I’d been worrying lately that I paint Barcelona in too negative a light. Someone bored enough to read my blog might believe that Barcelona is simply a place where you get robbed on the subways, you can’t find fresh herbs, and the locals will hate you if you stay in a hotel. To remedy this unfair portrayal, I started writing a post about how incredibly festive the people here actually are. Hardly a weekend goes by here where there’s not some kind of parade for St. What’s His Face, a street fair celebrating the latest vegetable crop, or just a massive cookout because, well, why not? Cookouts are awesome.
But as luck would have it, my neighborhood exploded into a ball of violent, flaming riots when I was writing all that. So I’ve decided to touch upon those events before discussing the quaint tradition of lovers exchanging books and roses during Barcelona’s Sant Jordi Festival every year.
You may remember that a few of my neighbors were less than excited about the tourist invasion swarming Gracia. One of the largest groups leading that charge is called El Banc Expropiat, or “The Expropriated Bank.” They’d been squatting in an old, vacant Catalunya Caixa bank office in my neighborhood for the last five years. When Catalunya Caixa sold the building to a real estate developer named Manuel Bravo Solano in 2014, Solano inherited the squatters.
Twenty people had actually been living in the building. In addition to using it as their home, they’d turned it into a bustling community center. They hosted civic events, offered Catalan language classes, sewing classes, and cooking lessons. They also collected leftover food from restaurants and gave it to the poor. The Banc Expropiat folks were far and away the most industrious trespassers to come out of Spain since Christopher Columbus.
Part of the reason they chose to squat in the bank is because after the 2008 financial collapse the government bailed out the Catalunya Caixa bank. As far as the Expros were concerned, their tax dollars paid for the building through the bailout. Why shouldn’t they be able to move in and start hanging Che Guevara posters?
The five-year-long Banc Expropiat squat ended on May 23 this year when the cops showed up, kicked everybody out, and spot welded 4×8-foot steel sheets over the front of the entire joint. Their eviction was not a surprise. The squatters had been given a year’s notice that the free ride was coming to an end. No matter. The group and its supporters responded to the eviction by taking to the streets later that night, and, brother have they graduated from simply scrawling graffiti on parking garages.
I first found out about the planned demonstration when I was attempting to buy toothpaste that afternoon. The cheerful young woman working the cash register rang me up and said, “There’s going to be a protest tonight. It will be violent. Do you need a bag?”
I’m a big fan of chaos and violence, so I went out that evening to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe I could even score a free LCD TV if I played my looting cards right.
The protest was scheduled to start just a few blocks from my house at a spot called, appropriately enough, Placa de la Revolució. I arrived at 8:00pm when the march was supposed to begin. There were maybe 300 people milling about. The crowd was overwhelmingly young. Most people were in their twenties. Their fashion style leaned toward the alternative side of the spectrum, with the obligatory piercings, tattoos, mohawks, and dreadlocks. But there were also quite a few folks who looked like just regular Jose’s. Two groups of people were kneeling on the ground and putting finishing touches on giant banners to carry during the march. The banners were all in Catalan, but the gist of them was “El Banc Expropiat supports Gracia” and “The banks can blow us.”
A number of the people were sipping from bright red cans of Estrella beer. (Estrella is practically omnipresent in Barcelona. Estrella beer is to Barcelona what chocolate is to Willy Wonka’s factory.) Despite the beer, though, the crowd didn’t appear at all rowdy. In fact, what struck me most was how amiable everyone seemed. All the adults were laughing and hugging each other hello. Little kids were chasing each other around the playground in the plaça. Two dogs were engaged in a pre-march dry hump.
This was a violent protest? Where were the molotov cocktails? The backpacks filled with rocks? And for god’s sake, where were the Guy Fawkes masks? The night was shaping up to be a real snoozefest.
The march finally got under way just before 9:00. Or at least it tried to.
Three young men were pushing a heavy, handcrank air raid siren in a shopping cart. They began cranking to signal the beginning of the march. The siren started its low, rumbling wail–then promptly died. The operators exchanged panicked looks. They fiddled with it while the crowd tried to figure out whether to start marching or not. The three guys managed to get the siren working again a few minutes later, and we were on our way.
As the march made its way through the streets of Gracia, it started picking up people. A lot of people. After just 20 minutes, a line of at least 1,500 people snaked its way through the neighborhood. The crowd sporadically broke into various chants that rippled through the length of the march. The chants had that familiar ping-pong cadence that all angry mob cries have. I don’t speak a word of Catalan so it sounded to me like I was surrounded by a thousand angry “Laverne and Shirley” fans.
