On a sweltering Saturday evening, a small crowd gathered in Madrid’s La Latina neighborhood to kick off a festival dedicated to one of the city’s patrons, the Virgin of the Paloma. In the nights to come, there would be paso doble contests, heaps of fried sheep intestine to consume at outdoor stalls and plenty of drunken dancing to Shakira at 2 a.m. But now, at this more politically inspired celebration, the biggest attraction was a carnival booth, called the Pim Pam Pum Indignado, where people paid 50 cents for the chance to throw a ball at a target adorned with the cartoon faces of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Rodrigo Rato (the recently resigned head of Bankia, which had to be nationalized earlier this year to the tune of 21 billion euros) and other protagonists of Spain’s economic crisis. As one bearded young man aimed carefully and toppled Angela Merkel with missile-like accuracy, the crowd erupted in a gleeful “Olé!”
Protests are everywhere and in almost every form these days in Spain. Ever since the Spanish government requested a bailout from the E.U. for its troubled banks in June, the growing list of austerity measures (a 7% reduction in civil servants’ pay; an increase in the value-added tax on goods and services; the abolition of subsidies for most medicines; rising power rates) has pushed a steady tide of demonstrators into the streets. Most of these protests are of the chanting and placard-waving variety; hardly a day goes by in Madrid without some kind of angry march in front of a government building or down a central artery. But as the crisis wears on and Spain appears to approach a second bailout — this one of its rapidly growing sovereign debt — new varieties of protest are emerging. Like the Pim Pam Pum Indignado, the criticism and outrage are becoming downright creative.
No one knows the value of a little dramatic action better than Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. A member of Andalucia’s regional parliament and mayor of Marinaleda, 115 km outside Seville, he is also one of the leaders of the Andalucian Workers’ Syndicate (SAT), a union composed primarily of agricultural day laborers. Reviving a tradition that dates to the 19th century, about 1,000 SAT members occupied an estate owned by the Spanish military on July 24 and demanded that the land be redistributed to the area’s workers. When that action failed to garner much attention, the SAT resorted to another tactic: members entered two supermarkets, loaded carts with staples like milk, pasta and olive oil, and walked out without paying (though with a bit of scuffling from management). They later turned over the stolen goods to charity.
“We robbed to give to the poor because the rich are already robbing,” says Sánchez Gordillo. “This crisis is a great robbery.”
Sánchez Gordillo has been a political activist for decades. After years of sit-ins and other actions, in 1991, he and his organization convinced the regional government of Andalucia to expropriate nearly half of an aristocratic estate in Marinaleda and transfer it to the town, whose 2,700 residents now farm it collectively. But the situation now is worse, he says, than at any time since the death of Francisco Franco, which is why more dramatic measures are warranted. “People are losing everything,” he says. “We wanted the authorities to really pay attention to what is happening.”
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They certainly did. Police arrested several participants in the thefts and, on Aug. 10, dislodged the SAT from the estate it had been occupying. But Sánchez Gordillo, who says the accompanying media attention has helped publicize the plight of average families in southern Spain, says his union will continue its unorthodox protests. “We’re planning more supermarket actions,” he says. “And we may occupy some banks.”
For one effective way of doing that, he might look to Flo6x8. A group of Seville-based flamenco performers (the name comes from a standard flamenco rhythm), it has been staging flash mobs with a decidedly critical edge. At a Bankia branch office not long ago, a portly man in sunglasses suddenly burst out with the characteristic wail of a bulería — a traditional flamenco song. As dancers stomped their heels on the bank floor, the singer declared, “You’ve lowered my salary and raised everything else.” By the time he got to the song’s closing lines (“Even if you lowered my interest rate, Bankia, I wouldn’t love you anymore”) the bank’s customers — and even a clerk or two — were clapping along in earnest.
“It’s a form of civil disobedience,” says member La Paca Monea (Flo6x8’s performers use pseudonyms). “We go into a place where the powerful are and invert the order of things. We demand attention and say, ‘Here we are, using our bodies to fight the financial system.’” After a performance, Flo6x8, which hopes to mount a continental tour of European banks, posts videos on YouTube and its own website. “After the Bankia flash mob, we got 600,000 visitors to our site,” says La Paca Monea. “People really responded to it.”
Which is the same thing that humorist Fito Vasquez discovered with his Pim Pam Pum Indignado carnival game. When he drew the cartoon faces that would serve as targets, he chose, he says, “the people that would be the most hated because of their involvement with the crisis.” But the level of intensity that people brought to the game surprised even him. “People were throwing those balls with real ire,” he says. “Some of them didn’t even want the beer you won if you hit three targets. They just wanted a chance to knock out Merkel.”