Over the past year, as anger against painful austerity cuts has festered across southern Europe, images of protesters marching on the streets, holding banners, and demanding an end to the economic tightening have become a standby feature of most international news broadcasts. Not a week seems to go by without new footage of protesters in Athens throwing Molotov cocktails at the riot police, marchers in Barcelona burning effigies of Spanish President Mariano Rajoy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and strikers in Lisbon and Rome holding up a vast array of colorful handmade signs in sunny public plazas.
But a new, more troubling set of images was making the rounds of the photo newswires Wednesday, as it appeared that angry protesters were concentrating their anger as much on the government they were demonstrating against as on their fellow citizens who apparently decided not to take part in the general strike.
The scenes of clashing strikers and strike-breakers, labeled "scabs" by unions, were particularly vivid in Spain, the foci of anti-austerity protests that racked the continent Wednesday.
In central Madrid, where the country’s labor union had called for a general strike to “paralyze everything,” protesters attacked the storefronts of shops, restaurants, banks and office buildings where people were seen going in and out. Images show strikers completely plastering the street-facing windows of open stores with stickers, blacking out the view the workers within might have had of the action outside and -- incidentally -- making it appear as though the businesses were closed. Others showed more violent confrontations, with strikers and business owners engaging in shouting matches, strikers forming human shields around entrances to prevent deliveries, glass doors being smashed and bank ATMs ending up with busted-out screens.
The security situation was tense, with cordons of police in riot gear seen protecting open establishments. Public sector scabs showing up for work in public transportation roles were also a high security concern, with main metro stations and airports under virtual siege by the national police and mounted units sent to escort buses along public routes.
Part of the reason for the sudden turn of citizens against each other might be that participation in the general strike seems to have been more fragmented and less voluminous than the last time a similar event occured, if not less passionate. Preliminary numbers from strike organizers put the number of people participating in the protests at 12 percent less than the during the last general strike, in March. But calculations, which take into account the drop in electricity usage across the country, suggest that participation might have been off by as much as 40 percent. Similarly, there was polarization in terms of the type of worker who decided to strike. While nearly the entirety of the agricultural, heavy industry and construction sector workforce seems to have joined the unemployed in the streets, more than half of those working in finance and communications showed up for work. A third of the headcount at hotels and retail shops was on the clock Wednesday.
Indeed, the government was using the fact that major shopping outlets were open to claim the strike had fallen flat. Cristina Díaz, the government’s director of internal politics, noted that "large commercial hubs, all of which opened their doors at 10 in the morning, are going about their daily activities without facing any incident of note.” The unions fired back that, while that might have been the case, citizens were refusing to shop today in solidarity.
Anger and fear might have factored in with solidarity, for while it is clear less people were striking Wednesday than those who striked in response to a similar call a few months ago, those on the streets Wednesday were even more desperate and upset at the direction their country has taken. In Madrid, El Mundo noted that throngs of strikers would rally sporadically down commercial boulevards, chanting against budget cuts and foreclosures. The paper noted that “the sounds of picketers passing by is leading businessmen and hoteliers to lower their blinds and close up, only to re-open after a while has passed.”