My first Barcelona protest march – hanging out with the indignados

May 15, 2012 by

Somewhat staggeringly, I have managed to live in Barcelona for precisely one year now without writing about the growing sense of social unrest on the streets of the city. I sometimes wonder if this is because I take it for granted. I arrived at the tail end of April last year, just two weeks before the first wave of ‘indignant’ protesters set up camp in the city’s central Plaça Catalunya. Watching disenfranchised members of society stick two fingers up at authority was my induction into Barcelona.

Back in May 2011, dreadlocked folk selling herbal remedies had occupied the square, and the result was a civic embarrassment. Tents, stalls, hammocks and even shopping trolleys suspended from branches all sprang up as the little impromptu community took heart from the Arab Spring and set up base.


May 2011 – “They’ve got the truncheons, we’ve got the ideas.”

Get outraged!

I wandered round taking photos of the tents and slogans but in truth I had little idea or sympathy for what it was all about.

I knew the facts and figures, of course. Economically, Spain was on its knees. The country had had the highest rate of unemployment in the Euro-zone since as long as I could remember and was all-too-neatly classed as one of the ‘PIGS’ – that casually derogatory term for the peripheral European economies of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Armed with the seminal book Indignez-vous! that was said to have started the whole thing, I considered myself informed.

Woman and parakeet in Plaça Catalunya

“No more kids on the streets – we’re not puppets in bankers’ hands”

Running from revolution

Something about the complete lack of any concrete objectives accompanying the activists’ howls of protest left me cold. OK, so the context more than justifies a groundswell of anger. The backdrop is unrelentingly grim – one out of every four Spaniards is out of work, young people don’t stand a hope in hell of finding a job, university tuition fees are rising, savage public spending cuts are underway and Madrid’s stock market has already lost 20% of its value so far in 2012. Add the icing on the cake of corrupt politicians and structurally inept banking practices and it’s hard not to sympathise with the hordes of royally pissed-off people.

Understanding the reasons behind the backlash is one thing, and people mobilising against social injustice and corruption is all well and noble, but what changes has it actually brought about?

Let’s be clear – I am the last person you will ever hear advocating civil disobedience. Crowds make me uneasy. Talk of revolution makes me feel quite faint. In fact, when the general strike took place at the end of March, resulting in rubber bullets and tear gas (not to mention the pointless sacrifice of countless burning bins) I resolutely headed in the opposite direction – to a purposefully pre-booked hair appointment. Getting my roots done seemed infinitely more sensible than risking the wrath of the mossos. (Have you seen the size of their guns?!)

Sunny solidarity

From indignation to action?

But I felt compelled to show up this weekend at what was being called a celebration of the 1-year anniversary of the 15M movement (referring to the 15th of May last year, when the indignados first began to make their presence felt). Maybe it’s the gnawing guilt at having bodyswerved the whole thing for a year. Maybe it’s the sight of people rummaging about in rubbish bins every day for food. Or maybe it was the particularly shocking sight of an entire family – mum, dad, 2.4 kids – settling down under makeshift cardboard blankets in a shop doorway the other night that has finally galvanised me into political consciousness.

The worst just got worse

“The protest goes on because the worst just got worse.”

So we caught the metro to the city’s main square for 6pm, when the march was scheduled to kick off. Saturday had been a particularly scorching day and at this hour the square was still basking in spring sunshine. The mood was jovial, good-natured, and optimistic. In one corner of the square there were activists handing out flyers against the pollution caused by plane fumes over a Catalan town, while in another protesters united in chant at the fallout from the Spanish property bubble – the hundreds of thousands of families who’ve been evicted for failing to keep up with mortgage payments.

Protesters linked arms and formed a spontaneous circle right around the plaza, rushing the centre to cheers and cries of “justicia!” The atmosphere verged on festive. Balloons bunched in the distance. Random fire-crackers went off intermittently (dogs and parrots ducked for cover). Brazilian drumming bands started bonging out samba and the smell of dope established itself on the breeze.

