Barcelona, city of protest – Friday

Gosh, it’s been ages since I updated this blog! A whole summer went by – I went to a music festival in the mountains of Girona, had a few weeks back in England (which felt very odd now), and started a new teaching job here in the Catalan capital. All, or some of these, I’ll hopefully document at some point.

However, I’m writing now so I can cover the events of this week, which have been pretty dramatic – especially as yours truly ended up caught in the middle of them. While the UK has been tied up in knots over Brexit, the US concerned with the possible impeachment of its increasingly deranged President, and cities all over the world disrupted by Extinction Rebellion, Barcelona has barely noticed any of that. This city’s been preoccupied with issues of its own, as the months long trial of the former Catalan leaders wound to a ghastly but inevitable conclusion.

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The Background

As you may remember, in 2017, the Catalan government staged an unapproved referendum on Catalonia’s independence from Spain. The pro-independence vote won by a margin Brexiteers can only dream of – in excess of 90% in favour of independence. The Catalan leaders (rather inadvisably) took this as a mandate to unilaterally declare independence from Spain.

Now, while that 90% majority looks pretty convincing, it’s worth remembering that this was an unofficial referendum, unrecognised by the government of Spain, and it’s very likely that most of the anti-independistas simply didn’t bother to vote, making the result less than reliable. It’s hard to ascertain the actual level of support for Catalan independence, but polls seem to indicate it’s roughly 50% of the population – a similar split to that in the UK over Brexit.

But Brexit didn’t result in a violent government crackdown on anyone who disagreed with it. We may dislike the increasingly divisive Parliamentary rhetoric on that subject, but Spain’s response to the Catalan actions makes that look positively cuddly. National police swooped into Barcelona, and arrested the whole Catalan government en masse; with the exception of those who managed to flee into exile in Belgium.

After nearly two years in prison, the trial of the Catalan leaders that Spanish forces had managed to catch began in February, and there’s been ongoing protests about it ever since – roughly the time I first moved here. Given the inflamed passions over the issue, I found the protests surprisingly good-natured and trouble free. What a chilled city, I thought to myself. Little did I know.

Last Monday, the judges finally sentenced the Catalan leaders (nobody ever doubted the guilty verdict). And it was as heavy handed as the arrests in 2017. Some of the sentences were as long as 13 years in prison (on top of the two years already served), on charges as melodramatic as sedition and incitement to rebellion. Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with the passionate, sometimes hot-tempered population of Catalonia.

The Protests

Given Barcelona’s tendency to have a protest march at the drop of a hat, it was no surprise to me that the marching started the very morning the sentences were handed down. Whether people were pro or anti independence, there was a strong feeling that Spain’s reaction for the last two years had been ridiculously over the top, a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

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I’d been warned by Catalan friends that the protests might not be so good-natured this time. Still, as I made my way to work on Monday morning, it seemed pretty quiet. Quieter than usual, actually – many of the major roads had been cordoned off by the police in anticipation of protests, so the city’s usual constant traffic was completely absent. Able to walk down the empty centre of wide roads where I’d normally be squashed by buses, I felt like I was in The Omega Man, or some similar post-apocalypse movie from the days before they all had to have zombie hordes in them.

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I found hordes soon enough, at Placa Catalunya. Not zombies though – despite the emotive issue, these were friendly, pleasant crowds of mostly young people, obviously politically engaged and more interested in making a point than starting a fight.

 

As I walked past Placa Universitat, an actual march finally appeared. Again, it was good natured and disciplined. Slogans were being chanted (and my Spanish still isn’t good enough to understand them), and the police walked alongside, equally calm. Reassured, I went on my merry way, did a day’s teaching, and went home.

Next morning, I found out that my experience hadn’t been typical. An attempted blockade of the city airport had been broken up by the police “with extreme prejudice”, as our American friends might say. Later, the city itself had descended into violence, with rioting, apparently excessive police charges and kettling, and protesters setting bins (and cars) on fire to act as blockades.

I was fairly happy to have missed all this, though it did interest me. I heard a lot of reports that the police were being excessively heavy handed – their eager usage of rubber bullets was described as indiscriminate, and far from the safe deterrent it was claimed. There were stories of people suffering severe injuries, even being blinded.

I was surprised that the seemingly peaceful protests I had seen earlier in the day had become violent – though it often seems to be the way with any emotive issue, as with the 2011 riots across England. Now, as then, there were conflicting reports of agitators using the protests for their own violent ends; even that the police themselves had co-opted undercover provocateurs among the protesters to start fights.

This continued all week, with the same pattern. Peaceful protests in the day would descend into violence, fire and destruction when darkness fell. And somehow, I missed all of it. Until Friday.

