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From Occupying Banks to City Hall: Meet Barcelona’s New Mayor Ada Colau

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A longtime anti-eviction activist has just been elected mayor of Barcelona, becoming the city’s first female mayor. Ada Colau co-founded the anti-eviction group Platform for People Affected by Mortgages and was an active member of the indignados, or 15-M movement. Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage of $670, force utility companies to lower prices, and slash the mayoral salary. Colau enjoyed support from the Podemos party, which grew out of the indignados movement that began occupying squares in Spain four years ago. Ada Colau joins us to discuss her victory.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Solfónica, the unofficial orchestra of the indignados movement, the Occupy movement in Spain. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are broadcasting from Stanford University in California. But we end today’s show in Spain, where a longtime anti-eviction activist has just been elected mayor of Barcelona, becoming the city’s first female mayor. Ada Colau co-founded the anti-eviction group Platform for People Affected by Mortgages and was an active member of the indignados, or 15-M movement, the protest movement that inspired Occupy Wall Street. Ada Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage of $670 per month, force utility companies to lower prices, and slash the mayoral salary. Colau enjoyed support from the Podemos party, which grew out of the indignados movement that began occupying squares in Spain four years ago. She has been arrested repeatedly for her protests. I spoke to Ada Colau last week. I began by asking her if she was surprised by her victory.

ADA COLAU: [translated] Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by your victory?

ADA COLAU: [translated] In reality, partly yes and partly no. It was a victory that was accomplished in a very short amount of time. It was a candidacy that was supported and driven by the people. With very few resources and with very little money, we achieved victory in the elections of such an important city as Barcelona. But partly it was not surprising, because there’s a strong popular movement and a strong desire for change. We have serious political problems here in Barcelona and in the entire country, and so there was a need for change, which you could see in the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what those problems are?

ADA COLAU: [translated] There are problems related to the economic crisis, but this economic crisis is a consequence of a political crisis, of a profound democratic crisis. We’ve had a form of government where the political elites had a cozy relationship with the economic elites who have ruined the economy of the country, and the ultimate representation of this was the behavior of the financial institutions, of the banks. They’ve defrauded thousands and thousands of people with abusive mortgages. They’ve evicted thousands of families, and they’ve ruined the country’s economy. And this has happened because of the cozy relationship between the political and economic elites. In the face of this situation, where there have been losses of billions of euros, that have caused social cutbacks in areas as basic as healthcare and education, it’s caused, for example, in a city that’s rich like Barcelona, a city where there’s a lot of money and a lot of resources, the inequality has shot up. That means there are people that are getting more and more rich; at the same time, more people are getting poorer. So the middle class is disappearing.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, two years ago you testified at a Spanish parliamentary hearing on Spain’s foreclosure crisis. On the panel, you spoke right after a representative of Spain’s banking industry. You famously turned to the banker and said, quote, “This man is a criminal and should be treated like one.”

ADA COLAU: [translated] We have been negotiating for four years with the banks, with the public administration, with the courts, and therefore we know exactly what we’re talking about. And this leads me to question the voices of supposed experts, who precisely are the ones being given too much credit—pardon the irony—such as the representatives of financial institutions. We just had an example. I would say at the very least it was paradoxical, to use a euphemism, if not outright cynical, for the representative of financial institutions who just spoke, telling us that the Spanish legislation was great. To say that, when people are taking their own lives because of this criminal law, I assure you—I assure you that I did not throw a shoe at this man, because I believed it was important to be here now to tell you what I’m telling you. But this man is a criminal. And you should treat him as such. He is not an expert. The representatives of financial institutions have caused this problem. They are the very same people who caused the problem which has ruined the whole economy of this country. And you are treating these people as experts.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ada Colau, who is now the mayor-elect of Barcelona, Spain. Ada, the speech made lawmakers’ jaws drop, and you got a reprimand from the Parliament, but your speech endeared you to millions of Spaniards. Can you talk about that moment that you decided to speak out? And did you have any regrets?

ADA COLAU: [translated] Well, the reality is that I went to speak in front of the Parliament after many years of housing rights activism and working closely with the thousands of families that were affected by the mortgage fraud, which the banks had committed, and by the evictions that came after that. The evictions and the interest rates have literally destroyed the lives of thousands of families. By “destroyed the lives,” I mean they’ve caused depression, diseases, even suicides.

The only thing I did was describe what I knew and what I had been living on the front lines for many years. When I encountered this banker who denied the reality and said there were no problems in Spain, when there were thousands of families in a dire situation, the least I could do was to denounce these lies and talk to them about what was happening in reality. I think what surprised people more, and what generated a media phenomenon after this appearance in the Parliament, was that someone was talking about reality inside Parliament, because, sadly, this was something that had not happened in a long time.

