Modern liberty in Plaça Catalunya

From May to July, 2011, this is one diary of the Barcelona protests that charts how they gave a voice to the frustrations and hopes of thousands of working people.
Atiha Sen-Gupta
4 August 2011

Entering the square: late May  

In the famous main square in central Barcelona which stands at the head of the even more famous las Ramblas, we have a site of protest tonight – called spontaneously a few hours earlier. The crowd is small but determined. A general assembly has been called and has been going on goes on for hours. Some have gathered to sit in the middle of the square, the self-proclaimed mediators, the chairpeople. I am sure they would balk at the very title “chairpeople” with all its bureaucratic, corporate connotations. They do a good job of mediating, giving a microphone (with speakers so that the protests can be heard throughout the square) to anyone who puts their hand up long enough, wanting to speak.

The crowd has an instinct for direct democracy. At one point a young boy who has spoken before wrenches the microphone from the facilitator to sounds of discontent from the listening crowd. Instead of capitulating, he continues, begging the crowd with just his hand movements to let him speak. He seems to enjoy the attention. Those sitting in the crowd and lending their ears, however, take them back if they are bored or feel the speaker is repeating themselves. To indicate this desire to ‘move on’, they put both hands up in the air then move them – one hand rapidly following the other in a circular movement, like parents who sing songs to their children about the wheels on the bus going round and round. There is a tendency not to clap when a good point is made but to move one hand silently in approval. The best way to describe this movement is like a slowed down short burst of jazz hand. But sometimes applause is necessary: and the crowd know this. When a speaker speaks their heart out, they are rewarded with loud clapping.

Every decision is taken by the group. Sometimes this painstaking nitpicking, and the adherence to ‘voting’ for every little thing is tedious. Maybe they are deliberately overdoing the democratic content of this protest because of why we are here: the bankers, the politicians, the corruption, the unease, the social divide, which has settled over the city, the country, the whole of Europe, the world, like a fog. Democracy like this basic empowerment has no part in the vocabulary of politicians who represent us in liberal parliaments.

As is always the case in big gatherings, rumours are planted fast and begin to grow like weeds. The police are coming. The police are here. The police are starting to surround the square. If you want to go home, go home now. I try to look through the forest of people for any sign of these police, easily identifiable, like highlighter pens, by their bright neon yellow uniforms. On May day, as we know, protests grew into a riot. In the rich neighbourhood, every bank along the way was smashed, splashed with paint, tainted with the words ‘thieves’. The police waited until we were in a road without easy exits and then charged: we were reduced to directionless herds. But the fear passes like a breeze.

When the general assembly ends, it is time to set up the sleeping arrangements. Although there are many at the assembly, very few have raised their hands to indicate that they are sleeping over in the square. It’s disappointing, but there are hopes (from the pessimists) and assertions (from the optimists) that tomorrow and the day after will see these numbers grow.

I put my head down on the cardboard bed, luckily with a shocking pink sleeping bag to cover myself. It is uncomfortable sleeping on stone. The indignities of homelessness are here and present for those lucky enough to experience it as a political gesture for a few nights, who do not have to endure it out of desperation. But it feels strangely good to wake up in this radicalised, angry and empowered public square. Nosey well-dressed journalists, interested in the story and not the people, weave through the cardboard beds, sleeping bags and the one tent that some innovative protestor brought to sleep in. Curious tourists look at us as if we were mad. An Asian man (known here un-pejoratively by the Catalans as ‘paki’) who sells beer for one euro a pop, is circling like a vulture at 7am in the morning, and is overheard telling a fellow-salesman: “These must be affected by the crisis, they haven’t got houses to go to.”

As the morning warms up, we get hold of a copy of a newspaper. The Plaça Catalunya protest has made the headlines, but the central Puerta del Sol in Madrid is still ‘in the lead’ in terms of number of protestors. My Catalan friends grumble at the unfairness of Madrid coming first.

