25 September 2012

Surround, sister

Photo by  Yukino Miyazawa 
I wish I was in Madrid tonight.

When I arrived home from my pointless "guiri" job in Barcelona, one I should feel lucky to have, all things considered, I logged on to the RTVE website to have a look at their live feed of the 25S "Rodea El Congreso" protest in Madrid. The first thing I saw were the helmets and plexi-glass shields of the police. The armor protected them from reprisal as they swung their truncheons wildly at unarmed protesters.

An older man stepped in between the tens of thousands in the crowd and the police, his arms stretched out toward the protesters, urging calm and restraint. His palms were were open, pleading to the crowd not to give in to the rage, but he was walking slowly, back toward the police. When he got close enough, they clubbed him as well. I suppose you can't be too careful, especially with ageing, pony-tailed hippies in denim jackets attempting to pacify a potential riot.

Moments later, the camera caught three or four riot police beating a young woman on the ground. She was pale, with dyed, bright red hair. She tried as best she could to protect herself from the flurry of blows. A young man with a shaved head hovered over her, attempting to protect her from further injury. He was clubbed across the skull for his trouble. This act of brutality in particular seemed to stir something in the crowd. Objects soon hurtled toward the thin black line of the riot squad. Individual protesters showed momentary swells of courage as they advanced on the police, whose faces were obscured by black helmets and plastic visors. There was the sense that, at any moment, the situation could turn dark. Ugly.

There was a sense of imminent madness, an aching fear in the gut that things would go horribly awry. That fear didn't come from the protesters. They tossed brightly coloured swathes of fabric in the air while others cheered; they raised their arms up, palms open to the sky as they sat cross legged in front of the shields and the visors and the bean bag rifles held at the ready. It came from the police. Their charges into the crowd came randomly, without warning. Their clubs struck out at young women and old men with little care over who was hit. It seemed not to matter that the weapons made contact at all. The act was automatic. Reflexive.

When the sun set over the Spanish Congress building, where citizens from across the country gathered to demand that a government -- seemingly hell bent on testing the limits of its power over the masses -- step down, one of the estimated 1,300 police officers on hand to keep the gathering of angry, desperate people in line charged too far into the crowd. A few struck out at him, kicking at the heavy Kevlar vest covering his torso, and one gave him a quick boot to the rear end, but he was allowed to scamper off to safety; his survival was never in doubt. A mob hell bent on tearing it all down would have swallowed the trapped cop whole. This one let him go.

Watching the night unfold in Madrid, what becomes crystal clear is that a crowd of hundreds of thousands -- possibly a million -- remains peaceful because they choose to. The police, charged with protecting the members of Congress in Madrid tonight, should bear that in mind. The people's commitment to non-violence  is a greater protection than padded armour and shields ever can be. The police, as they protect the same members of parliament that day by day turn the screws tighter, would do well to realize that one day the crowds won't turn and run at the sight of a truncheon bearing down overhead. Their desperation will consume their fear.

30 May 2012

War Without Bombs

There’s not much point in beating around the bush: it’s a shit state of affairs in Greece right now. The poor are stuffing pittances into mattresses while the rich are funneling vast sums out in to tax havens abroad. Two years of mercilessly enforced austerity have left people rummaging through rubbish bins for a meal, young people chasing after concepts like livelihood and prospects as they evaporate out of the country, and older Greeks emasculated to the point where shooting yourself in Syntagma Square becomes the last stand of the dignified. 

Greece is hemorrhaging money, blood and youth. The people are drowning under a pile of unrelenting shit, pouring down on them from great rusted shovels wielded by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank –the Troika. In Greece, the profits have been privatized, loaded into private jets and flown out of a country desperately in need of funds. The losses have been socialized and strapped onto the backs of the masses. Ordinary, working Greeks have been told, in no uncertain terms, that the mess left behind by bankers at home and abroad and a corrupt political leadership within parliament is theirs to clean up.

Austerity hasn’t brought salvation to Greece, it’s brought humiliation and death.

Sold as essential to stopping up the leaking Greek ship and returning it to stability, the conditions behind the funding from the Troika have plunged the country into a debt it cannot repay if it isn’t willing to sacrifice a generation – possibly more than one – to the market god. And Greece is not alone. Across the west pillars of the financial world, and the Punch and Judy dolls they manipulate in office, built a great house of cards, climbing each level as they finished it, collecting bloated bonuses for doing little more than gambling. The house only needed to hold until they reached the top with their dosh in hand; from there, it was left to topple, leaving the rest of us crushed under the ruins. But rather than pull ourselves from the wreckage, it is expected that we suffer the costs of their rampant destruction. If we don’t, how will they possibly manage to repeat the process in the future?

The sorry thing is they have every right to expect that. We’ve given them little reason to think they won't get away with it.

When American mega banks set off the financial land mines they'd been planting for decades in 2007, they demanded to be saved by the people, and the people gave in. When the contagion sailed across the Atlantic to Europe, the people gave in again – more bailouts, no accountability, and the acceptance that we the people must face hardship and piercing loss if what remained of the house of cards was to be reconstructed. It was up to us to save the economic system. No one responsible would face the justice system, or spend time in prison for the elaborate fraud they perpetrated. 

No one responsible would suffer at all, as it turns out. Suffering is the unique arena of the poor. 

But Greece isn’t being saved, it’s being destroyed. Third world financial trade off tactics, the monetary weapons of the IMF and the World Bank, are being applied for the first time in a fully developed nation. These organizations that so spectacularly and completely pillaged the impoverished in Africa and the South Pacific, needed to find new avenues for their prof model. Countries in the developing world such as Argentina, and the emerging powerhouses of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) had worked out the sinister side of the IMF gambit, and had rightly told them to fuck off some time back. Enter the European sovereign debt crisis. In the newly traumatized developed nations on Europe’s periphery, global money lenders saw their chance to utilize financial weapons that had worked so well for them in transferring the wealth of the world’s poorest nations into the hands of the wealthiest.

