As a blinking cerulean light bounces off the three-story flat across my street, I try to remember if I’ve ever marched in a demonstration that has lasted days and nights. The smoke in the air is particularly different than usual: it’s not the lingering smell of cigarettes, but the burning of barricades set-up by the Spanish police. My neighbors sit on their veranda with a few beers, talking over sirens in the background. A couple on a bench below stares back at me for a second, only to divert their attention to a group of separatists running down the block.
I have never attended a demonstration that has lasted days and nights. I don’t know an American who has. Our dissent begins and ends before the clock hits twelve. In a class discussion at the beginning of the Democratic Tsunami, one of my professors said, “Do you all know what a protest is? Just making sure, I know most of you are Americans.”
My classmates laughed. I felt nothing but shame.
Studying abroad in Barcelona marks my first time traveling overseas, besides family visits to Kolkata. While I’ve been a lifelong activist and experienced frustration over what I saw as a culture of complacency, I never thought too much about it. I knew getting frustrated over complacency was a dangerous tangent. I didn’t want my interest in public service and nonprofit work to be blockaded by an anger towards the very people I wanted to help. However, now that I am observing a major political event in a different country, I am overwhelmed by how publicly justified direct action is outside of the states.
To support the jailed politicians who hosted an illegal referendum in 2017, thousands of Catalans dissented in Barcelona on Friday, following continuous local protests the whole week. The more amazing fact is that the Catalans who came in from outside walked into Barcelona, taking three days of a nonstop commute. Barcelona is Spain’s top international attraction, and earns more than $20 million from tourism each day. To shut down major roads, stores, and landmarks (i.e. Sagrada Familia) is to have a profound, inescapable effect on the country.
The Spanish government is fighting it. They issued a shutdown on a Catalan protest group’s website, and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has spoken against the riots on live television. Regional police have resorted to using rubber bullets, which are banned in Catalonia. Days ago, one protester lost an eye to this.
And yet, the demonstrations continue.
I am in awe. I cannot imagine a world in which Americans could do this. In my experience, it seems like American nature to sneer at dissent, to call it whiny, to label any move towards change a temper tantrum, when it is, in fact, one of the only ways the general public has power.
When this thought drifts through my mind, I think of the Civil Rights Act. I think of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. pulling out of Vietnam. Protests can and have altered the series of political events in American history. What has changed? With everything going on right now, why aren’t we fighting more? You could argue that we don’t have the privilege of missing work to dissent, since we could be fired and lose necessities like company-provided healthcare. Politicians and corporations have toiled away to destroy unions, which means employees have nearly no say in their own well-being.
But these are just more sources of shame. When we are boasting about our freedom, what kind of freedom are we even talking about?
In a time where many of my classmates are witnessing the Democratic Tsunami with fear or annoyance, I’m struck by the courage and commitment of the protesters. I wouldn’t dare wish for the protests to end for my own convenience. Instead of inserting myself into the event, I want to be present and aware during this important moment in European history. No matter how long the demonstrations continue, I’m wishing the best for the protesters involved.