Barcelona: And on the seventh day fires subside

What happened in Barcelona this past week isn’t over. In the present circumstances it would not be a cliché to say that the fires that were set from the 26th to the 31st of May, and they numbered in the hundreds and several of them were as large as the wide avenues they built to prevent our revolts, live on in our hearts. Tens of thousands of people have won transformative experiences. When they see a cop, an intersection, a construction site, a dumpster, a bank, a surveillance camera, a journalist, new meanings and new possibilities appear unbidden before their eyes.

Though it isn’t over, the struggle here has entered another phase. If things kick off again in the next days, if streets are wrested away from the forces of order and columns of smoke pour skyward once more, it will be different people who have taken the initiative, and for different reasons.

The next weeks and months will reveal if we know how to use our renewed force in another sort of struggle, one based on persistence, solidarity with the repressed, subterranean expansion, the filling in of new relationships with a meaningfulness that sustains us, and a radical transformation of the spaces—and the breathing room—that we have won, in spite of and against all the temptations and blackmails of capitalism.

The streets are peaceful again, but the forces of alienation have by no means won the contest.

Streets, banks, and shop windows not just in Sants but across the city still bear the marks of the recent war. People on the street can be overheard speaking of burning barricades, police helicopters, evictions, and riots. More often than not, that which is delegitimized as “violence” brings joy or excitement to their voices, while they speak about the forces of order with anger or contempt. The police chief has resigned. The mossos have been simultaneously criticized for their brutality and their inability to restore order. The mayor has been disgraced and the ruling party has been thoroughly discredited. Can Vies has been reoccupied and people have begun reconstructing the half of the building that was demolished. The sixty-some arrestees enjoy widespread social support, and nearly all of them have been released.

On Friday, after the surreal riots of Thursday night in Sants, the pots and pans demo was mostly peaceful. In other neighborhoods there were propaganda actions or sabotage attacks against metro stations (the transportation company being the owner of Can Vies). There were also protests outside the police commissary where detainees were being held.

Most everyone was waiting at that point for the major call-outs on Saturday. On Saturday morning, thousands of people took over the Can Vies site in answer to a call to rebuild the social center. Forming a human chain hundreds of meters long, they removed all of the rubble, piling it in front of the door of the Sants district office, and separating out the bricks that can be used again in the construction. Tranquil actions happened in other neighborhoods as well. In Clot, anarchists took over a plaza under the banner, “Against their city, our own” and held talks about the struggle for public space, the transformation of the neighborhood in the last days, and experiences of fighting gentrification or occupying vacant lots to create parks and gardens in Barcelona and in Athens.

Saturday evening was the major march. People gathered in different neighborhoods and marched in columns towards Plaça Universitat, where perhaps thirty to fifty thousand people of all ages convened. It was difficult to predict how things would turn out. The larger crowd (with a higher proportion of people who were there on a single-issue basis) and the exhaustion of the more radical elements made a riot less probable. Most importantly, the police, humbled and forced to adopt a new strategy, were barely visible throughout the march, except at the beginning where a deployment of riot police let the crowd go past them down Ronda de Sant Antoni. They did not follow nor block the demo as on previous days; clearly their orders were to make the media projections of social peace a reality.

Since Wednesday, the politicians had suddenly changed their tune and expressed a desire to negotiate, and starting Thursday the media began claiming (falsely) that the violence had mostly subsided or was the work of very few troublemakers. Entities like the once discredited, fully institutionalized FAVB (federation of neighbor associations) or the far left Catalan independence political party CUP, took on a key role as negotiators, even though the collective of Can Vies was not participating.

As the protest marched through the center, an increasing number of people began to mask up. Bank windows started shattering, meeting with cheers from the crowd, and powerful fireworks were thrown. Today, however, hardly anyone was criticizing or blocking the journalists and random people photographing the crowd. A cheer went up when the march arrived at La Carbonería, a beloved social center evicted a few months earlier (it is important to note that the loss of the Carbo marked the first time in years that an eviction in Barcelona was met with riots, and even though only a few hundred people participated the event resparked the possibility of a combative response to evictions in people’s imaginations, just in time for Can Vies). But contrary to people’s hopes and even assumptions, no one resquatted the Carbo. For half an hour, though, the rumour spread wildly: they evict one social center, we retake it, rebuild it, and also resquat the last social center the fuckers evicted! ¡Toma ya!

But the sad truth was, by Saturday, anarchists and others were depleted. After five days of long marches, long riots, attacks, speedy getaways, beatings, arrests, solidarity demos and logistics, gas, rubber bullets and just too much adrenaline, not to mention the frequent abandonment of incriminating clothing, footwear, and tools, a great burden for people with miniscule budgets, people arrived at the protest with no materials, no plans, and no energy. There were perhaps two hammers evident in a crowd of forty thousand, and while they were put to good use, it was not enough.

Finally, at Las Ramblas, the police showed their hand. They clearly knew the plan was to march to the Ajuntament, City Hall, in the very center, and they blocked the street and ordered the march to go down to the port. In frustration some people set a few dumpsters and a car on fire, but in general protestors dispersed and the masked ones disappeared. Later, a group of protestors forced their way past the police and made it to City Hall, but without the energy to start a major confrontation with the cops guarding the building. On a brighter note, there were attacks against the usual targets in neighborhoods across the city.

