Dead city: torturing squatters for a cleaner Barcelona

  • February 7, 2015

Protest & Policing

Nine years ago, Barcelona police tortured four innocent people. A new documentary tells their story, uncovering the corruption behind an entire system.

Finally, Caligo struck and split her heart
which fell over her world in the form of rain

— Patricia Heras, “Sacír”

Ashes, blood and orujo mingle with the rain, showering the crowd in front of Barcelona’s city hall. Diana Torres has mixed her beloved Patri’s remains with the eye-watering grape liqueur — famous for its use in invocations — and her own vital fluid. She sprinkles the concoction over just some of the thousands who have gathered in solidarity. “I want vengeance and retribution, that word we inherited from the witches,” she says over the PA, as Cindy Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ reverberates throughout the square. Then she calls for a minute of screaming, and the plaza erupts.

It took nearly a decade of solidarity and struggle to build the sound that shook Plaça Sant Jaume on the night of February 4th, 2015. And though its story may sound particular at first, it describes a process that extends far beyond Barcelona. That process is what Murray Bookchin referred to in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship as the slow death of city life, which he identified with “human propinquity, distinctive neighborhoods and humanly scaled politics”, and the violent imposition of urbanization, with its “smothering traits of anonymity, homogenization and institutional gigantism.”

Exactly nine years before Wednesday’s protest, hundreds of people had gathered for a party at a squatted theater in Barcelona’s famed gothic neighborhood. As often happens at these events, city police were eventually called in to disperse the crowd. Predictably, a scuffle broke out. What was less predictable, however, was that one officer was left in a coma after being hit in the head with a flower pot.

In a rage, officers responded by rounding up anybody in the area whose appearance fit what they referred to in their reports as “a squatter aesthetic.” They arrested three young South American men. While in custody, they were subjected to racist insults and torture by both Catalan and city police alike, to the point of requiring medical attention. When the police finally took their victims to the Hospital del Mar for treatment, they saw two more people with injuries and an edgy aesthetic in the waiting room. Patricia Heras and Alfredo Pestana had fallen off of their bicycles after a night of drinking with their friends at a bar in the Raval neighborhood, on the opposite side of Barcelona’s central Ramblas. They had not gone to the party at the squatted theater. The police, however, did not believe their story, and they were taken into custody.

What followed is an unsettling tale of torture and corruption that spreads from the police to the judicial system and the left-wing coalition government in office at the time. It culminated in the April 2011 suicide of Patricia Heras, who refused to continue suffering her unjust incarceration. Despite its ubiquity among the city’s social movements, the case was mostly silenced by the Catalan and Spanish media. Over the last four years, however, the activist film-makers Metromuster pieced together the story through interviews with journalists, lawyers and the victims themselves.

After several years of mobilization, including the occupation of the iconic Palau del Cinema — renamed the Teatro Patricia Heras — their documentary Ciutat Morta (‘Dead City’ in Catalan) was shown on the more marginal of Catalonia’s two public television stations on January 17th of this year, at an unfavorable time-slot, with five minutes removed from the story. Despite all this, over half a million people tuned in to the documentary, the highest ratings in the station’s history. You can view it with English subtitles here:

Ciutat Morta caused a political earthquake in Catalonia. People were outraged to see just how violent and corrupt police and city officials could be, even with a nominally progressive city government in power. Television pundits such as Pilar Rahola, who had previously criticized the South American victims’ mothers for questioning the Spanish justice system, were now saying that the case should be re-opened. One of the most commonly repeated sentiments expressed over the days following its release was that Patricia Heras and Rodrigo Lanza could have been anybody that night. But the fact of the matter is that it could not have been just anybody. Patricia Heras, Rodrigo Lanza, Juan Pintos and Alex Cisternas fit a specific profile that had been under construction for several years. They were incívicos, uncivil agents of urban and moral decay.

