Languages

Gathering and Instituting: An Encounter for Urban Citizenship and Migration Rights in Barcelona

Street workers gathering in front of Barcelona City Council. Photo by Bue Hansen.

Last summer, Manuela Zechner and Bue Hansen were among many people in Central and Northern Europe to support people migrating through the borders of the Union. On 13 July 2016 in Barcelona, they are organising a gathering, titled Redefining the right to the city through migration? Solidarity cities and urban citizenship, to which they have invited Solidarity4All Greece, Vienna4All, Zürich4All, as well as many others to be confirmed soon. In the last few months, with them, Marc Comas and in collaboration with the City Council of Barcelona, we have been discussing and imagining how to develop local policies for welcoming, beyond the institutional limitations of European governance.

Within this series reflecting on imperceptible institutional practices, I wanted to record their thoughts on the practice of gathering as instituent dynamic, as proposed by Isabell Lorey.

pantxo ramas: Recently you published an article on openDemocracy affirming the role of cities in reimagining a geography of rights on this continent. What you mean by the power of the city? What potential can local policies deploy to affect the lives of those who are arriving?

Manuela Zechner: We have the feeling – very present in the Spain of "municipalismos", but also beyond – that we can learn something very important from cities about possible resolutions to the impasse of nationalism and neoliberal transnationalism in Europe today. What can be learned, we think, is something about how communities, everyday life and social composition really work: beyond the rules, statuses and abstract identities of States and the European Union. Our cities are rich, heterogeneous spaces; spaces where difference and conflict is dealt with in a myriad of ways every day, from more organised disputes and campaigns to the smallest negotiations of space, visibility or conviviality in the streets and neighbourhoods. The city has the power to give us a break from the numbing abstractions and blockages of macro politics and to reorient our gaze to what is around us. In doing so, we get the chance to face questions of resources, commoning, migration and conviviality in ways that are embodied, real, lived. So we think it might be possible to develop more meaningful politics from there. In the deadlock between local and global, our cities are quite powerful spaces.

Bue Hansen: It is important to note that the focus on cities is not about localism. Cities need to be understood as spaces where people and money pass through or settle, as spaces that are simultaneously local and transnational. They are the densest sites where millions of people have activities ranging from simple charity to solidarity. In Germany, an estimated 10% of the population – 11 million – helped refugees in various ways in 2015, and, in Greece, the estimate is a stunning 5 million or 50% of the population. And when it comes to the basic questions of the rights of citizens and the right to citizenship... constitutions, laws and international treatises only speak about these rights in an abstract way. They speak in a strange language removed from the everyday, and the institutional route to changing them often seems overwhelming. But really these elevated texts are legal responses to the struggles of people as well as to the changing realities of everyday life, for better or worse. When we turn to the cities, it is about relating to this decisive terrain, to explore our capacities to act and create.

pantxo ramas: What does it mean to organise a translocal gathering at the moment? The route is becoming more and more dangerous. The political governance of migration forces people towards dreadful routes like the one through the strait of Sicily and Lampedusa.

Manuela Zechner: Of course, the meeting we are organising will not resolve the great horrors and injustices that are happening in the Mediterranean. This will be a modest space to exchange thoughts and experiences, starting from different local platforms and campaigns, from concrete experiences on "the ground" of our cities. How can we learn from one another? How can we think the city as a space to make new convivialities, struggles and rights? As a space for a different kind of political subjectivation, more "molecular" and close to the body and ground, less identitarian and abstract. We have questions and intuitions, rather than truths or programmes. We feel the need to gather because, while the border and transit work is absolutely vital, we also need to develop strong political and social forms of practice in our cities, where we spend our daily lives. We have the feeling that we need to start from the cities and pueblos in order to build another kind of lived "we" to develop lasting ways of building and inhabiting solidarity. We will gather to hear how people think about that in different situations and places.

Bue Hansen: Of course, the brutality of the Mediterranean border can't be separated from what goes on within European societies. For the people who have entered Europe, the border is everywhere: in asylum procedures, in asylum camps, in the police ID-checks in train stations, etc. European societies and cities – and not just the "elites" – are calling for borders. As Dimitris Christopoulos said recently, there is no "refugee crisis" in Europe, but rather a reception crisis, an unwillingness to receive refugees due to fear. That is due both to the scare-mongering of political elites, the neoliberal imposition of scarcity, and the insecurity that many are experiencing in the crisis. The solidarity movements and struggles for the right to the city can help undermine the narratives, anxiety and racism that sustain the imaginary of a "refugee crisis", which is used to such great effect to legitimise the current border regime. So our event is about sharing some ideas and experiences of practices that challenge the "reception crisis".

pantxo ramas: What are your intentions during this gathering? Who are the agents you are bringing together and how do you intend to work during this meeting in Barcelona? What is the function of being together in a space like this?

