The Unwitting Activist

Alberto Casillas and me – the map immediately gave me away as a tourist.

In central Madrid, just a few hundred metres away from the Palacio de los Cortes, Alberto Casillas stands quietly outside Café Prado. Dressed in his uniform – a white shirt, black tie and badly-fitted black trousers – he stares into the stream of traffic that flits past him on the opposing street. The mob of photographers that encircled the entrance to the café a few nights before have gone; so have the scores of protestors that packed tightly inside it, sheltering from riot police behind Alberto’s outstretched arms. After guarding them for about half an hour, Alberto’s defiance against the local authorities that night made him an inadvertent hero among the protestors, encapsulating their insurgent spirit. ‘I told the police they could not enter,’ he informed the Huffington Post, who uploaded a video of his valorous behaviour, ‘because there were a lot of people inside and because we are all human beings.’ He added, ‘I do not want to go against the law, but if they entered (into the café) there would have been a massacre. There were children and everything.’

Having worked at the Café Prado for the past three years, Alberto has witnessed personally how the protests of the 15-M movement, described a few months after its inception as ‘small’ and ‘inarticulate,’ have allowed the political group to become an influential societal force. By harnessing the unifying power of social media sites, its leaders have been able to summon large numbers of people to protest in the Spanish capital, most of which were initially peaceful. On May 18th 2011, the BBC reported that ‘about 2,000 young people’ gathered in Puerta de Sol, one of the largest squares in the city, for a ‘peaceful protest’ over Spain’s high unemployment rate, the highest in Europe. With the ‘crowd singing songs, playing games and debating,’ the general ambience of the protest was cheerful, perhaps even festive. Now the tone is changing though: caused by Spain’s unstable fiscal situation, a more radical form of political activism has emerged among the most recent protests in the Spanish capital. ‘Society is now on the precipice of it starting to break,’ declares Alberto Casillas. ‘You can see it in people’s faces, the sadness and powerlessness. It is the image of fear, all you see is fear, fear, fear.’

On September 25th 2012, the day that lead to Alberto pleading the police to stop their violence, the 25-S movement, an offspring of 15-M, attempted to occupy the Palacio de los Cortes with the bold intention of forcing ‘the dismissal of the government.’ Unlike all previous protests of 15-M, the atmosphere was sombre and frighteningly serious. ‘We believe that the current situation has exceeded all tolerable limits,’ their manifesto claims, ‘and we are victims of an unprecedented attack from the economic powers.’ Hunting in packs of two or three, the police seemed to choose their victims indeterminately in the brutal violence that ensued. They beat both innocent spectators and suspected protestors, leaving some of them sprawled helplessly on the floor. (One man, after being knocked unconscious by one of the riot police, was also left paralyzed). ‘I see a policeman shouting with a gun in his hand,’ writes Jesus G. Pastor on The Huffington Post ‘I see a disarmed citizen pleading, knelt down and defenceless,’ and ‘I see a victim that protests because they need things to change and they want to believe it is possible.’ Alberto Casillas even compared the police’s behaviour to that of Venezuela’s, whose members have been described as ‘a law unto themselves.’ ‘I lived in Venezuela for 25 years and I saw this type [of behaviour] there, he says. ‘Now I’m also seeing it here [in Spain].’

At the Council of the Americas conference in New York the following day, Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, addressed the nation, praising the country’s silent citizens who did not protest the previous evening, who simply accept the hardships his government imposes upon them. ‘You do not see them, but they are there,’ he said. ‘They are the majority of the 47 million people that live in Spain,’ and ‘they are people that suffer, shouldering enormous difficulties.’ During his visit to the United States, one that had the intention of recuperating some of Spain’s economic credibility, he also declared: ‘the perception of Spain does not correspond with the reality.’ However, in what is most likely an attempt to appease the world’s media, is it not the Spanish government that creates a false impression of its current situation? Jorge Fernández Díaz, the Minister for Home Affairs, described the police’s behaviour on September 25th as ‘magnificent’ and ‘splendid,’ despite the videos recorded by protestors and spectators that firmly suggest otherwise. Conrado Escobar, a spokesman for the same ministerial department, also said the police were ‘brilliant’ and ‘exemplary.’ By failing to reflect the truth of events that evening, these statements do not unify the Spanish public to its government; they simply push them even further away. However, regardless of whether they are silent or not, the majority of Spanish citizens have already been pushed too far by their government. Let us hope that the actions of Alberto Casillas, a man who prevented police from attacking their fellow citizens, do not foreshadow what awaits Spain.

