To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

…I wish I could stay longer…

 L'Anarquia Es

Prior to embarking on my trip, I didn’t really speak Spanish.  I had picked up the words and phrases you can’t help but come across in the US, went to a couple Spanish-English language exchanges the Rising Up Collective had organized back in Harrisonburg, and for a few days in prison back in 2002 I was locked in a tiny cell with a friendly Dominican who couldn’t speak English.  Basically I had a grasp of about ten verbs and one tense.  But from the moment I arrived in Barcelona I had to speak mostly Spanish, or Castellano, as I learned I was supposed to call it, since it’s not the language of all of Spain, nor is all of territorial Spain Spanish.  Castellano was not the first language of many people in the house—it vied with Catalan, French, Galician, and Euskera—but it was the lingua franca, and most folks there couldn’t speak English.  So, hola, me llamo Peter…  By this point in my travels my name had become, even in my own mouth, “Pi-terr,” since no one really gets the American “Peedur.”

My first few days I spent absorbing the neighborhood.  When you’re fleeing Plaça Catalunya, braving the jostling tourist orgy on Las Ramblas, L’Hospital seems like a street that might go somewhere nice, and after just a block the expensive restaurants and shit shops with FC Barcelona jerseys begin to disappear, and soon the tourists come only in pairs or quartets, and now they share the streets with students and immigrants and old folks. Swarthy men unload jugs of water from wee trucks parked in front of corner stores, sanitation workers in fluorescent green sweep the gutters by hand, and the horizon opens up as L’Hospital intersects with a broad pedestrian avenue flanked by parallel roads (id est, a “rambla”).  This one is dusty, unassuming, and shaded—just a little—with massive palm trees.  This is Raval, el Barrio Xino.  Raval is loud and lively; the neighborhood lends itself to montage.  All the scenes and characters jostle one another as they line up: narrow streets down which the sun screams only for the hour when it’s in alignment, halal butchers, Lebanese sandwich joints, international callshops advertising the rates to Pakistan and Ecuador, three Bollywood video rentals, a Sikh temple, “Da Hussle Store” of hip hop fashions, a dimunitive man with bleached hair and beard, wearing tracksuits in the unlikeliest of colors, following his three toy dogs on their daily walks, the little cars of the Mossos d’Escuadra, the Catalan police, doing their rounds, bakeries and döner kebab and haircutters and paella, a Pakistani man pushing a cart loaded with orange propane canisters, which he raps six times in succession, the sharp clanging following him down the street and announcing his wares for sale.  On la Rambla del Raval you can sit in peace to write postcards or read a book while the Arabic men sitting next to you converse in serious tones, stopping only to rise and shake hands with a friend who has just come along to join their circle.  From here it’s only a three block walk back to Reina Amalia, on the edge of the neighborhood near the Mercat de Sant Antoni.

Farther south is Poble Sec, Dry Village, and back the other way, back across Las Ramblas, is Ciutat Vella, old town, where the streets still bear the names of the artisans who used to live and work there.  Now it’s filled up with conspicuous consumption, choking on tourists strolling with what impossibly seems to be sincere interest past all the boutiques and fashion stores, filled with goods whose artisans probably live in a free trade zone in another country.  The skyrocketing rents brought on by haute couture have forced out most of the residents, leaving a ghost town that is only filled up, and to the brim, during shopping hours.  The windows of many of the apartments above the stores are inconspicuously bricked over, just above the eye level of the tourists who are in part responsible.  A tactic of speculation, an anti-squatting measure: if no one can pay this rent, no one will live here, but every once in a while you see someone has broken breathing holes through the mortar between the bricks that seal a third story window, just one small sign, a few inches across and ten meters off the ground, of a clandestine existence.  Elsewhere the edifices are cloaked in scaffolding and mortuary sheets as workmen gut them and make them new, sometimes even reconstructing the building farther back to make the street wider—and to increase the distances, to keep neighbors from talking to each other from window to window, across the growing void, mutters Maduixa, my sometime tour guide, in angry, conspiratorial tones.  Once, peering inside the corpse of such a building, amid the workmen and wheelbarrows of rubble I saw graffiti left on the wall by the last occupants, raging against eviction—this used to be a squat.

