-globalization movement which
strengthened international links by participating in key European dem-
onstrations (Prague, Genoa, Gothenburg, Athens) together with many
other organizations and collaborating in demonstrations organized in
Spain (Barcelona in 2001, Seville and Madrid in 2002, the anti-war
demonstrations of 2003).
More than Just an Urban Movement:
Oscillations between the Local and the
From the analytical perspective adopted here, it was demonstrated
that it is rather inappropriate to see the squatters’ movement as sim-
ply a youth movement or as isolated illegal actions to satisfy housing
needs. In contrast, there are sufficient indicators to confirm that this
is an urban movement (Pickvance 2003; Mayer 2003) that is durable
in time and has given rise to a first-order political conflict with the
dominant political and economic system: in particular, squats are pub-
licized, communicated and justified through the use of both alternative
and mainstream media sources. Squatters therefore try to participate
in the political arena and social life beside the fact that they occupy
empty buildings. This is also evident when the provision of housing by
squats is often combined through the openness of the CSOAs to other
activists, sympathisers and audiences, with the organization of various
cultural activities and protest events over different issues. Following to
Castells’s insights on urban movements (Castells 1983), we verify that
social reproduction, local power and cultural identity were crucial di-
mensions of squatting.
The consistency of the movement over time stems, above all, from
its internal networks of social relationships that are formed between the
different squats and with other social organizations and guarantee the
continuity of both projects and activist involvement independently of
each specific squat. However, it would be a gross mistake to solely clas-
sify this urban movement as a movement of the young, since getting
a place to live and expressing yourself is not only a definitive means of
emancipating yourself from your family but also an aspiration of any
adult person. Although most activists are young and have relatively un-
stable lives, when they squat they normally start to live away from their
families of origin and work in temporary jobs or in the black market
economy, while simultaneously embarking upon an intense process of
political socialization whereby they learn to exercise their civil rights,
collective organisation and self-expression when it comes to defending
squats and participating in different social struggles.
However, it is true that these common features have been ques-
tioned by some within the movement, who argue that squatting is only
a means for achieving other ends. As we shall show later, these types of
declarations only represent symptoms of the alter-globalization enthu-
siasm that has always fuelled squatting, despite the fact that its most
immediate actions have been restricted to local spaces in the districts
or cities where the squats are located. In fact, the existence of a na-
tional or Europe- wide movement has also been critiqued, by alluding
to the fact that the specific development of squats in each city displays
greater consistency. However, regardless of the interactions that have
taken place with local governments, it is important to note that it has
been this level of government that has repeatedly been the main actor
with which all groups of squatting activists have had to test their po-
litical strategies, and this has also been independent of the question of
ownership of squatted properties because most were neither municipal
nor public (owned by regional or central state authorities) (Mart?nez
2002b, p. 245).
The internal heterogeneity of the movement is generally the third ar-
gument for questioning its consistency as a social movement. At times
of greatest friction, the press and certain political authorities have re-
sorted to classifying squatters as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, making a distinc-
tion between those willing to negotiate and violent radicals, between
those who only claim residential buildings or social spaces and those
who are more interested in public protest, agitation and civil mobiliza-
tion. Academic publications tend to highlight the differences between
leaders and passive followers, differences between groups with different
ideologies (e.g. anarchists, communists and nationalists) or divisions
according to social class, gender or family. Squatters themselves may
agree with those and other classifications related, for example, to their
personal experience of squatting or their participation in other social
movements (Llobet 2005, pp. 309, 324).
However, it is not hard to identify a common magma of libertarian
and autonomous principles in almost all the experiences, promoting an
assembly-orientated self-organization independent of political parties,
trade unions and more formalized organizations and, above all, draw-
ing attention to the open dimensions of society and politics censored
by the institutional and commercial media. Once again, none of these
issues can be described as the passing concern of young people, even
if this is the time in their lives when they grow into squatter activists.
Furthermore, some social aspects must be highlighted concerning
the urban and political definition of this movement, such as the struc-
ture of socio-spatial opportunities that activists have systematically ex-
ploited in order to set up squats, such as the fact that squats have relied
on the existence of large, unoccupied and abandoned or dilapidated
estates in order to develop. Different squats have been able to concen-
trate in specific parts of cities and establish more or less intense rela-
tionships with one another during those long periods of urban specu-
lation or town planning, right before these areas are transformed into
new residential, commercial or business service areas (Mart?nez 2004).
