The Spanish Protests

by Gray Cargill on June 7, 2011

signs from Spain protest

Today, I'd like to share a little information, along with some photos and video I shot of the protests I encountered in Madrid and Barcelona. Let me preface this by saying everything I know about the protests outside of what I witnessed personally I know from online articles, and this is a very simplified summary.On May 15th, a week before the elections in Spain, political protestors (mostly young people) organized by a group called Real Democracy Now began congregating in the main plazas in cities around Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona, where they have been squatting ever since. They are often referred to as the M15 movement or "los Indignados" ("the indignant"). What are they indignant about? Corruption in the banking establishment and both major political parties, as well as widespread unemployment (about 20% overall and up to 45% among youth under the age of 30), and a variety of other things. Thousands gather daily for rallies.the sign on the left references a hunger strike

Before I left for Spain, I had a romanticized vision of the protests. After all, who wouldn’t approve of people standing up for their rights against corruption? Who can’t sympathize with people who are facing anywhere from 20-45% unemployment and it seems their government doesn’t give a damn?

sign hung on statue in Placa Catalunya

Placa Catalunya, Barcelona

And indeed, they are doing many things right: They’re nonviolent (which unfortunately didn’t prevent the police from being violent against them). They have banned alcohol at protest sites. They are very democratic; anyone who has something to say is allowed to say it. I often saw small discussion groups tackling what looked like very weighty topics.

group at Placa Catalunya

Group at Placa Catalunya

But while it’s very easy to romanticize and support protests from a distance, when you’re up close and personal, it’s a whole other story. Faced with the protests in person, I realized I was not made for revolutions. Why?

  • I get claustrophobic in crowds. There were hundreds at best, thousands at worst, especially Friday night in Madrid. It was often hard to make my way through the crowds, and it was slow going–making it a pickpocket’s paradise. (No, I did not get my pocket picked, but I think I caught a woman trying to slash my knapsack my first morning there.)
crowd of protestors at Puerta del Sol, Madrid

Crowd of protestors at Puerta del Sol, Madrid

  • I hate noisy places. All day every day there was loud chanting and speakers on bullhorns trying to whip the crowds into a frenzy. This went on until midnight every night. Midnight is early by Spain standards–they’re barely done eating dinner then–but I’m used to being in bed long before that, and the lack of sleep made me very cranky.
protests in Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol

  • Clutter and filth stress me out. In Placa Catalunya in Barcelona, almost all of the public statues had been mucked with. I saw a mattress up a tree there. All of Puerta del Sol in Madrid looked like a garbage dump to me. Every surface was littered with pieces of paper and banners with scrawled political messages on them, makeshift shelters were cobbled together with whatever items people could find. It made me sad to see these formerly beautiful public plazas reduced to this.
protest camp in Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol

I give some of them credit for trying to keep things clean–I saw individuals pulling buckets of water from the fountains to scrub the square; others were gathering up scraps of wood and other garbage and piling it in a corner out of the way; still others had started growing vegetables in little gardens, and in Puerta del Sol, they had tried to accommodate parents by creating a little daycare center. Their efforts just weren’t all that effective in the face of the vast numbers of people tramping through the plazas every day.

Maybe I’m just too old for this shit, but I don’t get why people living in a democracy need to camp out in squalor, keep their neighbors awake all night, and deface public property in order to get a political point across. Why don’t they use their social media savvy in a different way? Spain isn’t Iran or Syria or even Egypt. People aren’t being taken away in the middle of the night for torture sessions at the local jail. Organized protests during the day I can understand, but this seemed a little over-the-top to me.

Puerta del Sol during protests, May 2011

Puerta del Sol during protests, May 2011

But who cares what I thought about it? It’s not my country, and I’m not the one who has to live there. Hopefully, their efforts will bring about the change they so greatly desire. At least they’re trying something, which is more than I can say for most of us who are unhappy with our politicians and economies.

To see a slideshow of my photos from the protest camps in Placa Catalunya and Puerta del Sol, click here. Below is a video I shot from the balcony of my hotel room in Madrid on Friday night, a couple of hours before the crowds peaked in numbers and volume. Toward the end, you can hear them chanting their support for the protestors in Barcelona, who had just clashed with police:

Gray July 8, 2011 at 6:02 am

I can’t answer that, Christine. You pretty much nailed it with the “blowing off steam”. But my goodness, they blew off steam for a loooong time.

GRRRL TRAVELER July 8, 2011 at 1:53 am

I’m not one for protests either. Protests like these are really just for the young to blow off steam and to take a dramatic stage-like stance. But it is great to have a solidarity of purpose & to feel passionate about something. However, Spain is a liberated country–it’s true, their government is no more corrupt than ours & they’re not facing deadly consequences for their action as in other countries. But they are trashing their streets, which will only result in more job loss now that the government will have to deal with an extra cleaning bill … Are there any cases where protests rallies have ever made a difference in turning the gov vote?

Gray June 18, 2011 at 8:08 am

I wouldn’t say it marred my trip, Sabina. Those were just my observations. And you’re right, it was cool to be there and witness it. The entire world is definitely freaking out. Give it time, with as much as you travel, I’m sure you’ll eventually witness some political strife. I just hope it’s as nonviolent as the one I saw.

Sabina June 17, 2011 at 11:57 pm

On the one hand it’s a shame this had to mar your trip to Spain. On the other hand, I think it’s very cool that you got to witness this. I have never witnessed firsthand any political trouble or turmoil anywhere I’ve traveled. And I want to! It’s not that I want there to be political strife, but if there is, I’d like to witness it. I am starting to think the entire world is freaking out. Some parts of the Mid East have been having a lot of politically related violence, Greece is having trouble and Spain. And I read that even people in Canada actually rioted after a sporting event! What is wrong with people today?

Gray June 13, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Well, to be fair to this particular group, they were really trying to do things right. The fact that the group was nonviolent and banned alcohol were huge things and to be highly commended. Their hearts were in the right place. I just don’t think they needed to camp out in a public square to get their message across. And of course, the more people you have trying to cram into a small space…things get messy.

Bluegreen Kirk June 13, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Im just not the protesting type and I guess to each his/her own. Though I think it can help I can find myself participating in a protest or rally. People in protest are just like people at large sporting events, just leaving crap every where like that gets the point across.

Gray June 11, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Really? I read that they had voted to break down the camp. Yes, it’s a very interesting time to be traveling in Spain, for sure. Thanks for the update, Jo!

Jo June 11, 2011 at 11:42 am

Ah i was up at Puerta del sol toady and it is still a mess! The police were trying to move the protestors on with sirens. And it smelt like urine.
I think legaly they have to vacate the plaza by tomorrow, but i have a sneeking feeling there just going to up shot and position themselves on a new plaza.

Still though, interesting time to be traveing in Spain!

Gray June 8, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Well, even if they do, I’m sure the city will clean it up, Krista. As a follow up, I saw in the news today that the protestors in Puerta del Sol have voted to stop camping out there. So that plaza should be getting back to normal soon.

Krista June 8, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Wow, that is a lot of people! I am just like you, with not liking crowds or noisy places and romanticizing ideas that in reality are not me.

I have always wondered why people who gather in protest, or anything where many people gather why they must leave such a mess. Is it really so hard to pick up after yourself?

I hope they get the change they are fighting for and that they don’t leave their mess behind ;o).

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