The riot squad eyed me off as I trundled towards them. It was dark, but flames flickered and broken street lights somewhat lit the way. Keenly aware of the absurdity of the situation, I weaved my suitcase through the charred motorbikes, car wrecks and overturned bins, continuing toward the blockade. Meanwhile, the rest of the community clanged their saucepans from every balcony on the street, chanting, “Assessinos, assessinos, ass-ess-in-os.”
“Murderers, murderers, murd-er-ers.”
I shouldn’t have been there. But I was supposed to stay with a friend who lived in the middle of Lavapiés – one of Madrid’s sorest cultural tension points – and, arriving late in the evening (with no idea how to get anywhere else) I didn’t feel like I had many other options. Also, my girlfriend is Spanish, and she insisted we would be fine. By the time we approached the wall of plastic shields this confidence was gone, but by then it was too late to wish we had stayed in the Metro.
We didn’t know, at this point, that the protests had been sparked by the rumour that police had chased and killed a Senegalese man for street hawking (it later came out that the man died of a heart attack, and police claim to have helped him, not killed him). And while we were becoming steadily and sweatily more self-conscious about our presence (which included a suitcase, surfboard and giant Toblerone), we thought we looked clueless enough not to be seen as a threat.
We soon reached a police blockade where news reporters began snapping photos of my surfboard as if it were a bazooka. While the Guardia Civil were (fortunately) not as trigger happy, two Kevlar-heavy police still approached us to ask, “Que haces?”. Fortunately for my sub-par Spanish skills (and unfortunately for the drama-seeking film crew helicopter hovering above), my girlfriend stepped in, explained it was a surfboard and demanded we be let through.
The riot squad told us to wait with the other displaced residents. Then, eventually, once the shouts and flares got far enough away, they let us all pass through. We made our way to our friend’s flat and clattered our luggage upstairs, giving his neighbours (who thought the protest must have made its way into their building) a fright in the process.
El Pais confirmed the protests resulted in the arrests of six Spanish nationals and 20 injury reports, as well as significant damage to the area, while Mayor Manuela Carmena took to Twitter to encourage peaceful co-existence between cultures (something Lavapiés used to be known for).
This was March 2018. And while a year and a half may have passed since then, according to The Local.es, “The pressure that caused the riots never went away. Walk through the streets of Lavapiés and you can still feel the tension, as can the police, who keep a constant presence.”
“Until there is real improvement in migrants’ rights, this neighbourhood shrouded in street art, pockmarked with trendy cafes and invaded by investors is going to remain on the edge, until one day the people will inevitably crack again.”
As for implications for tourists, my experience got me thinking about the best ways to survive a riot. And even though I (fortunately) never got caught up in the worst part of the Lavapiés riot, given the unrest in tourist hotspots around the world at the moment, this is information every modern traveller should possess.
This in mind we hit up World Nomads for their top tips. According to them, this is what you should do if you ever find yourself stuck in a riot.
- Keep to the edge of the crowd where it is safest. Try not to be identified as one of the demonstrators by keeping well away from the leaders/agitators.
- At the first opportunity break away and seek refuge in a nearby building, or find a suitable doorway or alley and stay there until the crowd passes.
- When leaving the fringe of the demonstration just walk away – don’t run as this will draw attention to you.
- In the event that you are arrested by the police/military, do not resist. Go along peacefully and contact your embassy as well as your travel insurance provider.
- If you are caught up in the crowd, stay clear of glass shop fronts, stay on your feet and move with the flow.
- If you are swept along in the crush, create a space for yourself by grasping your wrists and bracing your elbows away from your sides; bend over slightly – this should allow you breathing room.
- If pushed to the ground, try to get against a wall and roll yourself into a tight ball and cover your head with your hands until the crowd passes.
- Remember to keep calm – the crowd should sweep past in a short space of time.
- If shooting breaks out, drop to the ground and cover your head and neck, and lie as flat as you can.
As for those who find themselves surrounded by a protest whilst in their accommodation, these are the tips World Nomads say you should follow.
- Do not leave the accommodation or go into the street.
- Contact your embassy or consulate and advise them of your situation and whereabouts.
- On hearing gunfire or explosions outside, stay away from the windows. Do not be tempted to watch the activity from your window. Draw the curtains or blinds to prevent shards of broken glass entering.
- If you are in premises which have doors or windows opening on to the roadside of the property, ensure that all windows and external doors are closed and locked.
- Sleep in an inside room which will provide greater protection from gunfire, rocks or grenades.
- If a demonstration is taking place outside your hotel, liaise with hotel management to keep updated on the situation outside the hotel.