“Shlemiel! Shlemazel! Hassenpfeffer Incorporated! Shlemiel! Shlemazel! Hassenpfeffer…”
On we marched, or more like strolled. That many people don’t really make the most spritely crew. We continued inching along for about another 25 minutes when quite frankly, I got bored. No one had thrown a trashcan through a storefront window. Nary a hint of tear gas wafted through the air. And not only had no one stuck it to The Man yet, the Man wasn’t even there. I hadn’t see a single police officer the whole time we’d been shuffling along.
I left and went home to do my Spanish homework.
I was just about to give up on learning the conditional tense (who really cares if Jordi would travel after winning the lottery?) when I heard the sound of glass breaking outside.
I opened my front door, took two steps into the night, and almost got brained by a beer bottle sailing through the air five feet in front of my face. Two more bottles flew by. I looked down my street. One hundred feet to my right was a column of riot police in full-blown storm trooper gear. Helmets, shields, nightsticks, riot guns. Bottles were smashing at their feet as they slowly advanced in my direction. Behind them were three large police vans, blue lights flashing.
One hundred feet to my left, a group of about 40 protesters had overturned three Dumpsters and dragged them into the middle of my street. They were hiding behind them and using them as barricades. Every few seconds, they’d pop up, their faces partially covered with black bandanas, and hurl more bottles at the police. The protesters were also literally in a fog. I couldn’t tell if it was tear gas from the police or smoke from something the protesters had lit on fire.
The riot cops inched up the street directly in front of me when they must’ve realized they were going about it all wrong. They huddled briefly then stepped onto the narrow sidewalk and began waving the vans through. The van drivers floored their engines and shot past me at 30mph.
(This brings me to an interesting facet of protests and riots. I have not been witness to very much mayhem, so by no means am I an expert. I did, however, learn one thing that night. If you and your pals methodically walk toward an angry mob, the people in that mob will throws bottles and rocks at you. If you drive a fleet of three-ton vans into that crowd at 30 mph, that angry mob will disperse faster than you can say “multiple contusions.”)
The riot police followed the vans up the street and started chasing protesters as they scattered in every direction. I immediately headed out to see what I was missing.
The Banc Expropiat headquarters was eight blocks from my house. As I made my way there, I saw groups of protesters darting down side streets with police hot on their heels. These little games of cat-and-mouse were going on all over. Police vans raced up and down the streets, their flashing blue lights casting an eerie “Blade Runner” glow upon the buildings. A police helicopter hovered over the neighborhood, the whump whump whump of its rotors adding a particularly dramatic war-torn feeling to the evening. Most of the heavy-duty plastic Dumpsters you find on every other Barcelona street corner had been tipped over and dragged into the streets. Half of them were either on fire, still smoldering, or had already melted completely. The bank just around the corner from me had all its windows smashed in. Desk chairs, printers, and various other office items had been thrown into the street.
When I finally made it to the former Banc Expropiat headquarters, I saw the cherry on top of every riotous sundae. There, in the middle of the street, was a car flipped onto its side. Some poor bastard must not have gotten the Expro memo and decided to park his car in The Worst Parking Spot in Barcelona on May 23, 2016. Next to the car was a still smoldering city vehicle.
By this time, the police had taken control of the area around the old Expropiat HQ. News crews and journalists were jostling for position around the flipped car, trying to get the right angle so they’d have as many of the riot police as possible in the background of their shots.
I walked around the rest of the neighborhood and surveyed the carnage. Most of the damage was in area that was actually somewhat small, maybe just eight blocks square. This was very much a neighborhood uprising as opposed to a citywide event. Dumpster tipping seemed to have been the number one priority of the protesters. There were bags of garbage broken open and scattered all over the place. And I was also going to have put on my walking shoes if I wanted to use an ATM any time soon. All the cash machines I passed had been smashed in or had their screens spray painted over. Similarly, Walter: International Dog of Intrigue was going to need to wear some doggie boots the next time he went out to take a leak. Glass shards covered most of the streets and sidewalks. The whole place stunk like burning plastic.
After the crowds dispersed completely and the police regained control of the neighborhood, I headed back to the house. I was surprised to see that cleaning crews were already righting the overturned Dumpsters and sweeping the broken glass off my street by the time I arrived home. I had expected the protesters to stay out longer given how angry they’d seemed before. It was like they realized it was getting late and just decided to call it a day. Or maybe they’d run out of Dumpsters to set on fire. Then again, several of them had been getting clobbered with nightsticks. Who was I to suggest they continue protesting with cracked skulls?
