On Friday, January 10, three thousand people took to the streets in the city of Burgos, Spain, protesting a construction project that would remodel a normal street into a deluxe boulevard, taking an important step forward in the gentrification of Gamonal, a long-time working class neighborhood. The police charged to disperse the protest, and the story would have ended there: another failed attempt to stop the latest austerity measure, foreclosure, mass layoff, or destructive “urban renewal” project.
Nearly three years after the plaza occupation movement swept Spain, the abuses keep raining down from on high. Largely fruitless, the popular mobilizations have waned. It’s been more than a year since the last general strike, and though motives to protest abound, the crowds rarely reach ten thousand. The real estate bubble in Spain has long since burst, yet speculative projects like the one in Gamonal, projects that displace people and forcibly change the character of once accessible neighborhoods, continue to occur.
But that Friday in Gamonal, the story took an unexpected turn. Rather than dispersing, people stayed in the streets, they set up barricades, and they began destroying banks and construction equipment. The next day, they took to the streets again, demanding the unconditional release of all the people arrested the night before.
For four consecutive nights, Burgos was rocked by riots. At first the mayor, who has strong ties to the construction industry, refused to withdraw his support for the project. Locals began organizing blockades to prevent the arrival of new machinery. Then solidarity protests started popping up in other cities across Spain. First in Madrid, and then by January 17 in over forty other cities. Two nights in a row, the 14th and the 15th, mobilizations in Madrid that were attacked by police turned into riots. In Melilla, one of Spain’s North African colonies, a protest linking the movement in Burgos to a similar situation of undesired urbanization happening locally, also sparked confrontations with the police.
On the 16th, there were extensive solidarity riots in Zaragoza and Barcelona. In the latter city, masked protestors damaged banks and multinationals like Starbucks and Burger King along the exclusive Laietana Avenue, and then occupied the plaza in front of the Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan government, where they clashed with police guarding the building.
That same day, the rich and powerful of Burgos bent to popular demands and announced that construction of the new boulevard would be cancelled. People in the streets are jubilant, but no one can be heard to suggest that the struggle is over.
One neighborhood’s battle against gentrification has resonated with people across Spain. Their outrage throws the crisis that is growing across Europe into sharp relief.
Deaf to popular protests, the European Union and the banks it has bailed out continue unswervingly down the path of neoliberal austerity. They have made it clear that the welfare of an increasingly precarious workforce is no longer on their agenda. Yet the response from the street has shown that more than just the particular capitalist strategy of neoliberalism is at stake. While rising unemployment certainly fuels popular anger and makes social rebellion more likely, many of the targets have not been features of austerity but the hallmarks of democratic capitalism itself.
In Gamonal, the target was gentrification, a process that is just as associated with boom times as with times of crisis. In the earlier plaza occupation or “indignados” movement, a principal target were the political parties, which continue to be non grata in most spaces of protest. On January 15, in the sleepy Catalan city of Girona, a crowd tried to stop the deportation of a Moroccan man who had participated in a local anti-foreclosure group. When the police van finally broke through the crowd and took him away, people ran amok through the city center, attacking cops and destroying banks. Just a couple weeks earlier, the traditional New Year’s Eve noise demo outside the immigrant prison in Barcelona sparked an uprising on the inside that was put down with brutal police force and the speedy deportation of several immigrants. Forty prisoners went on hunger-strike. The EU policy of mass detentions and deportations that has earned it the nickname of “Fortress Europe” was put into practice in the boom years of the ’90s. It is not a byproduct of neoliberalism per se, but a feature of capitalist government plain and simple.
In other words, people are not just reacting to the austerity measures that are slashing their benefits or privatizing health and education. They are taking the opportunity presented by the rising social unrest to take aim at a great many pillars of modern government and economy, phenomena that long predate neoliberalism, such as borders, deportations, political parties, and gentrification.
Similar cases could be drawn from any of the austerity-wracked countries in Europe. Even in remarkably stable Germany, there’s the case of Hamburg, where authorities placed three entire neighborhoods under martial law after crowds protesting the planned closure of a beloved social center clashed with police on December 21 and attacked police stations a week later.
In Spain, the government has responded to popular unrest with an iron fist. At the end of 2013, Madrid passed a reform to the penal laws that criminalizes unauthorized protests and protests that surround Congress or other government buildings, and adds heavy penalties for protest arrestees wearing masks. The reform also allows police to declare “security zones” in which protests will not be allowed, and prohibits the filming of police if doing so violates the vague criterion compromising their honor or security—and this just a month after police were filmed beating an immigrant to death in Barcelona.
