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From our Hacktreks archives: Spain

When Good Parades Go Bad
Erik R. Trinidad
'It was slowly evident to me that it was a signal for the mob of people to storm the police.'
Spain mob

I come from a city of parades. Several times a year, the mayor of New York transforms city streets into conveyor belts that run about three miles an hour, so that regular citizens can watch the spectacle of other regular citizens go by with big balloons in their hands or riding on the roof of a truck. Fun, huh? New York City hosts many parades, from the mainstream commercial Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, to the rhythmic and energetic Puerto Rican Day Parade, to the colorful and rambunctious Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Don’t get me wrong; I love a parade. There’s something about the energy and happiness that it generates that is infectious. So when I encountered a parade in Barcelona during a backpacking trip around Europe, I was eager to see just how they did parades on the other side of the Atlantic.

I was with my shutterbug best friend Terence and my girlfriend-at-the-time Risa. We had just secured a night in a two-star hotel by the Plaza de Espanya, the beautiful rotunda where the classically designed government buildings all congregated. It was an overcast day, but the good kind of overcast day where it doesn’t rain and the layer of clouds shield away the sun just enough so you don’t have to wear sunglasses. There was a whole hullabaloo near the plaza where people were gathering on the sides of the street. Police had barricaded the curbs, just like they do on Fifth Avenue in New York on St. Patrick’s Day. "Hey, let’s check out this parade," I suggested to my traveling companions. I was wondering what kind of balloons they would carry and what kind of floats they would ride on, and so we curiously stood on the curb behind the crowd of Spaniards. A lot of them were cheering, holding signs of which I had no idea what they meant. In the distance, people started clapping, but not like applause on a game show; it was more like the clapping in a cheerleader routine. Wow, they really get into the spirit here, I thought. The crowds were getting louder and it was sure to be a time for celebration. Terence was shooting his camera left and right to capture the moment.

Soon, the marching began. The first group to march down the street was a troop of policemen. With perfect precision, they marched down the Calle de Tarragona, proud and dignified. The cheerleading clap started up again, and even I was caught up on the moment and wanted to clap along. But soon I realized this was no pep rally. The clapping was not a cheer. It was slowly evident to me that it was a signal for the mob of people to storm the police. Hundreds of people rushed the streets and suddenly more police appeared in full riot gear. These weren’t people in celebration. Those signs didn’t deliver words of encouragement. This was no parade.

Protestors started storming towards the government buildings and soon the police pulled out their nightsticks and performed violent attempts to keep the peace. In no time, what we thought was a parade abruptly turned into a full-scale riot, and we were caught in the middle. The provocative clapping continued. People ran every which way. Punches were thrown. Tear gas grenades were fired. Nightsticks were twirled. Smoke filled the air. Cars busted through barricades. Chaos was born.

We managed to refuge in the nearby forecourt of an office building on the corner of the main "parade route" and a side street. It served as a temporary refuge for the radicals—and three innocent American bystanders. Risa was freaking out with our limited options. We didn’t know what to do. Which way would we go? Would we: (A) to go out into the street with the tear gas fog and people getting struck left and right; or (B) to go out on the side street where there was a burning dumpster in the center of the road, filling the area with scorching flames and a black smoke that reeked of refuse? Needless to say, it was a hard enough question worthy of the SATs. We attempted (C), to get inside the office building in hopes of escaping on the other side, but the doormen kept on shoving people out like third-class passengers on the Titanic, and locked their doors.

Amidst the chaos, we befriended a young woman in the forecourt with us. She wasn’t alarmed at all. She was wearing torn up jeans and a bandana, smoking a cigarette like it was just a regular day for her. "Zey’re doing it all wrong," she told us. "Zey shouldn’t be provoking the policemen like zat. Zat’s not how you stage a revolution." Throughout our subsequent conversation with her, we learned that she was from Berlin and was a part of the alliance of young German hippies who supported the fall of the Berlin Wall. A scuffle between the secession-hungry revolutionaries of the Catalunya province protesting their mother country was a cakewalk for her. She just stood there and watched the riot like an unimpressed teenager after hearing a corny joke from a parent.

As much as we wanted to share her apathy, there was no ignoring the fact that we were in the middle of a mêlée and that we should try and find someway to get the hell out of there. Since Dante’s level of garbage was blocking the side street exit, we attempted to make our way into the main street in hopes of running around the corner to the next block to safety. The three of us gathered at the edge of the building. Terence took point to peek behind the building. Slowly he moved his head out to see if the coast was clear. Risa and I eagerly anticipated his status report.
"Oh shit! Go back! Go back!" he cried. He rushed over to the other side. Confused, I looked to see what was the matter: a policeman had his trigger finger on a tear gas grenade gun and was headed right for our temporary bunker. "Oh my God!" Risa nervously screamed. We fled back to the other side of the forecourt where our German friend was still apathetically smoking her cigarette. (Perhaps she was French?)
"Ze police should just let zem protest, and leave zem alone," she said as smoke slowly escaped through her lips.

We ignored her ennui and contemplated our escape. "Fuck it, let’s run down the side street," Terence said. It was true: the safest way out was to run through the black smoke passed the burning fire. "Alright, let’s do it," I nervously said, realizing we had no better option.

Risa took pole position and one by one we made a break for it, running the thin line between a rock and a hot place. I followed Risa’s lead and Terence followed mine. The flames were intense and I felt the heat on my skin. I held my breath the whole time as to not inhale the disgusting odor of barbecued garbage. We made it to the other side and there was no looking back—until Risa briefly glanced behind and realized Terence wasn’t behind us. "What the hell is he doing?!" she asked.
"Wait! Wait! I gotta get a picture of this!" Terence answered. He actually ran back towards the chaos to get a shot of the flames. Once a shutterbug, always a shutterbug. (Well, we were tourists, remember?) Terence shot a quick photo and then ran like hell back towards us. Other protesters were running away from the riot squad down the same block. Yes, this was Spain, but no bull; it was the running of the cops. Hemingway didn’t have this in mind. We ran for our lives for about two blocks looking anywhere for shelter, but every shop and café had wisely locked up.

"Why don’t we just walk calmly so the cops don’t think we’re protestors?" Risa suggested as we ran down the block. It wasn’t a bad idea, especially since I really needed a break; my heart was racing like a NASCAR vehicle. We slowed down to a normal pace and walked as calmly as one could with Spaniards around, still running for their lives. The provocative clapping chant started up again in our area. "I really wish they wouldn’t do that," I said. Soon a policeman, nightstick in hand, was closing in on one protestor and we realized Risa’s idea could only be short-lived. We scurried away for about ten more blocks like fugitives, until we were way in another part of town where regular Barcelonian citizens were oblivious to any sort of brutal activity at the Plaza de Espanya. We found an open subway entrance to flee underground and took a train to the famous La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, in a safe zone amongst our own kind: tourists.

The rest of our stay in Barcelona wasn’t nearly as violent, even though that provocative cheerleading clap still haunted me. Later that day we went back the forecourt of the building on the way back to our hotel. There was no trace of any sort of insurrection. There was no evidence of police brutality or burning garbage. It’s a good thing Terence took that photo or else no one would have believed us.

So do I still love a parade? Sure, I do—that is, until the tear gas arrives.

© Erik R Trinidad August 2002

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