Like all the other English-speaking anarchists who read Homage to Catalonia and later found themselves in this city, I tried to imagine Barcelona, and in particular Las Ramblas, as it was back in 1936, draped in red and black flags, all the shops collectivized, militia volunteers on break from the front.  Really, the imagining was easier at home; little of this history has survived—nothing I could see save what might have been an old bullet hole in one wall.  On Las Ramblas, it’s hard to remember even what country you’re in, so many languages are being barked out.  “Das ist ja schön!” “…time we have to get to the hotel?” “¡Mira!” “kan ik een eis kopen?!” “Le but de la vie c’est cigarettes pas cheres et…” and on and on and on.  One squad exits a store with a newly purchased football already in play, presumably the dad yells “Don’t run out in the street” in a voice like a scoutmaster and I shrink inside myself.  It occurs to me that a hundred, two hundred years ago, before tourism, these streets and these ramblas and plazas must also have been full, or else why build them.  Yet today if you took out all the tourists large sections of central Barcelona would be eerily abandoned.  With people spending more time in the car or in front of the TV, the public areas empty out, the city loses its life, and it needs to fill up again with tourists.  This is like selling your blood to hide the fact you’re bleeding. So, the tourists fill up Las Ramblas and in turn vacate the streets of their home cities—this process of desertion is even acknowledged in the official term: vacationing—and the vacationers, having been evacuated from their hometowns at just the moment when they have nothing left to do but converge and meet in the streets, fill up that vacuous place inside themselves that longs for adventure and fulfillment but can be satisfied with a cheap facsimile, and soon they are ready to return to their home, their car, and whatever cubicle or sales counter to which they have been assigned.

As though holding the tourists’ hands, the police are everywhere—the Guardia Urbana and the Mossos d’Escuadra.  For the longest time they never seemed menacing to me, in their tiny little cars, though half of them look like fascist skinheads.  The ubiquitous security guards are even worse.  One prominent company that had guards stationed at government buildings and in the metro retains some of the lesser known fascist iconography in the logo on their uniforms; no doubt it’s an insider’s point of pride that the liberals haven’t robbed them of all honest forms of self-expression.

Even more numerous than the police are the crews of BC Neta, the sanitation service, forever and at all hours scouring the city by hand, broom, hose, and truck.  And then there are the security cameras, hundreds of them, “for your protection,” the signs assure us.  One particular unit demonstrates their protective function amply—an oblong camera gazing like a zealous robot at nothing more than a single blank wall that used to be a favored graffiti spot.

The first new squat I visited while exploring the scene in Barcelona was Metges.  Every Thursday they had a movie night.  Currently they were running a series of transgender-themed movies.  That particular night it was Virgen, a Serbian film about a farming couple that gave birth to a third daughter, and rather than kill it, they decided to raise her as a son; other nights they featured the French film Ma Vie en Rose and Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda.

The following week, or perhaps the one after that, I went back to Metges, and I was looking through dumpsters and trash piles as I went, seeking non-corrugated cardboard fit for making stencils.  In one little trash heap on the curb in front of an office I not only found cardboard, but also discovered an incredibly gaudy bronze statue of a naked man in some unlikely pose that must have been an unsolicited wedding gift.  Nearly half a meter high, it was too large to hide away on some obscure shelf, and not small enough to escape attention among all the other tacky things people put on their desks or mantels.  Naturally I took it with me.  In front of Metges one of the squatters was playing with his dog.  There was no movie that night, he informed me, it was the week after Easter and many people were on vacation.  I turned to go, then stopped to ask him a question.

Okupay Resiste

My friends in Craiova had shown me a documentary about El Forat, a community garden in Barcelona that the authorities wanted to turn into a parking lot.  A large group of neighbors young and old, including the occupants of the squat overlooking El Forat, organized to oppose the city plans.  They occupied the garden, the police took it and built a wall around it, they tore the wall down, the police came back, they fought with police—there was some great footage of a tiny black bloc holding a narrow street while the police attacked—and eventually they won.  It was a great example of how fighting back does not alienate people but helps them express themselves, and how in fact direct action gets the goods; but more than that it’s a beautiful story in its own right.  Gardens are great, and even better when we fight for them!  After arriving in Barcelona I had inquired about El Forat and was heartbroken to learn it was the ugly, decimated vacant lot under construction right in front of Metges, which was also featured in the film.  I asked this particular squatter about it, as we stood there surveying the ghost, and he told me it had been beautiful, a lovely garden used by the whole community.  But after several years of occupation, the city finally seized it last October.  However, the neighbors had won on one important point—the city would make the space a park rather than a parking lot.  This is the logic of the state: it cannot allow any autonomy, any freedom outside its regulation, so it must destroy the community’s garden in order to build them a new one.

