“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
May Day was founded in the United States in commemoration of workers fighting for 8 hour workdays – workdays at the time could run up to 16 hours. May Day is a celebration of those who lost their lives through execution etc. fighting for workers. The fight was violent, it was radical and it was dangerous.
This is my favorite holiday, but I never really felt what it was like to violently resist. May Day in my hometown was celebrated very peacefully with may poles and lighthearted fun.
All over the city since I landed in Barcelona I have seen posters about a march on May 1st for anticapitalism and anti exploitation. Of course I needed to go.
The day came and I headed out to meet with protesters at the Arc de Triomf. Anti tourism was a major focus of this protest so I knew I would not fit in but I did not realize to what extent. I also was not prepared for how organized and powerful they were. I was about 30 minutes early as I had forgotten what time it started. Already there were about 300 people. By 5 pm, there were about a thousand. It was incredibly calm. Chants occurred surrounding, “anticapitalism,” but died out after one or two repetitions. People were standing around, talking calmly. Most wore black, leather, some people had purple or red fabric armbands tied around their right arm.
I stuck out like a sore thumb in my bright clothing and blonde hair so I assumed the role of observer, taking pictures. One man gives me a sticker that says, “tourism kills the city” I put it on my chest and accept that I am part of the problem that they are fighting against, I am part of the cancer they are seeking to extract. This is a major reason I have decided not to settle in Barcelona but to move on. I know I am not wanted here.
They do not want foreigners in Barcelona. I understand them. I also hate myself for all I represent – the air bnbing, yoga practicing, juicing monster of gentrification, but I too am a socialist. I am on their side conceptually and i am trying to be on their side tangibly by marching with them, learning from them. Besides, I love May Day, I love everything it stands for – the peoples’ power, working class rights, celebration of respect for all persons. I want to march in solidarity with all those marching throughout the globe for working class rights.
The March begins and we easily fill the streets. I wonder if they have a permit for the streets, it does not appear so. The arm bands, it becomes clear, signify either people in charge – red, or protectors – purple. The armbands surround the perimeter and several have ear pieces. I am asked to stop taking photos. As we walk we leave a trail of anticapitalist and antitourist stickers. At one point in a narrow street we stop and the armbands take on an even more serious and expedited air. They are running back and forth whispering to each other and a group of very severe looking young people. A giant Catalan silk flag is brought out right in front of me. I think, “ok they are going to spread it out and march with it,” but interestingly about 50 people (the group of severe looking young people) go underneath the flag while the perimeter is held down. Noises and movements come from underneath and there is a shopping cart pushed under. This lasts about 30 minutes. While this is happening I am writing in my journal since I am not allowed to take pictures. Slowly I notice more and more armbands around me. The mass begins to move again but the arm bands have surrounded me and do not move. I am trapped behind them. A woman with a red armband without looking at me asks what I am writing.
Oh. Wow. Ok.oh no no no I am on your side I am a socialist I am just interested in observing and learning. I am from New York. I assure them and it appears they trust me so they say again no photos and let me march.
They. are. So. Organized. Slowly I learn why. When the flag moves a trace is left of what happened underneath. Plastic wrappers for black long sleeved shirts and pants are left behind. It appears the people under the flag have changed clothing to hide their identity.
They are so organized. I am not familiar with premeditated violence.
A bit frightened, I linger back but keep going. We continue our way through the streets, acts of vandalism increasingly severe in our wake. It appears the flags they were holding double as weapons to punch into glass windows. A trail of stickers, spray paint, wheat paste and broken windows targeting every foreign bank, hostel, tourism store left on our path. We turn the corner and in front is a statue of a man that has had red paint poured on his head.
The armbands make sure there are no cops near and keep people safe in the group. I am now at the back. I find out they only don’t want pictures of the people, so I begin to take pictures of the traces left. When I ask if I can take pictures of the cops they laugh and it appears accept me. They begin to include me in their checkins. There is one large man, strong and tall, with a purple armband who speaks English and warns me to be careful with the cops, these are riot cops and they don’t fuck around.
