Spaniards crowded the streets in the Madrid center again last week in a fresh wave of protests against austerity measures set to soon hit the country.
Hundreds of protestors on bicycles filled La Gran Vía, a major thoroughfare and the most famous street in Madrid, while chanting protest slogans against government cuts and the general malaise that has taken hold of the nation. Police were prepared, though, and had cordoned off the street in advance and had set up barricades with dozens of officers around the demonstrators.
The protest became violent at times. Fireworks or cherry bombs could be heard exploding a few blocks from Gran Vía, and there were a few scuffles between protestors and police. At one point a man burned a hole into the center of a Spanish flag as police officers watched tensely just a foot away.
The Thursday night protest followed a week of renewed demonstrations against Spain’s unemployment rate, the Spanish government, and drastic federal cuts in social welfare. The previous weekend, protestors organized a massive huelga general (“general strike”), which they dubbed the “Dignity Marches.” While organizers of the protest said almost two million people participated in Saturday’s protest in Madrid, city government officials said the true number was closer to 36,000.
Protestors included workers for Coca-Cola, which plans to lay off over 1,000 workers throughout Spain in coming weeks; Madrid street cleaners, who held their own strike in November; protestors against federal healthcare and education cuts; and others angry at the Spanish government’s bailout of the Bankia bank after Bankia had deliberately hidden losses totaling nearly 4 billion euros from its investors.
The Dignity March protests began peacefully but grew violent towards the end of the day. Violence between protestors and riot police broke out at nightfall, leaving about 100 people injured, including 15 police officers. More than 20 protestors were arrested. Police sources said one 21-year-old man, accused of throwing a large rock at an officer who had fallen to the ground without a helmet, will likely be charged with attempted murder.
Following the demonstration, Madrid Mayor Ana Botella called for a ban on street protests in the entire downtown Madrid area — a proposal unprecedented in its scope and duration. Spanish police officials were also forced to backtrack on one of their own reports on the kinds of violence their offices faced Saturday.
Police officials had originally shown TV reporters two pictures of weapons that had been allegedly used by demonstrators in the Saturday protest. The pictures showed a slingshot that used steel balls for ammunition, and a crutch with a concealed 4.5 inch spike that can pierce bulletproff material. A police spokesman said Tuesday those images were not from the Dignity Marches, but rather from another conflict with radicals.
On Monday, secondary school and university students began a week of strikes from school, remniscient of the mass strikes staged in November. Teachers and teaching assistants reported that almost no students attended school Wednesday or Thursday.
Early in the week, students at Madrid’s Complutense University overtook a building at the school and barricaded its doors, refusing to allow professors or anyone else into the building. The students said they were protesting changes in Spanish law that make it more difficult for Spanish students to earn academic grants.
Jose Carrillo, the president of Complutense, said he was forced to ask police to enter and clear the student services building Wednesday because conditions inside had become unsanitary. Students, as well as some squatters and far-left activists, had been living in the building for a few days. Carrillo said there is evidence the students had lit cigarettes, lit butane containers and some dogs with them inside the building.
Police sources said 53 people were arrested at Complutense Wednesday. Complutense is one of the largest universities in Madrid and one of the top universities in Spain, with an annual enrollment of over 80,000 students.
There was an enhanced police presence in Madrid the entire week following the Dignity Marches. Police trucks lined the outside of Puerta del Sol, the main plaza in the center of the city, and police in riot gear could be seen walking around the city at all hours of the day. All protestors, including small-scale hunger strikers, were forced to empty out of Puerta del Sol.
The week was one of the most-protest filled since October 2013, when students, teachers, and other demonstrators staged mass strikes and marches against drastic federal cuts to education and healthcare. The law mandating the cuts is commonly known as the “Wert Law” or LOMCE.
The national unemployment rate in Spain stands at 26 percent. The national youth unemployment rate is 54.6 percent.