Swept away by the sentimentality of the moment, and pleased with one of the longest conversations I’d had to date in Castellano, I asked the guy if he wanted this statue I was carrying around.  “Si tu no lo quieres, claro.”  He seemed about as happy to receive it as I had been to find it.  I gave it to him on one condition, that they call it “Peter.”  He agreed and I handed it over, wished him a good night, and walked home, full of life.   If my situation had not changed dramatically, I would have left Spain with the happy illusion that in one of the Barcelona squats was a statue named after me.  As it turned out, some weeks later I met someone living at Metges who told me there was in fact a strange statue in their house (how did I know?), they were trying to figure out where it had come from, they did not know its name, they kept it hidden under a bed, and it was hideous.

But I did not have to learn this sad news for some time yet.  The first few weeks I was busy getting to know the neighborhood, the network of social centers, and the people at RuinAmalia.  All told, there were nearly fifty squatted social centers in Barcelona, and they provided something of an autonomous shadow society.  Hundreds of people took direct action against capitalism, and freed themselves from the compulsion of wage labor because they didn’t have to pay rent.  The social centers also provided other services to the social network, created for free and shared by all usually without exchange or money, though several events served as fundraisers, especially for prisoner support.  These services included bicycle repair and bicycle building workshops, free stores, communal meals, movie showings, concerts, self-defense classes, yoga, and so on.  Other events focused on solidarity for the struggles in Mexico or Chile, homage to the anti-Franco resistance fighters, Catalan independence, animal liberation, prisoner support, transgenics, or a thousand other themes and struggles people were learning about and participating in.

Many people were content simply living in a squat, and not carrying the battle against capitalism any further, never organizing more than a concert.  But it seemed that for most people squatting was a political act, and this was apparent in their day to day life, which was full of protests, actions, campaigns, and self-education.  Some people burned out  under the strain of repression and accelerating evictions, and it seemed as though fewer young people were squatting. But other people were in it for life, and I saw many mothers raising their children in squats, though the structure the family took in such a setting was like nothing imagined in traditional society.  It was often hard to tell who the parents were, or more accurately it seemed as though the children had many more than two parents.  In other words it was the beginning of a new society, and it was a society I enjoyed.  The Barcelona anarchists were endearingly warm and cute.  They greeted one another with calls of “Guapa!,” or “Guapo!” followed by kisses—they seemed able to pass the whole day talking, cooking, or eating together.

But they faced strong pressures as well.  The European Union had identified the anarchist movement in Spain, particularly in Barcelona, as part of the “Mediterranean Triangle” along with Italy and Greece, and they classified this triangle as one of the greatest internal security threats. The severity of repression was dismaying.  To compound matters, hundreds of millions of euros in global capital were pouring into Barcelona, investors and developers were rapidly gentrifying the whole city, and the entirety of city politics, currently in the hands of the Socialists, was aimed at remaking Barcelona for tourists and capitalists.  People said that in just the last few years, they could not recognize the city any more, and countless oldtime neighborhoods were torn up, low-income people pushed out.  Squatting was an obstacle in this plan, and the city government, courts, police, media, and developers responded accordingly.

As an immigrant neighborhood, Raval was something of a refuge, but the signs of gentrification were everywhere here too.  Down the street from RuinAmalia was a construction site.  It had been a pool, the last in central Barcelona.  The city filled it in, and now they planned to build a retirement home.  City propaganda in the form of huge billboards announced how wonderful the city was for taking care of the residents, building an old folks home.  In reality, most of the old folks in the neighborhood preferred to remain in their own apartments as an active, visible part of the community.  The city figured that if they could sequester the elderly in one compact building, more buildings would be vacant, and the only other residents of Raval would be immigrants, who could be pushed around or kicked out with methods the authorities usually don’t use against white people. With the old citizens and immigrants out of the way, that would leave the students and artists, who typically have little neighborhood or class loyalty and generally participate gladly in the opening rounds of gentrification, flocking to the hip new bars and clothing stores until rents have risen and they are forced to move to the next frontier.  Those motherfuckers at Lonely Planet, sounding the clarion for apocalypse, spelled it out in their Barcelona travel guide of a few years back: Raval was a rough, scary neighborhood (read: not white), but that was starting to change, the neighborhood was quieting down, and a few hip bars were beginning to move in.  What pleasant language tourism has developed for ethnic cleansing.