Of course, these types of urban transformations are not confined to
Spanish cities. This is a much more global phenomenon. However, only
some places have been used for collective actions such as squatting (par-
ticularly evident in Spain but also in Italy and, to a lesser extent, The
Lastly, the most controversial dimension of the movement is its
counter-cultural element, which represents one of its strongest links
with the global dimension of the movement. Does that mean that
squatters do not have material needs? Could counter-culture be a refuge
enabling its practitioners to avoid the important problems of society? Is
it a post-modern movement that seeks maximum instantaneous plea-
sure through social diversity, partying and a nomadic lifestyle, all tinged
with vague ideological anti-capitalist affirmations?
In some countries, like Germany, squatting has been seen as an exam-
ple of a counter-cultural movement committed to building a collective
identity in strong opposition to other actors but with certain ambiva-
lence with respect to power and material living conditions (Rucht 1992;
Koopmans 1995, pp. 17-37). One of the premises of this article is that
this counter-cultural dimension is more easily understood by linking it to
a constant collective creativity in all facets of daily life which are, in turn,
developed as a reaction to perceived global constrictions (Llobet 2005,
pp. 49, 95). This position can be summarized in the following premises.
(a) Active participation in the squatter movement creates a lifestyle
that involves forms of expression, socializing, and social organization
within a frame of relatively austere material survival. Therefore, the cul-
tural nature of the movement consists of all these aggregated forms of
the squatters’ ‘lifestyle’.
Even though this is very difficult to verify with precision, our sample
of interviews suggests that around half of the squatters were university
graduates. Nevertheless, these squatters did not use their qualifications
for related employment. Temporary jobs, self-employment in coopera-
tives, the informal economy and mutual aid were the more typical way
for squatters to earn a living, irrespective of class origin. For those with
a middle-class background, their material conditions deteriorate when
they adopt a squatting lifestyle, regardless of the fact that they occa-
sionally make use of family resources (more often than squatters with a
working-class background). Nonetheless, it is estimated that approxi-
mately a third of squatters are of working-class origin. Consequently,
individual material necessities are largely resolved collectively or within
the practices of the aforementioned squatters’ lifestyle.
(b) If the social practices associated with squatting tend to be seen as
‘counter-cultural’, this is mainly because on a more conscious or ideo-
logical level squatters seek to oppose and overcome the dominant cul-
ture. ‘Dominant culture’ refers to forms of production, consumption,
social relationships and political decision-making. These are processes
of searching without any specific end. At best they can be seen as ex-
periments or laboratories but 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.
Low-priced tickets to music concerts and other spectacles and the
money collected from such events are used to finance squats or other
similar causes. The free promotion of training workshops on the use of
new technologies or craftwork, the opening of squats to promote books
or political campaigns, and the setting up of libraries, work coopera-
tives or language schools for immigrants are just some of the facets that
establish a high level of counter-cultural coherence between means and
ends. It is true that such dynamics often distract activists from other
political struggles (employment) and that the main social problem asso-
ciated with squatting (urban speculation) is only combated through the
action of squatting, which until recently lacked more far-reaching alli-
ances and tactics. However, this should not prevent us from acknowl-
edging the contributions of the squatting movement, the coherence of
many of its practices and the establishment of free spaces for expression
and criticism of the dominant culture.
The Boomerang Effect of Alter-Globalization
The alter-globalization enthusiasm that has fuelled the squatter
movement right from its origins shares certain common features with
the development of the European squatters’ movement: the campaign
against the Olympic Games, for example, successfully promoted by
Dutch squats in 1986 (ADILKNO 1994, pp. 129- 147), and, more
recently, the Social Forum of Genoa in 2000, where the ‘Disobedient’
and ‘White Overalls’ emerged from the Italian CSOAs to resist po-
lice attacks during protests against the G8 summit (Famiglietti 2004),
are a direct manifestation of the fact that squatting has always been
understood by its protagonists as something ‘more than just living’.
That something more turns the political protest into a ‘politics of desire’
(P&P: ‘party and protest’) and the search for a broader self-sufficiency
(DIY: ‘do it yourself ’).
Hence, it seems that from an ideological standpoint and bearing in
mind the types of counter-cultural actions undertaken, the squatter’s
movement has always had a global vocation that differentiates its activi-
ties from those squats whose sole purpose is to satisfy housing needs.
