Monday, 11 February 2013

Despatch from Bilbao – N14 European Strike - Part 1

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.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Two Demonstrations and an election

DISCLAIMER: This is a personal account that makes no claims to be objective, ect ect as before.

Sometimes living in Spain is like being in an abusive relationship that you enjoy despite yourself. Like when it’s three in the morning and you want to go home and everyone else is just getting started, mixed in with 6am starts that everyone else seems to think is acceptable, to be shrugged off with a caffeine/nicotine dose that makes me shudder to contemplate. Or navigating through mad complex public transport systems at the end of the day, massively self-conscious of how much more you are sweating than everyone else. Or when somebody in your group tells the punch line of a long joke and everybody screams with laughter and you smile politely as you didn’t understand the premise of the joke in the first place, never mind the ending.  But then somebody pronounces an interesting word just so, or somebody makes a particular gesture and I have to grin to myself as I walk by thinking “damn, that’s so Spanish.” 

Politically speaking it’s quietened down since S25. Everyone knows what’s bubbling beneath the surface, but it’s not just the politicians who would prefer to ignore the glaring reality, the whole families going through bins and the beggars with the heart-breaking placards.  It’s going to kick off and it will not be pretty – my money is on the European general strike in November. However so far I’ve only been to two demos in Bilbao, #S29 and #Global Noise and endured a local election. 

#S29, 29/09/0212

I arrived in Bilbao on a rainy Saturday at 19:00HRS, looking for a demo for which I didn’t know the starting location that had begun an hour earlier. I had caught the wrong bus in Eibar and rather than the speedy motorway one I had caught the snail-paced, visit-every-village one. So as I headed into the town centre I was counting on the demonstration’s innate obviousness – noisy, vibrant and huge, preferably with a monstrous blue light police escort and a collection of helicopters  – to find it. In this case I almost passed them by without noticing. Walking down Calle Colon de Larreategui I spotted more people than usual walking in the same direction amongst the tourist masses. Detailed scrutiny revealed a hasty placard or two. I supposed it was the protest, but it was advancing at a snail’s pace, entirely on the pavement. Only as I crossed the street did the demonstration emit a chant. 
“Que no, que no, que no nos representan”, which has been a staple since May of 2011. Think “cut back, fight back” for the British equivalent. I asked somebody on the march if this was indeed the S29 demonstration, and he confirmed that it was. As I asked, the group chanted. “Un solucion, los banqueros en la prision” I’m not a native speaker but this grated on my ears, 5 syllables for the first chant then about 9 for the second part. It was an obvious change form “un solución, revolución” taking a radical chant and changing it into a reformist one. I finally spotted the only megaphone, a “baby megaphone” – such a quiet piece of kit that I prefer to use the vocal chords alone for a better projection. 

The march moved through the main tourist drag of Bilbao, drawing non-pulsed looks from shoppers, tourists and migrant salesmen alike. One migrant cheekily clapped along with us, I hoped that they knew what was going on and why, and I tried to explain in broken Arabic with no discernible result. Moving out of the shopping area across the river Nervión, we approached the town hall, which was guarded by a handful of coppers. When mutterings began of moving towards the town hall, it was met by many with a stentorian disapproval. When cries of “!a la ayuntamiento!”  Went up, half the crowd broke away, crossing the street and refusing to take part in any action around the town hall. Astonishing. The remainder sat down on the hall steps and clapped for 5 minutes “No hay pan para tanto chorizo” (there isn’t enough bread for this much sausage / theft) before moving on towards the old town. As I engaged with more demonstrators, I saw I wasn’t the only person who was feeling massively underwhelmed. As we wound down the closely packed streets somebody at the back started chanted “esto no es mani, nos vamos de compras” “this isn’t a demo, were going shopping”. That got a few laughs. The group only really viscerally went for one call – “violencia es no llegar a fin de mes” “violence is not having any money left over at the end of the month”

Finally we made it the demo end point, a plaza on the outskirts of Casco Viejo, where the indignados automatically formed a circle to finish off the action. First, a round of applause that nobody seemed to want to stop. Then some thankyous, a few updates about S29 in the rest of Spain – where it was announced that the fire-fighters had walked out spontaneously in the south with the indignados – and finally an announcement that this demonstration would be repeated the next Saturday. After this the circle broke up into smaller circles. I wandered over to one to eavesdrop. “Next time we do a demo we need to remember the fucking megaphone.” I smiled at this; good to know that our Spanish brethren can be equally forgetful. 

