When the Spanish Tried To Occupy their Parliament
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Madrid yesterday, all pissed to the point of combustion about the cataclysm of shittiness that has dominated Spain for the last year. There's obviously already been plenty of violence and protest and people throwing stuff at the police over there, but this time was different, in that the protesters' intention was to completely disband parliament and rewrite the constitution. A pretty optimistic proposition.
The idea came from a previously unheard of group called plataforma ¡en pie!, who have spent the last month promoting the initiative, which they snappily named "25-S": Occupy congress – in honour, it seems, of 15M, which stands for May 15th, 2011, the birthday of the Occupy movement. While that may seem like some kind of Guy Fawkes shit to you and me, it’s also a testament to the popularity and ingenuity of Spain’s social movements. I mean, the fact that they can still draw that amount of public support 18 months after kickstarting the whole Occupy thing is pretty impressive.
What’s always interested us in our coverage of 15M, has been how much the movement could actually affect change in Spanish society. For example, that bunch of punks we filmed who turned over a squatted block of flats to previously evicted families. I don't see any government housing reforms having that kind of immediate, beneficial effect. It's also why, in a news climate where Mitt Romney's tax records are considered more newsworthy than "a bunch of angry people on the continent," we think yesterday’s protest merits a mention.
Whilst ¡en pie!’s manifesto recycles many of the same complaints made since 15M first appeared, what’s different in this case is the shift in focus from vague peaceful protest, to targeting peaceful protest against specific targets. It seems like semantics, but encouraging people to surround one place – parliament, on this occasion – and peacefully disrupt the state apparatus until a change is made, is a tactic that could be taken up by Occupy movements worldwide to a much better effect than sitting in tents in a park, making tea and playing guitar.
The change has also been mirrored by a shift in policing. Following declarations by the Secretary of State that the protest was "tantamount to a coup", police carried out a wave of preventative arrests against the leaders of ¡en pie!, which included the eviction of a social centre that had hosted their meetings and the breaking up and subsequent questioning of everyone at a meeting in Madrid’s Retiro public park.
Congress was effectively sealed off by the police and it looked like nothing much was going to come of it. ¡En pie!’s Facebook group had 11,000 likes, but no one was sure of how many people would actually turn up, so the government prepared for the worst and drafted in 1400 police officers and employed the biggest scare tactic they could muster; warning prospective protesters that they'd face jail terms of six to 12 months if they turned up. That didn't seem to bother anyone too much, though, because, although the demonstration was scheduled for 4PM, protestors had already begun assembling by 11AM, with the crowd reaching the tens of thousands mark somewhere just after noon.
I’m writing this from Barcelona, watching El Pais’ live feed and, while we’ve had our fair share of demonstrations over the last year, I’ve not seen anything quite like this. Rather than holding lines, the police are roving in packs of four to six, apparently indiscriminately thwacking protesters, innocent stander-bys and journalists alike. Rubber bullets and fireworks are flying again (it seems like the miners' strike during the summer imparted some of their tactics) and chants of “People united, will never be defeated” are ringing out with a force that is quite breathtaking.
This morning, the aftermath is predictably bleak. The government have stood by their hard line, commending the police reaction, while the front pages are covered with pictures of the injured. A year and a half ago, a similar police reaction to a demonstration saw the public come out overwhelmingly in support of the protesters, effectively establishing the camp that would become the first Occupy.
A second march has been scheduled for 7PM tonight. Let's see where that takes us.
Follow Paul on Twitter: @pauldotsimon
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