Sunday, November 13, 2005

We Gather Together

Spaniards like to gather. Usually there’s no more serious purpose to it than simply being with other people—eating, drinking, talking, and talking some more. This makes public demonstrations in Spain both more and less interesting than in the United States. An American political protest is usually something you notice. In Spain, you’d probably notice it, but it may take you a few minutes to be sure that you’re not confusing it with one of the other myriad gatherings you regularly encounter.

Yesterday, at the urging of the Catholic Church (THE Church here for centuries—and still hanging on) and the conservative Popular Party, between five hundred thousand and one and a half million people (depending on who did the counting) gathered at five o’clock in downtown Madrid, near Neptune’s Fountain, to march in protest, up the Paseo del Prado, to the Plaza de Independencia.

We knew this was more than a casual social gathering, if only because of the countless placards. What were all of these Spaniards protesting? The Ley Orgánica de Educación (LOE), the government’s new education law. Why were they protesting this law? We were actually covering this event for an assigned news story, so it should have been clear to us. But from the dozens of times we asked protestors why they were opposed to the LOE, we never got a coherent explanation.

The Spanish government has supported the Catholic Church forever, including paying tens of thousands of clerics to teach required religion classes in the public schools, and only after the government changed hands—from the Popular Party to the Socialists, has this cozy dependence come under public scrutiny.

So this law must be the Socialists’ way of getting religion out of the schools, right? One would think. But this legislation—a close version of which the PP itself put in place before it left office—ensures that every child who attends a public school will be guaranteed the choice to either take a religion class or not. And it stipulates that both the teachers and content of the religion classes will be determined by the Catholic Church. Best of all, the government will foot the bill.

So what’s to protest, you might ask. (If this law were on the table in the U.S., wouldn’t the religious right praising the heavens for its divine mission accomplished?) Well, it seems that in Spain, there is something about meddling with religion in public schools that just won’t do.

Or that yesterday’s event was really less protest than posture, less inspired crusade than plain old gathering. The language of politics certainly seemed to fill the air…in platitudes blared from a monstrous sound system along the route, and on signs carried by thousands upon thousands of marchers. But after attending the rallies after the terrorist attacks, this march seemed like a poorly run carnival, without enough food or stuffed animals to compensate for a lack of deeply shared public feeling.

After making its short way from the beginning to the end of its designated route, the crowd had nowhere to go, and for the better part of an hour, we were stuck together like a huge ball of rice. And although the popular music playing over the loudspeakers made things a little better, the song list seemed remarkably odd: Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall” (“We don’t’ need no education…”)? R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”?

Trying to make the best of the situation, I kept shooting photos for the story we’d eventually have to file. But it wasn’t long before I felt like I a photographer hired for some rich child’s Saturday afternoon birthday party. The kids, talking in groups with friends and a lot of balloons, spent most of their time dancing and singing to the music, and only during the occasional moment when I, or another press photographer, would point the camera in their direction, did they begin suddenly to blow their party horns, raise their protest signs, and scream memorized chants about the horrors of the LOE. It had the drama of a puppet show (the children’s parents pulling the strings).

Participation in the democratic process is good, one of the things I’ve most admired in Spain in recent times (democracy has certainly been more genuinely operative here than it has in the U.S., for example). But this episode—an example of something the U.S. does in fact seem to have figured out (in this case, the separation of church and state)—left me a little depressed.

After a while, as the afternoon became night, the crowds melted away, heading towards the bars, cafes, and restaurants of the surrounding neighborhoods. And except for the notable fleet of water-spewing trucks and green-suited sanitation workers that materialized to clean up the mess, it seemed like any other Saturday night in Madrid. Everywhere you looked, people were eating, drinking, and talking. Everywhere you looked, Spaniards were gathering.

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