The Fifty Days of the Hotel Madrid




The Fifty Days of the Hotel Madrid by Aaron Shulman

May 19th, 2012 reset - +

AFTER DARK ON OCTOBER 15, 2011, as the worldwide "United For Global Change" march drew to a close in Spain, a group of demonstrators held an assembly in Madrid's famous Puerta del Sol plaza. The day had been a tremendous success: marchers had turned out in more than sixty Spanish cities and reports were coming in that people had demonstrated in over eighty countries. A picture was emerging of the unified global response to the economic crisis many had been dreaming of. At that very moment across el charco — the puddle, the colloquial Spanish way of referring to the Atlantic Ocean — protesters in New York City were flooding into Times Square. "It's decided that the thing can't just end like this," Alfonso F., an activist present, told me in April, recalling the assembly. Some robust gesture was called for, an act of punctuation to end the day and at the same time extend it. Not a block away, on Calle Carretas, one of the streets leading into Sol, an abandoned hotel stood — the Hotel Madrid, as the wanly dulled brass letters above the entrance read, the i missing. After much debate the assembly resolved to occupy it.

After jimmying the doors open a group of people headed into the hotel while a crowd of at least a hundred remained in the street, spilling out around the entrance. It was past two in the morning. In a YouTube video the scene has the heady feeling of a block party infused with a sudden collective purpose. People chant and take pictures as activists gather above in the windows of the hotel. A police van approaches, blue lights flashing. It pauses — the orange sign of the Bershka clothing store across the street reflected in its black mirrored windows — then continues on, provoking cheers and applause.

As this wee-hours fanfare tapered off a core group of forty or fifty hunkered down and installed itself in the hotel, some bringing prior experience with squats, others not. In the morning a species of press release appeared at 7:56 a.m. "sleepless" the message noted at the end; on madrid.tomalaplaza.net, an online meet-up point for activists in Madrid.

"We are a group of people who have found ourselves in an open and abandoned space in very good condition," the communiqué read.

On the night of the fifteenth of October we decided to take it over in order to put it to a social use. The building has five floors, a basement, and two terraces. It includes multipurpose halls, fully equipped rooms, storage areas, kitchens, a cafeteria, electricity, and a large quantity of materials...We invite you to participate and contribute ideas to bring to life this building we consider more than ready for a popular, open, and participatory use. Today Sunday the sixteenth we would like you to attend a series of activities during the day on Calle Carretas, such as a social forum, a picnic, debates, and whatever else occurs to us. Your support is crucial during the coming hours.

After much discussion it had been decided to institute an indiscriminate open-doors policy at the hotel and this posting reflected that. Within hours people were strolling in from the street for a look, including parents with children, a welcome committee of sorts greeting visitors and informing them that they were breaking the law by entering. This decision, to invite any and all comers, would end up defining much of what later transpired at the Hotel Madrid, though right then the occupiers had other things to worry about.

In Spain the first forty-eight hours of a squat is a make-or-break window for how things will develop, legally speaking. The taking of the hotel was against the law.  Uninhabited property is protected from "usurpation" by an article in the 1995 Spanish Penal Code, which the squatting community, or okupa movement ("okupa" is slang for 'squatter,' often used to mean the occupy movement — the purposeful misspelling of ocupa with a k giving the word an anti-establishment tincture) is all too aware of. But authorities only have an initial two-day period to forcibly evict squatters without a warrant. After this limbo things get more complicated and time-consuming from a legal and bureaucratic perspective. In the case of the Hotel Madrid, the real estate developer that owned the property, Monteverde, passed up this opportunity to eject the new residents. Instead it sent Pablo Heredia, an architect and project manager at the company, to try to negotiate. (I was able to reach Heredia on the phone at his office, but he was unwilling to be interviewed. Monteverde has issued a gag on all matters related to the hotel.)

Heredia visited the hotel with a detail of police officers on Monday, the second day of the occupation. The activists inside barred the doors and ignored his overtures. Eventually Heredia left after slipping his phone number through a crack in the door, encouraging the occupiers to negotiate. By this time they had hung a sign over the entrance to the hotel, its red letters hollering out the lofty, unapologetically idealistic ambitions which would form the basis for the rocky utopian experiment the Hotel Madrid would become: "La Casa del Pueblo" — The House of the People.

