Who are these young people and why are they so angry?

Who are these young people and why are they so angry?

A wave of protests has gripped all of Spain’s major cities. The anger is ostensibly directed against the arrest of a rapper. One reason for the youth revolt is the poor economic situation.

Riots in Madrid: The anger keeps escalating.

© Foto: Manu Fernandez (Keystone)
Riots in Madrid: The anger keeps escalating.

At dusk, a few hundred people stand in the glow of the neon sign for a new cell phone. They clap and chant: “Here are the anti-fascists.” A circle has formed at one corner of the rally in Plaza de Callao in central Madrid. The protesters make way for a couple of break dancers whirling across the asphalt. A line of policemen in protective gear is standing in front of them. The policemen, stiff in bulletproof vests and thick gloves, stand there like an involuntary audience. The 90s rap classic “It’s the Sound of the Police” can be heard from the speakers.

For a week, thousands of people have been demonstrating evening after evening in several Spanish cities for freedom of expression and for the release of the detainee. “Rap is not a crime” is another sentence that one often hears at the demonstrations. The rally on this Saturday in Madrid remained peaceful, which was probably also due to the fact that a police officer came for every demonstrator.

Bank branches devastated

From the point of view of the authorities, it was important to prevent the repetition of scenes like those that happened last Wednesday in Madrid and every evening since then in Barcelona: There, following the demonstrations, violent autonomous street battles with the police take place. Dumpsters are on fire, window panes splinter. Bank branches were devastated. The officials are not squeamish either: residents in downtown Barcelona filmed police officers driving demonstrators through the street with batons.

There were clashes between police and demonstrators not only in Catalonia: From Bilbao to Granada and from Madrid to Valencia – the wave of protests has spread to all of the country’s larger cities. The balance after a week: 150 arrests, 200 injured, about a third of them police officers.

It is also the images that make Europe look to Spain: who are these young people and why are they so angry? According to the authorities, those arrested the previous nights are between 16 and 25 years old. Most of them do not belong to any political association, and their ideological background is also difficult to determine, the newspaper El Periódico quotes from police circles in Barcelona.

Hasél describes himself as a communist, and his texts repeatedly deal with social injustice.

One reason for their anger may be the economic situation: after a year, the millennial generation is one of the biggest losers in Spain. The rate in this age group is now 38 percent in Catalonia, three times as high as in the rest of the population. But is it just frustration at lost future opportunities and the never-ending pandemic?

At the demonstration in Madrid, the participants wear masks throughout, many of them with FFP2 standard. This seems to be about the matter itself. They sing lines by Pablo Hasél, whom they may not have heard of a few months ago. But now they are fighting for his freedom.

Hasél is not a star in the Spanish rap scene. The singer, whose real name is Pau Rivadulla Duró, belongs to a scene of left-wing extremist, anti-monarchist activists and musicians. Born in 1988 in the Catalan city of Lleida, Hasél grew up in a middle-class family. He dropped out of school, in 2005 he recorded his first demo tape. Hasél describes himself as a communist, and his texts repeatedly deal with social injustice.

With a bouquet of flowers against the police station: A young protester in Barcelona.

© Photo: Emilio Morenatti (Keystone)
With a bouquet of flowers against the police station: A young protester in Barcelona.

According to the conventions of rap, Pablo Hasél shoots sharply in his songs. Too sharp, the Spanish judiciary found several times. He received his prison sentence, which he had to serve last Tuesday, for insulting the monarchy and glorifying terror in his texts. He called the Spanish old king Juan Carlos “Parasite” and “Mafioso” and, alluding to Eta assassinations against conservative politicians, indulged in brutal fantasies of violence.

Signatures for a pardon

The imposition of a prison sentence for such texts is controversial internationally. Dunja Mijatovic, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, is critical of the Hasél case in view of the Spanish legal basis: “The excessive application of anti-terror legislation threatens freedom of expression.” Amnesty International is collecting signatures for a pardon for the rapper.

Meanwhile, the assessment of the case has also divided the Spanish government: while the smaller coalition partner, the left-wing populist Unidas Podemos, sided with the demonstrators and condemned the violence of the police, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez not only distanced himself from the rioters, but indirectly at the same time from his coalition partner. For Podemos, who once emerged from the protest movement of the “indignant”, the situation is particularly delicate: the established parties see them as the extended arm of the rioters. But for young people on the street, they have long been part of the power that they criticize and fight.


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