On Thursday November 9, Spain got a new government. On that same day, in Madrid, the far-right commentator and Vox party co-founder Alejo Vidal-Quadras was shot in the face, and nobody quite knew what to make of it.
The next morning, I was in Bar Toñi, in the working-class Madrid neighbourhood of Arganzuela. A middle-aged man wearing a football hoodie and baseball cap was stirring his coffee and watching the silent news presenter on the TV. If the Catalans wanted independence, he said to the barman, they can have it and get the hell out of Europe. They can pay us everything we put into their infrastructure on their way out and then see how they like it, he added.
At Bar Toñi, the newspaper at my table was El Mundo, the centre-right mainstay, but with an independent streak. The headline across the front page denounced the caretaker prime minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist and Workers Party (PSOE). The day before, he had included an amnesty for Catalan separatists in his new coalition government pact. That amnesty was proving controversial. The second story in the paper was about the shooting of Vidal-Quadras. He had survived the attack and was now claiming that the government of Iran was responsible.
After their morning coffee and perhaps some churros, the patrons of Bar Toñi went off to work, where they’d probably avoid politics.
Sánchez proposed the idea of an amnesty for Catalan separatists on November 3, and since then hundreds and some nights even thousands of protesters have surrounded the PSOE headquarters on Calle Ferraz. At around 8pm, the time when families are still strolling around with prams on their way home to supper, peaceful protesters have been gathering to chant slogans denouncing the amnesty and accusing the PSOE party leader and Sánchez of selling out the country.
A couple of hours later, protesters wearing face coverings, throwing fascist salutes, and bearing Franco-era flags arrive. They are more violent. By midnight, the violent protesters are throwing rocks at police and pushing over barriers. The police respond with teargas canisters and charges.
So long as local businesses and neighbours know and abide by this schedule, they can live a more or less normal life alongside any of Madrid’s political flashpoints. On late Friday morning, the day after the shooting, street cleaners swept the pavements, as if on any other day. Television crews set up across the street from the PSOE headquarters to film footage for the afternoon news. Next to the TV crew stood a middle-aged man, wearing a chest-sized sign around his neck, reading “Amnesty = Coup d’etat = Sánchez coupist” and a look that invited journalists to interview him.
Meanwhile, on Calle Nuñez de Balboa, in the posh neighbourhood of Salamanca, there were more journalists than at both party headquarters put together. They were all queuing up, waiting their turn to get a clear picture of the pavement where, a day before, a man had shot Vidal-Quadras in the face at around 1.30pm. There were no signs of blood, though a knot of police tape still fluttered from the door of a nearby vintage clothing shop. A worker came in and out of a building site next door, and as she did so, she entered and exited the pictures being relayed by TV cameras, emptying bags of debris.
The scene was more upbeat at the opposition People’s Party (PP) headquarters on Calle Génova.
There, almost a dozen volunteers were handing out fliers inviting people to a Sunday protest against the amnesty in Madrid’s central square, the Puerta del Sol, where scheduled protests are allowed. Party leaders will have plenty of political ammunition during their next stint in opposition.