Moreover, some would classify this movement in Spain as a ‘precur-
sor’ or even ‘instigator’ of an entire cycle of protests, which influenced,
through their example of radical democracy, an entire family of social
movements converging in the alter-globalization movement (Herreros
2004). For others, the gradual adhesion of the squatter movement to
the alter-globalization movement and the subsequent crisis of the for-
mer and the rising success of the latter reveal the successful culmination
of one of the predominant discourses (among the most developed) in
the squatting movement, namely the search for greater social autonomy
and multiple alliances in movements that criticize the capitalist order
From sustained participant observation and according to docu-
mented records and interviews, I believe there is abundant evidence to
justify that original global (or alter-global) orientation of the squatters’
movement. First of all, information circulating in Spanish CSOAs has
always included news about squats and libertarian protests in Europe
and Latin America. This international involvement had a direct practi-
cal consequence in the action repertoire adopted by Spanish squatters,
such as conferences and festivals in order to collect funds for specific
causes, protest events in front of diplomatic buildings in Spain and the
boycotting of products produced by globally targeted companies.
Global concerns and new styles of interactions between social move-
ments, through the strong links that squatters kept with the campaign
against obligatory national service throughout Spain and with the free
local radio stations that also tend to act as platforms for counter-in-
formation on global issues, were also developed. Squatters themselves
pioneered early alter-globalization protest campaigns: such as the
‘Desenmascaremos el 92’ (Let’s unmask 1992) against the commercial
nature, urban speculation and social control involved in the interna-
tional Megaevents celebrated in Barcelona (Olympic Games); the elec-
tion of Madrid as the European Capital of Culture and the World Expo
in Seville in 1992; and the ‘50 anos bastan’ (50 years is enough) cam-
paign against the policies of the World Bank, which held its summit
meeting in Madrid in 1994.
In the same year, 1994, Spanish CSOAs served as one of the main
means for disseminating information on the uprising of the EZLN
(Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional/Zapatista Army for National
Liberation) in Chiapas (Mexico), which coincided with the entry into
force of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). This activ-
ity took the form of solidarity and support groups in various CSOAs, trips
by activist squatters to Chiapas as ‘international observers’ and involve-
ment of various CSOAs (mainly from Catalonia, Madrid and Andalusia)
in the organization and provision of infrastructures for the Second
Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism that
took place, in decentralized form, in various parts of Spain in 1998.
There has also been a gradual extension of relationships with
European CSOAs (particularly Italian social centres), with visits and
debates to organize discussions and protest actions at ‘counter-summits’
and demonstrations of the alter-globalization movement in Prague
(2000), Genoa (2001), Barcelona (2001) and European Social Forum
in Florence (2002). Another global turn can be observed in the use of
the internet by Spanish squatters with specific mailing lists and their
own webpages (although most were not maintained on a regular basis),
but also promoting Indymedia nodes and, above all, organizing hack
meetings for expanding free software and extensive electronic training
within the squatters’ movement, albeit on a very unequal basis, as high-
lighted by Sadaba and Roig (2004), and Ramos and Mart?nez (2004).
Since the last years of the 1990s, squatters have been active in other
types of events with both a local and global dimension, such as those
involving lock-ins and demonstrations by undocumented immigrants,
which have proven to be particularly conflictive and publicly relevant
in Madrid (2000-1) and Barcelona (2004-5).
Finally, all of this background experience merged together with the
alter-globalization movement and squatters participated in mobiliza-
tions making an international impact such as: the public referendum,
held parallel with the national elections, promoted by RECADE (Red
Ciudadana para por la Abolicion de la Deuda Externa/Civil Network
for the Abolition of External Debt) (2000) involving CSOAs from
Catalonia, the Basque Country and Madrid; protesting against EU
meetings during Spain’s presidency (2002) involving CSOAs from
different Spanish cities (e.g. Santiago de Compostela and Seville) and
against the Iraq War (2003); and campaigns against hypocrisy, waste
and urban speculation coinciding with the 2004 Universal Forum of
Cultures in Barcelona (Unio Temporal d’Escribes [UTE] 2004).
As mentioned by Herreros (2004), in many of these actions, the
squatters’ movement has been associated with other groups and social
movements (and sometimes even with political parties and traditional
trade unions), always promoting its model of open, horizontal and as-
sembly-orientated political participation. However, it has also suffered,
to a certain degree, isolation and self-inflicted marginalization in some
cases in order to preserve the whole content of its radical discourse
in a coherent manner. This is a crucial question in any process of con-
vergence and coordination of different ideological principles and ori-
gins, one that also affects the entire process of federating in cases quite
similar entities. What are the minimum points on which those alliances
are founded? To what extent can they move forward together? Who
influences who? Are the minority groups doomed to disappear despite
initially being the most influential?
As is acknowledged by some authors (see Klein 2002; Notes From
Nowhere 2003; Santos 2005), the alter-globalization movement has
not just embraced a broad mixture in its composition but has also
revived forms of political organization of a more libertarian nature,
promoting models of direct democracy, seeking the maximum par-
ticipation of all its members, prioritizing the assembly-orientated de-
bate and consensus above the delegation of power and representation
by leaders, in practice rejecting authoritarianism of any ideological
form and promoting direct action and civil disobedience as legitimate
forms of civil expression.
