As things rightly should be, you never feel, or hear, history approaching. It just appears, at your side, taking you completely by surprise. You do not feel the hand of history on your shoulder, in the personalised, megalomaniacal sense that British Prime Minister Tony Blair famously claimed to feel whilst brokering peace Northern Ireland in 1998. Rather, you feel it externally, you see it as separate from your own sense of self, you see it in the actions of others; you see it in the collective. However, when you do see it, it is unmistakable.
Last Thursday, I, and many others, came face to face with history. We were part of history, of an historic moment: in short, we were present as the wave of protest that has convulsed the Arab World since late-January crashed into the shores of Europe. In the Spanish capital, Madrid, since Sunday May 15, there has emerged the movement now ubiquitously known here as ‘15-M’. This movement, a coalition of various groups drawn together through social networking sites, has effected an incredible transformation of the centre of this bustling city. Following a well organised demonstration on Sunday, which according to official estimates was made up of 20,000 people, a group of around 300, mostly students, stayed and set-up camp in the Puerta del Sol, the principal plaza and main artery of ‘el centro’.
What were they protesting against, campaigning – and camping – for? The answer is clearly visible in the principle slogans of the movement – ‘toma la calle’, and ‘democracia real ya’ – ‘take to the streets’, and ‘real democracy now!’, and ‘no somos mercancía en los manos de banqueros y políticos’, ‘we are not merchandise in the hands of bankers and politicians’. These groups are protesting against the consequences of the global economic crisis of 2008, a crisis that has left Spain with a staggering 21% unemployment – almost 5 million people. Even more staggering: unemployment amongst the age group 18-25 now stands at over 40%. To add insult to injury, this very same crisis that has destroyed the job market so thoroughly has also left in its wake a rock-solid consensus across the two main political parties here: that the way out of the crisis is through a series of labour reforms and austerity measures that will hit those already on the edge of society the hardest.
But the protesters see it differently. Everywhere there are T-shirts, posters, slogans reminding people that it was the financial sector that ushered in this crisis, yet it is the people that are being asked to pay for it, with wage freezes, a higher retirement age, reduced public services. One of the main groups here is called Juventud Sin Futuro – Youth Without Future – and their T-shirts and posters capture the essence of 15-M: ‘Sin casa, sin curro, sin futuro SIN MIEDO’ it reads – ‘no house, no work, no future, but NO FEAR’. One of the many signs appended to the every available space here reads, in English, every letter a foot tall: ‘Spain is not a business, we are not slaves.’ It is clear here then that the protesters are indignant at the shortfall between the source of the economic crisis and those who are being forced to pay.
It is not necessarily, however, the focus of the 15-M movement that gives it its historical significance. That is, it is not the desired ends that are so impressive here, but rather the means with which they have gone about this protest. Initially, the camp that followed the protest on Sunday was viewed by many in the same way many student-led protests are viewed: as a fleeting gesture of resistance from the fringes of society. Moreover, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Spanish riot police, the Orwellian named ‘anti-disturbios’, entered and very much disturbed the camp, dispersing it, and arresting 18 people in the process. And that, most people surely thought, would be that. But what happened next surprised everyone: that afternoon, an everyday, working Tuesday afternoon, 4,000 people returned to Sol, as the plaza is known locally, to protest all over again. And this time, it was not solely los jóvenes, the young: there were people there of all ages, of all backgrounds, the employed and the unemployed, all united by the principle drive of this movement to protest against a political class that has let the people down.
Even more surprising here though was that a large number of these protestors had returned with a specific goal in mind: to re-establish the camp that the police had dispersed the night before. From late Tuesday night onwards, a group numbering well into the hundreds set about organising a more permanent camp. They split into groups, into committees, and set up mini-camps, in different parts of the plaza, of the small individual groups that formed part of the wider whole. They placed posters, wrote slogans, hung banners from the famous monuments in the square. Sofas, chairs, tables appeared, as did mattresses and bedding: a sense of permanency slowly seeped upwards through the cold, concrete slabs of the square.
When the rain came on Wednesday night, posing a real threat to any staying power in an open camp in the middle of the city, it actually had the reverse effect: the rain only increased the sense of permanency, as the protesters were forced to erect temporary shelters. They stretched tarpaulin across the length of the square, tying it to the lampposts and monuments. When they ran out of lampposts, they erected new ones: metal poles, solidified into buckets of cement, appeared everywhere, and they tied more tarpaulin, and more roof shelter to every one. By Thursday, a sheltered, tented community had emerged. Indeed, a mini-city had emerged, a democratic city in the classic Athenian sense of the word.
Inside this mini-city, there were committees in sitting everywhere. All were discussing strategy and organisation, discussing the reasons and the principles they had came to Sol to demand for, the changes they wanted to see in society. There was a committee representing each different zone of the camp, and there were zones for every possible need of both a political movement and a self-sufficient community: there was a legal zone, a communications zone, a food zone, a zone for rubbish collection, a zone for bathrooms and toilets, even an immigration zone. All of these had sprung up just as quickly as the roof of the camp itself. All committees had now pinned a sign to the nearest bucket-pole to advertise their work. A huge, hand-drawn map of the whole camp had been stuck to the side of newspaper kiosks directing people to each area. Also, suggestion boxes appeared across the camp, asking for suggestions for how best to approach the economic crisis in a fairer way.
Perhaps most interesting of all, however, was that the zones had been specifically organised to leave ample space for movement around the camp, and it soon became clear that this design was not solely to make the life of the inhabitants easier; no, there was a much more shrewder plan at play here. The walkways of this tented city were not only to allow free movement of the people living on the camp, but to allow the free movement of the other essential ingredients in all of this political play in the centre of Madrid: the tourist and the passer-by.
