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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Desórdenes Publicos

Graffiti on the squatted social center Can Vies.

Graffiti on the squatted social center Can Vies.

Lunes, 23 Abril, 2007, was a beautiful day.  I was hanging out with Georgi from Bulgaria.  It was the festival of St. Jordi, though all that meant to me was that people were setting up tables everywhere to sell books and flowers.  We passed some time looking at books, sitting in the sun, shooting the shit.  Later, I finished up a stencil I had been working on that protested the growing police state.  It said “Yo No [heart] Karcelona,” a play on the “Yo [heart] BCN” design mass-produced for the tourists here, which in turn was stolen from the quintessential NY merchandise.  Karcel, or cárcel, means jail. Karcelona was a common nickname given to the city by radicals. In the afternoon, the Assemblea d’Okupes—squatters’ assembly—organized a little protest, carrying a balloon-laden banner up Las Ramblas and passing out flyers explaining the problem of gentrification and the reasons for squatting.  The weather was gorgeous, everyone was really friendly, and it was nice to see a low-key action that just involved talking with people and spreading information.  I turned to Juan and said “This is my favorite day so far in Barcelona.”  Georgi and I were about to leave—we were meeting someone in Raval in a few minutes.

And then there was a loud boom.

I turned around, leaflets fluttered down through the smoke in the air, the crowds stood frozen for a moment, some stunned, some laughing, and after some moments police rushed onto the scene.

I would learn later, what would seem a long, long time later, that this was a petardo, a traditional Catalan device, cannon-like, used as a firework or for shooting flyers into the air.  I imagine it had some tongue-in-cheek value: El Quico, Francisco Sabate, the anarchist urban guerrilla who long eluded the fascists, famously goaded them by taking a taxi around the city and firing off leaflets by the thousands urging the people to keep resisting.  But alas, humor is in the eye of those with the guns, prisons, socially conferred legitimacy, and, incidentally, absolutely no sense of humor.  Some of these same squares, always preparing for the worse, came in and made it worse, made all of us speak the only language they knew.  Questionable gimmick was now terrorism.  The people in the demonstration made themselves scarce.  The pigs started chasing one of the squatters.  I saw them running; no one else seemed ready to help, so I decided to follow them, mostly out of a habit I’d developed from Copwatching in the US—is anyone arrested, is anyone beaten, do they want to pass on a message before they get taken away?  The cops were running down Escudellers, and other people were following too.  I assumed it was for curiosity’s sake though many of them might have been undercovers.  Around a corner, the cops had swarmed someone.  They yelled and manhandled him for a while, then they told the crowd to disperse and led him away.  I lingered longer than I should have, hoping to catch his eye and give him a friendly smile, and as I was walking back to Las Ramblas, one of the cops looked me over and decided I was suspicious. I had completely forgotten that that day I happened to be wearing a shirt with a circle-A on it, given to me by the anarchists in Bulgaria.  The cop asked me a question.

“Yo mala habla Español,” I said in my best American accent.  He demanded my passport.  I gave it to him, but instead of looking it over and giving me a chance to demonstrate my touristiness, he walked off with it.  Shit.  “Uhhhh, what’s the problem?  Que es la problema?” I asked, following him.  No answer.  Shit shit shit.  On Las Ramblas, he told another pig to walk behind me.  I’m fucked.  And just like that, we walked right into the police station.

In the basement of the Guardia Urbana, the other person they arrested was on a bench, surrounded by three cops yelling at him and pushing him around.  I demanded to know what was going on, demanded to speak to the US consulate, told them I was a tourist.  They made me empty my pockets, looked suspiciously at the black handkerchief, which I tried to convince them was just a handkerchief—see the snot stains?  Then one of them asked me to raise my shoes.  These were white New Balance tennis shoes, the cheapest and most comfortable I’d found before leaving Virginia.  But I  later found out that in European countries where it was forbidden to display a swastika, the neonazis had appropriated the New Balance logo, which is a large N—subtle, no?  So, in Berlin I had colored my shoes black with a marker, and left a few uninspired slogans on them while I was at it.  One, sort of a good luck inscription like the blessing on a newly launched ship, was soon to prove worse than useless.  It read: “run to live and fight another day.” Well, no use running when they have your passport, and now in the police station it was the center of attention for these troglodytic cops.  The only word they could understand between them, lucky me, was “fight” and once they read that they all began grunting “ocupa! ocupa!” (squatter, squatter) like happy trolls.  I started making demands again—isn’t that what American tourists are supposed to do? and asked what the hell was going on.  One of the Guardia Urbana said I had to speak Spanish or nothing; that if I kept speaking English they would beat me, and he raised his hand menacingly.  I kept going, but they were only bluffing.  I tried to explain I was a tourist, but one of them corrected me: “¡Tourist, no!  ¡Terrorist!”