In Spain, parallel to the decline of neighbourhood associations fol-
lowing the first municipal elections after the end of the dictatorship
in 1979 (Castells 1983; Villasante 1984), the same approach was ad-
opted by anarchist trade union organizations which also tried, albeit
relatively unsuccessfully, to revive the libertarian ideals of the transition
and post-transition period. However, it was alternative movements,
such as the squatting, anti-militarist, feminist and counter-information
movements (later, also joined by some factions of the environmentalist
movement), which most openly continued that tradition by forming
a type of neo-anarchism committed more to specific practices than to
strategic reflections on the transmission of their ideological axioms to
the rest of society, bringing forth a new cycle of protests that culmi-
nated in the above-mentioned alter-globalization alliances.
Of all these movements, the squatters’ movement was most suc-
cessful in combining that ideological approach with a global perspec-
tive and intense local and militant action. It is perhaps the movement
that has demanded the most personal commitment in all areas of life,
though prison sentences, with the high personal costs they entail, were
more severe for opponents of military service, many of whom were
also squatters. In this context, interesting political innovations of this
movement included the rejection of official spokespeople (when they
appeared, they tended to do so with their faces covered), public lead-
ers or to setup formal organizations registered by the administration*
and which may be entitled to receive subsidies. The actions of civil and
social disobedience were not limited to squatting in abandoned build-
ings; other actions included calling demonstrations without notifying
government delegations, peacefully resisting police attacks on rooftops
during evictions or causing damage in streets and public buildings
when the demonstrations were repressed by the police, and the perfor-
mance of festive elements during demonstrations.
Consequently, in view of the aforementioned, we may acknowledge
the strong influence of the squatters’ movement on the alter-globaliza-
tion movement and on the many groups that have fed into it. We may
identify both the sources of its influence and the elements that favoured
its coalition with other alter-globalisation organizations:
1. The high level of geographic mobility of squatters and alter-glo-
balization activists from many countries thanks to the greater
availability of cheap flights since the 1990s;
2. Greater expertise in the use of electronic communication equip-
ment, albeit on a very unequal basis, as mentioned earlier, if we
compare the most advanced CSOAs with those most isolated
from new communication technologies;
3. And, above all, the embracing of the Zapatista discourse, which
fuelled anti-capitalist resistance in a way equally detached from
both political and revolutionary parties, and whose goal was not
‘to seize power’ but for ‘civil society’ to organize itself and for
governments to be formed and based on participatory democ-
racy: ‘lead by obeying’.
All of these points may also represent maximum limits that most
squatters are, nevertheless, unwilling to relinquish. In fact, social fo-
rums have gradually embraced an autonomous and radical nucleus in-
creasingly detached from the institutionalizing trends of other formal
organizations such as trade unions and political parties, which are more
willing to negotiate within the official forums of international organiza-
tions or even to join a type of international ‘new left’ party.
This argument leads us inevitably to a consideration of the possible
‘boomerang effect’ that this invisible success of squats has had on the
actual squatters’ movement.
We must consider that the global enthusiasm for opening up and
allying with other non-squatter collectives, spreading forth as much as
possible the ideas of autonomy and disobedience, was never a discourse
that developed in all types of squats and CSOAs. From what we know
about the general European experience, squatting environments have
a strong proclivity for endogamy and towards protecting their signs of
The most dynamic, durable and politicized CSOAs in large cities, or
in suburban areas, when compared with squats in residential buildings
and more isolated squats, have been more effective in breaking down
the barriers of prejudice and in embracing a plurality of actors and
support in both the squats themselves and in their acts of protest. That
attitude prompted them to participate in local and global platforms in
which they had to share demonstrations or manifestos with other orga-
nizations. The experiences of these different groups of squatters have,
in turn, dragged along many of the most reticent members, although
some have even been actively against that, as they considered them to
be ‘reformist’. For instance, some CSOAs have focused exclusively on
organizing concerts while at the other extreme, some Italian CSOAs
are groups more interested in promoting the model of disruptive ac-
tions of the Black Bloc (Famiglietti 2004). In any case, it would be a
simplification to claim that this global enthusiasm was characteristic of
all squatting experiences and squatter activists. However, it can be ar-
gued that some effects of its influence can be identified in the increasing
involvement in alter-globalization initiatives by most of CSOAs.
