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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Libertad Provisional

I still don’t know how this will turn out.  I’m making the most of this bizarre Iberian exile, navigating the psychotic labyrinth of the legal system, riding the fickle waves of revolution that wash away the best laid plans like castles of sand and throw our lives tempestuously about, pulling some of us down into the deep and tossing others soundly onto the shore.  In the days after Modelo abruptly opened its baneful mouth to spit me out, I began to piece together what had happened and what was to come.  Late Monday night the people who had organized the protest found out I had been arrested along with Xavi, and from then on they were working constantly, figuring out a strategy to support us, looking for lawyers, and also coming to terms with how the action had gone so poorly—why the petardo was much stronger than anticipated and not everyone had even been informed about it.  They had no idea how we were coping, considering we didn’t know about the petardo and weren’t at all prepared to be arrested.   Once Xavi got out and I was sent to Modelo with a bail higher than they’d ever seen for charges stemming from a protest, they began going around to all the collectives, all the neighborhoods, digging into their own pockets, and they surprised even themselves when they collected the 30,000 by Friday.

Once they got me out, we had to figure out how to try to make the money back, how to prepare our defense, and how I could adapt to my new home for the foreseeable future.  I met with the public immigration attorney and found out that although she had fortunately appealed the deportation before the 48 hours expired, she did not have access to any of the evidence proving the accusations of the national police—that I was in the country illegally—to be completely false.  She said there was still a chance the judge might consider evidence that we sent in late, so I had to get high quality scans of my passport and collect secondary evidence that I was here as a tourist—things like receipts from hostels and tickets from museums. Hmmm. The attorney got pretty frustrated when she found out I didn’t have any of these, not even any travel receipts, since I had been hitchhiking and not exactly sleeping in three star hotels.  But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I was able to rustle up a few items.

And then there was just a lot of waiting. We did not expect a response to the appeal for six months, during which time it was not at all clear if I could leave the EU visa territory, since there were open deportation proceedings against me. Ambiguous prison bars fading in and out, as though obscured by some passing fog, sprang up around the continent, too far away for me to know if they were really there, but felt, sure enough, like cold in the bones.  Soon the mists flooded the landscape, but the only thing they obscured was me.  My visa was expiring, I was legally obliged to stay but not permitted to do so, not allowed to work, not allowed to steal my sustenance; the only legal resolution was a death certificate.  I was squeezed excruciatingly out of official existence until there was nothing left of me.  Just the address I had registered with the courts—where I could not live, not having the money to pay rent there—a passport, and the card on which every two weeks I collected my stamp at the courthouse, affirming if not my existence then my protraction: a slow, slow heartbeat, the padded stamp of ink on paper, a metabolism of the outermost minimum.  Just a passport and a provisional liberty card hurrying along the streets, held by some entity invisible in its hibernation, moving back and forth to the foreigners office with new forms, new documents, somnambulently pursuing the permission they would never give: to wake up.

Meanwhile, there appeared another inhabitant of Barcelona: remarkably like me, but without a name, without a paper existence, living in squats, working black market jobs, rooting through dumpsters, shoplifting, stealing survival from the excesses of a careless system.  There were thousands of others in this city living in the same precarity or much worse; undocumented people, hunted people, illegal people, selling the tourists sunglasses all laid out on a blanket with the four corners attached to a length of string so they could pull it all up in a second and run should the police come by.  People who are not seen and do not see, who, for instance, were working in the restaurant kitchen or at the hotel desk on the little street Escudellers, next to Las Ramblas, on April 23rd, who saw the police chasing and arresting only one person, not two, who remembered it well, but, on consideration, not well enough to talk to a lawyer, to a judge, to contradict the police who could easily ruin their lives.