Just to make sure they hadn’t accidentally arrested an innocent tourist, the cops pulled a fast one.  They had been interrogating the other guy pretty harshly, and then they caught him off guard with a slow pitch—they asked him an easy question.  “¿Quien es?” they asked, pointing at me.  “Peter,” he replied, confused.  Though at that point I didn’t really know him, he remembered my name.  And now the police knew I was connected to the squatters, which, in their terms, meant I was guilty.  They took us to a holding cell.  The other detainee was named Xavi, and he had never been arrested before.  I knew it would just be a matter of waiting, but it was frustrating as hell to think that the whole thing could be cleared up immediately if only we were allowed to talk to a judge before the cops had a chance to get their story straight.  Ask two different cops the same questions and it would become obvious that they were lying.  But that wish was a non sequiter: it simply didn’t apply to the situation.  The purpose of a trial is not to find the truth, anymore than the police are there to protect us.

The cops came back a little later for the contents of our pockets, our belts, and our shoelaces, and then deposited us back in the holding cell for more waiting.  Now I had the opportunity to realize that they would likely try to deport me, that this would come with a ban of several years from the Schengen visa territory, which includes all of Western Europe, and that after waiting four and a half months I probably would not get to see L on Saturday.  But doing the natural, human thing—trying to break down the door or punch the next cop who came by—would only make the situation worse.  So I went through the yoga routine taught to me by my friend Greg.  I met Greg in prison in the US.  In the end, prison killed him.  He did a dozen years on the inside, and stayed healthy as much as possible in that environment, but less than a year after getting released he died of a heart attack, just that past October.  He was only in his forties.

That night the Mossos d’Escuadra picked us up and drove us in handcuffs to the commissary.  I lost sight of Xaveliño and got put in a cell about twelve feet across, with four others.  The next two days there was nothing to do but wait.  Wait, get called out for fingerprinting, get photographed, wait, attempt to sleep, wait, try to drown out the ceaseless sound of the junkie in withdrawal begging for medication pounding the bars insulting the guards and screaming before going back to sleep to rest up and start it all over again.  Wait.

24 April
They use the same word
for waiting and hoping
but as I’m pacing the sullied floor
of this Barcelona cell
1 day after my arrest,
2 days before the deadline
to appeal my deportation,
and 4 days before someone I love
shows up at the bus station
looking for my face,
what I’m awaiting and what I’m hoping
are exact opposites.
Yet I’m surrounded
by the agonized marriage
of these two antitheses
as I pull and push the prison bars,
which are the strongest symbol
of the desire for freedom
and its final impediment.

Martes, 24 Abril, the next day, I found out that the Mossos had notified the US consulate of my arrest, and the consulate would contact my mother.  I wasn’t allowed to talk to them—it was set up so I couldn’t get any help at this stage.  I did get to talk with a court-appointed attorney, accompanied by a translator.  The translator was very nice, which delayed my realization that the lawyer was incompetent.  I chose not to make a statement to the police: by now they were irrelevant to the process and waiting until I saw the judge would give me the chance to speak to the lawyer first.  The most important things I found out from her was that I would see the judge tomorrow and might be released after that, but I would need to give an address.  Someone from RuinAmalia had contacted her and would find an address that I could use—one that was not a squat.

