Courtesy: Flickr user OpenMinder
Young people in Spain grew up in a country where most citizens had access to all levels of education, where the welfare state provided healthcare, and where access to university permitted dreams of a decent future. Now all this has suddenly disappeared in the name of austerity, which the government has unilaterally proclaimed the only option. None of the measures being implemented appeared in campaign platforms of the governing conservative party Partido Popular, now 10 months into its tenure in office. With university fees rising, general social budgets disappearing and the youth unemployment rate over 50 percent, it is no wonder that many young people feel cheated.
The protest encampments of the indignados sprouted all over Spain in May 2011, and since then demonstrations have cropped up regularly in objection to specific measures—cuts to education, cuts to healthcare, cuts to mining subsidies. But on September 25 of this year, the indignation took the form of a clear and confrontational questioning of the entire governing system. The goal of the action was to “highlight the distance between governors and citizens, and to demand the reopening of the constitutional process.”
The first call to “take the Congress” took place before the summer, from a largely unknown platform called “En Pie” (literally “On foot,” but colloquially translated as “Rise up”). As other groups adapted the call over the next few months, the rhetoric changed: “taking” the Congress morphed into a plan to “surround the Congress,” and by September a dedicated group called 25S Coordinator was formed.
Much like the Occupy movement in the US, Spain’s 15M movement, more than a year after its apex, was struggling to maintain relevance in the public eye. Although it did not bear the name, the action on September 25 was mainly a 15M event, and, according to sociologist Miguel Martínez, it “has saved its [15M’s] political year.”
The government was wary after recent events like the massive coal miner’s march against subsidy cuts. A campaign of “preventive repression” highlighted its fear of the coming protest. At a demonstration on September 15, people bearing banners promoting the 25S action were arrested by police. One of the most important okupas (squatted social centers) in Madrid, which was linked to the 15M movement, was suddenly evicted on September 19 in a legally ambiguous manner. The weekend before September 25, the police interrupted an assembly of the Coordinator group to demand participants show their identification cards.
For months, police patrolled the perimeter around Congress. On September 25, there were fences, police vans, anti-riot units and over 1,400 officers waiting for the protest. Tension among protesters was palpable: “People did not sing, slogans were not chanted, and there were very few of the typical 15M DIY banners,” said Marco Godoy, a political artist working on a visual “Protest Archive.”
Little by little, thousands of people arrived—the call was not for a particular time. The intention was to progressively surround the area, and then see how things went. Some protesters had travelled across the country to be there. While many stayed still, others walked around the enormous perimeter marked out by the police. An art collective called Enmedio threw Frisbees with written notes attached to them. Others held hands to form a human ring around the building—a blockade strategy reminiscent of the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization summit.
Around 9 pm, a small group began pulling down blockades and attacking the police. Many believed these were undercover policemen. A brutal police response followed, and protesters “began hearing rubber bullets, fired one after another,” said Godoy.
A video, turned viral online overnight, showed riot policemen chasing people inside the underground Atocha train station and hitting them with batons. A man who claims to be a press photographer screams "I am working!" but he is shoved anyway. In another video, a bartender became a local hero when he refused to allow policemen into his bar.
Uniformed policemen did not show their identifications badges, and undercover police were present all the time. In one video, an undercover policeman can be seen shouting to uniformed police officers, “Fuck, I am a colleague.” According to Godoy, this was reminiscent of “the old Franco-era right wing, acting with total impunity.”
In total, sixty people were injured, and 36 were arrested. On September 26 thousands surrounded the Congress once more, in what Martínez saw as a fundamentally anti-police brutality demonstration. A petition begun that day has gathered 56,276 signatures at the time of publication.
It is still too early to assess the consequences of 25S and its aftermath. Martínez speaks of its success in terms of mobilization, and in generating solidarity as well as media presence not enjoyed by 15M for some time. But after significant repression, it will no doubt be difficult to regroup and reconfigure as fast as they might like.
The young people in Spain did not, of course, vote for the constitution which was created after the death of Franco in 1975. Although formally, the Spanish constitution guarantees the right to education, healthcare and housing, there are no specifications on how these goals should be achieved. The recent protests reflect a desire for an opening of the constitutional process, which requires two-thirds agreement in the parliament to amend. University professor of communication Víctor Sampedro says that “for the first time in our history, the constitution shows its flaws, and they are pointed out by democrats and not by fascists.”
For Adrián, a 28-year-old activist and sociology student who participated in the S25 actions, the popular protest slogan “No nos representan,” or “we are not represented,” has turned into a radical demand of the party in government now: “Leave, you do not represent me.” To demand the resignation of a government that has introduced the large series of deep austerity measures not part of its election platform is, for him, simply logical.
“This is a path that has started and that has to continue,” Adrián said, reflecting on the protest movement’s new focus on a reconsideration of the constitutional process. On October 23 or 25 there is another call to protest around the Congress. Spanish youth, who grew up in a good educational system and enjoyed many social rights, has been jolted. They are too awake, now, to simply sit back and accept their popularly-anointed status as a generation “without a future.”