Spain: ‘Books not truncheons’ -- students protest education cuts

Students protest in Valencia.

Last year it was the indignado movement that filled Spain’s city squares with hundreds of thousands of protesters. On February 19, it was the union-led movement against the Popular Party (PP) government’s new labour law.

On February 29, another mass protest flooded the squares: tens of thousands of students protesting against cuts to education in 25 cities and towns across Spain.

They had paid no attention to the plea of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who on the eve of the protest asked Spaniards “to understand that things are not that easy”.

Huge support

In Catalonia, the day of protest organised by the United Platform for the Defence of Public Universities won huge support. It began with occupations of five of the region’s seven public universities.

In the University of Barcelona, classes stopped completely. In other universities, only a minority of classes took place.

When the main march started in Barcelona’s University Square, 60,000 were present.

Most were university students, but they were joined by large contingents of secondary school students, as well as high school and university teachers and administrators.

Half way through the march a group of students entered the Canal SER radio station to interrupt a broadcast and read a declaration.

Small groups peeled away from the march to attack the Stock Exchange, burn cars and rubbish containers. The day ended with 12 arrests.

Thousands also marched in the other Catalan towns with universities — Girona, Tarragona and Lleida.

In Madrid, a peaceful march took place behind the banner “Not a country for young people”, while there were also marches in Andalucia, Aragon, Castilla-la Mancha and the Balearic Islands.

In Valencia, at least 20,000 marched and high school students went out on strike for the day.

The manifesto read out at the rally said: “We are here to say no to unjustified police violence, to cuts in education and to waste. We want to dramatise the fact that they are robbing us: the money lost in the Emarsa fraud [a €30 million scam that diverted public funds to corrupt politicians and functionaries] is equal to the money owed by the government of Valencia to all its high schools; The money wasted on the Formula 1 Grand Prix would fund 26 education centres.”

Handling the ‘enemy’

Events in Valencia provided the spark that brought the students out in protest across the country.

The movement started there in early February with a protest at the Lluis Vives high school against cuts to its funding. The cuts were so severe that the school’s heating system ran out of fuel in the coldest winter in 50 years.

Over the next two weeks the protest spread to 30 other high schools, with students, teachers and parents sitting in. Demonstrations began in the centre of town.

At a February 15, protest the police charged demonstrators and arrested a student. The next day, to prevent a bigger protest from blocking the streets, the police repeated their charge, leading to ten arrests and various injuries.

When asked to justify bashing 15-year-olds Valencia police chief Antonio Moreno defended his riot squad’s tactics as “normal procedure against the enemy”.

With those unwise words Moreno ensured national attention for the Lluis Vives high school protest. However, the Valencia police continued trying to bash the protest movement out of the streets, with 26 arrested on February 20.

At this point the protesters demand the resignation of Paula Sanchez de León, the national government representative in Valencia, for having ordered the police attacks.

The next step was the holding of the movement’s first mass assembly (at Valencia’s Faculty of Geography and History, specifically made available by the faculty head). The 400 who attended decided that their protests would continue until the national government representative resigned or was sacked.

At around the same time, the movement gave itself the name of the “Valencian Spring”.

As the assembly was trying to work out how to respond to the possibility of police violence at the next rally, someone suggested that protesters should hold up books and chant: “These are our weapons!”

It was a simple but powerful idea. Since then, the sight of the students of Valencia brandishing books and chanting “books not truncheons!” has dominated the media. This has forced the national and Valencian government into further damage control.

Which books did the students choose in the protests that followed? Some waved whatever came to hand (a pile of old German grammars finally found a use) and others got given books at home (“granddad gave it to me” admitted one student who was waving Das Kapital).

But for most the choice was very conscious.

A survey by Barcelona daily El Periodico found the favourites have been left classics including The Communist Manifesto, Rosa Luxemburg’s ,em>Reform or Revolution, and Antonio Gramsci’s What is Popular Culture?. These were along with more recent texts, such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Daniel Bensaid’s Return of Marx.

Brutal cuts

The demonstrations were biggest in the regions where education cuts have been most severe. Over the past two years, €3 billion euros has been slashed from national and regional education budgets, €800 million of that in Catalonia alone (16% of the total Catalan education budget).

The result has been a string of teacher protests and strikes — nine in Madrid alone.

However, these action have taken place at the regional level, with no national coordination. The emergence of the mass student movement, combined with the national protest against Rajoy’s new labour laws opens up the possibility of national action against education cuts.

The attack on education doesn’t end there. Teachers wages have been cut (by up to 15% in Catalan universities); Spain’s universities were already struggling to teach students to the new all-European standards contained in the “Bologna Plan” before the crisis hit; and the cost of courses has been steadily rising.

Pervading the demonstrations was the feeling that young people are being robbed of a future. One they have passed through a decaying education system, they will join a workforce where nearly half of people under the age of 30 are out of work.

The placards on the Barcelona demonstration said it all: “We are not anti-system; the system is anti-us”; “Our parents earned their way—now it’s our turn”; “We don’t want smartphones, we want education”; “Resistencia, as in Valencia” and “Only dead fish go with the flow”.

The turnout and mood of February 29 has provoked an hysterical outburst from the right-wing media. It has accused the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) of deliberately fomenting “street violence”.

No-one believes this ridiculous claim, not even those who make it. The point is to pressure the PSOE to disassociate itself from a movement that is already creating nervousness, as media commentator speculation about the possibility of a Spanish “May 68” confirms.

As time of writing (March 3), University of Barcelona students continue to occupy the Vice-Chancellor’s office, planning the next moves in the campaign.

One obvious option would be to call all students and teachers, secondary and university, to support a March 29 general strike it is rumoured the main trade union confederations are about to call.

Proud history

It is fitting that Lluis Vives high school should be the epicentre of the defence of decent public education — it has a proud history of struggle for that cause.

Former students of the school, now in their 90s, see parallels between today’s “Valencian Spring” and the struggles they were involved in under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in the late 1920s.

At a meeting held in Valencia to acquaint a new generation with past struggles for decent public education, former pupil Alejandra Soler, nearly 99, recalled the times she was part of the University Student Federation (FUE). In 1928, the FUE organised a strike against the dictatorship’s plans to favour the formation of private universities.

Soler said: “Those of us who believed it was the right of young people to have a full education protested and because of that we had our run-ins with the Civil Guard and we knew what repression meant.

“The arguments that led us to protest in the days of the FUE — before the Republic — are the same as are being defended by the students who today have been the victims of this brutal police attack.”

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Read more of Dick Nichols' articles.]