At RuinAmalia I stayed in a spacious room on the top floor with a south-facing window.  The pastel blue walls were decorated with the surreal stencils of the previous occupant.   The other people living there were always coming and going, and it took me a while to become acquainted, even to learn their names.  As a group they were not at all homogeneous or closed like many other collectives I had come across.  They were all within ten years of my age, mostly older, but they included immigrants, longtime locals, grad students and full-time activists, punks, hip-hoppers, flamenco singers—all of them open and welcoming.

The house was full of music.  Xavi played guitar, and in the carpentry workshop he was making his own percussion instrument, some wooden drum in an unlikely but euphonious shape that apparently was common to flamenco.  Maduixa and Ira sang flamenco in the afternoons.  Marie taught herself the accordion.  At night Juan, who lived in the room next to mine, recorded his own songs, rapping over music arranged by a DJ friend who lived two floors down.  And in the kitchen the radio was regularly tuned to a station that played American oldies, well, 80’s music, which led to some memorable cooking and dancing sessions.  On Fridays there were flamenco evenings in the courtyard of the social center.  People would sing and play music until dark, the guitar running swiftly ahead of the tender flamenco moan; the swallows swooping down over this urban canyon would go to bed as the night shift arrived and the bats picked up the job seamlessly, but there was no end of bugs for them to eat, and no end to the music dancing up over the rooftops.

Later in the spring, there was a rap and vinyl show at RuinAmalia.  Juan’s raps held everyone captivated, his Colombiano accent rolling like waves falling insistently to the shore.  Alto, another of the Ruinosos, scratched, though more accurately I would say with a hint of awe that he tortured the most delicious rhythms out of his records, threw them running in synch and pulled them apart without ruining a beat.  There were a couple other DJs and MCs there as well—one freestyled in Catalan, Castellano, and Arabic, and damn I wish I could have understood him.  The music went on for hours, though we started early and ended around twelve out of respect for the neighbors.  Near the end I threw down one of my pieces, “We apologize for this break from your regular programming,” and there were even a few people who understood what I was yelling about.  I missed making poetry, and pined for times past and future when I could share my words in English, when my Spanish was good enough to sound the rhythms that pounded all around me.

Home sweet home. The large door on the left leads to the social center.

Home sweet home. The large door on the left leads to the social center.

The people in the house were wonderful.  Some were not so active in the social movements, while others were extremely committed, and this discrepancy created some tension in the house.  Maduixa in particular poured her life into the squatters’ movement, fighting to prevent or at least delay the eviction of RuinAmalia, and  helping new squatters occupy houses.  Another member of the house was a little burnt out from activism after a long time of living on the street with homeless immigrants, helping them fight deportation or opening squats for them to live in, but when trouble came she was a good friend and ally.  Interestingly, she was also the daughter of one of the people who had started the Mondragon worker cooperative complex in Euskadi, the Basque Country, back in the day.

Connected to the house was RuinAmalia’s social center.  Next to the front door of the four-storey residence, a garage-style double-door opened into a quiet courtyard, shaded by two fig trees.  Around the courtyard a number of small buildings had been fixed up to house all the collectives that used the social center.  The carpentry workshop, the Kilombo library, the hacker/computer collective that offered a computer lab with free internet, a theater and dance group, the anti-prison assembly, the Oficina d’Okupacio, which was an office for legal and technical assistance for squatters, and the flamenco group that made music every Friday night.  There was also a little bar that filled up with friends and passersby many a night, and hosted a weekly cafeta to raise money for a group of anarchists facing trial after the police attacked a protest held in solidarity with the Italian anarchists.