It should be noted here that Sol, as the plaza is known for short here in Madrid, is the commercial and tourist hub of Madrid. More than this, it is the heart of Madrid, and, geographically at least, the heart of Spain: outside the old Post Office building that now serves as the seat of the Madrid government, you can find kilómetro cero – kilometre zero, the point from which, historically at least, all distances and road measurements in Spain were measured. On a normal, busy week day, Sol is a mix of Madrileños, as the locals are known, making their way from one side of the city to the other, and whole hordes of tourists. Normally, the tourists and the passers-by spend any stationary time in Sol gathered around one street performer or another, watching one magician or other, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of street entertainment on offer.
But on Thursday night, because of the shrewd planning of the camp protesters, the tourists and the passers-by were no longer transfixed by the juggler or the artists imitating statues. Rather, they were mingling through the camp, transfixed by the sheer number of meetings: they could see people in meetings everywhere, talking, debating, taking votes and recording the details. If this on its own was not enough of a rarefied sight, then the fact that every committee meeting was surrounded by the tourists and the locals, all watching with keen interest what was happening, brought an air of surreality to it all. In 20 years of attending protests and demonstrations, meetings and conferences, I have never seen such engagement, from both those involved, but even more fascinatingly, from those passing-by.
And this was engagement, rather than mere spectating. Indeed, as the individual committees finished their work, a general assembly meeting was called for the whole camp to draw together the work that each committee had been doing and to vote on the suggestions deposited in the suggestion boxes. The assembly arranged to take place slightly to one side of the plaza, the only space that was not occupied by the makeshift camp and, to the other side, the heavy police presence. And so, the committees and the other few hundred occupants of the camp, sat in this open space in their general assembly, and held yet another meeting to discuss, and vote on, the suggestions and the committee work of the day. However, the very same process that had happened with the individual committees – of passers-by being enthralled by the functioning, democratic process – repeated itself, but this time on a much larger scale. On my rough estimate, the general assembly started with around 300 camp inhabitants sat, voting in the meeting, and at least the same number gathered around to watch.
However, as the moderator of the assembly read out the various suggestions and ideas, the number of people sitting down increased rapidly, as the passers-by realised that this was something different, enthralling, and stayed on to watch the meeting unfold. But more than this, as the offices and workplaces of Madrid started to empty, the crowed surrounding the meeting grew even more rapidly. And here, an incredible transformation took place. First, people returning from their day’s work stopped, and stared, incredulous at what they were seeing. They were completely confused with the consensual forms of group agreement that is employed in the camp – the non-aggressive, two-handed wave in the air that replaces applause at meetings like this. Everywhere you could see people turning to their partners and friends – ‘qué pasa con eso’? What on earth does this mean?
However, before long – and partly on the urging of the moderators to arrange the group to most best allow the sound to carry further – waves of the surrounding spectators also began to sit down, to listen to what was being said, and, unbelievably, before long, office workers, the people of everyday life, where waving both hands high above their heads in agreement with a platform principle that castigated the political and economic class of this country. Before long – and, again, on my own rough estimate – there were 1500 people seated, and at least 2000 more surrounding this meeting, a meeting that was based on accepting the recommendations made by the committees and on suggestions for the platform principles. The meeting lasted for over two hours, and hardly anyone got up to leave: indeed, quite the opposite – the people just kept on coming. The atmosphere was electric. All traditional politics, all notions of left and right, were completely cast aside, as the whole group discussed the issues. This was a sensible, serious meeting: this was not a party; this was not a simple defiance of public order, a festival of rebellion. Indeed, the group as a whole only wanted one thing: to work out exactly what it is that the group wanted. This was the sine qua non of participation: serious, non partisan, discussion of ideas of how to build a fairer society
Indeed, when people strayed outside of this line of behaviour, they were kindly admonished by the group: the guy who scaled the roof of the metro station, the chap who took to the megaphone to talk about who to vote for in the upcoming election and thus politicising the event, the people who clapped and whistled when they should have been waving hands: all were gently asked to refrain from what they were doing; and every request was met with a sea of double handed waving from the general assembly. Perhaps most impressive of all though was the complete opposition to alcohol in the camp. Time and again, the moderators reminded the meeting that alcohol was not welcome on the site, that this was to be something more than a street party. These reminders were the one or two examples during the whole meeting when everyone at the meeting lost the decorum and couldn’t help breaking out into applause; such was the support for the opposition on alcohol.
And so, amidst a sea of waving hands and the open and sober exchange of ideas, history came and sat amongst the people of Madrid in what has now been renamed as Plaza de la Solución. And just as in Cairo at the end of January, the people of this capital city on the other side of the Mediterranean had taken to the streets and started to engage with the issues of a malfunctioning society democratically. In both places, both movements had their own, formidable opponents to deal with: in Cairo, for sure, the opposition was potentially deadly, but in Madrid, although much safer, much less lethal, the opposition was equally as formidable: here, in the commercial and tourist centre of the fourth largest economy in Europe, the opponent was a deeply engrained system of consumer-based capitalism. And, remarkably, for the time being at least, the demonstrators have won: the one-time seemingly unshakably, intellectual emptiness of a physically crowded commercial centre has been transformed into a centre that was just as crowded with people but even more crowded with hope, with ideas. Whatever happens over the next few days – and the Madrid government passed late last night a decree that declares the protest illegal and gives power to the police to disperse it – an example has been set. This exercise in open, real democracy will leave its 15-M shaped mark: another world is possible, even in the very moment it seems most unlikely.