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To understand the occupation of the Hotel Madrid you must first understand the Fifteenth of May movement in Spain, 15-M. Or at least you have to begin to understand 15-M.

Celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, 15-M is an unprecedented, electric new social movement in Spain which erupted in the spring of 2011 and went on to influence what would become Occupy Wall Street, as well as actions in other parts of the world, including Greece and Israel. (It was one of the driving engines behind the "United For Global Change" march.) 15-M arose out of a leaderless, horizontal online initiative called ¡Democracia Real Ya! — Real Democracy Now! — whose slogan was:"We're not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers." Inspired by the Arab Spring, activists created a grassroots organizing base through social media, setting the date for nationwide marches on the third Sunday in May, the fifteenth. Klaudia Álvarez, a teacher in Barcelona who got involved early on through Facebook, was like many others who couldn't have predicted the cultural paradigm shift they were midwifing. "Minds from every corner of the country crafted, debated, and crafted again a manifesto, proposals, strategies reached by consensus," she writes in a short book of testimonies about the origins of 15-M, Nosotros, Los Indignados. "We chose a date and a time, with no idea what it was going to unleash."

What happened next began less than remarkably, or at least not in a way that would have anticipated a seismic revision of the national conversation: with a march. From my American perspective it sometimes feels as if there is a march everyday for one cause or another in Spain. Demonstrations can sometimes seem banal. At the same time, this eagerness to take to the streets, to assemble and make demands of one's government, is something I admire about Spaniards, and this was on vigorous display the fifteenth of May, 2011. The march that day had a distinct tenor, one of ecstatic, unified outrage at the state of affairs in the country, where unemployment had topped twenty percent — it is now approaching a flabbergasting twenty-five percent — and a yawning gorge of alienation separated many citizens from their politicians. No one had expected much from the march, but it drew impressive numbers all throughout Spain. This alone might not have been enough to cement 15-M as a new social force, but the next day police violently removed a group of demonstrators who had camped out in Puerta del Sol in Madrid. Videos of the brutality went viral, winning sympathizers and creating a cultural tipping point which would later be echoed in the U.S. when pepper spray was used against Occupy Wall Street. Soon thousands of people were camped out in Sol.

For a few weeks Spain seemed to hum with nothing but 15-M. The media paid feverish attention to the unfolding narrative as the movement awoke to its own beginning. Of course, not everyone was elated. In spite of 15-M's startling ability to transcend political boundaries, not to mention generational ones, many were plainly unenchanted by what was happening, disgusted even. Spain has a long, bitter history of divided politics, with alliances and hatreds dating back to before the country's bloody civil war.  During the George W. Bush years by comparison, there was frequent talk about the two Americas, blue states and red states, but spend time in Spain and you'll realize what a tremendously united country we are in the U.S., joined by a flag and constitution we all pretty much agree on. Not so in the land of El Quijote. The 1978 Spanish Constitution has scores of detractors; at an assembly last year in Cordoba last year I heard a professor of constitutional law argue that it was obsolete. And as for the Spanish flag, suffice it to say that there is much to say.

Naturally, then, 15-M provoked passionate, knee-jerk responses among Spaniards. People displeased by what was going on favored an idiosyncratic nugget of slang to describe the demonstrators: perroflautas. This word is akin to treehugger or long-hair in English but literally means dog-flute. (Spanish is a host to many superb neologisms, like my personal favorite, pagafantas, pays-for-Fantas: the guy trapped in the role of hopelessly platonic best friend to the girl he's in love with.) There were of course people who met this hippie stereotype — you really do come across people with dogs and flutes — but the reliance on the word often rang like a shabby talisman against the fact that 15-M was dissolving political and socioeconomic divides. In any case, such politically motivated simplifications could do nothing to stop the wave of demonstrators who flocked to camp out in Puerta de Sol and other plazas all throughout Spain. 15-M found its definitive voice at the end of May when over 25,000 people gathered illegally in Sol before upcoming elections in an act of massive civil disobedience. The authorities did nothing.

The taking of the Hotel Madrid wasn't an official 15-M action — the participants I talked to made a point of emphasizing this — but no one would dispute that it grew out the spirit the movement had awakened.