Around midnight, a breakaway group of almost 200 was surrounded by riot police and undercovers on a major avenue. Even though many gathered to support them, after a standoff of three hours the police imposed their order and identified and photographed everyone they had caught, also making people mask their faces with whatever clothes they had on hand to take before and after shots.

There are more call-outs for today and the next days, but for the moment things are calm. Even if the situation flares up again, afterwards we will still face the same choice: either to become demoralized and disillusioned as the transcendant beauty we formed a part of fades away and is crushed by a monotonous normality, or we learn how to use our newfound strength for other purposes than the reproduction of rioting.

A year after the March 2012 general strike and the unprecedentedly large riots that accompanied them, the anarchist space in Barcelona was characterized by depression, dispersion, exhaustion, and immobility. We were clearly stronger than three years before—we were more, more experienced, more visible, more connected, and better positioned—yet the star we had hitched our wagon to had suddenly blinked out and we watched as events surpassed us despite our newfound strength.

But the different anarchist groups persisted. Some threw themselves into the creation of new infrastructure like printshops or social centers, others into campaigns like the opposition to foreclosures or to transport fare hikes, and some focused on preserving and expanding the control over public space at the neighborhood level that had been won in the recent battles. Some groups took good care of the personal relationships that formed the basis for their activity, relationships that had multiplied during the days of fire and tumult, and others did not. The choices and efforts they made reflected on their position at the start of the new revolts, although the reappearance of an insurrectionary fever in the streets also gave everyone a chance to start anew.

Half a year before the Can Vies eviction, the changes reaped by social agitation began to become visible. Starting December, there was a riot every month in Barcelona; in solidarity with Mónica and Cariñoso, arrested on antiterrorism charges; in solidarity with the riots in Gamonal (Burgos); in a student strike; after the eviction of La Carbonería; and on May Day. All of these were relatively small, some were well done, and others poorly, but together they built up a pressure in the air, attracted more people to the streets, showed that fighting back was possible, and allowed people to hone their techniques.

After the Can Vies riot, a number of things have become clear.

Social rebels in Barcelona have finally broken the psychological barrier that encloses rioting as a simple catharsis, a release of rage that ends when people go to bed, waking up the next day feeling rejuvenated and ready to get on with their lives. Now, our rage can be directed, it can continue with intelligence and determination from one day to the next.

The limit is no longer convention or normality, but our own strength or weakness. Principally our endurance, our ability to counteract media pacification, and our ability to communicate.

Social rebels in Barcelona have also learned how to fight police for control of the streets. And although the police won far more contests, on a tactical level, than they lost, the victory was ours. The cops repeated training exercises and though they were excellent at what they did, they did not advance in their methodology. People, on the other hand, did. They learned how to choose streets, how to move, and how to arm and defend themselves. The most riotous generally avoided arrest or encirclement, and they developed a great ability to cause destruction (to banks, political party offices, city property), interrupt the social peace, and persist for hours despite police attempts to disperse them. It also became clear that wherever there was a sufficient supply of rocks or molotovs, the police could often be forced to retreat.

Interactions with rioters and non-rioters also bore fruit. Many non-rioters symbolically supported the riots, cheering and encouraging, but also supporting materially and tactically, by aiding specific escapes, giving out fireworks or clothes, or passing on information about streets and police positions. There is much more support for attacks on police and on buildings most easily associated with the ruling order. But many people still cling to an absurd and outdated rejection of wearing masks.

Perhaps most important of all, the riots and the authoritarian responses reitirated the centrality of the media role in pacification, and the eternal role of leftwing pacifiers. It is appropriate that the first riots began with the smashing and burning of a media van, because the media proved to be some of the only effective pacifiers of the revolt. As for the left, the problem is as always more complex. The FAVB was an unexpected actor in the negotiations because they have absolutely nothing to do with Can Vies, they are historic enemies of Can Vies and all squats, and they are so discredited and institutionalized there was not even much room for them in the all-encompassing 15M movement. It remains to be seen if they can actually be effective in the pacification effort solely on the basis of the power conceded to them through negotiation with state authorities.

Much more dangerous is the CUP, a peculiarity of Catalan politics. A large portion of the rioters were radical Catalan independentista youth, mostly organized into an organization loyal to the CUP (Arran). The CUP itself claimed for a long time to not be a political party but a candidature list comprised of social movements, although now they have delegates in parliament and their leader, David Fernandez, is given ever more credibility in the media. With the Can Vies riots, they got the spotlight. There was some radical independentista participation in Can Vies (which is only about half anarchist), and that opened the door for the CUP to present itself as a negotiator. Ironically, the anarchic force of the riots obligated the city government to try to negotiate for the restoration of social peace, which granted the CUP (with one foot in the movements and the riot itself) an unprecedented power vis a vis the government it is trying to hard to enter into.

This is a situation particular to Catalunya, although some of the dynamics are clearly repetitions of long familiar patterns. As the independence referendum approaches, it is a problem comrades here will have to pay a good deal of attention to.

It is now the first of June, and for the first day in a week, the sky is clear blue, free of clouds threatening the rain that has visited us, often drenching us, every day of the revolt from Monday to Saturday. And though the cardboard and paper in the dumpsters were often damp, the rains did not put out the fires that bloomed all the last week of May.

May flowers, roses of fire, grow vibrant and bright in our memories and in the futures we begin to imagine. Can Vies lives on, and the way lies open, perilous yet promising, before us.