In short order, loans with bad conditions were agreed upon. The Troika made the offer, the Greek politicians agreed. The Greek people, and their feelings on being sold into debt slavery, were never asked what they wanted. When they tried to fight back against the odious nature of the deals by demanding a referendum, their President was forced from power, and a technocrat was installed to ensure no such referendum would take place. This was no time for government to consult the will of the people. This was no time for democracy.

The Greeks finally got an opportunity to voice their desperation over what austerity is doing to them on 6th May, 2012. The elections saw a radical shift in the makeup of the Greek Parliament. While the pro austerity New Democracy party received the largest percentage of the vote at 18.85%, it was the radical left SYRIZA coalition that made the greatest gains, coming second in the vote with 16.78% riding on a platform of anti austerity. All told, no one party was strong enough to form a government, and several attempts to create a working coalition failed. The Greek people will go to the polls again on 17th June. For a while it looked certain that SYRIZA and its young leader, Alexis Tsipras, would come out the clear winner, as Greek voters rallied around the party most willing to fight for a reworking of the austerity deal that mires the country in misery.

But then the fight back came, bearing its fangs and spitting toxic bile. 

Since the announcement of the next election in June, political leaders and financial luminaries across Europe have done their best to put the fear of God into the Greek electorate. British PM David Cameron announced to the press that the June election in Greece was a clear choice between staying in the Euro currency and leaving outright. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble plays the simultaneous role of good and bad cop, telling the world that a Greek exit from the Euro is avoidable, while telling the Greek people that, without question, they must accept every condition imposed upon them if Greece is to remain in the Euro. 

But no voice can top that of International Monetary Fund chief Christine La Garde for blunt audacity. 

In an interview with The Guardian on 25th May 2012, La Garde stated that she had little sympathy for Greek parents who cannot afford to care for their children. She was quoted saying  All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.

Ironically, as boss of the IMF La Garde pays no income tax on her salary. This is one of the perks that comes with being employed by an international organisation. If only Greek parents unable to feed their children could be so lucky.

The doom speak seems to be having the desired effect of grinding down Greek resolve. A recent series of polls indicate support for the SYRIZA coalition is eroding, and moving back to the pro austerity parties, New Democracy and PASOK. If the polls are to be believed, these orchestrated fear campaigns may succeed in keeping the Greek people in line, and giving their consent to financial servitude.

What lies ahead is a test, and the Greeks will face it first. Their choices are grim in either respect. Stay in the Euro and accept impossible debt repayment plans that will leave them impoverished and see their social frameworks destroyed, or vote against these measures, call the bluff of the powerful, and risk being left alone to pick themselves back up. Each option promises hardship and struggle, but only one allows citizens to take control of their situation, and forge a way out on their own terms. Plainly speaking, the powerful want to see if they can overrule democracy in Greece because if they can, the rest of Europe will follow. They are looking to see just how firmly under foot the people are. If they succeed, we will have taught them that, without question, dire rhetoric can terrify the rank and file into submission.

The constant accusation those with power and vast stores of wealth love to foist upon the malcontents beneath them is that they itch for class war. In reality, that war started decades ago, but it wasn’t the poor and the downtrodden that fired the first shot. This is a war without bombs, and what frightens the aggressors is that the other side might finally be opening their eyes to the full scale of the assault they are under. 

31 March 2012

The 29M Strike in Barcelona: tear gas, rubber bullets & flaming garbage

On Thursday I posted live updates on events that occurred in Barcelona during the 29M general strike as I encountered them throughout the day. It was a unique experience, attempting to capture what was happening as the day went by. Eventually posting live became more difficult, as technology and the quickening pace of the action conspired against me.  

This is the rest of the story.

Just after 6pm I crossed Plaça de Catalunya and headed to nearby Cafe Zurich, where a few friends who had come to attend the demonstration were waiting. Out front of the cafe, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) anarcho-sydicalist union were preparing for the march. Unlike the larger Spanish labour unions, the CNT have no hierarchical structure. There is no one Union leader taking a large annual salary, and no elected representatives. Union decisions are made by committee using the tenets of direct democracy. The union and its supporters gathered here were a diverse collection of faces -- old and young, male and female, and more than a few young children getting their first taste of a labour uprising. 

The CNT -- and its more modern incarnation the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) -- started to move just before 6:30 in the evening. But rather than head for the massive crowd buzzing about Passeig de Gràcia, they struck out in the opposite direction, moving up along Carrer de Pelai. The members walked slowly behind a white truck that had been outfitted with large speakers lying on the flat bed. The speakers played an old Spanish song for the workers; full of sombre guitar chords and haunting vocals. The workers marching behind the truck waved the flag of their anarchist union -- two triangles, one black, one a deep red. We were confused by the CNT/CGT decision to apparently launch their own demonstration, but we were familiar enough with the union to know they have a unique way of doing things. It occurred to me that they might be moving toward Carrer de Balmes to circle back, and merge with the larger group via the upper lanes of the Plaça. 

We opted to rejoin the group in Plaça de Catalunya. Crossing the street, we moved toward a collection of protesters at the lower end of the square, across from the Olivia Plaza hotel and the Hard Rock Cafe. The tension in the group gathered at this end was palpable; they were all staring out toward Avinguda del Portal de l'Angel, straining on the tips of their toes for a better look at whatever was happening, or about to happen. Some had hopped up onto the stone railings that line the square, determined to get a better view.  

This is when we heard the first gun shots. 

