Huge demonstrations of the anti-austerity M-15 movement in 97 Spanish cities and towns brought at least 250,000 people onto the streets on June 19.
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 M-15 movement is driven by anger at the savage measures to make ordinary people carry the burden for the economic crisis caused by the big banks ― and the complicity of often corrupt politicians.
It is animated by calls for “real democracy”.
The demonstrations also stopped dead in its tracks a virulent right-wing crusade against los indignados (“the indignant”, as those in the movement are called).
June 15 in Barcelona
This campaign exploded into life after a planned peaceful blockade of the June 15 budget session of the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, at which vicious austerity measures had been proposed.
The blockade degenerated into a fight between the police and a part of the crowd trying to stop MPs entering parliament house.
It is impossible to establish accurate numbers of those who marched on July 19 ― the most optimistic figures already top one million. But no one can deny the movement is getting bigger and deeper.
Compared to the movement's “founding” protest on May 15, at least five times as many people rallied nationally, with a much higher turnout in regional cities and towns
The mood is also becoming more radical ― the Madrid march echoed with calls for a general strike.
The impact on Spanish politics is best measured by two events. After June 15, the M-15 movement was on the defensive, especially in Catalonia. It was painted as a violent minority attacking the institutions of democracy.
Yet six days later, on June 21, the national parliament, influenced by the M-15 demands, 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 separated these two moments. They were six days that have shaken Spain.
The June 15 blockade of the Catalan parliament was decided on at the June 10 popular assembly of the M-15 camp in Plaza Catalonia, in central Barcelona.
All Catalan MPs were texted and asked not to attend the budget session, which would slash 10% from public spending.
The 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,” Arbide said, “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 about 6am 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 8am, 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 ― ICV and PCS MPs were 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 a police helicopter.
This went on from about 8am to 10am, 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 “over-policing” during the May 27 police attack on the Plaza Catalonia M-15 camp, were deliberately given some “under-policing” 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 has been shown widely in Spain as evidence of officially organised provocation. At one point, uniformed police actually escorted them out of the blockade.
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 who are always ready for a fight with the police, whether at a squat, a protest or after a Barcelona football win.
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, most decided to march away from the scene of confrontation and to peacefully 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 that “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”.
The right's offensive
As the melee outside parliament unfolded, one activist told a reporter from the progressive daily Publico: “There’s 3000 of us, but because of four who want a fight, we'll all be called violent.”
He was right. As a few indignados in the post-blockade assembly celebrated 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 huge 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 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”.
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 said he was studying whether or not 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 plain-clothes police might have helped stir the provocations outside parliament.
La Vanguardia (Barcelona’s Sydney Morning Herald equivalent) 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 every sort”.
CiU politicians took the opportunity to bash the left and the previous government.
President Josep Antoni Duran Lleida said: “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 Jimenez Losantos (a sort of Spanish Andrew Bolt) went apoplectic in the same vein: “Catalonia is the paradise of the squatter, the Ithaca of the anti-system crowd, the mecca of the burqa, 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 right-wing Civil Guards as part of a failed coup attempt.
Catalan Premier Artur Mas, followed by PSC spokesperson Miquel Iceta, pressed the button of the Basque kale borroka (a Basque term for “street struggle” involving actions such setting fire to ATMs and overturning and burning police cars).
What better way to criminalise M-15 than to establish subliminal associations with ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom), which has waged an armed struggle for Basque independence?
However, in their zeal to extract maximum advantage from June 15, the right began to trip over themselves.
The presenter of Telemadrid’s breakfast program 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 planned June 19 protest in the capital as not a march in Madrid but a “march on Madrid” (with echoes of Mussolini’s 1922 march on Rome).
M-15 reaffirms non-violence
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 take part 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 of red cards to the MPs entering the building.
Sympathetic parts of the “establishment” left, such as the Workers' Commissions (CC.OO.) union, Barcelona Federation of Neighbourhood Associations and ICV-EUiA condemned the June 15 violence but made clear 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 football games ― and that after Spain won the 2010 World Cup, Plaza Catalonia looked like a World War 1 battlefield.
In Barcelona, well-known intellectuals declared that they would be as guilty as Oliveres if he was charged with defamation.
Famous magistrate Balthasar Garzon 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.”
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 [by police violence]” 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 else 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 15 -- a huge outpouring
The June 19 demonstrations brought out entire new sections of Spanish society in protest against a huge, 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” (as Catalan academic Manuel Castells said), 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. Hundreds of thousands were on the street in protest against the fact 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 demonstration, which featured 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 at Plaza Catalunya, the tail still had to wait an hour to leave.
These were joyful demonstrations, in which music played a large 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 protesters in the drinking song from Verdi’s Rigoletto!
These huge peaceful marches sent the columnists of the right scurrying back into their burrows. For example, the die-hard rightist La Razon could only manage this headline: “May 22, 22,000,000 vote: June 19, 125,000 march.”
The politicians are reacting, or pretending to.
Leaders of the safest PP-led autonomous communities (Madrid and Valencia), are already offering “electoral reforms” that would allow voters to vote for individuals, not just parties.
However, PP vice-secretary of communications Esteban Gonzalez 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 from the movement to the national parliament.
United Left parliamentary spokesperson Gaspar Llamazares said, “We are doomed to dialogue and discussion”, 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, Spanish politics will be transformed.
[Dick Nichols is from the Green left Weekly European bureau, based in Barcelona.]