Fire. Violence. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. That’s the image of Barcelona that’s beaming out across much of the Spanish and global media about M-29, the 29 March general strike. My experience, and those of many protesting here, was a whole lot less dramatic – but possibly more symptomatic of the widespread collective action against austerity that is spreading here. I didn’t go looking for the moments of greatest drama, but here are a few impressions on how the day unfolded.
* Over 1,000 people joined the march from our neighbourhood (Sant Andreu) into town. It wasn’t the ‘usual suspects’. It was the regulars of our local high street – where most shops were closed – transplanted onto Meridiana, a major six-lane road into the centre of Barcelona. The good-humored march was one of numerous feeder marches that helped to bring the city to a standstill. The unions report an 800,000-strong demonstration. El Pais puts it at over 275,000.
* It isn’t hard to find evidence of clashes in the centre of town. Barricades had been lit on many of the road junctions around Diagonal, a well-off shopping district. These are being cleared away by street sweepers. But it’s the details that are telling here: the bin lorries are each placarded with ‘serveis minims’ [minimum service]. Most of the banks have had their windows smashed. They are cordoned off, but there is no attempt at a clean up here.
* There are many similarities with the 15M (‘indignados’) movement, but the most notable difference is the union banners. The 15M was organised on an explicitly ‘no parties, no unions’ platform, in direct response to the perceived betrayal by the unions in reaching a ‘social pact’ with the government on pension reform following a general strike in September 2010. One of the main unions (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) has close ties with the PSOE, the former government. With the Partido Popular (PP) now in power, the ideological lines are far sharper.
* Identifying as workers appears a stronger focus of this mobilisation too. In one five minute stretch through town, we pass two sets of civil servants against the cuts; fluorescent yellow-clad metro workers against cuts; trendily-dressed Macba (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the contemporary art museum) workers against cuts; and skateboarders against cuts. At least, I presume they were against the cuts too. They may have just been enjoying the opportunities afforded by the car-free streets.
* A lot of teargas was fired, and a lot of bins were burnt. But around these flashpoints, a whole day of striking has moments of calm, conversation and boredom. These are also opportunities to exchange stories. An art activist workshop (‘How to end evil’) has been taking place all week to spread creative resistance ideas. Amongst other stories, I hear about one workshop led by a collective who have identified a memory disorder called Memetro: its most prominent side effect is that the individual is incapable of remembering that it is the social norm to pay for public transport. This disorder may possibly caused by the development of a personal defense mechanism. This often occurs after a traumatic event, such as the unfair rise in fares, bad operations, or any other inconvenience to the continual problem of moving around.
* Energy consumption is one of the main measures being used by the media to gauge the effectiveness of the strike. It is reportedly down by a quarter on the day, suggesting a significant drop in economic activity. I also hear of cases where PP councils have ordered for the streetlights to be turned on in the day to boost consumption. The Spanish right-wing are rarely subtle.
* The general strike was called to protest the new labour law, which makes it easier for companies to lay people off, cut their wages and change their employment conditions, and reduces the capacity of unions for collective bargaining. But this is not simply a labour dispute – it is a societal one. It is about austerity, democracy, and the financial system.
* These conversations carry on to the soundtrack of police firing teargas and, I hear later, rubber bullets – plus the occasional firework and firecracker burst from our side. There’s a barricade on fire next to El Corte Ingles, the largest department store on Placa Catalunya. I’m close enough to feel the ripples of baton charges, with people occasionally running for safety, but don’t move towards it or away from it as I’m not feeling tempted to report first hand on the clashes. A lot of it’s theatrics, mixed with the usual police brutality. But the bigger story is the escalating challenge to the imposition of austerity. With deeper cuts scheduled to be announced tomorrow, the resistance will only grow.