We could not see the weapons, but we didn't need to -- the sound was unmistakable. Rapid bursts of gun fire aimed at the people on the street a few metres away from us. Those straining for a better look on the steps of the square suddenly turned and ran toward us in a panic, frightened by the sight of rubber bullets being sprayed into the crowd, and looking to get out of harm's way. When the brief outbreak of panic subsided, we moved down the steps and onto the street for a closer look. The Mossos had blocked off the street on the other side of Passeig de Gràcia with a few of their armoured vans. One friend mentioned that the squad seemed to be there to defend El Corte Inglés; the up market, overpriced department store that looms over the public square. The protesters on the street, particularly those closest to the armed police, were standing their ground; holding their arms up in the air, hands open and palms turned out toward the Mossos, trying to signal that they were not a threat. It didn't matter. Another round of rubber bullets would ring out, and people would retreat back quickly. The police also used larger bean bag rifles. During brief glimpses I saw them working in two man teams. The shooter would dart out from behind a partner holding up a full body plexi-glass shield, fire the cylindrical bean bag rifle, and move back behind the cover of his partner. It was an efficient plan of attack. 

We didn't fancy taking a stray rubber bullet -- or a rogue bean bag, for that matter -- in the face, so we decided to move back up into the confines of the main square. We walked quickly across to the northern end of the Plaça. Moving up toward the group offered a chance to take in all the different flags raised in the air above the bandanas, mullets, and Guy Fawkes masks. Some were familiar; the flags of the various trade unions were scattered across the crowd. The Catalan National flag was flying everywhere, joined by that of Greece in a show of solidarity with their embattled comrades in austerity. Someone had brought out the defunct Soviet standard, crimson red with the iconic gold hammer and sickle. The flag of the second Spanish Republic, with its bottom stripe of purple rather than the red of the traditional Spanish flag, was also on hand. You could also see the variant used by the International Brigades that fought with the Republicans in the civil war, with a red, three pointed star replacing the coat of arms. Flags for Catalan independence were more than abundant, including a version I was told belonged to Terra Lliure (Free Land), a once militarised Catalan separatist group, similar to the ETA of the Basque country. 

We waded into the centre of the crowd at the top of Plaça de Catalunya. Moving through the masses on the streets took patience and determination, and a willingness to take a few blows in the chest or the back. Collisions were impossible to avoid, but in typical Barcelona fashion, no one took it personally when struck by an errant shoulder, or the sting of a sharp elbow. A simple "perdona" or the wave of your hand sufficed. The people had not come to fight, at least not with each other. Once in the middle of the street, we had a chance to see how far the crowd stretched. As far up as you could see on the horizon, no grey concrete of the street was visible. The sea of people stretched straight up along the Passeig, filling the side walks on either side, obscuring the entrances to the endless number of shops that the street is famous for. Here we were reunited with the CNT contingent, who had indeed circled back, looking to eventually join with the main group on the Passeig. 

They wouldn't get their chance to blend into the march, though. Trouble was brewing on the other side of the of the road. 

A platoon of Mossos vans had come to barricade Ronda de Sant Pere to the right of Passeig de Gràcia. Without warning, the crowd was charged, either by shielded foot soldiers in heavy riot gear, or by the vans themselves -- it was impossible to see from where I stood. Once again the people screamed and turned toward us, dashing off for safety. We moved back with them, closer to the CNT idling behind us. These charges from the police repeated a few times, but there were no rubber bullets or bean bags being fired this time around, which I suppose could be seen as an improvement in the situation. The protesters at this end of the Plaça didn't see the brightside of not being shot at, though. Once we had been forced back far enough from the main group, I could see a thick pillar of black smoke rising up from the street; moments later I caught sight of orange flames flickering up in the distance, just beyond the heads of those standing in the middle of Passeig de Gràcia. Protesters had started a fire in one of the large garbage bins that can be found on many street corners across the city. 

I had encountered one of these garbage fires earlier, on Carrer de Rosselló, just after the Mossos had descended on the first gathering of the day, where the Passeig intersects with Diagonal. Garbage had been collected in a pile in the middle of the street, and set ablaze. Walking back toward the obelisk in the middle of the intersection, I noted the smashed windows of some of the shops on Rambla de Catalunya; but it was the Deutsche Bank building at the top of Passeig de Gràcia, to the Northwest of an obelisk set in the middle of the intersection, that had taken the brunt of the outrage. The glass on the main doors had been smashed, and various colours of paint had been splattered across the bank's façade. I couldn't tell what had come first, the fire and the destruction, or the Mossos driving their vans into the crowd gathered in the street. I know that before the police arrived on the scene, people seemed quite happy just to be on the street with their pots and pans. I did not see any violence until the Mossos turned up, dressed in heavy armour and flailing their truncheons at whoever was unlucky enough to be in range.

The fire burning now, at the top of Plaça de Catalunya, had a greater fury to it. Sandra, one of the friends I had met with earlier, described it as a symbol. The elites -- the government, the corporate oligarchs, and controlling EU in Brussels -- see the masses as trash, but in reality the people are the fire, burning over what is being forced on them by those in control. Sandra disagreed with the act, feeling that the burning of the garbage -- full of cheap plastics sending toxins into the air -- was mindless, and counter productive. But she understood perfectly what the fire represented. 

Behind us the CNT/CGT collective had turned their truck around and were beginning to move away from the main group again. They announced over a loud speaker their plans to head for Plaça Universitat. Realizing that the march was -- between the Mossos charges and the sheer number of people clogging the street -- stalled for the time being, we decided to stay with the CNT contingent, and walked with them toward Universitat. Reaching Carrer de Balmes we found another large trash fire on the street; this time the bags had been pulled out of the large containers, piled up, and ignited. The bins had been toppled over and pushed into the middle of the road in an attempt to block traffic. The fire produced a strong heat that you could feel even from fifteen or twenty feet away. In front of the bins a little boy, no more than 8 or 9, stood in the street, waving a CNT flag in one hand with the other raised above his head, two fingers arched to make a "V".  The boy drew applause and attention as people passed by, stopping to snap photos of the little revolutionary. Walking past the boy I glanced up the street behind him; a block or two away another squad of police -- with their riot gear and armoured trucks -- waited patiently. 

