Spain: Shall we talk?

Cristina Flesher Fominaya
Thursday, October 12th, 2017

Demonstrators shout slogans, some of them holding a banner reading in Catalan “disobedience to the bad government”, as they gather near a headquarters of federal police in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday Oct. 8, 2017. (AP Photo)


Something quite remarkable is happening in Spain. No, I don’t mean the threat of a break up of Spain. Nor the mass mobilization organized by DENAES, the Foundation for the Defence of the Spanish Nation which has filled Madrid’s Colon Plaza with thousands of people waving  Spanish flags (and a few with the pre-democracy Franco-era flag), chanting “I am Spanish”, and who feel well represented by the right-wing parties PP, Ciudadanos and even Vox.  Nor the mass protests and the general strike in Cataluña against state repression and for independence (but not always both).


“We are a better nation”


I am talking about the grassroots organization of citizens across the country who have refused to take sides and instead decided to mobilize to let the parties involved know that “Spain is a better country than those running it”. They have called for citizens to gather in front of their respective town halls to talk, and in so doing, model what they want the independentists in Cataluña and the leaders of the Spanish government to do: enter into dialogue to resolve their differences.


In the face of escalating tensions and intransigence following the government repression of the illegal referendum in Cataluña (in which some 840 people required medical attention after police attacks that included beating, kicking, throwing people down stairs and firing on them with rubber bullets), many people in Spain have had enough of being forced to choose sides in a conflict in which they identify with neither side.


Independent of their views on Catalan independence, many were horrified by the police brutality and the authoritarian stance taken by the Popular Party against peaceful people who were expressing their right to express themselves through a vote. The increase in repression against peaceful protest notably since the mass mobilizations following 15-M is unfortunately not restricted to the recent and most visible manifestation in Cataluña, but has been a source of concern for human rights observers and activists mobilizing against the recent passage of the Law for the Protection of Citizen Security, more commonly known as the Gag Law (or Ley Mordaza).  As if that weren’t bad enough, following the fiasco, neither side showed signs of sitting down and opening dialogue, with Catalan Parliament Carles Puigdemont threatening to carry out his original threat to unilaterally declare independence (DUI) following a favourable outcome in the referendum, despite participation of only 43% of the electoral census under conditions that do not guarantee the validity of the results (contrast with the 75% who voted in the 2015 Catalan elections) and the PP government threatening to invoke the never before used article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which authorizes the state to dissolve the powers of the autonomous community by force if necessary in the case of a threat to the general interest of Spain.


The King further fuelled the fire in a hard-line pro-government speech that did nothing to promote a rapprochement between parties and made no mention of the documented police brutality against his subjects in Catalonia. The scenario bodes ill for the safeguarding of peace and wellbeing of citizens in Cataluña. If over 2 million people were willing to defy the ban on the illegal referendum and express their will to vote on October 1, before they had witnessed the police brutality their fellow citizens faced, how many more would be willing to defend their parliament should it come to that? If in a recent poll only 41.1% of Catalonians want independence (49.4% responded no in that poll in June and July of 2017) before the repression against the referendum, according to another poll conducted by Metroscopia for El País, some 82% want the right to vote in a legal negotiated referendum and see that as the best way forward. 82% also answered yes to the question of whether Rajoy’s handling of the question had contributed to an increase in support for Catalan independence?


As the vestiges of Franco era fascism reared its head with small groups wrapping themselves in Spanish flags and singing the fascist hymn “De Cara al Sol” and chanting “A por ellos” (Go get them! In reference to beating up the independentists), many more Spaniards took to the streets of the country last October 2 to express their repudiation of the police violence and the infringement of democratic rights and freedoms manifested in the attacks on peaceful citizens. Members of the intelligentsia and arts called for dialogue, politicians like Ada Colau appealed to Europe and the international community to condemn the violence, Podemos called for dialogue that would lead to a real referendum with a guaranteed outcome and negotiated questions.