Legality is never meant to be logical.  It is rationalized control, and though it is strange, in the global scheme of things, for it to be applied to a US citizen, it works just as well.  No exceptions were made for me on the basis of my passport, nor did I expect them.  For one, First World Spain would chafe at the indignity of having its legal procedures interrupted by big brother, and secondly, the US government would not intervene on the behalf of someone like me.  If anything, they were sending the Spanish police my files, which might explain the unusually high bail and the double whammy that the national police were hitting me with through the fabricated deportation proceedings.  And even in this latter case, which was in the clear purview of the US consulate to respond to—the demonstrably false deportation of a US citizen—the consulate refused to help.  In contrast, we heard from the lawyer that Americans arrested for drunken fights were quickly released at the behest of the US embassy.

During this time, Xavi and I had meetings with our defense lawyer, a sympathetic type who was giving us a discount.  It was hard at first to participate when I couldn’t understand a lot of what was being said, but often people from the house who spoke a little English were able to come along to translate for me, and gradually my Spanish got better.  We found out what evidence the police had against us: they had the petardo, on which they were performing a chemical analysis, and there was a good chance the forensics lab would say whatever the police wanted to hear.  The police story was fairly absurd.  They said they were closely observing the protest, they saw Xavi and me participating in it, then the whole group formed up a circle.  Xavi took the petardo into it, and I followed him.  Subsequently, in a statement to the Associated Press, they described me as a leader of the protest, which is ridiculous for any number of reasons.  Then the protestors yelled “there’s a bomb! there’s a bomb!” and everyone ran as the petardo went off.  They said they arrested Xavi and me running away from the scene. So basically, we needed witnesses to show that the police were lying out of their asses.  Some folks working at a hotel next to where the arrests took place remembered that day well.  They remembered only one person was running and got arrested by the police, and they gave Xavi’s description.  Xavi had already admitted running away in his police statement, so this didn’t hurt him.  But when they were asked if they could get in touch with our lawyer and make a statement to the courts, the hotel workers suddenly didn’t remember so well—they were illegals, undocumented workers, and understandably wanted nothing to do with the law.  But other witnesses came forward: three people who were sitting at tables on Las Ramblas selling books right next to where the petardo went off, two old folks who had been in the crowd, and a US mormon who was assigned to Barcelona to solicit souls.

Big Brother is Watching You

Big Brother is watching. Aim High!

The people at the tables said the noise was just a loud firework, they never thought it was a bomb, no one got hurt, the protestors were festive and unthreatening, they never formed a circle, they even went around and warned the tablers in advance that they were about to shoot off a petardo, and the only ones panicking were the police.  The two old folks said the same thing and added that the police had tried to pressure them to say they were injured.  And then there was the fucking mormon.  He said he was scared witless, that the protestors were all terrorists, and that because of the trauma he had to miss work for a couple days.  Clearly the pigs had found their man.  Up until that guy testified, the judge had refused to grant the prosecutor a public accusation.  In Spain, someone needs to file an accusation for there to be a trial, and the prosecutor can always do it, but an accusation “on behalf of the people” is more powerful.  So this was a sign that the judge for the investigation period—fortunately a different judge from the dickhead who had been on call when we were first brought to make statements—was not maniacally hungering for our blood.  But once the American made his statement, there was basis for an accusation.

During my arrest, interrogation, and statement to the judge, I had kept my cards close to my chest regarding my politics and my connections to squatters and anarchists, and focused on the immediate truth that I knew nothing about the petardo, hadn’t organized the protest, and was just in Spain for a short while.  Subsequently, I talked about it with the lawyer and other folks, and decided there was no point hiding my politics.  It was a political trial: I was facing prison time because I was an anarchist associating with squatters, and I wouldn’t let the police pretend it was about explosives.  I couldn’t wait in Barcelona for two years or more and pretend not to be an anarchist—better to be in prison.  Anyways the Spanish police could find out I was an anarchist with a quick search.  Recognizing the political dimensions of the trial made it easier to talk about, and to organize support.  There was a great need for the latter.  The collectives that had raised the bail money were pretty broke, and had plenty of problems of their own.  We set ourselves the goal that they should not have to wait two years until trial to recover that money.

