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photography by Popicinio

Barcelona erupts

SPAIN: A sad, angry day in Mordor, as our correspondent watches Europe-wide anti-austerity strikes end in trudging violence from the Catalan capital's streets

“We don’t want to serve coffees in London”, said a banner that a young girl was carrying in the streets of Barcelona. No offense Londoners, sure you’re all good tippers, but the girl was in fact replying to the now infamous words of a member of the Catalan government; urging youth to get the hell out of the country and find a living, if precarious, in more prosperous corners of Europe.

Spain followed the 14N, the general strike of the so-called PIGS, in high numbers. According to the worker’s unions, over 80% of the workers went on strike. The Conservative government downplayed the numbers, saying only 5% joined the protest in some economic sectors and regions. The same disparity was apparent in numbers turning out for the demonstrations: protesters claim there was over a million people marching over Madrid, the local government places the attendance around 35,000. How serious was it then? Journalists generally use less flaky indicators - like the power consumption - as the lesser electricity used, the more successful the strike. But in the country that invented the picaresque, a whole literary genre based on the adventures of tricksters and chancers (and once famously cheated in the Paralympics), even that is dubious. Some conservative mayors had the brilliant idea of keeping the street lights on during the daytime in order to increase the power use. So much for austerity measures, huh?

To counterbalance that, many protesters made sure they consumed the minimum electricity and avoided any kind of shopping. Such was the case of Victoria, a 32 year-old Argentinian, who attended the Barcelona demonstration with her 4 year old son - bracing the possible police brutality. “I’ll be careful not to get too close to the action, but it’s important to show him how things are”. When she arrived in Spain 12 years ago, her native country was in the middle of the “corralito” crisis, when currency lost its value and the middle class virtually saw their savings vanish before their very eyes. Many, like her, had to go. Now she’s witnessing the process in reverse and a lot of her Spanish friends are fleeing to Buenos Aires in search of jobs. Still, she doesn’t see Spaniards as angry enough. “In Latin America we live our protests differently. We never achieved the level of comfort that people used to enjoy here”, she says, as she eyes some teenagers cover the logo of La Caixa, one of the most prominent Spanish banks, with a hacked version gracing the word “Mordor”. The Black Country of Lord of the Rings has been reappropriated by Spanish youth and now "Mordor" has come to encompass all that is mean and nasty in the country.

There were plenty of signs of "Mordor" during 14N, such as the image of a 13 year-old boy with a bleeding skull, caused by a police beating in the small town of Tarragona. There were 118 arrests for disobedience in Madrid and, in Barcelona, what had started out as a peaceful demonstration soon ended up with several police cars in flames, resulting in chases and more brutality.

For most people, though, it was a quiet day, almost with a touch of melancholy. Even the chants and the banners didn’t have the spark of other times and the hope that characterized the Indignados movement only a year and a half ago seemed like a very distant memory. “There was less fury that I was expecting in the air” says a TV writer who prefers not to be named. He’s about to lose his current job in about a week and joined the strike and the Madrid march. “At this point, a lot of workers don’t even get the dole, they are facing evictions from their home. They have nothing to lose. Why then did people appear so crestfallen, so apathetic? With the Indignados there was electricity in the air”.

The social networks were incensed with debates among 'those on strike' and 'those who couldn’t afford to strike'. “When you do get to unemployment – and believe me, you will – don’t come crying to me”, said one of the former to one of the latter in Twitter. “I understand that some people can’t risk losing their jobs”, says Andrea, a 34 year-old Italian who is proud to be sharing striking duties with his sister in Verona, Italy, in this first pan-European strike. Mireia, a 30 year-old publisher, will get paid 80 euros less at the end of this month, a fee for one day of protesting and baking “strike cookies”. Still, she’s not optimistic about the results: “It won’t be of any use. Neither for Spain nor for Europe, with their absurd plans for all of us. I’d like to think that this will wake up all those people who think things are not that bad”. Carlitos González and Patricia Luján own a PR company in Barcelona. During 14N they closed shop and devoted their Facebook wall to collecting protest messages and photos from the demonstrations. “We’re really angry. We see the education and healthcare of our children compromised, not to mention our retirement plans. You do feel like fleeing the country but we have decided to stay put and protest”. The soundtrack of their day came courtesy of the Beastie Boys. Yes, that one about fights and rights. But no party, not this time.


Text Begoña Gómez Urzaiz

Photography Popicinio