(AP) Police in Barcelona have charged a Northern Virginia man with public disorder and illegal demonstration for what they characterize as an instigating role in a protest that got out of control.
Peter Gelderloos, 25, of Vienna, could face up to six years in prison if convicted, an unusually stiff penalty because the protest concluded with the explosion of a massive firecracker.
Mr. Gelderloos is free on bond awaiting trial, but the terms of his release essentially bar him from coming back to the U.S. since he is required to check in at the Barcelona courthouse every two weeks. His lawyer has advised him it may be two years or more before his case goes to trial.
Spanish police say Mr. Gelderloos was one of the leaders in a group of several dozen squatters protesting the city’s gentrification who were holding a procession in April on Las Ramblas, a main pedestrian drag in Barcelona.
The protesters were pushing a shopping cart rigged to look like it had a cannon sticking out of it, said a Spanish police official in Barcelona who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in line with police policy there.
At one point Mr. Gelderloos and several other protesters started to scream “We have a bomb, we have a bomb,” then the firecracker exploded, the police official said, adding that Mr. Gelderloos was among those who set off the firecracker.
“People who did not know it was a joke could have had panic attacks,” the official said.
Mr. Gelderloos has acknowledged attending the protest and supporting the protesters, but says he barely knew the other people participating and was not involved in organizing or leading the protest. He thinks his political beliefs — he is an anarchist who sometimes dresses the part — caused police to treat him suspiciously.
“Naturally I was interested in [the protest], but I had not helped organize it and when the [firecracker] went off I was leaving to meet another friend,” he said.
When police broke up the protest, Mr. Gelderloos said he did what he would normally do in the U.S.: follow and monitor the police to document abuse or see if those arrested need assistance. It was then that he says a police officer asked him a question. Mr. Gelderloos responded by saying he didn’t understand Spanish very well and showing the officer his passport.
The officer took the passport and walked to the police station, with Mr. Gelderloos following. It was only then, Mr. Gelderloos said, that he learned he was under arrest.
The arrest is not his first. In 2002, he was sentenced to six months in prison for trespassing at a Georgia military base as part of a protest against the U.S. military’s training of Latin American soldiers. He has been active in a variety of radical groups and recently wrote a book that questions the effectiveness of nonviolent social resistance.
But while he wrote favorably of violent resistance, he said that doesn’t mean he acted violently in Barcelona.
“I don’t see what these ideas have to do with my guilt or innocence,” Mr. Gelderloos said. “I’m not accused of injuring anyone.”
The U.S. Consulate in Barcelona declined to comment on the case, citing privacy rules.
n AP writer Daniel Woolls contributed to this report from Madrid.