Barcelona: Neighbourhoods of noise

Anna Gurney offers a guided tour to resistance past and present in the Catalan capital of Barcelona

June 4, 2012
7 min read

Photo: www.bernatrueda.info

On 15 May 2011, 10,000 people demonstrated in Barcelona under the banner of ‘Real Democracy Now’. Samba bands led coordinated dance moves involving entire streetfuls of people at a time, and the popular chant was ‘No hay pan para tanto chorizo’ – there’s not enough bread for so much chorizo, Spanish slang for thievery/corruption. That evening, protesters calling themselves the indignados (outraged) put up tents in Plaza Catalunya and started a movement that over the next month profoundly affected the city.

At the height of its popularity the acampada attracted thousands. The square was a sea of hands waving in silent but powerful approval at general assemblies. Many people with no previous interest in politics went to see what was happening and were impressed and often inspired by what they saw. Each evening at 9pm old and young participated in a caserollada, a local form of protest involving making as much noise as possible by banging pots and pans.

The occupation of Plaza Catalunya wasn’t the first time a wave of clanging saucepans was heard in the city. In 2003, every evening during the Iraq war protests, people took to their balconies, rooftops and windows to create whole neighbourhoods of noise. When the anti-sistema presence occasionally mushrooms like this, it encompasses a surprisingly large proportion of the city.

‘Associating’ is a deep-seated feature of Catalan society that is key to resistance. From castellers (the tradition of forming human towers), to Barça football club, to the squatter network, all social classes find ways to organise. Community-organised events, such as workshops, meetings and celebrations, take place in about 50 social centres and many more squatted spaces (okupas) around the city. You can recognise some of them in the Raval neighbourhood by brightly coloured murals up to five stories high. Info Usurpa is a website for the okupa network that has up-to-date information on events across the city – although it’s advisable to brush up on your Spanish before arriving unannounced.

Of particular interest is the legendary Can Masdeu perched up in the Collserola hills. This old hospital building has been occupied for ten years. It has a library and a fully equipped workshop that hosts various courses. It is open on Sundays for lunch, which is shared in the garden and is a chance to meet people involved in a wide range of projects.

Many radical associations have a more international membership, such as Barcelona en Transició , which supports decentralised autonomous groups working on ways to reduce their dependence on oil – for example, alternative energy plans and urban food production. L’Hortet del Forat , a vegetable garden in the Born neighbourhood , is an example of a successfully reclaimed green space. It started illegally when the land was an abandoned building site and is now accepted by the council. Regular get-togethers are organised to eat the food produced there. Also in the Born are two innovative theatres with more than just performing arts – RAI hosts exhibitions and dinners, and L’Antic Teatre offers a shady patio bar and occasionally organises activism gatherings. The free magazine BCNmes is a good resource for listings and left-leaning articles.

There is much discussion about whether the current resistance and community action is linked in any way with Barcelona’s anarchist past and the revolution of 1936 when, in resistance to Franco’s fascist coup, the workers fought on the city streets to hold back the armed forces. For a few months, until Stalin’s communist forces turned against them, the anarchists were in control of the city. Buildings were draped with anarchist flags and production was collectivised.

This period is excellently documented in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and background knowledge of these events gives you a better perspective on Barcelona’s most tourist-filled and tacky street, Las Ramblas . Nick Lloyd, a civil war historian, runs fascinating walking tours on the subject. In his opinion there is no real connection between resistance then and now because the social conditions are utterly different. Decades before the civil war the city was divided between the bourgeois, pouring money into the construction of the modern Eixample neighbourhood, and the workers, living in the filthy, overcrowded Raval. This was a hotbed of anarchism and by 1936 the poor had lived generations surrounded by it.

The anarcho-syndicalist CNT union was hugely important in the uprising. It was supported by the majority of the workers and the general strike was used as a political tool. They controlled the telephone exchange (now a Movistar shop) in Plaza Catalunya until the May Days when the state broke the anarchist power. Today the CNT is a tiny organisation and one of the only places you can see the anarchist flag is at their Rosa del Foc bookshop .

The two main unions, CCOO and UGT, traditionally linked to the communist and socialist parties respectively, have a broader base, and are currently embroiled in conflict with the new right‑wing government over labour reforms and public service cuts. A third union, the CGT, is smaller and still anarcho‑syndicalist. All three are housed in the same building, on Via Laitana , but relations have been tense since a government decision to push the CGT out. Its rooftop bar has great views down this famous avenue, which is the last leg of any protest march, and in 1936 was filled with people attending the funeral of the anarchist hero Buenaventura Durruti.

Durruti was buried in the Montjuic cemetery , where you can also find El Fossar de la Pedrera , a mass grave and memorial for nearly 2,000 people executed by the Franco regime. The air raid shelter Refugi 307 is another site worth visiting. Among other stories, you learn how it was dug out in a collective effort, mostly by the women and children who wanted to use it.

After the civil war, during the dark days of oppresion by Franco, the divisions between the rich and poor in Barcelona were even more brutal, the victors up high and the defeated left hungry and in squalor. Whole city blocks at the bottom of the Raval were left in ruins until the 1960s to remind people of their defeat. There were pockets of resistance, notably the tram boycott and subsequent general strike in 1951, and then walkouts during the 1970s. These were thanks to shopfloor organising, mainly by the CCOO, and continued until Franco’s death.

The transition from dictactorship to democracy, which officially started in 1977, has been documented from an anti‑capitalist, working-class perspective by the writer Vásquez Montalbán. He was a regular, along with other interesting characters, at the restaurant Can Lluis in the Raval. A nearby square is rather unfittingly named after Montalbán. It is next to a new luxury hotel and is an example of a continuing trend to mould Barcelona and its historical figures to fit the purposes of tourism, which often come at the expense of residents’ needs.

At all levels, local, national and international, radical Barcelona is feeling the pressure. In November 2011, the right wing PP won the general election with a huge majority, and in Barcelona the right – CiU, a nationalist Catalan party – got into power for the first time. The indignados left the square last year and took their ideals for a participative democracy out to the neighbourhoods. Although the movement has become more dispersed, activities by AcampadaBCN are continuing on an almost daily basis. Combine this with the action by the unions on unpopular government reforms and Barcelona’s current political climate seems set for turbulence.

Anna Gurney writes for various publications in Barcelona as well as running a sustainable tourism project. www.boodaville.wordpress.com

Nick Lloyd leads historical walking tours in Barcelona and his book A Radical Civil War Guide will be published in September. www.iberianature.com

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