Shortly after arriving at Plaça Universitat we lost site of the CNT strikers -- they seemed to disappear, having only minutes earlier collected in the centre of the Plaça.  Looking back the main column on the Passeig seemed to be dispersing outright. We wondered if the march might be breaking up. A friend of Sandra's had called her a few minutes earlier, and was on his way to meet with us. He had told her that the protest stretched up past Diagonal, heading into Gràcia toward the mountains. He joined us a short while after; by that point it seemed the march really might be over. People were walking away from the main gathering in increasing numbers. We turned onto Gran Via and were greeted by more bodies moving away from the protest. 

Making our way back to Passeig de Gràcia, though, made it quite clear that the protest was nowhere near ending. 

The street was still jammed. People had collected on the thin circle of grass that surrounds the central fountain where Gran Via and the Passeig intersect. Others had climbed up onto the benches and light poles that dot either side of the street going north and south, hoping to get a better view of the stand off between the police and the protesters at the top of Plaça de Catalunya. We made our way into the middle of the street, straining to get a better view ourselves, which proved futile. The street was completely swollen with crews of union members, Indignados, anarchists and "flautas" young and old, that the only way to judge that something in front of us was happening was when the crowds quickly ran back each time the police pushed forward. The crackling sound of rubber bullets firing, followed by screams and cries as people fled the danger. We found ourselves stuck in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by the masses on either side; there was nowhere to move to. The protest was being packed tightly onto Passeig de Gràcia, and we couldn't see what people were running from. 

Then we caught our first glimpse of white smoke rising up through those in front of us -- tear gas. 

We didn't see the first cannisters that had clearly been lobbed into the group ahead of us, but we caught a glimpse of the next volley. Three silver cannisters rose up a dozen or so feet in the air before spiralling back down into the crowd, a thin trail of white smoke following behind as they fell. Upon landing the area became choked with gas, forcing people to cover their mouths and turn up toward our position above the fountain. While this offensive played out in front, to the right of us more people were running into the column from Gran Via. The Mossos had opened a second front on the protest, pushing in from Balmes. These were most likely the squads I'd noticed earlier, a few blocks behind the boy displaying his CNT colours. We were being kettled. 

The scenario repeated a few more times. Tear gas cans would launch, people rushed for cover and the Mossos gained some ground, or at least held the line. The larger column was being cut off from the more militant group in front of El Corte Inglés, where the large trash fire had been set an hour before. But as swift as the incursions against the crowd had been, they ceased just as quickly. This was the tactic I had witnessed earlier in the day; whirlwind, disorienting shows of force before falling back for extended periods. The return of a bit of calm allowed the different groups around us to come back into focus. There were small drum circles with people dancing in the middle. An older couple played crude music by blowing on horns; the man with something that looked to be carved from the bones of a large animal, or an elephants' tusk, and the woman on a large conch from the sea. The mood up here remained festive and kinetic, despite the threat of tear gas and rubber bullets. There were news vans on either side of the road, their satellite dishes aimed upward, their cameras constantly filming. It seemed their presence kept the Mossos -- not eager to be filmed firing their non lethal weapons at the protesters -- from pushing further up through the march. 

Eventually, exhaustion set in. My legs ached from the day's walking and I was parched from so much time out in the hot sun. I decided to head home, while the rest of my group opted to go for a drink. It was clear the stand off would continue well into the night. None of us would have been surprised to find the streets full of the outraged, and the Mossos, had we decided to return at one or two in the morning. I walked up Passeig de Gràcia, and turned right on the first street that wasn't stuffed with Mossos vans. The smouldering remnants of smaller garbage fires met me as I wandered through those first few blocks away from the demonstration. Further along I ran into the occasional police blockade, but by the time I had reached Passeig de Sant Joan, where it meets Diagonal, there were few traces of the strike at all. Children were playing in the little parkettes that line the pedestrian thoroughfare in the middle of Sant Joan while their parents looked on. Dogs chased after each other on the grass under the trees. 

The only reminder that Barcelona had taken on the feel of a war zone today was the sound of the helicopters, still buzzing overhead. 

29 March 2012

Roaming the streets of Barcelona: The 29M general strike as it happens

Waking up this morning it occurred to me that, rather than spend the day on the ground at various 29M actions across the city and writing about them (possibly days) later, it would be more interesting to take to the streets with netbook and wireless usb in hand -- documenting the strike day as it unfolds in Barcelona. 

Consider this my own little version of Leopold Bloom's long day's wander through Dublin.  I can't promise sirens, or a cyclops, but I can promise Iaioflautas and more than a few tense stand-off's between armour clad Mossos and protesters, ideally remaining non-violent whenever they occur. 

So check in throughout the day to find out what's going on as I wander about town, from strike action to strike action. 

10.34am: Awake after more cans of Estrella than initially planned last night. A quick morning coffee on the terrace -- It's extremely quiet outside. Taking a glance across to the flats that surround my own and everyone seems to be home. There is a school a few streets above, further up into the hills, which appears to be open. 

11.01am: The Guardian has a live blog providing brief updates from the strike across the country. No, I'm not going to link to it, because why would you want timely updates from a well respected, highly professional daily newspaper when you can get sporadic updates from some nutjob with a blog? On second thought, it does provide a wealth of information covering what's happening in the rest of the country, so have a look. So far they are reporting 58 arrests at various strike actions across the country . Most have been peaceful, but there has been some violence. One particular photo of a man who's had his face bloodied, apparently by the police. It is worth noting that tomorrow, 30th March, Prime Minister Rajoy of the Partido Popular will announce a budget that's expected to bring the most severe cuts yet in austerity Europe. 

12.25pm: Finally ready to leave the flat and venture down into the action. Transport in the city is down to a skeleton crew to make sure the public can still get to where they need to be, but it will take longer than normal. I'll be walking down into the barrio of Gracia first, as it's nearest to where I live and there are several actions planned there this afternoon. 

