Indignant and Organized: 15M to 19J


On May 15, thousands of people answered a call to “take the streets” against neoliberal economic measures that were being implemented in Spain in the aftermath of the financial crisis. To everyone’s surprise, including organizers and participants, 125,000 people filled popular city squares across Spain. In a matter of days, the “indignant”—as they came to be known—went from making a point to making a camp, and from running the camp to working towards a revolution.

 

Four weeks later, on June 19, a second march gathered over 250,000 people, once again exceeding all expectations and, more importantly, doubling the attendance of the first action. By that time, 15M was no longer just the date of a protest, but also the name of a very organized movement with immediate demands as well as long-term political ambitions. This movement now has its own institutions, proposals, and history. It even has its own newspaper, art work, and a sign language. This is a movement that frightens a select few because it creates hope for so many.

 

Retrospective

 

On the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, the economy of Spain still appeared strong. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had been growing at a steady 4 percent, consumption was high, and real estate prices seemed to reach for the sky. But this would turn out to be an illusion. There was a rising inequality between rich and poor, unemployment was abnormally high and consumption was only facilitated by irresponsible levels of debt. Nevertheless, the financial health of the Treasury guaranteed a decent level of social protection from the government.

 

During the fourth quarter of 2008, the U.S. subprime crisis popped the Spanish housing bubble and the Spanish economy collapsed at the end of the year. Unemployment soared to 20 percent nationally, with the youngest citizens hardest hit at over 45 percent unemployment. More than one-fifth of Spaniards were suddenly living below the poverty line (around $11,250 for a single person).

 

From that moment on, the social provisions built up under the welfare state were no longer sacred. Politicians from both sides presented social spending as a burden that aggravated the poor economic situation. The public lost trust in the major labor unions—traditional defenders of basic social protections—and saw them as weak, indulgent government collaborators. Corporations were soon firing workers by the thousands with reduced compensation packages, partly paid with taxpayers’ money.

 

The atmosphere was one of impunity for the powerful and resignation for the rest. Corruption scandals multiplied and, of course, the only public figure relieved of his duties was Baltasar Garzón, the judge that prosecuted the corruption cases. This and many other murky affairs left many disenchanted and resentful toward politicians, labor unions and even human nature. Cynicism became a rational defense mechanism. T-shirts read “People suck.” Even on the eve of May 15, this perception, however grim, would have been hard to challenge, at least without looking a fool.

 

“¡Toma la Calle!”

 

At some point, students from the University Complutense of Madrid, who had gained some success organizing a number of protests earlier in the year, saw an opportunity to send out a call. Their platform was simple and was explicitly independent from political parties and labor unions. They called themselves “simple citizens from all stripes,” and emphasized in their manifesto that “some of us are progressive, some are conservative.” They called for reforms that were meant to put the general public interest back on the program. A key aim was to remind the political class that it “was those who created the mess that ought to pay for it.” The name of their platform was “Democracia Real Ya” (“Real Democracy Now”).

 

The students’ call was an explicit rejection of both political parties, the right-wing PP and the center left PSOE. The message hit a nerve. All of a sudden, thousands of Spaniards filled the streets of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Bilbao, and dozens of other cities and towns. There was literally no sign that this would happen. It felt like waking up. By the end of the march, cynicism was officially dead.

 

“¡Toma la Plaza!”

 

After 24 protesters were arrested for staying at the Puerta del Sol—the center square of Madrid—hundreds of people decided to stay to demand that all the charges against the protesters be dropped. To facilitate their stay they set up tents and other improvised shelters. Very quickly, neighbors from all over the area joined efforts to bring food and material. On May 17, people began stopping by after work to express their solidarity with the occupiers.

 

When I arrived at the camp on the following Wednesday, there were people immersed in deep conversations and the social diversity on display was incredible: immigrants, older people, feminists, family men, children, homeless people, high school students, unemployed workers, and conservatives. What is overwhelming to this day is that everyone dropped their attitude of mistrust.

 

By the third day of the camp, there was consistently between 5,000 and 20,000 people gathered in the central square of Madrid. The camp organization had to ask people to stop bringing food; there was more than we could possibly eat. The camp was growing by the hour. Now, the idea that we were so many and they were so few was gaining momentum.

 

The media would keep asking “We know what you are against, but what are you for?” It was partly out of concern around this question that the first camp assemblies were created. The camp was self-managed by committees that followed a division of labor that evolved according to the size of the camp. At first there were four committees. When the Sol camp was taken down on June 12, there were around 15 committees. It was very well organized, even providing campers and visitors access to movies at the 15M cinema where several documentaries were playing.

 

The Committees

 

The committees were kind of the executive branch of the movement. Their work dealt with camp affairs and the movement as a whole. For that reason, some of the committees still exist. There were up to 15, but I shall mention only 12: legal, infirmary, infrastructure, respect, cleaning, library, arts, day- nursery, archives, communication, extensions, and information.

 

The legal committee was established at the very beginning and was the key to the success of the encampment. Its task was to handle or prevent any disputes with the authorities, the police, and all the people affected by the camp. Ten to twenty thousand people meeting every night must have been an imposition on some of the neighbors and shop owners.

 

This committee was very successful in establishing a dialogue with all these parties. Its influence ranged from preventing people from climbing on the scaffolds during the assemblies to trying to get the people who had been arrested out of prison.

 

The infirmary is another committee whose work is still very visible. This service was provided, for the most part, by one volunteer doctor and a dozen other professionals, as well as by volunteers who help carry patients when it is necessary. 

 

Members of the infrastructure committee were constantly working, mostly in the background, and this group required the most volunteers. The camp needed constant extensions, repairs, transport of material, electrical wiring, an effective sound system, and so on.