The figure of the incívico began to emerge in the summer of 2003, when La Vanguardia (Catalonia’s main newspaper) began to echo the right-wing political parties’ criticism of the city’s left-wing government on the grounds that their lenient policies towards the use of public space promoted ‘unclean’ streets and ‘uncivil’ behavior. The paper began to run daily stories about public sex, intoxication and urination, squatting, skateboarding, homelessness, prostitution and street peddling, all accompanied by scandalous photographs of piles of garbage on the city’s streets and beaches.

It also framed these problems as being associated with the country’s then-recent transition towards being a major destination for international migrants. As the right-wing nationalist Convergència i Unió party went on tirades about ‘the right to a clean Barcelona’, shopkeepers and middle- and upper-class residents complained that the streets ‘were not what they used to be.’ Over the next several months, incivismo emerged as one of the main social problems identified by city residents on official surveys, alongside immigration.

The ‘socialist’ mayor Joan Clos responded to these concerns by launching his Plan for the Promotion of Civic Virtues, whose stated goal was to further spread concern regarding the ‘uncivil’ use of public space among the citizenry. According to the University of Barcelona’s Observatory on the Penal System and Human Rights, this plan emphasized citizen participation in identifying deviant behavior that was heavily associated with socially excluded populations, including sex workers, homeless and undocumented people. Squatters were also heavily targeted and, as urban anthropologist Manuel Delgado explains in Ciutat Morta, all of these groups were lumped together as a problem of public hygiene, and not one of public order.

The Plan for the Promotion of Civic Virtues was followed by the 2006 implementation of the Civic Bylaws, which granted new authority and considerable discretion to city police in determining what behavior — and, by extension, what populations — to target in their enforcement of ‘proper’ coexistence in public space. Unregulated behavior was heavily fined. Skateboarding, juggling and playing football in the street would be fined up to €1500, prostitution up to €3000. Begging, sleeping, drinking and selling bootlegged items in public space were also fined. These measures were far from symbolic: during the first year of implementation, an average of 148 citations were issued every day.

The new bylaws also produced common sights that were unusually charged with a disturbing degree of symbolic violence. One of these was the constant hosing down of pedestrian areas, which sounds harmless enough and even desirable when expressed as a simple city cleaning task. But I will never forget the image of city cleaners being accompanied by police as they sprayed beggars, travelers, and squatter-punks off of the steps of Plaça George Orwell. “It happens several times a day,” I told a visiting friend of mine as he watched in horror, “They water the pavement so it’ll grow.”

The frame employed by the media and city officials to turn Barcelona’s once vibrant common spaces into lifeless public-private spaces has a lot to do with why it took nine years to get the story of Patricia Heras, Rodrigo Lanza, Alex Cisternas and Juan Pintos into the public sphere. Because squatters, immigrants and people with alternative lifestyles were presented as wasteful byproducts of urban decadence, mainstream society did not feel compelled to listen to their stories or question the official one.

Fortunately, it appears that this is starting to change in the post-2011 world. Distrust towards the government, the media and the police is growing, and so too is the desire for retribution and accountability. As these combine with increasing awareness of the plight of the systematically marginalized and dispossessed, collective action is becoming far less marginal and far more difficult to dismiss. Police violence is becoming more difficult to portray as an isolated problem caused by the moral failings of a handful of officers; rather, it is starting to be viewed as one trait of an entire structure of systemic violence.

As a result, Wednesday night’s protest in Barcelona did not limit itself to championing the cause of the February 4th victims. People were also demanding justice for Juan Andrés Benitez, a local shopkeeper killed by city police last year, and for Idrissa Diallo and Alik Manukyan, who died in Barcelona’s immigrant detention center. Their signs attacked the labels used against the victims, from the racial slurs to the incívico label. And the banner they marched behind read “It is not one apple, it is the whole basket!” This is the one ray of hope that emerges from an otherwise dark and depressing story, and it is a big one. More and more people are discovering solidarity and realizing that, for the dead city’s pavement to crack open, we must continue to water what grows beneath it.

Photo by Enric Català, the banner reads: “It’s not an apple, it’s the whole basket!”

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Carlos Delclós

Carlos Delclós is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. His research interests include international migration, social stratification, fertility, urban sociology, social movements and cultural theory.

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