The movement for change jumped across the Mediterranean Sea, landing in Spain on May 15th. That was the day that over a hundred thousand people throughtout Spain, led mostly by the youth, joined together to demand a real democracy and economic justice. There were demonstrations in Barcelona and Granada and over 50 cities. But the largest demonstration was in Madrid, where over 50,000 people marched from Plaza de Cibeles to Puerta del Sol, the central public plaza of the city.
Their motto was: “We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.”
Inspired by events unfolding in the Middle East, the protesters decided to stay in Puerta del Sol and set up a camp, which would evolve into a community, and then a movement. Some even called the occupation “Yes We Camp”, in reference to the American election of Obama which also had inspired people around the world. The protests grew, especially thanks to student groups and Facebook and Twitter, beyond anyone’s expectations.
Angela Cartagena, a volunteer on the protesters’ media outreach team giving reporters tours of the protest camp, says organizers learned lessons from the supply lines that sustained the Egyptian protesters in Cairo recently. Volunteers set up food and medical tents, adorned with homemade revolution posters. There was even an Egyptian flag flying over the camp. “We have a legal commission, a communication one, an infrastructure sub-commission. We have a cleaning committee, which I think is very important. They’re doing a great job, they’re taking care all the time, cleaning the square, everything.”
Cartagena explained, “This is a kind of democratic revolution, in a sense. Of course it’s not a revolution like in the Middle East, the situation is completely different. But we are also trying to make a new democracy. They are trying to get their first democracy, and we are trying to get a new one – a different one, a better one.”
Pedro Escol, an unemployed scientist with a PhD, noted that “this situation in the square reminds me of Tahrir Square in Egypt. We are brothers with them. We have the same problems.”
Escol says he’s frustrated. He has a good education, but can’t find work. He thinks politicians are all corrupt. And he was inspired by what young Egyptians did back in February. They took over a public square for days, calling for change. And it worked. “Now I understand, that to take a square like a symbol is a very good way to force the government to talk about it, because the square is from the citizens. It’s our square.” What started as spontaneous gatherings in Tunisia, and then Egypt, have now formed a blueprint for protests elsewhere, even in Europe.
The protesters called themselves the “Indignant”. They were seeking to regain their dignity. On May 19th, the Assembly of the people at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol issued it’s first statement explaining why they were there:
WHO ARE WE?
We are individuals who have come together freely and voluntarily. Each of us has decided, after the concentrations on Sunday, May 15, that we are determined to continue fighting for dignity and political and social awareness.
We do not represent any political party or association.
We are joined by the singular cause of change.
We are brought together by integrity and solidarity with those who are unable to join us.
WHY ARE WE HERE?
We are here because we desire a new society that puts lives above political and economic interests. We demand a change in society and an increase in social awareness. We are here to make it known that the people have not fallen asleep, and we will continue fighting… peacefully.
Spanish writer Pablo Ouziel had this observation of the movement:
Spain’s people’s movement has finally awoken, la Puerta del Sol in Madrid is now the country’s Tahrir Square, and the ‘Arab Spring’ has been joined by what is now bracing to become a long ‘European Summer’. As people across the Arab world continue their popular struggle for justice, peace and democracy, Spain’s disillusioned citizens have finally caught on with full force. Slow at first, hopeful that Spain’s dire economic conditions would magically correct themselves, the Spanish street has finally understood that democratic and economic justice and peace will not come from the pulpits of the country’s corrupt political elite.
Amidst local and regional election campaigns, with the banners of the different political parties plastered across the country’s streets, people are saying ‘enough!’ Disillusioned youth, unemployed, pensioners, students, immigrants, and other disenfranchised groups have emulated their brothers in the Arab world and are now demanding a voice – demanding an opportunity to live with dignity.
As the country continues to explode economically, with unemployment growing incessantly – one in two young people unemployed across many of the country’s regions. With many in the crumbling middle class on the verge of losing their homes while bankers profit from their loss and the government uses citizen taxes to expand the military industrial complex by going off to war; the people have grasped that they only have each other if they are to rise from the debris of the militarized political and economic nightmare in which they have found themselves.
