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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements


Lutxo lived in the room next to the computer where I did my writing.  Out on the balcony, over which I always looked when thinking of what to say, thoughts trailing off into the deep blue sky… on this balcony he kept a modest plant in a pot.  “De El Forat,” he told me.  Lutxo used to live near that occupied community garden, and the plant had lived in it.  This was a squatter plant; it had enjoyed a brief life in the free soil of El Forat, and Lutxo had rescued it just before the bulldozers came.  Shallow roots but deep relationships

I think we survive repression with the relationships we make—with the friends who help us endure our many evictions, our many transplantings, and the neighbors who shelter us. As I got to know the people of RuinAmalia better and found new friends, I realized I wouldn’t want to go back to the 23rd of April to change a few trivial choices that would have kept me out of the way of the police, because then I would never have created all these friendships. And the more suppport that came in, the healthier I was and the more able to give something back to the movement in Barcelona.  Ultimately, repression can backfire, as it brings people together, strengthens solidarity, and sharpens our desire to destroy this system. I got letters of encouragement from people I’d met in Ukraina, Romania, and Bulgaria; offers of help from Greece and France and far corners of the US.  Anarchists in Nederland raised a great deal of money for me, and had me come speak about what was going on in Barcelona.  I put together an English-language pamphlet about the systematic repression of the anarchist movements in Spain, Italy, and Greece—what Europol refers to ominously as the Mediterranean Triangle—to inform people in the US about the general situation.

In the US they couldn’t raise much money—the Green Scare was in full swing, and the dozen people facing decades in prison for charges of involvement with the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front needed all the help they could get.  And generally the movement in the US did not have strong anarchist support groups or good fundraising capacities in place—instead these arose, or not, on an as-needed basis.  But friends in the US created a support page on the internet, organized a day to call in protests to the Spanish Embassy, and got media attention that ran into the international press, forcing the Spanish government to moderate their accusations a little, because their claims of squatter terrorism were so exaggerated it was embarrassing for them.

Friends and family in the US also supported me emotionally, sending me letters, books, and music.  It had been hard enough to go a year without listening to some of my dearest albums, and now I was sedentary again, and in need of uplifting songs. So they mailed me CDs: nostalgia-inducing Virginia bands like Dirt Pond and Strike Anywhere, the new albums by Defiance Ohio and Arcade Fire, classics like Tom Waits and Fugazi. My mom and dad sent me care packages with peanut butter or clean socks.  For my birthday my brother mailed me Thomas Pynchon’s hefty Against the Day, a masterful book in which the aging author, as though making a departing rebuke on this horrible society we’ve made ourselves, follows the lives of bombthrowing anarchists and truth-seeking alchemists at the turn of the 20th century and the dawn of the modern world.

La repressio

The repression will never cut our wings! Poster for a protest.

Soon enough, Barcelona felt like home.  Every two weeks I had to present myself at court and receive my stamp, but the intervening times were filled with so much vitality they eased much of the burden of that odious event.  Every day the sounds of the street called to me through my open window, bouncing up the narrow walls of Reina Amalia and inviting me out to play.  I still missed the US, of course.  A friend, Cindy, came to RuinAmalia one day to make us all an American dinner with ingredients and recipes brought over from a trip home to her native Florida.  When I walked in to see the table set with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, root beer, easy cheese, and baco bits, I was swept with a wave of nostalgia so strong it convinced me that it is our stupidities and weaknesses that are most dear to us.

And then the veggie dogs, the baked beans,  the potato salad, and the cole slaw came out, and we tucked in, some more enthusiastically than others.  The Catalonians all refused to drink the root beer.  They said it smelled like medicine.  They treated the jar of baco bits more like a maraca than a condiment, which is probably for the best.  Ah, but then there was the easy cheese.  It was approached quizzically, like an object from outer space, and the braver few sprayed some on the corner of their plates—in fact, it was way over here in Barcelona that I had my first taste of easy cheese, and I squirmed ironically from the minor horror of it.  But by the end of the evening, Xaveliño, who strikes one as the Galician equivalent of a redneck, was guzzling it straight from the can.  My terror and perverse pleasure at this collision of cultures reached its climax a couple days later when I caught Marie, the French woman who lives here, a Parisian no less, sucking pensively on the bottled cheese while browsing the refrigerator.  And once again I was overcome with homesickness as I watched one of globalization’s more amusing episodes, but it was comforting to see how parts of home will follow you wherever you go, and sometimes home can be more foreign than a strange land.