Friday – the big one

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Up till the end of the week, the protesters had been from Barcelona. But Friday was different – a day of defiance all across the province saw half a million people from all across Catalonia walking – yes, actually walking – to Barcelona in a gesture of solidarity. From all across the region they came, thousands at a time, from as far afield as Girona in the north and Tarragona in the south, on foot for hundreds of miles to voice their disapproval at the court’s sentences.

After the previous days, it seemed fair to be cautious about an even bigger demo than before. However, I had bigger fish to fry – I was going to a pub quiz that evening, with my friends Patrick and Alec.

OK, obviously a pub quiz wasn’t quite on the same level of importance. But even as a resident of Catalonia, I didn’t feel I knew enough about the issues to stand with either side confidently. Besides, that news footage looked scary. So it was off to Cirkuz Land bar – the only slight problem being that I’d have to cross the city to get there.

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I’d heard that there was aggro on Via Laietana, slap on the middle of my route to the bar, so I approached it with caution. I had to cross the street on my merry way, and sure enough, in the distance was a blockade of vehicles, blue lights flashing, smoke rising above them. They were a fair distance away though, and I was able to cross the road easily enough without worrying. Off I scurried to a fun evening of trivia questions – we came second, mostly because none of us could remember precisely what the acronym GIF stood for, but it was a fun night nonetheless.

Full of cheer and beer, Patrick, Alec and I started wandering in the direction of our respective homes. This involved crossing Laietana again, and those blue lights were still in the distance. Surely a slightly closer look could do no harm? We inched tentatively in the direction of the lights – and all hell broke loose.

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BANG! BANG! BANG! It turns out this is the sound of rubber bullets being fired. Patrick, who’s been around Barcelona far longer than me, clocked this immediately and ran for cover, while I stood gormlessly looking at the silhouetted figures now running frantically away from the smoke-wreathed blue lights – and towards me.

Luckily they had no interest in me – after all, I wasn’t wearing a police uniform. They zigzagged across the street, making it harder to target them, but the police were going to have a jolly good try anyway, firing ‘non-lethal’ projectiles indiscriminately in their general direction – and mine. At this point I started to get the idea that standing still in the middle of the street wasn’t the smartest idea, and followed a group of young lads to a side area out of direct view of the boys in blue.

Patrick and Alec had had similar ideas, and joined us as our new compadres picked up a rubber bullet from the floor. It was small, like a ping pong ball, but much, much harder – like a medicine ball. And coloured an ominous black.

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I also noticed that our fellow hidees had been wearing scarves pulled up over their faces, which they had pulled down as they ran. If they’d been hoping to blend in with innocent bystanders, it was a hopeless strategy – the police didn’t really care about those, as their wild shots attested to.

Our original trio decided to make a break for it, and take a circuitous route back home; but it wasn’t that easy. We turned into side street after side street, repeatedly beating a hasty and slightly comical retreat when we found that the opposite end of the alley was blocked by a police line behind transparent riot shields, held up in close formation like a Roman legion with access to high tensile polymers. It was like being in the climax of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Or an episode of The Goodies, at least.

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Were we being kettled? I’m still not really sure, but if so it was a feeble attempt – before long we found ourselves back on wider streets, many of which, it turned out, were actually on fire.

Said fires were comprised, mainly, of the city’s ubiquitous dumpsters, dragged to the middle of the road to form barricades and emptied of their contents, the whole unholy mess then set aflame. The garbage and bins burned merrily, plumes of foul smoke drifting hither and yon. The whole city was starting to smell of smouldering, melting plastic. Extinction Rebellion would have had a fit.

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Eventually we found ourselves on Gran Via des Corts Catalanes, approaching Placa Universitat. Almost home! At which point a convoy of police vans came screaming at us from the opposite direction at speeds that were rather faster than was entirely safe. The reason for their haste appeared to be the masked young men sprinting after them, throwing various makeshift missiles. Some of those were paving slabs, pried up from the Barcelona sidewalk, but at least one that I saw bouncing off the side of a cage clad Merc Sprinter was a bottle. If it was a Molotov cocktail, it was a rubbish one – it slid to the road and broke without so much as a spark.

All of this had prompted us to hide again, but unfortunately Gran Via’s wide boulevards are entirely devoid of alleyways or cover. Behind the bins would have been good hiding places – but unfortunately the bins were strewn across the street, and on fire. Police vans smashed through the burning barricades as we cowered in the shadows by the wall of the University, hoping nobody would notice us.

