My name is Ale Fernandez. I live in Barcelona, Spain and I'm Chilean and Italian.
I am a web developer, artist and technical researcher.
I've lived in Scotland, Italy, Spain and England and career-wise I am interested in distributed systems and their applications to improvised performance and ecology.

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6/10/2015

A visit to a local barcelona-en-comú assembly

It's easy to read the social networks, documents, history, articles etc, but I'm lucky to be able to walk right in, in person and in Catalan, and see what it's all about. I'm living in Barcelona with our newly arrived Barcelona en Comu, one of the great wins of the recent local elections in favour of more participative parties that reflect a more militant, protest spirit of ground up struggle.

I had hoped we'd be there analysing loopholes and hacking the current local governance in mad ways and using popular action as a huge strength against the perceived lack of political strength in the current administration. This party badly needs political pacts to get more of a majority, but so far it is unable to make any, so looks apparently very limited.

I don't think that is where much change can be made in the first place though, and I think creating participative civil structures would be the first thing to concentrate on: like with syriza: volunteer run clinics, food spaces, work spaces, and linking money to housing and participative social aid structures would make it into a kind of mini circular economy, which would be perfect for their alt-currency idea.

So I think one nice idea I might have is for council employees who see that their pay goes beyond what the party decides they should recieve, to be able to donate these "excedents" to a fund. Of course at fair.coop we could administer this, but we won't be upset if they build their own thing. This fund in turn could run all the monetary needs of local social services  - like a summer meals for local children program, mentioned a few times throughout the meeting, allowing people to join in in practical ways.

So I have little clue of how they work, but here is what I've understood so far: They have been going for about 4 years as an organisation, first - guanyem barcelona and then as the coalition that now won, and they are now far beyond anything they expected back then. Most of the 20 or so people at tonight's meeting seemed well dressed, and well kept, and mostly in their 40s and up, with a few exceptions. Some I remembered from squares, but some were council functionaries. Nuts and biscuits were passed around, and we all managed to sit in a circle at the back of a community space in Gotic whose front was used for sorting out organic vegetable baskets. It reminded me of the communications and coordination commissions in the 15M: all the ones who are good at talking and pushing papers around.

PAH activist and now politician Gala Pin said she had hardly slept in days and was learning a whole bunch of stuff, which she then described in great detail, and which she didn't think they'd ever have to be involved with. The barcelona city council is a huge mess of a complex beast and to inherit the machinery doesn't mean you can piece apart all the bits and all the expert functionaries that already balance 4 or 5 roles at diminishing salaries. So the full story is I went on the barcelona en comú website to sign up and a message said I had to go in person to register with documents proving I lived here. So I went, twice, down the road to Mario, the uruguayan pizzaiolo who also writes and sells books in his typical atypical raval restaurant, where BCN-en-comú were doing their sign-ups, and asked what benefits there would be in registering.  The feeling there was like "we're in!" - like the 15-m assembly was now getting into the buildings to subvert it. I guess the truth is they aren't that easy to even understand, let alone subvert in 2 weeks. They said the registration process was so that we could vote (it turns out this would have been voting for pacts that now won't be made because parties are waiting for the general elections before making any pacts), so I thought «wow, switzerland» and then thought a bit about rojava and its citizen assemblies and asked if you could participate in any other way. So I was referred to the local meeting for ciutat vella, which was tonight.

The most interesting sight was a girl dressed like a big yellow fluffy clown, who was there to read a letter from the human statues from the bottom of la rambla. She had been fined 3 times in a single day, for going slightly outside the bounds of her street performance license in all 3 occasions, while, she argued, large companies and sponsors get to run the show however and whenever they like.

Another new visitor, a woman in her 60s, said she was expecting that now, with the elections, this meeting would be a space to come and voice your greivances and make proposals(just like I had seen visions of the platonic form of the athenean polis when I saw the election results), but so far she had only seen political planning, for example for this coming Friday, when Ada will do the «official act» and become mayor, and the forming of more commissions or passing down of news on how the council worked. And the reply was that there should be a newcomers committee or even ways so as not to need in-person meetings so much. I can see it's a problem.

As seen in recent headlines of the «Ada says Tourists Go Home!» variety, you can already see the right wing press ready to group monetary strength against this "anti-tourist" mayor and help get rid of her. When the topic of tourism came up, I could see the weight of this issue that to me is on the fringes of very dubious places in the way people tend to describe stereotypical tourists and their practices. I hope an informed and balanced choice can still be made, involving all players eventually.

