Arriving from provinces across Spain — including some who marched on foot — thousands of protesters converged Saturday in Madrid to demonstrate against the Spanish government's austerity policies, persistent unemployment, political corruption, and the payment of a national debt they consider illegitimate.
Under the slogan "Work, bread, and a roof," a large crowed — estimated by organizers at more than 100,000, but pegged at closer to 12,000 by local authorities — assembled in Madrid's Plaza de Colón. The protest was mostly peaceful, in striking contrast to the first March for Dignity of 2014, which saw 29 people arrested and hundreds injured, including 67 police officers.
As the march wound down on Saturday, however, a small group of protesters clashed with police on the central street of Montera. According to the news agency EFE, a dozen police vans chased a group of "hooded" protesters toward the Plaza del Sol. The protesters allegedly attacked a bank branch, destroyed several garbage bins, and tossed furniture onto the terraces of several restaurants. Seventeen people were detained.
More than 300 Spanish trade unions, activist groups, and associations organized the demonstration, which was planned as the beginning of a series of protests that are expected to culminate with a general strike on October 22, one month before the Spanish general elections.
"The government wants to deny reality, and that is why we are here," Javier Garcia, a spokesman for the March for Dignity, told VICE News.
Garcia said the group is fighting for "the recovery of some public services related to education and health, to protest against the payment of the debt, which we consider unfair and illegal as it has not been contracted by the people's decision, and to position us against the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), a free commerce treaty between both economic areas that is going to bring more poverty to our country."
Despite data pointing to a slight recovery by the Spanish economy — the country's GDP is expected to grow around 2 percent in 2015, according to the IMF — Saturday's demonstration still attracted thousands of disaffected citizens. Family spending has also grown 2.5 percent in the country, and 477,000 jobs were added in the last trimester of 2014.
Garcia said that, "despite the official data, almost half a million people [in Spain] do not have any income at all, and that is a tragedy."
The timing of the protest was significant, coming one day before elections in the southern province of Andalucia, where unemployment has climbed as high as 40 percent in some cities. The Andalucia election kicks off a series of ballots that end in November with the country's general election.
Many of the demonstrators Saturday were young people, most of them unemployed. The unemployment rate in Spain is currently 23.4 percent, but the youth unemployment is more double that, above 50 percent.
"Being here is something related with empathy with others, with the rest of the unemployed, and people evicted, and people who can't get access to education," Andrés Muñoz, 18, told VICE News. "I had to leave the university because I cannot pay tuition. I have no access to a scholarship, and now I am looking for work to save money."
Mireia Biosca, 25, told VICE News she represented an association that came from the regions of Valencia, Murcia, and Castilla La Mancha. She said the group traveled for three days to get to Madrid. "We started off as a group of 60 people, and have joined 15 more buses on the way," she said.
Mireia said more than 1,000 young people from the Bloque Joven de Valencia joined her at the Plaza de Colón to protest "in favor of public education and against the cuts."
Another common cry among the protesters was, "no help, no unemployment, no precariousness; marches for dignity."
Mireia said that, although Spanish President Mariano Rajoy insists the country is no worse than it was last year, "now everything is more precarious."
She noted that the 2014 March for Dignity attracted more than a 1.5 million people, according to organizers, but the reasons to demonstrate this year are "even greater."
"Nothing we had asked for in 2014 has been accomplished," Mireia said.