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.
Much like in New York, where clashes with Occupy protesters gave uninvolved citizens a new perspective on the NYPD, people in Madrid (and Spain as a whole) have become newly wary of police presence.
Some students at the assembly, aware of the viral attention commanded by the Valencia high schoolers, saw the new wariness as an opportunity. "The more the cops beat us the more people will come out for 29M. It’s the photos online that get them out," asserted a young man studying philosophy at Compultense. "But we can't all be sitting in jail for 29M, right? How would we fight for the budget?" a student from Carlos III University countered. Several hands went up in finger-wiggling agreement. There was an understanding, especially after the Lluis Vives High event, that the police would not hesitate to arrest en masse--especially if there is a chance to stymie the indignados before the general strike.
For a student in Spain, the stakes of protest are high. A university policy called 'Expediente Disciplinario,' or Expedient Discipline, could mean immediate expulsion for an arrested student, or a ban from becoming a university professor. An arrest on one's permanent record also bars one from working for the state in any capacity in Spain.
But many students say they feel they don't have much to lose. Spain's unemployment, at 23% nationally, recently broke 50% among people aged 18-26, so 'entering the job market' is something of a misnomer. Add to that new labor reforms, passed by decree last month, which ease the cost of firing employees, and the sense of insecurity is pervasive.
Many students continue to go to school, earning higher degrees (tuition in Spain is relatively low compared to its European neighbors, hovering around 1000 euros per year) while anxiously delaying the day they will need to begin job hunting.
"What you end up with is a massively over-qualified population with no opportunities," said Julia Ramírez, a doctorate student who is studying the Sol occupation in Madrid. "You end up with a lot of hopelessness."
This culture of hopelessness is deeply felt among young people in the city, most visibly during protests. Terms like "Lost Generation," and “Ni-Ni”—a disparaging title that stands for ‘Ni estudian, ni trabajan,’ a person who neither studies nor works—have been repurposed as monikers of solidarity, of belonging to a newly politicized class of economically orphaned young people.
In fact, the most powerful student organizing body in the city has reappropriated the hopelessness into a platform: Juventud Sin Futuro (literally, "Youth without Futures") is an extremely potent affinity group that began in Madrid a short time before 15M. A banner with their slogan, "Sin casa, sin curro, sin pensión, sin miedo," “without a house, without a job, without a pension, without fear,” is now a mainstay of every student protest in the city.
Juventud Sin Futuro’s actual membership is quite small—around 80 people or so, an amazingly low number given its ability to mobilize thousands of students.
Since Juventud Sin Futuro is an affinity group, its core membership, more often than not, is in political agreement. Protest-organizing happens efficiently within the group, which disseminates its calls to action through sophisticated online campaigns, prompting Juventud Sin Futuro to appear in the news on a regular basis.
"They definitely know how to use the media," Ramírez said. "But mostly it’s that they aren't lost in silly debates over small things.”
This has been a chronic problem for the university-based assemblies, which are a catch-all for most every left political preference. Things move slowly, mired in ideological conflicts and unspoken hierarchies. The Lluis Vives protest sparked a rash of activism at the university level, but the turnout is still relatively low (Compultense perhaps being the only exception). The counter though is that "without assemblies there isn't a movement. And if the assembly is too small, it isn't legitimate," said Julia Cámera, a 19-year old history student at Compultense and a spokesperson for the assembly there. She, like many others at the meeting, is part of Juventud Sin Futuro in addition to her university’s assembly.
Assembly-platform dichotomies aside, the students in Madrid have something student activists in the US are not yet equipped with. The space (both mental and physical) for radical disobedience has already been established, and the assembly that night was sitting in it: the squatted house where they held their meeting.
This okupa is one of several that dot the center of the city. These squats operate on the premise of autogestión, a word that loses key nuances in its English translation to ‘self-management.’ Based on ideas of cooperative maintenance, these houses operate as cultural centers where people give workshops on everything from bicycle repair to trapeze, cook meals and hold concerts, with little or no exchange of money. Political radicalism is central to okupa culture, and the Sol occupation of 15M was originally born from discussions held in their graffiti-tagged rooms.
The student movement in Madrid works from within that context, but has complicated the utopian trope with its own signature irate hopelessness. As precarity mounts and the “Lost Generation” struggles to find it’s footing, this combination may produce something surprising.
“They’ve opened up the possibility of collective disobedience for themselves, for their purposes,” Ramírez said. “That’s not nothing.”