Credit: Zoë Schlanger
In a graffiti-tagged room on the third floor of a squatted house in Madrid, 60 or so college students sat in a circle. Two girls rolled cigarettes while another announced she had found a cheap print shop for the placards. Now who could draw Merkel’s face?
This was the general student assembly of Madrid, and they were planning a protest.
University assemblies like this one have cropped up since Madrid’s now-iconic 15M movement exploded on the scene last summer. The three-month occupation of the city’s Puerta del Sol square was born and died before the world was introduced to Occupy Wall Street. But now, in the face of Spain’s soaring unemployment and severe austerity measures, the indignados’ original outcry against mismanagement of the economic crisis has grown myriad indignant tentacles. Anti-foreclosure actions and protests against union-weakening labor reforms keep the city (and the country) in a seemingly perpetual state of indignation.
The student movement, though still in its early phases, is jostling for a national voice.
There was a nervous energy about the March 14 meeting. Each 20-something in the room represented assemblies of students at each of the city’s five major public universities. They were in a precarious position—they planned to march through Madrid on March 27, denouncing cuts to the education budget just two days before the widely publicized general strike set for the 29th.
The strike will come a day before Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, plans to announce a huge package of new austerity measures, just as the affects of the original 15 billion euros in cuts and tax raises are beginning to be felt in the education and healthcare sectors. The new budget, called for by the EU, will be more austere than those of Greece, Ireland or Portugal.
So how much attention did they want to elicit from police, two days before a national action?
Less than a month before, YouTube was inundated with videos of police swinging batons at high school protesters in Valencia, the most indebted province in Spain. Extreme austerity in the region had left Lluis Vives High School without heat or electricity for months. "They had to carry wool blankets to school," one student in Madrid told me, a particularly grim image that came up whenever the Lluis Vives story was told. "Things are about essentials now, and they were getting desperate."
The Lluis Vives students staged a walk-out and march on February 29th. Twenty-five teens were arrested and several beaten. Parents in the family-oriented province, appalled at the use of force, joined their children in a far larger protest the following day. Solidarity marches soon cropped up all over Spain, and throngs of university students took to the streets holding books and wearing green, the color that has become associated with the growing campaign.