1.33pm: I left the flat and walked along Pi i Margall toward Gracia. At Carrer de Providencia I turned right, heading for Carrer Verdi. Most of the shops are shut, particularly the small, independently owned businesses. The major banks are open, and a few seem to be paying the price for it. At the corner of Providencia and Rabassa, a La Caixa outlet has "29M" and " Vaga General" spray painted in large black letters across its glass door and windows. Along the narrow streets of Gracia, the same slogans can be found sprayed on the asphalt, using a stencil template. There are posters and leaflets advertising the strike plastered on buildings all over the barrio. I arrived too late to Placa de Villas to see the assembly that had gathered there. A few stragglers remained, banging on pots and pans and blowing little whistles. 

1.41pm: A woman still mulling about the Placa informed me that a crowd was gathering at the top of Passeig de Gracia where it intersects with Avignuda Diagonal. This is where I am now, watching the crowd gathering around the obelisk that sits dead in the centre of the intersection. They have their pots and pans as well. Catalan flags are waving. And literally as I type this, 5 or 6 Mossos police vans have driven directly into the crowd on the street, breaking them up. Helicopters are hovering overhead. More later. As they say in Britain, it's all kicking off. 

2.02pm: Chaos in the streets, and fire on Rossellon . I've mentioned before that the Mossos don't fuck about, and today is no exception. Twenty or so of their midnight blue vans are constantly swarming in and around the crowds on the streets. Small battalions of the vans will suddenly stop, open their doors, and armed police stream out, launching into the crowd and striking indiscriminately at the nearest body. The people run for safety when each door opens and the Mossos rush out. I am on Rambla de Catalunya now, close to Carrer de Rossellon where a fire has broken out. Dark smoke is billowing out of a building no one can get very close to, as the police have blocked off access. Five more Mossos vans have just driven past behind me, heading south on the Rambla.

2.28pm: The fire, it turns out, was caused by a pile of garbage that had been thrown into the middle of the street and set alight. From a distance it first seemed to be coming from a building. It seems to have gone quiet around here. The Mossos vans are still driving in an erratic manner around Passeig de Gracia and Rambla de Catalunya, but their sirens have been turned off, for now. Even with a sort of calm returning to the ground, the hum of the helicopters strafing by above the city streets is constant.

4:23pm: The city wide free wi-fi administered by the local government has gone down.  I cannot say whether this has been done on purpose, with the intention of disrupting communication between activists on the streets, or if something unrelated is causing the problem. The last hour has been relatively quiet, but Passeig de Gracia now belongs to the people. Cars are being diverted from entering the famous street. People are walking freely up and down the lanes. A large statue has been placed on the lane that usually takes traffic north toward Av. Diagonal. The largest demonstration of the day begins at 6pm, when mass crowds are expected to gather at Placa de Catalunya, Barcelona's central square. To add to my own troubles, my netbook has died suddenly, and I am now forced to send updates via mobile phone. Expect typos.

5:24pm: At either end of El Corte Ingles department store the Mossos have barricaded the doors and are standing watch. A group of protesters have gathered at both doors, loudly chanting in disapproval as shoppers either enter or exit the store. The doors are flanked on either side by police vans, and steel railings keep the shoppers separated from the strikers. Occasionally a loud bang, either an explosive or something heavy toppling over, will ring out nearby. The crowds are swelling as 6pm approaches. Union members have started to arrive, making their labour association visible, they are wearing neon yellow vests.

6:06pm: Last update before the march, more than likely. Once it begins, judging by the growing crowd, texting updates will prove a little difficult. People are descending upon Placa de Catalunya in an endless stream. Flags, from the Catalan national to that of Greece, are waving high in the air. Horns are being sounded throughout the crowd. A thick column of protesters are preparing to move up along Passeig de Gracia. The numbers keep increasing. This has all the makings of an epic manifestation. 

18 March 2012

Protests Just Don't Sell Newspapers Like They Used To

Photo by Loz Flowers' via Flickr
I've been sitting here for most of the day watching streams of people commenting under the Twitter hashtag #SaveOurNHS.  People from across The United Kingdom talking about rallies they attended yesterday; rallies that in many cases are continuing on today. Throughout the morning and afternoon there's been a fluid cascade of information from these protesters, desperate to save their National Health System from being carved up for the private sector by the UK's coalition government. They posted details about the marches in real time yesterday. On YouTube they posted footage of police pushing protesters to the ground, without any clear provocation. They tweeted updates on where the march had been, and where it was headed. Today they are tweeting about vigils being held, and one last final attempt to stop the legislation in its tracks this coming Monday. They have also published photographs that show police officers brandishing machine guns at these peaceful protests about healthcare reform. 

It's a good thing they did, because the established news outlets don't seem all that bothered.

No one really knows why, but over the last 24 hours, while those hoping to save the NHS from the clutches of privatisation -- "top down" restructuring that in 2010 Cameron promised the people they would not see  -- have been doing their best to make their voices count, the journalists, news cameras, and reporters from the UK's mainstream media have stayed away, outright ignoring the protest. The BBC, the nation's taxpayer funded news service, has nothing on the rallies. The same goes for The Independent and The Telegraph. Not having much use for Twitter, I only found out about the marches, and the media's curious lack of interest in them, while reading posts on The Guardian's "Comment is Free" forums in which users demanded to know why The Guardian was ignoring the protests. 

The non-coverage has left many involved in the quest to save the NHS puzzled. The question of whether or not an undisclosed media blackout of the protest is in effect has been raised. This seems a far fetched notion. All the media outlets listed above have, through yesterday and today, run semi-related news stories about the NHS saga. The Independent broke the story that a collection of doctors and medical professionals are planning to run candidates in a direct challenge to MPs that support the legislation. The Telegraph ran a story on the NHS hiring doctors at various pay rates to combat staff shortages, which they blame on EU regulations. The Guardian ran an article detailing evidence of tax avoidance among many of the major healthcare corporations that stand to benefit from the proposed changes to the NHS, as well as an article claiming that Labour peer Lady Thornton is planning a last minute attempt to block the bill, accusing Ministers of lying to push the NHS reforms through. 

