Several hours earlier the central avenues of Barcelona had been clogged with tourists, exchange students, and businessmen on bicycles, and now the streets have been flooded by thousands of protesters. At 8 p.m. last Thursday night, I made my way down Paseig de Gracia, the Broadway of Barcelona, weaving through people eating gelato, toward the low hum of thousands thronging in the Plaça de la Universitat in the center of the city. Some protesters had come in response to the police suppression of the preceding week’s protest. Some had come to demonstrate against the European Union’s Plan Bolonia. Finally, and most fundamentally, they were all there to support the timeless right to peacefully take to the streets.
A friend visiting from Paris turned to me: “I can’t believe they’re beginning so late. In France, we would never protest at night, and we are the country of protests.” Lit by traffic lights and street lamps, anywhere from 5,000 (according to the government count) to 25,000 (according to the demonstration’s organizers) gathered in the Plaza outside the University of Barcelona. Black hints of authority loomed expectant on the periphery, helicopters hovered above, and rows of policemen in riot gear blocked the entrances to central streets. While clearly student organized, the protest attracted a mixed crowd. I was flanked by a bemused baby, bicyclers, and people descending from their balconies as we passed. Carrying books and hand-painted posters, the crowd began to wind en masse through the heart of the city, marking time with coordinated slogan-chanting (“We’re students, Not Delinquents!” in Catalan, “Freedom of Expression, Police No!”).
The demonstration was most immediately a response to the confrontations between police and student protesters, or “la repressió de los mossos” (the police repression) the preceding Wednesday, which ended with some 80 injured, including more than 30 journalists. Images of bleeding reporters and baton-wielding police, faceless in their riot gear in violent confrontations with students, shocked people in Barcelona, which normally boasts the mellow yellow ambiance of a Mediterranean San Francisco.
The earlier protest was an attack on Plan Bolonia, which proposes reforms to the public educational system that some fear sacrifices university autonomy for ease of use. Signed in 1998 in Bolognia, Italy, the legistlation gave birth to the intangible European Space for Higher Education, and proposes a credit system which, like a MetroCard transfer, will allow students to study in multiple European countries and obtain one degree. Based in part on Erasmus, it’s sort of like an academic Euro, with credits that would transfer and be recognized by any of the nearly 50 countries that signed the plan back in 1999. Set to be fully in force by 2010, it is a program which many students fear also signals the privatization and homogenization of public higher education.
Regardless of whether Bolonia changes the public university system, for students in Spain public demonstrations remain part of the political vocabulary. Barcelona has been the seat of some of the strongest Anti-Bolonia protests in Europe, and Barcelona’s Catalan region has a long history of protest — it was one of the most fiercely anti-Franco parts of the country under Spain’s 35-year dictatorship.
In the US, we’ve had anti-war protests in New York, marches on Washington, transit strikes, and even riots, but the idea of student-led protests as a relevant part of political discourse seems to have faded with the zoot suit and the beatniks. (See: that silliness at NYU.) In Europe when students take over universities or take to the streets, the protest is still a viable means of political action: presence in public space as an inalienable right, and one not to be ascribed solely to the ’60s-era. Sure, the fact that it’s nearly impossible to find police in riot gear in the United States is a good thing, but one has to wonder why the student-led protest has survived and flourished in Europe, while back in the US it has become a distant memory.
[Editor's note: If Rebecca's name sounds familiar, it's because she's a recent winner of Le Meridien and Flavorpill’s TRAVEL JOURNAL contest. You can read about her time in Paris here.]