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Six days that shook Spain
June 19 brought out entire new sections of Spanish society in protest against a massive, cruel and destructive crisis from which those who were responsible are gaining, while ordinary people suffer -- in evictions, in cuts to child and aged care, in health and education.
By Dick Nichols, Barcelona
June 23, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renwal -- On June 19, huge demonstrations of the M-15 [May 15] movement in 97 Spanish cities and towns brought at least 250,000 people onto the streets. This vast and peaceful turnout marked a new phase in the rising struggle against the austerity policies of the country's "parties of government" -- the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), the People's Party (PP) and the Catalan nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) -- as well as against the recently adopted Euro stability pact.
The demonstrations also stopped a virulent right-wing crusade against the indignados ("outraged") of M-15 dead in its tracks. This campaign exploded into life after a planned peaceful blockade of the June 15 budget session of the Catalan parliament degenerated into a fight between the police and a part of the crowd that was trying to stop MPs
entering parliament house in Barcelona.
At the time of writing it is impossible to establish accurate numbers of those who marched on July 19 -- the most optimistic figures already top 1 million. However, no-one can deny that the movement is getting wider and deeper: compared to the "founding" protest on May 15, at least five times as many demonstrated nationally, with the turnout in regional cities and towns many times greater.
The mood is also becoming more radical -- the Madrid march echoed with the call for a general strike.
The impact on Spanish politics is best measured by two events. After June 15, the M-15 movement, painted as a violent minority attacking the institutions of democracy, was on the defensive, especially in Catalonia.
Yet six days later, on June 21, and under the influence of M-15 demands, the national parliament unanimously adopted a non-binding resolution on "measures to deepen the credibility, transparency, austereness and democratic controls of the institutions and powers of the state".
Only six days, days that have shaken Spanish poliics, separated these two moments.
June 15 in Barcelona
The June 15 blockade of the Catalan parliament had been decided at the June 10 assembly of the M-15 camp in Plaza Catalonia, in central Barcelona. All Catalan MPs were texted to ask them not to attend the budget session that would slash 10% from public spending. The resultant cuts have sparked an ongoing wave of protests in Catalonia, especially by health workers. In particular, MPs from the opposition parties -- Socialist Party of Catalonia (PCS), Initiative for Catalonia Greens-United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) -- were asked to delegitimise the cuts by boycotting parliament.
The leaflet advertising the blockade said: "We assert the legitimacy of civil disobedience in opposing the approval of unjust laws. The action will be absolutely peaceful, non-violent, massive and resolute."
Camp spokesperson Hibai Arbide told the media that the slogan "Let's stop parliament" was symbolic. "We won't be committing any crime of coercion, but if there are thousands of us there, they, the politicians, will have to work out whether entering parliament is legitimate or not. We shan't be using force against anyone."
However, the posters advertising the concentration simply said: "Let's stop parliament, to prevent approval of the cuts." Some clearly took this as an invitation to launch a physical confrontation.
At around 6 am on June 15, a small part of the crowd of 2-3000 indignados, who had gathered the previous evening in the park outside parliament, tried to prevent the police from opening the entrance to parliament. When they were driven back, some began to throw bottles, and the space before the gates of parliament soon became a battleground.
After 8 am cars carrying MPs were surrounded and MPs arriving on foot were shoved and spat upon. Some were sprayed with paint.' Journalists and parliament house workers were harassed. More and more participants in the blockade got drawn into shouting at and shoving the arriving MPs. The protesters made no distinction between government and opposition deputies --I CV and PSC MPs got sprayed with paint.
With official cars, including that of CiU Premier Artur Mas, under siege, the police decided on a change of plan: the MPs who didn't want to run the gauntlet of protesters were sent off to the nearest police station (and nearby Barcelona Zoo!): from there they were shipped into the grounds of parliament in paddy wagons and the police helicopter.
This went on from about 8 am to 10 am, when the parliamentary session was due to start. During this time divisions were exposed among the protesters, with the many shouting "no provocations" whenever a fight
broke out. Half-a-dozen of the most enthusiastic bottle and paint throwers were pushed out of the blockade. And even during the melee many protesters tried to convince MPs, especially from the opposition, not to attend the session.
How did the planned "peaceful civil disobedience" end up with 45 injured and six arrests? Many Barcelona M-15 activists pointed to a revenge motive on the part of interior minister Felip Puig. The MPs who complained about the "overpolicing" of the May 27 police attack on the Plaza Catalonia M-15 camp, were deliberately given some "underpolicing" at the June 15 blockade -- in order to better appreciate the value of police protection.