Overall this demonstration came across as agonizingly passive and pacifist. The choice by many to not even sit on the steps of the town hall, pacifist modifications to the chants, the ironic self-criticism towards the end that showed others wanted to escalate the tempo somewhat. This was the first demonstration in Spain when I didn’t sense palpable anger coming from the demonstrators. The reaction from the majority of the public was lukewarm, resigned to having demonstrators marching up and down their streets. It was more like a guided walking tour than a demo.

On the other hand, the turnout of approximately 200 people at short notice (S29 was called after the police brutality of S25) was very promising, and if this kind of demonstration could be pulled off every Saturday with similar turnout, it would have an impact. Again the age range and diversity of those attending was extremely varied; this movement cannot be written off as a sectional interest group – it’s definitely ticking the “people from all walks of life” box. This is of course helped by Spain having a massively militant generation of senior citizens who, having lived through a dictatorship, know what they have to loose.  
I finish the day at a radical bar, with a TV set to live feeds of demonstrations instead of football, with a group of indignados. Over pintxos and wine we discuss the respective situations in Spain and Britain. I learn dismayed, but not really surprised to hear that Fracking is being introduced in the Basque country. They are all gobsmacked when I lay down the numbers of the tuition fee hike. Before I stagger off to bed I scrawl down an email address and type in somebodies mobile number; the indignados have many more actions coming up in the near future. 

#Global Noise, 13/10/2012

The march started at 18:00 in Plaza Moyua, the geographic centre of the new town. There were only about 50 people, dwarfed by the large space they were in, the Norman Foster Metro entrances and the group of two riots vans and two police riders that watched them from different exits of the roundabout. I waited until they left the roundabout before I joined them, setting off on the same route as last time to Casco Viejo.  Again the diversity of people is awesome. The march had its complement of raging grannies and granddads - one of whom apologetically explained to me, as we symbolically closed a road for a few minutes, that he was too reliant on his Zimmer frame to sit down, otherwise he would do so. Militant mums with kids in prams we also in strong attendance. As the 20 something student, I felt in the minority. A middle aged professional in trekking shoes and a plaid shirt calmly blew a diaphragm shaking Basque horn as he marched. A beggar who was knelling prostrate on the ground holding up a begging bowl slowly looked up, watched us and then bowed his head again. 

The same people who had led the demo and the baby megaphone last time were doing the same again (tut tut) although at least they had brought a decent sized meg this time. We stopped to sit down and block junctions twice, while the chap up front denounced the illegal debt and the exploitation of southern Europe by the northern powers. (My German friends are too scared to park their Deutsh number plated cars in city centres) The municipal police re-directed traffic around us, led by a sour faced major who turned up at both demos. The local cops wear their Basque hats on duty – like berets but totally flat, like black head pancakes. The major wears a bright red one which makes him impossible to take seriously, but I know that with one word on his radio, those two wagons full of riot officers will turn up and be downright unsociable.  

Fortunately the demo passed peacefully, with an end assemblea in the same place as last time, followed by the demonstrators organically moving from a big circle assemblea to clusters of friends moving off to their favourite bars. 