And they are. The streets are lined with riot cops, while we destroy the streets.
At one point we are stopped again in a square with the front half of the group already around the other side of a giant wall. We are standing calmly. All of a sudden we hear a resounding boom, sounds like a bomb, I am shaken, look around. No one is phased, they are still talking, occasionally chanting. A siren is heard and the giant man with the purple armband is signaled by a man with an ear peice. The giant man runs in the opposite direction. Something is happening. A television crew follows after the giant man. Another boom, still everyone seems calm. Another boom. A woman with a purple arm band’s eyes grow wide and she becomes more forceful in keeping us together. We begin to move, another boom, she is more like a mother duck keeping us together, I feel safe with her, another boom we turn the corner and there next to a children’s park is the shopping cart on fire.
We continue on. Another man in a red armband comes up and asks what I am writing in my notebook. I let him read it. he sees it and gets very angry. I had been writing things like what the sky looked like between the buildings with an airplane making a trace by the sliver of moon in the bright blue sky while being in a sea of powerful uprising. He said I was writing what was going on and I was. It was true, but just to remember and because I thought it was beautiful. There was a man following the group about 100 meters behind with a clipboard and a camera making note of things. They had noticed him early on and sent a purple armband to walk with him and keep him at bay. This man thought I was one of them. He told me to rip the paper out and give it to him. I do and he rips it up. I explain that I am a socialist from New York and he says he can’t trust me. I thank him and he walks behind. I feel uncomfortable but keep walking. These really are my people but they don’t seem to like me. The destruction is huge, completely smashing windows, and yet being in the group it feels very calm, people carrying on conversations, walking slowly. We end up on la Rambla, the central artery for tourism in Barcelona, and the sides are lined by police vans and riot police.
The armbands spread out and block the vans from proceeding with us.
So. Very. Organized.
While on la Rambla the graffiti is becoming more tourist targeted. “tourist go home”.
These people really do not like me. They do not want me here. I want to fight. I want to scream I want to be a part of the movement but this movement doesn’t want me. I begin to feel more and more out of place and harmful to the movement. This is not my battle to fight. To them I am part of the evil empire. The airbnbing, yoga practicing beast of gentrification, the new form of colonization. And I understand. I peel off and stand watching them march on. The man with the clipboard eventually catches up and I see, wow yes he is an undercover police officer doing exactly what I was doing. Photographing and making notes. What am I doing? Why was I doing exactly as he had? Who am i?
I head to the coffee shop – a tourist haven where you can buy and smoke weed. I feel a profound sadness and dislocation. I don’t know where I belong. I do not like where I come from. The evil empire of America that continues to oppress its own people and other nations. My physical appearance places me at a peculiar cross roads. The intersection before me gives me access to realms of privilege but as a poor unemployed artist who does not accept compromise in ethics and sees the idiotic evil that grips my country, I feel more at home in a riot than behind a desk.
I also hate me and what I represent. I hate being in this weed dispensary that turns smoking weed into a capitalist practice. I feel more hopeless than before and head out. Since joining this coffee shop the guy working at the door has told me every time I am there that I am his next girlfriend. He asks me on dates and remarks on what I look like. Today he has stopped talking to me which is a relief but also revealing. I think he may have been hitting on me just because he saw me as a rich tourist but now sees me as the poor, lost, identityless creature that I really am. Damned if I am Damned if I’m not. I don’t know where I belong.
What I do know is that I learned a lot from this march. I learned more about my identity as the oppressor and outsider in feeling completely out of place because of what I looked like and who I was.
I also learned what a violent protest feel like. I felt powerful with a calm sense of organized violence. They displayed the organization and force necessary to truly fight against societal oppression. If we are to take the streets in America, this is how it would feel. It would not feel like the womens march full of selfies and police barricades.
Power is organized, power is calm, power is exclusionary. Resistance is powerful in its calm, premeditated communal strength. The protests continued well into the evening with police using rubber bullets and tear gas to break up the crowds.