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In a stroke of good fortune, nobody did. Or more likely nobody cared about a trio of pasty Englishmen who were plainly tremendous physical cowards. The carnage passed quickly enough; the rioting seemed a very moveable feast. With that gone, I at least could proceed back to the safety of my flat in Raval – possibly the first time I’d been able to use the words “Raval” and “safety” without irony.

There was one problem with that. The way to Raval was across Universitat and down Sant Antoni – but from across the Placa, Sant Antoni appeared to be a blazing inferno.

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I later found out that the hellish looking blaze was in fact another burning barricade, but it looked at the time like the whole street was being consumed in unrighteous fire. It must have been a far fresher blaze than the one we’d seen previously, the flames leaping at least ten feet into the air across the whole entrance of the street.

I sent a WhatsApp to Tom, who I knew to be out somewhere around there with his partner Paolo. He in turn sent me a video he’d shot not half an hour earlier from their friend Emiliano’s balcony, just behind what had by now become a wall of fire. It’s interesting – the scene looks relatively peaceful, until the police start opening fire seemingly at random while the onlookers packed and ran. Loud swearing courtesy of Emiliano:

 

Clearly I wasn’t going to get home that way. Alec, quite sensibly, decided he’d had enough of this for a lark, and had an easier method to reach his place than I did; so he departed as we wished him good fortune on his journey.

Patrick and I, meanwhile, decided that discretion was the better part of valour and hotfooted it away from Universitat and the fiery Sant Antoni in the direction of somewhere else. Anywhere else. We turned down street after street, continually encountering more of those burning barricades, the foul stench of melting plastic filling the air.

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But the flames were dying down, and we were starting to see normal traffic edging gingerly through the gaps between them – the city’s distinctive SEAT taxis mostly, their drivers eternal quest for fares undaunted by something as trivial as a riot. Normal pedestrians started to be in evidence too – none of them were carrying riot shields, nor did they have scarves pulled up to conceal their faces. It was 01:00, or thereabouts – 90 minutes since we left Cirkuz Land bar near Arc de Triomf, a walk that should have taken no more than 20 minutes. But things, undoubtedly, were starting to calm down.

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Still, we didn’t want to be precipitate. And luckily for us, it seemed the local beer sellers too were undaunted by street violence when there was profit to be made by selling 65 cent cans of Estrella for a euro each. We grabbed a few cans and found a quiet bench to sit on while things got calmer.

As we sat, Patrick, a longtime resident of Barcelona, filled me in on the chequered past of the local (and national) police forces. They have, it turns out, something of a reputation for overreacting, violence being their first response rather than their last resort. No wonder the protesters had reacted in kind.

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That said, as I pointed out, the protesters we’d seen flinging things at the police hadn’t exactly looked like oppressed martyrs either. With their dark clothing, covered faces and makeshift missiles, they looked more like people who were spoiling for a fight themselves. With their face masks pulled down, I couldn’t help but notice they were all young men – and they looked oddly like the sort of young men I repeatedly have to avoid being pickpocketed by in Raval.

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So yes, the police were certainly being heavy handed in their use of force. But the ‘protesters’ by this point didn’t look to be politically motivated. They just looked like the sort of young guys who were actually looking for a fight with the police. Anyone with a political point to make had long since deserted the streets, it seemed, to be replaced by score-settling thugs on both sides.

Of course that was just an impression – I have no certainty either way. Patrick and I chewed the fat over this as we sat, drank and chatted, and after an hour or so, we decided it was worth chancing the trip to our respective homes once more. We parted ways and headed off.

As I shambled Raval-wards, things were definitely winding down for the night. The flames were flickering rather than roaring, and dazed bystanders scurried here and there round the streets as things began to approach some kind of normality – albeit a normality that stank of burnt plastic.

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I reached Raval without incident, and found the streets oddly empty for 02:00 am on a Saturday. Perhaps the population were sensibly staying in; or perhaps many of them had gone out for a barney with the local law. Either way, it was a relief to stumble into my flat some three hours after I’d originally left the bar for a 20 minute walk.

It was an unexpected night, to be sure – though arguably the rioting shouldn’t have come as much a surprise after the events of the preceding days. Nonetheless, I felt slightly hyper – I’d been scared, sure, but also, guiltily, a little thrilled. I’d never been in a riot before, despite many years of living in London; I’d even missed the poll tax riots my friends had ended up caught in in 1990. Now I too had the badge of dishonour to have been caught up in proper urban carnage.

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I should have left it at that. Of course I should. But I wanted to see how the city had gone from peaceful protests to Dante’s Inferno in a matter of hours. So the next night, I ended up deliberately wandering yet again into the midst of the protests, this time accompanied by the intrepid Tom. But this is a very long post already, so tune in next time for an account of what happened on Saturday night…

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