When Good Parades Go Bad
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
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 paraded 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 swung. Smoke filled the air. Cars
busted through barricades. Chaos was born.
We managed to find 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
“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 past 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.
Terence Rivada contemplates a fiery escape
“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.