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18 October 2012

Rioters push for change amid Spanish economic hardships

MADRID — Amid dire economic crisis and the passage of new austerity measures, Madrid has attracted global attention as a city of social activism.  Anti-government protests began Sept. 25, nicknamed “25-S” by organizers and proponents of the demonstrations.

While several Eurozone nations such as Greece are suffering similar financial hardships, the protests and consequential police and government action sets Spain apart from the rest.

“I didn’t expect that kind of violence from both police and protesters but sadly it’s becoming less surprising with time,” said Miguel Garcia, 20, of Aranjuez, Spain.  “This protest movement promoted by Spanish citizens has always been based in non-violent acts and manifestations, but there’s always someone who doesn’t respect this and causes the police intervention.”

Protesters organized and gathered predominantly through the use of social media. The so-called ’25-S’ protest reportedly aims to unite disparate groups in an effort to surround Spain’s Congress of Deputies (Parliament) in central Madrid. Local authorities have given permission for protesters to gather in Plaza de Espana, Puertas del Sol, Plazas Cibeles, Fuente de Neptuno and Paseo del Prado, all located near the Spanish Parliament.

More than 1,300 additional riot police were deployed in Madrid to maintain order and take preventative measures for the planned 25-S protests.  After two hours of relatively peaceful protest, police turned to rubber bullets and baton charges to control crowds.

Photos and video captured by protesters paints a very different image of aggressive police violence.

“Infiltrated police is a tool always used in demonstration. It’s not a secret. But I really think this time it was used with the only purpose of light the fuse of violence,” Fernandez Cadenas said.

“Riots are always avoidable, but lately police tend to excessively intervene, causing more problems than they solve,” Garcia added.

Julio Enrique Medina Gonzalez, 19, a student of Universidad Rey Juan Carlos Fuenlabrada, shared similar views.

“The violence was totally unjustified, the police have no right to use such excessive violence,” he said. “It only provokes the protesters to respond with more violence, generating an incontrollable spiral of riots. There is no reason for the police to treat protesters in this manner, as if they were real criminals.  They just want to exercise their right to protest.”

According to news reports from El Pais, after just one day of protests, 64 were injured and 35 detained in custody.  As reported by El Pais, police charges began at 7 p.m. Tuesday evening.  Riots escalated around 9 p.m. when police tried to clear the plaza with force.  Protestors attempting to flee were caught between lines of charging police. Officers claimed that violent demonstrators started throwing bottles, batteries and other items as well as beating police agents.  Harsh police charges, captured on cell phone and video cameras produced the shocking images of bloodied protesters.

“I think there are better ways to handle this kind of situation besides violence,” Garcia said. “However, those few demonstrators are also at fault since violence is not the way to expose their ideas.”

Around the world, people saw the images of riot forces and police brutality. Yet some of the most shocked and most affected by the events of 25-S are the young adults of Spain.

“People are mad because there is no alternative,” explained Julia Fernandez Cadenas, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and lifelong Spanish citizen.  “In the past, when a crisis happened and there were no jobs, people returned to high schools and universities as an alternative. But our government has decided the great debt is must be paid by “us” as the “middle class.”

Paul Mason of the BBC on summarized the national attitude and echoed the senitments of Spanish youth.

“Wherever you go in Spain – from angry Barcelona to angry Bilbao to angry Andalucia, Valencia, the seething estates at the edges of Madrid – you hear outrage at what is seen as economic injustice: hitting the incomes and services of the poorest while bailing out the banks that had become political playthings for the elite,” Mason wrote in his Oct. 2 article, “Unrest drags Spain towards buried unpleasant truths.”

Speaking with experience, Fernandez Cadenas highlighted the current dilemma university students and graduates face.

“Studying in the public university costs double of what it used to cost and consequently, no alternative is now possible. Young people are trapped; their parents are unemployed so they can no longer afford university.  No jobs, no money, no education.  We used to have a welfare state, and it is disappearing little by little,” Fernandez Cadenas said.

The Spanish crisis is particularly painful for middle class citizens due to the lack of privatization.  The Spanish state is based on public services that are financed by the income tax including health care, transportation, education, unemployment benefits, and a public pension system.

“I support this protest movement because I feel that our world isn’t going in the right direction,” Garcia said. “The only thing these austerity measures will do is force the poorer people to have even less.”

“As a Spanish journalist I’m naturally interested in everything is going on in my country, in my continent and in the world,” Fernandez Cadenas said.  “This unique situation is developing a moment in the history I have never seen before. Nobody knows how to resolve it, but what is clear: The solution is not what is being done.”

Kristen Spillane is a UM junior spending the semester abroad in Spain.