Background: Today was the 14N Strike across Europe — general strikes in the worst-hit countries (Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece) and partial strikes in some of the other Eurozone nations. This is the second general strike in President Mariano Rajoy’s crisis-stricken less-than-one-year stint in office. Although planning for the strike has been in the works for some time, emotions were especially high here in Spain, where unemployment rates are so high and austerity measures so severe that a woman recently committed suicide as she was facing eviction from her home because she couldn’t pay her mortgage.
Today’s strike featured extremely limited metro and bus services, canceled flights at Barajas, closed shops and restaurants, blocked streets, protests, vandalism, arrests, and the participation of approximately 75% of unionized workers. While I encountered mixed feelings about the utility of the strike from various Spaniards, there is a general sense of unity among the people, regardless of profession or political affiliation, that something must be done to change the current situation. For many, the most obvious and direct action to take was to participate in la huelga.
At first glance, a “strike day” is just like a “snow day” without the snow — a day when you can’t go to school/work due to hazardous and/or limited transportation services. A day when you sleep in and then hang around the house and have a semi-productive-semi-lazy afternoon. A day when you turn on the news to see how the big event is affecting your city and the surrounding areas.
However, the similarities stop there. When you go outside on a snow day, you either make snowmen and snowballs (if you’re a child) or suffer through the necessary shoveling (if you’re an adult). When you go outside on a strike day, things are quite different.
Around 7:30 pm, a friend and I got on the metro, waited approximately 15 minutes (instead of the usual 5) for the next extremely crowded train, and headed toward the center of Madrid. We expected that things would have been calm by this hour, and at first glance, we were completely right. The remnants of the strike were visible, with stickers and posters covering the streets, but people were calmly strolling through the streets or grabbing bites to eat and nothing seemed particularly out of the ordinary. We even went into a few shops before sitting down by a fountain in the middle of Puerta del Sol, the heart of the capital, to wait for another friend. Things remained normal as the three of us walked through the streets in the center and made our way to a bar to get some drinks and bite to eat. After enjoying our dinner, we went to leave, just as a waiter was closing the door to the bar, saying that there was jaleo (commotion) outside. Right in front of our eyes, two 20-somethings were being detained, face-down on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs, surrounded by at least ten policemen in SWAT gear. About ten minutes later, even more police arrived and took the detainees away in police vans, at which point we went to talk to some of the other onlookers who had seen the beginning of the incident. It was still unclear, however, exactly what the protesters had done. Some say they did nothing. Others say they had explosives.
We left Plaza Santa Ana thinking we were still in the clear, discussing what we had just seen while pondering a stop for frozen yogurt. As we walked down a side street, just before entering Sol, the fro-yo talk ceased and the jaleo returned: we heard a small bomb/firecracker explode in the plaza and saw the chaos that ensued (though it appeared to be due to shock rather than physical injury) — people running away screaming and the metal doors to the metro entrances rapidly closing. At that point, we decided it was time to get in a taxi and return to the calm neighborhood of Moncloa where we live. And that’s just what we did.
So no, maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the center of Madrid tonight, but I will now forever remember 14N as much more than a 65-degree snow day.