A YouTube video of what were obviously police dressed as indignados -- and whom at a certain point the uniformed police actually escort out of the blockade! -- has been shown widely in Spain as evidence of officially organised provocation. But others, especially security experts, have plumped for incompetence over conspiracy -- why, for
example, weren't the MPs simply bussed into parliament?
Many activists blamed "the usual suspects" -- the "direct action" wing of Barcelona's libertarian movement, always ready for a fight with the police, whether at a squat, a protest or after a Barça victory.
With the MPs finally inside parliament the protesters held an assembly to decide on their next moves. A minority argued for the blockade to remain, with a view to stopping the MPs from leaving parliament. However, the majority decided to march away from the scene of confrontation and to continue peaceful protest in St James Square, outside the Catalan government building in central Barcelona.
The assembly also issued a statement "regretting and condemning the violent acts of a minority".
The Catalan parliament issued an all-party declaration which "roundly condemned the assaults and intimidation of the Catalan people's representatives". The ICV-EUiA MPs declared that they had "entered the parliament of
Catalonia on foot and condemn the fact that not all MPs have been able to do the same, and likewise condemn the attempt to prevent parliament from sitting and our MPs from carrying out their responsibilities".
As the melee outside parliament was unfolding one activist told a reporter from the progressive daily Público: "There's 3000 of us, but because of four who want a fight, we´ll all be called violent."
How right he was! Even while a few indignados in the post-blockade assembly were celebrating their "success" in delaying the start of parliament by 11 minutes, TV coverage of the confrontation was feeding a shock-jock frenzy across the country. The right was not going to miss an invaluable opportunity to criminalise the M-15 movement and
cut back the massive public sympathy it has enjoyed.
Footage of protesters hassling blind CiU MP Josep Maria Llop and tugging at the leash of his seeing-eye dog was run over and over again, as if to ram home the message that "this is what these M-15 people are really like".
For the CiU government, this was a prize chance both to stand up nobly for the principle of majority rule and the sanctity of the people's representatives. But it was also a chance to turn the spotlight away from the worst budget cuts since the end of the Franco dictatorship as well as from its sweeping "omnibus" law -- catch-all legislation that
empowers the government to cut and restructure at will.
The counter-attack of the right was all embracing -- legal, political and, most of all, ideological.
On June 16, Catalan chief prosecutor, Teresa Compte, announced she would hunt down those responsible and show "zero tolerance towards any attack on democratic institutions".
Interior minister Puig reminded everyone of the law that sentences anyone found guilty of impeding MPs in the course of their duty to three to five years' jail. He also said he was studying whether to charge Arcadi Oliveres, president of the Justice and Peace Association and unofficial patron of the M-15 movement in Barcelona, with defamation for his comment that plainclothes police might have been stirring the provocations outside parliament.
La Vanguardia (Barcelona'sbig business newspaper) editorialised on the front page about "a painful, worrying and Third World image of Catalan society, something that can have very negative effects, economic and of
The CiU politicians also took the opportunity to bash the left and the previous tripartite (PSC-ERC-ICV-EUiA) government. President Josep Antoni Duran Lleida said that "Barcelona is the capital of those opposed
to the system. The left-wing culture that has governed Barcelona and Catalonia in recent years has allowed them to grow and multiply. The restraining of the police, responsibility of their political masters, was effectively a call to destroy urban real estate and shop fronts."
Federico Jiménez Losantos (a sort of Spanish Andrew Bolt [far-right columnist]) went apoplectic in the same vein: "Catalonia is the paradise of the squatter, the Ithaca of the anti-system crowd, the mecca of the burka, the archetype of criminal permissiveness headed towards an apocalypse of delinquency. Why be surprised when the squatter tribe, converted into urban guerrillas, attacks parliaments, assaults MPs and punches up the forces of order?"
The right also took care to link M-15 with the more painful experiences in Spain's political memory. The media kept harping that 2011 is the 30th anniversary of the last attempt to close down a Spanish parliament -- the February 23, 1981, occupation of the national parliament by civil guards as part of a failed coup attempt.
Mas himself, later followed by PSC spokeperson Miquel Iceta, pressed the button of the Basque kale borroka ("street struggle" involving actions like setting fire to ATMs, overturning and burning police cars). What better way to criminalise M-15 than to establish subliminal associations with ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom)?
M-15 reaffirms non-violence
However, in their zeal to extract maximum advantage from June 15 the right began to trip over themselves. The breakfast program presenter of Telemadrid's breakfast told viewers: "No words, you decide" [if M-15 is
a peaceful movement], and then proceeded to show scenes from ... Greece.
Other rabid commentators began to describe the June 19 protest in the capital not as a march in Madrid but a "march on Madrid" (with echoes of Mussolini's 1922 march on Rome).
