This first video is the most important. I wanted to show it first because it really showed what the "Los Indignados" movement was truly like: passionate, unified, powerful and peaceful. There are a few people in the video who throw some things at the police, true. I implore you to watch it all the way through, because towards the end, you will see how organizers of the movement respond to those acting violently. These organizers knew that violence would give the movement a bad name, so they ran out in front of the violent faction and put their hands up, a symbol of non-violence that I witnessed throughout my time in Barcelona. I will get into that experience later. First, let me introduce you to how I came to have this unique, amazing and inspiring experience.
Note: The bright colored words are hyperlinks - click them for more information!
The bright, warm Mediterranean sun welcomed me into the south of Spain. The year was 2011. It was June, a few months after my thirtieth birthday. I was backpacking Europe for the first time. The powerful warmth that greeted me was quite a change from the cool, grey skies of Ireland that had surrounded me for the previous two weeks. I didn't know what to expect in Barcelona, nor did I know what had compelled me to travel there. I had heard nice things about the city, from various friends and acquaintances throughout my life, and thought it a logical hop from the Emerald Isle.
The heat hit me right away as I disembarked from my Ryan Air flight in the El Prat airport in Barcelona. Dry air robbed the moist memories of Ireland from my pores, making way for new ones. I had no sense of where I was going, no clue where I would stay, and no concept of what there was to see in the city. I simply rode a shuttle bus to a train station, boarded a train to the hub of the city, and contemplated what lay ahead. Open-ended travel was my style: no plans, no strict schedules, just movement and mystery.
I hopped off the train at Passeig de Garcia in downtown Barcelona. An escalator lifted me up to a main avenue. As the bright sun radiated my wonder, I entered into a raucous crowd of people marching down the street. I had no idea what was going on! The people of Barcelona were taking to the streets, armed with banners, signs, camping gear and a cause. Suddenly, it dawned on me. This was the Occupy movement, Barcelona style!
I fit right in, not only in terms of my humanitarian morals and leftist political beliefs, but also with my camping gear: I was ready to sleep anywhere! I thought that my level 4 college Spanish lessons would come in handy. I quickly realized that I could not understand what anyone was saying. It took me a bit to understand that it was Catalan they were speaking, not Spanish. I felt quite ignorant and unprepared. That was okay though, because I wanted my first impressions of Europe to be this way: surprising, mysterious and enlightening.
I followed the marchers to Plaça Cinc d'Oros. Here many major avenues come together, with a pillar shaped monument called "Obelisco Diagonal" marking their place of convergence. In an instant, a tranquil moment of watching the spirited crowd suddenly changed. A surge of energy ran through the crowd, they were looking towards one of the converging streets. It was another group of protestors! Quite a surprise to me! A few moments later another group came from another direction! The size of the initial group grew from a few hundred to over a thousand, while the energy of the crowd seemed as if it could power a city!
After witnessing this amazing display of their values, I followed a group of people downhill to Plaça de Catalunya, the meeting place of all the major avenues of the city. Lined with statues, trees, fountains and activist banners, this was the place where the movement was camping! Tents occupied almost every square inch of the square. Even the trees had people living in them! I found a place near one of the statues to set up my tent. Bound and painted, the statue that loomed over me signified the movement. The community living there had planted a garden for food. I politely asked my neighbors if it was ok for me to camp there, and they welcomed me with a bit of indifference. There were information booths, kitchens cooking food, medics, and every other aspect that a small village would need: completely off the grid and autonomous!
My tent, the orange one, with my bags next to it, under the bound statue
I felt welcomed and safe. People didn't know what to make of me. I was clearly a foreigner. The camp had many foreigners, with folks from all over Europe. I tried to talk with people, letting them know where I was from, and how I supported the movement. Everyone was busy, and I felt like I was one of the many. I didn't really make any friends, but I did feel welcomed. Some people were suspicious of me, as it was known that there were government workers installed in the movement in order to wreak havoc. I was cleared by one of the men who seemed to be organizing after he found out I was a traveling US citizen, but I would still occasionally catch a flicker of suspicion pass over the face of someone in the crowd.
I walked around the camp and spoke to a few people. With broken English they described their struggles and what they were demanding of the government. They were considered to be Los Indignados or "the Outraged Ones," a term that they accepted. I am not sure if this was given by the government or self-proclaimed. They were demanding fair wages, affordable housing, the redistribution of wealth, access to healthcare, abolishment of the two-party system (sound familiar USA?!) and a stronger people's voice. With an unemployment rate at 21% and a planned 10 % cut to public funding, the people took to the streets. Referred to as the 15-M movement (15th of May - the original action day), or the Anti-austerity movement, they were in solidarity with other movements around the world. Portugal, Greece, Iceland, Iran, parts of Africa and of course, the USA. I felt honored to hear the stories of these people. Once someone got to know me a bit, they would open up to me and share their views.