What has begun in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and has been echoed in fifty-two cities across the country is the crystallization of a popular movement for freedom, which has no intention of fading away. The people have no choice, either they take city squares as symbols of their struggle, or their message is never heard. The government knows this and that is why it has quickly responded by trying to disperse the crowds with its repressive police force, but following some arrests, the people are back with more strength.
A silent revolution has begun in Spain, a nonviolent revolution which seeks democracy through democratic means, justice through just means, and peace through peaceful means has finally captivated the imagination of the Spanish people, and now there is no turning back. The challenge ahead will be in keeping the collective spirit nonviolent as the police force does everything in its power to disintegrate the movement into a violent chaos that can justify its repression.
Journalist Joseba Elola described the beginning of the movement in the Spanish newspaper El País:
Last Tuesday, at about 8pm, something magical took place in Puerta del Sol square, in the heart of the nation’s capital. A few dozen protesters remained after Sunday’s mass demonstration in the name of the Real Democracy Now movement despite the drizzling rain, and police efforts to dislodge them in a surprise dawn raid that morning.
Over the next few hours, thousands of young people began to gravitate back towards the square, as word spread by Facebook and Twitter, where they set up a vast camp under tarpaulin sheets, determined to maintain the momentum of Sunday, May 15.
Among them was Jon Aguirre Such. The 26-year-old architecture student and spokesman for Real Democracy Now fought back tears, overjoyed and angry at the same time, as he greeted his returning friends and fellow protesters. This was a dream come true: a generation finally standing up for itself, refusing to pick up the tab for the economic crisis, and expressing outrage at a regional election campaign in which neither of the two main political parties seemed able to offer any real answers.
For Jon, the world had changed on Sunday, May 15, as thousands of people marched through Madrid. That day, as he paused to look back on the human tide pressing toward the Puerta del Sol, he had exclaimed: “I could cry seeing so many people filled with hope. This is possible. We have just made history. There is no turning back.”
Three months later, people are awake, or a good number of them, with Spain’s youth at the forefront, a generation that wants its voice to be heard now. This is a generation faced with staggering unemployment levels, who cannot pay their rent, who have taken a further hit with the austerity cuts, and who are frustrated at the failure of Spain’s politicians to do anything about any of it.
How has such a sudden and mass awakening come about? Few in the mainstream media seem to understand the exponential nature of social networking, the speed at which millions of people can share ideas and organize themselves. Along with the political parties, they have also failed to understand that not all movements work from the top down, that a leader or hierarchies are not essential, that it is possible for everyone to make a contribution, and for them to feel part of what is happening.
“Our approach to meetings is 24/7,” says Olmo Gálvez, explaining how Real Democracy Now’s online exchange of ideas works. “Information is kept up to date, people add new ideas – it’s chaotic but it works, it brings results. It’s like the social networks have a brain of their own, that they can actually think. Somebody throws an idea out there, we discuss it, reach an agreement on it, and then get to work.”
As Monday drew to a close, things were about to change: a Twitter account called #Spanishrevolution had been set up calling for support. It was a call that would be heard not around Spain, but around the world. Not long after, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the police moved in to remove the protesters. Some of the video footage, captured on cell phones, shows officers using clubs, as well as chasing and kicking protestors to the ground. The square was cleared.
At mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the square, ringed by police vans, was empty of protesters. By 6pm, however, more than 100 had made their way back, and as the word went out, more and more people came, making their way through the police lines. By 8pm, they were 6,000 strong and the police were unable to do anything as the protesters mingled with tourists, shoppers, and people returning home from work.
“We’re staying put, we have the power, and the world is watching us,” ran one text. The dream had come true. The #Spanishrevolution was underway. As the evening wore on, volunteers began laying cardboard on the ground, and a vast tarpaulin roof was extended over the sleeping area. Somebody had even brought a sofa. A megaphone blared, “This is not a party. Please do not drink beer. We are here to demand our rights.”
At 3am a new meeting was called, and this was followed by others throughout the early morning. When shop and office workers emerged from the Sol metro station a few hours later, the square was clearly in the hands of the protesters. Around the square, posters indicated the activities of the different committees that had been set up to provide food, legal advice and first aid. Some nearby bars and restaurants provided free meals, while housewives turned up with plastic bags full of food. News came in of support protests in other cities throughout Europe and Latin America.
