In May 2011, tens of thousands occupied plazas throughout Spain in a protest movement that prefigured similar occupations around the world, including the Occupy movement in the United States. On March 29, 2012, a nationwide general strike erupted into massive street-fighting in Barcelona, as participants wrested control of the streets from riot police. How did this come to pass, and what can it tell us about what will follow the occupation movements outside Spain?
Here, our Barcelona correspondent provides extensive background on the riots of March 29, tracing the trajectory from the plaza occupations to the general strike, and explores the questions that have arisen as anarchists face new opportunities and challenges.
“La rosa de foc ha tornat!” This was the expression of excitement on many people’s lips during the general strike throughout Spain on March 29, 2012. While the unions estimated an impressive 77% turnout, it was the fires blackening the skies over Barcelona that everyone talked about.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, when more anarchist attentats and bombings were carried out in Barcelona than in any other two countries combined and dozens of churches and police stations were burned to the ground, the city was affectionately known as la rosa de foc, “the rose of fire.” The period of“revolutionary gymnastics” in the ’20s and ’30s foregrounded the city as a laboratory of subversion for anarchist struggles worldwide, a role that was taken further with the revolution of July 1936. The struggle of Catalan maquis—guerrillas—during the Franco years was the precursor to the guerrilla struggles that blossomed in Europe and Latin America in the ’60s and ’70s; in some cases, it was the vector along which experience and materials were directly passed on. But this history has largely been lost, thanks to the rupture imposed by fascism and democracy, and Barcelona lost its significance on the revolutionary stage.
With the backing of the democratic powers, forty years of dictatorship and repression effectively suppressed the anarchist movement in Catalunya and the rest of the Spanish state. A great deal of pro-anarchist sentiment remained, but this was dissipated when the rebounding social revolution was sidetracked by the transition to democracy in the 1970s. Hundreds of thousands of people were taking the street, hoping to pick up the torch that had been dropped in ’36, but the government played its cards well, the returning CNT played its cards poorly, and democracy carried the day. Since then, the city has been tamed, if not outright pacified, and the rose of fire forgotten.
Fierce neighborhood struggles continued into the ’80s, but these were largely limited to marginalized immigrant neighborhoods and they were calmed by the political and economic integration—or bulldozing—of the slums and shantytowns that gave them birth. In the ’90s, there were several intense squatter and antifascist riots, but the media successfully spun these as isolated phenomena. In the ’00s, social control and pacification made great leaps forward. A new police force trained in democratic policing tactics, the mossos d’escuadra, were introduced along with an insistent public campaign of civic behavior ordinances; in time, the riot disappeared along with street-fighting know-how, the use of Molotov cocktails, and the practice of resisting evictions. The police became untouchable: they only had to charge—or simply draw their batons—to send people scattering.
A combative spirit was still widespread, at least among anarchists, some squatters, and a part of the Catalan independentistes, but the tools needed to express it were lost. In 2007, when police tried to win undisputed control of the streets once and for all by kettling and shutting down any non-permitted protest, the so-calledantisistema halted this by seeking broader alliances, returning to the streets, and emphasizing the contradiction between the State’s attempted power grab and its democratic narrative. This persistence achieved some results, but no one could figure out how to go back on the offensive.
When the economic crisis eroded the public welfare that had guaranteed the social peace, many more people besides the couple thousand antisistema began to take action. Neighborhood assemblies formed, pushed forward by well-meaning reformists, indepes, or closet libertarians, and attracting a few Trotskyists and similar types. The anarchist CNT and the anarcho-reformist CGT, kept in shape by minor labor struggles in a supermarket chain and among the bus drivers, geared up for a battle more worthy of their history. The indepes, irked by years of irrelevance despite strong public support for independence from Spain and reenergized by the emergence of a new political party that has not yet entered government to betray them, also made ready for a new offensive. And the black bloc anarchists, finally ready to take the initiative after years of action-repression-prisoner support, moved from the limited field of clandestine action, antisocial propaganda, and self-organization within autonomous ghettos to a more porous terrain on which the skills they had honed could have greater effects.