A surprising aspect of the whole scene was that other than the banks and one clothing store, the protesters hadn’t touched a single business or residence. There was no random destruction for destruction’s sake. (I suppose the guy whose car got flipped might disagree, but come on, they had to flip at least one car.) No stores got looted. Kids weren’t jogging down the streets with flatscreen TVs or cases of Estrella beer, possibly because they purchased all of them before the march.
Another thing that surprised me was the fact that police arrested only one person the whole night. They certainly pushed the crowds back with, ahem, “force.” But in the U.S. you usually see the police filling up the paddy wagon at events like this. They seemed more content with just making the protesters disperse than with actually hauling them away.
Given the fact that no stores were looted, everyone was home by midnight, and I hadn’t been killed, I’d say it had been a fairly civilized affair. I’d rank it somewhere between large protest and small riot.
The protests continued every night throughout the rest of the week, though they were scaled back slightly. Another bank office got trashed. The Angry Youth cooked up a few more Dumpster S’mores. The police took batting practice on a few more kneecaps. The highlight for me personally came on the second day of protests when I participated in my first-ever “holy shit the cops are coming straight at me with nightsticks” 200 meter dash down the street. When a phalanx of riot police swinging for the fences came running around a street corner directly in front of me, I turned heel and bolted like a startled gazelle, flying past protesters half my age. This feat is even more impressive when you consider that I was also shitting my pants at the time.
As the protests dragged on, people began to take them in stride. If I thought a bunch of pissed off, beer bottle-chucking anarchists were going to keep the law-abiding, rent-paying citizens of Gracia from enjoying their tapas at 10:00pm, I had underestimated the power of a cold beer and pan con tomate. Despite rioters tossing garbage all over the streets and police vans roaring through the neighborhood, most of the outdoor cafes were not only open but were actually doing a steady business. On the third day of protests, I laughed as a squad of four riot policeman in full gear who were sprinting after some rioters almost tripped over themselves as they tried to sidestep a waitress carrying a tray full of drinks to one of her tables along the sidewalk.
I hate to admit it, but I was sad when the demonstrations ended after one week. I really missed them. Being in the middle of even a minor uprising was a complete rush. In the days after the dust settled, I’d hear a group of noisy drunks walking down our street in the middle of the night and immediately spring out of bed to see if maybe, just maybe, they were getting ready to set a Citroen on fire or at least kick in an ATM.
I also became more curious about the people in the Banc Expropiat group and what it was they were fighting for. I’m a straight white male with an upper middle class background and a U.S. passport. In my life, I have had to fight for nothing. So putting their ideology aside, I’m impressed–at least to some degree–by anyone who’s willing to take a police baton in the teeth for their cause.
Of course, you can only put ideology aside for so long. After watching people flip over cars, smash in bank windows, and set things on fire, I eventually had to find out exactly how full of shit these guys were.
I started asking some of the locals what they thought of the whole thing.
My friend Diego owns a cafe a few blocks from where I live. He’s been in Barcelona for almost 15 years. He put the Banc Expro people into the “not full of shit at all” category.
“The banks here are awful,” Diego said. “They deserve what they got. When my moto got stolen, I filed an insurance claim. My bank took six months before helping me.” (It’s interesting to note that on Day One of the riots when the Caixa Bank near me got trashed at 1:00am, it was completely repaired and open by 9:00am that same day. Windows replaced, carpets shampooed, employees typing away at new computers.) Diego continued. “Besides, the Banc Expropiat does a lot of good things for the community.” He was referring to the classes and seminars the Banc Expro offered.
“They’re an asset to the community” was an argument I heard from a few other people, too. An article in the local paper quoted an older woman in the community who said, “These are good kids. They do a lot to help the community.” Quite a few stores put signs in their windows showing their support for El Banc Expropiat. (One more cynical than me might ask whether these businesses were supporting Banc Expro or merely trying to prevent their windows from getting smashed.)
So it’s hard to be against someone who helps the community, right?
I posed this question to a Catalan friend, who I will call Jordi because ninety percent of males here are named Jordi anyhow. Jordi is very amiable and tends to tread softly when discussing things like this, so he diplomatically put the Banc Expros in the “partially full of shit” category.
“The classes they offered were very nice, but there is already a community center in Gracia that offers similar classes,” Jordi said. He paused a moment before adding, “And it’s paid for with our taxes.”
That struck me as a fair rebuttal. Viewed through this lens, the Banc Expro gang definitely started looking more like basic freeloaders than noble activists. I came around to that viewpoint even more when Barcelona’s new mayor Ada Colau got involved in the whole thing.
