March 12, 2004, Madrid, Spain: I wanted it to be the biggest protest march in the history of Madrid.
I had studied mass transit maps, I had a plan: After Spanish class, my husband and I would catch a number 37 bus two blocks from the academy. That would take us to Plaza de Colón — actually, probably not.
If a million people came to the protest march, and I hoped they would, the bus wouldn’t get all the way to there. But it would get us closer.
The march was set to begin at 7 p.m., which was when the class ended, and Plaza de Colón, where the march would start, was only a kilometer and a half away, so the trip wouldn’t be long, and being a few minutes late wouldn’t hurt. Anything in Spain that involved a million people wouldn’t start on time anyway.
Through the classroom windows, we saw people heading down the street towards the protest, and I was glad. I wanted the biggest protest march in the history of Madrid. Almost two hundred people riding commuter trains had been killed the day before by terrorist bombs. I had heard some of the bombs. Sometimes my husband took those trains. The terrorists could have killed Jerry, and I would have heard it happen.
Class ended. Our tutor sent us off with good wishes — she had a small child and couldn’t go herself, though she wanted to. It was raining hard outside, but the weather report said it was supposed to taper off as time went on. A bus came quickly and was so packed with people that we entered by the exit door, but the buses were free anyway so that people could get to the protest. We passed a clinic. With all the injuries from the bombing, clinics could not shut down the way other businesses had, but in front of the doorway, white-smocked people stood on the sidewalk under umbrellas, holding candles, briefly joining the protest as best they could.
The bus got about a half a kilometer farther, then a river of people at a cross-street stopped it. “Does anyone know if this is where we get off for the protest?” a gray-haired woman shouted, and everyone laughed. We all got out, opened our umbrellas, and joined the crowd.
A half-kilometer later, at 7:30 p.m., we entered Plaza de Alonso Martínez, a traffic circle, and we stopped moving. The rain began to fall harder. The temperatures were in the upper 40s F / 8 C. Fifteen minutes later, we made it to the far side of the circle. A man finished a conversation on his cell phone, then announced, “The subways are filled to overflowing. The trains can’t take pick up any more people. They just have to keep waiting on the platforms.”
Maybe as a defense against the miserable weather, the protesters seemed cheerful — although, that morning, I had seen people weeping in the street on their way to work. Maybe everyone felt relieved because they were doing something in response to the bloodshed. Young people had come especially energized, with signs, decorated umbrellas, face paint, Spanish flags hung with black mourning bands, and candles. Students in Spain protest a lot. They knew what to do.
The crowd inched forward, then parted to let an ambulance through. “A drowning victim,” my husband joked. The rain diminished a bit, but my toes inside boots and two pairs of socks began to feel wet. Step by step, by 8:30 we made it to Plaza de Colón with its bright television lights and cameras from networks from around the world, the reporters and their equipment draped in plastic. The pace picked up and twenty-somethings began chanting:
“No estámos todos. Faltan dos cientos.” We’re not all here. We’re missing two hundred.
“Ibamos todos en ese tren.” We were all riding on that train.
“No está lloviendo. Madrid está llorando.” It’s not raining. Madrid is crying.
“Damos la espalda al terrorismo.” We turn our backs on terrorism — this involved walking backwards, with a little stumbling and laughter.
“Hijos de puta.” Sons of bitches — directed at the terrorists and sung to a soccer cheer. The twenty-somethings liked this a lot.
“ETA y Al Qaeda, misma mierda.” Basque terrorists and Al Qaeda, the same shit. At the time, we didn’t know which terrorists had planted the bombs.
By 9:15 we had reached the Prado Museum, and the march spread out onto its sidewalks. The weather turned colder, the rain began falling harder, the pavement streamed with water, and my feet felt much wetter. “With all this rain, we’re going to grow like plants,” a woman said.
We finally squeezed past Atocha train station, where more than a hundred people had died the day before. The twenty-somethings stopped marching and stood, chanting, displaying signs for the banks of television cameras there. They had built a shrine on the huge fountain in the middle of the traffic circle in front of the train station with flowers and signs and candles, which they relit as fast as the raindrops put them out — for peace, liberty, democracy, and the victims.
We had walked over three kilometers in all. We joined the streams of people headed toward their homes, crowding the sidewalks of the neighborhood where we lived. It was 10 p.m. We got to our apartment, and I set the dripping umbrellas in the bathtub, put on dry socks, sat down on the sofa exhausted, and turned on the television. The drenched twenty-somethings were still going strong, to the astonishment of the reporters at Atocha.
And they said that more than two million people had come to the protest.