Mass street parties in Barcelona turned violent over the weekend, with dozens of people arrested and injured in clashes. The outdoor drinking parties – known in Spanish as botellones – coincided with La Mercè fiestas, the annual festival of the city of Barcelona, which is a long weekend in Catalonia.
The tension began on Friday, the first night of the fiestas, when 15,000 people gathered in the space between Plaza de Espanya square and Maria Cristina avenue, according to local authorities. Some 500 police officers were on duty to stop street parties from getting out of control. The plan was to prevent alcohol from being sold on the street after 11pm (the legal limit for stores) and issue fines to those drinking alcohol outside. While this strategy worked in several areas of the Catalan capital, it did not prevent the mass street party in Plaza de Espanya square. As the night progressed, some people were seen throwing bottles on the ground or at passing cars, according to attendees who spoke to EL PAÍS.
The most serious incidents took place on Saturday, when more than 40,000 people – most of whom were around 20 years old – gathered along the length of Maria Crista avenue, reaching as far as Rius i Taulet avenue. Cars, motorbikes and trees were set alight. Fistfights and knife fights left a number of people injured. Objects were thrown at police cars. And the windows of the Fira convention center were smashed and destroyed. Two stores were also damaged during the night. Officers from the city’s local police force, the Guardia Urbana, and the Catalan regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, made 22 arrests, while the Emergency Medical Service (SEM) attended to 34 people, 14 of whom had been injured with knives or glass.
At midnight the Guardia Urbana set up a perimeter to prevent the partygoers from cutting off traffic and to keep them in the square. But that did not stop the youngsters from spreading out to María Cristina avenue and other nearby streets. The perimeter was lifted at 3am, which was when fights began to break out. In one of them, a young person needed medical attention after being hit with a glass bottle. Albert Batlle, the deputy chief of security in Barcelona, said that there may have also been a possible sexual assault, but the case has not been confirmed yet.
“What happened is unacceptable, it doesn’t have anything to do with La Mercè fiestas,” said the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, from the leftist Barcelona en Comú party. “Red lines have been crossed and we have seen how a problem of uncivil behavior and intense occupation of a public road on the first night [Friday] turned into an issue of public order, crime and vandalism.” Colau also thanked police officers for their efforts, saying: “It is very difficult to step in when there are 40,000 people.”
Nighttime venues, with the exception of those with outdoor areas, remain closed in Catalonia, due to restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. A 25-year-old woman at another street party on Saturday said this was to blame for the outdoor drinking. “We have been at home for two years. When we see botellones on television we are always shocked, but people continue to go out, they are not opening the nightclubs for us,” she said at the party in the square in front of Barcelona’s Contemporary Art Museum (MACBA), where hundreds of people had gathered.
In a press release, the Catalan Federation of Nighttime Venues (Fecano) said without lifting restrictions on nightlife establishments, “the serious problems of public clashes that are happening, especially in Catalonia, will not be able to be combatted.”
On Sunday, the third night of La Mercé fiestas, thousands of youngsters from neighborhoods across the city and from its surrounding areas gathered for another mass street party. Due to the strong police presence at Plaza de Espanya, the partygoers gathered this time at Bogatell beach, with the party stretching for more than a kilometer over three more beaches. The youngsters, most aged around 18, shared laughing gas and danced to music on loudspeakers of varying sizes. While many police officers were present on Saturday, with dozens of vans on the scene, this was not the case on Sunday: no uniformed officers were seen and there was less fighting.
The head of the Mossos, Pere Ferrer, said on Sunday that while “the criminals” who committed acts of vandalism or theft were “opportunists,” they were a “minority.” He added that the objective of the police deployment was not just to prevent street parties, but also to prevent crime from taking place. In response to criticism over the lack of police, Ferrer said that the operation on Saturday included plainclothes police officers, and was supported by drones, which offered the force “good qualitative information.”
The mass street drinking has been attributed to a perfect storm of factors: pandemic fatigue among youngsters, the fact that nighttime venues remain closed in Catalonia (with the exception of the dozen or so that have outdoor spaces), the long weekend and the fact that for many youngsters this is the first time that they have been able to celebrate La Mercè. The result has been alcohol-fuelled violence and little respect for coronavirus safety measures such as face masks and social distancing.
English version by Melissa Kitson.