The media is talking about the NHS, but leaving out the bit about people marching in the streets to try and save it. The question is, why? 

Photo by 38 Degrees' via Flickr
Perhaps the major purveyors of news and information feel they have bigger fish to fry. No doubt the stories they ran throughout yesterday and today are important. But for many people the BBC, the Guardian, and the other giants of international media remain their primary source for learning what's happening around them. I'm sure there are still a substantial number of people left in Britain that don't yet know what a hashtag or a Twitter is. Protesters marching in the streets of London should never fail to make the news, particularly when they are out there trying to save a healthcare system that serves all 60 million residents of the United Kingdom. 

Or at least it does for now. 

Intercepted Transmissions

This Wednesday, I published the first in a series of articles touching on Barcelona's history of civil disobedience, anarchy, and full on dissent against the forces of oppression that have helped to shape the political and cultural "mind" of the city. The series will be appearing at the ultra cool (and very new) ChilliPaprika.com, a new Politics, Art & Culture magazine. 

To learn more about ChilliPaprika, visit them here

Here's a little snippet from the article... 

Barcelona: the Revolutionary City

Part One - La Canadenca 

Barcelona’s El Poble-sec barrio sits in the shadow of Montjuic, a large coastal mountain that dominates the skyline when looking southeast toward the Mediterranean Sea. The neighbourhood, whose name means “the dry village” in Catalan, was one of the first new areas developed during the city’s 19th century expansion, predating the vast Eixample district, which now makes up Barcelona’s central core. The barrio is divided from the neighbouring Sant Antoni area by the famous Avignuda del Paral-lel, a wide street that descends from Placa Espanya, separating the dry village from the city’s other barrios before bleeding out into the port areas at the foot of Las Ramblas... 
[ Read More]

You can also find me posting, not nearly as often as I would like, over at London Progressive Journal, a non-partisan journal of the left. You can devour all sorts of interesting pieces from a wide spectrum of talented writers and, for some reason, me right there with them. 

Now off you go and read.

11 March 2012

US Soldier Kills More Than a Dozen Civilians in Afghanistan - Who Are the Good Guys, Again?

Photo Credit: AfghanistanMatters'
A few hours ago the news wire broke the story that a United States soldier went on a night time shooting spree in an area in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province. As it goes these days, my news feed on Facebook quickly flooded with reports of the rampage. The Guardian, El Pais, Truth-Out, The New York Times, all reporting on the horror through the social network. 

The soldier attacked two separate villages, Balandi and Alkozai. Eleven members of one family were slaughtered around 3 am, when the as yet unnamed soldier entered their compound and opened fire. Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in condemning the attacks as an assassination, stated that 9 children and three women were among the victims. The White House gave their formula statement, saying they were deeply concerned and would be monitoring the situation closely. 

The soldier in question has been arrested, and reports indicate he made no attempt to cover up the night time murder run. The area was at one time a Taliban "stronghold" and in the past had seen heavy fire fights between Taliban and coalition forces. But this wasn't a raid on Taliban insurgents. This was a lone gunman entering the homes of two families in the dead of night and killing women and children. The actions of a sadist or a madman. 

The news, as should be expected, has led to anger in the streets. Afghanistan residents were said to be demonstrating soon after hearing about the slaughter. Just a few weeks ago the region erupted in anger when US troops were caught burning copies of the Qur'an. The offensive actions against the Muslim holy book led to days of protest and violence, much of it deadly. It seems all too reasonable to assume these killings will give rise to similar outrage and bloodshed. 

In early January of 2012, a video was released showing four US soldiers huddled around the bodies of dead Afghanistans. They proceeded to piss on the corpses, mocking the dead men as they relieved themselves. Three actions now, barely 2 full months into 2012 that serve to remind us that the grim tortures meted out at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq aren't as far in the past as we might think. Photographs at that time revealed "insurgents" being tortured and emasculated by young men and women that, at least in the West, we're told to revere as heroes. 

Do heroes piss on the dead? Do heroes mock the strongly held beliefs of the people whose country they've invaded, and occupied for the last decade? Do heroes burst into villages alone under cover of darkness and open fire on women and children? 

News of this atrocity comes after a week in which Invisible Children launched Kony 2012 on YouTube, a campaign that seeks to make the world aware of Joseph Kony, a bastard who leads an army of child soldiers on rampages where women, children, entire families are slaughtered in a similar fashion to those who've just been murdered by a lone American soldier in Afghanistan. One of the goals of the Kony campaign is to bring western military intervention in to get Kony. Good guys like the men who piss on corpses. Heroes like the unknown soldier who just slaughtered a family. 

This is what western intervention looks like.

It's an ugly reminder that in the wars we wage today, there are no fucking good guys, just a varying degree of villains. It doesn't matter if they're wearing the makeshift togs of the Lord's Resistance Army, or desert fatigues with the American flag stitched into the fabric. A child killer is a child killer. 

06 March 2012

Digital Gods and Monsters

Our digital world seduced us, spied on us, and profited from us, turning itself into a "Ministry of Truth" in the process. 

They seemed like great ideas at the time. Search engines capable of providing a wealth of statistics, documents, articles, perspectives and opinions through the punching in of a few keywords. Vast collections of information waited to be discovered with the rapid fire hammering of a QWERTY keyboard and a left click here and there. Then the social network arrived, connecting us with friends and loved ones at home and abroad; relations and old friends once lost to time and distance travelled. Facebook plugged us in to a global central square; distance and time no longer mattered. Snapshots of our lives instantly shared with anyone we pleased; your next door neighbour, your best friend, or your third cousin, twice removed, that moved to New South Wales 20 years ago. The grand scale of the Earth had been conquered by plucky young visionaries working in trendy offices scattered across Silicon Valley.

Our only limitations were access to a computer and an internet connection.