After more hours of waiting, I was again called for a meeting with a lawyer, this time an immigration lawyer.  I learned the national police were starting a deportation process against me, accompanied by a seven year ban from Schengen, on the totally fabricated argument that I was in Spain illegally.  They said I had entered Schengen in February, 2006, when in reality the date of entry, from Bulgaria to Greece, was 1 March, 2007. In February 2006 I was in Harrisonburg, and didn’t even come to Europe until July, although the whole winter I was in Ukraina, outside of Schengen. I had 48 hours to appeal, but my passport, which had the stamp that could prove my legal status, was locked up with me.  The lawyer assured me that I would be released the next day after talking with the judge, and I should go immediately to her office with my passport to file the appeal.

The next morning our wing of the commissary was emptied out and we were rounded up into prisoner transport vans—those inconspicuous, windowless police vehicles that are constantly ferrying strangled futures across the streets of your city without drawing a second glance. The Barcelona courthouse, just like the courthouse of any other city that is big enough, had a back door with a garage that allowed the prisoners to be driven directly into the illusionless dungeons that are the necessary though invisible companion to every lofty hall of justice.  While the police and prosecutor were on the streets or in their offices preparing their case, working to keep us behind bars, we were confined to more agonized waiting.  Nearly everyone else crowded into the holding cell was an immigrant, arrested for possessing marijuana, getting into a fight, being accused of stealing a tourist’s cellphone, stuff like that.  Xavi was there too.

After hours and hours, he got called up, and then I did.  Throughout the agonized waiting, I had been preparing something to say to prove my innocence, but I should not have been so naïve. I was talking with a machine. This was to be a routine meeting in the judge’s office, with a translator, my lawyer, the prosecutor, the judge, and a secretary. On the way up I saw Maduixa, from RuinAmalia, waiting in the lobby, but I pretended not to know her, and she followed cue.  They took off my handcuffs just before sending me in.  I’ve always suspected this ritual is more to preserve the judge’s illusions rather than to ensure the comfort and equality of the accused.

The judge started out by describing at length what had happened, based on the information given to him by the prosecutor, which was an elaboration of the police story.  The squatters organized a protest, they were on Las Ramblas handing out flyers, and then they fired off “a mortar,” intentionally choosing the Catalan national holiday of St. Jordi, the busiest tourist spot, and the busiest time.  The police were watching the demo, they saw the protestors form a circle, they saw Xavi take the mortar into the circle followed by me, and then they chased and arrested us after it went off.  Then the judge said that two people were injured by the explosion.  I was shocked by this part of the story, though it all made sense when I later learned that the police had pressured two older people to say they were injured by the so-called mortar, but they refused to make a denunciation and ultimately testified against the cops.  At the time, though, all the judge knew was the bullshit spilling out of the mouths of the cops and prosecutor, though he had been in the trade long enough to realize that whom he chose to believe was an entirely political decision.  The prosecutor piled on some more claims: it was a serious attack, an “urban guerrilla” action, designed to send the message that the squatters were a “paramilitary force.”  I was starting to realize how fucked up the situation was.

I found out the charges were manifestación ilegal—a minor offense in the city code—and desórdenes publicos, public disorder, with heightened sentencing provisions because the disorder was allegedly committed with explosives.  The minimum sentence was three years in prison, the maximum six years.  The judge’s first question for me was why I didn’t make a statement to the police.  I said the police had been lying and threatening me from the beginning so they were hardly the people to talk to.  I tried to add that in the US, lawyers tell people not to make statements to the police but the judge interrupted me to yell that “in the US they would throw you in Guantanamo for such an act!”  I wasn’t sure if he was upset by the apparent influx of American terrorists taking advantage of Spanish leniency or sad that Spain did not also have such an efficient system.  I assumed this judge had been a fascist when that was still fashionable, just a few decades ago, but it turned out he was one of the left-wingers who hates anyone farther to the left.

Finally I was allowed to make my statement, and briefly argue why I should be released rather than sent to prison.  The judge made sure the secretary got it all down, and then sent me back to the dungeon.  On the way I was asked if I needed medical attention, and I said I did.  I had been arrested wearing my contact lenses, and had to sleep with them in for two nights so I could make eye contact with the judge and see what was going on.  Without glasses or contacts, I can’t even read billboard-sized writing from more than a few meters away.  But after seeing the judge, I had to take them out.  My eyes were dry and burning.  They put them in a little container for me and promised to send them along with my property bag.  I never saw them again.  Didn’t see much of anything for the next few days.

