Spanish officials halt building demolition after four nights of riots

A demonstrator makes a barricade with burning containers during a protest over the eviction of squatters from a building they used as a community center in Barcelona, Spain.
(Manu Fernandez / Associated Press)

Spanish authorities Friday halted the demolition of a popular community center in Barcelona after four nights of fierce riots by opponents who set trash bins on fire and smashed shop windows just before the summer tourist season.

It was some of the worst rioting in Spain’s second-largest city since the start of the nation’s economic crisis in 2008. The violence highlighted Spaniards’ frustration with persistently high unemployment -- especially among young people -- and the slow pace of recovery.

The demolition and planned redevelopment of Can Vies, an abandoned municipal transportation building in Barcelona’s working-class Sants neighborhood, angered squatters who had occupied the building for 17 years. They had transformed the site into an unofficial civic center for artists, musicians and those down on their luck, offering free film screenings, exhibitions, martial arts classes, concerts and job training.

After the squatters were ordered out Monday and bulldozers began wrecking the building’s outer walls, central Barcelona erupted in violence. Thousands of demonstrators clashed nightly with riot police, who fired air horns and foam bullets into crowds of hooded youths. Some protesters hurled rocks and glass bottles at police barricades, and a bulldozer and TV van were set on fire.


More than 60 people were arrested over four days of unrest.

The Can Vies protests drew widespread support across Spain, where the unemployment rate tops 26%. The jobless rate is more than double that among those younger than 30, a demographic to which the Can Vies center catered. Peaceful demonstrations in solidarity with the squatters were planned in several other cities this weekend.

On Friday afternoon, Barcelona’s city hall issued a short and unexpected statement announcing a temporary halt to the demolition. “The city maintains its willingness to find a negotiated solution that is satisfactory to all parties involved,” it said.

The statement did not provide a timeline for talks.

Squatters called the city’s offer disingenuous and vowed to start rebuilding the partially wrecked structure Saturday.

“Negotiations were broken when the city ordered the eviction of Can Vies and began the demolition when there were still people inside,” Pau Guerra, a spokesman for the squatters, told reporters late Friday. He also called for the resignation of Barcelona Mayor Xavier Trias and the local Sants councilman, Jordi Martí.

Barcelona officials have long sought to redevelop the Can Vies building. However, recent plans reminded opponents of the type of municipal land deals -- reclassifying public land for urban development -- that led to wanton overbuilding in Spain’s construction boom years and helped bankrupt the country. Half-built and empty new buildings litter the Spanish landscape.

In the northern city of Burgos, officials were recently forced to abandon plans to build a large underground parking garage in the city center after residents staged several days of riots there.


Frayer is a special correspondent.