Police and the 15-M movement

July 29, 2011

The Spain of my childhood was a dictatorship. It was a country of  beggars, priests, old women in black, guardia civil in their ominous hats. It smelled of garlic, cologne,  dark tobacco and sometimes sewage. It was dangerous to speak of politics in public and  my grandfather, an officer in the Republican Army, died in exile.

I visited often throughout the Franco years and lived in Barcelona during the tail end of the chaotic days of the movida so I’ve almost stopped being surprised by how much Spain feels like another country now. It’s a model of peaceful transition and many Spanish politicians have been trying to help Egypt and Tunisia move toward democracy.

I was impressed all over again this week when we wound up staying in a Madrid hotel that was surrounded by the indignados of the 15-M movement. The movement was named after the date, May 15, when protestors set up camp in the center of the city, the Plaza del Sol. Most of them left after several weeks but last weekend they staged a protest and demonstrators from all over Spain converged on Madrid.

They set up tents on the grassy avenue in front of the Prado museum and the police were deployed to keep order. Several times a day we stopped by to see what was going on and to talk to police and the demonstrators. We sat in cafes near the protests and we watched.

Over several days we saw protestors carrying signs that called for bankers to be put on trial and that complained of injustice and the high cost of living. We stopped by a seminar on economics in Retiro Park and we watched late at night as the protestors teased the police and gently tried to get through the barricades set up to protect the parliament.

Throughout several days, the police remained firm but good natured, calling for back up when the crowds got too big but never once showing their weapons or raising their voices. I’ve seen New York policeman get more het up at a peaceful parade on Fifth Avenue than these men. I asked a policeman why they were so calm. “We respect the laws of our country,” one replied while his colleagues nodded in agreement.

Many of my friends and cousins in Spain are unemployed now and it seems that everyone is angry with the government. Youth unemployment is over 40% and there is widespread sympathy for the indignados though people complain that the movement is short on solutions.

Spain is going through a hard time and the crisis has dragged on for years, with little signs of  improvement. But to see the police behave with such patience and respect reminded me of how much progress has already been made.

Photo: Spanish police stand guard, as demonstrators roll a giant wheel symbolizing euro, past the entrance of the Bank of Spain in central Madrid, July 28, 2011. Demonstrators from Spain’s 15M movement were protesting against the economic crisis, banks, rating agencies, politicians, and austerity measures in Europe. REUTERS/Paul Hanna

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