“Don’t go down there, the police are shooting”. It was right by Plaça Urquinaona in the centre of Barcelona. The bustling square lined with restaurants and shops just one block from the coworking I used to cycle to every morning. I was standing right outside the Pink Bubble bakery where I would buy an overpriced Café con Leche and stand in a gormless coma before going upstairs to my job as Communications Manager for a drone company. Then the only thing shooting were the occasional car back firing.
This felt like a war zone. It was Friday the 18th of October, the day of the general strike across Catalonia. Thousands of people took to the streets. Some to demand an increase in minimum wage but the vast majority were protesting the Supreme Court ruling against the 9 jailed Catalan politicians. A ruling which had shocked the world and spurred protesters into action. To my blinkered eyes and shoddy newspaper reading over the past few years in Barcelona, it appeared the independence movement in Catalonia – while always burning, had died down to a weakened flame since the referendum in 2017. The Supreme Court ruling was gust of wind to the fire. The dying flame had leapt into a bonfire.
Now, I am not going to go all political in this blog. I am in no position to. A naïve expat, sure I have called Barcelona my home for the last 8 years, but I would be the first to admit my ignorance of the complexity of the situation. When I was doing my teacher training in Madrid, we were told to avoid the topic of independence in classes as it was too sensitive and divisive an issue. Of course, in my first class I asked all the students what they thought.
Some of my closest friends here are fiercely pro-independence, and in truth my sympathies lie with them. Yet whichever side of the fence you are, it must be so painful to have a fence running straight through your home.
Anyway, back to the 18th of October. There was a huge crowd of people streaming up and down the streets fanning out from the Plaça. There was a visible divide between weary protesters stooped under hand-painted banners patiently standing their ground. And the pumped-up ones, ready for shit to hit the fan. Dressed in black, balaclavas for the smoke, some wearing ski goggles for the tear gas or rubber bullets. I saw a fight break out – an argument I should say. A group tried to tear down some metal barricades just opposite the Mercadona supermarket and overturning some of the large recycling bins two women intervened and told them off. Berated them for bringing down the movement with violence. Yet you could see some people had a fire in their eyes that wouldn’t be put out with words.
I have so much respect and admiration for the brave protesters. Who walked from Girona, Mataro, Lloret. Who lay across highways near the French border. Who faced fear with flags. Who met batons and blows with brave faces and cardboard placards.
Today was different. I have never experienced a group mentality like it. At one point some people ahead threw down three of the city bins (green for bottles, yellow for plastic and blue for cardboard) and set them on fire. One of the residents of the building whose balcony was directly over the flames came out and tried to douse it with water. I heard the whine of a firework launched towards the building. Neighbour on neighbour? Of course that was never the point but moods were too high and rationale was diluted with a buzzing sense of imminent chaos. A herd of horses rippling up and down the streets. A skittish pack with no leader – propelled forward by surging adrenalin and at the word “Police!” the entire herd would stampede away. Not even knowing whether we were running to or from danger. If anything, we were creating it.
I say “We” to describe my five second participation in a movement that has gone on for hundreds of years. During my time in Barcelona, what I have witnessed of the fight for independence has been stoic determination. A steely resolution to be peaceful and democratic and simply have a voice. It is so sad that with the pressure of violent repression what is a vastly peaceful movement has been painted with images of an unruly mob looking for trouble.
What I did see (once, in my blink-of-an-eye witness which has borne this entitled piece) was the fascinating effect of mass psychology on a group. The individual was lost in the sea of fear, stress and adrenalin. I went because I felt I owed it to the city that had been my home for nearly a decade. I am not Catalan, and it is not my battle. I, like so many thousands of people here (and around the world) was shocked by the sentences given to the organizers of the 2017 referendum. Watching a series of unjust events unfurling on a screen makes you feel so powerless, the least I could do was go and be a number on the streets.
So that Friday 18th I cycled from my flat in Poblenou and joined the crowds. I have to admit, the sense of tension in the air was electric – and addictive. I am an appalling leech of political pain. Had I not have left my baby daughter at home (with her dad I hasten to add – I am not that bad!) I would have been swept up in the crowd and come home in days.
So in a nutshell, that is it. Catalonia is suffering, and I am not the person to explain the situation but if you don’t know what I am talking about please do look it up. Mob psychology is the strangest and most fascinating (and oddly exhilarating) phenomen I have ever experienced. I just wanted to share that with you. A guilty confession that I would probably have flung myself off a cliff with the other lemmings (I know, it doesn’t really happen) or rushed with the mob into the Home Base store and scuttled out with a TV under my arm. Even though I don’t watch or want a TV. I just think I probably would have. Really, truly, strange feeling.
As for fight against repression, the movement to free the political prisoners and the journey to justice in Catalonia – I recommend you check Reddit!
Now, back to my baby daughter and life off the streets.