30 May 2011, Monday
El Ejido

Two statements stood out to me during and after the modest gathering of "indignados" in El Ejido's main square on Saturday afternoon. Paraphrasing from memory:

'Más que nada, me gusta ver eso... los jóvenes. No están acostumbrados a la idea de que se pueda reclamar, y que no tengan que aceptar lo que está pasando sin más.' ('More than anything, I like seeing that... the young people. They're not used to the idea that you can make demands, and that you don't have to just accept what's going on.')

And: 'Yo tengo clarísimo que el capitalismo es un sistema destinado al fracaso. Cuando unos pocos son cada vez más ricos, y luego otros se mueren de hambre, es que no se puede seguir así.' ('It's crystal clear to me that capitalism is a system that's destined to fail. When a few people get richer and richer, and then others are dying of hunger, it just can't continue that way.')

The first was uttered by a teacher and local immigration-rights activist as the protest wrapped up and we chatted about the event. He gazed back over his shoulder at the teenagers and twenty-somethings sitting in a circle around a boy strumming a guitar, gathering up posters and signs, talking.

The second statement came from X., a girl less-than half his age, in her second year of college-prep classes (equivalent to a U.S. senior year in high school). I'd gone months without seeing or talking with her and her boyfriend, two intelligent, artistic and spirited people. (The girl recently made the decision to study anthropology in college, and she announced it to me one day when we crossed paths again, looking pleased and excited; she wants to travel, and she's politically and culturally engaged -- this field will be well-served by her fresh energy.) Saturday afternoon, I saw her in the plaza mayor, where she was listening to the speakers and helping her mom pass out flyers. She came to sit down next to me for a few minutes but was up again before long, talking to friends. It's clear that there's a network of local kids who are being politicized right now, in the present tense. (I want to talk with them!)

There were between 60 and 100 people at the gathering, including a handful of high school students I knew from classes I've been visiting. People who wanted to got up to speak, at first shouting as best they could over the wind, and then through a megaphone someone had delivered. They spoke of the need for reforming the 68th article of the Spanish constitution -- the electoral law -- of being fed up with feeling like pawns in the politicians' games, of being angry at the banks and governments who've created an untenable situation in the country, of the 45% unemployment rate among young people, of people losing their houses and their pensions, of the retirement age increasing... and of not really knowing what the solution will be. I was surprised to hear this repeated emphasis on not knowing which way to take the movement or what precise changes needed to be made. This is in line with the wider movement's foundations, but I am so used to hearing politicians and pseudo-politicians (e.g., university administration) spout verbiage about alleged 'programs' or 'plans' or 'initiatives,' that this refusal to define goals too quickly took me by surprise. There was general recognition that things were not going well, but in a most even-handed, delayed-satisfaction, and democratic way, decisions and votes were indefinitely postponed. The only exception was the near-unanimous decision to meet again at the same time and place the following week.

[At the same time, I found it almost scary that no plans or goals were laid out. I believe this was simply fruit of having witnessed attempts at counter-hegemonic action on my Tucson campus, in which committees, task forces, and action plans were laid out in a matter of minutes, and well before anyone had come to a serious understanding of the issues and how the proposed actions would be received, or whether they would be effective. So conversely, I have come to admire the Spanish protesters' ability to wait, to dialogue, and to create spaces of communal and mutual support -- alternatives to the atomized-urban-individual model that accompanies late consumerism. We've learned to be so lonely! I couldn't help but notice in the AP photos of the Puerta del Sol that, amidst that massive crowd of people, a lot of them were smiling. "That's so Spanish," a friend of mine might say, and maybe she's right, but there's something about seeing images of a peaceful and evidently democratic public gathering, week after week, by people who've been shat upon by their leaders, that makes me believe that solutions and changes -- deep changes -- have a chance to occur here.]

I knew X. had been spending time at the "acampados" protests in the regional capital of Almeria, and that was what I was really curious about. This gathering in El Ejido was a start, a small seed of participation in the protests spreading throughout the country, but X. and her boyfriend pointed out that attendance was low because people had to work, or stay home with the kids, or what have you. This is not a community in which people are able to devote time to many -- if any -- things outside of work. I heard someone say a few days earlier, this is a population that, both young and old, is tied to the land, to production cycles, to planting and selling their greenhouse crops, and there's an inherent conservatism that goes with that. That may be true, but conservatism should not equated in this case with a reluctance to press for change. Instead, it seems to me that people here are so intimately tied to the systems of production, and in the case of agriculturalists who are still able to sell their harvests, scrambling to do so in a tough market, that there is little way for them to spare the hours to go to a protest... unless they are already out of work.

Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical. With Germany's accusations of E. coli tainted veggies (pepinos, cucumbers, to be exact), tens of thousands of tons of produce have been dumped right here in Almeria. Trucks are not taking shipments, or are turning around mid-trip to return to Spain. Austria has also closed its borders to Spanish produce. On Saturday in the plaza, a tall, sturdy man with white hair and moustache went to the front of the crowd to speak, and he called upon the Spanish government to protect the good name of regional farmers, because nothing had been proven yet, there was no proof that the infected produce came from here. His hands shook as he reached into the brown paper sack he'd set at his feet and pulled out a bright green cucumber. 'To prove that there's not a thing wrong with our pepinos,' he said, 'I'm going to eat one right here and now, and I invite all of you to do the same!' He broke off the end and took a huge bite of it. There was applause, then people rushed forward to pull out cucumbers. They broke off pieces and handed them around.

X. told me later that night that in Almeria, the protests are more sophisticated and their numbers are higher, of course. She was of the opinion that places like El Ejido shouldn't really bother to hold its own protest but should send people to Almeria. It's in the big cities where the pressure will be felt, she said. In Almeria, there are people "camped out" all week long. She said that in the midst of studying for final exams, she gets over to Almeria whenever she possibly can. It's an hour-long bus ride. She said they need people there to fill in the gaps when others have to go to work or class, and that the most important thing was to maintain a critical mass so that the police couldn't clear them out altogether, if they decided to. (The footage from Barcelona, when the Mossos were ordered to clear the square "for security" -- and by "security" they meant a football game -- are chilling. They beat and bloodied protesters; there's footage of an officer gripping a protestor by the head and pulling up on his nose from behind.)

The reports I've read say that one of the strengths of this movement lies in the fact that the protesters have nothing more to lose. 45% unemployment -- 45%!!! Unforgiven loans after the bank's repossessed your house. And young people who have continued, in lieu of work, to take classes and gain professional skills. They are informed, they are angry, and they have no future prospects. I have noticed in talking to young people this year that there's a sense of randomness and luck assigned to any future plans. Yes, they study (some of them), and yes, they have dreams (a very few), but the opportunities they need to make those studies and those dreams into some form of reality are buried within layers of bureaucracy and -- X.'s boyfriend told me -- nepotism. If you don't know somebody, you're out of luck.

I can't help thinking how all of this is a very interesting counterpoint to the themes I've been attempting to tease out through my research this year: democratic action by young people, learning to be and act democratically, and defining common values in a diverse society. The thing is, I've been studying versions of these things as defined by the State. The protestors are attempting to redefine them on their own terms.