Third night in the square

Tonight will be my third night. The latest rumour is that the police are threatening to come down hard on us tonight because the right to protest in Plaça Catalunya will be taken away on Fridays and Saturdays. Do they think that people turn off their angry button at the weekend? Those who haven’t got jobs will be placated by the weekend? Yesterday the square was full, teeming with life, with the sounds of makeshift saucepan music, with the hopes of an entire generation being released into the evening sky like lost childrens’ balloons. Every day the square gets bigger: it expands beyond the limits its architects ever imagined for it.

Maybe this is the moment of reckoning. The moment that leftwing academics have written about from their desks and longed for. A moment that belongs in the gaps between lines in a history book. Even if this protest does not reverse the cuts or limit the power of politicians or the bankers or curb the neoliberal agenda that is multiplying like a virus in our societies, it does not matter. For now, it feels as if it is enough that we are here. Standing up, sitting in, lying down on makeshift beds. Nothing is wasted. Every T-shirt plastered with Che’s face brings in a new ripple of hopeful idealism, every wistful sigh of, “If only it could be a different way”, every dream of equality hatched secretly in compassionate hearts: pull out your Che t-shirt and take to the squares of Europe. It worked in Egypt, it could work here. The time is now.

Two weeks later

Today I finally managed to gather up the confidence to go and offer my services to the acampada still occupying Plaça Catalunya in the Catalan capital of Barcelona. Every day they feed anyone who wants to be fed, for free – based on previously received donations, either in cash or actual food. I could cook or help with translation. I make it to the international commission stall and meet a man that I had met there before. I am reluctant to call him the boss because here, “no hay jefes” (there are no bosses) and this was very clear throughout the subsequent course of my day helping with translation. Anyway, asking if my help is needed I am immediately seated next to a man originally from the Sudan, a Rasta, a warm man and fluent speaker of four languages. I become his apprentice. He says that the revolution needs the young ones more than the old. The first man who is not the boss teases me about taking two weeks to get here. I explain that I had exams to do – sometimes the system has to come first, before the anti-system.

The “office” is quite full of people. Some are running about trying to waterproof the area (most vulnerable is the section with all the computers) and seal up any holes, anticipating rain. The weather in Barcelona has not been good this past week and this has affected the acampada. Less people sleep here at night (although some continue to do so in tents and under plastic coverings) and it has depopulated the General Assemblies. The international commission is one of twelve stalls dotted throughout the Plaça. It astonishes me still: the high level of organisation, technology and creativity that is seeping through this place.

Today there are problems with the internet with it either being too slow or not working at all, but this is a one-off, a blip. Normally the internet is fully functioning. Once we are connected to the big wide cyber world, I help to translate a document from Spanish to English about the possibility, raised by the Greek Prime Minister, of holding a referendum to let the people of Greece decide about the austerity measures. Cigarettes are passed from hand to hand: I am asked “do you smoke?” many times. My apprentice friend is bought a cup of steaming, good coffee and takes a sip before passing it around to everyone. The atmosphere here is joyful, inspired, sincere and generous. When pieces of work are translated, nobody rushes to put their name to it or claim the glory of a job well done. This is office politics with politics of a very different kind. I am glad to be here, I feel welcome, included and listened to. The optimists among us call what is happening a ‘revolution’, others call it a popular movement. Some are just happy to be part of a protest that gives voice to the frustrations of thousands of working people.

At close of day, we hear to cheers that ‘Turkey has occupied a main square in Istanbul’ - I feel like I am in some control room of NASA in some fictitious space film where the astronauts we have pushed out of the world have conquered some new and alien planet. The only Turkish man in the team has bought us all an icecream cake to celebrate. We share his celebratory offering – one plate between two at first until seconds somehow emerge.