María Carrión described the evolution of Madrid’s Camp Sol at Puerta del Sol:
The crowd of three thousand sat patiently on the hard pavement of the plaza as the fourth hour of the popular assembly came and went. The issue was whether Camp Sol, a protest that had persevered for two weeks in Madrid’s main square known as Puerta del Sol, would dismantle or stay on. Protesters were exhausted from living on the streets; there had been a few cases of harassment and tensions between groups; the infrastructure of the camp was fragile; electricity was scarce. The camp’s legal team had kept police at bay but there were no guarantees that it would remain that way (a similar camp in Barcelona had been attacked by police the day before). And even if those problems were resolved, how much longer did it make sense to occupy this enormous public space? Had the movement consolidated enough to dismantle its most visible and symbolic gathering?
A slight, young woman addressed the crowd. Trembling from nerves but with fire in her voice, she said other camps were springing up like wildflowers all over the country. She had come from the western region of Extremadura, where protesters in different cities were sleeping under the night sky, prevented by authorities from pitching tents. “Our survival depends on Camp Sol,” she begged. “If Sol disappears, the police will dissolve our camp and all the others in Spain.” As the moderator was about to take another comment his telephone rang: after a few seconds, he told the gathering that thousands of students in Paris who had gathered at the Bastille in solidarity with the Madrid protest were being gassed by police. Many in the crowd vowed to head for the French embassy after the assembly (protesters in Barcelona remained at the French consulate all night blocking the entrance and it was forced to stay closed for most of the following day).
As the towering clock over Puerta del Sol struck midnight and consensus remained elusive, the moderator reminded the crowd that organizers had agreed to wrap up the assembly so neighbors could get some rest. Racing against time, the issue was simplified – the assembly would only decide on whether to remain for the short term or leave the next morning, postponing a final decision on how long Camp Sol should exist. A few dissenting voices were heard, and then at last, thousands of hands waved towards the night sky as the crowd agreed to keep Camp Sol going -at least for the time being.
Thus ended one of the many assemblies that have become the life force behind Spain’s blossoming popular uprising. The decision-making mechanism is far from new: older folks here nod their heads remembering the hours spent in their youth trying to reach consensus. But Spain’s young people have managed to transfix society and confound an out-of-touch political elite with their level of organization and ability to rapidly spread to other neighborhoods, cities, and even countries. They do not speak the language of politicians and reject vertical models of organization. They reach decisions through consensus. They listen. They are inclusive. And what they seek is a profound transformation, one that transcends political parties and traditional methods of government; they envision a system that brings grassroots democracy rooted in the communities. Their weapons are their words and the social media networks.
Camp Sol, which began spontaneously on May 15th with a few pitched tents to protest against corruption and the lack of opportunities and to ask for democratic changes, is now a small city, a maze of plastic carps held together with chicken wire and makeshift poles, complete with its own radio station, daycare center, dining areas, first aid posts, legal aid clinics, libraries (including one for children) and information centers, which conduct meetings and workshops on issues ranging from the environment to immigration rights. At any one time, a walk through this “micropolis” might yield a live poetry reading, a political debate, a cello concert, a yoga class, a kids’ theater performance, or a film screening on a king-sized bed-sheet. Sandwiches and drinks are handed out for free all day; in return, many people visit the camp with armloads of food, building materials and other donated supplies. Protesters keep the camp clean, recycle garbage and have created orderly corridors and a large perimeter for passersby. Tahrir Square is their model.
The camp is in the heart of Madrid’s commercial and tourist district, a cross between Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. Known as Kilometer Zero because of its central location, the area receives thousands of visitors and shoppers on a daily basis. On a recent afternoon, a group of French sightseers toured the camp as part of their itinerary. “I knew about Spain’s art and food, but I am now discovering the enormous potential that its young people have,” remarked Patrick Joseph, a middle-aged writer from Toulouse. And indeed, Camp Sol is also a massive shop window into Spain’s social movements, a chance for thousands of social justice groups and activists to converge and to get their message across to a wider audience.
