A fairy with a broomstick is sweeping the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s central square. In front of her, a handful of weather-beaten activists are dispensing information from what looks like an upturned ship, a semi-permanent legacy from the occupation that began here on 15 May (M15). Strip away some of the tourists, and this scene could have been plucked from anywhere in the decade-long back catalogue of alter-globalisation movements.
Fast-forward five hours and Sol is full of demonstrators, hundreds of whom have walked here from across Spain. Six marches have converged from across the city, with chants and banners directed against the political and financial system. The targets included a corrupt political class, with chants of ‘No hay pan para tanto chorizo!’ (there isn’t bread for so many chorizo sausages, a colloquial reference to thieving politicians) and the injustice of austerity measures: ‘Vuestra crisis no la pagamos’ (‘We won't pay for your crisis’). Branches of Spain’s largest banks are routinely denounced as ‘Cul-pa-ble!’ (guilty).
As we enter Sol, the banners read ‘Bienvenida dignidad’ (‘Welcome dignity’). There is a celebratory atmosphere as we sit on a packed square and listen to speaker after speaker recount their journey. Many of the gestures and practices adopted by the indignad@s (‘indignant’ or ‘outraged’) build upon and adapt those of existing activist networks: thousands of hands waggle along signalling agreement with the speeches, and a long weekend of activities culminates in the first M15 ‘social forum’. But it is abundantly clear that this movement has extended way beyond the usual suspects, and that its demands for ‘real democracy’ in the face of a remote two-party system that is tainted by corruption, an out of control financial sector, and swinging cuts in public services have tapped into a deep well of popular discontent.
The Sol protest marks the culmination of a month-long series of marches (‘Marcha Popular Indignada’), in some cases covering over 600 km in over 30 degree heat. We listen for several hours, as speaker after speaker reports of the generosity and warmth with which they have been received in small towns and villages across the country. A quarter of Spain’s population lives in rural areas, and the marchers report on how their route opened up countless new connections. For example, one speaker from Leon (in northwest Spain) recounts villages without drinking water, and a story of a local mayor who had raised his own salary by 200 per cent. These stories multiplied as marchers traversed the country, covering around 20 km by foot in the mornings, and spending the afternoons and evenings in dialogue with their hosts. Sol was the goal, but the journey was more important than the destination.
While the marchers were predominantly young, those present on the square and at the subsequent demonstration come from all generations and backgrounds. For example, our journey to Madrid was in a bus arranged by the Pensioners’ Commission of the Placa Catalunya camp, which had occupied Barcelona’s central square from May to July. It took in the arrival of the marches and a demonstration of over 30,000 people the next day, Sunday 24 July.
These returns to Sol made the headlines, but the bigger story is that the movement never really went away. On 20 July, the passage of an austerity by the right-wing Catalan government brought over 20,000 protesters onto the streets of Barcelona. Smaller but more numerous protests continue locally, co-ordinated through neighbourhood assemblies (around 25 in Barcelona alone), each of which is sub-divided into working commissions. In the last fortnight, for example, protesters have joined staff protesting the closure of two Barcelona hospitals (‘l’Esperança’ and ‘Dos de Maig’), which form part of a €2 billion package of health and education cuts across Catalunya in 2011. They have also resisted home repossessions resulting from the collapse of a housing bubble - in one case, meeting with violent police repression. Similar actions continue across Spain, with speakers on Sol reporting over 70 successful attempts to stop repossessions. There have also been actions to prevent indiscriminate immigrant checks, as documented by this widely-circulated video from Lavapies, a district of Madrid.
Summer is traditionally a quiet time for social movements, but a series of actions are planned for the ‘holidays’, including calls to ‘Toma la Playa’ (‘Take the Beach’, a play on the ‘Take the Square’ theme of one of the movement’s main rallying calls and coordinating sites) and ‘Toma la Montaña’ (‘Take the Mountain’), a call for a week long environmental protest camp at one of Spain’s largest open-cast coal mines.
Stoked by the success of the Madrid marches, a group set off from Puerta del Sol to Brussels, some 1,150 km away – a rather literal take on one of the movement’s key slogans, ‘Vamos despacio porque vamos lejos’ (‘We’re going slow because we’re going far’). They are scheduled to arrive in the de facto capital of the European Union a week ahead of a global demonstration on 15 October, called for by Democracy real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!), the platform that initiated the Spanish protests.
The day of action is one landmark in what many predictions suggest could be a ‘hot’ autumn. With the Eurozone crisis deepening, the ratings agencies on the offensive and Spanish public debt costing ever more to service (thanks to bond market speculation, amid moves to protect northern European banks at the expense of countries on the ‘periphery’), the Prime Minister José Zapatero has called an election for 20 November, in which he will not stand as a candidate. The right wing People's Party (PP) is expected to win, while the populist right also registered gains in the regional elections last May that were the occasion of the first M15 protests – a sobering reminder that the progressive spirit of the M15 mobilisations is far from the only response to the current predicament.
In a system where increasing numbers distrust the political class, the results at the ballot box are also a landmark for a rapidly maturing movement. As the moderators of the 185,000-strong Facebook group #spanishrevolution dryly noted: ‘Elections brought forward to 20N. We should do something... no?’ And the banners heading to Sol – ‘No es la crisis, es el sistema’ (‘It’s not the crisis, it’s the system’) - can be read as a statement of intent as the movement marches on.
Oscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes