A look at how Occupy Wall Street is inspiring global demonstrations, including Spain’s 15th of May movement.
By Aaron Shulman
How sweet it is to be wrong. This past May I wrote a piece for The Awl about the invigorating coalescence of the “Fifteenth of May” (15M), a social movement in Spain that culminated in the occupation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza the day before regional elections. Awed by the energy of Spain’s indignados, or “indignant ones,” I began outlining another article that I didn’t end up writing. In the piece I was going to argue that a similar movement could never happen in the U.S. My reasoning went something like this: unemployment in the States isn’t high enough to generate the necessary surplus of free-time with which to fuel a dedicated grassroots volunteer base; in Spain unemployment is 21 percent nationwide, and much higher in the 18-35 age group, creating a mass of well-equipped people eager for something worthy to pour their energy into. My other reasons had to do with Europeans being more accustomed to taking to the streets in protest, along with the relative youth of Spain’s democracy and the less-than-besotted attitude of many Spaniards toward their constitutional monarchy. With the surge of Occupy Wall Street it’s more than obvious that my analysis was deeply, dramatically off.
Just as it was exhilarating to be in Spain in May, especially in Madrid, now it is a letdown not to be in the U.S., especially not in New York. As an American living in Andalusia it is hard not to appreciate the similarities between 15M and Occupy Wall Street. Having sat through several assemblies in Madrid and Cordoba, I can imagine how these horizontal gatherings are playing out in the U.S., agreed-upon hand gestures and all. Reading about the setup in Zuccotti Park immediately took me back to the impeccable organization in Puerta del Sol in May: the information booth, the medical station, the library, the cleanliness, the Respect Committee, the food donations, the newly planted garden, the passed-around sunhats and sunblock, and the general fellow-feeling and work-together ethos. I console myself about having to sit this American moment out by imagining I’ve already been to Liberty Plaza. It just happened to be a Spanish-style one.
Another quality the two movements share is the tipping point at which a small group of demonstrators began to attract broader sympathy and visibility. In both Madrid and New York aggressive behavior by police provided a thoroughly unintentional yet perfectly well-timed boost. In Puerta del Sol, forceful evictions from the plaza. In Manhattan, pepper spray. In both cases, videos spread inevitably and virally. The movements are led by a digital generation, people who know the possibilities of the web as well as its dangers, and can use both to their advantage, without cynicism. In Spain, however, this hasn’t stopped the police from resorting to bald-faced violence periodically, especially in Barcelona. Judging from the outcry over the pepper spray, this won’t happen in the U.S., though it’s hard to predict the threshold at which authorities will simply get fed up. The people camping in Madrid had to face down the moment when it was decided that the rabble-rousers had had their fun and the porras—billy clubs—came in swinging. For now it’s very bracing to see that the cleaning of Zuccotti Park has been postponed.
Has the populist, activist left arrived, ready to make the Democratic party bend to its will?
The Spanish public and media feel affinities with what’s happening in the U.S. as well. El País newspaper has been referring to the people of the burgeoning movement in cities across the U.S. as “indignados.” This hits my ear with an almost affectionate ring to it, the way the label has been so seamlessly reapplied. A Spanish friend of mine told me the other day how much he admired the “We Are The 99 Percent” idea, and how he is now a big fan of Susan Sarandon. Considering the porousness between the two movements, and of course the obvious debts to the Arab Spring, it is hard for me to understand the commentary of pundits like Mark Schmitt, who in The New Republic recently wrote that it feels like Occupy Wall Street is “starting entirely from scratch, with little awareness of anything that came before it.” While I’m perhaps depriving that quote of its full context, I think it’s clear that the American media still doesn’t know how to respond to what’s happening. That’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
In spite of the kinships between 15M and Occupy Wall Street, there are cultural, contextual differences, though the extent of how these differences will define the future is yet to be seen. The American movement is in its earliest infancy and many, many decisions lie ahead. In Spain, a hard-line idealism has defined the positions taken by the indignados. They refuse to play ball or associate with any established political entities, including unions. And their official list of demands reaches far beyond increased bank accountability and restructured taxes; they want dramatic constitutional reforms. (The eight proposals of the indignados can be found online.) One of the most chanted songs at demonstrations in Spain today is: “Lo llaman democracia y no lo es.” Translated: “They call it democracy and it’s not.” A great portion of the 15M movement doesn’t believe they are living in a true democracy. It’s understandable, then, that they brandish their idealism in the face of a system they see as bankrupt in principles to begin with.
