Spain's Streets: A Global Desire for Change

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Demonstrators gather at Madrid's landmark Puerta del Sol as part of the United for Global Change movement against banking and finance in Madrid, 15 October 2011. (Photo: REUTERS - Susana Vera)

By: Serene Assir

Published Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards joined millions of people around the world in protest, despite the rise of the right as a political force in a country soon heading for elections.

Madrid – “Globalise the revolution!” read one of a sea of technicolor banners that filled the Spanish capital this Saturday. The day was marked by global protests in the name of change. Hundreds of thousands of people responded to the global call in Madrid alone, with most gathering in the city’s central square, Puerta del Sol. The mood in Madrid was fueled by an energetic commitment to maintaining the pressure until change happens. “I think people have just started to wake up to the need for action,” said 21-year-old student and activist Esteban Ribera. “To me, this is only the beginning.”

From Latin America to Asia, through New York, London, Madrid, Brussels, and Tokyo, people took to the streets of their towns and cities in more than 70 countries, demanding that their rights be respected, and that they stop being made to bear the burden of a financial crisis that they did not create.The last time people around the world took to the streets in unison and in such numbers was in 2003, protesting the then imminent invasion of Iraq.

Spirit of 2011: Confidence amid Uncertainty

In Spain, the movement for change is gaining momentum, despite internal divisions among protesters and the continuing rise of the Spanish right. After years of official restraint, police violence has once again become frequent in recent months. Some believe this is among the reasons why people didn't turn out in even larger numbers. In addition, protesters showing up for the day’s peaceful mass gathering complained of the inadequacy of the authorities’ response to months of popular discontent.

“The authorities, aided by the mass media, have worked hard to criminalize our actions for a long time now,” said Julian, a secondary school mathematics teacher who requested that his surname be withheld from publication. “As a result, even though we’ve turned up in large numbers today, many others whose lives are just as affected by the state’s response to the financial crisis are afraid to publicly voice their concerns.”

Such obstacles have nonetheless failed to demobilize the core of the movement that was born in Spain on May 15 this year, whose central call is for “real democracy, now.” Spearheaded by the country’s youth, the movement was born out of a frustration with the current state of Western democracy and its pandering to the financial elite. “We won’t pay for your crisis,” and “The people united will never be defeated” are among the slogans that have come to characterize the Spanish movement, which, alongside the Arab revolutions, has inspired people the world over.

Since May 15, scores of towns and cities across Spain have witnessed spontaneous actions, including demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes. Protesters rallied in support of public education, health care, and other parts of the welfare state established during the transition from dictatorship under General Francisco Franco to democracy. Since September alone, secondary school teachers have staged strikes on three full days, demanding that the authorities do not cut the public education budget as they have done this academic year, pushing scores of teachers out of work. “The ones worst affected by these cuts are, at the end of the day, the children. We cannot allow for the destruction of the welfare state, not after all the sacrifice we made to create it,” said Esmeralda, an arts teacher.

One of the most outstanding characteristics of yesterday’s protest was the unified, complementary nature of its demands. Protesters did not only condemn cuts to the public education budget; they also made anti-war calls by demanding reductions in the national defense budget. Ribera, a student protesting at the demonstrations, was hopeful that a new-found political consciousness among thousands of people in Spain – and, indeed, the world – means that things will change for the better. “I am not so wise as to know what is going to come of all this,” she said. “What I do know is that we have started a process from which there can be no turning back now.”

Redefining Public Space

The movement that has taken Spain by storm since May has been specifically characterized by the impulse of regular popular assemblies on the streets of many towns and cities. Last night, protesters held a general assembly at the now emblematic Puerta del Sol, during which people from all walks of life – including students, immigrants, public sector workers, and even a policeman – publicly shared their concerns and dreams with thousands of jubilant, attentive listeners. The popular assemblies have been ongoing since the protests began and are designed to foster collective decisions, complete with a speedy voting system, permitting internal and external criticism.

Leaderless and without a clear political ideology, the May 15 movement has suffered from significant internal disagreement on matters such as participation in the upcoming general election. To many, particularly the youth, voting would amount to participation in a political system that has shown itself to be systemically corrupted by financial interests, and in which there is such deep complicity among the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and its closest opposition rival, the Partido Popular (PP). Others, such as Julian, a math teacher, believe that “if we don’t vote, we’ll help the right wing take power, and then we’ll have to watch everything becoming privatized. We shouldn’t give our collective fate up so easily, and people need to remember that just a few decades ago, we didn’t have the right to vote at all.”

Polarization grows

While the turnout last night was massive, the right-wing PP, led by presidential candidate Mariano Rajoy, seems to have already won the November 20 general election. This has fuelled commentary in the media and on the streets, with speculation that the country is becoming increasingly divided over issues such as public spending, immigration, and employment.

What is clear is that the core of the protest movement has espoused a deeply progressive and diverse agenda, encompassing issues as far-reaching as reform of the electoral system and the genuine fulfillment of the social and economic rights enshrined in the Spanish constitution. The movement has also voiced its desire for an end to unjust, costly wars, on the one hand, and the need for greater respect for the environment on the other.

To some, an agenda as broad as this is cause for concern; for others, it is merely a reflection of a need to react to the current political system’s inability to meet an overwhelming majority of the people’s aspirations. “After years of carefully crafted political apathy, it’s normal that we should have problems when it comes to determining how exactly we will go forward,” said arts teacher Esmeralda. “At least, people are protesting now, whereas just a couple of years ago, most people were happy to just put up with their suffering and stay home.”

To Ribera, there is hope that large segments of the population that remain apathetic will shift their position soon, partly because the state’s austerity measures are suffocating such a large proportion of the country, but also because mobilizations such as yesterday’s can only serve to inspire. “What we need now is much broader mobilization,” Ribera said. “Everyone needs to overcome their fear and get involved. And I believe they will; it’s just a matter of time.”

Comments

Thanks for a good informative article. The West has a very long way to go before it relinquishes its colonialist culture that has brought the rest of the world nothing but wars, misery and depravity. It is possible for some of the European masses to take to the streets today but this should not be taken as a sign of the final demise of Western capitalism, but as a sure sign of its weakness.

No wonder we see so many people in the picture, pity many people are not taking part in this revolution. I hope time will come when everyone wakes up.

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