CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
“I’m a tourist! Tourist!” I protested, somewhere in the dungeons of the Guardia Urbana located inconspicuously along La Rambla.
“¡No!” the cop yelled back, wagging his finger. “¡Terrorist!”
On the street just above me, only minutes after the alleged terrorist act, all the other tourists were strolling calmly, perusing postcards and tapas menus, glancing over the stands of books set out for the St. Jordi holiday, 23 April, watching the performance artists who always line Barcelona’s signature pedestrian avenue. There was no panicked stampede, only the same mundane crush that always drowns the city. But then, I wasn’t exactly arguing with the voice of reason. The cop was sure I was a terrorist because he was sure I was a squatter, and he was sure I was a squatter because he thought I looked like one (I was wearing a political t-shirt and had some slogans scribbled on my shoes).
In fact, it was the squatter’s assembly that had organized the little protest on La Rambla. They had a festive, balloon-lined banner that read, in Catalan, “a city without squats is a dead city,” they handed out flyers arguing against gentrification and explaining the reasons for squatting, and they concluded the little event by firing off a petardo, a little firework cannon that shoots flyers into the air. It made a damn loud noise, perhaps louder than intended, but in the end it was only that-a noise. But the police, always training for the worse, came in and made it worse. They charged in yelling, and adding an element of panic the firework never did. I was in the area and I saw the police running-at this point they were chasing one of the protestors-and I did what I would have done in the US: follow the cops to see if anyone was arrested, if they needed help, if they were being beaten. A couple blocks away the police had thrown someone up against a wall. I watched until they told the crowd to disperse, but as I was walking back to La Rambla, one cop looked me over suspiciously and asked me a question. I explained I didn’t speak Spanish very well, and showed him my passport, which he took and walked off with. I had to follow him all the way to the police station, where I learned I was under arrest, charged with illegal demonstration and public disorder. Because they allege the public disorder was carried out with explosives, I am facing between three and six years imprisonment.
After two days in the police dungeon I had the privilege of being yelled at by a judge, who described the protest as an “urban guerrilla” and alternately “paramilitary” action designed to hit La Rambla when the largest number of people would be present, in order to send the message that the squatters were a military force. At one point during my statement he interrupted me to yell that in the US I would be thrown in Guantanamo for such an action. He gave me a 30,000 euro bail (which a secretary later told me she had never seen for such charges in 25 years of working there) and sent me to Modelo prison.
At this point I should admit I am not a typical tourist. I hate tour guides, I don’t like attractions, and I don’t have much money to spend. I’ve been travelling first by bicycle, then by hitchhiking, sleeping in parks, with friends, or with people I just met. My main interest, besides studying languages, is learning about Europe’s radical social movements. I want to abolish capitalism, and I understand tourism to be part of that. But as much as I try to stay on the pure side of my principled disctinction between travelling and tourism, I did enter Spain on a tourist visa and for the unimaginative purposes of the law a tourist I am. Even anarchists take vacations.
Mine, oddly enough, had landed me in the same prison that once housed many of the anarchist revolutionaries of the Spanish Civil War. Once I arrived, I got down to just about the only thing one can do in prison: waiting, and organizing my new life within its much diminished horizons. At first I was under the impression that trial would come within a few months, but soon I found out it may take two years.
On 22 May, another trial starts in Barcelona after two years of waiting, and the verdict may put five innocent people in prison for three years and nine months. They were arrested on 25 June, 2005, when the police attacked a demonstration organized in solidarity with the Italian anarchist movement, which had recently been repressed in a wave of over 180 raids, 25 arrests and a number of imprisonments on the instrumentality of a vague, guilt-by-association law. After the police attacked the Barcelona solidarity protest, a few windows got smashed, and the detainees were charged with assaulting the police and public disorder, and they are faced with ridiculously high fines for damages. One of them was arrested before any property destruction took place, and others were not even in the same location as the smashed windows.
And this is just one of a long list of cases of repression, of activists arrested on fabricated charges. But as much as the Barcelona police have a vendetta against squatters and anarchists, along with immigrants and anyone darker than them, this repression is not a grassroots initiative: it’s an order from on high. “The Mediterranean triangle” sounds like it could be a vacation package for sunbathers but in fact it’s the term applied by the European Union to what it identifies as a top internal security threat-the anarchist movements in Greece, Italy, and Spain. These states have been directed to neutralize the threat, and it seems they will do whatever it takes. In my case, they have found two cops to testify that they saw me and the other person arrested set off the petardo (well, they’re calling it a “mortar”), that some kind of projectile shot out of it, and that we ran away and were subsequently arrested. For some reason, the judges in Spain are inclined to believe the police, even to see them as neutral and uninterested, unless they are faced with a large amount of contradictory evidence. I would say that the police and the criminal justice system in Spain have not changed much since the days of Franco, and there is truth to this, but it’s besides the point because in the US they are just as bad. In fact, in my brief experience prison in Spain is better than in the US-more privacy, less aggression, better food. Not that they don’t torture people in Spanish prisons just like they do in the US (hopefully no one has forgotten already that the torture regime in Abu Ghraib was exported from home).