At the same time pressure was growing from within the M-15 movement, and from its supporters and sympathisers, for the movement to restate as clearly as possible its non-violent character. At the simplest and most
powerful level this pressure was coming from activists who said they simply couldn't and wouldn't participate if this wasn't made clear.
The message was reinforced by actions in other cities such as Valencia, where the indignados' protest against the opening of the regional parliament took the form of a mass showing red cards to the MPs entering
Sympathetic parts of the "establishment" left, such as the Workers Commissions (CC.OO.), Barcelona Federation of Neighbourhood Associations and ICV-EUiA, who had condemned the June 15 violence, also made clear
that they would support the June 19 marches if M-15 made it explicit that they were to be peaceful.
The right's manipulations also produced a strong counter-reaction among even marginally objective commentators. Many observed that no-one gives a hoot about routine violence after soccer games here and that after Spain won the World Cup, Plaza Catalonia looked like a World War 1 battlefield. Not so much kale borroka but a lively celebration a trifle overdone!
In Barcelona well-known intellectuals declared that they would be as guilty as Oliveres if he was charged with defamation.
Famous magistrate Balthasar Garzón wrote: "The indignados are not those who chase or hit politicians, but those who demand accountability and explanations from the same; not those who throw paint at MPs or assault them, but those who point out their inaction around the economic crisis: not those who stop parliament from meeting, but those who ensure that MPs don't abandon the debate before solving the problems of the society that they have sworn or promised to defend."
June 19 -- a massive outpouring
On June 18, after two days of discussion, spokespeople for the Barcelona M-15 reaffirmed that the June 19 march would be peaceful. They refused to take responsibility for the June 15 confrontation because the blockade of parliament had been planned as non-violent.
They also lamented that "the stained shirts of a few politicians counted for more than 40 wounded" and stressed the systemic violence involved in "evictions, sackings, cuts to health and education and military spending".
However, the Barcelona M-15 organisers agreed that the June 19 march would not end in the park outside parliament and revealed that, for the first time, the march would have its own security. The "street fighters" were asked not to show, or to behave. For the Madrid march participants were asked to bring cameras to record any outbreak of violence.
In removing the spectre of violence from the June 19 protests M-15 helped produce an enormous success. The movement understood the manipulation to which it was being subjected -- the crudity of the right's offensive only succeeded in inspiring more people to come out.
June 19 brought out entire new sections of Spanish society in protest against a massive, cruel and destructive crisis from which those who were responsible are gaining, while ordinary people suffer -- in evictions, in cuts to child and aged care, in health and education. If May 15 began by "putting out on the street what many think at home" (words of Catalan academic Manuel Castells), June 19 allowed hundreds of thousands more to put themselves out on the street.
In this atmosphere the line that the indignados had tried to kidnap democratically elected government collapsed -- it had already been kidnapped by big capital, the finance sector and Brussels.
The Barcelona protest alone drew support from 22 neighbourhoods and from 100 townships across Catalonia. In Madrid 104 local assemblies contributed to the final march, which was built by six feeder marches from across the region.
In Barcelona, when the head of the demonstration had already reached its destination, 1.5 kilometres from the starting point, the tail of the demonstration still had to wait an hour to leave Plaza Catalunya.
These were joyful demonstrations, in which music played a strong part. Madrid demonstrators were treated to a rousing orchestral performance of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as the Palma de Mallorca demonstration passed
the city's opera house a tenor appeared on the balcony to lead protestors in the drinking song from Verdi's Rigoletto!
These massive peaceful marches sent the columnists of the right scurrying back into their burrows. For example, the diehard rightist La Razón could only manage this headline: "May 22, 22,000,000 vote: June
19, 125,000 march".
The politicians are reacting, or pretending to react. Leaders of the safest PP-led autonomous communities (Madrid and Valencia), are already offering "electoral reforms" that would have allow voters to vote for individuals and just parties. However, at the same time PP vice-secretary of communications, Esteban González Pons, continues to
stress the "minority" character of the movement.
On the left, the United Left (IU), ERC and ICV are planning to take proposals of the movement to the national parliament. "We are doomed to dialogue and discussion", said Gaspar Llamazares, IU parliamentary spokesperson, reflecting on the hostility that has been directed from parts of the movement to the "old, institutional" left.
The June 19 marches were the culminating point of a movement that has covered an extraordinary distance in just five weeks. Around Spain it is putting down roots in new towns and neighbourhoods, developing its proposals and planning ongoing action against austerity, corruption and privilege.
If it maintains this dynamic politics here will be transformed.
[Barcelona-based Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal's Europe correspondent.]