Protesters encircle Madrid parliament amid brutal police repression

By Nick Everett in Soria, Spain — On September 25, tens of thousands of activists from all over Spain heeded a call to “encircle” the Spanish parliament demanding the resignation of the Popular Party (PP) government , headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and a constitutional reform process. The protest, the latest in a succession of protests against unpopular austerity measures, was brutally attacked by riot police with rubber bullets and batons. Sixty-four people were seriously injured and 35 protesters were arrested by police, charged with “resisting arrest” and “crimes against the state”.

The brutal police repression followed efforts by the Rajoy government and the conservative media to create a mood of fear and intimidation in order to discourage attendance. PP spokespeople accused the organisers of being “dangerous hotheads”, “uncontrolled mobs” and “Nazis”.

Protesters accused of coup plotting

The PP government’s delegate in Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes, characterised the “25S” initiative as a “disguised coup d’etat”. Former minister and Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) deputy Jose Martinez de Olmos compared the action to the attempted coup by 200 civil guard troops, led by Francoist Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero in 1981. “Occupying parliament from the inside as Tejero did or from the outside as some wish on September 25 has the same goal: the sequestration of sovereignty”, claimed Martinez.

The accusation of a coup attempt was repeated in the aftermath of the mass action by peaceful, unarmed protesters. The September 26 edition of daily newspaper La Razon ran the headline “Coup Against Democracy” on its front cover. The same accusation was repeated by PP secretary general Dolores de Cospedal on September 28.

The irony of the accusation was clearly lost on PP and PSOE politicians, whom protest organisers claimed had ceded the nation’s sovereignty to the troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank. The “25S: Encircle Parliament” call to action declared:

“Next September 25, we will encircle Parliament to save it from a kidnapping which has transformed this institution into a superfluous body. A kidnapping of popular sovereignty carried out by the Troika and the financial markets and executed with the consent and collaboration of the majority of the political parties.”

As activist and blogger Esther Vegas has observed:

“It is difficult to believe today that Parliament ‘represents the popular will’. A good number of ministers and deputies come from private enterprises, others return there as soon as their political careers end. The companies reward them generously for services rendered. Do you remember Eduardo Zaplana? First Minister of Employment, then consultant to Telefonica. Elena Salgado? Vice minister of the Economy, she became a consultant for Abertis. Not to mention Rodrigo Rato, former Economy minister, then director of the International Monetary Fund and finally president of Bankia. His adventures as head of the bank have cost us dear. Without forgetting former prime ministers Felipe Gonzalez and Jose Maria Aznar, the first becoming a consultant for Gas Natural and the second working for Endesa, News Corporation, Barrick Gold, Doheny Global Group and so on. So it goes.”

Raided by police

In early September, activists established a coordinating committee, which held open assemblies in El Retiro park in Madrid. Three work commissions formed: a communication commission responsible for spreading the call; an action commission, which drew up plans for the day of action; and a content commission, which worked on proposals for change to Spain’s capitalist political and economic system.

Early on, an assembly of the coordinating committee decided to change the name of the action from “Occupy Congress” to “Surround Congress”, to make clear the non-violent character of the action. Despite the organisers’ repeated statements to the media that the action would be peaceful, the government and corporate media campaigned to portray the 25S protest as a criminal act, even before it had taken place, paving the way for a string of arbitrary police actions which no legal justification.

Police went to the public assemblies in El Retiro park demanding to see participants’ ID cards (which citizens are required to carry under laws that are a hangover from the Franco dictatorship). “The trucks arrived and several policemen came out like they were a SWAT team”, said Chema Ruiz, a member of Stand Up Platform. “They cornered everyone, even elderly people.”

Social centre closed

On September 20, the squatter social centre, “Casablanca”, was closed by police, claiming that it was the headquarters of the 15M movement (the name given to the indignados movement, which had begun an occupation of Madrid’s Plaza del Sol on May 15, 2011). The centre was in fact full of organic vegetables belonging to consumer groups and cooperatives, and books collected by BiblioSol, a library that had operated amid last year’s occupation.

In protest at the closure of the social centre, hundreds gathered in Lavapies Square that day, where a member of the Casablanca collective read a manifesto in support of the 25S initiative:

“We know that this is not a random eviction”, the manifesto declared. “This is a product of a process of increasing repression closely related to the recent calls for civil disobedience that demanded the recovery of popular sovereignty. In this context, the eviction of Casablanca today is part of the strategy used by economic and political elites to fight a new stage of social mobilisation. We who want to build a new reality have passed from a position of resistance to direct confrontation, and 25S will mark the turning point.”

Meanwhile, Democracia Real Ya — initiators of the protest that swelled into the 15M movement — called on people to tell legislators not to go to parliament on September 25. Parliamentarians received more than 6000 tweets urging them to stay away.