The camp at night would buzz. It would get a bit quiet, but there seemed to always be some unrest in the air. I slept pretty well, enough, and was comfortable. My tent pole broke almost immediately (noticeable in the picture). One morning I followed the energy to what became an incredible demonstration. The people gathered in the thousands. I really had no idea that my day was to be spent in a protest. I joined the masses and flowed with the bodies.
I became a bead of water in the flow of the sea. I felt myself collectively join the movement. I saw the young man that I talked with who seemed to be helping organize events. I naturally gravitated to him and his friends. He was one of the few people I talked with, and it felt like he accepted me and knew I wasn't a "Narc" (a term used in the US for a snitch). I did notice his friends being cautious of me initially, but he assured them that I was ok. I even had some people take my picture (not sure why, maybe cause they wanted to check me out, or could have been random). There was some suspicion in the crowd. It was important to the people that they were a non-violent movement, and the government was proven to install people who acted violently towards the police in order to disrupt the public image and give the movement a bad name. The charged organizer friend of mine told me that some of them wear helmets, and that was one way to potentially identify them.
The mission of the day was to disrupt the meeting of parliament. Public budgets cuts were to be discussed, and the people were letting the government know that they were not going to sit still as the government made decisions that would dictate their life. The protestors were mostly young locals, but there was a full range of age, class and backgrounds as well as nationality sprinkled throughout the demographic. The police formed a line to leave the entrance to the government offices open. Protestors, in their amazing numbers, faced off with police as they awaited the arrival of the members of parliament. A silent signal was made somehow, signifying the arrival of members of parliament. The people began to close in on the police, squeezing them into the streets. The crowds on both sides of the main avenue closed in, and the police backed up and were pushed into the middle of the street. The energy of the moment was quite amazing, and non-violent, yet effective in accomplishing their goal. As far as I could gather, the people were able to prevent some of the members of parliament from reaching the meeting. Some of the protestors threw stuff at the police cars as they pulled away. When this happened, one of the guys that I was talking to ran in front of the protestors who where being disruptive and signaled "no no no". The protestors raised both hands to the air in front of police to signify "non-violence". I did hear of some violence, but didn't witness any. The police did fire some tear gas into the crowd (seen in the opening video - you can also hear the shots of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters), but the protestors were quick to quell any acts of violence towards the police, and handled themselves very calmly and in honor to their non-violent ethics.
The police were I was located seemed to be pretty calm and respectful of the protestors. This was quite different from my experience with the NYC anti-war protests back in 2003. I talked with a police officer to get his perspective, and he told me that he agreed with the protestors, and that many of the police (who were from all over Spain) agreed with the movement's values. This was so far from my protest experience in the US. I remember police in NYC laughing, name calling, and aggressively singling out people. The merit and value of freedom really comes into interest when looking at NYC anti-war and 15-M in Barcelona. It was pretty obvious, when comparing the two, that the level of freedom in regards to the right to assembly, speech and expression was of a more generous amount in Spain at this time than back in the US.
Coming to Barcelona without expectation or any direction left me in a free fall of potential. Yes, a touch of fear was present, but it was quelled with the excitement of experiencing something new. Coming straight into Barcelona's version of The Occupy Movement was completely surprising! Never would I have thought that this would be what I found! In total, I spent around 3-4 days and nights with the Indignados. Some days were calm, where I walked around and talked with people, with a peek or two into some of the architectural and cultural wonders of Barcelona. Other days were filled with energy and excitement, fueled by righteous demands. I stopped in a few churches, visited the marvel of La Sagrada Familia, enjoyed the little alleyways, beautiful public water fountains and shops. But what was most resonant with me was the cheer of the crowds, the songs and chants, the energy of thousands of people as they came together with a common goal. That energy is unique to that experience. I will forever be amazed with what I found in this pretty city in June of 2011.
A few days past the protests, I met with my friend Carlea who I knew from back in the states. She was actually my little sister Weetie's roommate in college! She had some friends who were living in the squatter community in Barcelona. I met up with her and stayed a few nights at a squat house where her friends were living. Squats are abandoned buildings that people live in for free. It was a beautiful and unique experience that showed me what the underground of Barcelona looked like. That is a story for a different day. Stay tuned!