Torture by police is an element in another ongoing political case in Barcelona, involving three squatters framed for the serious injury of a cop who was guarding a house where drugs were sold. The three were arrested, disappeared for a few days, and tortured, with bones broken, hair pulled out, bruises all over. Over a year later, they are still in prison awaiting trial. The police use other terror tactics besides torture against the squatters’ movement. At the beginning of May, in a pre-election frenzy, the Barcelona police illegally evicted a number of squatted social centers. Their MO is to go in several dark vans with ski-masks and guns, break down the doors at six in the morning, seize documents and copy computer files, pull out and identify all the occupants, and sometimes saddle them with criminal charges as well. And the corporate media play their part, with frequent articles libelling squatters and describing them as a menace to society, as terrorists even (just as they played the same trick on the radical environmentalists in the US).
Why exactly does the squatters’ movement warrant this kind of attention? Probably because it is the spearhead of the battle for the city. All across Barcelona, buildings are being gutted and rebuilt. The new versions are sanitized, homogenized, and much more expensive. Streets that still bear the names of the artisans who used to live and work there are now filled with tourists, and all the shops are fashion stores, trendy restaurants, venders of novelty trinkets imported from sweatshops in the Global South. Cops are everywhere-sometimes you can see them chasing the undocumented people who sell sunglasses near the beach. And recently the government has introduced laws of “civism,” puritanical measures rarely seen this side of the pond including restrictions on playing music or drinking in the streets (you can bet the latter are never enforced against the bar-hopping American college students who rattle windows nightly with their loud voices and drunken brawls). Rents are going through the roof as the city turns itself into a museum for the tourists. Really, it’s economic terrorism. And while locals are forced out to the suburbs or even onto the streets, speculators hold on to 150,000 vacant houses throughout the metropolitan area, waiting for the prices to go up. After decades of control by the rightwing nationalist party, Barcelona has recently come under a coalition led by the socialists, and the gentrification has only accelerated.
In response to this situation, the squatters’ movement uses direct action. There is a need for housing, and plenty of vacant, deteriorating buildings, so they occupy them, and fix them up. Poor people and undocumented people often squat clandestinely on an individual basis, and the movement is an organized, open version of this. Instead of trying to keep the squat a secret, they throw out a banner, clean the building up, and organize to defend their new homes. Many of the occupied houses are turned into social centers that are foundations for a much broader anarchist or autonomous movement. They also become focal points for the community struggle against gentrification. The collectives of the occupied social centers build relations with neighbors, protest together against speculation and the rising rents. The squatters provide a radical example of a solution to gentrification, and having freed themselves from wage slavery they can throw themselves into organizing, while at the more successful social centers, the neighbors support the squatters, making the authorities hesitant to evict them.
Here as everywhere else, it is a war of two different visions of society. The property owners, the politicians, and the cops who throw about the word “terrorism” are certainly terrified by the vision of a world in which everybody has housing, people don’t need to scramble for wages just to honor someone else’s concept of ownership; instead they organize with neighbors to meet their needs, they make their own plays and concerts and libraries in the social centers on every block rather than buying entertainment from the specialists who produce it; a world in which people don’t have mind-numbing jobs they need to take vacations from, boring lives that chase them to exotic places as tourists to purchase some illusion of diversity and novelty; a world without borders, without documents, without immigrants having to run from the police, a world where people can travel and change experiences freely, unhindered by the filters set up by the authorities to control and profit off the myriad movement of life.
To repress this vision, the authorities clearly have recourse to terrorist measures, and there is another kind of terrorism as well in the quotidian reality of poverty and consumption. But fortunately, people struggling for another world are answering the repression with solidarity. Amazingly, after just a few days, the struggling, broke collectives of Barcelona were able to raise the 30,000 euros and get me out of Modelo, back on the streets. I am required to sign in at court every two weeks until trial, meaning I have to stay in Spain, perhaps for the next couple years. It’s not such a bad place, and the social movements here have struck me with their beauty and resilience. In the meantime, I walk the battleground streets and familiarize myself with the city that must become my home. I try to avoid the crowds but often I find myself surrounded by tourists, unknowingly waging an unseen war, with their dollars as weapons. I want to direct their eyes to the levels above the ground floor Irish pubs they are seeking, to the bricked over windows of the vacant apartments, and there-right there, on the third floor, the mortar has been carefully chipped out to provide a breathing hole, just a few centimenters long, the only sign of a clandestine existence. I want to put them on the other side, looking out through the hole, and I want them to feel the terror that comes with the sight of the police, the police who might evict them, the police who make the tourists feel so safe, the police who torture political prisoners, chase immigrants, and protect property rights.
It’s an easy road from tourism to terrorism. If these tourists aren’t careful, they might wander too close to a protest, they might be framed for a public disorder that never happened. If these tourists aren’t careful, their eyes might stray from the official attractions, they might read the writing on the wall the sanitation crews are quickly scrubbing away. They might learn to see through the cracks in the wall between this world and another one.
PETER GELDERLOOS is an activist and author from Virginia. Whenever he is allowed to be in the good ole US, he is active supporting prisoners and participating in the movement for prison abolition. He works with groups such as Copwatch, Anarchist Black Cross, Food Not Bombs, and the local infoshop. He has written a number of articles and pamphlets, and two books, How Nonviolence Protects the State, and Consensus: A New Handbook for Political, Environmental, and Social Groups. He is currently stuck in Spain awaiting trial. Anyone interested in giving solidarity in this or the other political cases can contact shigmagism [at] yahoo [dot] com