Pregnant woman protesting

Incubating social consciousness

Other than illegal substances, the air was heavy with irony. The slogans made me smile, and think. “I don’t want to live worse than my grandparents.” “Next stop Iceland.” “If you don’t, who will? If not now, when?” “Unfuck the world.” “Estafa bankiaria” (in reference to news over the last few days that the Spanish government has had to part-nationalise Bankia, the country’s largest retail bank). “Capitalism, or in other words, don’t bother coming in tomorrow.” At one comical moment, some protesters started to walk backwards, chanting “this government takes us up the arse” while waving cheerfully to the helicopters overhead.

It felt invigorating to be part of something important. I can be indignant with the best of them. Still, I couldn’t help questioning what the ultimate point was. It will be really interesting over the coming months to see if social indignation can be converted into a focused, political agenda capable of effecting real change. What do you think?

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  1. Elj

    Good for you taking part. These things are always fascinating to watch and even more so when you’re actually in the middle of it, but I do also question the point of it all. But then, I question the point of most marches, none of which ever seem to have any effect.

    • Well, it was about time I got off my backside. I do hope people start to crystallise the thinking behind it all this year. Some of the local politicians are horrendous and I don’t blame the sense of outrage, I just wish people would make the connection between the democratic process and the outcomes. The whole country just voted in a new government in a general election last November (equivalent of the UK Tories) and yet seems surprised when austere measures are applied. I fear things can only get much, much worse.

  2. Writing about the movement in the people is a great step. Writing communicates, and makes people aware. But yes, it’s quite startling how few people vote, and how many young people that protest so vehemently refuse to, because it’s “useless” or “all corrupt” anyway.

    • I know, I really wish everyone would vote and inform themselves about how the current system works so that they can change it from the inside. That said, I do have some sympathy for the feeling that the system itself is rotten. When you see reports like this ( and talk of authorities curbing the use of social networking, it’s starting to get pretty scary.

      I was also interested to see a few signs at Saturday’s protest saying “There’s no place to hide for Franco supporters”. My Spanish friend said this was because in the transition to democracy following his demise, Spain never properly looked at the issue of what his henchmen had done. It was all swept under the carpet, and obviously still rankles to this day. When a country still has so many old wounds and unresolved social issues, I wonder how on earth it deals with new ones.

  3. Agreed. By the way, what’s a truncheon?

  4. “Something about the complete lack of any concrete objectives accompanying the activists’ howls of protest left me cold”

    Much like the Occupy protests in the U.S. People are pissed off about the declining standard of living in general. We are partly to blame for this, always wanting more and more.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of “unfair” moves the Gov’t makes around the world which breed contempt. What will come of unfocused protests? Probably nothing. Too many issues to tackle.

    I sometimes miss (not that I remember lol), the days when you could point your finger at one person to implement change…. the King or Emperor. Then, if enough people are displeased, stage a revolt. Today, the levels of control are so deeply ingrained into our daily lives, the hope of true change is bleak.

    This is why , we have to make the changes in our own lives that will make us happy and hopefully it catches on (for others who share the same views).

    • I agree, Jeff, would be nice to be able to point the finger at one culpable party. The bankers are a handy but facile scapegoat. In Spain’s case, the government was surprisingly restrained over the last 10 years, and didn’t borrow above its means. Normal Spanish citizens, however, have a lot more to answer for – mortgaged to the hilt, and having taken on eye-wateringly high levels of personal debt throughout the ‘boom’ years. Yet try mentioning that at a protest attended by young people who have no hope of finding work and see where it gets you. Yeah, we’re all to blame, although some of us are more definitely to blame than others…

  5. david wishart

    Mostly, they are people who have nothing better to do, or they’re not trained for anything.
    Try to find a plumber/electrician/even a good gardener, in Marbella. OK, it’s a bubble here, but there are jobs, and buses do come here.

    • Cheers for the comment, David. From what I saw, there were people there from all walks of life. There are some jobs, yes, but Spain’s unemployment figures have the been highest in the Euro-zone for several years now, and the stats aren’t fictitious. Tradesmen are struggling here because the construction sector is on its knees – being a plumber/electrician is not at all the lucrative cash cow it is in Britain.


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