Enter the smartphone. The iPhone, Blackberry and Android have mobilised our need for information and interaction. Any moment of the day, whenever we want or need it, the internet is ours -- knowledge and community, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. We can Google the location of that great new restaurant we've been hearing so much about. We can upload our adventures and, within seconds, be rewarded with instant gratification as the likes, shares, and comments grow under the image. Hardware and digital media converging to offer us a world of instant knowledge and socializing through the swipe of a finger across a touch screen.

"Google it" is now part of the global lexicon. "Tweeting" something might sound a bit cheeky, but loads of us do it every day, and it's all mostly innocent. We no longer ask "are you on Facebook?" we simply state "I'll add you on Facebook." Having an account is implicit now, and we're genuinely shocked when we meet someone who isn't interested in the digital Zeitgeist. These programs keep our fingers on the pulse of each other's experience. We post and check in. We stumble upon and retweet; we photostream, like, and spotify, everyday. We Google whenever we need and we watch whatever we like on YouTube. For all of it, we are charged nothing beyond the fees of our monthly service provider. The social network is free, there's no commodity involved. 

Except for us. We are the commodity. 

Upload a photo of yourself, a loved one, even your pet hamster, onto Facebook and that piece of your life now belongs to them -- to be used as they see fit. Twitter sells your old, archived tweets to market research firms. If there's something you've said in 140 characters or less that a company finds useful, Twitter will profit from your archived ramblings. Every experience you have, be they mundane or epic, is for sale. Your good times, your photographs, your status updates -- all fair game, and there's not much you can do to make them stop. You can "deactivate" your account, but you cannot delete it completely. Your data lingers indefinitely -- a digital ghost of you. 

Google has been cataloguing and storing our searches for years, giving them a progressively clearer insight into who we are and what tickles our individual fancies. Our choices on YouTube are documented, allowing them to offer personalised suggestions the next time we pop in. It all sounds quite helpful, but there's more opportunism then altruism in their motivations. Optimising our search experience also optimises our commercial value. The ads we see are targeted; manipulated by what the data says we want to buy. Algorithms build a profile of who we are, and present us as product. Now, with changes to their privacy policy that kicked in this month, Google will take the information they have collected from our searches, YouTube visits, even the private correspondence we send out via Gmail, and stitch it all together, like on-line Frankenstein's monsters.

This is your life, data mined, streamlined, and offered up in pursuit of maximum profit. 

This is a trade off most of us were all too happy to make -- access to each other, and to limitless content and in return, we pay with ourselves. Chunks of our lives have become profitable assets; free tools in exchange for the use of our personalities. But now that we've been delighted by them, monitored by them, and then moulded into content -- marketed by one corporation to another -- something strange is happening. All that lovely, free information is becoming filtered to fit their idea of who we are. The activities of our Facebook friends are being prioritized into a hierarchy. Lose touch with someone for a while and that person's presence fades from our news feed. Our Google searches, once informed by what we wanted, are slowly being tailored based on what our profile suggests we want. Incompatible information and unique perspectives are being pushed into the shadows. Intentional, or by accident, the social network is twisting into a Ministry of Truth. Our world view is in danger of being dictated by the digital gods.

Most of us, however, are too busy updating our status to notice. 

29 February 2012

Business as Usual While the City Sleeps

Eviction in the dead of night. This has been the de facto strategy of authorities across the west when it comes time to strip an occupy commune apart. They move in under the cover of darkness, when most city dwellers are settled in for the night. Fast asleep and recovering from the previous day's onslaught, the general public are well hidden from what might go on when riot helmets come face to face with Guy Fawkes' masks. 

In the small, quiet hours of the morning this past Tuesday, London police and bailiffs marched on the encampment outside of St. Paul's Cathedral, and served notice on Occupy London. 

The occupiers were given 5 minutes to pack up and leave. Any failure to comply would be a violation of court orders. Neon vested bailiffs, hard hats on head, did most of the dismantling, with the riot cops hovering ominously in the background, waiting for the rabble to get violent. The rabble remained peaceful though, and if those dressed ready for trouble were at all disappointed, they didn't show it. When it was all over, 20 arrests were made, and only a few skirmishes broke out. Most of the remaining occupiers began to pack up the tents they've called home these past 4 months. Resigned to the finality at hand, they complied. 

Some, however, chose to build a fortress from what remained of their broke down lodgings. 

While many packed up to go home, or go find a new home, a group of protesters quickly gathered up wooden pallets, ladders, mattresses, and what other random debris they could find to build up a barricade in an effort to waylay their eviction. Young men and women stood atop their ramshackle blockade in defiance while spotlights flooded the square around them and rubbish lorries sat idle, waiting to be fed. 

On the ground protesters and bailiffs engaged in a tug of war for control of the rubble, while at the top of the heap, a single bailiff climbed up on the unstable structure to force the occupiers down in to the waiting arms of their comrades in neon yellow and orange. When one occupier fell, another would climb up to take their place, and one clever long haired fellow managed to take the bailiff down with him as he dropped from the barricade wall. 

Their efforts to remain were admirable, but the outcome was equally inevitable. 

The last gasp occurred on the cathedral steps. A small group had gathered and, believing the steps to be safe ground, huddled at the cathedral's gateway; some kneeling down to pray. One by one they were swept off the steps by riot police. The resisters, bent in prayer or otherwise, were moved either by fear, or force. 

This final action, which saw armoured police force citizens off the steps of the church, could only have occurred with St. Paul's approval. As documented in The Guardian, at around 2am protesters reported seeing police officers on the Cathedral balcony, giving support to the idea that the police had the full cooperation of the church to remove people from the steps. Shortly after, City of London police confirmed they had the blessing of the church, leaving many occupiers stung, and stunned, by the betrayal. 

By dawn, there was little left to remind the city that there had been a camp outside of the venerable cathedral at all. The mess had been washed away before the morning's first mug of tea was brewed. 

But while the city and the church worked to sweep Occupy into the trash bins and out of sight, the banker's at Barclays were providing yet another reminder of why these voices, calling out the excesses and damaging schemes of profit chasers, remain so necessary.  