The next day, May 2, my birthday, I see city workers cleaning up the graffiti left from May Day and stop to talk with them. They are very kind and are painters themselves. They explain that they clean up “ugly” graffiti but leave the “art.” In effect they are the city’s curators of street art. They really admire good graffiti and don’t disagree with the sentiments expressed by the antitourists but they just find the letters to be ugly and so cover them up. These are workers, covering up graffiti, fixing broken glass, taking down pasted signs all done during the may day protest, supposedly in the name of workers. It will not be the oppressor who will bear the brunt of revolutionary attack, it will be their wage slaves, it will be the workers.
On my birthday I am alone. This is nothing new and I rather prefer it. Everyday is such a magical experience and every person I meet a friend to celebrate life with. I stop into a bar and am given mint plants and flowers for no reason by the owner. No one knows it’s my birthday and yet i am treated like a queen. I next peek into a marionette theater. They invite me in and one woman gives me a drawing of three little birds she drew and tells me these are my children now.
I take this very seriously and immediately find them a picture frame. In taking care of these little birds I realize that I do not do so well with self care. I rarely, if ever, buy things, take time for myself. This causes my physical appearance to be quite disheveled. My skin, hair, clothes often ratted and dirty. It costs so much money and time to look healthy.
Since it is my birthday I decide I want to thank my aging body and remind myself that it is OK to feel pretty. I haven’t felt pretty in a while. I head to get a facial at the biggest tourist hotel I can find, the W. They don’t have any facial appointments available so I opt for a full body detox, to again thank my body for all its hard work and apologize for not treating it so well.
There in the sauna, with the most delicious brownie I’ve ever had, drinking some cool sweet pulpy lemonade out of a champagne glass, waiting for a woman to come pick me up to tend to my body, I could not stop thinking about where I had been not 14 hours before. In the streets protesting the very thing that I embodied in that moment.
I ask Andrea, the woman currently combing out my matted hair, what she thought of the anarchists and their sentiments. Immediately she scoffs and says that some people will never be happy, proceeding into a clearly thought out perspective. She is from Uruguay in South America. She had a very hard time finding a job in Barcelona and the only people that were kind to her were tourists. She makes her livelihood off of us and lives a happy life with a young daughter who she rides bikes with on her days off to Tarragona which is about a 2 hour bike ride away. The beaches there she finds beautiful and the people are so much nicer, she says. There they welcome foreigners and tourists with open arms because, as she explains, they have fewer tourists and so know that tourists bring money to support businesses so actually seek to attract them. She says we are all human and the only reason people are so upset is because people will always be upset over something – either they’re upset because there are too many tourists or not enough.
I am aware of the power dynamic between us. I am paying her to cleanse my naked white body. I am aware that this 90 minute experience costs more than I have paid for food in the month and a half that I have been here and that I will tip her more than I will spend on food this week. I am aware that my money is going to the largest tourist hotel in Barcelona through the american brand Bliss spa. I am also aware that the money i will use to pay for the treatment comes from my parents as a birthday gift. I am not yet aware that I have left my credit card in my apartment and so will have to take a 20 euro taxi there and back to pay for this relaxing experience of existential crisis. But here in the lap of luxury I am accepted, celebrated for what I represent.
I was told once by a director that i will never be cast as a supporting role, my face is too distracting. He said the audience would be more concerned with who I was than the lead. When i told him i wanted to play roles that exposed working class struggles he told me to forget it. I would never be considered for a laborer, I needed to learn the language of a queen. I quit acting that day but failed to escape the role forced upon me. On this massage table, my physical body fits this role of the oppressor. But who I am and what I believe resonates more strongly with the oppressed.
I slowly make my way back to my apartment, get dressed and sneak into a sold out Toots and the Maytals concert. Playing the role my body dictates, I am almost immediately invited into the V.I.P. section where i dance and am offered drink after drink.
During “54-46” I whisper softly to myself, “Happy Birthday.”