- - Thursday, November 8, 2012

BARCELONA — They occupy banks, stage sit-ins at government buildings and roar their rage at their own government and at German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

They also use canes and crutches to get to these so-called “actions” — because their average age is 70.

These Spanish grannies and grandpas, part of a protest movement for seniors called the “yayoflautas,” say you are never too old for a revolution. The change they want is for Spain to slow down its tough budget cuts pushed by Germany and instead focus on growth and job creation to solve their country’s crippling debt crisis.

“We don’t want our children and grandchildren to inherit a society worse than the one we’ve lived in,” said Paco Gonzalez, 60, a member of the group in Barcelona.

Another protester, Nicolasa Fernandez, 74, has to feed three generations of her family on a pension of $776 a month.

Her two daughters and son are unemployed, and the government subsidies are not enough to meet the mortgage and pay for utilities and food.

“I go to my younger daughter’s home every other day to fill up her fridge because my biggest worry is my 2-year-old grandson,” said Mrs. Fernandez, who lives in a working-class suburb of Barcelona.

“But there will be a day when I won’t be able to help because my savings are limited.”

What they need, she said, is a country that takes steps to create jobs. So she has been taking to the streets and participating in actions for months to push for change, she said.

Unlike the younger protest movement, these demonstrators don’t occupy city squares to spend hours discussing world events.

Pranks and placards

They prefer pranks, as they like to call them. Their methods are always the same. Dressed in normal clothes, they meet in front of a targeted building, move inside quickly, don flashy yellow vests and pull out their placards and megaphones.

They then sit down and refuse to leave until they get a chance to express their complaints directly to a representative of the organization, government ministry or financial institution they are protesting that day.

Since their founding in October 2011, they have invaded the offices of Spanish banks and occupied several government offices, a public bus, Spain’s No. 1 radio station and a major bond-rating agency.

They also organized a coordinated invasion of Deutsche Bank offices in eight Spanish cities, while the German Consulate in Barcelona was filled with grandfathers raging against the austerity push of the German chancellor, whose country is the primary backer of the bailouts of other members of the European Union.

They say they are proudest of their invasion of the stock exchange in Barcelona on Sept. 21. Mrs. Fernandez was there for a half-hour chanting slogans such as “This is not a crisis; it’s a rip-off” and “Your money or your life.” When they exited, anti-riot police were waiting for them.

“They surrounded us, didn’t let us leave, asking us to show them our identity cards, which we refused to do because we weren’t doing anything illegal,” Mrs. Fernandez said.

YouTube footage of them, screaming at helpless police officers, went viral in Spain.

After an hour, they were allowed to leave.

“Old people have a level of impunity that the younger generations don’t have, and they also enjoy a high social standing so they have to take advantage of that,” said Ramon Cotarelo, a sociology professor at the Spanish Distance University.

The group was formed after about 15 grandmothers and grandfathers sharing a meal at a Chinese restaurant in Barcelona decided they needed to do something because they thought the younger generation was too passive about the situation in Spain. Since its founding, the group has grown to more than 1,000 members.

What they want is a change of direction.

Spain is in its second recession since the economic crisis erupted four years ago across the 17 nations that share the euro currency. The unemployment rate is 25 percent, and double that for those younger than 30. Meanwhile, the government is pushing to cut public services – especially unemployment benefits, health care and education – to reduce public debt by $83 billion by 2014.

These gray protesters say the pace of reform needs to slow down. They argue that money can be saved in ways besides cutting education and health care to rescue banks.

The older protesters say they understand the younger generations’ plight well.

More than 50 percent of Spanish grandparents take care of their grandchildren on a regular basis. The average age for Spaniards to leave their parents’ home is 29, while more than 40 percent these days live with their families even after their 30s.

They fought Franco

Mr. Gonzalez said civil disobedience is old hat for many of them who fought Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s.

“They dedicated lots of time and effort, and many even ended in prison or in exile, all of that so that we could enjoy certain rights and benefits and many of the freedoms we have today,” he said.

Now, what was so hard-won is being eroded quickly, the retired activists say.

“My son doesn’t understand why I am doing this, but that’s because he hasn’t lived what I lived,” said Adrian Risquez, 77, a former bus driver and union activist since the 1960s, when unions were forbidden.

“One day he will get it, though, because no one will escape” the consequences of the crisis.

Others, such as Gabriel Huguet, 65, from the island of Mallorca, never had been politically active. But when he retired, he started volunteering for charity organizations and became aware of the plight of the poor. He has written to dozens of members of parliament but received only one reply.

“They don’t represent me,” he said, visibly angry. “They look down on voters.”

So they take to the streets and the Internet: For every “prank,” they create a hashtag on Twitter days before the action. They use Facebook to raise awareness and even do live streaming.

“Our protests are innovative because we combine the secrecy and clandestine techniques we used during the dictatorship with the new technologies,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

The protests are also good for their participants’ health.

“Becoming a yayoflauta is more helpful than going to the doctor,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

“You are mentally active. You do exercise because you go here and there. You have less time to think about your ailments. You are not lonely anymore, and you have fun.”

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