When none of that shifted the scenario, a small group of university researchers got together with another group of graphic designers, researchers, publicists who had created a similar Facebook page in Madrid, decided it was time for the people’s voice to be heard and launched a manifesto and a call for dialogue under the banner of ¿Hablamos? ¿Parlem?  which means “Shall we talk?” in Spanish and Catalan respectively. Using Facebook and Twitter and drawing on the extensive existing activist and social networks that connect across Spain to get the ball rolling, the manifesto and call have gathered 20,000 expressions of interest on the Facebook event page and have spread across Twitter networks. In a process known in Spanish as “desborde” or overflow, the call has generated an outpouring of messages and graphic artists’ contributions in much the same way as did the campaigns for Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena (Mayors of Barcelona and Madrid respectively, and running on platforms that emerged from the Indignados/15-M mobilizations) but in a much shorter time frame.


Tweets with the hashtags #parlem and #hablamos are filled with images and plays on words. One shows that the word for love “amor” is the same in Google Translate for Spanish and Catalan, another turns the word hate (odio) into ear/listening (oído), yet another shows a multi-colored heart with the words in Catalan “My heart is broken, shall we talk?”. The upswelling of citizen grassroots mobilization echoes not only the Barcelona and Madrid mayoral campaigns in which the “Movement for Graphic Liberation” of Barcelona and Madrid played crucial roles, but also invokes the original 15M protest of May 15, 2011 call to action, whose banner was “Real Democracy Now!


“ We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers”. Then, as now, the manifesto makes a clear call for non-partisan participation. The “rules” are no flags, no political parties, and wear white, the color of peace. The manifesto also echoes the language of the 15-M slogans in its expression of the gap between a government that refuses to listen and a people that demand to be heard, and in the famous cry of 15-M “They don’t represent us!”


Already Twitter is full of allegations of #Hablemos being a ‘Podemos in the shadows’ initiative, just as the mass protests against the PP in 2004 after the Madrid bombings were accused of being orchestrated by the PSOE. One conspiracy theory puts together the hashtags #Parlem and #Hablemos to make “Pablemos”, a nickname for Podemos that actually originated in the 15-M movement sectors that did not support the electoral initiative, implying criticism for its leader-driven as opposed to horizontalist politics, but which is now being mobilized by pro-unity Spanish ultra nationalists.


Such are the vagaries of the Twitter-sphere. Although Podemos and Barcelona en Común as well as other political parties have supported the initiative, and are actively tweeting the event (for better or for worse), they have not orchestrated it. Others ask “Talk about what?” or “What is there to talk about?”, suggesting that there is naiveté or misguided equidistance between the sides. Twitter isn’t a straightforward reflection of the world by any means, but it does give some insight into a certain already politicized and often polarized sector of the population. More revealing are the photographs of the squares across Spain where people are gathered.


Today Madrid and Barcelona are filled with white, and not just red and yellow. Whether one sees this as a naïve popular mobilization that ignores the real politik surrounding the Catalán question or an expression of creative political imagination that refuses to be forced to take sides in a zero sum game, this initiative demonstrates the power of Spain’s grassroots networks that can mobilize at short notice in the face of specific political crises.


Indeed, these networks were responsible for organizing an illegal referendum in very difficult circumstances. That effort was supported by many activists who do not necessarily take sides in the Catalan question but who do actively defend democratic rights and fight against State control of the internet for political purposes, such as Xnet. These networks, both digital and offline, have been built up over time and through many campaigns over the past several decades, but most notably since the 15-M movement.


They too express a feeling that extends beyond Spain’s borders or particular situation. As so many other mass protests that have swept Spain and Europe since the global financial crisis, they illustrate the great paradox of contemporary democracy: never before have people been so disaffected with really existing democracy and never before have they voiced en masse and with such passion their desire for “Real Democracy Now!”. People want democracy and coexistence and peace, they just don’t want this democracy, with leaders who don’t listen and don’t act in the interests of their citizens.


Madrid’s Plaza de Colon is filled with citizens waving Spanish flags and calling for the unity of Spain, perhaps at any price. But we have seen all that before, on one side of the Catalan question or the other. What is remarkable is that Spanish media today are contrasting the image of Colon for Spanish unity not with an image of a counter protest in Cataluña, but with the image of the thousands who refuse to take sides and instead call for dialogue, and who are showing up in front of their city halls across Spain today wearing white, not red and yellow. What a crazy idea! Shall we talk?


Cristina Flesher Fominaya is a founding editor of the global social movements journal Interface. From openDemocracy.

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