The seeds sown by Camp Sol are the assemblies and open mike sessions that have spread to hundreds of neighborhoods, towns, and villages across Spain. Although there is a prevalence of young people, the movement is increasingly attracting older folks ranging from families with children to middle-aged professionals and retirees – all deeply affected by the deep economic crisis and the government’s austerity measures. Young “Indignants” in other cities such as Paris, Athens, Buenos Aires, Bogota, and Brussels have supported the movement with protests of their own. Organizers hope these assemblies will take over once the main camp is dismantled. Unemployment, social injustice, lack of true democracy, declining social services, rising costs of education, and corruption are just some of the topics they debate.
“I am here to say that if the police takes my son away I will take his place, and so will many other mothers,” said Gloria Agullo, a 63 year-old woman at a recent open mike session. “He has graduated from university and obtained a Masters degree but has not been able to find work in two years. Where else should he be, but here in Sol reclaiming his future?”
So what drove Spain’s young people to create a parallel society in the heart of the capital? Or perhaps the question should be: what took them so long? After all, almost half of Spaniards under the age of 24 are unemployed, twice the European rate, and of those who have work, more than half are underemployed or earn close to minimum wage (614 Euros or $887 per month). The lack of affordable housing prevents most young people from leaving their parents’ home and many young couples cannot afford to have children, resulting in a steep drop in Spain’s birth rate. Spain’s Socialist government has not been able to address these needs: panicked at the possibility of a Greece-style bailout, it has heeded the International Monetary Fund’s instructions to cut social spending, slashing pensions, public payrolls and educational programs. At the same time as schoolteachers are being laid off, the government has bailed out Spanish banks to the tune of 50 billion Euros (about 14 percent of its GNP).
On a global scale, today’s young people were written off in early 2010 by former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Khann, who referred to them as the “lost generation”. In Spain, the mainstream media refers to Spanish youth as the “Neither-Nor” or “Ni-Ni” generation: neither studying nor working. Massive youth gatherings, at least those covered by the media, have usually involved the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, a practice known as botellón (one of the largest signs hung by protesters in Sol says “Revolución no es botellón” or “Revolution is not boozing,” and the camp rejects the sale or distribution of alcohol on its premises). Spanish society, suffocated by a structural economic crisis that has left five million unemployed, has practically given up on its young people. Many university graduates have been leaving Spain for German jobs or for emerging employment markets in Brazil and Mexico.
These young people have re-named their generation: they are now “the Indignant.” They are tired of a system that condemns them to unemployment and underemployment. They feel that asking for change is not sufficient; they need to force it. “Spain’s democracy does not seem real to them,” says Elena García Quevedo, a journalist working on a documentary about Spain’s youth. “They are more prepared than the generation that preceded theirs: they are better educated, speak more languages, are more well-rounded. They have so much to offer, but their country has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, the political parties are mired in corruption and infighting, and unions have negotiated rights away. They are not models for them.”
On Sunday June 12th, four weeks after the protests had begun, protestors in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, began to leave… dismantling the “acampada,” packing up tents, libraries, shops, and removing protest signs from the surrounding area. When the decision was made to dismantle the tent city in Puerta del Sol, the assembly decided by consensus to leave behind an information booth, called PuntoSol, where people interested in the movement could find information about how it had been decentralized to the neighborhood assemblies. An organic garden surrounding one of the fountains in Puerta del Sol was also left behind in the square. On August 2nd, police evicted the remaining protestors at the information booth, and cleaning crews dismantled PuntoSol and the organic garden. The police then blocked off all access to the square.
The movement has now decentralized, still supported by the people. According to statistics published by RTVE, the Spanish public broadcasting company, between 6.5 and 8 million Spaniards have participated in the protests. Realistically, that means up to 20% of the people in Spain were directly involved, with many more indirectly supporting the protesters.
They are still meeting and deciding on the solutions to the problems they face. They no longer believe that representative democracy will solve their problems, relying instead on participatory democracy based on people’s assemblies and consensus decision making. These horizontally structured assemblies are completely transparent and open to anyone who wants to participate. They have inspired people around the world to demand a better world, while demonstrating a way of life that makes that possible.