Late that night, all the other people from all the other cells had been released pending trial.  There was only one psychotic Cuban in another cell, and me and Xavi.  We speculated what would happen, ran around the cell to work off the stress, and, figuring that he might get out, I had him memorize a short message to send to L.  And we waited some more.  After hours we were both summoned to the all-purpose processing room at one end of the dungeon.  Xavi and I exchanged a good luck squeeze.  There was a blur of people around what must have been a table.  Xavi was told he would be released pending trial.  I was being sent to Modelo prison on a 30,000 euro bail.  I later had an opportunity to talk to the judge’s secretary and she told me she sympathized with me and had never seen so high a bail for such charges in her 25 years of working there.  In the next few minutes of waiting I wrote a note for Xaveliño to take out with him.  Then my ride came.

Modelo is a prison built in a panopticon-influenced style in the Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona.  Half of the renowned Spanish anarchists did time there, which titulated my dorky historical side.  This reminded me of USP Atlanta, where I spent three weeks out of a six month prison sentence, and where Alexander Berkman did two years before being deported to Russia.  The similarities ended there. Going into Atlanta was like being taken into the Death Star.  At Modelo, reproductions of famous paintings hung in the entrance hall.  Though equally sterile, Modelo was a little softer around the edges, and to be admitted I only had to go through one control point—a pair of remotely controlled doors that only open one at a time. The strip search was remarkably unobtrusive, and the person processing me was so docile I thought he was an inmate trustee at first.  They gave me something like dinner even though it was going on midnight, and sent me to my new cell.  My cellie was the psychotic Cuban from the courts.

He was a good guy, though periodically he would start punching the door, yelling for guards, and insulting Spaniards.  Early on he explained to me his plan: he would keep requesting drugs to sedate him for his stay, and if he didn’t receive them he’d freak out, get sent to whatever medical unit they had, and ensure himself a steady supply of tranquilizers.  By Thursday, he had followed through.

I was surprised by the conditions at Modelo.  My cell was a little larger than those at USP Atlanta, though the bunk bed had three bunks instead of two, so more people could be crowded in.  But the room, which measured about six feet by twelve feet, also had a desk, a stack of cubbies, a shower, and a toilet.  The shower was completely unprecedented for me—in the US it’s always common showers, often without curtains.  The toilet was graced with a partition so one could actually shit in privacy.  The newcomers’ goody-bag, in addition to the standard mattress, blanket, and soap, also contained shampoo, shaving cream, washcloth, and a condom!  The latter really blew my mind.  It was like we were actually human.  In the federal prison system in the US, having sex is categorized as the second worst level of offense, just below murder.  And the phone calls at Modelo, when we got to make them, cost the same as on the street.  In US prisons and jails phone calls cost three to fifteen times more.

While it’s important to be optimistic when entering prison, and the conditions in a Spanish prison pleasantly surprised me, especially given that Spain has a bad reputation within Europe, nothing can erase the fact that all prisons are horrible institutions that kill you day by day.  Outside the temporary wing, conditions worsened, and politically active prisoners faced severe violence.  Every few years in Catalunya a rebellious prisoner would die in his cell, having committed some impossible form of suicide, like beating himself in the face, tying his hands behind his back, and hanging himself from the ceiling.  Throughout the 90s and the beginning of this decade, there had been a major struggle inside the prison system, with hundreds of prisoners rioting, going on hunger strike, and occupying parts of the prison.  Anarchists on the outside gave support—protesting, spreading the news, raising money, and attacking prison industries and government buildings.  There was also a letter-bombing campaign.  None of the letter bombs went off, and it is unknown whether the purpose was to actually harm any of the officials responsible for murdering prisoners, just to scare them, or to generate media attention.  If I stayed in Modelo long enough, I might get to meet some of the active anarchist prisoners.  One of the 4F prisoners was also locked up there.

