The Frente Obrero has taken over an expensive empty building in the prestigious (and supremely expensive) Mercado de Colón neighbourhood and turned it into a squat in protest at the number of homeless people and evictees in the wealthy city of Valencia. James Crocket reports…
Cycling up Valencia’s Calle Colón last Sunday on the way to catch a train, it was evident that something unsanctioned had happened. Halfway up Spain’s fifth-most-expensive street and Valencia’s main commercial artery, which follows the course of the city’s now demolished medieval walls, a small but visible revolution had taken place. A grand building from the turn of the century; of the style that abounds in Valencia’s central districts and wouldn’t normally invite a second look, had undergone a radical change. Two long banners, reading “Esperanza Obrera” (Workers’ Hope) hung from its top balconies. Another smaller black-and-red one was emblazoned with the logo – a roaring lion – of an organisation called Frente Obrero (Workers’ Front), and the centrepiece, a huge yellow, purple and red flag of the Second Spanish Republic, hung from two more balconies.
Among the shiny modern shop fronts and swanky apartments that inhabit the Eixample neighbourhood, where Valencia puts on its smartest and most corporate-friendly face, it was a discombobulating sight.
The Esperanza Obrera is a squat. Frente Obrero intend to turn the building into a food bank and homeless shelter, taking direct action in the face of government indifference towards the more than 1,000 homeless (and many more hungry) people in Valencia. Already, according to their spokespeople, there are two homeless families living in the building, and they have distributed food packs to many more. Photos of long queues and full shelves have appeared on their social media channels, as well as cosy-looking bedrooms for the homeless.
It’s not the first time the group has tried to directly address Valencia’s housing and hunger problems. On 9 December last year they occupied a building just round the corner from this one, on Calle Pintor Sorolla, and carried out the same activities. But, on 15 March they were forcibly removed by the Policia Nacional on the orders of Judge Juan Carlos Mompó. The operation involved the arrest of four members of the collective, and in a message on social media, Fermín Turia, a representative of the movement, said: “This is why, 11 days later, we haven’t given up and have returned.”
On 26 March, a video appeared on Frente Obrero’s Instagram of the republican flag being waved from a staircase under a posh stained-glass skylight; the first sign that the group was active once again.
A giant poster that Frente Obrero hung on the building a few days after I passed gave an insight into the attitude of the group who have occupied the building. It read: “Frente al sistema, resistiremos” (In the face of the system, we shall resist), and went on to name three people they see as fixtures of the system, alongside cut-out-style pictures of their faces: Mónica Oltra, head of the Department of Equality in the Generalitat; the Usó Ferrera family, who own empty properties across Valencia, including the group’s previous location, and Judge Mompó.
Their beef with Oltra comes from the fact that she and her party, Coalició Compromís, market themselves as left-wing while the department she runs keeps buildings like the one on Calle Colón empty and stand by while families are evicted all over the city. For their part, Oltra’s department says the building is to be used for the assessment of disabled people applying for government benefits, and the reason for its disuse is down to pending renovation work. Last week it came out that the department had finally signed the contract for this work. Frente Obrero’s occupation seems to have given them a kick up the arse in this regard; the building had been empty since 2018.
Visit Frente Obrero’s website, and it’s obvious they’re about as far left as you can get. Their demands include leaving the EU, abolishing the monarchy, full-scale nationalisation of industries, expropriation of property from large landowners and the release of political prisoners. Their leader, Roberto Vaquero, was himself briefly imprisoned for helping two comrades go to Rojava to fight against ISIS. So far so good, right?
But Frente Obrero isn’t your average left-wing group. The Twitter bios of the group’s main men – and they are mainly men – declare slogans and aphorisms such as “Workers politics cannot be politically correct”, and a lot of their time and energy is spent attacking other left-wingers rather than the real enemy. People’s Front of Judea, anybody?
Frente Obrero’s main route to revolution appears to involve defeating ‘postmodernism’, which they see as a distraction from revolutionary politics. By this, they mean such developments as feminism and trans rights. Frente Obrero objects to the introduction of laws allowing trans people to change their legal gender, and criticises government spending on organisations protecting LGBT people, under the slogan “Biological sex exists, and so does the misery of the workers.” For them, allowing Spain’s 10,000 or so trans people – a population half the size of Alboraya – to change their legal gender would lead to the erasure of women and endanger the chances of a proletariat revolution; a revolution in which trans people apparently have no place.
In an aggressively anti-trans video released on their Instagram, one representative of the group even appears to claim that allowing people to change their legal gender will lead to the ‘hormonación’ of children; that is to say, children being encouraged to undergo hormone replacement therapy – ironically, a parroting of the line taken by the far-right, ultra-Catholic campaign group Hazte Oír. Things like this have led other left-wing groups to refer to them as the ‘Leninist Vox’.
Frente Obrero are politically on their own, which is probably where they want to be. Working with others in the hope of effecting progress, as Podemos and the Spanish Communist Party have done, makes you ‘of the system’, as far as they’re concerned. Frente Obrero likes to think it operates outside the system, and it wants people to know it. Breaking into and occupying an empty building on Valencia’s main shopping avenue, and spreading dramatic videos of it across social media, is a great way for them to show people what they’re about.
Why not just occupy a building, turn it into a hostel and be done with it? They have a point, though, and what they’re doing in Calle Colón is good work. More young folk, rightly pissed off by their lack of future prospects, will be attracted into the group by the spectacle and angry rhetoric.
When the police with their batons, the violent arm of the system, eventually move them on, they will inevitably spring back up in some other forgotten building, flush with freshly-printed banners in one hand and a bullhorn in the other, raging against those who have crossed them.
Writer James Crocket reports on social issues, history and culture for his own newsletter ‘Weird Spain’. Read more of his work and subscribe at https://weirdspain.substack.com