Public Expression in Madrid: ‘The streets belong to us’

For Madrileños the use of public space for expression is a basic right

By Sarah Carroll

MADRID — When something irks Madrileños, you can be sure you are going to hear about it. From street art and graffiti to near-daily protests and rallies, this city’s public spaces are places of expression.

Even public displays of affection carry a political message in Madrid, because PDA was banned in Spain during the Francoist regime.

Francisco Franco was Spain’s dictator for 36 years, rising to power during the Spanish civil war. His extreme nationalism was made manifest through his rampant censorship—and outright banning—of nearly all cultural activities.

In 2013, there were 4,000 protests in Madrid, according to an article from El Mundo, Spain’s second largest printed daily newspaper. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, and an issue irritating Madrileños today provides a glimpse why.

King Juan Carlos announced in June that he would abdicate after nearly 40 years of rule, passing the crown on to his son, Felipe. This succession took place here June 19, amidst protests and calls for a referendum on the monarchy.

Long live the king?

The abdication renewed a long-standing debate about whether Spain should continue to support a monarchy or abandon it as a relic of a pre-Republic past. A primary reason for the dissatisfaction with the monarchy is its cost, and this reason has been underlined by the economic woes Spain is experiencing, fiscal problems that include 26% unemployment.

“A monarchy wouldn’t be nice for Spain now. The monarchs take a lot of money from the citizens,” said Paula Roldaú, a participant in a street march and protest in Puerta del Sol in the center of the city in early June. Puerta del Sol is one of the busiest plazas in all of Madrid, and has long been a popular place for Madrileños to hold religious gatherings, political protests, or any form of public expression.

“We think, for example, that on the day of the coronation, . . . the princess—who is nine-years-old—is going to earn more money than fifteen families [combined] per month.”

According to an article from El Pais, Spain’s highest-circulation daily newspaper, Letizia earns around 100,000 euros annually. Until the coronation, Juan Carlos was earning roughly 300,000 euros per year. These numbers become more striking when compared to the average annual salary for Spaniards at less than 20,000 euros.

Protester Marcos Pyloreo on Puerta del Sol’s statue
of a bear and a Madrone tree, one of Madrid’s
famous symbols. (Photograph by Sarah Carroll)

Roldaú joined thousands of Madrileños and groups of several different political stripes in filling the Puerta del Sol in protest. Like most of Madrid’s protests, this one was well-publicized, heavily regulated and policed from start to finish.

Another protester, Pablo Moreno, said many Madrileños do not hate the monarchy, but simply want a more democratic country. He described the monarchy as a “black hole” in Spain’s democracy. According to Moreno, a democratic society is illegitimate if the leaders are not chosen by the people.

Moreno said he believes that the monarchy is outdated.

“I don’t think this [the monarchy] belongs to this time,” he said. “Maybe from the past when we needed a huge leader . . . but it’s not what we are looking for in our modern society.”

The price of protest

Even though protests are generally peaceful in Madrid, there are costs to be considered. The heavy police presence necessary at each protest racks up euros, as does the post-protest clean up. Tourism, an important industry for Madrid, is likely hurt by protests, as well. Many take place in the Puerta del Sol, a hot spot for tourists.

In March of this year, the mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella, called for a ban on street protests in the downtown area after an especially violent string of protests. Over 100 people were injured and the damage cost the city of Madrid more than 150,000 euros, according to El Pais.

One of Botella’s reasons for the ban was to protect tourism during this difficult economic period. Tourism accounts for roughly 5 percent of Spain’s GDP.

Is civic expression healthy?

“You have to represent your ideas, but that’s a lot of protests,” said Madrid resident Alberto Perez. “It takes too much from the city. The people are not happy about the situation in Spain right now. But maybe . . . there are too many protests about everything.”

Others say this sort of civic expression is a sign of a healthy democracy.

At a pro-referendum/anti-monarchy protest this
month near the Puerta del Sol. Banner reads:
“Referendum already. For a constitutional process”
(Photograph by Sarah Carroll)

“I feel very comfortable with people on the streets crying things they want to cry,” said Jose Struch, a bystander at the anti-monarchy/pro-referendum protest. “It’s a problem, but . . . I think it’s better to have 30,000 [protests] than none.”

Flash mob democracy

The number of protests is rising, and the method of protest organizing is changing. The use of technology, especially with regards to social media, has made organizing protests easier and faster. Given how ritualized and bureaucratic protests have become, these changes are welcomed by many, said Francisco Seijo, a political science professor who teaches at several institutions in Madrid.

“There is an official way of organizing protests,” he said. “There are a few prerogatives that must be obtained from the government. For example, a protest must have a permit to be considered legal. Time limits are usually established. Insurance is needed in case there are personal injuries or damage to public property.”

This government-sanctioned process, which produced ritualized protests, was challenged in 2011 by what is called the 15-M movement, a popular uprising that began three years ago in May in the Puerta del Sol.

Siejo described the 15-M movement as the “emergence of a new paradigm.”

Madrileños were protesting the economic crisis and voicing dissatisfaction with the government’s choices and because of charges of rampant corruption. The difference? They did not seek permission from the government to protest.

“Since then there has been a drastic change,” Siejo said. “Protests are much more dynamic and out of control.”

Conservatives want to outlaw these un-permitted protests and implement heavy fines, he said. But even though the government technically could impose these fines, they don’t out of fear of backlash.

“It gives the impression of anti-democracy, said Jonathan Snyder, an adjunct professor of Spanish literature and culture at several institutions in Madrid. “When the government starts limiting who can protest—it all begins to look very undemocratic.”

To what effect?

The effectiveness of protests, beyond simply catching the government’s attention, is debatable. Nevertheless, for some, causing governmental action is only part of why expression is such a vital part of Madrid culture and daily public life.

Madrileños protest as a way of rebelling against a sense of helplessness, as well, said Victor Gonzalez, managing director of ACCENT International Consortium for Academic Programs Abroad, and a resident of Madrid for the past 12 years.

“They feel the need to do something where they would otherwise feel powerless,” he said.

This need can be traced back to La Movida, a countercultural movement that originated in Madrid in the years following Franco’s death in 1975, Gonzalez said.

La Movida was a rebellion against the years of repression during Franco’s era, and it produced new types of music, movies, graffiti, literature and more.

While the movement is generally associated with the early 80s, the people were already pulling away from conservative ideologies in the years prior to Franco’s death because of rising interaction with the world outside of Spain.

The fierceness with which the people of Madrid take advantage of public space shows how important “doing” democracy is to Madrileños, as compared to just believing in democracy.

Expression is seen here as an irrevocable right.

“Public space belongs to all of us,” Moreno said. “We can go out if we want. I think there is another demonstration right now supporting the monarchy. Why not? The streets belong to all of us.”

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