Masses of chanting “indignant” activists poured into the streets across Spain on Saturday in a vast show of strength one year after igniting a global protest against economic injustice.
Tens of thousands packed Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol square, the emblematic birthplace of their popular movement against inequality, sky-high unemployment and spending cuts that shook the political establishment.
Many had marched to the square for hours in separate columns of protesters from all directions and defied an official warning that they must disperse after 10pm.
At midnight, as promised, they lifted their arms to the sky and held a minute of silence before chanting: “Yes we can, yes we can” in a gesture of defiance.
Spanish police cleared the square early yesterday of hundreds of activists who had remained in the square.
The police moved in on the square in the early hours and within minutes removed the several hundred activists who had defied an official warning to disperse after 10pm on Saturday.
Madrid police estimated that 30,000 people had taken part in the protest during the day. In Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city, the turnout was 45,000 according to police, and 220,000 according to organizers.
The marches, held in 80 cities and towns across Spain, launched a four-day protest that will end tomorrow, the anniversary of the movement’s birth — dubbed 15-M.
The movement, which relies heavily on online social networks to campaign and organize, has inspired similar protests from Occupy London in the UK to the Occupy Wall Street campaign in the US.
“We never ceased to exist. It is not that we have returned, we never left,” a 25-year-old nursing intern said in Barcelona, adding that she planned to camp overnight in the square.
While Barcelona city hall seemed prepared to tolerate a camp for a limited period, the authorities in Madrid insisted that they will not allow a repeat of last year’s month-long sprawling encampment in Puerta del Sol that included everything from a canteen to a kindergarten and a library.
Spain’s conservative government, in power since December last year, has issued a permit for the “indignants” to use Puerta del Sol for a five-hour assembly on Saturday and for 10 hours on each of the following three days.
Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the government would ensure that the regulated hours are respected.
A year after the movement’s birth, Spaniards have even more to protest about: a return to recession, unemployment at 24.4 percent for the general workforce and 52 percent for the under-25 population, and more than 30 billion euros (US$39 billion) worth of austerity cuts so far this year.
“We are here because we continue to be angry over the austerity policies which an economic elite is imposing on us,” 21-year-old philosophy student Victor Valdes said at the Madrid rally.
Another protester, 23-year-old office worker Marina Santos said: “It is important to show that we are still here, that there are thousands of people that want a change and are willing to work for it.”
She carried a hand-made sign that read: “Another World is -Possible” as she marched to Puerta del Sol to the beat of drums.
The “indignants” have staged overwhelmingly peaceful protests and neighborhood assemblies since their camp at Puerta del Sol was dismantled last year, but interest has tapered off.