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Stickers from the former general strike (Sept 2011).

Yesterday, there were thousands of people collected in the city center of Puerta del Sol, in Madrid, chanting and yelling in all directions, waving plastic flags and wearing t-shirts on which were written various causes and personal concerns reduced to catchy stanzas.  At times like this, it seems that people strive for some sort of unity, and it’s pretty cool to watch.  There were many different kinds of people crowded together, pushing themselves through the arteries of Madrid, like the Paseo de las Delicias and Fuencarral, all leading to kilómetro cero in Madrid.  The EU labor reforms seem to be the main focus of the lynch mob’s anger, and the main labor unions,  CC.OO (Workers’ Commissions or Comisiones Obreras), and  UGT (Workers’ General Union or Unión General de Trabajadores), are the favorites to advocate for workers’ rights on the national stage (maybe you’ve noticed the thousands of impossible-to-remove stickers plastered on the windows of shops, and unopened flyers and pamphlets layering the streets).   These general strikes seem to be effective in slowing down the productivity of the country.  At least for one day.  There are all the familiar symptoms: metros and buses running at a minimum, piles of garbage in the streets because there is no one to collect it, some (not all) business partaking in the strike by refusing to sell their products, some teachers (not all) not coming to school and joining others in their protest, large groups of people with similar-colored clothes and similar-colored chants holding clenched fists, slightly edgy police wearing marginally intimidating riot gear, hippies sitting in circles with their mangy dogs on cardboard floor mats placed in high traffic public areas, someone with a clipboard and a megaphone, yelling. And there is the other side, in my opinion less dignified, which includes near-violent picket lines harassing people walking into stores, the explosion of public drinking and the resulting trash and disregard for public civility, spray painting of walls and windows with messages that are more likely to  include mentions of a whore, some long-dead fascist, a penis, and something about your mother than workers’ rights or social injustice.

Teaching Caja Madrid a lesson by vandalizing their ATMs.

The insignificance of my place in all of this commotion is obvious, though, as it is typified in my staggeringly unimportant annoyances: stepping over some garbage, the impending police helicopter hovering above my apartment, my favorite ATM out of commission.  It would be irresponsible, as a foreigner, to spout judgments and opinions about Spaniards or Spain in general.  I cringe when I hear someone moaning about life in Spain as if they were still in London, LA or Des Moines, Iowa (I do not exclude myself from this;  it’s childish and small-minded).

Furthermore, I am fortunate to be in the position to have something to offer my host culture without running the risk (so far) of edging out local workers.  I have neither the deep-seated frustration of exclusion nor a fatalistic life-approach that many Spaniards appear to have due to a blatant lack of opportunity.  If I would make one direct cultural comparison, though, it is that the mere idea of a nation-wide strike would be almost inconceivable in the United States. I am not sure it is technically possible there.  I am impressed that such a halting of productivity can happen on such a grand scale.  But I’m wary of the strike’s effectiveness not just because the US doesn’t do it, but because today, seemingly without pause, the Spanish government continues the process of enacting these very labor reforms that are at the center of the huelga general.

I think it is safe to say, though, that vandalism and the various shades of violence displayed this week are not acceptable as mere colors of culture, nor are they representative of Spain.  There are people here, as anywhere, who like to get excited, break stuff and have an excuse to get even drunker than usual. They have a general sense of frustration, but are not very good at being constructive about it.  And their behavior isn’t helping ease the collective worry that many Spaniards have about their future.

As trash collectors have taken part in the huelga general, it is surprising how quickly rubbish piles up when there is no one to pick it up.

Motivated protesters have made a few passes through Fuencarral Street, near my apartment, and left stickers and spray paint on windows of businesses. I am sure they will be back today to clean it all up.

The center of the action, in front of the Casa de Correos, in Puerta del Sol in Madrid.

29 March 2012, Puerta del Sol. Photo REUTERS.