My first morning waking up in Modelo wasn’t so bad.  The future spread before me within much diminished horizons, but I could make do.  The Mossos had told me, and for whatever reason I stupidly believed them, that it would probably be two to five months before trial. I could do that.  I’d receive visitors, friends would send me letters and books, I’d get a lot of writing done, exercise, meditate, stay in control, and come out fluent in Spanish.  The food turned out to be really good, and plentiful—at Crisp County Jail in Georgia, while I was still vegetarian, I had to survive on the navy beans my cellies didn’t want to eat, and the diet at FPC Cumberland left me with persistent health problems.  But in Modelo the meals filled me up and sometimes even tasted good.  In the afternoon I could make phone calls, every day I got two hours in the exercise yard where I could jog and practice hand-stands, and on the weekend I’d get to go to the gallery, where there was a library, and I might meet the other anarchist prisoners.

What scared me much more than the prospect of a few months in Modelo was the deportation and seven year ban.  I put L on my visitor’s sheet, hoping she would still come to Barcelona even though I had suddenly gone incommunicado.  Then I made a To Do list with everything I needed to accomplish to prepare for trial, communicate the situation to folks back home, coordinate support, and live my life in the meantime, and once I couldn’t think of anything else to write down, I tried not to worry about it.  There would be plenty of time later for the inevitable sea of depression, but for now I was finding bright sides.  There was more privacy and less agression than in US prisons.  No one threatened to beat me up, neither guards nor inmates, and anyway I was one of the larger prisoners in my wing, which is hilarious in comparison to Crisp County Jail, where they nicknamed me Sugar Slim, i.e. skinny white boy.  In my experience in the US there was strong camaraderie among prisoners, plenty of really nice people, but you always had to keep your guard up.  Of course in Spain the police frequently torture detainees, but torture and assassination are prison universals.  You don’t lock people up like files in a filing cabinet unless you’re willing to go all the way.  That same violence existed here, but the threats and degradations didn’t permeate every single interaction.  It was a violence the guards held in reserve, rather than one they rubbed in your face every single opportunity they had.  For example they tolerated the verbal abuse of my Cuban cellie much longer than I expected; it was only when he upped the ante and threatened to kill them that a large guard actually capable of hurting him came to the cell and took him off somewhere.

At some point on Thursday, the day after I got there, I got taken for a medical interview.  TB shot, a few questions, then they dismissed me.  I stayed to inquire after my contact lenses.  They didn’t know anything about it.  I explained that I couldn’t see a damn thing; I couldn’t even tell the inmates from the guards.  The apocalyptic undertones of my little speech—“how disastrous for discipline, not being able to tell the inmates from the guards!”—should have stirred some sympathy in the prison doctor’s heart.  In the back of my mind I was hearing some mix of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bette Middler’s “From a Distance”.  Alas, I didn’t quite infect the good doctor with my intended sense of urgency.  He promised to look into the problem and nothing more came of it.  I guess from a distance we all have enough and no one is in need.  And people who imagine there’s no authority can be brought around with a number of other means.  Squinting: can someone tell me how to get back to my cell?  I have more waiting to do.

One Open Window
26 April
My two cellies sleep long and late
sedated by pills or the depression of captivity.
I stand in the dark on a trim metal stool
stretching my face towards this one open window
watching, for hours,
the sky change colors and feeling
the air cool and quicken,
dancing graceful spirals
these mute steel bars can neither see
nor comprehend.

Men of Steel
26 April
These window guards are men of steel.
In some prisons they bark razor-edged commands
that leave your skin bleeding from contact.
In others they are encased in smudged and indelible
unapproachable, apathetic,
but always letting through
the regulation quantity of sunlight.
Here they are painted pastel,
almost easy to reach and smooth to the touch,
they even say please and thank you.
But everywhere when you jump
to catch a shooting star
or reach out to touch
someone you love or someone you’ve wronged
they throw you back
bruised and denied.
They may laugh, they may look away,
they may apologize and say
they are only doing
their job.
And so it is our job,
those of us who would catch a shooting star
or take a lover or an enemy by the hand
to greet men of steel not with handshakes
but with sledgehammers.

There’s something about the acoustics of prison cells that make even a tone-deaf bastard like me sing the blues.  I didn’t know the lyrics of many songs so I had to make them up, but when you stand right by the door and sing with no embarrassment, you can hit a note that resonates along all the sharp corners of what is not in fact a cell but the chamber of a musical instrument whose euphony says unequivocably that you are in tune and exactly where you need to be.

