Argus Abroad: Violence Hits the Streets
One of the reasons that I decided to study abroad in Madrid was the current economic crisis. In the spring of 2011, it was already abundantly clear that Spain was headed toward Greece-dom, and despite warnings that things would boil over during my stay—what with rising crime levels and all of the other general unpleasantness that comes with 25 percent unemployment—I was interested to see what would unfold in a country on the brink of disaster.
Last month, on Sept. 25, things did indeed boil over.
An estimated 6000 protesters descended on the Congressional building (Congreso de los Diputados) here in Madrid, protesting significant tax hikes and public sector wage cuts in recent austerity measures implemented by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government. I watched the whole thing live on TV from my host family’s apartment, located five minutes from the epicenter of the action. My host mother had joined the three-plus-hours-long protest earlier in the evening but left before things became violent.
Over one thousand—yes, one thousand—riot police donning helmets, shields, and batons blocked off the protestors before the unemployed and over-angered began to break down and throw police barricades, also throwing rocks and bottles. Police responded quickly and viciously, beating down Spaniards sitting in protest and giving men and women alike a vicious lashing with their batons. The protestors’ brazenness wasn’t limited to lobbing beer bottles from afar, either—one of the starkest images from the event was that of a police officer who had fallen to the ground being punched and kicked by several different protestors as he tried to scramble to his feet and run away.
The local news channels had a field day with the clip, and you’d almost feel bad for the guy had he not been cracking skulls of cowering protestors just moments before he was pounced upon.
Protests happen on a near-daily basis in Madrid (and have been happening that regularly for years now), but they rarely number over a thousand people and seldom get violent. As one would expect, demonstrations have been intensifying as the government continues to announce increasingly harsh austerity measures, but the magnitude of the Sept. 25 battle royale was unprecedented in recent years. Spaniards have become increasingly upset with police and the conservative government’s efforts to suppress protests in an attempt to present a facade of stability to potential investors. The Sept. 25 protests, as well as other larger manifestations of discontent that have been popping up lately, are unique in that they unite a slew of demographics. The majority of protests, for example, address the complaints of a particular subgroup, such as firefighters, government employees, immigrants, or college students, while the “manifestaciones generales” unite everyone affected by or in opposition to austerity measures and policies of the center-right Popular Party.
It’s not uncommon to see relatively small protests surrounded by dozens of patty wagons and police donning riot gear. My host mother’s sister was one of many protestors on Tuesday who claimed to have seen the “protestors” who threw the first punches at police getting out from police cars—in other words, she said that cops in plain clothes had started the melee in order to give the police an excuse to physically break up the protest.
Conflict is not limited to the streets of the capital, either. As the financial crisis deepens, Spain—one of the most decentralized states in Europe—has to deal with the issue of regional separatism as the autonomous polity of Catalonia attempts to declare independence from Spain. Catalonia, home to the city of Barcelona, is both the most economically important and indebted region in Spain and claims that its regional 41.8 billion euro deficit stems not from fiscal mismanagement, but from the fact that the region contributes significantly more to the central government in taxes than it receives in benefits. High unemployment and a long history of nationalist sentiment have only added fuel to the raging separatist fire. On Sept. 11, some 600,000 protestors in Barcelona (nearly eight percent of the entire population of Catalonia) took to the streets to show their support for Catalan independence on the annual Catalan holiday, Diada. With regional elections in Catalonia coming up in November and support for independence running at 51 percent in opinion polls, Mr. Rajoy has on his plate a whopper of a problem almost as big as the bailout looming overhead.
As the Spanish economy continues to shrink and unemployment hovers at 25 percent, it is unlikely that social unrest in Spain will let up in the near future. From an exchange student’s point of view, watching the political and economic situation unfold here in Madrid is as educational as any other aspect of a study abroad program.