In Spain, you have the paradox that while the corrupt politicians see the statute of limitations for their crimes lapse, and they make off without going to jail, the families who got into debt for something as basic as accessing housing become indebted forever, because it is impossible to forgive this debt. So, in the face of this barbarity, what happened is that hundreds of thousands of hard-working families that just wanted to have a normal life suddenly lose their jobs, they lose their house, and they become indebted for life. And becoming indebted means economic and civil death. This leads to people committing suicide, to diseases, to broken families. And the positive aspect of this was the birth of an exemplary people’s movement, which has succeeded in stopping thousands of evictions. That forced the banks to negotiate. And it showed that if our institutions did not resolve this problem, it was because our institutions were accomplices in this fraud.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, you have broken through so many ceilings as the first woman mayor of Barcelona, together with the new mayor of Madrid. In your victory speech, you talked about a democratic revolution all over the south of Europe. Can you start there? What do you mean?

ADA COLAU: [translated] What is happening in Spain and in Barcelona is not an isolated event; rather, there is a crisis in the way we do politics. There is a political elite which has become corrupt and has ended up as accomplices of a financial power which only thinks to speculate and to make money even at the expense of rising inequality and the impoverishment of the majority of the people. Fortunately, there has been a popular reaction, here and in other parts of the Mediterranean—for example, in Greece—to confront the neoliberal economic policies, which are not only a problem in Spain but in Europe and around the world. We see very clearly that the city councils are key to confronting this way of making policy, meaning that is where the everyday policies are made and where we can prove there is another way to govern, more inclusive, working together with the people, more than just asking them to vote every four years, and that you can fight against corruption, and you can have transparent institutions. So we think the city governments are key for democratic revolution, to begin governing, with the people, in a new way. But on the other hand, we’re very aware that the real change must be global, that one city alone cannot solve all the problems we’re facing, many of which are global because today the economy does not have borders. The big capital and the markets move freely around the world, unlike people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, what would a public banking system look like?

ADA COLAU: [translated] I think in the financial world there’s been a problem of absolute misrule. You cannot leave something as important as economic policy and money, which has a social function, in the hands of speculation and private interests. Here, there’s been a democratic deficit and a lack of global, collective and democratic control over money and the economic system in general. So we have to take back that democratic control. And that doesn’t mean that all the banks have to be public. It can be implemented in different ways. What we need are laws that make private banks comply with the law, because now in Spain we have a banking system that breaks the law systematically, and nothing happens.

For us, the people, they don’t forgive anything. They make us pay all our debts. They make us pay all our taxes. They make us pay each small traffic ticket. They don’t forgive anything. But the big banks, on the other hand, which have lied, defrauded and destroyed thousands of families, are forgiven for, for example, breaking the European consumer protection regulations. So, this is unacceptable. The first thing we need is governments that serve their people, not the private interests, and that enforce the law. We’re talking about something as basic as enforcing the existing law. The first thing we need is to force the financial power to comply with the law and to obey the democratic powers, something that is not happening now. It’s also true that it would definitely be good if this private, financial power is complemented by some form of public bank that offsets and guarantees that there’s financing for what is in the public interest, because if not, what happens is the private financial system has the power to decide what is funded and what is not funded.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, one of the most tweeted photos in Spain these days shows riot police hauling you away. The image is from July 2013 when you were trying to occupy a Barcelona bank that was foreclosing on homes. The caption added by Twitter users reads, “Welcome, new mayor.” Can you talk about that moment that you were being dragged away?

ADA COLAU: [translated] Well, there were many similar moments in past years, because when we have unjust laws, like the ones we have now in Spain, one has to massively disobey these unjust laws to defend human rights. Here, the right to housing is being infringed upon, and that’s why thousands of people, in a peaceful manner, we’ve had to practice civil disobedience to defend human rights. In this sense, this action was one of the many that have been performed in this country, and not by me, but by many other people who have been defending the human rights of all the others. Throughout human history, it has happened this way. In order to defend rights and to win rights, many times it has been necessary to disobey unjust laws. Of course, now, as future mayor of Barcelona, I hope the police are going to be at the service of human rights, and not of the banks.

AMY GOODMAN: In the United States, there’s Occupy. You were part of the indignados. Talk about the different protests, from antiwar to anti-corporate globalization, that have shaped you.