Massive police presence

From early morning, on September 25, a massive police presence fanned out across the city centre, with police helicopters overhead and snipers on roof tops. As dozens of buses converged on Madrid to join the action, some of the buses were stopped by police, who identified and registered everyone inside. “When we reached Madrid, there were three police trucks waiting for us”, tweeted one of the activists coming from Granada.

By late afternoon, thousands had assembled in Plaza del Sol, Plaza de Espana and Plaza de Neptuno, the three meeting points. They began chanting: “This is not a crisis, it’s a scam”, referring to the government bailout of the banks; and “Less politics and more education”, referring to the axing of 20,000 public school teachers’ jobs.

“Let us in, we want to evict you”, was also a popular chant in response to the soaring number of home evictions as thousands of people have defaulted on mortgage loans.

At around 4.30pm, several MPs from Izquierda Unida (United Left), and two other smaller left political parties, left the parliament and joined the protesters. At 5.30pm, protesters marched towards Cibeles, where the three marches were due to meet to march together to the parliament. The march was headed by a banner with the slogan of the Argentinean uprising of 2001, “They should all go”.

As the march approached the parliament building, the protesters faced a blockade of 1400 riot police surrounding the building. Demonstrators responded with a citizens’ blockade, holding hands around the security perimeter. “If they don’t let us surround the Congress, we will surround the entire city centre”, protesters shouted.

At around 7pm, police began charging protesters, batons drawn. Many sat on the ground and remained in Plaza de Neptuno, while others were forced to retreat towards Atocha train station, where they were chased by police, who fired rubber bullets at them inside the station. Alberto Casillas, a waiter at a coffee shop near Neptuno, refused to let the police inside the establishment, where demonstrators were taking refuge. “You will not enter here with batons”, he shouted at the police.

Participant Iurgi Urrutia described the succession of police assaults on demonstrators, between 7pm and midnight:

“Police used ‘kettle’ tactics to divide protesters into small groups. They often blocked access to streets and forced protesters down different paths. When police charged, protesters frequently put their hands in the air and sat down on the ground, instead of fighting. Most importantly, several first hand witnesses report that plain clothes police officers infiltrated the demonstrations and provoked the confrontations.”

Police provocateurs

Following the police attack, numerous eyewitnesses reported that they had seen police provocateurs involved in an initial attack on police lines, which police had claimed as an excuse for their charges against the crowd. In video footage that appeared on TV news reports the following day, a group of hooded people, with red flags and shields, can be seen facing the police and acting violently towards them. A few minutes later, the same group of hooded plainclothes police can be seen holding down a protester, while he is arrested by riot police.

In response, protesters raised their hands and shouted “These are our weapons”, stressing the peaceful character of the protest.

Some media outlets reported instances of police violence against both media and demonstrators. An Associated Press photographer reported seeing police “severely beat” at least one protester, who had to be hospitalised. A Russia Times producer, Fernando Ausin, reported that a police officer had grabbed him and thrown him to the ground, even though he had identified himself as a member of the press. When he fell, Ausin said, another officer clubbed him in the back with his baton.

Repression backfires

As photos and videos of the police repression began flooding social media, more than 50,000 people signed an online petition calling for the sacking of those responsible for the police repression.

Izquierda Unida parliamentarians have also called for an investigative commission regarding the police actions. And on October 4, in a further setback for the government, the national court refused to investigate the 35 demonstrators arrested, stating that charging them with “crimes against the state” amounted to a “legal aberration”.

Protests to continue

On September 26, thousands returned to Plaza de Neptuno demanding the resignation of the government and the release of those detained the day before. On September 29, thousands assembled again in Madrid, from all around Spain and Catalonia, for further demonstrations.

Further protests are expected in the week beginning October 22, when parliament begins debating the 2013 national budget. Rajoy has announced an overall budget cut of $51.7 billion, including further salary freezes for public employees (for the third year in a row) and a cut to unemployment benefit spending.

But the rising protest movement, which echoes mass protests in Greece and Portugal (the latter forcing a government backdown), is starting to cause deep disquiet within sections of Spain’s ruling elite. This disquiet was reflected in the September 25 editorial of the daily newspaper El Pais, which talked of the “need to be very careful with protests which attempt to de-legitimise representative democracy as whole, in the name of who-knows-what other allegedly direct democracy”.

Spain’s sham democracy — a capitalist democracy run for the benefit of the country’s business class — is becoming exposed to millions of Spaniards (and Catalans) who each day see their future grow ever more bleak. In a recent poll published in El Pais, 88% disapprove of the functioning of political parties and the banks, 81% disapprove of the functioning of parliament and 69% think that the justice system is functioning badly.

The only solution to the crisis, which today threatens to destroy the livelihoods of growing numbers of workers and unemployed across Europe, is the replacement of the system of accumulation of private profit — the capitalist system — with a democratically planned economy — a socialist system. The development of a broad, mass anti-austerity movement is a vital step in this direction.

Direct Action — October 12, 2012