Then the jangling of keys strikes a note of a different kind, always registering like an electric shock in that one notch low on your spine.  The guards sang out to me in the musical tones of Spanish, translated jarringly into English:  “¡Peter Alan!” They didn’t know what to make of my last name, or they didn’t know the difference between a middle name and a first last name.

It was Friday now.  This time they were calling me to meet a lawyer.  Telephone and glass wall affair.  When he showed up on his end I saw that this was not the incompetent public lawyer but a private one, semi-political—the same guy they had gotten for Xavi in time for his meeting with the judge.  We had a good conversation.  He disabused me of the notion that it would be a short wait.  I could be locked up two or three years until trial.

Then he dropped a bombshell: the Barcelona collectives had already raised the 30,000 euro bail. If I wanted to there was a chance I could be released that afternoon, though I’d have to stay in Barcelona and sign in every two weeks at court. I was blown away by this news. He also told me they were in contact with my family and with L, and she had gotten on the bus down to Barcelona even though I was locked up. I might have a chance to meet her at the bus station after all.  While I was digesting all of this, the lawyer showed me the letters that folks had written for me—Alex and some people from his house, people in RuinAmalia, people from the ill-fated protest—sending me love.  I felt pretty guilty about all the money being wasted on me, and it was jarring to be suddenly pulled out of the little world I’d resigned myself to living in, but if it would give me a chance to meet L at the bus station, I said yes, spring me out of this joint.

Then I was taken back to my cell, paced for an hour in smiling silence while my cellies slept, ate the big lunch that came, paced some more, and went out to the exercise yard.  A poem was coming to me but I had lost my pen.  The guard called me out to use the phone—I called my dad, but there was still no anwer.  The previous day I had left a message that I was locked up.  After hanging up I asked to borrow the guard’s pen.  She gave it to me and stood watching as I started pouring out verse onto a scrap of paper.  “¿Que es?”  “Tengo una poema, necessito escribirlo,” I explained.  She threw up her hands in official disgust; she thought I needed the pen for a phone number or something important.  As she led me back outside I assured her “es muy importante.” She couldn’t keep a straight face any longer, and broke out in a smile that was most incongruous with her ugly uniform.  A few minutes later another guard opened the door to the rec yard and searched me out.  “For your inspiration,” he said laughing, handing me a sheaf of blank paper.  A short time after rec ended, they opened my cell door and told me I was being freed.

Solidarity is a beautiful thing
27 April
Politics pollute poetry
set the stanzas marching side by side
in adjacent party lines
thus it is impossible to write a poem
demonstrating that solidarity is a beautiful thing
But the day my visitor
held letters from friends and strangers up to the glass
for me to read
was so beautiful
the prison walls melted
words failed me for hours
and no poem ever written
was any more
than decorated paper.

It seems to be a prison universal how they make you wait inexplicable periods while they are in the act of releasing you.  Ten minutes in front of this door, fifteen minutes by this guard station, twenty minutes in these holding cells, rarely with any justification.  Their legal right to imprison you has expired, but they can still do as they like.  The message is clear: all liberty is provisional, there are always more hoops to jump through.  I finally got to the property office to reclaim my things, though my belt and shoelaces were missing.  The bastards.  Everything was still a myopic blur, so I had to ask where the exit was, which must have confused the guards.  It was big enough for a car to drive through, and I was standing right next to it.

And beyond that door was the street, and on the other side of the street a very large yellow blob, consistent in size and shape with a banner. After a few seconds loud cheering came from the direction of the yellow shape.  Eventually, I picked out the sound of my name, or the Spanish rendition thereof.  Yup, a banner, and the crowd that goes with it.  What appeared to be cars were coming.  I waited.  The cheering went on.  Road seemed clear, so I crossed.  About twenty people were waiting for me, and as they came into focus they surrounded me with hugs and kisses.

“¡Tio! ¿Que tal?”

“Me roban el cinturon.  Cabrones.”

And there’s laughing and more stories and more hugging as we walked away from Modelo.  Most of the people from Monday’s protest were there, along with the people from the house.  I got a ride to RuinAmalia on the back of Xaveliño’s bike, and it’s so much better than going in a Mossos van.