The 15-M movement returned to Spain's streets over the weekend, a year after the protest initiative led to mass rallies in cities across the world. On this occasion, however, the number of participants was considerably lower and the authorities' reaction swift and unambiguous.
Some 2,500 people ended a day of meetings and discussions on Sunday with a "silent scream" and promised to return on Monday to protest against the arrests of 18 demonstrators overnight on Saturday when the police moved in to dislodge the masses. The main focal points of the open debates were government cuts in healthcare and education, nuclear disarmament, the right of women to choose to abort and the rise in value-added tax.
Videos of the police action against the protesters soon circulated via the internet but in truth the social network sites were more ablaze than Spain's streets. By Sunday, the number of people returning to the capital's Sol square had fallen to around 350. "We made a few gaffes [on Saturday]," said Luis Fernández of the Adesorg Association of the Unemployed. Fernández believes the protest should have ended after the silent scream. "This would have had a different outlook," he added, casting an arm over the sparsely populated square. "If those who aren't here had seen things pan out differently, they would have been more motivated to come."
Many members of the movement said that there was no reason for the police to break up the rally as there were few people left and they would have departed sooner or later. "The protest was peaceful, we didn't create any problems," said a participant. In Barcelona, the city authorities gave permission for a camp to be set up in the central Plaza de Catalunya square.
The police made 18 arrests in Madrid during which 20 people, including two police officers, were injured. Nine of those arrested face charges of resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer and public disobedience, offenses that can carry a sentence of between two and four years. They were released on bail on Monday. The other nine were released without charges on Sunday.
Witnesses say that the police meted out beatings even to people who complied with their orders to leave. When the eviction was carried out there were some 200 people left in the square. The 15-M movement's legal commission plans to make a formal complaint about the actions of the police, who the protestors say removed their identification badges. The movement said it plans to seek redress for the "impunity with which the police acted."
The detainees released on Monday, six of whom had previous arrests on their records, told reporters that one of their number, a woman, had been beaten at the Moratalaz police station. Another, L.A.L.O., said that he had voluntarily left Sol and was arrested in a nearby square.
The public prosecutor had asked that all 18 be handed restraining orders preventing them from going near Sol while the judicial process against them remains open but the judge did not enforce this petition.
The heavy police presence also oversaw the movement's public debates, at which megaphones were prohibited. The opposition Socialist Party accused the government of over-reacting to the threat posed by the latest wave of protests.
Socialist spokesman José Quintana called the government's stance "perfectly ridiculous" and accused it of trying to criminalize the protest movement. His parliamentary colleague, Soraya Rodríguez, said that the demonstrators' right to protest had been impeded. United Left spokesman Gregorio Gordo lamented "the central government delegation's heavy-handedness in vigilance and repression," of the protestors, who he added had "not given any reason for it."
Cristina Cifuentes, the government delegate in Madrid, said in a radio interview that she was "very satisfied" with how the protests were unfolding and termed the police's performance "impeccable."
"In general the balance has been very positive, because the important thing is that people's right to meet and protest has been coupled with the right of the rest of citizens to walk freely through the streets. Above all, they have prevented an encampment that I have always said was illegal."
Cifuentes revealed last week that she had previously attended 15-M meetings to "see things on the ground. I have never been in disguise or incognito to an assembly because I don't even dress up for Carnaval," said Cifuentes, who added there was "nothing strange" in her attending such meetings. "I live in \[downtown neighborhood\] Malasaña and next to my house there is a periodic popular assembly." Describing the movement as "not as disorganized as they want people to believe," Cifuentes noted that now "it has nothing to with social movements but with the anti-system ideology of the extreme left."
The main police labor unions praised the government delegation in the capital for its "planning and clear orders," highlighting a "change in attitude" since the arrival of Cifuentes in the post. "A year ago there was no planning, they caught us by surprise and the protestors were allowed to do as they pleased," said José María Benito of the Unified Syndicate of Police. "The difference from last year is that there were clear orders. Last year there were practically none, there was simply tolerance and more tolerance."