Jim Carroll

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What’s next for los indignados?

There is nothing like the sight of a bunch of riot police armed with batons and rubber bullets wading into the middle of a peaceful protest to change public opinion within 24 hours. All was quiet on Thursday afternoon at …

Tue, May 31, 2011, 10:05


There is nothing like the sight of a bunch of riot police armed with batons and rubber bullets wading into the middle of a peaceful protest to change public opinion within 24 hours. All was quiet on Thursday afternoon at the protest camp at Barcelona’s Placa Catalunya, with a couple of hundred “indignados” at most present. Some simply sat around chatting to oneanother. Others handed out leaflets, put more posters on the ropes which crisscrossed the square, dozed in the afternoon sunshine under the canvas and plastic awnings which had been put up in the square, worked in the communal kitchen or tidied up the camp. It may not be what the local tourist chiefs wanted to see in the city’s main square, but it was a peaceful, good-natured protest. It didn’t look or feel like a hotbed of angry anarchists hellbent on taking down the government.

When you talked to some of the protesters about why they were there, you got a variety of answers. It would probably have been the same list if you spoke to the protestors in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol or any other square in any other Spanish city which currently features one of these camps. They wanted jobs (44.6 per cent of Spain’s under 25s are unemployed). They wanted changes to how the government was running the country, especially change in the austerity measures introduced to deal with Spain’s economic problems. They wanted better standards of living. They basically wanted a better country to live in. They had seen the mess which the existing parties had created and they wanted something else. Hence, the protest, the tent cities and the anger.

Like I said, it really was a small protest. While the protesters occupied the centre of the square, normal life went on all around Placa Catalunya. Tourists wandered into the Hard Rock Cafe, shoppers headed to the El Corte Inglés department store and taxis waited for business on all sides. A typical day in Barcelona, albeit with a ragtag camp in the middle of the main square which people seemed to be tolerating.

By Friday afternoon, there was a much different mood in Placa Catalunya. Earlier that day, riot police had moved in to dismantle the camp and the protest. The local authorities said they wanted the square to be cleaned ahead of the Champions League final on Saturday night and were not seeking to evict the protestors, but it looked like an ham-fisted attempt to end the camp. Nearly a hundred people were injured as the riot police did what riot police are supposed to do. As we’ve come to expect in 2011, the heavyhanded police actions were filmed and on the internet within minutes, leading to more and more people arriving at the square. Everyone was an indignado after watching those videos. By 7pm that evening, there were thousands of people protesting.

At the time of writing, the camp is still in place with protestors in Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain deciding to continue their sit-in for now. It will be interesting to see how the Spanish authorities deal with this. As we saw with the Barcelona camp on Friday, any attempt to break up the sit-ins using the police will only lead to a huge outbreak of public support for los indignados and see the protest get more oxegen. Leaving the camps in place and hoping that the protests peter out and the protesters leave is probably a better option, though there are probably many city chiefs who shudder at the thought of those “eyesores” remaining any longer in the middle of their cities.

What los indignados themselves are going to do in the medium term is equally unknown. There are undoubtedly romantics amongst them who hope that their protests will emulate the popular uprisings which occured in Egypt and Tunisia earlier in the year and there’s certainly a lot of public support for their aims. But Spain is a democracy and it takes a great leap of imagination to imagine a situation where public protests would change this. Los indignados have made their point, but it remains to be seen if there is anything else to be done beyond making that point.

Some of the protesters hope that other European countries will follow their lead. Indeed, many of the people I talked to in Placa Catalunya wondered why the Irish weren’t also on the streets. After all, as was pointed out to me a few times, the Irish austerity measures are just as bad as what the Spanish are experiencing and yet, the Irish are not protesting, even though it wasn’t the Irish people who created the mess in the first place. I should have pointed them towards Laura Slattery’s excellent post about why the Irish are not like the Spanish in this regard. Laura lists a bunch of reasons why Irish indignados are not taking over Stephen’s Green or Eyre Square and most readers will probably agree with her list. One other reason I’d add to her list is that while the Spanish protest on the streets and squares, the Irish form of protest is to emigrate. Or talk to Joe. That’s really where you’ll find the Irish indignados.