FOCUS: Why are young people in Spain protesting rapper’s arrest so vehemently?

After six days of violence, looting and clashes with police, the protests carried out by young radical demonstrators over the jailing of a controversial rapper showcase the many sources of discontent among Spain's youth.

FOCUS: Why are young people in Spain protesting rapper's arrest so vehemently?

At Saturday's protest, a hood covers one young woman's hair, a mask her face.

Only her dark eyes can be seen staring out at the latest demonstration in Barcelona against the jailing of Spanish rapper Pablo Hasel.

Hasel was jailed for a string of tweets which were found to be “glorifying terrorism” in what his supporters say illustrates the lack of free speech in Spain.

But for Maria (not her real name), his arrest and imprisonment last week was the spark that lit a larger bonfire of other grievances.

“We are fed up with injustices, job insecurity, repression and this has made us explode,” the 20-year-old history student told AFP.

The protests have been going since Tuesday in Barcelona, when police forced their way past barricades at the Catalan university where Hasel and his supporters were holed up to arrest him.

In the nights that followed, police and protesters clashed repeatedly in the streets of Barcelona, Spain's second city and the capital of the northeast region of Catalonia.

They fought at the makeshift barricades, around the burning dumpsters in the streets of the city.

The unrest spread to other cities in the region, where separatist sentiments run deep and suspicion of Madrid is strong. In Vic, for example, 11 police officers were injured after demonstrators attacked a police station there.

Police detained 38 people and there were 13 people injured during Saturday night's clashes across Catalonia.

'Society is collapsing'

Over the last few nights, young people's growing anger has overwhelmed any fear they might have about clashing with the police. Protesters have jumped on to police cars, even chased them.

Nor have police charges — and the firing of foam rounds that have already cost one young woman protester an eye — deterred them.

“It's really scary to come here and to be arrested, take a beating or lose an eye,” said Maria.

“But it's scarier to stay at home and not to fight for our rights.”

This is not her first time protesting on the streets.

She was among those who protested in October 2019, during the five nights of unrest in Barcelona after a court handed down jail terms to nine Catalan separatist leaders for their failed 2017 independence bid.

This time round, the protests have spread beyond Catalonia to cities across Spain, including the capital Madrid, Valencia in the east and Granada in the south.

And most of those on the streets have been young people.

The unrest has also allowed others to exploit the chaos to loot luxury shops, hotels and even car dealerships.

“There are a lot of things behind it,” another student protester, Alba, told AFP.

Don't let her frail physique and soft voice mislead you. Even at just 20 years old, she has years of experience as a climate activist behind her — and her message is uncompromising.

“We see that society is collapsing on many levels — economically, ecologically, socially — and our generation will be the one to pay the bill,” she said.

“We are fighting because we refuse to be a lost generation.”

Sources of discontent 

When asked what fuels their anger, young protesters raise the same issues.

Youth unemployment in Spain, at 40.2 percent, is the highest in the European Union.

Those openings to be had are not so much the jobs for life enjoyed by previous generations, but more often one internship or short-term contract after another.

And the cost of renting has soared in recent years, particularly in sought-after cities such as Madrid and Barcelona.

The pandemic has only added to their problems, with young people often blamed for the increase in infections in a country that has been hard hit by the coronavirus.

“The violence is a complex issue,” said Xavi Perez, who attended Saturday's protest.

“Violence cannot be defended, but it is also true that the purely peaceful protest has not got us anywhere either.

“So we will have to do something else.”

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‘The indignant ones’: Spain marks ten years since its ‘occupy’ protests

It has been 10 years since a group of Spaniards angered by the economic crisis took their fury onto the streets, occupying public squares in a new form of protest that caught on worldwide.

'The indignant ones': Spain marks ten years since its 'occupy' protests

Under a clear blue sky on May 15, 2011, thousands gathered in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square and set up camp, refusing to budge for weeks in a mass protest over unemployment, corruption and homelessness.

Calling themselves “los Indignados” – or “the indignant ones” – their protest hit the headlines around the world.

And a decade on, images of these tens of thousands of demonstrators camping out in favour of a better world still capture the imagination.

Among them were young people, pensioners, the unemployed but also those with jobs – all gathered in makeshift tents, sleeping on cardboard boxes in a sort of improvised alternative village.

“Without the crisis of 2008, the movement wouldn’t have existed,” says Pablo Gallego, founder of Real Democracy Now!, a collective involved in organising the 15M (May 15th) protests.

On that day, with unemployment topping 20 percent, thousands hit the streets around the country following a wave of outrage on social media, explains Klaudia Alvarez, who co-wrote a book on the movement with Gallego, called: “We, the indignant ones”.

“The explosion of individual complaints on social media showed that what was happening to you was happening to others as well,” she said.

Fifth anniversary of the “Indignados” (outrage) movement in Madrid, on May 15, 2016. Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Fuelled by social media, the protests were horizonal in structure, decentralised with no identifiable leader, and took shape without the involvement of unions or political parties.

“The movement had no label … but was very political,” emphasised Pablo Gallego, remembering “with a lot of tenderness” this “romantic” moment for which “these people who had never been militants and were demonstrating”.

Its demands were idealistic in nature, denouncing the excesses of capitalism, the instability of jobs and an electoral system that favoured the big parties.

“The movement was non-partisan and not linked to the unions, but it was very political,” said Gallego, who remembers the early days of the movement “with great fondness”.

“It was very emotional… people were demonstrating who weren’t activists.”

 A sea of protesters

“We are the people,” they would chant while blocking the eviction of indebted families, denouncing the austerity imposed by the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank as Spain was gripped by record unemployment affecting half of the under-25s.

And they organised on social media via a campaign launched simultaneously by 80 people on Twitter, “creating a trending topic” which caught the media’s attention, recalls Francisco Jurado, a 38-year-old lawyer and former Indignado activist.

Oscar Rivas, 48, remembers Madrid’s Puerta del Sol being covered by a sea of people who adopted a new way of communicating: hands in the air to symbolise applause, windmilling arms for going in a circle, and arms crossed to express dissent.

Fifth anniversary of the “Indignados” (outrage) movement in Madrid, on May 15, 2016. Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Embarrassed by this widely-supported protest, the Socialist government at the time didn’t move to evacuate the squares, allowing the “Spanish revolution” to intensify.

By mid-June, the protesters had packed up their camps but swore they would not be silenced.

And their new form of protest quickly spread beyond Spain, inspiring the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and other similar movements from France to Greece.

In Spain, the movement inspired the creation of Podemos, a far-left, anti-austerity party which burst onto the political scene in January 2014.

Created by a handful of academics, it quickly became the third political force in the country, shattering three decades of bipartisan hegemony by the Socialists and the right-wing Popular Party.

In January 2020, Podemos entered government with its leader Pablo Iglesias, a former Indignados activist, named a deputy prime minister.

“The demands of the 15M movement were very diverse but backed by nearly all the parties in Spain,” said Pablo Simon, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, indicating the protests were the result of “widespread disillusionment with traditional politics”.

“It’s a phenomenon that has politicised a whole generation of Spaniards, especially those born in the 1980s and since.”

And 10 years on, the landscape has changed. Although Iglesias has just announced his resignation from politics after an electoral setback in Madrid, the Puerta del Sol activists believe it was their action that set the scene for the mass protests against climate change and huge rallies in support of feminism.

READ ALSO: Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias quits politics after Madrid regional elections drubbing