A friend who owns a small grocery shop in the Raval area (known for being the home to mainly new Pakistani immigrants and west African prostitutes) has been desperate to see the Plaça for himself since reading media reports about the police brutality here on the 27 May. We walk around the square like two tourists admiring pieces of art in a gallery. He too is amazed by the creativity of some of the protestors. Two tree houses have been solidly erected and joined by a bridge between the large and sturdy trees. The statues that are stationed around the plaça like soldiers have long been modified with modern bright clothing, their hands adorned with political posters. Clever slogans are posted around the camp as well, some directed at the police after their violent intervention. One poster stands out in particular: “Se limpia con lejía, no con la policía.” In English, this would be “cleaning is done with bleach, not with police” – it rhymes better in its Spanish original. The jibe is aimed at the ostensible  “reasons” used by the police to clear the square – ‘public health and sanitation’.

It is incredible how this square has been occupied and organised. We have an intranet to communicate with the different commissions: one for the making and distribution of food; another for feminists; and one specialising in immigration. There is a free bookstall/library where people have donated books and others read them, an eclectic list ranging between religious tracts and leftwing prophecy.

I am leaving the acampada at 1am, tired and hungry. The bright lights of Burger King and McDonalds catch my eye, but somehow I cannot bear the thought of spending most of my day helping translate for an anti-capitalist revolution, and then slinking into McDonalds for a happy meal. So no happy meal but a happy day…

July retrospective.

Since the dramatic days of the occupation of Plaça Catalunya in the heart of Barcelona and the violent intervention of the local ‘mossos d’Esquadra’ police to dislodge peaceful protestors, it seems like all is quiet on the Catalan front. The international media has found bigger and better news to cover; it would seem that the revolution has been televised, digested and spat out. Towards the end of the Plaça Catalunya occupation, there was infighting and division into two separate acampadas, one determined to stay, the other to go. For those who stayed, a three day electronic rave was no replacement for its former energies, a place where those who like to rave or who had nowhere else much to go could come out and camp. However, something has radically changed in the political DNA of Spain since the 15M protests began to spring up in every square.

The movement had continued to defy political and police authority. On the 14/15 June, an attempt was made by the ‘first’ of these acampadas, BCN, to shut down the Catalan parliament. The 14/15 June was the day that the budget containing the cuts to the welfare system was to be discussed. The plan was to ‘occupy’ the Ciutadella park (where the parliament is housed) and wake up in the morning to greet the politicians arriving to do business. The idea behind this political action was to highlight the glaring chasm between the will of the people and the actions of the MPs ‘chosen’ to represent them – ‘chosen’ that is in the sense that the governing party of the Catalan government, the CiU, having only obtained 16% of the vote, ‘gained a majority’ by forming a coalition with the PP (el Partido Popular – Spain’s answer to the Tory party). On the night of the 14th, two intellectuals addressed a growing crowd at length about the economic and political alternatives to the crisis, contradicting the oft-repeated, common sense shrug of the shoulders response to the economic crisis: ‘Well, there’s no more public money, all that’s left is to cut’.

Early on the morning of the 15th, anti-riot police vans roll in to the area of the Ciutadella park and begin to secure an entrance. They clear one gate of its protestors and are suddenly surrounded by 3,000 angry demonstrators. In response to this act of people power, 30 more police vans arrive – a black metallic army. Once there, individual policemen camouflaged in black and navy blue filter out of their vehicles like industrious ants, beginning to shoot rubber bullets and blanks into the air to scare and move the protestors. The protestors sit down and link arms like colourful festive paper decorations made at Christmas and one by one they are cut away from each other by police who charge and beat up those unlucky enough to be in the front line. Despite this imminent threat of violence at the hands of the mossos (said to resemble Darth Vader because of their dark oblong helmets, the invisibility of their faces and their general brutish demeanour), the crowd begin to hum “dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah” to the tune of the Star Wars soundtrack. Unfortunately this Darth Vader will not seek redemption by sacrificing himself for future generations.

