The U.S. ’s recent experience with encamped agitation—the Occupy Wall Street demonstration that began September 17 at Zuccotti Park—owes much to what happened and continues to happen at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. The first large-scale Western protest to follow the Arab Spring, the indignados movement in Spain grew out of a nationwide protest on May 15 and quickly metastasized into a series of encampments, popular assemblies, and marches.
The 15-M movement has thrown Spain’s political class and editorial boards into confusion. Still very much alive as regular demonstrations and a network of community councils in neighborhoods and towns around the country, 15-M has found a way of articulating something that had been widely felt but not yet acknowledged.
In many ways, OWS has tried, and largely succeeded, to implement in reverse the progression from protests to encampments to popular assemblies overseen by 15-M. Many of the indignados’ tactics have reappeared in Chile, Israel, Britain, and elsewhere. The Spanish story, then, is instructive in discerning just what all this commotion might lead to, and what it has in common—or not—with other uprisings seen this year.
“We wanted to communicate that we’re against how the system treats us. We’re against the police and the systems of control. The political system. We all agreed, that we were against the current system. That’s what united us.”
That’s Lara Jerez, a member of the Social Working Group, an umbrella committee in the 15-M non-organization whose members discuss problems—access to health care, use of public space, environmental pollution—and try to work out solutions with various assemblies scattered across the country. [Full disclosure: I translated documents for the Social Working Group this summer and fall.]
“I think that’s what makes our movement very different from any student or labor or political movement,” Lara continues. “We’re a citizen movement. Everyone is affected, and everyone, sooner or later, shares a part of 15-M.”
Lara—32, Argentine, dark hair, stylish glasses—meets with me on a cool night in early September to discuss what has happened since Sol (a synecdoche typical of popular movements, meaning “May 15” or “the ongoing protests and assemblies”). With us is Juan Miguel, 28, curly hair, a train ticket-seller and another member of the Social Working Group who doesn’t wish to share his last name. We convene at the Puerta del Sol itself, where a major labor union is demonstrating; the 15-M information booth bustles with curious tourists and veteran protestors reading pamphlets and discussing an impending constitutional amendment. An acquaintance dropped by to describe his uninspiring weekend of rural anti-nuclear agitation; someone nearby breaks out in song. In need of a bit more quiet, we amble up the department store-strewn Calle de Tetuán to the calmer Plaza del Carmen, where the Disability Rights Working Group holds a meeting up and down some concrete steps. Lara and Juan Miguel pass the next 10 minutes discussing plans for the next march, photocopies for a certain leaflet, and issues with a group email account. Once comfortably settled on the ground in front of a tree, I inquire about 15-M’s beginnings.
“The demonstrations, or the gathering of the campers [on May 15], was organized by Democracia real YA!, ” says Lara, referencing the website which issued the initial call for protests. She laughs. “People came just to camp; the police broke up the camp and violently confronted those thirty or so people; the news about what had happened spread around the Internet and spontaneously—which is the important thing—the next day—”
“Tuesday,” Juan Miguel adds.
“The next day, the people showed up in Sol. It wasn’t convened by Democracia real YA! So we said to ourselves, when all of a sudden we were 15,000 people in Sol: let’s camp again.”
The Puerta del Sol is Madrid’s kinetic (and commercial) center. A subway station and a grand statue of Carlos III on horseback are the main attractions in the pedestrian expanse. For the first half of the summer, a tent city and makeshift bazaar occupied half the square; there was a photo wall, an anarchy-themed bar, and hundreds of tents. Images of the encampment were beamed around the world, compared to Tahrir, emulated, mocked. Throughout the demonstrations, a strange, peaceful coexistence held between the protestors and a constant stream of tourists. Music from violins and dulcimers wafted from side streets, and a giant billboard displayed an image of a mother and child running into the water while the husband played Angry Birds on the beach. There were periodic, massive protests: in July people walked into Sol from all corners of the country and convened in a massive demonstration of the indignados’ persistence. Bullhorns circulated. Among other ironies, the municipal authorities erected massive canvas strips to protect the shoppers on the side streets from the brutal summer sun; the occupiers in the square were left to shade themselves with scraps of plastic.
By September, the encampment at Sol had shrunk down to a single table displaying various pieces of literature and announcements for upcoming events. The change was the result of deliberate downsizing rather than police pressure: during one of its marathon sessions in early June (“morning, afternoon, midnight…” Juan Miguel said, with contented exasperation) the camp’s popular assembly decided to break down the site, and over the next few months there were only sporadic attempts to reestablish a presence. The idea is to diffuse the energy gathered in Madrid and spread it around the country in the form of nascent popular assemblies—and draw people in who might not feel like camping in a square.
