Fontinha's squatters forced to leave the school by force

António Serginho Photo

Hello friends and readers. 
I’ve been too busy to write anything but today I bring to this blog an important story. Sure that you already know that I love Oporto city and its people. I have already shared with you some photos of the city and you can expect some more in the future. Last year in June I spent some days at Oporto during St. John’s Festival. It’s traditional to celebrate it on the streets with dancing, music, eating sardines, and lighting paper balloons or jumping bonfires. I attended Fontinha’s St. John's street party. It was a collective party. People were invited to bring food to share. There was already music and typical decoration hanging when I arrived at the scene with my friends. When we left the place was full of people from all social backgrounds and ages - babies, children, youngsters, adults, and seniors. From the windows of the surrounding buildings, some of the Fontinha quarter inhabitants watched us and waved to us. It was cool. That’s how I knew about Es.col.a da Fontinha project. Once this area had factories and around it, workers built small houses where they lived. Today houses are still there. Some are very old and lack good living conditions. But that's what these people can afford.

Mural painting inside the school (source)

Es.Col.A. means Collectively Managed Space. Escola is the Portuguese word for school. So, there was this public school in Fontinha quarter that was closed and abandoned for 5 years. Junkies gathered inside to get their usual fix, the floor was covered with syringes, broken bottles, all kinds of garbage, and possibly lots of rodents. Kids jumped over the gate to play football on the patio during the day. At night streets in the neighborhood were empty as they were considered unsafe. It was a great place, an inspiring one. But the municipality had no money - and no ideas - to do anything about it.

On 10th April 2011, a group of people decided to occupy that abandoned public space. Oporto has a lot of empty houses facing a slow but certain decay and so does the rest of the country. There is no tradition of occupying public buildings in Portugal. Squatting is when someone settles on land without a right or title. We don't do that in Portugal. People are too afraid to disobey the law even if our Constitution provides some support for that. Ok, bottom line, it's illegal. In the course of one year, the group managed to bring a new life to Alto da Fontinha where most people are forced to live with very low income and uncertain fates every day. They welcomed the group and together they worked hard to clean and paint the space. The squatters created a self-managed social center with recreational ( photography, yoga, music, capoeira, film and debates, recycling workshops) and educational (a library, after-school for kids, foreign language teaching) activities aimed at the most needed, children and older people. All decisions are taken collectively; there is no leadership or hierarchy. Es.col.a project goes by the principles of self-organization and practices of consensus through weekly popular assemblies.

But City Hall had no sympathy for this occupation from the beginning. After a month of functioning the group was evicted by municipality order. Some negotiations with the City Hall were engaged and the project was allowed to stay. There was a promise of a contract to give the situation a legal frame and the group was forced to establish itself as an association, that is an institution that can be a source of legal rights and obligations. No one from the City Hall ever visited the space.

By 19 of April, a few days after Es.col.a was celebrating its first anniversary, the municipality sent police forces to evict the group. Maybe 30 people offered pacific resistance. Police outnumbered them, there were maybe 200 officers there. I read that a dozen police cars arrived at the scene with masked and armed anti-riot-trained police.

Police destroyed what they found inside the building - a library, computers, toys, bikes, kitchen utensils, furniture, children's drawings, and craft works. They broke the windows. Things were thrown down and smashed on the floor. I was really angry when I saw this destruction on internet videos as I considered donating things to the group myself. Come on. This was too much. In my opinion, City Hall did not make a serious effort to negotiate a solution. From what I've been reading it seems obvious.

Three people were detained after being injured by the police officers and three more got beaten up by the police. The two detainees will be presented to the court of law in May. Maybe 200 people protested in front of the City Hall building. The next day, in Lisbon and other Portuguese cities more people protested peacefully against the eviction of Es.col.a. I was at Coimbra and joined the protest. As an ex-lawyer, I understand that occupying a public place might not be legal. But we have to consider all scenarios. If the City Law can give some institutions money so they can organize these kinds of activities, why not consider recognizing this group that was working for free? I condemn the lack of a proper negotiation between the two opposite parts. City Hall did not seek a solution because their mind was already made up from the beginning - Es.col.a should be crushed.

Now the school’s windows and doors are all boarded up. These events opened on TV main news. Hashtags like #Fontinha and #ocupai trended on Twitter. On Facebook and blogs, there are plenty of videos, photos, and shared links about what happened on Fontinha.

The formal City Hall site statement says that given the group's incomprehensible refusal to accept the minimum requirements applied to any citizen or institution by law, the occupants themselves have forced the authorities to intervene coercively. City Hall also says that it isn’t clear if this movement is really interested in promoting community activities or just disturbing and challenging public institutions.

A petition is in circulation. More than 2000 persons who signed are asking Oporto’s City Mayer is to reverse the eviction. In my opinion, proper negotiation should take place. This group should be considered and treated as a partner in community development and not a criminal one. It’s obvious that Fontinha’s residents need support. The municipality speaks about a project that will be implemented at Fontinha but I would like to know about the schedule and budget when we all know that most of our municipalities are broke. Meanwhile, this group that was around for a year already providing support is banned with extreme violence and a lot of goods, some donated but people who had sympathy for what was being done were destroyed. In my eyes, it seems that City Hall social technicians and bureaucrats are discriminating against the group just because they don't act by the book and not because they are not useful and needed at Fontinha's quarter. Before condemning the group's methodology they should learn about their activities. But to my knowledge, those City Hall social workers never set foot at Es.col.a. Why not join efforts in the name of social development?

The Assembly of Es.Col.A gathered on the evening of April 20 with around 200 participants and decided to reoccupy the building on April 25th. As you may remember from previous postages this is a national holiday that represents the end of the dictatorship in Portugal in 1974. I fear more violence on the way.

The official blog for Es.col.a is in Portuguese language, here.

A text in the Portuguese language I wrote about Es.Col.A can be found here.