By Max Liu.
[Image: Pedro Cambra]
Hotter than Barcelona was the headline on the front of the Observer a few days before I flew to Catalonia. My brother emailed: “The Spanish love to strike. You might have to wait an hour for a bus from the airport.” I waited an hour, no bus arrived but I hung on, reading Bolaño before a brilliant, Miro-blue sky. The Spanish were on strike because Mariano Rajoy’s government, which came to power last November, want to combat the highest unemployment rate in the European Union by making it easier for businesses to fire staff. ‘But more broadly,’ I told myself, ‘the Spanish are striking so that they don’t end up like us, a cowed, indifferent people, resigned to the dismantling of the welfare state by a government with no mandate.’ Waiting was my gesture of solidarity.
After another hour, I agreed to share a cab with a businessman from Manchester. We talked about the coalition. He’d never voted Conservative, he said, but he found it hard to hate David Cameron. “I almost miss Thatcher. At least then there was somebody you could aim your anger at.” The businessman was not the first person who I have heard say this. There’s a complacency about it which reminds me of Christopher Hitchens remarking that he was glad Thatcher came to power in 1979 because “she made things more interesting.” I remembered the work about the miners’ strike in Jeremy Deller’s Joy In People exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, in particular a haunting self-portrait of a yellow-eyed young offender, titled ‘I Am A Miner’s Son’. I thought too of the descriptions of bones crunching under police brutality and the terrible sense of loss in David Peace’s GB84. If the businessman from Manchester caught a train across the Penines, he would find communities who don’t miss Thatcher because they are still living with the consequences of her policies. It’s a failure, feeling nostalgic for other peoples’ misery.
The cab stopped on a side street off La Rambla, the closest the driver could get to the Placa de Catalunya where I was supposed to meet my brother in an hour. I said goodbye to the businessman, walked up La Rambla which was full of buoyant demonstrators, whistling, drumming, leafleting. Lean teenagers who wore Catalan flags as capes were superheroes of the political future, fathers carried toddlers on their shoulders, young mums and grandmothers waved at the hovering helicopter. Everybody wore large stickers which either said 29M (General Strike of March 29) or showed a pair of scissors with a red line through, plastered to their lapels or thighs like backstage passes. But there was no backstage here, everything was open, up front and without hierarchy. I’d been in the country two hours, I don’t speak a word of Spanish or Catalan so I couldn’t read the banners, but the sight of a Greek flag weaving through the crowd reminded me that resistance to austerity is an international cause.
North of Catalunya, down a side street, I ducked under a half-closed shutter to get coffee and read Bolaño. Two men sat the bar, drinking beer, holding hands, policemen and demonstrators alike drifted in for takeaway coffee, there was tolerance and generosity between those who were striking and those who weren’t. I misunderstood a sign and managed to walk in to the Ladies. I backed out, apologising, my backpack bumping the walls.
On the Passeig de Gracia, a choir were performing on a stage, two to a microphone, some members of the large, attentive audience raised their fists in a salute of solidarity. It was a moving spectacle and sound but then a bang went up and young protesters ran up the street. This happened sporadically and the protesters were always young, squealing, excited like children at the beach, running from breaking waves. I followed the map I’d scrawled, down the Passeige de Gracia where the big high-street stores were closed. On a large Mango ad, somebody had drawn black lines in Kate Moss’ lipstick. I counted three Beatles t-shirts, one which read: John Lennon Working Class Hero. The windows of the Bank of Barcelona had been sprayed with red anarchy As. Gawky girls stepped forward from a large, amused crowd, pressed camera phones to the glass and waved at the security guards in the lobby. On the steps, a pile of embers, presided over by a masked, stick-wielding youth, reminded me of a Joseph Beuys sculpture, a well-judged symbol of ruin, waste.
A broad cross-section of Barcelonans had come out to protest reforms which affect everybody. There was a palpable combination of playfulness and potency about the occasion. One irony of protest since 2008, has been that as resistance has become more direct, the message has become subtler and there’s an intellectual agility about this movement that is, to me at least, a revelation. Occupy is accused of lacking coherence but, by eschewing leadership, they have challenged the notion of hierarchy that underpins most organisations and which, for the most part, even those on the left take for granted. If, as Eliot said, “Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important,” Occupy have shown that one person needn’t be considered more important than another for an organisation to be effective.
I was disappointed to realise that allusions to ash heaps were accidental and that what I was looking at on the bank steps was merely the remains of a non-figurative fire. This altered the temper of 29M, it ceased to be a celebration of what it wanted to protect and became an attack on what it opposed. As the definition of the protest shifted, so did the mood. The demographic narrowed as the sun went down, loud bangs and running crowds became bigger, more frequent, disparate cries replaced squeals, urgency buried revelry. I could no longer follow my map, I ran with those who covered their mouths with scarves and banners. My clothes felt damp, my eyes streamed behind my sunglasses. When I wiped them, I made out a line of thrashing batons advancing up the street.
