Not long after midday on a rather ordinary Thursday (15th March 2018) a young street hawker died on the street next to mine in the neighbourhood of Lavapies, Madrid. As I write this a few hours later the news getting out is that he died of a heart attack while being pursued by the police. There have subsequently been riots on the streets with bins and at least one scooter set on fire.
On hearing about the incident I took a walk through the familiar streets and saw things in such a different light that I am still trying to unpack it all. At the entrance to my block of flats a neighbour gave me her summary of what was happening. Loosely translated it went something like this “the black people in the neighbourhood have gone crazy – they are thrashing everything”. And then she added “your countrymen, they are destroying everything”…. I’ll say no more on this except that she is Morrocan, I am mixed race and many of the people I saw rioting later appeared to be Senegalese (of course I can’t be a 100% sure of that).
As I walked past the street were the young man died I saw a candle and a few people talking. The man who had placed the candle there lived on the street and had seen what happened. He didn’t suggest the police were liable for the man’s death. He placed some responsibility for the rioting on the young kids who hang about in a squat just a few yards away.
The police had cordoned off quite a few streets so I took a long walk around these streets to Plaza Lavapies, the heart of the neighbourhood. It turned out this area was out of control of the police. I foolishly took out my phone to film what was going on. A rioter quickly approached me and warned me to get the hell out of there. I put my phone away and walked off. He had a dog and was pretty angry.
A shop on the corner of the Plaza had been set on fire. People outside began to shout to the flats above – “get out, get out, there’s a fire”. Oddly no one had thought to ring the doorbells. I took it on myself to do this and shout the same message through the intercom. When someone finally opened the door I rushed in along with several others banging on each door. In a flat on the 2nd or 3rd floor a lady was quite distressed as she was caring for an old man who could only walk at a snail’s pace. Along with 4 or 5 others we carried him down the stairs.
Looking back we probably caused him a fair bit of distress. He was quite heavy and there simply wasn’t any way to move him without some discomfort to him. He seemed unable to speak so I don’t know his opinion on the matter. Memories of what I had heard about the Grenfell Tower fire were really what drove me to think the priority should be to get him out ASAP.
Lavapies is a very mixed neighbourhood so many of us who stormed up the stairs banging on doors were not white. I could see the fear on the faces of many of them and I don’t think it was just fear of the fire. One person quite understandably recoiled in shock when she opened the door and saw me. I felt a real responsibility to make up for the bad rep “foreigners” were in the process of gaining. Looking back, some of the people running up the stairs with me looked rather… ehrm…. “unsavoury”. I would be really pissed off if I found out someone had used the opportunity to rob. Yes, I have prejudices too.
Round the corner I came across another group discussing the situation. A young Senegalese chap seemed the most knowledgeable. He said the man who passed away lay on the street for several hours and the police had chased away someone who tried to help. Someone who identified himself as a journalist said something about the police having tried to help the victim. Comments were quickly made about how the press was already trying to change the story.
The Senegalese lad became a friend quickly enough. Which is remarkable because those five minutes of conversation I had with him make up the longest conversation I have had with a Senegalese in 8 plus years I’ve spent in Spain. It turned out he too had a complex about the PR black people were getting that night. When he saw an elderly woman walking up he went out of his way to assist her. It turned out she was rather drunk but lived close by. For a few surreal moments we helped her to her front door. Surreal because she insisted on puffing on a cigarette all the way even though she was easy over 70. I was super glad a white lad accompanied us because we really must have looked quite suspicious when we had to rummage through her handbag to help her find her keys.
It was time to go home. Enough craziness for one night. Well, it turns out I was wrong. A few blocks from home the rioters had taken over Plaza Nelson Mandela. Yes. Yes. I was very proud of my neighbourhood when that name was given to the Plaza where so many Africans hang and which some guides to Madrid are weary of. I couldn’t feel more shame when I saw a few guys setting fire to the rental bikes on there.
Shame? Frustration? Indignation? Something other than raw anger drove me to confront them. I guess I underestimated their anger. They quickly turned on me. A few urged restraint but on guy in particular decided I was the enemy and asked if I fancied dying too. In my mind a lot of rioters are opportunist who take advantage of a situation to cause damage for the hell of it. As I heard the shouts and threats I still underestimated their anger. Anger doesn’t come across very well in broken Spanish spoken with an African accent. Not to me anyway.
Long story short, I stayed too long trying to talk to them and got roughed up a bit. At one point I was on the floor being kicked but the guys urging calm were actually the bigger and stronger ones. One of them lifted me back up and sent me off.
My overwhelming feeling as I toured my suddenly not so familiar neighbourhood was one of shame and anger. Shame and anger at the community which I am not really such a part of. I mean that community that you are a member of just by not being a member of any other. I don’t even know what to call it. Being lumped into it by my Moroccan neighbour has really disorientated me.
One thing is clear. I need to figure out the sources and levels of anger in my community. These were very unfriendly fires that burnt tonight in Lavapies.