 

The committee for respect consisted of volunteers wearing reflective vests that identified them. Their task was to ask people to refrain from excessive drinking, mostly during weekend nights. They also made sure that no one would block the entrances to the shops around the square or allow paintings on the iron gates.

 

The cleaning committee cleaned up the plaza, taking care of the garbage left by the thousands of people passing by. After three or four weeks of camping out, it became increasingly difficult to address some hygiene problems that usually require bigger and more sophisticated cleaning equipment.

 

The library started out with a couple of hundred donations from supporters of the movement. By June 12, it counted more than 4,000 books which are now stored somewhere in Madrid. The participants seem to have realized very early that the camp had come to be the embodiment of a self-managed society. Knowing this, the library was as much a public space as it was a symbol. This was not the type of library where one would go and borrow books in the traditional way. But the library, like the arts committee, helped give the movement and encampment a soul. By developing its own art and its own cultural context, 15M became more than just the sum of its individuals, it became a collective endeavor and an invitation for rethinking our institutions.

 

Archives and documentation made it possible to offer maps to new arrivals to the camp, a crucial tool for becoming oriented with the multitude of activities and stations located in site. This committee also made it possible for journalists and others to obtain copies of important documents, such as the minutes of the assemblies and proposals produced by the working groups.

 

The communication committee was by far the most visited. It hosted all the web designers, the translators, and the spokespeople. According to the people working in this committee, all the important messages, communications, reports, minutes, and other information that came out of the many activities of 15M were translated into English, French, German, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese, and probably some other languages. Messages on the loudspeakers were read in the first three languages besides Spanish.

 

Finally, the extensions committee helped project the 15M movement into the future. Its work consisted of helping to coordinate the neighborhood assemblies created during the second week of the occupation. Its task on the Puerta del Sol was to inform people about their own assemblies, depending on what city or district they lived in. They have also encouraged the development of web pages for each neighborhood committee.

 

The Assemblies

 

Typically, assemblies took place on the weekends: Saturdays for local assemblies and Sundays for the general one. It usually took around two hours to get through the agenda. Following discussions (during which everyone has the opportunity to speak) proposals and decisions are put to a vote. As I mentioned earlier, the sign language that we’d adopted was essential for the sessions to move smoothly forward. The general assemblies are always held in public spaces, usually symbolic places in the center of the city: Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona, Plaza de Encarnación in Sevilla, etc., all reminiscent of the Agoras from ancient Greek city states.

 

Assembly sessions require the help of a number of volunteer workers: moderators, minute recorders (on paper and on tape), people giving turns to speak, medical care teams on stand-by during big assembly sessions, sound technicians, etc. These are jobs that are always carefully monitored and subject to turn over, the risk being that some individuals monopolize certain empowering tasks, breaking the horizontality of the movement. The decision making process is an issue that is still in progress. Up until the third week of the encampment, the rule was decision making by consensus. However, when the assembly decided to vote on withdrawal from the Puerta del Sol, a small minority managed to block vote after vote. This was the first real challenge, threatening the credibility of the movement. This deadlock type of situation is more common than we might think, which is why it is important to approach these experiences with  flexibility.

 

Neighborhood assemblies are a replica of the general assemblies, although they may in the future adopt their own rules for decision making. Indeed, decentralization is absolute and the only obligation for the barrios is to send two to five spokespersons to report on what has been decided. The fact that the barrios are decentralized allows participants in smaller assemblies to be creative and to experiment. Ideas deemed successful could be reported and suggested to other assemblies from other districts or cities. Communication is so decentralized that each assembly is free to exchange views and ideas with other assemblies without consulting the general assembly—be it Madrid, San Sebastian, Girona, or Athens.

 

The assemblies brought participatory democracy to life. Although the 15M movement is still young, the indignant are very organized and are now taking the “barrios” of Madrid, as well as other cities.

 

Inclusiveness

 

Inclusiveness is a very important aspect of the movement that has not always been easy to achieve. As far as the assemblies are concerned there are several points worth mentioning: speeches are translated into the sign language by one or two interpreters. People are asked to be gender inclusive when speaking, which is more difficult (due to a bigger presence of gender accordance in grammar rules). Gender representation is also a prime concern, although so far it has been respected without any need for intervention. Women easily make up half the participants of the movement.

 

Another problem with inclusiveness came when long-term visions were to be produced by the working groups. Can we say we are anti-capitalist? Will we lose support if we do that? Is it legitimate to do that? After all, if the movement has the ambition to one day represent every Spanish citizen in the country, shouldn’t we postpone those questions for when we’re more representative?

 

There were many who were reluctant to set a long term vision at this stage of the movement. It is not that vision is unimportant, but my belief is that assemblies need to be institutionalized before we can start speaking of changing capitalism. Once assemblies become a permanent forum of discussion and decision making, becoming part of our institutional landscape, then people will naturally choose what is best for them. But the need for a vision should not dominate other considerations.

 

Working groups elaborate the proposals that will be voted on during the assemblies. They are subdivided, in some cases, in sub-groups. For instance, the working group on economy consists of seven subgroups: financial systems, housing employment, political economy, relation with developing countries, businesses and international economic relations. During these sessions, discussions go deeper into issues. There are ten different working groups: economy, politics, architecture and public spaces, social and migration, science and technology, feminism, healthcare, environment, education, and “thinking.” Each working group is now releasing a book of proposals that have been approved by consensus.

Z


 

David Marty, a 2010 Z Media Institute graduate, has a French and Spanish background. He writes for ZNet, teaches law and languages, and currently lives in Spain.