Meanwhile, the local government will supposedly crack down on scooters, bikes. segways, rickshaws and all the different kinds of transport used by tourists, because it's one of few things that don't cost much money to do. I felt quite helpless at the lack of a real space to debate this, and to see them doing what in a cooperative or protest group meeting would be absolutely against everything: using the system of civic ordnance rules which I already deeply disagree with (the way it works to make second class citizens of minority subcultures, groups and activists as an extension of policing, is referred to various times with regard to the 4f incident and the documentary made on this case) and working with the police to fine people and make more money from them.  On the other hand, once again, they are only holding the reigns of the animal and for now the simplest thing is to just do something.

I seriously think they need help doing consultations and other open or participative practices to get proposals in from the ground up. Probably even financial and accounting courses for participants could be put on for free by the «governmental» side of bcn-en-comú., for it's assembly-run side. Both sides will continue co-existing.

There were 5 individual complaints from different attendees who had been woken by partying tourists  or local hostels. Like I remember from Plaza Catalunya when the camp was there, or from lots of early assemblies in different environments, there were moments when everyone went off topic and switched points or we all sat waiting for an emotional eruption to run its course.

So I really think as well as increasing participation, resources should be spent on getting people clued up in assembly organisation and coordination, in spotting manipulation techniques and how to stop bad practice and heirarchy from forming.

Meanwhile, if this "nimby" attitude is the norm at these meetings, the bias is now clearly anti-tourist: «we can't get rid of them, but we can make sure they respect the rules everyone else respects», one said - so I guess if it's to be a really open process, it needs a free, open tourist run assembly, also able to voice its concerns and show that the visitors to this city aren't just transient drunks but also a very mixed and varied spectrum of people from many different positions of larger or greater vulnerability, and who actually appreciate the city and its history and culture and  actually save up and spend money on what they sometimes truly believe is the people of barcelona when it's actually just a few large companies. These people would help if given, yeah, a democratic voice.I have half a mind to organise a meetup event for this in ciutadella park each weekend. maybe in general BCN en comú needs a thousand citizen blocks so people can move independently and work with it only as and when needed, as they will be busy trying to work that huge complex machine that is the day to day running of the city council.

The human statues read out their letter in the end. It detailed a number of abuses from a local trade organisation that used corporate sponsors and seemed to act with impunity. It seems such a strange paradox that so many of my okupa friends are street performers or artisans and make money from tourism - but via art and creativity - and that these trades, which I find really valuable, depend on these moneyed visitors so abhorred during the meeting. Maybe they will also want to go and be an okupa one day.  Barcelona is so linked to tourism, and its people, to the city's position in the mind of the world around it, and I think the relationship needs to be sorted out, because it seems really love-hate at the moment. Some of those people around it, I think, are actually looking at barcelona and other places where these new participative groups are emerging, like hope itself, that democracy, or more humanely efficient governance  can help us get through the crisis, and that who knows, the next podemos will be in the US or UN.

What upset me at the meeting was that whole populist - rule-by-who-complains-the-loudest aspect which I hope can also be dealt with by taking on platforms like liquid democracy that I´m told, deal with this kind of issue. But the main fear or issue I felt, I couldn't really voice clearly yet, and I guess that's why I wanted to get my thoughts down. It was that it feels like this was a group of people suddenly given much more than they ever expected - handed the reins of a huge beast, but in a rolling sea of other factors, external to local government, that can  determine how well we will survive things like grexit and what is supposed to happen to the euro shortly after. And I know how people are - they will see problems as external and won't think «how can I go and help sort this out» but «where do I complain» and the few people doing all the work will be even more overworked, and complained at.

So this time, a thing I thought was really cool, was said there by another older participant was - «this needs more participation:» it needs strong assemblies and support from the street assemblies and the groups that coalesced during the 15m and before. It really is nothing without the democracy it supposedly brings, but which everyone is going to have to coax out of the corner with such a generally un-democratic society. There are no pacts to be made with other parties, as said before, so there is little strength within the realm of politics going up against people like CIU or even the PP so they'll decide each issue as they get to it for now.

The biggest strength might be that collective ability to draw on the same populism that kind of got me down, but that when moved for justice can be so powerful: if BCN en comu wanted or if there was the need, they could have all kinds of basic, people run services and call on all kinds of citizen work, and maybe that would be the quickest way to get any significant help from the populace.

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