About 2,000 people gathered at the Puerta del Sol Square in central Madrid on the evening of 7 June 2011 for the protest movement’s general assembly. A negotiator read out the proposal that on 12 June “we’ll dismantle the campsite and we’ll withdraw in a festive manner, leaving a permanent information point on the square. We’ll continue our work at district level and meet in public places, and maintain our Sol assemblies.” Tarpaulins had been draped to prevent rain from interrupting as it had two evenings earlier. The negotiators stood in the centre but, as expected, the proposal was not approved unanimously. People argued, and a time limit was set for each counter-proposal.
Those against dismantling the camp spoke first, stressing the absence of concrete proposals (“We’ll leave without having obtained anything”) and the effect their departure would have on the movement in other Spanish cities. Then those in favour insisted that the movement had acquired enough organisation and no longer needed a campsite that was depleting its strength. The views seemed irreconcilable. The opponents were in the minority, but a consensus was required on principle.
Behind the negotiators, the group of facilitators attempted to summarise all the arguments in a new proposal, and someone was nominated to record the meeting. It continued for four hours, long past midnight, by which time the tensions were palpable. The moderators shouted encouragement: “It’s taking time because we’re breaking new ground.” Finally a new proposal: “Those who want to continue the camps will form an itinerant group and support the movement elsewhere, in district assemblies.” Silence. Then at last all hands were raised. “We’ve reached a consensus at last,” shouted a negotiator amid applause.
Since May up to 6,000 people a day had gathered for meetings like this in Puerta del Sol. A young woman on the organising committee said: “It’s impossible to switch off, I dream about it at night. It was hard work learning how to conduct the assemblies, especially the big ones. We discussed it a lot, to decide whether to continue to allow collective decisions, but that’s at the core of everything that’s going on here. We learn something new every day. One woman was an international observer in Chiapas and she’s given us good ideas. Tomorrow, two comrades from the Minga of Social and Community Resistance in Colombia will take part. That’s why people keep coming back to the Sol meetings and assemblies: because people listen to each other and try to achieve something.”
This outburst of participative politics is a novelty. Against massive unemployment (44.2% of Spain’s 16-25 year-olds in April 2011, according to Eurostat), the loss of social rights, austerity plans in health and education, a worsening lack of job security and foreclosures on homes because of unpaid mortgages – financed by banks bailed out with public money – a citizens’ platform appealed on the social networks for a demonstration on 15 May. Claiming independence from all parties, trade unions and political organisations, it achieved unexpected success. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in 50 Spanish towns and their slogan “Democracia real ya!” (“Real democracy now”) summarised disgust at the connivance between political and economic powers, and widespread corruption (1). “They don’t represent us!” was a popular slogan during the protests.
A small town
Encouraged by this success, and by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, 200 people decided, independently, to camp in Puerta del Sol until the regional and municipal elections on 22 May. Subsequent police repression (violent attacks at the end of the demonstration) and political condemnation by those who described themselves as “anti-system” did nothing to weaken the movement. In less than two days, tarpaulins were draped around the square and loudspeakers set up by the statue of Charles III, along with an electricity generator. A few planks were added to make a kitchen, first used for storing gifts (money was not accepted) but soon transformed into a real soup kitchen. Water came from a nearby fire station. Anything needed – office or building supplies, medicines, meals, clothes – was written down and posted on a webpage. One company donated chemical toilets and neighbours opened their bathrooms to demonstrators. A small town had sprung up in central Madrid.
I met an unemployed man in his early thirties at one of the information points. He was explaining to new arrivals with backpacks how the campsite worked. “We’ve got committees that take care of the organisation and the 15-M [15 May] movement, as well as the kitchen, legal assistance, preparatory work for the assemblies, and infrastructure. Then there are the working groups that discuss the proposals adopted by common agreement on political, economic, environmental, health, education, culture, immigration and other issues we believe are important. The committees and working groups are open to everyone. They usually meet in the afternoon in the neighbouring squares and streets. Then we hold a general assembly every two days in a large space. That’s where the decisions are taken. Perhaps the best thing for you to do is to observe and take part in the assemblies for the first few days, just to get familiar with them.”
In and around Puerta del Sol, the assemblies cohabited for four weeks with tourists beside the café terraces, boutiques and tapas bars. Just a hundred metres away from what the media named the “Spanish revolution”, life continued: people took the underground to work and did their shopping.
Carlos, one of the senior lawyers providing legal assistance to the demonstrators described his political activism (interrupted by a call on the phone line installed to allow the assemblies to communicate). This doctor of law (and practicing lawyer and university professor) admitted that apart from a few anti-Franco demonstrations in his youth, “this is the first time I’ve taken part in a political movement and the first time I’ve gone on to the streets. I came because I fully identify with the principles being defended here: a refusal of partisan commitment, condemnation of corruption and of our total lack of independence since governments are merely sales representatives for the real financial and economic powers.” Carlos, like many others, went home from time to time to rest and work at his real job. He was not the most typical participant, they were usually younger and unemployed, but he illustrates the movement’s capacity for attracting people who had never taken part in any political action.
The movement wasn’t entirely spontaneous, but incorporated existing movements, such as Juventud SIN futuro (Youth without a future). This student movement’s actions are not limited to the campus but try to encompass broader sectors, its slogan “No home, no work, no pension, no fear”. Opponents of internet and downloading laws also rallied. More used to “hacktivist” operations, they launched a movement called NoLesVotes (Don’t vote for them).
All these groups are united in defiance of existing institutions and a desire to promote decentralised, horizontal participation. Puerta del Sol also brought together militants from a wide range of political or union affiliations, as well as people who had been mobilised on other occasions such as against the war in Iraq or the Bologna Process (reforming higher education in Europe). Civic movements were also represented, ecologists, autonomous social welfare centres, cultural and workers’ education collectives, organisations offering assistance to immigrants, feminists and social workers.
In the camp, efforts to distance the movement from any pre-existing form of organisation led to a mixing of groups, which tended to organise themselves by professional affinity. Journalists headed for the communications committee to work with journalists from alternative media, or just people who were interested. The working groups were a mix of experts and ordinary people.
After occupying the square for four weeks, a withdrawal was bound to be seen as defeat, and it was important to establish a post-camp plan. This included demonstrations such as the one on 19 June against the Euro Pact, which mobilised more than 200,000 people, and the “indignant” march, which left Valencia intending to reach Madrid by 23 July; cacerolada protests (banging pots and pans) in front of town halls, and mass rallies to stop the repossession of homes.
In the longer term, hopes lie in the district-level popular assemblies and the continuation of the work begun in Puerta del Sol. This will involve coordinating some 20 Spanish towns where similar movements happened – and in some cases still continue, as in Barcelona, where people recently protested against austerity measures in front of the Catalan parliament building. The movement faces obstacles, including greater police repression and the difficulty in mobilising people for distant objectives. But those weeks in Spain led to political awakening by original operating methods. “We slept and now we have woken. Square occupied,” states the commemorative plaque the protesters left by the statue of Charles III, without asking permission.