Dissabte, 9 Juny

A collection of anti-gentrification activists, squatters, and Zapatista solidarity groups held the third annual football tournament for humanity and against neoliberalism, in a park in the Barceloneta neighborhood.  There were 24 teams, and I got to play on the El Forat/RuinAmalia team.  In a tickling parody, the games were broadcast live on the local pirate radio station, and the announcers awarded us with that characteristic wail, “¡Gooooooooooooooooooool!” every time someone scored.  When they weren’t narrating the play, they were talking about the Zapatistas, or about squatting, or about how the city government had declared that the public places of Barceloneta were not for the neighbors but for the tourists.  Many neighbors came by and watched the games.  In between matches the local kids took to the field and played a while.  The tourists walked past curiously on their way to the beach, probably unaware they were being disparaged.  It was a genuinely popular event.  And fun as hell.  Our team, which included some of the older neighbors of El Forat whom I recognized from the documentary, made it into the quarter-finals.  We scored ten goals and only conceded one in the first two matches.  Sweet!  I played defense and Leon, from RuinAmalia, was goalie. We kept our end locked down tight, while Lutxo and Angel swept up the wings.  Later, sunburned and sidelined, I wondered how anyone could surrender to the televised reality when life lived directly is such a joyous thing…

Waiting for eviction...

Waiting for eviction...

A week later, the next chapter in Barcelona’s ongoing story of resistance unfolded.  From the beginning of that year, in addition to accelerating the pace of evictions, the police had begun to employ the kessel, a tactic they learned from their German counterparts.  Whenever there was a radical protest, they surrounded it on all sides, and did not let it move.  The participants had to wait in the street for hours before finally being released.  The cops had first used this tactic against a permitted protest for housing rights.  The organizers opened a lawsuit.  Meanwhile, other people throughout the city began organizing major protests against the police repression.  The first of these occurred on the 17th of June.  Thousands of people convened on Plaça Universitat and began marching towards the top of Las Ramblas.  After two blocks, the police surrounded them and detained the entire march, same as before.  We waited until evening before they finally let us out.

Another significant episode was a squatters’ protest.  It was smaller and contained a more radical crowd, so the police attacked it with a new non-lethal weapon: kubotans.  These are small, handheld spikes with rounded tips so they bruise rather than break the skin.  With quick jabs to the midsection, police can cause a good deal of pain and force a crowd back.  With batons, the police must adopt a posture of photogenic brutality as they swing the big sticks over their heads.  But with the little kubotan, they could brutalize the crowd with underhanded jabs, and the cameras a few meters away would not have noticed.  Except that one squatter, upon being jabbed, instinctively responded by punching the cop in the face, breaking the bastard’s nose.  The cop fell to the pavement, kubotan still in hand, as the media vultures flocked around him.  The pictures of the groaning cop with the strange little spike in his hand made it into the news, and soon the police had to answer for this weapon they were not legally permitted to use.  The squatters, meanwhile, plastered the city’s walls with posters about the kubotan and police violence in general.

Later in the year, people organized a second major anti-repression protest.  Around this time the police had lost the lawsuit filed against them for blocking a permitted protest, but a victory in the courts was meaningless unless we could win in the streets.  Again, thousands of people gathered on Plaça Universitat, and as before, the police blocked us off just at the top of Las Ramblas.  It looked like we would have to wait there for hours.  Curious crowds gathered on the other side of the police lines—neighbors, tourists, activists who had not come to the protest but heard about what was happening.  People on the outside began to throw bottles of water and bags of food over the heads of the cops to the people trapped on the inside.  We cheered and got the folks on the outside to chant with us and hassle the police.  The solidarity grew as the crowd swelled.  In one moment, people on the inside gathered up a banner and threw it over the cops’ heads.  People on the outside caught it and unfurled it.


Writing in RuinAmalia

Enraged, the cops reacted in the way they were more accustomed, charging and preparing to beat them. But these were just normal people. You could hear the entire city suck in its breath and raise its fist. The people now holding the banner were not an isolated group.  There were hundreds at their backs, and at their backs thousands more.  There were no longer radicals and citizens.  Everyone became a potential subversive.  The charging cops pulled back.  If they beat these people, the entire city might fight back, and the pigs would be decimated.  Solidarity had jumped over the wall of repression and spread beyond the capability of the authorities to contain it.  I asked someone how to chant, in Catalan: “give up, we have you surrounded!”  And it was true.  Soon the police lines withdrew, and we were free to go.  After that day the police were noticeably more hesitant to use the kessel tactic. As far as I could tell, they only used it against protests they knew intended to get out of hand, rather than against every single radical protest that was organized.

Before this victory had played out, we received another piece of good news.  On 21 June the defendants of 25J, the four remaining people facing charges for the protests in solidarity with the Italian anarchists two years before, were acquitted of all charges.  It was the first day of summer—a warm, beautiful, long day with a waxing moon; the pinnacle of what still might be a good year yet.