Published on The Student Journals


  1. grammatteus says:

    Unsung heroes! People who simply stand to defend another, and say ‘NO!’ and expect no praise for they genuinely feel they only did what they should. Power to the oppressed people of Spain, to all those who are told they live in a democracy, but know that they have little say in what really goes on. Well written, Ben!

    • benstupples says:

      I can’t remember the exact quote but, to power-phrase it, I once read how freedom in modern society is simply existing within governmental laws – and not breaking them. In truth, I do not see this as such a bad thing. We need laws in order to establish and then govern the fundamental elements of our civilisation (the justice system, most notably). I do not think many people are acutely aware of this notion back home in the UK (comparatively, the governmental cuts have been so severe), but, as you have discovered from the article above, a great number of the Spanish certainly are. Like in Spain, it is only when this controlled form of freedom – one that allows us all to live one aside one another – is in danger of being lost that the public becomes conscious of it. The Spanish government is not a regime – it is far from it, in fact – but it is still effecting the lives of its people in a similar way. Having said that, though, I would not be surprised, should the demonstrations continue, if Mariano Rajoy’s government tried to exert further force in order to quell the public’s anger. In terms of their behaviour, the next step for the riot police to take is outright violence against both innocent spectator and protestor – hence why I have stayed away from all of the recent demonstrations!

      What do you think?

      • grammatteus says:

        I truly believe that a small group of fairly unconnected ultra-rich people have arisen in the world who control governments. I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theories that there is an ‘illuminati’ behind our governments controlling things, like a super mafia, but I can see why some do believe in it. They have arisen due to the free market policies of Thatcher and Reagan and the change they wrought in our world that allowed such power to increase exponentially. The super-rich people just happen to have gained such fiscal power that they DO scare governments into NOT legislating against them for fear they they will ‘take their business elsewhere’, thus the 99.9% of us, from the poorest to the fairly well-off, all have to take what is given to us. True democracy is very hard to find now, since governments do not act in our interests, despite all their promises. Look at how The LibDems backed down on so many pledges once they got into government, one of which is tuition fees: as a mature student just starting my Masters, I am now facing a further £3770 of debt for one year’s study, and that is not the worst fee by far, AND they are going to increase. Education becomes the preserve of the rich again. Has all that was achieved for the honest working man, that my fathers before me fought for over centuries all gone in a generation? Just about!

        And the UK is probably one of the least likely to actually DO something about it. People do NOT protest or complain here. If I hear one person once more say “sure what can you do?”…. Doh! You can start by boycotting Starbucks until they pay tax like the rest of us. Well, it’s a start!

        I dream of living in France, the place in Europe where working people STILL have decent wages and taxes used for their interests in SOME form, maybe one of the last bastions of democracy.

      • benstupples says:

        I certainly agree with you on how the super-rich can have a significant impact on politics – although money could not buy Mitt Romney the US Presidency. He received far more private funding than Obama ever did throughout his campaign. The recent report about how the world’s wealthy are currently hiding over $30 million (fifteen times the whole of the United States’ national debt) in off-shore accounts supports your argument to some extent, suggesting there are politics of which we, the poorer public, are hardly aware. However, it makes me sad to consider that politics has almost become an auction house, changing its policies to suit the highest bidder (Starbucks is probably a good example, actually). Has today’s politics really sunk to such a shameful level of moral bankruptcy? Money, I guess, will always command political power: it is perhaps the ultimate manipulator of mankind’s will, and your example about the Liberal Democrats’ failed policies does indeed provide evidence for this notion. Having been at university for the past two years, I already have a cloud of nearly £10,000 debt looming above me, one that grows darker whilst I remain in education (which will be, at least, for the next two calendar years). In this instance, what frustrates me is that, out in Madrid, I have met students from Scotland who have a free university education. Welsh students studying in Wales do not have to pay as much as the English students either. Why can’t the English government, a government with a far greater amount of financial resources, invest in its future and provide us with free (or at least a discounted) education for its citizens? Perhaps you are right: perhaps politicians only listen to the wealthy nowadays – but I hope that will not always be the case. Have you read Owen Jones most recent book, entitled ‘Chavs‘? If not, I recommend it to you. I think you might like it.

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    • benstupples says:

      Thank you very much, Safe Locksmiths. Feel free, please, to have a browse around the rest of the website and, if you have anything to say, comment away! Kind regards, Ben

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