Political dissent Barcelona style

Political dissent lessons from the streets of Barcelona

We’ve all seen and heard the recent discussions around what “being British” means. These debates tend to take place to frame the idea that immigration is threatening these values. I’ve personally never found it easy to define Britishness probably because I don’t consider myself British. However there is a belief that various traits, traditions, beliefs and actions in a community of size can translate into a rough idea of that communities “values”. Say hello to the stereotype.

So by British I mean the often heard phrase of “mustn’t grumble.” Add to that our dislike of a strike or striking and our avoidance of a revolution and we have cultural evidence of this tendency to accept what’s given to us.

We may at times get a bit miffed. We may complain. We may write an angry letter or two and we may even join a demo. But these are the exceptional circumstances rather than the rules. Well, in Spain, and in Catalunya in particular it is quite the opposite. How can I put it? They tend to get well……..a little bit hotter under the collar.

So here’s my guide to political activism from the streets and kitchens of Barcelona and beyond.

1. Play the numbers game

While in Barcelona I witnessed street action against the proposed closing of a local nursery with twenty or so mums and dads marching under one banner. At the other extreme we had a million plus people linking arms across Catalunya. It’s in the blood to take your grievances to the street. And once on the street and with numbers this starts to be noticed as I discussed in a previous post.

Amassing numbers on the street is something for us Scots to consider as we seek to keep the momentum going post referendum. Numbers on the streets – once they reach a tipping point – lead to column inches and minutes on the mainstream TV news. We must start to embrace the street in a way that the Spanish have been doing for generations.

2. Burn bins not books

It was very interesting to see the reaction to the decision of three SNP councillors to set alight a copy of the Smith Commission (be warned this link is to the BBC – it’s included because it is a typical story that the BBC runs about the Smith Commission).

Scottish Labour’s interim leader, Anas Sarwar, said: “This is disgusting and disrespectful behaviour from three SNP councillors.” This is of course expected from a Labour man. However I was very surprised to see that the SNP suspended the councillors. What a shame. They just burned a document they didn’t agree with. In Barcelona when you are pissed off you burn a bin.

Street Confrontations part and parcel of Spanish political struggle
Street Confrontations part and parcel of Spanish political struggle

This escalation of the use of matches is pretty standard for any street bound demonstration in the Catalan capital. Now I’d have a problem with councillors doing this but seeing a bound document going up in flames in a nice controlled environment; not so much.

As we move towards a more enlivened and more motivated political environment we can’t all start to shift uncomfortably in our seats when someone burns a hastily put together westminster leaning report. Major political change is made when things happen. And let’s not shy away from making a strong political statement: let’s not be scared or sanctioned when we fan the flames.

3. Be bold and break the law

Sánchez Gordillo the elected Major of the small town of Marinaleda led raids on local supermarkets during the height of the recession in Andalusia “They marched into supermarkets and took bread, rice, olive oil and other basic supplies, and donated them to food banks for Andalusians who could not feed themselves.” This is taken from a fantastic book “The Village Against the World” by Dan Hancox which I would thoroughly recommend (buying the book not raiding Tesco)

And check out Enric Duran an infamous young Catalan (he simply had to be Catalan!) who “borrowed” €492,000 from thirty-nine different financial institutions. He had no intention of ever paying any of it back. Instead he distributed it among a variety of different co-operatives and revolutionary projects. Now this is activism. And my hat is tipped!

4. An attack on culture is still an attack

One of the biggest protests that took place while I was in Barcelona was against the closing of a previously disused building called “Can Vias.” Social Activists had turned the building into a hub for social and cultural activity. Until the price of land bounced back of course. The Can Vias link from the blog “It’s a Funny Old World” gives some insight into the universal problem of police brutality as an interesting aside.

For over four centuries Catalunya has viewed an attack on its culture as an attack on the region and on Catalans themselves. Many of their political demonstrations are to save cultural resources. It’s not all about money, poverty, corruption or police brutality; the defence of Cultural Catalunya has equal weight. I wonder if in Scotland we place our culture in such high regard?

Here’s pictures of a packed square and a plaque from outside my first flat in Barcelona. Every year a few score of Catalans would sing, dance the Sardana and place some flowers to mark the commitment to heroes of the Catalan cultural resistance who during the 1800s continued to dance the Sardana despite bans from Madrid.

Actually closer to a few hundred ready to celebrate past heroes
Actually closer to a few hundred ready to celebrate past heroes

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5. Protest with everything including the kitchen sink

On the Monday before the Catalan referendum a cacophony from outside our window spurred me to jump onto Twitter. I’ve just realised that the natural reaction should have been to just look out the window to find out what was going on, but there you go, that’s the world we live in. Pots and pans were the weapon of choice as thousands of Catalans protested about the Spanish government action in declaring the vote illegal. And what a racket. That continued on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The beauty of this is in its simplicity. It’s easy. And once you’ve taken this little step to activism you could get on a role. It can be done from your home (and owing to the proximity of said pots and pans) this actually helps. And it can be LOUD.

I would love for everyone in Scotland to pick up a pot and with a ladle (my weapon of choice that week in Barcelona) give it a good malky in protest against the increase in Westminster led austerity. Every night for a week, everyone could be active. Every household-  even those ones that Tory Peers think “can’t cook”! – can open their windows and can demonstrate to everyone in their neighbourhood and beyond that sometimes what the establishment thinks is enough is actually not enough.

Stories from Barcelona tell me that political statements don’t need to be about burning, stealing or redistributing anything. It’s just about making a noise and being seen.

Scotland make some noise. And fan the flames.