There is nothing like police brutality to rekindle civil disobedience. After tens of thousands had filled the main plazas of around 60 Spanish cities last week, fed up with what they called an incompetent and corrupt political class, protests resumed on Friday after riot police, trying to clear a peaceful sit-in at Barcelona's Plaça Catalunya, injured more than 100 people with nightsticks and rubber bullets.
The images and videos of excessive force against an unarmed and non-violent crowd shocked Spaniards into returning in droves to the squares after protests had calmed this week while organizers honed their diverse message. “Barcelona is not alone!” chanted thousands of Madrileños in the Puerta del Sol Friday night. “These are our weapons!” shouted the protesters, holding up long-stemmed flowers.
One off-duty officer in Barcelona told The Daily Beast that he and his colleagues were angry the cops resorted to violence, adding that after recent cuts to police salaries and pensions, it should be them in the square protesting. Many, he said, do just that.
Since May 15, protesters of all ages and backgrounds have flocked to the squares with a mixture of ideologies, but overall feel unrepresented and used by politicians. Not helping is the 21-percent unemployment, around 40 percent for young people, and a recession with no end in sight. The governing Socialist party and the opposition People's Party (PP), they say, are two sides to a broken record, and citizens are powerless to change the situation at the voting booths because the system is designed to favor one or the other.
“This is the democracy that we want,” said Eduardo Gómez, 31, a lawyer volunteering at the protesters' legal consultation tent in the Puerta del Sol, pointing to the white-haired woman eating ice cream and discussing the best use of a vote with a spiky-haired youth. “Going out to the public square to debate issues, not voting every four years and switching off in-between.”
Protest organizers have whittled down their proposals to changing election rules so that votes do not count more depending on geography, creating a true separation of powers between governmental branches, instituting political oversight, and fighting corruption. In April, ahead of last Sunday's local and regional elections, one newspaper found that in seven regions, half of the PP candidates and 35 percent of the Socialist candidates were implicated in corruption investigations.
Authorities across southern Europe fear the Spanish protests will spark a European version of the Arab uprisings. Momentum is already gathering in Greece, where 20,000 people have been protesting austerity measures since Thursday with a massive demonstration scheduled for Sunday in Athens. In Italy, an equally dire economic situation and growing frustration with the establishment looms. Banners in the Spanish squares touted slogans “This is our Revolution.” In Athens, signs read “This is our Tahrir Square.”
On the surface, the protests do look similar in style to those that brought down the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, from the social networking calls to battle to the colorful tents pitched on the cities’ main squares. But there is a fundamental difference—Spain and Greece are democracies, not dictatorial regimes. And, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, in countries like Greece, Italy and Spain, there is a long history of social disobedience and political protests to get the attention of voters and democratically elected leaders.
There is another vital difference, and one that is disconcerting to authorities watching the situation. Protests like those in Spain and Greece have traditionally been a breeding ground for anarchist groups that tend to hijack more noble causes to push an anti-authority rhetoric. That has so far been kept at a minimum in Spain, likely because the anarchists are regrouping after protesting the G8/G20 confabs in France last week. But there are urgent calls to action on anarchist websites and a real fear among authorities that if the protests spread across Greece and Italy, the extreme elements of the anarchist groups will not miss the opportunity to get a piece of the action. Franco Pavoncello, a political analyst and president of John Cabot University in Rome cautions that growing discontent is not to be taken lightly. “This is anomic terror spurred by the economic crisis and growing content,” he told The Daily Beast. “Extreme groups are quick to capitalize on a difficult situation."
The growing theme of anti-establishment sites might just foretell the months ahead. “We've got the Arab Spring. What about a European summer?”