For the last two months Spain has been rocked by a wave of protests, occupations and direct actions carried out by a new grassroots political movement demanding a more participatory democracy and an end to harsh austerity measures. It is referred to as the M-15 movement, as it began on 15 May, when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets all over Spain. The demonstration was organised by an internet group called Real Democracy Now, which published a manifesto calling for an ‘ethics revolution’ and critiquing neo-liberalism.
The generalist nature of the M-15 manifesto has enabled it to gain widespread support, with a poll in El Pais newspaper finding that 79 per cent of people support its demands. The rapid growth of the movement is in part related to the economic and political crisis affecting much of Europe. It is a response not only to harsh austerity programs, but also the feeling that something has gone wrong with the democratic system. Elected officials no longer seem to represent the people they serve, and social and economic policies are determined by the market, rather than by the community.
In Spain the situation is dire. Unemployment stands at 21.3 per cent, political corruption is rife, basic services are being cut, and the political system is dominated by two very similar major parties. In this context, the success of the 15 May demonstrations prompted a small group of 100 protesters to spontaneously start an occupation of la Plaza del Sol, Madrid’s main square. In the early hours of the morning they were violently evicted by police, with several arrests and injuries, but the police brutality only strengthened the protesters’ resolve, and a call to retake the square spread rapidly across the internet. The next day thousands of protesters returned and the la Plaza de Sol was recaptured. I arrived late that night when the camp was still under construction, with tarps, megaphones, chairs and beds arriving out of nowhere to form an anarchic structure in the centre of the city.
Over the next week a radical transformation took place; the space became a kind of liberated zone and its own world. Every day more people joined the occupation and the camp continued to grow, with between five and fifty thousand people occupying the square at any one times. The mainstream media began referring to it as ‘the republic of Sol’ and the ‘Spanish Revolution’. Kitchens were set up to distribute free food, the main billboard was covered in the words ‘Europe Rise Up!’, and ‘peoples’ assemblies’ were held regularly to decide on the actions to be taken. The government directed the police not to intervene, due to the backlash from the previous eviction, and the protests expanded to nearby plazas. In other squares there were political theatre workshops running or people blockading banks. Within a few days, similar occupations sprang up in over twenty Spanish cities.
The timing of the protests was a key factor. One week before regional elections, the movement called for changes to electoral laws that would, in theory, end the dominance of the two major parties. The slogans were ‘No nos representa’ (‘You don’t represent us’), ‘La luchaesta en la calle’ (‘The struggle is in street’) and ‘Democracia real ya’ (‘Real democracy now’). The protest movement, which developed as a direct challenge to the electoral campaign, had its desired effect. An Age headline on 22May hit the nail on the head: ‘Huge Spanish Protests Overshadow Election’.
From the beginning, the M-15 movement practised direct democracy. People’s assemblies became the main forum for making decisions, organising actions and formulating demands. Assemblies were crucial to giving shape to a movement that started with only a very general manifesto and no formal political organisation. Demands were passionately debated and agreed upon in the streets. The Madrid occupation had some twenty-two commissions, which met almost constantly. One night I stumbled across the Commission for the Economy—two hundred people had gathered at 3 am to debate the best way to nationalise the banking system. All commissions reported to the General Assembly, the highest decision-making body and platform for discussing the most important issues. The assemblies and commissions used a mix of consensus and majority rules voting, and had a very horizontal structure, with no leaders and rotating spokespeople.
After four days the Madrid occupation was declared illegal and ordered to disband. A general assembly of thousands, however, decided unanimously to ignore the ban. Every day the camp became bigger and more complex. A library and childcare centre were set up, solar panels were installed and ‘respect officers’ were trained to provide conflict resolution. The degree of organisation and infrastructure needed to run the occupation was incredible—by this stage it had become the size of a small town. The movement was also faced with the practical reality of up to thirty thousand people gathered together in a public space. How could they all be fed? Where would they go to the toilet? What was the best way to resolve problems in a community with no police? The occupation became the functioning example of the alternative world the protesters wanted to create and, largely, it worked. Everything was free and it was proudly pronounced that money had been abolished in ‘the republic of Sol’.
On 27 May the occupation in Barcelona was violently evicted by riot police and fifteen people were injured. The level of police brutality is exemplified in pictures taken of a riot officer breaking a protester’s wheelchair. This potent image, along with the twitter hash tag #Bcnsinmiedo (Barcelona without fear), spread rapidly through the internet. Within hours, solidarity protests were planned in every city across the country under the banner ‘We are all Barcelona’. I went to a demonstration organised in the small university city of Salamanca, where more than 500 people came to show their solidarity. In Barcelona 35,000 people returned that night to retake the main square and begin to rebuild the occupation. These events showed not only the strength of the movement, but also the importance of the internet in organising it. From the beginning Facebook and Twitter were crucial organising tools; by 10 June the Real Democracy Now Facebook group had 400,000 members.
On 15 June the protesters blockaded the regional Parliament, which was set to pass measures to drastically cut spending to social services. The demonstration started in the early hours of the morning. Several thousand people created a human chain and barricades were constructed, blocking all entrances to the building. After hours of tense stand-offs the riot police dispersed protesters by force. Protesters ominously chanted the Death March from Star Wars as politicians, surrounded by riot police, entered the parliament. Sporadic outbreaks of violence erupted as protesters started to create moving barricades. These were so effective that twenty-five politicians had to be transported by helicopter, including the President of the Chamber, Artur Mas.
Although the large-scale occupations of main squares continued throughout Spain for a month, after about two weeks the initial energy and spirit waned slightly. The media stopped reporting on the protests and the movement began to discuss the need to change tactics and continue to expand. The first idea was to strengthen the movement at the grassroots level through the establishment of ‘assemblies of the suburbs’. In Madrid more than forty separate local assemblies have been set up, holding weekly meetings in public spaces to deal with local problems. The next strategy is to try and achieve small yet concrete changes. This has manifested in anti-eviction and immigrant support actions. At the time of writing, the movement is working with the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages and has already stopped banks from repossessing forty-seven houses by creating human chains at evictions. The third tactic is continued mobilisation. On 19 June, the protesters took to the streets again in an international day of action to protest against the ‘Euro pact’—neo-liberal austerity measures being imposed all over Europe. El Pais reported that more than 200,000 people participated in protests across the country; 100,000 people marched in Barcelona alone. Significantly, these rallies coincided with the end of many of the large-scale occupations and showed that the movement was not diminishing, but rather changing.
The M-15 movement has had a profound impact on the political situation in Spain. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets and created a new model of democratic participation. It is a beacon of resistance to the harsh austerity measures that are stripping away people’s rights across Europe. The ruling elite has started to pay attention—on 21 June the Spanish parliament unanimously passed a motion to undertake a study of the protesters’ demands. I do not know whether this movement will be strong enough to achieve the radical changes it seeks, but what is certain is that a new and powerful social force has been born here in Spain and it will continue. As I write this, 20,000 people have again retaken the main square in Madrid and are holding an alternative state of the nation debate.
Author: Samuel Cossar-Gilbert
For the M-15 Movement’s manifesto, see <www.european-citizens-network.eu/civil-en/spip.php?article42> and for regular updates on the M-15 and other social movements in Europe see <www.europeanrevolution.net>.