After the accidental excitement of Friday night, you’d expect that I’d want to “remain indoors” for the next evening, right? Well, so would I. But again, that’s not how it turned out; this time, though, I was forewarned by my experience, and genuinely curious. What would the protests be like before they descended into chaos? Would it happen again? And if so, how?
All interesting questions, but ones that hadn’t occurred to me yet on Saturday afternoon, when Tom messaged me on WhatsApp to see if I fancied going for a walk. I did, as it happened – regardless of panic on the streets of Barcelona, I hate being cooped up in my apartment all day, so I met up with Tom at his, fully expecting a bit of an aimless wander then maybe a sit down and a chat with some refreshing chilled cans of Estrella.
Those expectations turned out to be true – but in a way that also took in the protests still occurring throughout the city. As Tom put it, “there’s a revolution going on, I can’t just sit around playing Duolingo”. He’d heard from his Catalan roommate that there was a gathering at Urquinaona, and was keen to have a look. Just at the beginning, though; his balcony view of the previous night’s chaos had given him no appetite to replicate my own hair-raising experiences. And he’d promised his partner Paolo that he wouldn’t get drunk around the protests, just for safety. This intent was later modified to, “not too drunk”.
I wasn’t sure, but we agreed to have a ramble in that general direction and make our minds up when we got nearer. Half an hour of agreeable ambling around Raval later, and I thought, why not? We were almost at Urquinaona anyway, and there were starting to be signs of genial, Catalan flag-draped protesters clumping together in groups and heading in that direction too.
As we passed into the wider streets of the city centre, the scars of the previous night’s carnage were everywhere, despite the best efforts of the city’s hazmat suit-clad night cleaners. The debris from those burning barricades had gone, but their existence was attested to by scores of scorch marks in the tarmac at the ends of streets. Previously neatly paved sidewalks now had great sandy gaps in the flagstones, where slabs had been pried up to throw at the police. And politically motivated graffiti, often in English, was everywhere – including, surprisingly, many iterations of the old British acronym ACAB – All Coppers Are Bastards.
Passing the burned, police-taped remnants of a bus stop, we arrived at Urquinaona to find a fair crowd of people gathering, but not the masses we had expected. Perhaps all those who’d travelled to the city from other parts of the province had gone home now. Nevertheless, the street to our right was absolutely filled with what seemed to be a march. Except it wasn’t marching anywhere. Throngs milled about in the centimetres between them and the next person, but no forward movement was being achieved. There was, however, some very successful chanting and flag-waving.
After half an hour of this, it had started to become a little boring. Evidently others in the crowd agreed, and we started to see groups of people detaching themselves from the crowd and heading off in another direction. With darkness falling, Tom and I decided to follow them – but first we would need fortification. I was sceptical that any markets would be open with the potential for more rioting on the horizon, but I’d overestimated their owners’ lust for profit. Four cans of Estrella were duly obtained, at the inevitably jacked up price of one euro per can. Where we saw the crowd as a potential for a riot, the shop owners saw it as a fantastic opportunity.
Trailing after the many small groups in the general direction of Arc de Triomf, we passed more signs of the previous night’s destruction. At a motorcycle parking area, the incinerated debris of two mopeds bore mute witness to the carnage. You have to wonder at the thought process that leads from protesting against a repressive state to burning your neighbours’ means of transport.
We’d been on our feet for a couple of hours by this point, so when Tom suggested a sit down on one of Passeig de Sant Joan’s many convenient benches, I happily agreed. We plonked ourselves down, popped open a couple of cans, and watched the world go by down the trafficless street. The world, in this case, mostly being draped in Catalan flags.
It was relaxing, but of course drinking beer comes with an obvious time limit – sooner or later, you’re going to need to pee. Having lived in the area earlier in the year, I knew plenty of handy secluded areas near Arc de Triomf itself, so we headed in that direction. Unfortunately, nothing in Arc de Triomf could be described as ‘secluded’ by that point. The whole area surrounding the monument was absolutely packed with people. In the end, after much dillying and dallying, we made do with a small clump of bushes in an otherwise crowded area, reassured that we’d seen others doing the same thing. The side effect of which, of course, was that standing near the bushes was best done without breathing through your nose, as they absolutely reeked of piss.