As the police secure an entrance into the park/parliament, administrative staff begin to arrive for a normal day’s work. The protesting crowd is calm but firm: it is only when the MPs start to arrive, (in particular the household names), that the pot begins to bubble. Like a West End play – all the minor performers who have set the scene make way for the big name actors to come on and play their part. Protestors begin to shout “ladrones!” (thieves!) One man throws a packet of paint at an MP which hits the nape of the neck and explodes. There is outcry from MPs and the media at this hooliganism. The thrower later turns out to be a qualified doctor, not the unemployed anarchist or generally useless young person of repute. There are all sorts at this attempted halting of parliament. In the end 24 MPs have to be dropped into parliament by helicopter including the ‘most’ important – Artur Mas – leader of the governing CiU party. At last, parliament is able to convene and discuss the cuts that they will instigate.

Later there are reports that the parliamentary canteen ran out of bread for hungry MPs unable to leave the building. The police were sent out on a bread errand. The crowd wryly note that MPs bitterly complaining after going short of bread for one day, are at work on depriving Catalunya of its future daily bread indefinitely.

The backlash in the media was fairly brutal with some MPs comparing the protestors to fascists and anti-democrats, in a deliberate assault on the emotional weak spot of the Spanish population after nearly forty years of Franco’s dictatorship. The media backlash largely went unheeded however, and on June 19, a march was held as a follow up action, - the biggest march, some said, ever seen on Catalan pavements. It is interesting that everyone I’ve spoken to about this march has stressed that they saw almost no flags allied to political parties, ideologies or even trade unions. People came out on their own: representing themselves. The route of this march ended up outside Parliament again - making its point repeatedly until the message was heard.

Since then, neighbourhood organisations have sprung up in every barri to discuss, debate and plan for the future. In these forums it remains the case that everyone listens and is listened to – there is no leader, no hierarchy. This is something new – a novel form of political organisation. It is quietly exciting and even though it is not enough to splash ink on the front pages of newspapers, it is the whisper of a new world beginning to take place. It is not enough to have large dramatic statements such as the occupation of squares across Spain. It is time now to create smaller, tightly-linked and strong networks of neighbours, friends, acquaintances and work colleagues building barris, communities, societies that might eventually be able to come together with the rest of the country, other countries, to shape a world which rejects the neoliberal formations of today.

It is in this context of community solidarity that this time last week Veronica and Eliseo were supported by a group of around 100 during the eviction from their home in a brutal ‘desahucio’. It was the first eviction in Catalunya to be carried out by the anti-riot police (before this ‘normal’ guàrdia urbana police were sent in) which reflects the resistance that is building against the weekly evictions of families who cannot pay their rent. We gathered at 8.30 in the morning to try and help Veronica and Eliseo to keep the home that they had maintained for 26 years on an “old rent” contract which when signed in 1985 meant it would never change. Under new legislation, the landlord could get away with doubling the rent from €200 to €400 – a sum that this family could not pay. We shouted the old Republican chant from the Spanish Civil War of “No pasarán! – they shall not pass. But in the end, with ten police vans and fifty mossos d’Esquadra, they did pass. After the police had dislodged, beat and bruised those who had gathered in solidarity to block the front door of the building, they managed to gain entrance to Veronica and Eliseo’s flat and sent them to the street with their three young children.

Although we lost this fight, there are countless others and Catalans and Spaniards are fighting back hard to resist these evictions, the cuts and the general rolling back of the state. Catalan friends of mine often repeat how there is no future left here; no jobs, or bad ones with bad pay that are still hard to come by. I had not heard the term “PIGS” before having lived in Catalunya but it refers to Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain – the only country that has not been bailed out, yet. It is used derogatorily by international bond analysts to describe the dire economic situations of these European countries. The Spanish economy is in danger of imitating Greece with its 35% rate of unemployment in the south and with the Spanish property bubble having burst so catastrophically. The cuts that are taking place in Spain are not happening in a vacuum – all over Europe any remnants of the social democratic dream are being stubbed out like embers underfoot – but it is important to resist in any and every way that we can. 

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