Last Friday, a group called the “Centre Social Autogéré” stated their intent to occupy an abandoned building and appropriate it as an grassroots community centre. The CSA describes itself as opposed to capitalism, hierarchies and imperialism and autonomous from political, religious or economic authorities.
Photographer Tristan Brand and I attended the event where about 500 people gathered in park St-Gabriel to support the groups’ appropriation of the space. At the assembly, CSA organizers spoke about resisting gentrification, reclaiming spaces from “privatized hyper-capitalist development” and creating grassroots projects to meet local needs. Both spokespeople had tiny babies in slings and spoke of opening an autonomous daycare in the future.
The CSA has been active in Pointe-St-Charles for the past 2 years, organizing courses, movie nights, bicycle sharing, communal meals, urban agriculture and other activities. They planned to make the abandoned building – which is slated for condo development – into a permanent headquarters for their activities.
“Its with pride and dignity that we reclaim this building” said a CSA spokesperson, before outlining how to behave in the case of a confrontation with police.
In front of 2525 rue du Centre, marchers were invited to light a candle to remember the Café de la Petite Gaule, a community space that had to close when their rent was raised to $3000 per month. The commercial space remains empty.
Arriving at the corner of St. Patrick and Argenson, about 60 CSA core members entered an abandoned candle factory. The crowd sang and cheered as two members hung a banner reading “espace libéré” from the roof. Others unpacked food, gardening implements, and a composting toilet. (Somewhat ironically, the group of autonomous squatters did their best to prevent us from entering the premise).
When we left the rally around 7pm, the police were keeping an eye on things from a respectful distance. One police officer explained that it was not clear whether or not the CSA had a legitimate right to access the property, but that since no complaint had been made they would not interfere. However, he added that if the crowd were to light a fire or receive noise complaints the police would intervene. He also said that he was a bit concerned about the presence of one group whose members had been involved in with violent protests in the past.
None-the-less, Friday night’s festivities went over without a hitch and were deemed successful.
But the very next day the truce was broken. Radio Canada reports that the property owner asked police to evict the squatters. When negotiations between police and CSA members failed, a riot police squad was called in. No arrests were made and the police deny the group’s allegation that pepper spray was used to smoke the squatters out of the building. You can read the CSA’s version of their “brutal eviction” here.
I can absolutely relate to the CSA’s desire to take concrete community action without jumping through hoops to get government support. But squatting a private property slotted for development comes across as more of a confrontational act than a realistic means of finding a sustainable community space. And it was pretty evident that at least some of the organizers were prepared for a clash with police to escalate.
The CSA plans to continue their activities, beginning with a protest outside of the borough office on June 2nd.
Top and bottom photos by Tristan Brand. See his series on the Launch of the Autonomous Social Centre.