Finally back from my conference, and have to confess to having some serious egg on my face – my hopes of interacting with the protests in Madrid to understand them better came to naught due to unfortunate timing. The major nationwide protests were over by the time I arrived, and the Puerta del Sol looked nothing like this.
This is not to say that all was normal. There appeared to be a couple of permanent encampments in the square, and walking back to the hotel after dinner I walked past a couple of groups of people sitting in circles in various plazas listening to what appeared to be a group leader talking to them through a megaphone (rather odd considering the circles included around 20 people at most). I wasn’t sure how to approach them without looking shady, especially considering my lack of Spanish, so I kept my distance. I would have loved to know what they were discussing.
In one day of walking the city, we also saw a very large and passionate protest regarding Syria on the Paseo del Prado (it was in Arabic, so it was impossible to know what they were saying). That protest disbanded and a couple dozen of the protesters ended up one tapas joint away from us in the plaza. I also saw a much smaller group of what appeared to be Moroccans that evening in the Puerta del Sol protesting in French about their treatment (my French is even worse than my Spanish, sadly). But that was about it.
The sense of unreality was quite strong considering the wall-to-wall coverage of the crisis there. A Madrillena in our group who had recently returned after some time out of the country noted how strange it was that all of the sidewalk cafes were full in spite of the lack of jobs. I can see how that would seem strange to someone with a direct connection to the place – it has felt the same way in New York from time to time – but as a foreigner it was reassuring to see that even in the face of chaos life goes on.
My one bit of anecdotal intelligence came from a panel on the crisis at the conference. A French academic who spends a good deal of time in Madrid has made a small, informal project of asking people in bars, social clubs and other settings what they thought of the crisis. Almost none of them mentioned the economy or banks – instead, they saw it as a political crisis driven by the failure of government first to act effectively, and second to protect them from the consequences. It was surprising (at least to me) to hear given the way these crises are covered in our media as morality plays that only economists can understand.