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"Things got complicated very quickly," José, a twenty-seven-year-old Madrid native who was active at the hotel from its first night to its last, told me in May, days before 15-M would celebrate its anniversary on the twelfth. José had been living in London when the movement abruptly coalesced the previous year. He camped out in front of his country's embassy with other Spaniards, one of many such satellite protests of solidarity at the time. After saving up enough money to return home to Madrid he threw himself into 15-M. With degrees in history and sociology the only work he'd ever had in his country was on boats. When we talked he was getting ready to go to Greece for a job bringing a yacht to Spain. José was one of a handful of highly educated, politically conscious young people who didn't live at the hotel but nonetheless dedicated themselves to getting the occupation off the ground. It was his first experience with squatting.

To begin with there were the logistical issues. With only two functioning points of water in the whole hotel, ensuring toilets were flushed and providing for other hygienic needs meant constantly distributing water to floors that didn't have any. And while a stream of food donations arrived, organizing a collective kitchen to feed all the people who had taken up residence at the hotel proved to be too complicated to pull off. On top of this there were the pedestrian, age-old conflicts of roommates the world over: noise at inappropriate hours, general upkeep, and contrasting values. Two people were expelled from the hotel by assembly for making homophobic remarks. But the most problematic tensions related to a clash of cultures: that of the activists who hoped to create a microcosm of 15-M at hotel and the homeless people who flocked there for shelter.

"Maybe it was an error opening the doors," José told me, rolling a cigarette at a café in the Jacinto Benavente Plaza around the corner from the hotel, whose former entrance is now a cinderblock wall. "I was one of the people who supported the open doors. I said, 'Look, we have to be bold. If things work out, great. If not, well, it wasn't meant to be."

The problem was straightforward: you open the doors to the street, you get just that — the street.

Right away a couple of cell phones went missing, not to mention the infrastructure of the hotel itself had to protected. Finding and selling scrap metal is a common pursuit for those at the bottom of the social ladder in Spain, and while the hotel had previously been raided for wiring and piping — hence the problems with the water — there was still plenty left to mine. A security committee was set up to check such plundering, only to have some of its members turn out to be very people looting. "It was super funny because they would be like, 'Don't worry, I've got it under control,'" José recalled with exasperated good humor. "Then maybe I'd be in a room talking and I'd start to hear banging."

"The word is heterogeneous in its greatest profundity," is how Alfonso F. put it, describing the ninety or so people who settled in at the hotel. Alfonso is a 31-year-old IT specialist  ardently involved in La Oficina de Vivienda, a social justice collective in Madrid which focuses on housing issues. Along with others he formed what might be thought of as the ideological foundation of the Hotel Madrid, bring his experience to help to establish the assembly-style decision-making process among the residents and set up work committees. "A super diverse group of people," he said. "With a mix of intentions."

The presence of the homeless community at the hotel wasn't unexpected, of course. With the open door policy it had been welcomed. Providing shelter for sin techos — those with out roofs — would certainly be positive. But the attitudes and expectations they brought with them all too effortlessly collided with those of 15-M believers like José. "Rich kid!" José remembered being called during one argument. "You've got a house and you shower everyday, brat!" On the one hand he knew these complaints had their basis in truth. "These were people who have a series of personal problems that don't let them have the stability that we have." On the other hand, such clashes threatened the sustainability of the occupation. José said many activists, initially enthusiastic, called it quits. "The people that really wanted to participate got burned out," he said. "Of those of us who were there working from the first day — after two weeks there were very few left."

Alfonso's perspective on this period in the hotel's trajectory is markedly rosier, perhaps due to his previous experiences with other squatting enterprises and his preparedness for the issues that inevitably arose. With regard to the scrap metal looting, he said, "It wasn't a serious or important problem...It was discussed in the assembly to see how to solve it collectively." He nevertheless recognized that the hotel did present a challenging situation. "There were some hard moments. To confront the sense of discomfort — you're with a ton of unknown people in a super big space that's difficult to manage."

There was the day Bruno, a sizeable Portuguese magnet for trouble, pulled a knife during an argument. No one ended up being harmed.

On top of this everyday struggle to steer the hotel toward stability the media fixated on the problems, which were enough to deal with on their own without having to worry about the hotel's public image. Alfonso believed the press purposely distorted the narrative of the hotel in order "to sell a totally demented story." (This distrust of the media may explain the difficulties I had in finding people who participated in the Hotel Madrid who were willing to talk to me.) Call them growing pains or intimations of collapse, complications weren't lacking on Calle Carretas. Yet amidst all this the hotel was still soon able to begin fulfilling its foremost goal and thus address in its small way the crisis in Spain: by putting up people who had recently been evicted from their homes by bank foreclosures.