So 15-M has decentralized into a series of nearly 200 assemblies. The Madrid Popular Assembly acts as sort of arch-committee; the Working Groups—which meet in Madrid, have no leaders, and welcome anyone to take part—are the closest thing the indignados have to an organizing presence.
Spain faces grave problems, to be sure (e.g., the youth unemployment rate is hovering around 40 percent). But agitation, the indignados argue, is a prerequisite for action.
“The majority of the people who had participated in Sol, seeing as it was the central place, at least at the beginning, afterwards participated in the assemblies in their own neighborhoods,” says Juan Miguel. His words are rushed and his eyes light as he speaks. “So there was also this type of communication link [between the working groups and the assemblies]: ‘They keep coming here. We—re going to keep coming here.’ So there’s always a meeting-up.”
Lara nods. “Having a fixed information point [at Sol] for practically the whole summer was so that people would see that we don’t support a political movement. The movement is totally horizontal, open, and—what is super important—intergenerational. Which is to say, the great thing is that now the people go beyond stereotypes. It’s not like, ‘Look at those kids, those young people just drinking.’ No. Now we can start to say: ‘Did you see what happened on the news? There was a demonstration!’”
Indeed, despite the mainstream media’s best efforts to create an impression to the contrary, 15-M has proven broad in its appeal. Pensioners take part in demonstrations; rural folks send suggestions from the country. Around Sol, the shopkeepers whose profits the authorities have been so anxious to protect have opened their bathrooms, offered food, contributed to discussions. All this means that the indignados are damnably hard to represent with a simple caricature.
Spain faces grave problems, to be sure (e.g., the youth unemployment rate is hovering around 40 percent). But agitation, the indignados argue, is a prerequisite for action.
“For me,” Lara says, “it’s not that we’ve accomplished these great successes, but that we’ve crossed barriers—in favor of democracy, freedom of expression. We’ve also been illustrating that today there’s still censorship, manipulation of the methods of communication. Not everything is how it looks or how they say it is. That there are many alternative methods of communication, ways of seeing a law, of making an action against that law, and that at bottom everyone recognizes that everyone wants a change for the better: I think this is very important. Now people are capable of thinking at a higher level, of talking about whatever they want—it’s not just the unions or the political parties anymore.”
This is the bit that causes Spain’s leaders to squint in confusion. Former Prime Minister Felipe González offered the first jab at comparative revolutionology just after a record number of blank votes had been registered in the May 22 election, remarking: “In the Arab world they fight to vote. But here they say that voting is a waste of time.” In September, Esperanza Aguirre, President of Madrid’s Federal District, offered her own tantalizing analysis when she declared that the indignados were trying to “privatize the Puerta del Sol and turn it into the Bastille.” The half-baked efforts to appropriate the protests, by whichever party is in the opposition, have likewise faltered.
“So it’s not really as much a political program as it is a process?” I ask.
“Exactly,” says Juan Miguel. “A process.”
“I think we can’t be another player if we want to change the game,” Lara added. “We can’t form another political party if we’re against representational democracy, whatever party might be in power. We are making a radical change: that all politicians and all citizens reconsider and think about whether what is is real.”
No mere quibble. What’s difficult about grasping the meaning behind the occupations, encampments, and protests across the West is that they’re abstract and undefined. They are symptomatic of a kind of philosophical unease whose causes are economic but whose solution is not so readily provided. 15-M won’t disappear if the indignados are given a third of the seats in Parliament; Zuccotti Park won’t empty out if the Fourteenth Amendment is modified to abolish corporate personhood. The quantity of abominable things worth protesting about has now long since passed the threshold of quality, and it’s a general abomination that’s being attacked in the most general of terms.
“We’re not saying ‘we’re a political group,’ ‘we’re an association,’ ‘we’re a collective,’” Lara says. “We’re a movement that is putting on the table the question of reality as itself.”
“It’s a historic thing,” continues Juan Miguel, “the political reaction of the citizens, this political culture that’s never existed in Spain.” The plaza is now dim, the sidewalk cafés have lit their outside lights, but twenty yards away the Disability Working Group is still hard at work. “The constitution was the best thing for changing the situation before: the dictatorship [under Francisco Franco, which lasted from 1939 to 1975]. The only thing there was was democracy, if it was a little better, then everything was fine. The citizenry really doesn’t have a political culture adequate enough to be critical and reflect and clearly see this constitution or this electoral system or this political system. I think a situation is arriving in which people have enough passion to say: ‘Listen, that moment was in the past. Perfect. Now, something else is needed.’”