Manuela Zechner: We have invited friends who are involved in infrastructures and platforms of solidarity and "welcoming". The Solidarity4All network has been doing vital work in Greece, providing for locals and migrants without resources and developing a very interesting way of positing solidarity versus charity in their collective practice. There will be new campaigns and platforms from Vienna and Zurich, who ironically also work with the "4All" suffix. Zürich4All and Vienna4All are a new generation of projects for solidarity cities in German-speaking countries especially. It is no coincidence that "for all" is a key in all these initiatives of course, because their main question is precisely how to articulate the energies and solidarities that the waves of "welcoming refugees" created in Europe last autumn. Real political pressure and leverage was built with some of the "migrants' movements" that always existed in our cities. We want to think about and fight for a city that is "for all" in the sense that it overcomes State-based questions of status (nationality, work permits, residence permits, etc) as well as some transnational forms of status (refugees versus migrants, for example) in favour of including all who live in a place. "Everybody who lives here is from here": there are some institutional mechanisms that interest us here, like the municipal ID cards issued by some "sanctuary cities" in the United States. One part of the event will ask what it might mean to demand new rights in the city, and to redefine the right to the city in view of migration.

Bue Hansen: The municipal ID is interesting because it is a way municipalities can give undocumented migrants access to municipal services, and provide them with a means of identification – to the police for instance – that does not reveal their migration status. So it is a practical affirmation of the slogan of the French Sans-Papiers movement, that Manuela mentioned: "everybody who lives here is from here". And then there is another affirmation, which could be "everyone who produces and reproduces a place, has a claim on it". A focus on "papers" is quite radical, but it can also be dis-empowering, because it entails a clash between the State and people who have no formal democratic claim on the State. But if we turn our attention to the labour, care and conviviality, we notice both the real, if precarious, power migrants have as producers and reproducers, and the conviviality through which "helping" can be transformed into solidarity between friends and neighbours of different legal statuses. That is not to say that the questions of papers becomes irrelevant, not at all of course, but to point to ways in which the struggle for papers becomes strengthened, embedded and amplified within other struggles too.

Manuela Zechner: Another part of the event will speak about division between migrants and refugees as well as locals and "foreigners", during which we will hear different examples of how these divisions play out and look at different strategies for how they have been overcome. We will draw on the examples from our guests as well as local participants, since Barcelona has a rich social fabric of struggles and solidarity. The idea is to avoid the debate being overdetermined by the institutional dimension (sometimes in Barcelona everything ends up revolving around the new city hall policies of Barcelona en Comú) and to find a way of creating a space for listening to different experiences. Listening in the sense of learning, not just reconfirming some hypothesis: we all feel we are in a fragile and delicate moment in Europe right now and the kinds of conversations and concepts we need to develop must go beyond polemical critique or glorified masterplans. But we do hope to work on some concepts together, to see how we can speak together about this situation and its horizons.

pantxo ramas: And what does it mean to gather in Barcelona today? what is the distinctive potential of this place in Europe today? But also how do you imagine this meeting influencing what people and institutions are doing here in Barcelona?

Manuela Zechner: Barcelona is a very interesting place with respect to thinking the city and thinking solidarity right now. The municipal "revolutions" are throwing up some profound and difficult questions regarding the relation between institutions and social movements, and there is much vibrancy in how this is being addressed. There has been a lot of talk and action around welcoming here, with neighbourhoods, movements, organisations and also the town hall pressuring the State to accept refugees. The question is alive and there are debates, collections, trips and campaigns happening all the time. Some of the debate is stuck addressing the State, getting very focused on "welcoming", and some on the 'Ciutat Refugi' campaign of the town hall. There have been tensions between local migrants' struggles and the "welcoming" wave, and not so many spaces to address these respective situations in relation to one another beyond a merely angry or polemical tone. So our idea is to open a space for thinking this "for all" in Barcelona also, without any implicit message or aim, but as an open space of listening to other experiences. Sometimes hearing other people's stories can help think through our own, so part of the idea of the event is this.

Bue Hansen: The singularity of Barcelona lies in the inventiveness and power of the social movements and in the electoral platform they helped sweep into city government. So in terms of thinking solidarity and new institutional forms, Barcelona is very interesting, and the city council has boldly attacked the ideas that underline the "reception crisis". But due to the recalcitrance of the Spanish State, Barcelona has so far received very few refugees, and the question of the manteros, the migrant ambulant street sellers, remains unresolved. So Barcelona has much to learn and much to offer. The aim of our encounter is to facilitate the sharing of experiences between people working on solidarity and the right to the city in different places.

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