And RuinAmalia was just one of forty such social centers throughout the city.  Of course some of them were decrepit, inactive, or poorly organized, but others were better than any I had seen before.  Warm, alive, aesthetically welcoming and culturally broad; a part of, rather than a black hole in, the neighborhood.  Some had really broken through the barriers that separate the socially radical from the mainstream, and they impacted their neighborhoods well beyond the concentric rings of graffiti and posters that radiate out inevitably from occupied buildings.  Some squats enjoyed meaningful participation from the neighbors, others, like RuinAmalia, were the focus of friendly interest—plenty of people stopped in for the freestore, the bar, or the flamenco nights.  Some social centers, like the Ateneu del Besós, produced their own community newspapers.

The anarchists and squatters of Barcelona printed more newspapers and magazines than the entire movement in the US, I think, although they weren’t necessarily of higher quality.  A collection of neighborhood associations, anti-gentrification organizations, and anarchist groups in Ciutat Vella and Raval contributed to Masala, a monthly newspaper that ran at 8000 free copies and included articles in Catalan, Castellano, Arabic, and Urdu.  The CNT, the anarchist labor union that played a pivotal role in the Spanish Civil War and revolution, put out their own newspaper, Solidaridad Obrera, going on a hundred years now.  Much more recently, another group of anarchists had begun printing a newspaper, Antisistema, that served as a platform for news and debate.  They distributed 4000 free copies a month.   The Info-Usurpa and Contra-Infos collectives published weekly news and events bulletins in Catalan for distribution to all the social centers.  Many neighborhoods had their own alternative newspaper, and there were also many Catalan left-independentista newspapers. I wasn’t always impressed by the level of thought in the content or by the quality of the production; nonetheless these papers made radical news accessible to hundreds of thousands of people and provided a forum for popular debate within the movement.

Even more impressive were the piles of posters and stickers Barcelona’s radicals put out.  Every week at Espai Obert, the central collection point, you could find between ten and thirty different posters, printed in the thousands, often in color and beautifully designed, along with copies of Contra-Infos and Info-Usurpa for every squat in the city. The posters announced talks, concerts, and protests; they called for solidarity with political prisoners; presented perspectives on current political questions; or attempted to explain anarchism or squatting.  These posters and stickers inevitably went to decorate the city’s walls and constantly illustrate manifestations of resistance.  Few cities in the US bore obvious signs of resistance on their surfaces, but in Barcelona the very walls shouted out for revolution.

Before too long, I started meeting people and making friends, and finally I could do more than just wander quietly from squat to squat, workshop to movie showing.  One of the first people I met outside of RuinAmalia was Alex, an activist involved in the anti-prison struggle in Barcelona.  The group he worked with was organizing a conference on prison issues.  A major focus was moving past simple support for political prisoners to deep-rooted opposition to the entire prison system.  They invited me to a conference at the Ateneu del Besós—an ateneu is a type of social center a little like a free school or debate hall: the name is related to Athena, goddess of wisdom.  The Besós is one of the rivers that borders Barcelona.  It was a great day, with food and workshops and relaxing at cafés between long discussions.  In the course of it, I met a woman from South America who was facing trial soon on fabricated charges of transgression against authority and public disorder. On 25 June, 2005, Barcelona anarchists had organized a protest in solidarity with the Italian anarchists who were facing a major wave of repression that summer.  The police attacked the march, and arrested her and six others.  The prosecutor was asking for three years and nine months, as well as huge fines.

Later, I went with Alex to Radio Bronka, a long-running pirate radio station that broadcasts through much of the city.  We talked again about prison issues and alternative ways of dealing with the social problems criminal law pretends to address.

Barcelona from Montjuic

My time in Catalunya was going fast.  Towards the end, a friend from the States and Georgi from Bulgaria were visiting for a week.  Mostly we walked around a lot laughing about culture and I tried not to notice the minutes slip by.  There were so many friends I hadn’t had the time to make, so many projects to get involved in, social centers facing eviction, that everything I did had a sad and rushed quality.  On 28 April, one month after my arrival, L would be coming down on a bus from Amsterdam.  After a couple days in Barcelona, we planned to go to Huesca to drink a cup of coffee for George Orwell, putz around Euskal Herria a few days, and then hitchhike back to Nederland together.  There she would finish her teaching internship and I’d hang around for the last two months of my trip to Europe, minus a couple weeks in early June for the massive protests against the G8 in Germany.  I joked occasionally that maybe I would get arrested and then the German authorities would pay my plane ticket home.  My time in Spain was coming to an end.  It would be great to see L, but I was already missing Barcelona.  …I only wished I could stay longer…