What that might be is still very much up in the air. Lara and Juan Miguel were vague on this, as all the demonstrators in the West have been so far. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, the strategy was at first rather obvious: ditch the dictator, work from there. In a Western democracy, though, in which the nemesis is so amorphous as to almost prove unnamable, the right track is less so.
“That’s what I think the difference is from occupations and encampments in other countries: you take the plaza for one, two, three days, like any other occupation, but you don’t form any of these groups.”
This is before Occupy Wall Street, whose endurance has surprised many. But she has a point. As recently as April, Western pundits decried the apathy of their native activists compared to the steadfastness of the Tunisians and Egyptians. No European or American, they declared, would ever bother protesting for an entire weekend. The fact that no Spaniard or American has yet been shot by police has certainly made things easier for them, but still, the demonstrations of the last few months have been the most enduring since the 1960s, the largest some have seen ever.
“It’s a reminder that everything is possible. You don’t need big names or Nobel Prizes for things to happen,” Lara says. “Communal life has been reborn.”
Juan Miguel nods, staring at the ground, adds, “Our own channel of communication.”
“These are small successes,” Lara admits. “I don’t think there’s been some great national change. But they’re small, very important successes that will last a long time.”
What exactly is it that will last? Direct, horizontal, and leaderless democracy? For those involved with 15-M—the number continues to grow, according to Lara and Juan Miguel—the feeling is that this year’s experiments in confrontation and horizontal democracy will not soon be forgotten. This is a lesson politicians and bureaucrats may soon shudder to learn: it’s not easy to placate a demographic whose greatest public pleasure thus far has been shutting you out of the conversation.
OWS and its sister occupations have yet to create anything outside their zones of confrontation; this could prove fatal if the protestors’ energy—or the public’s interest—lag.
Our discussion winds down just after nine o’clock. The famously tardy Spanish sun is still spitting streaks of orange into the sky but the plaza and the streets around us are dark. We walk slowly back to Sol, where the labor protest has dispersed and the bodies milling around are unrecognizable by national origin or political persuasion.
“A lot of people think: look at this movement, what it’s creating,” Lara says slowly, rifling through a folder filled with advertisements for various protests. “No. It was already created, but there was a better way of expressing that idea. We didn’t create anything. There are already plenty of political groups, plenty of unions, lots of critical groups. We’ve merely improved the strategy.”
Takeaways for OWS:
—Like all the other uprisings around the world since last December, 15-M and OWS owe their initial power to the spectacle they created by camping out in the economic centers of their country and then staying put for several weeks or months. This is still the central fascination of OWS: the fact that they’re there. The indignados figured out pretty quickly that they needed to move beyond spectacle to actual grassroots organizing, which was the genesis of the popular assembly system. OWS and its sister occupations have yet to create anything outside their zones of confrontation; this could prove fatal if the protestors’ energy or the public’s interest lag.
—Besides legitimizing anti-system agitation (which had hitherto largely been dismissed as irrelevant student/anarchist anti-globalization anxiety), 15-M’s biggest accomplishment has been what Lara calls “activating” different channels in society that were working in a similar vein but were isolated from one another or lacked a coherent identity: social workers, green energy activists, immigrants, marginalized pensioners, etc.—lots of people with the same axe to grind. OWS could do this too, if it can make a convincingly broad appeal to community organizations and other non-profits who are not so interested in the political aspect.
—15-M today is less about the protests that still attract many thousands of people (should be a lot tomorrow for the Oct. 15 global day of action) than it is about creating these alternative power structures in the form of popular assemblies and working groups. So far it’s largely discussion: no concrete change has come out of any assembly. But people are still interested and still talking, in a way that they’re not interested and not talking about mainstream politics. The way they’ve managed to attract this interest is not by defining themselves as the anti-mainstream but by simply enacting another way. There are many calls from within and from outside OWS to make some specific demands, to call for this or that amendment or tax or policy change. This will make them a definite political player, and it could lead to more concrete successes than 15-M has experienced. But it could also compromise the occupation and make it more easily manipulated; maybe the best option is to follow the indignados in building the alternative you want to see (with an eye towards a future confrontation?) rather than placing all your bets on a big showdown now.
To be more pithy, some goals for OWS based on the 15-M experience:
—Move from spectacle to organization. News coverage is a tactic, not a goal, and definite structures need to be established outside the protest areas.
—Reach out to non-political community organizations and ask about their needs and demands. Don’t insist on gathering people under the umbrella of the OWS “brand,” but try to raise awareness about the links between the current protests and other social work that has been going on for years.
—Do not hedge all the momentum on any definite political demands.
—Talk to the people about power, don’t talk to power about the people.
Photograph by Martin Pulaski.