That achieved, we turned our curiosity to the people around us. I in particular was intrigued by a group of young people clad in hi vis vests with helmets and equipment slung round their shoulders, who we’d been walking behind for much of the way from Urquinoana. Were they a local equivalent of the French gilets jaunes? A party of speleologists who’d lost their way en route to some caves?
The vibe of the crowd was very friendly, so I felt no particular worry at going up to ask them. Particularly the skinny youngish guy with long green dreads, who was a walking embodiment of my ‘type’. Fortunately, he spoke English, and explained that the group – and others clad in the same gear – were volunteer medics, freely giving their time to be on hand in case of medical emergencies. That seemed to sum up the attitude of the crowds; these guys weren’t looking for trouble, they were looking to help.
Wandering through the vast arch of the Arc itself, we found the wide pedestrian area beyond, normally full of tourists and street performers, was generously packed with demonstrators. They were gathered in groups of friends, smiling and chatting – one even asked us directions to the nearest Metro station. On the street to the left, a march was obviously going by; loud chanting filled the air, and the walls glinted blue from the lights of the police cars lining the route. We couldn’t see it though, as the street was hidden from view by the masses of demonstrators standing on the walls to watch.
The city’s ubiquitous beer sellers mingled with the crowd, with their modestly marked up six packs of Estrella dangling from their hands; “Cerveza beer! Cerveza beer!” Scattered throughout the crowd were press photographers and reporters, in distinctive orange hi-vis vests. Clocking one standing atop a plinth reporting into a camera, I had an idea. Why not try some reportage myself?
The fact that I was able to do that is testimony to the overall calmness of the gathering. We reclined contentedly on the grass, watching the crowd mill; eventually, we spotted large groups drifting off, back from whence we’d come. The night was still young, and there was no sign of trouble – so we decided a change of venue would be interesting. Dragging my aging bones up off the ground, I followed Tom as he followed them.
Ambling close behind another group of volunteer medics, we soon found ourselves back where we’d started – Urquinaona. It was far more crowded than it had been when we left – absolutely heaving, in fact. People were even climbing up on the roof of a newspaper kiosk to get a better view of the action.
The atmosphere was starting to feel palpably more tense now, though. Maybe it was the bigger crowd, maybe it was the far more confrontational chanting being directed straight at the flashing blue lights in the next street. And there were different kinds of people starting to join the throng – steely-eyed young men with scarves on, despite the mild weather, the purpose of which became apparent when they began to pull them up over their faces. Worryingly, quite a few of them were brandishing large sticks.
The change was notable, and interesting, so I decided on another quick bit of reportage – more furtively this time, worried that the scarf-wearing young men might have objections to being caught on camera.
It was starting to look like things might be edging towards a repeat of the previous night’s kerfuffle, and we made the decision that we’d done enough research and now might be the time to head for the unlikely security of Raval. Before burning barricades made it impossible to get there. A glimpse into a side street revealed a skirmish line of police, neatly formed up behind riot shields, their helmeted faces wreathed in blue light. Posting this on Facebook, I received a number of comments from friends that I should get away before there was any aggro; well, they’d all seen the previous night’s live pics of streets on fire, and were worried about us.
As it happened, so was I. Our walk back home was considerably brisker than the gentle amble we’d taken on the way, and fortunately nothing was on fire. Yet.
I said goodbye to Tom, and he headed off to Paolo’s as I strode the few minutes journey more back to my apartment. Safely ensconced inside, I scanned the local news for any signs of disturbance, but after a while it became clear that there actually wasn’t any. Despite the scary looking guys with the sticks and face masks, it appeared things weren’t going to kick off again. After five consecutive nights of full on rioting, this was a relief.
I later found out that there had been some minor disturbances on Las Ramblas. Well, I say “minor”, but by the standards of the previous night, the fires were small, the unrest brief, and the rubber bullets sparse. Which was just as well; by all accounts the police had started to run out of them, and were desperately scurrying to retrieve any they fired lest they find themselves defenceless.
It was an interesting night, far less terrifying and far more genial than my experiences of Friday. It seemed calm was returning to Barcelona, which I think pleased most of us who live here. But how long will it last, I wonder? With former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont reportedly to (voluntarily) return from Belgium to stand in solidarity with his now convicted former ministers, and Spanish President Pedro Sanchez refusing to meet with current Catalan President Quim Torra to discuss compromise, fires may be returning to the streets of Barcelona sooner than we’d like…