Barcelona General Strike, September 29, 2010
The general strike of September 29, 2010 was called by the major unions (CCOO andUGT) along with the smaller unions like the CNT and CGT. But a large part of the organizing was also carried out by neighborhood assemblies, non-union anarchists, indepes, and others. On a national level, it was a success from the union standpoint, achieving majority participation despite being the first general strike in eight years. In Barcelona, it was also a success from an insurrectionary standpoint, precipitating an intense riot in which attacks on agents of government and capitalism generalized. The rioting was largely spontaneous, carried out by many more people than the usual suspects, and reached a scale and intensity not seen since at least the la Cine Princesa riots in 1996. A large number of arrests with serious charges and an intense campaign of demonization via the media conditioned future actions and attitudes. Nonetheless, September 2010 left diverse actors with more strength and social backing.
Banco Español “discredited” after the general strike of 2010
CCOO and UGT immediately went to the negotiating table and traded in a large part of that backing for the privilege of signing on to the Socialist government’s pension reform. Both unions were in true form. UGT had been a major force in hampering proletarian struggles in the ’20s and ’30s; they were the mass organization that gave the paltry number of Stalinists in 1936 the cover they needed to sabotage the revolution. CCOO (Comisiones Obreras, Workers’ Commissions) is the institutionalization of the libertarian communist Workers’ Autonomy movement of the ’70s. When the fascists who became the Popular Party were looking for leftists to invite into government to help them forestall revolution by putting on a democratic mask, they found their men in the CCOO and the newly reformed Socialist Party (PSOE).
On the other side of things, the CGT (a split from the CNT) and the two CNTs(another split) got over their age-old enmity and started working more closely. Squatter and black bloc anarchists also started working together with CNT anarchists or joining the neighborhood assemblies and working with indepes, closet libertarians, and community activists. Widespread isolation, as much the result of a shared social condition as of any particular choices, began to melt away.
In January 2011, these latter groups decided to organize another general strike without the two major unions. Most people regard this second strike as a failure on account of the low level of participation. This frames the purpose of a strike through the quantitative, organizational mentality of a union. The historical significance of the January strike was to demonstrate that CCOO and UGT were losing their hold. It showed that those operating from a more insurrectionary logic could seize the initiative, cause a significant disruption, and communicate radical ideas if they were willing to work beyond narrow affinities and address the immediate concerns of livelihood usually monopolized by reformist discourses. This discovery is at the heart of two tensions that recur throughout the history of the events of March 29. These tensions have to do with how the principle of affinity changes its behavior between times of isolation and times of coalescence; and how immediate concerns are frequently paired with reformist methods, and idealist concerns with revolutionary, methods, creating a false polarization. This will be explored further in the final section.
After January 27, 2011, the next significant date was May Day, when the anticapitalist protest comprised of black bloc anarchists, the CNT, and many indepes marched from Gràcia to the rich neighborhood of Sarrià, where they smashed a hundred banks and luxury stores before police managed to disperse them. May Day 2011 demonstrated the strength of this new encounter between previously segregated sectors of antisistema. People still did not have the power to withstand the police, nor had they regained street-fighting know-how, but they did manage to go on the attack. For years before 2011, black bloc anarchists in Barcelona had been trying to regain May Day as a combative holiday, failing every time despite creative and varied attempts, while the CNT anarchists had been content with peaceful marches commemorating a waning history. The success in 2011 was an important breakthrough. It also revealed a fear that anti-capitalist violence against the rich would resonate widely, as the media suppressed most news or imagery of the protest.bus drivers, geared up for a battle more worthy of their history.
On the other hand, criticisms by some fellow protestors demonstrated that these new relationships would be lost if the hooded ones used heterogeneous, multitudinous spaces instrumentally as a mute and convenient terrain apt for wreaking havoc and nothing else. The specific criticisms were not pacifist, nor were they coming from people who were displeased by the smashing up of a rich neighborhood. They had more to do with who bore the brunt of the repression, who held the line against the police, and who carried out the smashing; or with sticking to joint objectives, or sharing information so others wouldn’t be unprepared for a confrontational situation. Nonetheless, after years of dealing with a broad public rejection of their violence, the more insurrectionary of the antisistema were predisposed to ignore these criticisms.
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