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 While the blooming of 15-M was uniquely Spanish, the movement nevertheless emerged out of sentiments which were rapidly multiplying throughout Europe at the time. In 2010 a tiny book called Indignez-vous!, little more than a pamphlet really, was published in France, written by Stéphane Hessel, a nonagenarian retired diplomat who had fought bravely in the French Resistance. The book slingshotted to the top of the bestseller list, selling 1.5 million copies in less than six months. Not an especially zesty read — the book is a light ramble through Hessel's life drawn from a speech, interspersing impassioned critiques of the current state of affairs in the world — it nevertheless struck a powerful chord, giving voice to many with its title alone: Time For Outrage, as it was published in English, which loses something in translation. A more literal translation might be Get Indignant. Awkward, yes, but it better captures the spirit of indignation and call to action that galvanized millions of readers inside and outside of France. The title translated seamlessly into Spanish as did its message, providing a needed new vocabulary. When 15-M broke out people began identifying themselves with a new term: they were los indignados — the indignant ones.

What is there to be indignant about in Spain? Besides unemployment and a dizzying degree of political corruption — to take just one example, a government official in Andalusia was recently discovered to have spent 25,000 Euros a month of public funds on cocaine — is the number of foreclosure evictions taking place in the country. In 2011 the Spanish legal system processed 58, 241 such cases, an all-time high and a 22 percent rise from 2010. At the same time that more people are ending up on the street, Spain's austerity measures have brought severe cutbacks to social services. Amidst all this, the spectacular fiction of the Spanish real estate boom and its subsequent implosion during the crisis has left a legacy of over three million empty houses in Spain, according to the 2011 Population and Housing Census, while in January of this year El Pais newspaper estimated that the true figure could exceed five million.

While this familiar story of unregulated speculation is reaching a devastating extreme in Spain, it's understandable that some might balk at the occupation of the Hotel Madrid. After all, the hotel was and is private property, protected from usurpation by law. The actions of the activists and other okupa advocates, however, fall within a constitutional framework — Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution, which reads: "All Spaniards have the right to enjoy worthy and adequate housing. Public powers will promote the conditions necessary and will establish the pertinent norms in order to effect this right, regulating the use of land in accordance with the interest of all to impede speculation."

Because of technical legal differences between certain parts of the Constitution, "political and social" principles like Article 47 enjoy less enforceability than others, such as the right to protection from discrimination, Article 14. But it is hard not to sympathize with the mission and method of the activists of the Hotel Madrid: to arm themselves with their constitution and through direct action implement measures to protect fellow citizens where the government had failed. Social justice and private property do not necessarily have to be at odds — I would wager that the vast majority of humanity would like to see them peacefully coexist — but in Spain the tension between these two was and is destroying lives. Was occupying the hotel usurpation? Communism? Or was it a group of citizens joining to battle the crisis on their own terms? Was it democracy?

At this point it would be germane to mention that the selection of the Hotel Madrid for occupation wasn't an arbitrary decision. In January of 2010 Monteverde, the luxury real estate company that owned the hotel, had commenced bankruptcy proceedings, with a debt approaching 170 million Euros. From the point of view of the activists in the hotel Monteverde represented just the type of speculation that had brought on the crisis in collusion with banks — the very banks which had been bailed out while foreclosures in Spain reached a historic peak and more and more people found themselves homeless.

"In the criminal model in which we live if there's one thing that's accomplished it's that the person who is evicted," Alfonso told me, defending the hotel as a just and appropriate measure, "has to live it like a personal flaw, a kind of defect, in which you have failed, just like the unemployed person and others. Fault, in this individualist society, falls on the victim.  If anyone needs rescuing, it's the people who don't have any resources."

