Monthly Archives: February 2018

Bricks and Sticks are Important, but Different than Social Change

view of the grounds and neighborhood from the terrace on 4th floor

Bratislava       We had an interesting set of meetings scheduled at a new enterprise launched during the last year in Bratislava that involved creating cultural and community spaces in an experimental building.  After hearing about community centers of various sorts and sizes throughout Slovakia, we were finally going to get to see the urban version on steroids.

The backstory told to us by several of the four founding members and their staff was fascinating.  It had begun as an effort to try and take over an old textile mill at the outskirts of town, but that effort had faltered when a big-time developer outbid our heroes with a well-financed plan to build high-end, luxury apartments.  Instead, a more realistic search for an equivalent space enlisted the municipal government and after much negotiation and some luck in financing, an abandoned school building connected to a dormitory building was acquired by four partners with a half-million-euro loan to rehab and a 25-year lease from the city.

principal member of four owners of building space

The progress made in just one year was impressive.  There were a wide variety of tenants, the manager told us there were now some seventy rent payers at 6.50 euros per square meter per month for space that averaged about 80 meters.  Walking through the building we saw spaces rented by artists, a performance area, a film area, a bakery, photo and print shop, clothing and toy stores, a café, day care center, co-working center, and a kitchen that served lunch inexpensively to the community of 200 to 300 that were in the building at any one time.  The dormitory will eventually offer housing for about 80 small units.  Much work still needs to be done, but it’s an impressive complex, garnering a lot of interest.  For example, their first open house was attended by 7000!

tenants,  co-working space

One of our delegation asked the staff how they saw the building creating social change.  It turned out to be a surprisingly difficult question for the core team to answer easily.  They didn’t want to see themselves and their internal group or “community” as fixed in a landlord-tenant relationship, but the more they talked the more it seemed they were caught in a box between the four partners and the burden of paying off the bank loans, and their hopes that the building would be successful and supported by the community.  One woman was the sole voice for social change when she spoke of creating models and access for affordable housing.  Most of the rest, whose hearts were pure as goal and intentions lofty, were focused on the role of the building for the community of tenants, rather than the role of the community around the building.

Cafeteria

I was reminded of advice I had gotten almost a decade ago now about having to make the decision about what was important, “bricks-and-sticks” or power and people.  They have an interesting operation, and the principal partner told me about a network of similar projects, and I had visited one building in an old armory not long ago in Hamburg, Germany that seemed very similar, but there’s a tension in the goals and objectives when one gets to the bottom line.  Social change is not just a building.  Common space is important, but it doesn’t equal change, and is a long way from building power.

Kitchen

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Watching the Euro Far-Right in Action in Slovakia

1st column marching in

Bratislava        We were on our way to Bratislava, but first we had an opportunity to observe some kind of action by the members and supporters of the far-right party in Slovakia.  More recently, this party, referred to invariably by our hosts as neo-Nazis, had been the governing party in the country in a Trump-scale surprise to many voters who were overwhelmed by the protest vote that propelled them into power in 2013.

The occasion of the action was a court proceeding scheduled for 9am in Banska Bystrica involving one of their members who they believed had been arrested unfairly.  The court has limited seating for only forty in the audience so our associates expected there would be a line of people seeking admission and contending with the opposition.  With a bus to catch, our delegation had no interest in what was happening inside the courtroom.  Our interest was in what we could learn of the strength and tactics of the far right. We may have learned more than we wanted to know.

1st column assembling

When we first arrived about 915 AM, there was a nothing much happening.  Two or three policemen were wrapped up against the cold, standing on a corner across the street, a block from the courthouse door.  Compared to what I had seen in Bulgaria, where police sometimes outnumbered protestors, this was a light touch.  There were no police in front of the court’s door and no sign that there was any expectation of violence or that people would try to force entry into the building.  In fact, there was just a somewhat scraggly and, frankly, disappointing gaggle of perhaps twenty men with a couple of flags and banners standing along the fence line between the driveway and the sidewalk abutting the entry door.

courthouse door

Shortly, we discovered that this was simply a staging and holding team.  Ten minutes after we arrived about fifty to seventy marchers came down the sidewalk across from where the policemen were standing with more flags and banners and assembled across the street from the court building.  Another five minutes passed and one of our number checked the news on his phone and turned to us and said that the far-right protestors had two other march columns coming, one from down the hill and the other from the central town square.  Minutes later, I could spot the banners coming up the hill some blocks away, and they looked strong and together, banners unfurled, and, as they neared, chants roaring, Slovak flags flying everywhere.  There may have only been a hundred, but they stretched for several blocks and looked – and sounded – like more.

1st column in place and ready now

Very deliberately they marched right up to the court’s driveway, then turned, and all crossed the street where the first elements of the march were now arrayed.  Once assembled there, the original holding band went across the street with their banners to join them.  Another five minutes later the smaller group, perhaps fifty, came up from the square and joined them.

second column coming

I’ve done this before many times.  It takes organization and some tactical imagination and planning, even if their timing was imperfect.  They had more than two-hundred across the street, letting it roar by 940 AM or so.  Most were men, with a handful of women, and two children.  Any organizer will tell you that pulling out 200-plus “day-timers” on an early Monday morning, takes not only real organizing, but speaks to a real organization with a significant base.  No matter the message, as a demonstration, it was impressive, and something to be taken very seriously.

second column turning early marchers to cross the street “on a dime”

Our escorts translated the signs for us.  They were wrapping themselves in democratic and patriotic slogans.  The flags were national Slovakian banners.  Their signs argued for free speech.  One banner crossed out the Nazi, EU, and Communist symbols, indicating they were native and distinct.  There was message discipline.  No signs attached immigrants, Roma, or others, while all of them supported their colleague before the bar.

part of the column crossing the street

Some of our hosts carped about them not having a permit or permission and hoped the police would break up the demonstration.   Once again, they missed the skill and planning behind these marches and this courthouse rally.  They didn’t need a permit, and our friends shouldn’t have wanted them to have one, because their hands would be tied in the future as well.  We never ask for a permit.  They had obviously already assured the police that they would be disciplined and peaceful, and they were proving it.

banners flying

Progressives may have won the last election in this region in the fall of 2017, but these folks have to be taken very seriously.  They are smart, well-organized, and committed to a longer struggle, and winning will require much, much more of the same on the progressive side of the line and an organization with comparable, if not greater, strength.

3rd column arrives from the square

all in place, both sides together on both sides of the street with their banner in front of the courthouse door

***

Please enjoy previously unreleased Jimi Hendrix’s Lover Man.

and Freedom Fighter

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