In the midst of organizing fundraisers and preparing for trial, I had to figure out how to live my life in a new home I hadn’t chosen.  Plans to see dearly missed friends and aging grandparents, work in a garden that had been waiting for me, go on tour to distribute the two books that had come out since I had left, move to a new city, all of it was off.  More immediately I had been planning to finish my last couple months in Europe with L in Groningen.  In fact when I got out of Modelo she was on the bus to Barcelona, thinking she might not get to see me after all. Early that Saturday morning I walked to the station, only to find out that the Eurolines bus had arrived way ahead of schedule. I rushed back home. She had already gotten there, though not speaking Spanish had not understood that I was out on bail. I ran up the stairs to find her in my room unpacking. She cried out in surprise and we wrapped our arms around each other. It was one of those hugs that you’ll never forget. But it was a bittersweet meeting.  She had to go back in a week, and I could not go with her.

The folks who were to become dear friends came to the rescue, arranging a short vacation so L and I could leave the city and all its troubles behind for a spell.  Barcelona’s squat movement was not without its peaceful refuges, and the greatest of these was Kan Pascual, an old squat on top of a mountain.  A good hike from the paved road, surrounded in trees and gardens, the squatted farm offered a sweeping view of the hills and valleys west of the city.  The place was comfortably simple, with a compost toilet, limited electricity from the wind and sun, wholesome wooden architecture, thick wooden tables in the kitchen, a huge wood-fired oven for making bread, a rope swing that launched one out into the void over terraced gardens and the open valley.  Just what I needed.

It was something of a shock being out of prison, and even more scary how quickly I had adapted to being inside.  In the first days I felt the usual discomfort with crowds of happy people and wide open spaces.  Later I encountered a deeper problem: a persistent feeling of guilt that I had accepted the bail and cost the movement that much money, that I had left behind all those people on the inside whom I was just getting to know. Adding to all this was the difficulty of living under the restrictions of provisional liberty.  In some ways, provisional liberty was worse than prison, because I had to build the prison walls in my own head.  An insulting mockery of liberty, having to step so carefully every day, being afraid of police for the first time in my life because of everything that would happen to me and other people if I were arrested again.

One day I was walking down a street in Sants, and I suddenly saw a squatters’ protest coming from the other direction. Normally I would be overjoyed by such a chance encounter, but here I was overcome with a grim humor, thinking a fight might start all of the sudden and I’d be swept up by the police. And every time a firework went off nearby, I was swept by a wave of nervousness, thinking the police would appear out of nowhere and arrest me for another bomb. Later, during the holiday of St. Juan, in which it was high tradition for everyone from children to grandmothers to set off fireworks—small, large, and window-shakingly huge, by the thousands, sounding like a goddamn war—I realized how cynical and manipulative it was for the police to react to the squatters’ petardo like it was something grave and dangerous.  Shit, at one point during the festivals I passed an innocent group of children at play on Reina Amalia, gave them a smile as I walked by, then did a double take and dove for cover as I realized they had just placed a massive firework beneath a glass bottle. Public Disorder my ass.

But I was lucky to be out.  The Barcelona jails would happily swallow me and forget about me for however many months or years it would be until trial.  This was the fate of a number of others.  Alex, Rodrigo, and Juan, the prisoners of “Cuatro Efe”—4F—were still locked up after a year and a half on fabricated charges.  All over the city one saw banners, stencils, and stickers demanding their freedom, and nearly every week there were events to raise funds and to remember them.  L and I went to one, a cabaret at Can Masdeu, which is a beautiful squat on a hill just outside the city.  The hillside was covered with gardens that the squatters shared with their neighbors.  It was always heartwarming, walking up the dirt road and seeing them cultivating together.