Police had closed the Placa de Catalunya. “I don’t want to get arrested in a country where I don’t speak the language,” I told my brother when I phoned to arrange another meeting point. I turned on to a road where a bin was on fire while up above, the comfortable observed from the balconies of plush apartments, some amused, perturbed, others, such as a large, elderly man whose thin, white hair flowed in the breeze, shouting encouragement. Blue vans arrived, shield-wielding police spilled out, charging; helicopters swarmed, the noise of their blades joining the sirens, smashing glass, screaming. Every street was blocked by fires. There was a pattern: three police vans would drive past the blaze as protesters hurled stones and bottles with impressive accuracy, then another five or six vans would follow, screech to a halt and police would leap out, swinging, firing blanks in to the firmament.
Watching news footage of protests in southern European cities over the last year, it’s been shocking to see police beating those who simply want to protect their livelihoods. The use of rubber bullets in the event of more London riots has been discussed but the closest I’d previously got to a policeman at a demo was outside Cardiff jail in 2001. We were there to protest on behalf of a group of asylum seekers who were being held among category A prisoners. A British Asian officer discreetly shook my hand, saying: “I’m really proud of what you have done this morning.” I’d never seen anything to compare with what was happening in Barcelona but I still felt like I was only a witness. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t afraid. When the police began to aim their guns at us, I assumed the bullets were rubber. There was no time to be shocked or scared but I was running out of streets. Whenever I reached a fireless, police-less place, it was like standing on a sandbank while the tide comes in around you.
My brother suggested we meet at the metro on Universitat. The square was open, cool, buttressed by a beautiful church, but police soon channeled people my way. Somebody started a fire on the road and three blue vans swung around the bend. Debris was hurled and, every time a bottle, stone or sign connected, I winced because I knew the responses would become increasingly disproportionate. Protesters fled as the biggest fleet of vans yet arrived. I froze as fifty-odd armed police ran towards me. I was happy to look unworldly, lost, unserious. I saw a Japanese family taking cover behind a large plastic sign, a tourist map I believe, near the metro entrance. Police took aim, I put my hands over my head, ducked, squeezed in behind the sign the way you might push your way on to a crowded commuter train.
As in a duel out of Turgenev, I heard bullets whizzing by. I dared to look up but saw no soft, black darts in the oily air, just grey sky. I thought: “I never thought that in my lifetime I would have to do this. The world has changed.” When the firing ceased, we peeled around the map and met advancing police, still aiming their guns across the square. I don’t think I raised my hands but there was a pause: a round-faced policeman with a big jaw like one of Miro’s peasants roared what I understood to mean “Go!” I ran down the steps in to the metro station as shooting resumed. Later, I heard no outraged talk of brutality. Some people said they had gone to work as usual while others apologised, telling me I’d chosen the wrong week to visit. The only person who told me he was proud to strike was the Welshman who runs the fish and chip shop on the La Rambla del Raval.
The metro was gloomy, enclosed and I thought about how if the police came down here they might be more violent and indiscriminate. Kids were hiding in a photo booth, all gates were open, like blasted saloon doors and staff were waving everybody through. I stood at the perimeter for a few tense minutes when, at least in my head and my racing heart, we waited to see if police would descend the steps. “Wrong day to visit Barcelona,” I said to a Japanese man who had hidden behind the map with me. “Yeah.” When the atmosphere loosed, I had another banal thought: for the first time, I knew what is to need a drink.
“Is it ok to come up?” I felt stupid, as though I’d imagined the guns and the roaring policeman when I saw my brother waiting for me in the middle of Universitat, his Afro bouncing as he uploaded photos of burning bins. He laughed when I described hiding behind the map, laughed when I suggested he put out his spliff. “Relax. This happens all the time.” As we negotiated a route to his flat, he told me that the police had come to the bar where he cooks and ordered them to close. In the hour since then, my brother had, he claimed, drunk six beers. He photographed an elderly man remonstrating with a group of youths in front of a burning skip, uploaded his images to the internet, as did many people, and I wondered whether this was out of imperative or awe. My brother put his phone away when we came to a side street where a man was lying on the floor, being beaten by a policeman. Batons look soft from a distance, flexible on impact, but they aren’t and it was surreal and barbaric, speculating while a few yards away blows connected. I couldn’t do anything about it and I didn’t try. The policeman went on, his arm scything through the air, down, down, down on his victim.
Next day, in the still, white Fundacio Joan Miro, I sat above the city, trying to write down what had happened. My hand shook, due to the alcohol I’d consumed in the bars of Barceloneta and the Gothic Quarter post-protest. There it felt like an ordinary Thursday evening, as it immediately had once we got away from the main squares and walked through working-class neighbourhoods where the sons of immigrants played football in the street. In living-room size bars, Catalans watched sport on portable televisions while in hipper establishments, heavily-tattooed staff mixed cocktails and heated nacho sauce. A Scottish stag party asked my brother where they could buy blow and he told them. I wanted to write nothing more than a plot summary but I was perturbed by my lack of specificity, my failure to pick individuals from crowds, to find colour and impact amongst numbers and slogans. I went on taking notes because I didn’t want my experience of 29M to become anecdotal. “I’ll be able to say,” I overheard an English tourist remark, “that on my birthday I got caught up in a riot in Barcelona.” That was what I didn’t want, what I was writing against, and yet, even now, I feel myself typing instead of writing. The world has changed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 16th, 2012.