Just over one week ago on the 14th of November there was a European wide strike taking place against austerity measures and cuts in Spain, Portugal, Greece, France, Italy and Belgium as well as other countries. As expected, the media coverage on the strike in other parts of Europe, such as the UK, that were not participating, was limited and narrow in its reporting and analysis. Therefore as I actively participated in the strike in Barcelona I feel it is important to write and share just one account of what the strike was really like on the ground and the reflections and lessons I took from my experience.
The first thing to say is that unlike the strikes I have experienced in England, in Barcelona a general strike is 24 hours and includes stopping all transactions of selling and consumption, not just the activities of public workers. This meant that the strike engaged a larger percentage of the population, as well as action beginning from the chime of midnight so by the time daylight arrived a lot had already been achieved. I happened to be staying in a squat with a group of students from one of the universities in Barcelona, so it is important to highlight the activities and questions I engaged with come from that specific perspective. So down to the details….
Even before the official strike began, the students occupied the university, something that to be seemed to be surprisingly easy. The university officials and security cooperated, and within a few minutes the students has taken over the space and were in control of who entered into the building. An important aspect of this occupation is that in Spain as in Greece, after the history of dictatorship, universities are safe havens from the police. This allows students to carry out activities in the city knowing they have a safe space to return to, this empowered the students to engage in many different actions throughout the night. But first an assembly was called, to discuss and plan actions for the next 24 hours. This assembly was incredibly relaxed and straight forward in comparison to most assemblies I have experienced. Of course there were still voices that spoke more than others, but it was a given that this assembly was ran by consensus without hierarchy or leaders, and secondly that there was no unnecessary forcing of consensus and agreement on issues that did not need to be agreed by all. People presented the different actions happening all throughout the night, there was a contact person, and if you wanted to join in you could go and do it, if not that was your decision. This allowed people to engage in the type of action they wanted and facilitated multiple decentralised actions occurring throughout the night.
On the strike of midnight, many joined one of the pickets in a particularly radical neighbourhood. This involved blocking the roads, and encouraging businesses still open to close and participate in the general strike, as now it was past midnight and the strike had begun! Another group went out into the city to take action against the banks, graffiti, smashing the cash points, and lighting fires were the main methods of sabotage. As dawn began to draw near, bins were set on fire and thrown in front of the metro entrances nearby (which were closed and with no people inside) following this action was a very close escape from the police, who had been observing the action in an unmarked car and chased the students right up to the entrance of the university building, after which point they could not pass, but did remain outside for the next four hours blocking any further action during the night. Another larger university nearby had been surrounded by police vans the whole evening to prevent them from carrying out any activity.
As 6am arrived we prepared to sneak out of the side entrance and join the pickets of another very active neighbourhood. As we ran through the streets to join the picket, there was excitement and energy running through everyone’s veins, there was a feeling that today the city is ours, and guess what we are going to do whatever the fuck we want! As the students ran they sang and chanted, every road we went down the bins were pulled into the middle of the streets to block access, every bank was smashed and graffitied.
The morning neighbourhood picket was an interesting experience that made me reflect on many different things. The first thing to note was the strength and organisation of activists in the neighbourhood was clear, these people were dedicated, experienced and had grown in size and influence exponentially since 15M movement last year. The second thing that amazed me was that really most of the shops were closed! From big to small, they knew that it would not be a good idea to stay open on the day of the general strike. Those that were faced quite harsh consequences ranging from shouting, expropriation of goods, smoke bombs and graffiti. Many of the students and I questioned and had issues with the level of violence within these activities. On the one hand I could see that this fear and aggression was effective in the sense it did make the shop owners close, and probably decide not to scab and go against a general strike next time. On the other hand, I thought it was approached very aggressively and without a basic level of respect that all people deserve. In my opinion they could have endeavored to at least begin with a positive and constructive dialogue, before carrying out aggressive acts straight away. For me the important thing is to unite not divide people, and true lasting change will only come from a place of solidarity and support, not fear and resentment, this is what makes people vote for the right wing parties that repress movements and enable businesses to stay open.
After the pickets there was a large rally in a central square of the neighbourhood, with fireworks, a very moving speech and people of all ages, from children to the elderly, parents to the youth. This was a very empowering and wonderful moment to feel the strength of this form of activism within the neighbourhoods that has grown so strong in Barcelona and across Spain. After this we began to move towards the centre of the city, again people blocking the roads and defacing the banks as we went. Interestingly the police followed quietly behind in their vans, without reacting as multiple illegal activities were carried out. This surprised me, and when I inquired as to why this may be some said it was because they had been told to behave as elections in Catalonia are coming up, others that they would not dare to confront so many people in the daylight, another reasoning was that across the city people were doing far more illegal activities and that this was nothing in comparison.