Local Election

Right now I don’t know who has won and frankly I’m not bothered what colour of neo-liberalism they are imposing here. However if I appear to be worried about the sometimes lacklustre indignados, bear in mind that the levels of apathy towards the government are staggering. Most of the election promotion consists of cars with monster sound systems driving round town terrorising people with Basque “ethnic music” mixed with booming election promises. I saw PSOE set up their mobile election hustings in Eibar, where they were ignored while giant speakers squirted and belched horrible electronic feedback until they gave up, packed up and drove off. The reaction of the people is like watching a donkey look at a sepia picture of an empty bus shelter. The vacantness of the campaign phrases could not be greater of they set out with such an intent. The PSOE (labour) have gone for:

 “estamos a lo que hay estar ” - “We are what there is to be”

 How existential. However, the PP (Tories) have outdone them in their fiendish complexity with:

“Si tu no votas, ellos ganan” - “If you don’t vote, they win.” 

So, extra points for guess of who “they” are. Two identikit white middle aged men, with identikit grey-brushed hair and identikit steel rimmed glasses gaze down at you, the only difference being that the labour chap has rolled up the sleeves of his razor creased shirt (working class or what eh?)  Their faces are plastered across the over ground trams and the Bilbao graffiti community appear to have competed with each other to see who could deface the most Tory images, usually with “fascista” hastily scrawled across the giant face. Trams are moving targets, after all.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Despatch from Madrid – An Account of the S25 demonstration PART TWO

DISCLAIMER: This is a personal account that makes no claims to be objective, the conclusions I have drawn are not necessarily correct. Furthermore, the events I am recording were chaotic and there has yet to be a single factual history that everybody agrees one. Here you will only find my side of the story. 

I distinctly remember the conversation that I was having when the police began their assault. I was talking to two other people, a dreadlocked young guy and a girl who had to break off the conversation every other minute to justify wearing a face mask to rabid pacifists jabbering about “bad press”. We were speculating about how many people in the crowd would camp in the plaza, and how many would demonstrate the next day. Already, small numbers of people who had chanted and marched enough for one day were drifting away, fatigued after 8 hours on their feet. “We need a demonstration every Friday, like in Egypt” said the dreadlocked man. “That will bring the government down.” I opened my mouth to agree with him but my voice was drowned out by a rising collective scream of alarm. 

Trawling through the videos later, I figured that the catalyst for the police charge was a militant bloc pushing forward into the police lines with flagpoles. The jury still isn’t out yet as to whether they were plainclothes, acting to give the police a casus belli to wade in. I don’t know, but it seems certain that there were some plainclothes at work amongst the crowds. The police immediately responded with massive and overwhelming violence, beating everybody in sight to clear out the plaza. After the crowd began to scream and shout, like a shoal of minnows they surged away from the cops, who then exploited this to keep up the pressure. Moving in such a large crowd is highly dangerous, with the risk of people trampling each other and getting pulled under. People began to call out “!suave!” (smoothly) and for people not to run, and within a few moments the panicked rout became an orderly withdrawal. Still it was very hard to move, as I could barely pick my feet up for the press of bodies and sometimes by body was being carried without actually taking steps. I twisted around to look behind me and I could see the cops getting closer, an image of Robocop visors and falling truncheons. Finally the crowd made it out of the plaza into the relative safety of the green space that divided the two traffic lanes of the Paseo Del Prado. Here the tree trunks, park benches and low fences gave us some respite from the assault and the police checked their advance. 

Assessing the situation, I saw that the police had driven everybody out of the plaza into the surrounding green spaces. The mood had obviously shifted completely. People were hurling abuse at the police officers. Lots more people were masking up, and beginning to throw missiles. Mostly empty bottles, but some rocks were also coming in, as well as the occasional firework. Until now they were being used recreationally, now they were being employed as weapons. This is also the first time I saw and heard the police fire rubber bullets. The Spanish National Police issue an attachment that goes into the barrel of a standard shotgun, which looked to similar to a Mossberg 500 and they fire rubber bullets through these, rather than using a dedicated rubber bullet gun. I suppose this makes a certain tactical sense, since if they want to they can unscrew the rubber bullet launchers and start firing live ammunition. When these things fire they boom like a thunderclap and a lot of sparks emit from the launcher barrel.However despite the police violence the people were undaunted. The chanting continued, albeit with different, more militant chants.  