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Esperanza is a seventy-five-year-old woman with silver streaks in dark hair who arrived at the hotel in November, two weeks after it had been occupied. She met with me in May in a library in the diverse, working-class neighborhood of Carabanchel Alto, where she currently lives. Her life has been defined in many ways by the time and place where she was born: Franco's Spain. A fiercely independent, strong-spirited young woman, she found it unbearable beneath the regime's authoritarian Catholicism and totalizing machismo. She had a child out of wedlock and was ostracized by her family, only to have her infant daughter disappear from a daycare facility while Esperanza struggled to make ends meet as a single mother. She was told her daughter had died, but she has always believed she was robbed from her and sold to another family. This claim might sound farfetched if it weren't for the current wave of such cases from the Franco era which have solidified from rumor into fact recently, resulting in indictments, including charges brought against an elderly nun. Flash forward many years — during a decade drifting around Europe she was in France in May of '68 — and in the fall of 2010 Esperanza found herself evicted from her home in Avila. Alone, she went to Madrid and lived a homeless life: she slept in the Barajas Airport and spent her days riding the subway from beginning to end. A political activist since always, when 15-M erupted she got involved and found people who wanted to help her. "The Carabanchel 15-M has been my family," she said.

The activists at the Hotel Madrid and 15-M agreed to set aside a room for Esperanza, with a bed and central heating. When she arrived tensions had begun to even out amongst the hotel's inhabitants. "There was a lot of solidarity and good feeling," she said.

"A distinct reality started to be created," Alfonso said about this maturing period at the hotel during November, "in which people got settled and the especially problematic people began to leave because the collective norms and the collective reality didn't let them do as they pleased. It wasn't a space where no one was willing to respond to anything but rather where everyone responded to everything."

The people who stayed on at the hotel had committed themselves to the enterprise, warts and all. "It's a little paradoxical to be fighting for social justice and everything and then find yourself with the real issue of people from the streets and say, 'I'm out of here,'" José said. "No, this is the street, and it's worth fighting for it."

The assemblies drew greater participation. "They were very productive," Esperanza recalled, saying that these discussions were one of the highlights of her experience at the hotel.

The people from the street and the "rich kid" activists felt out a middle ground. José, a member of the Communication Committee, worked with an illiterate man on the crafting of a press release. Manual labor responsibilities were shared. It wasn't perfect but it was convivencia, a Spanish word that can be translated as 'living together,' or 'fellowship' in a secular sense, and this, for me, was the loveliest aspect of the wild experiment of the Hotel Madrid. On the one hand, highly educated middle-class activists were forced not just to meet but live and work hand in hand with the people who they were fighting for, learning what this truly entailed. And at the same time, people from the street used to a life which didn't allow them to think beyond their most basic needs were forced — or allowed — to reckon with their own valuable ability to contribute as much as anyone else inside the at once high-minded and tumultuous microcosm of the hotel. And the issues raised by Article 47 of the constitution related to homelessness finally became a part of the mainstream national conversation in empty-housed, foreclosure-heavy Spain. 

"It was a great project," Esperanza affirmed, looking back on her time at the hotel, even as she maintained doubts about the wisdom of the open-door policy. But in the end that decision didn't hamstring the hotel's principal goal: to house people evicted from their homes like her and others in similar circumstances who found comfort and shelter at the hotel while 15-M and La Oficina de Vivienda sought less provisional living situations for them. "There were committed people who wanted to make important changes to society," Esperanza said. "Let me be clear, the Hotel Madrid was amazing."

At seven a.m. on December 5th police raided the hotel. The eviction order had come. Alfonso called it a "military operation." Norma, a woman at living at the hotel, said she was stripped and searched. It was a devastating blow. Things had been going very well of late: language classes had been organized, seminars and workshops, even a barbershop. An open house was being planned to reintroduce the hotel to the public. José told an anecdote about a police offer breaking down a locked door, only to be left astounded by the consummate library inside. A total of ninety-three people were removed from the hotel, with ten arrests; nine were illegal immigrants detained for lack of proper documentation. Later that day a posting appeared on tomalaplaza.net calling for a response to the eviction. It included this phrase, invoking the constitution and the rights it guaranteed its citizens in relation to the hotel: "We've stopped asking in order to begin to take what is ours." Thousands gathered that night in Sol to protest the eviction.

After fifty days the Hotel Madrid had come to an end.

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So a year after its birth, what is 15-M? This a slippery question, as tricky as trying to define Occupy Wall Street. Yet it calls for an answer, or at least an attempt at one. And who better to risk summing up a movement than the people who constitute it?

"15-M is the conscience of society," Esperanza said.

"What's united us is basically the rejection of this criminal model," said Alfonso.

"What is 15-M?" José said. "It's a mood."

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