Friday, 27 May 2011

Back to the Square

Where was I when Plaça Catalunya was taken back from the police and (bizarrely) the waste disposal trucks? Among the thousands of people who broke through the police lines to join the protesters who remained on the inside of the square, but only just.

In the morning I went to a conference at the CCCB, a cultural centre and exhibition centre in the middle of the Raval district of Barcelona. The talks were entitled, "Post-national Collective Subjectivity", which connects with subject matter of a course that I am struggling to prepare. I received a text from my friend Dirk during the first talk saying that the Mosso d'Esquadra (Catalan Police) were moving on Plaça Catalunya to clear it. I stayed at the conference and listened to what the speakers had to say. Some interesting points were raised, but it all felt a little cosy and self-congratulatory. Mid-way through the last speaker's talk he made a reference to what was occurring in Plaça Catalunya, vaguely holding it up as an illustration of some point he had made. Some one from the floor said that the protesters were in the process of being cleared out of the square. At that point I immediately got up and left the conference (I think I was the only one).

I cycled to the square and found the perimeter of the square, the large central circle, surrounded by a cordon of riot police, they were holding back a thick crowd of people, some of whom were trying to enter the square, others who appeared to watching events like an audience in an amphitheater, many seated. Inside this inner circle there were some 200 protesters, and a similar number of police, plus the incongruous refuse collectors. there was some jostling and shouting, but it didn't seem like the police were about to use violence to clear away the 200.

I peddled home to drop of my bike and had a quick look at some websites to get an idea of what had been going on. There was one particularly nasty clip of police in the cordon repeatedly beating the tightly packed and seated protesters whenever they tried to stand up. That riled me, and I grabbed my passport, camera and some cash and headed back to the square. Approaching from the nearby Plaça Urquinona, I could hear a lot of noise and the sound of rubber bullets being fired. A wave of people scattered from the periphery of the square, just as I was arriving, suggesting that they had been fired upon. I ran up to the cordon, which now consisted of a very thin line of police, backs to the centre of the square, facing the people who had come to support the protesters. It was clear at this point that the police who formed this thin cordon could never have hoped to forcibly prevent the crowd from entering the square, yet the people stood, obediently respecting this imaginary 'line in the sand'. They stood and they gazed and they took photos. The scene was surreal in that the role of the onlooking crowd was ambiguous. For sure many were protesters come to support those on the inside of the cordon, however it seems that others were more motivated by curiosity and there was even a sprinkling of tourists. If the police line had been tighter, the situation may not have felt quite so ambiguous. The roles would have been more sharply defined. We are the demonstrators and we want to enter the square. You are the police and you are charged with preventing us. Everyone knows where they stand. But with the line so porous, there was no escaping the fact that we on the outside were choosing to remain outside, observing, filming, consuming. Just then one of the protesters inside the cordon ran forward, imploring those on the outside to enter the square. Suddenly the spell was broken, someone shouted "Ya!" and we ran between the police into the square. As I reached the centre, I saw, with exhilarated disbelief, how the riot-gear clad Mossos where piling out of the square as fast as dignity would permit. The square was filling up once again and everywhere the police were retreating, not through the force of violence, but simply though the weight of numbers and determination. Overhead a police helicopter droned, ineffectually.

It was a powerful feeling, taking back the square, one that brought me to the brink of tears. It was a surging mixture of joy, strength and solidarity. It was a feeling that has been described in literature. I recognize the same feeling in George Orwell's descriptions of Barcelona in the 1930's. One which enables you to believe that more is possible than we normally permit ourselves to believe. One that also has to be handled with extreme caution.

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