Gradually we joined with pickets and demonstrations from multiple other neighbourhoods across the city and began streaming into the centre. A funny moment occurred when we passed a large German bank that had boarded up its windows in anticipation of their destruction, someone commented on the irony of this, as they were the only bank that could afford to do so, all the Spanish ones had been destroyed by midday! Coming down the Gran Via one of the central commercial zones of Barcelona, I experienced another moment of joy and empowerment, I could not believe it, as we walked down this road, all of the shops were closed, H&M, Zara, McDonalds, Tiffany’s etc etc and there were no cars on the road. No one was selling; no one was buying, wow what an amazing sight! We sang and danced down the road, my mind became filled with all the possible things we could do in the city, if only we stopped with this bullshit of consuming. We walked past a rally of public workers, a gathering of “Iaioflautas” an incredible group of elderly activists that remember the decades of fascism and were there to support the struggle of this generation, taxi drivers on strike came streaming past, with their families in tow, beeping their horns. Everywhere you turned there was a different group, a different demonstration and it was wonderfully overwhelming.
At this point we took a few hours rest in the quiet of the university, which of course was closed with no staff or students to be seen. Many of us had not slept or eaten the night before and needed to recharge. We cheered as people reported the news of other activities across the city, lorry drivers had blocked distribution warehouses with blockades of burning tires, workers had occupied a runway at the airport and stopped planes from leaving, factories across the city were closed.
At 5pm it was time to be back on our feet as two large demonstrations were starting at 6pm. One with the more traditional trade unions, another with the more radical anarchist unions, people from neighbourhood assemblies, 15M, the black bloc. The familiar chant of “A, Anti, Anticapitalistas” began to fill the air, and soon we were thousands moving through the streets. The march was calm and fairly uneventful for several hours, firecrackers went off every now and then, but things remained placid and the police stayed well back. However at a certain point, and I am still very unsure if this was the official march or not, one looked to the left down a hill and saw thousands on the street against police lines, it was very hard to see what was happening but a group of us decided to go down and check it out. It was clear from the second we got down there, that the atmosphere here was very different and things were about to get violent. Protesters were actively provoking the police, expressing their anger at the police that are protecting a state that is cutting all the necessities they need to live, and trying to get a reaction. I decided I did not want to be in this space, that for me at that moment this was a step too far. I don’t mind pushing past police lines when it is for a desired aim such as taking over a government building, or occupying a bank. However I did not want to engage in clashes with the police just for the sake of it, and I felt that the aim of the strike and shutting the city of Barcelona had been successfully achieved. However by the time I decided to take myself out of the situation it was already too late. The police had responded to the provocation now there were police and rubber bullets flying everywhere, I had lost everyone I was with, and the only option was to run. However in a matter of minutes the streets had become a small warzone, smoke everywhere, alarms going off left right and centre, sirens blaring, police cars blazing. Eventually I managed to get out onto a main street and breathe for a few seconds. I have to admit I felt very scared, I didn’t know the city, I had lost all the people I knew, the Spanish police are renowned for their brutality and the conflict was quickly expanding across the city, to the point where even an innocent tourist may get swept up in the fighting. Eventually I rang a friend and together we found shelter in another friends flat until it all subsided a few hours later.
Around 10pm the fighting and the strike was over. I met up again with the friends I had been with when the violence with the police broke out. One girl had been hit by a rubber bullet, but not too badly injured and everyone was safe and sound. They had decided to stay and fight the police. I asked them why, and an interesting conversation ensued. “I had similar initial doubts to you” one friend said, “but then I thought about what the police represent as the oppressive arm of the state, and also about the future that is to come. This repression is not going to go away, as we resist the injustice of capitalism and try to challenge the system it is only going to continue, and to get worse. This is practice; we have to learn how to face the police on the streets. Look at Greece, now they are learning the tricks and tactics of the police, how to resist, retaliate and gain some victories.” I wanted to resist this opinion, to fight for and believe that it is possible to win this struggle without such violence, that we should focus our energy on creating alternatives, on creating a non-violent cultural shift towards a better world. However the very real context of Spain at the moment, as well as the not so distant experience of the Spanish civil war, of trying to live autonomously and fight the fascists in Barcelona, and of eventually losing and facing years of dictatorship is hard to argue against. I think coming from the sheltered context of Britain it is hard to conceive of or imagine what this reality felt like. This really made me think and question; is a different kind of revolution really possible? One without violence and repression? Where we just focus our energy on creating the new, on transferring peoples capacity and ideas into non-capitalist production? Or will these alternatives eventually be suppressed if they become a threat to the state and capitalism? Will there really come a point when I have to decide whether to resist or submit?
Filled with adrenaline and exhaustion we headed back to the squat, singing chants from the strike as we went. I felt happy and amazed by the extent and magnitude of the strike, 1 million people had taken to the streets in Barcelona, the next day a union said 76% of the population had participated in the strike. For just one day I had experienced what it felt like to be in a city where I didn’t feel alienated and powerless, but where I felt connected to people and with our ability to create change. For me the strike was both a positive and frightening experience, one that left me with many questions, but also one that left me with the knowledge that we do have the capacity to stop and challenge the system and hopefully next time it will be for more than just one day.