We should also ask ourselves the following question: are squats in
danger of drowning in the tide of the new (and, for many, ephemeral)
‘movement of movements’? Calle (2004) suggests that this problem af-
fects both squatters and the alter-globalization movement. Squats have
not been perfect schools for self-management and direct democracy
and the alter-globalization movement has yet to show its capacity for
survival and consistency. In this sense, we must refer back to the most
genuine urban and constant qualities of the squatters’ movement,
namely its local focus, roots and effectiveness.
A single CSOA may be the best platform for capturing persons and
collectives with similar concerns in order to draw attention to themes
and social struggles censored by the mass media and to introduce new
activists to practices of civil and social disobedience already widely ex-
perimented within the movement over two decades, but its potential
is even greater when linked to other CSOAs, to squats in residential
buildings and to a network of groups and organizations in districts and
cities that help to gain more public legitimacy and increase the chances
of survival for the squats. The self-provision of accessible accommoda-
tion and spaces for nurturing counter-cultural creativity and forms of
socialization, freed from the shackles of dominant morals, are the real
ends of the squatting movement and also have the virtue of making
the movement’s critique of real estate speculation and the falseness of
civil participation pronounced by municipal governments all the more
Consequently, the squatter movement has faithfully adopted the
slogans of the post-1968 NSMs, ‘the personal is political’ and ‘think
globally, act locally’. This politicization of daily, reproductive and more
spatially proximate environments, and the knowledge of these local dy-
namics and public acknowledgement obtained through such experi-
ence, has ensured that the strength of, and need for, squats has been
maintained firmly as an integral part of the alter-globalization move-
ment. Therefore, the crisis in the squatters’ movement cannot be at-
tributed to either the boom of the alter-globalization movement, or,
in particular, the containment actions by local authorities (structures
of opportunities), or the management strategies of the squats them-
selves (mobilization of resources), because much of the social legitimacy
(local and global) of its autonomous practice (identity) has already been
achieved (Mart?nez 2004; Herreros 2004).
This paper has highlighted three aspects of the squatter movement in
Spanish cities: (1) its historical development, identifying the impor-
tance of the counter-cultural actions of CSOAs beyond squatting in
residential buildings; (2) the local roots of squats in relation to the per-
sistent conflict with local authorities and strong activist dedication to
everyday, domestic, socializing aspects and so on; (3) an incipient inno-
vation in the repertoires of political action and in the alter-globalization
objectives that have gradually spread through much of the squatters’
As can be seen, we are dealing with a typical social paradox, namely a
movement that is local and global at the same time. In order to unravel
its purpose, it was worthwhile to distinguish the origins, consequences
and mutual relationship of both dimensions (the local and the global).
As one of the movement’s slogans implies, ‘They can evict [us from]
our homes but not our ideas’. Since its creation the movement has simul-
taneously combined a local and global orientation; it aims both to satisfy
material needs for self-managed accommodation and meeting spaces and
to intervene in the social life of districts and cities, always promoting the
projects of many social movements and fostering the circulation of ideas
and persons, and protest actions, in relation to squatting, social problems
and anti-capitalist causes that affect many other countries.
The consequences of that dual attribute (local and global interlinks)
have had different effects on the local and global dimensions of the
squatters’ movement. Precisely due to the gradual increase in involve-
ment and convergence with the alter-globalization movement, incorpo-
ration of these inter-global concerns in the different groups of squatters
has occurred at different speeds, and there have even been internal divi-
sions regarding the approaches and ways of developing this participa-
tion. However, there has never been any opposition to the continuation
of local ‘restructuring’ actions and initiatives for the counter-cultural
usage of abandoned spaces. Other factors, and not increasing globaliza-
tion, are therefore responsible for the crisis of the squatters’ movement
in some cities.
We could therefore ask ourselves whether that paradox is paralys-
ing the movement and whether this has to be overcome with a leap to
conventional rationality. These questions would be particularly relevant
in the case of other urban movements that seem to be less involved in
The information referred to in this study suggests that this has actu-
ally been a fruitful paradox, not just for the movement to the extent
that it has been able to fuel its own internal creativity, providing stimuli
for activists and for the development of new squats, but mainly for
other social movements with which it has interacted, providing them
with the spaces offered by CSOAs and contributing models of radical
In contrast to traditional urban movements (e.g. the neighbourhood
movement) and more innovative movements (e.g. the environmental
movement focused on urban issues), the ‘transmission effect’ seems to
have been relatively scarce. It is difficult to predict whether these move-
ments might also be influenced by the squatters’ movement in the fu-
ture, though, according to the independent and libertarian philosophy
of this movement, each organization and movement must follow its
own path. Cooptation, institutionalization and stabilization of alliances
have always been some of the conservative perils openly challenged by
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