Spanish ‘Robin Hood’ marchers cross Andalucía, watched by wary police
Charismatic mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo and supporters meet mixed reactions after supermarket raids
If this was revolution, it was a remarkably calm affair. When the man sometimes billed as Spain‘s most dangerous leftwing politician, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, led his utopian army of marchers through the baking southern heat into the small town of Albolote, the biggest fuss was among those jostling for photographs beside the charismatic revolutionary.
Riot police stood by, but the 500-odd tired, sweaty marchers simply dropped their banners, flopped under the cool trees of the town’s Guaynabo Park and reached for their water bottles.
Gordillo’s reputation as a modern-day Robin Hood has grown this summer after a series of “workers’ marches” across southern Andalucía saw followers raid food from two supermarkets and hand it to the poor.
Flash occupations of bank branches and an empty luxury country hotel have kept his small Andalucian Workers’ Union in the headlines as debate rages about a style of direct action that attracts those seeking radical change to Spain’s current diet of soaring unemployment, recession and harsh austerity.
“The right likes to make out that we are a dangerous bunch of criminals, a sort of modern Pancho Villa,” bearded Gordillo said, his trademark Palestinian-style keffiyeh scarf hanging in immaculate folds. “But that is the same strategy as always. First they criminalise you and then they try to get rid of you.”
After more than half a dozen arrests over three decades spent fighting for the rights of landless Andalucian labourers, 60-year-old Gordillo will not be easily put off his latest crusade.
While the marchers ate and snoozed, staff at the Mercadona supermarket just around the corner were clearly nervous. A guard armed with a baton admitted that security had been beefed up. Armed police were parked across the street.
Ever since Gordillo’ s marchers took a dozen trolleys of food from a Mercadona in Ecija on 7 August, their presence has provoked concern that – even though they are avowedly peaceful – trouble might break out.
“If they are taking to give to the poor, then I think that is great,” said Antonio Martínez, an Albolote pensioner who applauded the marchers as they reached the midpoint of a two-day, 20-mile march.
Prosecutors do not seem to agree. Gordillo, who has been mayor of the country town of Marinaleda for the past 33 years and is a deputy in the regional Andalucian parliament, expects to be formally charged. “I wasn’t in the supermarket, but they say I encouraged them,” he said. He and seven others reportedly face prison sentences of up to five years.
Gordillo and his lieutenant Diego Cañamero insist that the supermarket raids at Ecija and in nearby Arcos were symbolic. The idea had been to highlight how, instead, the rich are now stealing from the poor.
“This is the biggest rip-off in the history of capitalism,” said Gordillo. “The banks created huge amounts of private debt which went toxic. Now they are using public money, taken from the poor, to rescue them. That is what the cuts to health and education are about.
“We want to show that this crisis has a human face. People are losing everything – their jobs, their homes, and some don’t even have enough to eat.”
The marchers’ ranks have now been swollen by Spaniards arriving from outside Andalucía. “We’ve spent a few days in Marinaleda, seeing how things can be done differently,” explained Yanira Bratos, from the northern city of Aranda del Duero. “And now we wanted to join the march.”
Gordillo’s protest movement chimes with the peaceful indignado protesterswho filled city squares last year. Indignado T-shirts abound, along with Republican flags and a banner bearing the face of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. “The situation is critical and I think there is now a chance of change. The system cannot resolve people’s problems,” said Gordillo.
Unlike other preachers of change, Gordillo has both a track record and a shop window for the movement’s achievements in Marinaleda.
His election in 1979 appalled conservatives in a country which, only four years earlier, had been ruled by the dictator General Francisco Franco. At a local level he has led landless labourers into occupying, and eventually winning control of, estates owned by absent aristocrats and has also overseen a system of self-construction of homes.
Now Gordillo is back on the national stage. He is invited on to mainstream television debate shows and the conservative press is, once more, outraged. What has changed? “Unemployment in Spain is 25%, but in Andalusia it is 35%,” he explained. “And in some places we have visited it is close to 50%.”
Marchers admit they get mixed reactions. “I have seen old women weep when we arrive,” explained Bratos.
In some places, however, shops are shuttered up and insults hurled. “I don’t understand why other working people have been so rude, or why some shops close,” complained Eva Bermúdez, a jobbing farmworker from Marinaleda. “I have heard people call us thieves, bastards and sons of bitches.”
As Spain’s recession deepens the Andalusian Workers’ Union, and its methods, look set to become more popular. “These people are peaceful,” said Martínez. “But if things get worse I can see others turning to violence.”