I set off from my flat in the old town at approximately 09:00HRS, on an unloved, knackered “sit up and beg” bike that somebody had left in the house. Kit for the day: waterproof jacket, hat, red scarf, blue scarf, water, packed lunch, notebook, first aid kit and crash helmet. It’s mostly downhill from my patch to the centre of town, and as I freewheeled along I could take in all the strike propaganda that had gone out over the past week. The road and pavement was littered with pamphlets like confetti after a wedding, posters plastered the walls, particularly those of banks. I haven’t been past a Caixa bank that hasn’t been defaced, usually with the word “asesinos” – “murderers” since Friday the 9th, when a woman committed suicide as her house was being evicted on the orders of la Caixa. The staff cleans off the graffiti, but as with the bank’s reputation, the stains remain visible.
I began to slow down as I got onto the main shopping drag, noting a high police count. Municipales – the relatively harmless local cops - were redirecting traffic around key areas while the Ertzaintza riot brigade were doing their best to look menacing in balaclavas and bright red NATO helmets. After locking my bike around the corner, I approached the morning’s target: Corte Ingles. Apparently it is a time honoured tradition in Bilbao to picket the up-market superstore whenever there is a sizeable strike. However when workers picket in Spain, they do not do it symbolically. In the country where the fishermen used to picket the sea, any major strike is an opportunity to enforce as total a shutdown as possible. These “piquetes” little-reported part of the Spanish anti-austerity struggle, but every strike begins with early morning scuffles between police and pickets determined to go beyond the mandate of their unions and shut down as much of the economy as possible. Corte Ingles never shuts during strikes – it seems to only employ people with an upper class lisp and a snobbery borne of centuries of upper class breeding. The picket was made up of an anarchist / communist mix, sprinkled with a handful of slightly uncomfortable looking mainstream union activists. However, the police had beaten them to the entrances and controlled the shop side of the street. As the picket’s numbers grew they hurled abuse at the well-heeled staff as they scuttled behind the police lines. At approximately 10:00HRS the picket line moved onto the road, chanting “cops - pickets of the bosses” and the Ertzaintza advanced to push them back onto the pavement. The warmth of the sun had barely begun to filter into the street, yet the first European general strike had begun for Bilbao.
I felt surprisingly calm as the pigs moved in. No rushing fear flooded my veins with adrenaline – we were too numerous to arrest and the batons hadn’t come out. Nor did I feel much of my deep contempt for the police force – we had transgressed from passively “demonstrating” for the strike to actively enforcing it on a scabbing business, therefore they would move to stop us. Both sides knew the score and began the dance without fuss.
None of the passionate demands or the frantic appeals to reason of the piquetes would have any impact – they didn’t blink when the evicted woman jumped off her balcony – why would they now? So I kept my mouth shut. Escalating the situation from shouted commands to orchestrated shoving, they began to push us back. I was in the second line, and as the woman in front of me dug in her heels I put my hands on her rucksack to back her up, and the people behind me did the same. The unconscious, automatic nature of this resistance was curious. There had been no prior discussion about what we were doing, the group had acted spontaneously and as one. Nor did I really know anybody in the group, I recognized a few faces from the indignado demos and others from the CNT, but no real friends or – mortal sin! – no buddy. Yet here I was, testing my strength against the Ertzaintza. A curious place, austerity Spain. As usual with these things the police got the upper hand and after somebody at the front went down we were pushed back onto the pavement. During the standoff an officer came up with a hand held video camera to record faces. About half of the crowd masked up. Another interesting facet of protest in Spain is the lack of cameras. Britain really is up there as one of the most paranoid, aggressive and invasive surveillance states in the world, Spain has few cameras by comparison, and Forward Intelligence Team tactics are less systematic.
Sick and tired of being filmed and with no hope of shutting down el Corte Ingles for the moment, the piquetes broke up into smaller groups and began to roam the Gran Via shutting down businesses. I decided to follow the cluster of youths with the red banners, as they seemed to be some of the most militant of the bunch. The method was simple. Rock up in front of an open shop, then yell, chant and bang banners against noisy things until the shutters come down. Most businesses seem to have opened hesitantly, terrified of any potential disruption to the norm, and would shut their doors as soon as they saw us coming. However the Ertzaintza were not too happy with this and followed us, coming to the defence of scabbing businesses and allowing them to stay open. This began a walk pace cat and mouse chase between the piquetes and the cops, as we strolled down Gran Via shutting businesses and staying two steps ahead of the 5-0. Somebody handed me a bunch of stickers to put up – the logic seemed to be that covering the town in our material was the second best option after closing everything down. So I spent a happy half hour strolling along Gran Via, usually reserved for consumption and nothing else, chanting “hoy no se trabaja, es dia de huelga” “today nobody works – it’s a strike day”, sticking trade union stickers to corporate shops, with a glaring riot cops following a few meters back. A thoroughly pleasant way to spend a morning. I toyed with the idea of affixing a sticker to the riot van… should I? It’d be tricky but not impossible; wait for the pigs on foot to cross the street to move on the piquetes, close the distance on the vehicle quickly on the driver’s blind side, slap it somewhere visible and be lost in the crowd changing my outer layers of clothing before they knew what was going on. To stick or not to stick? Eventually decided against it – I had promised my friends that I would take care of myself and this would probably constitute breaking that promise. Eventually we noticed the growing number of trade union bib wearing workers heading in the main assembly point en masse and joined them for the union rally.