The cabaret for the prisoners of 4F began around twilight.  A hundred people gathered in a semicircle on the grass, leaning forward in eager innocence as their friends behind the curtain transformed themselves into storytellers and stories, magicians and magic.  The host spun introductions and stories and jokes out of clever webs of words, threw the yarn out to the audience and impelled us to throw it back, traded places with performers and always reappeared to recapture our attention and carry us into the next performance, until everyone was tied in.  Musicians played accordions and violins, clown cops fought clown anarchists, acrobats stacked themselves to the sky and caught themselves inches from the ground when their tower toppled.  Two ghosts crept over the lawn as slow as ice, produced from thin air large steel bowls and caressed these foreign instruments to produce an eery wailing and moaning that sounded from another world.

A poster announcing a concert “to benefit the squatters attacked by the rockets of police frame-ups,” a tongue in cheek reference to the case of Xavi and me.

A poster announcing a concert “to benefit the squatters attacked by the rockets of police frame-ups,” a tongue in cheek reference to the case of Xavi and me.

Too soon, L had to leave, and I threw myself into a new rhythm.  We had our own events to organize to raise money for our case.  The people of RuinAmalia organized a cabaret in the courtyard.  Others set up a bar in Gracia during the neighborhood Fiestas, amidst all the surreal, decorated streets.  I travelled to Nederland for two weeks—the longest I could leave Barcelona since I had to sign in at court—and got some aid from prisoner support groups there, though naturally for me the more important part was seeing L again.  Together we went to the yearly anarchist camp at Appelscha, and spent another few dreamy days in rainy Groningen.  But in no time I was back in Karcelona.  The squatters’ assembly planned to organize a huge concert as the major fundraiser for our case, and a group of us began meeting to look for a venue and bands.  For a while we thought Keny Arkana might be able to play, which would have rocked.  As summer progressed support began to fall off, until it was just three of us in a meeting, then two, then one.  I was painfully helpless as I waited for my Castellano and Catalan to improve; how was I supposed to look for a major venue in a foreign city?  It was sad that people were forgetting about the repression, even though it was as serious now as when the case was dramatically new.  Sad that most of the people who involved themselves in that ill-fated protest and were lucky enough to get away were not dealing with the consequences; sad that the person saddled with this immense bail that was a major blow to the movement was an incompetent guiri, a foreigner, whom no one knew all that well.

And at RuinAmalia there were other problems, threatening the house itself.  The appeals were running out, the eviction process was steadily approaching its inevitable end.  But it seemed I would not be able to stay in the house to the very conclusion, or help open a new house, because I could not risk arrest, not with the 30,000 euros everyone had put up for me hanging over my head.  I was living in a cage.

Ferran Nadeu 19 May Barcelona BeatingThe movement itself was getting beaten down.  Squats were being evicted one after another.  Any time there was a radical protest, the police surrounded it, row after row of them in riot gear, backed by a fleet of vans and helicopters.  Just a couple years ago, people rioted in response to such aggressions, they blocked roads, and threw rocks at the cops. But the successive cases of repression, of torture, of violent evictions, of prison sentences, were wearing people down.  It was sad to see such a strong, idealized movement as the one in Barcelona pushed back so forcefully by the State, though admittedly the gentrification of Barcelona was the focal point of a great deal of global capital, and their police force was backed up by the might of the European Union for the strategic purpose of neutralizing the anarchists.  It wasn’t exactly a weak point of the system, and anarchists simply are not strong enough yet to go up against anything else.

There were plenty of strengths in the movement here, and it was truly impressive to enter not just an autonomous space but an autonomous world, a network of liberated zones in which thousands of people passed a good part of their lives and created and shared what they needed to live.  On the other hand, aspects of the movement left much to be desired.  The famed militancy of Barcelona was overrated.  In fights with the police I found protestors here to be passive and inexperienced.  In anarchist and antifascist protests, when the cops clashed with the experienced hardcore at the front, the rest of the crowd instinctively started running before waiting to see if the front line was trying to retreat or needed backup.  “This would never happen in Germany,” another foreigner might mutter.  I would find myself—dubbed by folks in the squatters’ assembly as “the most expensive man in Barcelona,” or “Mr. 30,000”—suddenly standing out in the crowd, despite my best intentions to stay safe and inconspicuous, because I was holding up my arms trying to get people not to run.

