Spanish miners and sympathizers have clashed with riot police on one of Madrid’s most famed avenues, and six demonstrators were hospitalized after police fired rubber bullets.
The violence on Wednesday came after the miners marched for nearly three-weeks from the remote regions. In Madrid they were joined by other Spaniards incensed with the nation’s seemingly endless austerity cutbacks.
Some miners walked from northern and eastern mining regions into Madrid, where they received a hero’s welcome by thousands lining La Castellana avenue outside the Industry Ministry building.
The miners detonated deafening fireworks as they marched, then hurled them at the police riot vans guarding the ministry, which oversees the mining industry.
Police fired rubber bullets at the ground as a warning, and opened fire on the protesters after they threw more fireworks and rocks and bottles at officers, witnesses said.
Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from Madrid, described the mood of Wednesday’s march as “volatile”.
“At one moment it was good humoured, the next, protesters were throwing firecrackers at the police. They responded with rubber bullets. Spanish papers say 76 people were injured. One was a retired miner. Seven people were arrested,” said Friend.
Most demonstrators fled to side streets for safety after the violence began, but a police spokeswoman said 22 demonstrators and 10 officers were treated for injuries by emergency workers.
Six of the protesters and two of the officers were taken to hospitals, said the spokeswoman, who was unable to provide their conditions and spoke on condition of anonymity because of department policy.
Retired miner Olvidio Gonzalez winced in pain as he lay on a stone bench, a huge, round, bloody welt marking the spot where a rubber bullet struck him.
Like many of the miners, he indicated that he was prepared to continue with the protest.
“We were walking peacefully to get to where the union leaders were speaking and they started to fire indiscriminately,” said Gonzalez, 67. “There was no warning.”
But protester Santiago Oviedo, 24, a physics masters candidate, said he saw protesters hurling fireworks, bottles, cans and rocks at police outside the ministry and that the protesters threw more objects after officers fired at the ground.
The volleys then fired by officers at protesters sent many running into side streets. Some people were beaten by officers wielding batons, and Oviedo said he saw at least 10 people hit by rubber bullets.
The protest came just hours after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy imposed a new sales tax hike and other spending cuts aimed at eliminating nearly $80bn in spending from the nation’s budget over the next two and a half years.
The country already has the highest unemployment rate in the 17-nation eurozone – roughly 25 per cent – and is in its second recession in three years.
The miners, wearing hardhats and carrying walking sticks, had snaked along the avenue under a hot sun to protest a 63 per cent cut in subsidies to mining companies imposed by the government as it tries to reduce a bloated deficit.
Miner David Menendez said he has worked in the pits for 10 years and fears losing his job in an economy that offers few prospects for anything else.
“I’m here to defend my work,” Menendez said, wearing a miner’s hard hat and a black T-shirt that said “Proud to be a Miner.”
As for the new austerity cuts, the 30-year-old Menendez accused Rajoy of “committing crimes against the economy and killing it. It’s just cuts and more cuts’.’
‘Enough is enough’
The new spending reductions include a new wage cut for government workers and members of Parliament and a fresh wave of closures at state-owned companies. As miners approached the ministry building, some encouraged riot police to join them in the demonstration since officers will make less money.
Joining the miners were Madrid residents who related to the miners’ plight because they also have suffered under the austerity cuts brought on by Europe’s financial crisis and a Spanish property boom that went bust, prompting the country to seek a bailout of its hurting banks from a $130bn lifeline approved by the eurozone nations.
Marcher Pepi Garcia said she makes just over $1,000 per month but is supporting her 35-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son still living in her home because they are unemployed and have never landed jobs lasting more than six months.
“I’m not here just to show solidarity,” said Garcia, a 52-year-old hotel waitress. “We have to protest to stop the madness that is happening in Spain.”
While Spain is expected to ask for tens of billions of euros to prop up banks that lent too freely during the property boom, she said her children “can’t even think about getting their own apartments or starting families” because of the country’s miserable economy.
Alejandro Casal, 28, an Airbus factory worker marching with fellow union members, said the miners’ protest “isn’t only their struggle. It’s a struggle for the working class.”
“The people need to be here on the street to say ‘Enough is enough’,” he said.