This story is over 5 years old.


Rubber Bullets in the Streets of Madrid

The night in Madrid smelled like fireworks and spray paint. Riot cops guarded TGI Fridays. A security guard with a kerchief over his face saw a boy spray painting his building. The guard shoved him, hard, to the sidewalk.

Molly Crabapple returns with her sketches and observations from the protests in Madrid.

Any protest, when you're in it, feels like it's going to change the world.

I was balanced on a railing, sketching the 400,000 strong march in support of the Madrid general strike. I saw an infinity of faces. Above them was a leftist rainbow. Black and red flags of CGT (the anarchist trade union), red balloons of UGT (a Spanish mainstream union), yellow-red-purple flags of the Second Republic. People carried homemade banners protesting the debt/austerity cycle that the EU is trying to impose on Spain.


Four hundred thousand mouths were singing "Arriba! Arriba! Todos a luchar!" (Up! Up! Everyone Fight!). V masks marched next to students, toddlers, hard-faced manual laborers. The chanting, the signs, the bodies, all conspired to one thrilling, deceptive conclusion. They have to win.

Of course, protest doesn't change the world. By itself, protest is carnival. Masquerade, song, fire- liaisons made and kings mocked. Daily gray briefly overturned.  Rebellious ecstasy that ultimately serves to keep the hierarchy in place. Those in power, if they're a speck self aware, allow carnival as a safety valve. Carnival is not power itself.

I learned this at Occupy Wall Street. We felt like we were building a new world in a concrete square until the NYPD cracked skulls and threw our mini-city in dump trucks.

15M, the Spanish anti-austerity movement that began in May 2011, was in some ways the mother of Occupy. Eight million people (one out of six Spaniards) took to their city squares. Stephane Gruaso, a documentary filmmaker who rose to prominence during 15M, says  "It was something I didn't recognize. Not a political party or a union, but different people talking. I stuck to it like to flypaper. We wanted the same things as those in Tahrir Square or Occupy Wall Street. A better world, a decent life. "

15M was part of the wave of protest that dominated 2011. Puerta del Sol, like Bahrein's Pearl Roundabout or Zuccotti Park, became one of those instantly recognizable tent cities, bristling with signage, free libraries and power-cord-tentacled media centers. The Spanish media demonized 15M as perroflautas (literally "dog-flute", figuratively "fucking crustpunk"). Like OWS, 15M made no demands, fetishized mass assemblies, remained persistently non-violent, and eventually lost momentum under police truncheons and their own bureaucracy.


15M still lives in neighborhood assemblies, which do everything from buy food cooperatively, to resist foreclosures and pay protesters' legal bills.

Meanwhile, Spain has been following Greece into the bailout slag heap. A particularly nasty law forces people to pay the balance of their mortgages even after they're evicted from their homes. Two weeks ago a woman committed suicide by throwing herself out a window while bailiffs attempted to foreclose. 53 percent of young people are unemployed. Those who can leave, do. People are disgusted with the two political parties, PPE and PSOE.  A socialist MP I met was exasperated that 15M didn't turn its numbers into victory for his party. Salam Abu Orabi, a 21 year old nursing student, laughs: "What happened in Spain was like in the US.  Republicans, democrats. PPE, PSOE. They're the same. I didn't vote. I don't believe in either party."

The indebted PIGS countries of Southern Europe, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece, called a general strike for November 14. It was an anti-austerity strike, to follow hundreds of anti-austerity protests throughout Europe. The main Spanish unions, the UGT and the CCOO (Spanish politics have been alphabet soup since before Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia) were never huge presences in 15M. They were however storied parts of Spanish history. Banned during Spain's decades of fascism, they reemerged along with democracy in 1975. Linked with the socialist party, they've still been victims of its cuts. It's the classic disconnect between workers in the decent-paying, fast-shrinking industrial sector and those in the precarious service economy.  But  unions can make the infrastructure stop.


Stephane says: "Unions had a problem because when we started with 15m, they weren't needed. I don't have anything against unions, but unions are political organizations and have to compromise. They called a general strike, and are fighting now. But we've been fighting every day on the street for two years."

The General Strike kicked off at midnight. Thousands of masked 16-year olds slapped every open business with union-printed vinyl stickers, spray painting anarchy symbols and smashing ATMs with their bare hands. On the faces of banks they scrawled "Murderers" over and over. Riot cops cautiously trailed them, but were far less militarized than the NYPD that I grew up with. When the protesters saw a business open, they'd sing-song "Strike! Strike! General Strike!" and slam down the shops' metal grate, trapping workers and customers inside.

The night smelled like fireworks and spray paint. Riot cops guarded TGI Fridays. A security guard with a kerchief over his face saw a boy spray painting his building. The guard shoved him, hard, to the sidewalk, then ran under an onslaught of cellphone cameras.

Marches took up the entire day. Hundreds of thousands filled the street. It was a the spectrum of the left. Fifty year old CCOO guys and toddlers toting anarchist flags, taut young hippies in loincloths, all throwing their hands in the air in unison as if they were being held up for a bank robbery, which of course the country was.


Most shops shuttered in the protest's path. An hour later, their gates were open for business, the clerks wearily picking stickers from their windows.

The evening march crawled to the congress, which had been surrounded by eight foot concrete barriers for the occasion. Red smoke billowed from Neptuno fountain. We stood there awkwardly, wondering what, after such glorious stroll, would happen to Spain and to us.

After we left, fires burned in the streets of Madrid. The crowd threw fireworks, the police baton-charged and shot rubber bullets. Police brutality is so endemic in Spain, says journalist Dan Hancox, that cop vans are known as Lecharas. Smashing your face in with a baton is, in slang, "giving the milk."

I was supposed to meet Dan for whisky. I heard some bangs from Puerta del Sol, like the protest's fireworks, and an out-of-breath Dan appeared. He'd been dodging rubber bullets. In Keystone Cop fashion, the police were chasing some mouthy teenagers, firing as they went.

The next day the government called a moratorium on foreclosures. It was filled with loopholes. Many activists found it too little too late.

Those midnight pickets?  They ended at Hospital Princesa, in a wealthy neighborhood in Northwest Madrid. Princesa is one of Madrid's great research hospitals. Due to cuts it was about to be turned into a geriatric facility. Spain has the seventh best healthcare system in the world, a fact repeated with much pride. Princesa's changeover was just one more sign that, under austerity, the rank would slip.


On October 31, Princesa's  doctors and nurses staged an occupation. They hung the brutalist buildings with painted banners reading "This is Your Hospital. Fight for It." They covered the front steps in votives. Old women signed petitions by the hundred-thousands.

Rosario Garcia de Vecunia, the hospital's head of rheumatology, laughed when I ask her about the future of Spain. "Spain is on fire." she said, telling me about "politicians who are far from the people," unemployment, evictions. "This is my first time being political in an active way. When I was a student in Basque country, we occupied a university. But that was thirty years ago."

What Dr. Garcia de Vecunia said echoed what I heard throughout Spain. For many, it was their first political involvement beyond casting a vote. But their country was going nowhere good. They had to fight. I asked Salam what the protests have achieved. "It's tough. You see people dressed nicely, drinking and smiling. It's difficult to see the crisis and it's difficult to see the protests' results. At least we have shown the government, the EU and the rest of the world that we refuse. The biggest thing is that we came together."

All illustrations by Molly Crabapple.