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The Transition

Battlefields in Barcelona 2: Passeig de Sant Joan, February, 1976

5th August 2015
Los Grises in Passeig de Sant Joan, February 1976

The streets of Barcelona comprise a battlefield which has hosted, and continues to host, skirmishes and more enduring clashes between armed police and local people. 

The streets of Barcelona have seen fierce battles over issues such as workers’ rights, the all-pervasive influence of the Church, education, Republicanism, a Stalinist coup, representative democracy, national independence, workers’ self-management, property speculation, squatters’ rights, forced evictions and revolution.

The city’s layout has been largely informed by the needs of the army.

For example:

  • Via Laietana, was deliberately created to allow cavalry units to disperse hostile crowds forming outside the inner city walls.
  • Avinguda Diagonal was created to enable rapid access to the heart of the city by troops based in barracks in Gràcia and Pedralbes.
  • Parc Ciutadella was once the site of an enormous miltary citadel.
  • The castle on Montjuïc, was only handed to the city in 2008; until 1963 it was a prison run by the military to incarcerate and sometimes execute, dissidents.

1976: Los Grises on Passeig de Sant Joan

In February, 1976, three months after the death of dictator, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, the Assembly of Catalunya (Asemblea de Catalunya) called a demonstration in Barcelona.

The rallying call for the demonstration was, “Liberty, Amnesty, and a Statute of Autonomy” (Llibertat, Amnistia i Estatut d’Autonomia).

The Madrid government, then led by Navarro, responded by giving approval to Manuel Fraga, the then Interior Minister, to lockdown the city through deploying detachments of the much hated Grises.

“The streets are mine!” Fraga boasted.

The Grises — an armed corps of anti-disturbance and traffic police [Cuerpo de Policía Armada y de Tráfico] which came under the command of the Army, were formed in the immediate post-Civil War period. They were known as los Grises (the Greys) because of the colour of their uniform. They were licensed (and encouraged) to maim, torture and kill — which they often did, with glee and swagger. The barbarity with which they suppressed shows of popular dissent is legendary, and remains to be fully documented.

Los Grises on Passeig de Sant Joan, February 1976


The images above were taken in 2010. The site is labout 150 metres from our apartment, and very near the snack bar, Gredos. The image above was taken looking toward the Verdaguer monument, set at the junction with Avinguda Diagonal.

The near life-sized photo, mounted on a plinth, was part of an impressive installation and exhibition project curated and organised by El Memorial Democràtic, an organisation established to

…recover, commemorate and publicise Catalonia’s democratic memory (1931-1980) – specifically, relating to the Second Republic, the Republican Generalitat, the Civil War and to victims on account of their ideological, religious or social conscientious choices, as well as the repression of individuals and groups by Franco’s dictatorship (including the Catalan language and culture), exile and deportation. It also remembers the anti-Franco struggle and the transition to democracy up until the first elections to the Parliament of Catalonia.

I passed by one day and saw a family group of U.S. visitors  inspecting this installation. They were on their way to the Sagrada Familia, just five minutes’ walk away. At first they thought it was a billboard. They were visibly shocked when they realised the significance of the image, its location and its relative proximity in time.

“Thought this was Chile,” one of the men said. “But it’s here.”

A teenage girl, holding an ice cream, mouthed the words, “Oh my God,” and put a hand to cover her gaping mouth and stepped back from the image.

Here they were, on vacation, no care in the world, contemplating a scene of violent repression in an image that had been taken 200 years after their own country’s violent transition from dictatorship to democracy.

If you look closely at the image you’ll note that most of the Grises are using truncheons. However, if you look  to the left of the picture, behind the two cops in the foreground, you’ll see a cop using the butt of his rifle.

August 2015:

It is sobering to have in mind that according to laws passed by the current government of Spain, such photographs as used above, if taken today, could be deemed illegal. Both the photographer, and I, the website owner, could each be liable for a fine of up to 600,000€.


You’ll find this stretch of Passeig de Sant Joan, above the junction with Avinguda Diagonal (and an imposing column topped with a statue of Jacint Verdaguer), between Carrer de Provença and Carrer de Roselló.

If you want to visit the site, it’s really straightforward, it’s just a few steps away from Verdaguer metro station.

Nearest metro: Verdaguer, L4 – Yellow and L5 – Blue.

Bicycle: The site is at a junction of two bike lanes.

Bus: The site is on the route of the bus.

Enjoy exploring the history of Barcelona

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