ADA COLAU: [translated] In reality, there’s been a continuity in the past 15 years, at least. In the early 2000s, late 1990s, when they began the anti-globalization movement, Seattle, there was a wide cycle of protests that began, that continues to the present day. During this time, there’s been the anti-globalization movement, the international antiwar movement. There’s been the indignados. There’s been many fights, for housing rights, for peace. And all these mobilizations, not only here, but also on the global level, have had many things in common. First, the global dimension, the awareness that there are political and economic problems that have a global dimension, so we need to work as a network, because there’s a single global and economic reality, and it’s essential to work in alliances.

Also, the necessity for a real democracy, the awareness that even if we have formally democratic institutions, we have the sense that the decisions are not being made in Parliament, but by the boards of directors or by international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, which are profoundly anti-democratic and which the people do not control, and that they also make decisions against their own people, generating misery around the world.

This awareness of a kidnapped democracy has led to the rise of many grassroots mobilizations, propelled from the bottom, by the people, which are also seeking a way of direct representation. They’ve seen that formal democracy is not enough, that we need to find new ways of political participation where everyone can be an actor, and each person can directly contribute as much as each person can contribute.

So, I think all these mobilizations that have happened in the past 15 years, that have also increasingly used new technologies, the Internet, social media, that have pursued new forms of innovative and direct communication, in some way, we are seeing an upgrade of democracy, an upgrade of the forms of political participation that have had many different expressions in different global movements, but there’s clearly a nexus that unites them all.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, you are the first woman mayor of Barcelona, Spain. You’re a woman. You’re an activist. Also, a female activist is now going to be the Madrid mayor. Talk about the significance of this.

ADA COLAU: [translated] Without a doubt, it is important, because with women making up half the population, it is completely inexplicable that in 40 years of formal democracy I should be the first woman mayor of this city. This is not normal, because women, we built this city, and we’re key players in this city. But what’s happened is that this has not transferred to political representation in the decision-making positions. Clearly, we live in a sexist society. This is not a problem exclusive to Barcelona or to Spain; unfortunately, it’s a global problem. But also, I think that what’s happening now are signs of change, of rights being won, of many women and men who have come before us, and we, women, take this testimony, and we keep moving forward.

It is clear that women are overrepresented in the sectors of care and housework, and the time has come for women to have more representation in places of economic and political power. But in addition, I think we have something more to contribute and that we can learn from the feminist struggles. And in this moment of change that we are in, we can contribute by feminizing politics. This will not happen just by putting more women in decision-making roles, but also by transforming the values, more than anything, and by, in this moment of change, upgrading the forms of political participation, to demonstrate that cooperation is more effective and more satisfactory than competitiveness, and that politics done collectively are better than those done individualistically. I think these collective values of cooperation and solidarity are values that we can contribute to feminize politics, and with that, not just women will win, women and men will both win.

AMY GOODMAN: What do think your victory means for Podemos possibly winning in the national level later this year?

ADA COLAU: [translated] I think a political change is happening, a change in the way politics are done in Spain, but also beyond Spain, in Southern Europe and, we hope, in all of Europe. I think what happened in Spain is a democratic revolution. The people have been empowered, and they have spoken. That’s why I think the main player here is not any political group. It’s not Barcelona en Comú. It’s not Podemos. It’s not Ada Colau. It’s not Pablo Iglesias. The main players here are the people, the people who have decided to take back the institutions, to democratize them, to take back politics so the people can be the real players and the ones who make the decisions. In this movement of democratic revolution from below, there are different political parties, different acronyms, which must be a tool in this process of empowerment and democratic revolution. So this is why Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, Ada Colau, and other parties that are emerging right now are just instruments at the service of a wide people’s process that has decided to take back the institutions for the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, finally, what will be your first act in office as the new mayor of Barcelona?

ADA COLAU: [translated] Well, we’ve developed an emergency plan that includes 30 measures which are viable—ambitious, but perfectly viable—for the first months in office. This emergency plan consists of three main areas: first, to create jobs and fight against job insecurity; another is to guarantee basic rights; and the other is to fight actively against corruption, to make city hall more transparent and do away with the privileges—for example, lower the salaries of public officials, of elected officials, eliminate privileges like paid expenses, official cars, things that can seem simple but are symbolically important because they send a message of ending impunity, of an end to a political class removed from the reality of the people. So, to do away with these privileges is something that we can do immediately, as soon as we take office. It depends only on political will. Without a doubt, one of the first steps as mayor will be to publicly convene all the banks who work in the city and to sit them around the negotiating table in order to stop the evictions and to say that we need the empty homes that they have in the city as social, affordable rental housing for the families who need it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, thank you very much for joining us, and congratulations as the first woman mayor of Barcelona, Spain. Thank you.

ADA COLAU: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Barcelona Mayor-elect Ada Colau. We will be posting the original interview in Spanish on our website, Just click on “Español.”

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