After the rowdy March 29, 2012 general strike, the Catalan Interior Minister announced that vandalism would be punished as harshly as terrorism. True to his word, dozens of people arrested in the strike and in other moments of social conflict, such as the May Day protests of 2013 or various attempted blockades of the Catalan parliament in Barcelona or the national Congress in Madrid are still facing severe charges.
Occurring hand in hand with all of these movements, there has been an increase in actions of nighttime sabotage. The government response has followed a clear pattern: criminalization and heavy punishment for any acts of property destruction or disobedience in moments of mass protest, with the intent to dissuade resistance and exhaust the movement; and the use of the antiterrorism law to drag any secretive sabotage actions out of the terrain of popular resistance and into the terrain of state security and mass paranoia.
Spain is a pioneer in the development of antiterrorism as a tool to repress social movements, deploying a state of exception against the Basque independence movement. To erode widespread public support and crush resistance, Madrid used the antiterrorism law against the armed group ETA (which like the Spanish state had killed quite a few civilians) but also against Basque youth groups involved in the organization of protests or alternative media.
In the age of austerity protests, the chief target of Spain’s antiterrorism law have been anarchist groups that have killed no one. While the police kill immigrants with impunity on a monthly basis or shoot old ladies’ eyes out with rubber bullets during protests, the media distracts everyone with the spectacle of terrorism, harping on acts of property destruction.
In less than a year, thirteen anarchists across Spain have been arrested under the antiterrorism law. On May 15, 2013, the second anniversary of the plaza occupation movement, five people were arrested in the city of Sabadell, accused of running a Facebook page that expressed support for anti-government riots and property destruction, and that featured jokes about beheading or otherwise deposing Spain’s king. The charges: encouragement of terrorism. The police took advantage of the occasion to raid an anarchist social center with which the detainees had no relation. In their press statements, faithfully produced en masse, the police claimed that anarchists had infiltrated the plaza occupation movement, when the truth of the matter is that those targeted by the raid, as well as anarchists in other cities, had openly participated in the movement from the very beginning. This case bears strong resemblance to the arrest of five anarchists in Ohio on the anniversary of the Occupy movement, targeted in a police operation that smacks of entrapment.
On November 13, 2013, five anarchists were arrested in Barcelona, accused of being the authors of a small bomb attack that had occurred in an empty cathedral, destroying a couple wooden pews and injuring no one. The statement that claimed responsibility for the attack focused on the Catholic Church’s role in the colonization and despoliation of Latin America. Incidentally, the police have no evidence connecting any of the five to the bombing. They have grainy video in which two of the accused are supposedly seen in a café and a bus station near the cathedral, although they can’t be positively identified due to the quality of the images. Much more convenient for the police is that those two had also been accused—and fully acquitted—of similar charges in a 2010 case in Chile; all five are foreigners; and all five are active anarchists.
And now, on January 14, three anarchists were arrested and charged with terrorism for the 2012 attack on a businessmen’s club in Galicia, northwestern Spain. This act of terrorism consisted of the lobbing of two molotov cocktails against an empty building, again with no injuries. Molotov cocktails were a standard part of the neighborhood struggles of the ’70s and ’80s, which helped force an end to the fascist dictatorship in Spain, though they continued throughout the following decade as destructive urbanization only accelerated under democracy. Short on historical sentimentality, the government would like to permanently remove those devilish little devices from the popular arsenal.
Cities across Spain are beefing up their riot police squads, buying sonar weapons, crowd control tanks armed with high-pressure water cannons, and other gadgets. Meanwhile, they are criminalizing the “less lethal weaponry” of the people within the rubric of antiterrorism. No surprise, since the law is just another of their gadgets.
Layoffs, evictions, gentrification, prisons, mass deportations, criminal codes, surveillance cameras, privatization of education and healthcare, the gutting of social security, riot police, the stirring up of nationalism: these are the weapons of the rich and powerful in this current crisis. In Spain as in a growing number of countries, the weapons of the weak and exploited to defend themselves against the onslaught have included protests, strikes, building occupations, open assemblies, prisoner support, books and flyers, the free sharing of goods, graffiti, posters, urban gardens, the self-organization of healthcare and education, the looting of supermarkets, barricades, the smashing of banks and other institutions of wealth and power, riots, and sabotage.
Sometimes, it turns out our weapons aren’t so weak after all. Those who took to the streets in Gamonal and other cities achieved a small but important victory. And many of those people share in a growing consciousness that they are part of something that extends across the globe. An integral part of that consciousness is the desire to spread news of their cause and pass on lessons and experiences that could be useful to similar causes around the world.
In Gamonal and beyond, the struggle continues.
Peter Gelderloos is the author of several books, including Anarchy Works and the newly published The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy. He lives in Barcelona.