Since the birth of the Platform for people affected by mortgages (PAH) in February 2009 we knew that we had two main objectives: cancelling debt by property return* and halting evictions. We wanted to put an end to the violence that is leaving thousands of families on the streets whilst financial institutions (themselves largely responsible for the current crisis) accumulate thousands of empty flats, waiting to be able to speculate on them again. While we encountered few problems launching the debt cancellation by property return* campaign, stopping evictions was more difficult.
Most importantly, we discovered that convincing the very people affected that it was worth resisting evictions would be much more difficult than we had at first imagined. We expected to find people furious with a system that is openly and obscenely unfair, that overprotects financial institutions and leaves thousands of people on the street, in debt and sentenced to social exclusion for life. In meetings with hundreds of people affected by the mortgage fraud that has been taking place since 2009, we found that above all people were depressed, with strong feelings of guilt and personal failure, and with no sense of possibility. Therefore, to take on evictions, the first thing we did was to create a space of trust, a stable meeting place where the affected persons would feel:
Their problem was not individual but collective
It was a consequence of structural causes, therefore they had no need to feel guilt or shame.
That with collective action reality can be transformed to make possible what seemed impossible.
The PAH started the Stop Evictions campaign, stopping their first eviction on the 3rd of November 2010. Since then it has applied the same action protocol that has allowed us to stop more than 60 evictions in 8 months.
There are some key principles that need to be taken into account before stopping an eviction:
1. Everything we do is to stop the eviction of a person or family, therefore their will and welfare is the priority.
2. Stopping an eviction is an act of civil disobedience. This disobedience is not without reason: we understand that actively disobeying laws we consider unjust is not only a right but a duty of the population.
3. The PAH only mobilises for cases involving a households’ primary and only place of residence*, for which the cause of default is unforeseen or involuntary. In other words, we only stop evictions that threaten the right to housing.
4. The PAH is not, nor wants to be, an on-call eviction resistance group. It will not mobilise hastily, from day to day, without knowing the case in question well. We do not want to be "anti-eviction professionals" but rather to help build collective processes that allow us all to take on the daily injustices we face.
On the day of the eviction it is sensible to call the public demonstration at least half an hour before the time fixed by the court for the eviction. In general, for a first attempt at eviction, the judicial commission visiting the appointed dwelling consists only of a judicial clerk, a bank solicitor and at most a local police patrol. In this scenario it is relatively easy to stop the eviction. With just a peaceful but convincing group of people, we position ourselves in front of the door preventing the access of the judicial commission. It is not the role of the judicial clerk to use any physical force: for that there must be an express order of the judge in addition to the eviction order. Usually, faced with the demonstration, the commission decides to suspend the eviction.
For the action to go well, it is recommended that people who are familiar with the case and the action protocol take on some tasks:
a) Dialogue with the judicial commission and/or police: one or two people to convey why the action is taking place, using a polite and relaxed yet firm tone;
b) Family support: one or two people that at all times accompany the family inside the house, ensuring that they are kept well informed of events outside;
c) People invigorating the demonstration;
d) Dialogue with media: this is useful to ensure maximum impact of our action.
Finally, note that this demonstration technique normally works for a first call for eviction. However after the first suspension is achieved, the following eviction orders usually include a request for action by law enforcement to ensure that the eviction takes place.
Stopping an eviction is a very important moment of collective empowerment, in which we achieve several things at once: first, we demonstrate to ourselves that together we can deal with injustice and defend our fundamental rights; second, we ensure that the person/s directly affected can stay longer in their home; thirdly, we highlight one of the most graves acts of violence to take place on a daily basis, to strip a family of their home, leaving them on the street without alternative relocation and all this only to deliver the empty house to a bank so that it can speculate with it once again.
But we must not forget that the day we stop the eviction is just that: one day. The time before and after are equally, if not more important. Therefore the PAH has learned that to responsibly encourage people to resist eviction, you must provide a network of support and a plan to resist the threat of eviction before and after the day appointed by the court.
And once postponement is achieved (which is usually between one and four months, although it has sometimes been only two weeks) we have not finished, just the opposite: now is the time to push harder. The same day as the suspension, the PAH often takes advantage of the fact that there are dozens of people gathered to (once we are certain that the eviction has been suspended) go in protest to the offices of the city or district authority.
What can the local authority do? They can mediate with the financial institution and pressure them to reconsider offering a social rent, or, where that is not possible, they not only can but must provide the necessary resources to ensure decent rehousing, since a local authority cannot ignore that vulnerable citizens remain unprotected and are having their fundamental rights violated. Beyond the local administration, the autonomous community* can also be challenged and of course different actions can be taken to pressure the financial institution. For the latter it is advisable to involve the media, since we have found that one of the few things which financial institutions are very sensitive to is damage to their public image.
That said, it is necessary to remember that the PAH and the Stop Evictions campaigns have not been conceived as tools for aid or charity, but as tools for collective action to enforce our rights. We are not driven by charity, but by the defence of collective rights, social justice and solidarity.
One thing is certain: we have lost the fear and shame, and we have experienced that truly together we can. And that is irreversible. See you in the squares!*
* Debt cancellation by property return is how we have referred to a dación en pago, a formal Spanish legal process by which a property is returned to a bank in return for full cancellation of the debt.
*Spain is divided into autonomous communities (comunidades autónomas) that can be thought of as regions or states.
*Here we have preserved the Spanish ‘plazas’ as ‘squares’ although in many English-speaking cultural contexts “See you in the streets!” would probably be the slogan used to convey the same sentiment.
On the website of the PAH (www.afectadosporlahipoteca.com) you can watch several videos of evictions we’ve stopped. We also have a model handout to distribute at the demonstrations, where the protocol we follow is summarized and explained, enabling everyone to be informed and to share it.