“asesinos” – “murderers”

“hijos de puta” – “sons of bitches”

 “que no, que no, que no tenemos miedo” – “we are not afraid”

“ahorras son azules, antes eran grises” – “now you are blue, before you were grey”

The last chant was a reference to the grey uniforms that the police wore during Franco’s dictatorship, implying that the police are still a fascist force in society today. I threw in a few renditions of “No Justice, No Peace, Fuck the Police!” for old times’ sake, but it was received with bafflement. Militant tactics were now being used more. Whereas before the pacifists had dominated the mood and execution of the demonstration, they now found themselves in the minority.

 After a brief respite, the police advanced again, firing salvo after salvo of rubber bullets, driving people in all directions. As I ran towards the Prada museum, I heard a sickening wet slapping sound and a guy next to me went down like a sack of potatoes. It took me a while to realise what had happened, and in a short space of time he was surrounded by a hoard of camera toting journalists. Eventually protesters fought their way through the journalists and dragged the casualty to safety. This took us up the side steps of the Prada Museum, where a middle aged woman was used to work as a nurse took over until the ambulance could arrive. The casualty had taken a round to the stomach, not life threatening but highly painful. 

The police advanced again, and at this point both the crowd and the police lost all coherence, shooting off in all directions. After a very stressful run down the Paseo del Prado with a spiked high wall – utterly devoid of escape routes - on one side of me and vans of riot police on the other, I arrived at the large roundabout of Atocha, where a couple of hundred demonstrators had mobbed up after running from the police. In spontaneous move, groups began flooding off the pavements and into the main road, blocking traffic and chanting “vamos piqueteros!”  (Picketers). The piqueteros tactic – blocking the arteries of capitalism for progressive social change – originated in Argentina during their struggles against IMF imposed neo-liberalism. The tactic was first employed in Spain en masse in 2011 with autonomous groups supporting strikers by blocking roads. Now it is commonly employed and has been used by Austrian miners and Madrilenian public sector workers to name a few. Some drivers honked their horns in exasperation, some slouched into their seats, resigned to waiting. A handful wound down their windows and raised their fists to wild applause. Some motorcyclists tried to creep forward and we had to physically block them from passing, although we also had to restrain some of the more enthusiastic piqueteros from getting in fights with angry drivers. We held this position for some time, dragging dustbins into the road, until the police returned to dislodge us. 

The police tactics were puzzling. They advanced everywhere in small squads of about 10 agents, with riot shields to the front and rubber bullet firing marksmen behind. When they got close to demonstrators they would break out of their tight formation in order to easily beat people, but they quickly formed up again. When they needed to shift position they would call up the riot vans for hops across town. These small units would fan out across the city chasing demonstrators, beating and shooting people indiscriminately. Thus a situation that was confined to a reasonably small part of the urban fabric became generalised throughout central Madrid. If the London Met had been policing that protest, they would have kettled the largest possible amount of people for 8 hours, denied them food, toilets or water, squeezing them into a smaller and smaller space, strangling the protest, whilst dispersing the rest. The Spanish National Police swapped one big protest outside Congress for hours of running battles in multiple locations. 

By this point I was losing the ability to run well, as I had been no-stop on my feet from 14:00HRS of the 25th until 01:00HRS of the 26th. I lost track of the running battles, and headed for the Atocha metro station. This was also surrounded by police vans, and when I went inside I saw people running away from riot squads, who were being assisted by the truncheon wielding private security guards of the metro. I finally made it back to my hostel early in the morning, my feet in agony and my trousers in pieces, and feel asleep straight away.

Since the S25 demonstration there have been more and more clashes over the preceding days, although on a smaller scale. Rumours are flying like wildfire, as they tend to do, that large numbers of riot cops are calling in sick and that live rounds were fired into the air on the 27th. On the 29th another demonstration has been called, with marches gathering across all the cities of Spain to besiege their centres of government, rather than a single convergence in Madrid. I plan on attending the one in Bilbao. Lisbon and Paris are also answering the call out, I don’t know about Athens, but knowing the Greeks I suspect they too will be one the streets. I will try and post an update after the S29 demonstration as soon as possible.