Colau was elected last year after running on a strict anti-eviction platform. She makes Elizabeth Warren look like a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and a Newark slum lord. Before all these riots started, though, she refused to step in and prevent the eviction. She claimed that the city’s hands were tied, as this eviction was a matter between two private parties. (This concept escaped her during the election?)
After the riots started, Colau actually offered to work with the Banc Expropiats. She wanted to help them find another building they could use and even offered to help pay their rent with city funds, but the Banc Expros refused to even sit down at the table with her. This leads to one of my favorite parts of this whole affair: what the Banc Expropiat clan didn’t know was that the Barcelona government had already been paying their rent for the past 12 months.
Enter Xavier Trias.
Trias was the mayor of Barcelona before Colau. In 2014, the Trias administration evicted a group of squatters from a government building in the Sants neighborhood. Massive riots ensued, and Trias’s popularity took a beating. Faced with a tough reelection against Colau in 2015, the last thing Trias needed was another riot over more evicted squatters. So when Solano came to Trias and asked him to kick out the squatters, Trias came up with a politician’s typical ethically-challenged solution: he began secretly paying Solano €5,500 a month in rent from the city coffers. The payments went on for a for a full year to the tune of €65,500. When this news leaked to the press after the Banc Expro riots, Trias unabashedly boasted of his plan’s genius. He claimed he paid the money because the city simply couldn’t afford more riots. To prove his point, Trias pointed out that the Banc Expropiat riots had already cost the city more than the 65,500€ in extortion money he’d already paid. Every would-be squatter in Barcelona must have started licking their chops at this comment. Trias is currently under investigation for embezzlement.
I brought up the riots to another friend in the neighborhood. I’ll call him Farid. Farid is from the Middle East and has been living in Barcelona for more than ten years. He owns a tapas restaurant around the corner and has opinions–most of them crazy–about everything. He cemented the Expros in the “so full of shit it hurts” category.
I asked him if he thought the young people in the Banc Expropiat had a point when they said the government ruined their futures by not doing enough to help the economy. He laughed in my face.
“They smoke joints. They drink beer. They watch futbol. They masturbate. That’s all. Who wants to hire that?”
I made a mental note to update my resumé before showing it to Farid.
“Everyone who works for me is from another country,” Farid said. “I tried hiring locals. It never worked.”
Farid may not be the fairest critic out there. I have listened to his Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories more than once. I have also on occasion stood by patiently while he explained how Barcelona is secretly run by the Russian mafia. So take his opinion for what it’s worth. But he wasn’t the only one who said similar, if not quite as graphic, things to me.
After talking to a few more people, I was still torn on the whole thing. On one hand, I always want to pull for David when he faces off against Goliath. It’s a romantic story, and the Banc Expro version had all the right trappings. Young people, energetic but rough around the edges, fighting a giant, corrupt bureaucracy to build a better community themselves. On the other hand, there was a decent chance David was just a spoiled dick living in his parents’ basement. Sometimes there’s a fine line between concerned civil disobedience and self-important circle jerk, and the Banc Expropiat seemed to be edging closer and closer to that line.
I spent the next week splashing around in my own philosophical muck trying to figure out if there was, in fact, a right or wrong in this case when a new wrinkle appeared.
I was walking home one night and passed a vacant store front. It had been a bank office but closed down years ago. On this night, the windows were now suddenly covered with Banc Expropiat propaganda, including my favorite “Tourist Go Home” posters. Best of all, it was a mere 50 meters from my front door.
This was almost too good to be true. Was I suddenly neighbors with the new Banc Expropiat HQ? Was I going to be in the thick of it from here on out? Was I going to have riot police parading up and down my street for the next five years? Would Rae have to show her ID to the police before they let her walk down her own street? I imagined taking Walter for walks through clouds of tear gas and flaming wreckage every night. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around.
Or maybe the Banc Expros would actually win me over with their free Catalan classes and Spanish Civil War history seminars. I’d join forces with them. I’d host late night bank-trashing strategy sessions in my living room when the cops started barricading the new headquarters. I’d store duffel bags full of rocks on my roof and let the squatters turn my house into an ammo dump. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was excited.
I can tell you who wasn’t very excited, though: the owner of the building. Here’s what the front of that office looked like the following afternoon.
I assume the building owner saw the posters and shit all those bricks himself.
So after a week’s worth of flipping cars, chucking rocks at cops, and burning Dumpsters everyone went home disappointed except for four bricklayers who picked up a day’s work. The Banc Expros no longer had anywhere to play house. Solano’s building was welded shut and is now virtually unrentable. Colau has been branded a turncoat by her own leftist constituents. Trias may be heading to the clink soon.
But worst of all, I have to go back to writing about how hard it is to buy groceries around here.