The movement here suffered from a drain on experience because on the one hand the city was so fashionable and on the other hand so conducive to burn-out.  After a few years of living here many of the anarchists and squatters tended to move away.  Many of the new people would come because Barcelona had a reputation as a place where things were happening, so to put it bluntly they were often people who didn’t have what it takes to make things happen in the place they were coming from.  Then again I can sympathize with this, because a strong movement is more attractive than the prospect of living in a place with few allies.  I think most people were waiting for a critical mass that was no longer available, now that the movement had shrunk.  They were waiting for a riot to happen rather than learning how to start one themselves.

For me the worst part of the movement was internal: namely the meetings.  Somehow, with all the opportunities for improvement—there were after all hundreds of meetings a month—I never saw a clear idea of decision-making put into practice.  The meetings went on for hours, topics changed randomly, needless details were exhausted while overarching questions were missed, and the meetings ended all too often without any clear picture of what was accomplished or decided.  Of all the hundred plus hours I spent in meetings there, I almost never heard someone ask another person what they thought of a certain idea, or check whether a  proposal satisfied everyone, or encourage people who were remaining silent to share their thoughts.  Generally, it was a matter of talking until anyone who disagreed gave up.  It was especially hard for me when I had a definite investment in a certain group—for example a living group or trial support group—but couldn’t communicate as well as I needed to.  If I finally summoned up the words to express my disagreement with the way a decision was going, almost every time the other people in the group explained to me why their way was best rather than trying to understand or embrace my concerns.  These problems transcended the gender divide on which authoritarian decision-making is often blamed; I witnessed the same patterns coming from mixed groups of squatters and from radical feminists.  It was very much a culture of debate, and the culture of reconciliation that seems second-nature among the anarchists I usually work with in the US was simply absent.

Ferran Nadeu 19 Mayo Barcelona Okupa

Barcelona police apply the kettle tactic, imported from Germany.

In addition to the disillusionment, I had material problems of survival to worry about.  If we couldn’t open a new squat, where would I live?  I couldn’t work legally, and with the marginal work I could find I would have to give up all my time and my sanity to be able to afford the city’s high rents.  On some bleak days I thought I might just have to go back to the free hotel at Modelo.  The question was always on my mind: how do we survive repression for the long term?  If they can’t figure it out in Barcelona, with so much repression to learn from, then where?

And there wasn’t always refuge in our mortal bubble of autonomy at RuinAmalia.  Even when you do speak the language fluently, and don’t have to deal with depression, living in a collective is hard.  Though life in a space outside capitalism is so much more than what is understood to be life in the mainstream, in that it fills up an emptiness that stares you in the face every day of your bought and sold life, it also requires you to use muscles that you’ve hardly even flexed before.  I didn’t always feel emotionally comfortable, sharing my life with these people who were warm and beautiful but still in many ways strangers.   Sometimes it’s just easier to surrender your humanity, isolate yourself in a house, imprison yourself in a job.

One day I got a letter, passed through a long network of friends and family until it came over the sea and into my hands.  It was from Jameel, a prisoner in Virginia I had been writing with.  He had been locked up in maximum security for years, and since being incarcerated had become an anarchist.  I had told him about what happened to me in Barcelona, and that it would be a little longer before I got back home and could start writing him regularly again.  He reminded me that repression is inevitable for those who struggle against the system, and many end up dead or in prison.  But I should keep my head up, because to demoralize us was also a goal of their repression, and to stay strong and hopeful was a way of defeating them.

Another day a stranger wrote me offering to help me publish one of my next books. Reinvigorated, I threw myself back into the work, and even in exile, life could go on.