Interview. We spoke with the municipalist mayor of Barcelona, who was visiting Italy and taking part in a demonstration in support of migrants. ‘Cities are the crucial space where the politics of this new century will play out.’

Ada Colau: ‘We must create a common front against barbarism’

The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, flew back from Bologna, Italy, on Thursday, after a whirlwind two days there. On Wednesday afternoon, she took part in the demonstration “for the rights of all, men and women” promoted by the TPO and Labás social centers and the associations supporting migrants. In the evening, she spoke in front of 500 people at a public assembly organized by the Fondazione per l’Innovazione Urbana (Foundation for Urban Innovation) headed by Raffaele Laudani, recently set up by the City and University of Bologna with the goal of developing more advanced practices for local democracy.

On Thursday she met with Mayor Virginio Merola and City Councillor Matteo Lepore to discuss forms of future collaboration between Bologna and Barcelona, and she chose to visit the Biblioteca delle Donne (Women’s Library) and the residential hub for asylum seekers on via Mattei. On this busy day, she did not miss the opportunity to meet and exchange experiences with the Coalizione Civica (Civic Coalition), a sister organization in spirit to her own Barcelona en Comú.

Your trip to Italy comes during an unprecedented political moment in which our country seems to have become the “political crucible” for nationalist populism.

We cannot tolerate people in official positions who advocate for inhuman things, such as abandoning migrants at sea or discriminating against people because of their ethnicity. Right now, it looks like the stage is being occupied by just Trump and Salvini. They have in common the fact that they are using their power to create social conflicts and reap political benefits from them. They dehumanize the “other,” they criminalize anyone who is different, because they don’t want us to identify with their pain. They are the expression of a discourse of hatred that is trying to penetrate hearts and minds in our Western societies. We cannot allow that to happen. What can we do? Become united. Not let ourselves be intimidated by fabricated fears. Not for any kind of “do-gooderism,” but for the sake of humanity and rationality, we should set up a great common front against their barbarism. We need to send the fears they are exploiting back down into the depths—and not the boats carrying human beings, who, before any other consideration whatsoever, must be rescued and cared for.

At this moment, it is a striking fact that the mayors of many European cities are making their voices heard more clearly and forcefully, calling for the opening of the ports and the establishment of humanitarian channels, often coming in to fill a void of political initiative.

I want to emphasize that from the very beginning, Barcelona has defined itself as a sanctuary city. Nothing can be more important than protecting life. This means having to fight a battle, in a difficult political context, against right-wing governments and their racist policies to close the borders, in everything including residency permits, the regularization of immigrants’ status and the recognition of the right to asylum. It means fighting against detention centers—veritable black holes when it comes to human rights—both those already built and those they are going to build. We are welcoming thousands of people, providing them with basic services, aiming to “hack” the racist policies of the states. This is an essential part of us doing politics in a different way, not “in the name of the people” but rather making sure that the people are the actual protagonists. Therefore, our proposal could not be otherwise than a “municipalist” one, working on the level of what is closest, of what is part of daily life. We have decided to do politics in the city, in the place of the local community, where sharing and helping one another is most immediate, in order to achieve concrete changes in the life of each and all. Cities are the crucial space where the politics of this new century will play out. Perhaps nation-states used to be such a space in the previous century, but now their role in history is over.

You won the elections in May 2015, and now there is less than a year to go until the end of your term, when Spain as a whole will vote for new members of the European Parliament and new local governments in May 2019. It is perhaps time for an initial assessment of what you have achieved?

We have accomplished something that seemed impossible. Starting from the social movements, we have tried to take back the institutions and rethink politics. We must not underestimate the formal trappings of democracy as it is now, it cost so much to achieve them, but they have now reached the limit of their abilities, and must undergo regeneration. In these three years, we have done more than just show that we could handle things better: we now have a more transparent and participatory municipality, which has put the people and their social rights first. We didn’t just want to replace the political figures who had been there before us, we wanted to change politics itself. We are the first Council that defines itself as feminist, because our overall aim is to “feminize politics.” Certainly, there is also a question of gender justice, of structural patriarchal violence that must be defeated. We pursue policies that empower women, because we want a city that is more free and more happy, both for us women and also for men.

In your meetings in Bologna, you have insisted on the need to develop horizontal relationships, true and proper “city networks,” involving more than just mayors and city administrations, and capable of being protagonists of change on a transnational scale.

Europe is at a decisive moment in its history. It must decide what it will do: fall apart and fail, or be reborn and reinvent itself. All the possibilities are open: if we make an effort, we could remake Europe from the bottom up and turn it into a space for rights and dignity. I want to come back to the theme of fears: the failure of the traditional Left is that they did not look these fears in the eye, and instead pretended they weren’t there. There are some reasonable and legitimate fears, such as that of not being able to guarantee your children a better future. The fears need to be named explicitly. And we must look for solutions together. Cities are the space where we should face these fears, because they are the space where the “other” is not a stranger, a dehumanized figure, but instead my neighbor, a man or a woman. Here, we can turn these fears into hopes. We have an enormous responsibility: to exercise hope in our cities, rebuilding democratic politics from the bottom up, feminizing it, and working together. And to make politics a space for life, not for cruelty, zero-sum competition and abuse.

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