It was revealed on Tuesday morning that Barclays intended to implement two tax avoidance schemes that the bank was required by law to present to HM Revenue & Customs. The first scheme revolved around buying back their own debt, which had fallen in value during the financial crisis. The buy back of these debts at lower value would result in a rise in profits for the bank. 

The second scheme is more convoluted, revolving around authorised investment funds. The bank's goal was to convert non-taxable income into an amount granting a repayable tax credit, thus guaranteeing a refund while no actual tax would be paid. Combined, the two schemes provided a loophole that would have helped Barclays avoid 500 million in tax. 

In both cases the schemes ran afoul of a forthcoming new corporate tax dodging law to be introduced in Chancellor George Osborne's new budget next month. When faced with what were called two "very aggressive" tax avoidance schemes, the legislation was quickly backdated to take effect at the beginning of December 2011, an unusual act of retrospective legislating. Initially, the government refused to call out the offending bank by name. Barclays later admitted to being the culprit, and assured shareholders that profits would not be affected by the schemes being shut down. 

These two events are at such perfectly opposing poles, it's difficult to believe there wasn't a bit of fate involved in the timing. While Barclays bank was caught out in the end, one has to question if it would have happened without the presence of those struggling to keep a light shining on the dark corners of unbound capitalism and its scramble for new, ever creative ways to turn civic responsibility inside out in the hopes of bonus profits spilling into their open hands. 

With the ground troops of established rule driving the forces of dissent from the steps of St. Paul's, and the profiteers at Barclays attempting to game the system from the confines of the executive boardroom, on Tuesday night in London, it was back to business as usual while the city slept.

26 February 2012

Eric Joyce, Drunken Master of Falkirk

Bombed House of Commons 1941

Colourful Scots' MP inadvertently casts a light on the hypocrisies of Cameron's plan for mandatory alcohol pricing. 

When the story broke in the news earlier this week of a brawl in the British House of Commons Strangers' Bar, I was busy writing about the return of the outraged here in Spain, so I'm a bit late to the carnage. My initial reaction was that "The Strangers' Bar" is far too fantastic a name for a pub where British policy makers and visiting dignitaries mingle over cheap, publicly subsidised alcohol. It sounds like the sort of haunt where you should find the likes of Camus and Sartre drunkenly hashing out the ultimate futility of existence, not Cameron and Osborne, tipsy and sniggering about draconian workfare schemes. 

My second reaction was of course one of kinship with Eric Joyce, Member of Parliament for Falkirk, which coincidentally is my ancestral home. My parents were born there, as were my older sister and brother. I was the first member of my family born outside of Falkirk, and outside of Scotland for that matter. When I was younger, during an extended family trip back, I attended Comely Park Primary School for a few weeks so as not to fall behind in my studies. During this time I discovered the strange, hitherto unknown realm of British crisp flavours, and marvelled at the elaborate Action Man displays that decorated the ceiling at Young's Toys. I also fell in love for the first time with a young girl named Chelsea. Well, I fancied her a bit, at any rate. 

Apart from the obvious connection to Falkirk, I empathised with the bruiser who pummelled a few MP's, not to mention felling one with his own skull, because like many of you, I have at one time or another felt a nearly uncontrollable need to hand a politician or two a sound thrashing. I am also not afraid to admit that a few pints of cider most likely amplified such past urges. It's a good thing select Canadian political figures were never inclined to hang out at my local pub in Toronto's Parkdale borough when the Blackthorn was flowing. Noses might have been bloodied, and I might have found myself in prison. 

On the surface, this tussle in the commons sounds like little more than a sauce'd Scots' leftie having a go at his Tory enemy after a few drams of scotch, with some of his labour chums taking a bit of friendly fire. This sort of thing will happen in a pub from time to time, nearly anywhere in the world. However, a little delving into the Falkirk MP's recent behaviour reveals the reality of a troubled man battling demons. I'm not going to get bogged down in Eric Joyce's personal life. For those interested, fellow blogger's Representing the Mambo touched on a few of the issues quite respectfully here

What makes this incident quite pertinent is that, in losing control in the Commons bar while under the influence of too much of the creature, Eric Joyce has turned the mirror around on British Prime Minister David Cameron's campaign to legislate minimum alcohol prices as a way to curb alcohol abuse and ease the health costs associated with Britain's drink culture. The proposal would see the cheapest brands of various alcohols rise in cost to a set minimum price, the rationale being that the more it costs, the less people will consume it haphazardly and to excess. It hasn't taken long for the proposal to tumble into the realm of class warfare. The poorest will have to pay more for the privilege of a few drinks after a hard day's work, or as a means to escape the grim realities of austerity for a few hours each day. 

The more you look at the plan, it becomes difficult not to see it as gauze bandaging wrapped over a festering wound before it's been treated. The unsightly sore is hidden away from view, but that does nothing to kill the infection. If the availability of cheap liquor were the root cause of alcoholsim and the culture of brawling, the streets of Barcelona would be soaked with vomit and blood every night. In reality, you have to try very hard here to get into so much as a glaring match with a fellow punter, much less a fist fight. 

What it certainly will do is make it harder for people without a drink problem to partake in the simple pleasure of an evening's cocktail to dull the edges. Already miserable and desperate people struggling to get by from day to day, denied a bit of liquid comfort. Because they can't be trusted to moderate their consumption, the government will have to do it for them. Meanwhile, the honourable members of parliament will continue to drink on the cheap; draining down pints of bitter and glasses of merlot while passing a nice portion of the bill onto the same taxpayers they want to rescue from the gin soaked gutter by denying them discount booze at the corner shop. 

While I doubt Eric Joyce had any intention of doing so, in giving a fellow MP or two a few clouts about the ear on a booze fueled rampage, he has introduced a fairly inconvenient quandary within the palace of Westminster. If David Cameron truly believes that the cheap cost of alcohol leads to problem drinking, surely it's time to stop subsidising the temptation of Britain's political classes, no?