In the U.S. that good ole American pragmatism seems to already be percolating into the conversation. Some pundits are asking if Democrats have finally found the answer to the Tea Party, which has so effectively thrown itself into the mud of politics, demonstrating that their ideals can effect change in practice. Has the populist, activist left arrived, ready to make the Democratic party bend to its will? Some democrats have begun to embrace Occupy Wall Street, like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But is that what the people in Zuccotti Park and other people camped out around the country want?
At the current moment such a partnership is hard to imagine. The hardships of so many Americans may lead them to reject the status quo that has failed them. With the “We Are The 99 Percent” sentiment spreading, not to mention the eponymous and extremely affecting tumblr page , we are seeing an outpouring of emotion shared across the political continuum, as has happened in Spain. I’m put in mind of a devastating series of letters El País published last year by young people describing their deep disappointment with a dead-end future after so many years of professional preparation. Along with many other they are Spain’s 99 percent. The same label has already been adopted here. Yesterday I was forwarded a Youtube video that ended with “Somos El Pueblo 99 percent.”
In the U.S., alienated from the American dream, the self-styled 99 Percent is riding high united against a common enemy, embodied by the “They” of Occupy Wall Street’s recent “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.” “They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage,” it reads. “They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.” Their list of gripes is not meant so much as articles to be agreed or disagreed with—at least as I read it—but more as collective experiences we all have the right to be angry about. To put it another way: Yo tambien soy un indignado.
On October 15th, 15-M took to the streets in Spain for the “United For Global Change” march with more enthusiasm and bigger turnout than ever before…
It’s obvious from the demonstration in New York on October fifth that unions are thrilled about what’s going on and eager to build an alliance, though it appears that those gathered in Zuccotti Park are welcoming this support cautiously. Support us, yes; co-opt us, no. The same goes for Moveon.org, who has given the movement their blessing, but could upset many with their support for Obama. The 15M movement in Spain has based its integrity on its rejection of all established politics and it will be interesting to see if Occupy Wall Street does the same. On the one hand, this makes sense. What this world needs is firm, uncompromising principles. On the other, can principles alone get much done in our democracies? In the arena of legislation 15M has been ignored, unlike the Tea Party, which forced its voice on Republicans. In fact, the Spanish government recently passed constitutional reforms that many see as the first step in a campaign to dismantle the welfare state, spitting in the face of everything the indignados stand for.
In what practical political directions will the horizontal decision-making of Occupy Wall Street end up taking the movement? On occupywallstreet.org’s open forum, where individual users are free to post any demands they wish, there are proposals as radical as those pushed by indignados who wish to derogate the Spanish constitution and dethrone the King. “Demand three: Guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment,” reads one. “Demand four: Free college education.” (Proposals such as these have been presented by some media sources as being official demands, but they are not.) Other proposals focus on specific legislation, like demanding Congress to pass the “Return to Prudent Banking Act.” The interesting moment will come when the movement tries to push for such measures to be implemented, and how they push. Strategies of varying degrees of success having been carried out in Spain—giving President Zapatero a list of 15M’s demands, for example—so while there will be actions and experiments, I wouldn’t be surprised for things to take longer than we expect to hit a critical mass. When I saw Icelandic leader Hörður Torfason speak at the University of Cordoba in June his simplest message was his most helpful: Be patient.
At this point it feels imprudent to speculate more about what’s happening in the U.S., or even to pretend that I understand it. I’m far from both the heart of the movement as well its limbs, and thus unable to listen to its pulse. For now I’ll just have to keep watching how things unfold from abroad in Spain, with my experience colored by the voices of indignados around me. On October 15th, 15-M took to the streets in Spain for the “United For Global Change” march with more enthusiasm and bigger turnout than ever before, the movement having drawn renewed inspiration from Occupy Wall Street. According to El País, there are now indignados in 951 cities in 82 countries. As the paper put it, ”15M has made its echo reach very far.”
It’s clear by now that lessons will continue to be learned and shared on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as throughout the rest of the world. And hopefully there will be more predictions I’ll be thrilled to be wrong about.
Aaron Shulman is a writer based in Spain whose worked has appeared in The New Republic, The New Statesman, and The Awl, among other places. He was a Fulbright scholar in Guatemala.