BARCELONA – It had all the hallmarks of a free speech showdown: Pablo Hasél, a controversial Spanish rapper, barricaded himself on a university campus to avoid a nine-month sentence for glorifying terrorism and denigrating the monarchy. While students surrounded him, the police dressed in riot gear; Mr. Hasél raised his fist defiantly when he was taken away.
But Oriol Pi, a 21-year-old in Barcelona, saw a little more as he watched last week’s events on Twitter. He thought of the job he had as an event manager before the pandemic and how he was fired after the bans. He thought of the curfew and mask mandates, which he thought were unnecessary for young people. He thought of how his parents’ generation had never seen anything like it.
And he thought it was time for Spain’s youth to take to the streets.
“My mother thinks it’s about Pablo Hasél, but it’s not just that,” said Mr Pi, who joined the protests that broke out in Barcelona last week. “Everything just exploded. It’s a collection of so many things to understand. “
For nine nights, the streets of this coastal city, long quiet from pandemic curfews, erupted in sometimes violent demonstrations that have spread to Madrid and other Spanish hubs. What began as a protest against Mr Hasél’s prosecution has become a collective outcry from a generation that not only sees a lost future for itself, but also a gift that has been robbed, years and experiences it has even in a pandemic never get back is gone
Young people’s frustration with the pandemic is not just limited to Spain. Across Europe, university life has been severely restricted or turned upside down by the limitations of virtual teaching.
Social isolation is as endemic as contagion itself. Anxiety and depression have reached alarming rates in young people almost everywhere, according to mental health experts and studies. Police, and especially young demonstrators, have clashed in other parts of Europe as well, including last month in Amsterdam.
“It’s not the same now for a person who is 60 years old – or a 50 year old with life experience and everything that is fully organized – as it is for a person who is now 18 years old and feels like every hour is against to lose this pandemic It’s like losing your whole life, ”said Enric Juliana, opinion columnist at La Vanguardia, Barcelona’s leading newspaper.
Barcelona was once a city of beach music festivals and night bars, so there were few better places in Europe to be young. But the crisis that devastated tourism and the economy contracted 11 percent last year was a disaster for young adults in Spain.
It is an example of déjà vu for those who also lived through the 2008 financial crisis that took one of the highest tolls in Spain. Young people continued to have to return to their parents’ homes, with entry-level jobs being among the first to disappear.
But unlike previous economic downturns, the pandemic has worsened much further. It came at a time when the unemployment rate for people under the age of 25 in Spain was already high at 30 percent. Now 40 percent of Spanish youth are unemployed, the highest rate in Europe according to European Union statistics.
For someone like Mr Pi, the arrest of rapper Mr Hasél and his defiance against the machine has become a symbol of the frustration of young people in Spain.
“I loved that the man was walking with his fist in the air,” said Mr Pi, who said he had never heard of the rapper before Spain brought charges against him. “It’s about fighting for your freedom and he did it until the last minute.”
The case of Mr Hasél, whose real name is Pablo Rivadulla Duró, also sparked a debate about freedom of expression and Spain’s efforts to restrict it.
The authorities have charged Mr. Hasél under a law that provides prison sentences for certain types of fire statements. Known as both a provocateur and a rapper, Mr Hasél had accused the Spanish police of brutality, compared judges to Nazis and even celebrated ETA, a Basque separatist group that two years ago after decades of bloody terrorist campaigns that went around 850, collapsed people was dead.
In 2018, a Spanish court sentenced him to two years in prison, which was later reduced to nine months. The prosecution focused on his Twitter posts and a song he wrote about the former King Juan Carlos, whom Mr. Hasél referred to as a “mafioso”. (The former king abdicated in 2014 and completely decamped Spain for the United Arab Emirates last summer in a corruption scandal.)
“What he said in court is that they put him in jail for telling the truth because what he says about the king, apart from all the insults, is exactly what happened,” said Fèlix Colomer, a 27 year old documentary filmmaker who met Mr. Hasél while investigating a project about his trial.
Mr Colomer, who led protesters in Barcelona on certain nights, noted that others were being prosecuted in Spain for social media comments, which he believes is a worrying sign of Spanish democracy. A Spanish rapper named Valtònyc fled to Belgium in 2018 after being sentenced to prison for his lyrics found by a court glorified terrorism and insulted the monarchy – charges similar to those of Mr Hasél.
However, some believe that Mr Hasél has crossed a line in his texts. José Ignacio Torreblanca, professor of political science at the National Distance Learning University in Madrid, said while he was concerned about the application of the law, Mr Hasél was not the right figure to build a youth movement.
“He’s not a Joan Baez, he justifies and actively promotes violence. That is clear in his songs. He says things like, “I wish a bomb went off under your car,” said Mr Torreblanca, referring to a song by Mr Hasél that called for the killing of a Basque government official and another who said there was a mayor in Catalonia it deserves a bullet. “
Amid public pressure that was mounting even before the protests, the Justice Department said Monday it plans to amend the country’s criminal code to reduce penalties related to the types of language violations for which Mr Hasél has been convicted.
For Nahuel Pérez, a 23-year-old who works in Barcelona and cares for the mentally handicapped, freedom for Mr. Hasél is just the beginning of his worries.
Since arriving in Barcelona five years ago from his hometown on the holiday island of Ibiza, Mr Pérez said he has not found a job with a salary high enough to cover living costs. To save money on rent, he recently moved into an apartment with four other roommates. Because of the proximity, social distancing was impossible.
“The youth of this country are in a pretty deplorable state,” he said.
After Mr Hasél was arrested at the university, Mr Pi, who had seen the news on Twitter, saw people announcing protests on the Telegram messaging app. He told his mother that he wanted to go to the demonstrations, but she didn’t seem to understand exactly why.
“I’m not going to look for you at the police station,” she said to him, said Mr. Pi.
He thought about what it must have been like for his mother his age.
There was no pandemic. Spain was booming. She was a teacher and in her 20s married another professional, Mr. Pi’s father. The two found a house and started a family.
In contrast, Mr. Pi is an adult who still lives with his mother.
“Our parents got all the good fruit and here is what we have in front of us: There is no more fruit in the tree because they made the best of it,” said Mr. Pi Best of Spain – none of that is left for us. “
When he’s not attending the protests, Mr. Pi spends his days as an indoor monitor at a nearby school that runs a mix of online and socially distant face-to-face classes.
It’s not the career he wanted – not a career at all, he says – but it pays the bills and lets him speak to students to get their views on the situation in Spain.
He doesn’t crush words about what’s ahead of them.
“These are the people I will be ten years from now,” he said. “I think you’re hearing something that no one has told you before. I would have listened if someone had come up to me at 12 and said, ‘Listen, you’re going to have to fight for your future. ‘“
Roser Toll Pifarré reported from Barcelona and Raphael Minder from Madrid.