Santiago is a peculiar city. It is a Catholic pilgrimage destination and a university town, with a relatively small and transient population of 94,000 inhabitants. When we put up the first tents here on 17 May in support of the camps in Madrid and many other cities we were about 30 or 40 people. Today around 300 sleep in this square every night and more than 1,000 attend the meetings we hold every evening.
What brings all these people here? The answer is quite simple: a new awareness, outrage, and a willingness to engage in struggle. Despite an unemployment rate of over 21 per cent in Spain, and youth unemployment running at a staggering 44 per cent, the government has approved a series of austerity measures that further undermine our already weak welfare state and public services.
This protest came to life in response to a call from the ‘Democracia Real Ya’ (Real Democracy Now) platform, which called for demonstrations on 15 May a week ahead of local and regional elections. Those demonstrations led to the indignados (‘outraged’) occupying the main squares of hundreds of cities and towns across the Spanish state. The camp in Santiago de Compostela, where I’m writing from, is one of them.
Democracia Real Ya! has some basic demands that are being discussed now in the squares, as are many new ideas and proposals. For example, we are asking for a new electoral law, because the way that the current system adds up our votes means that regionally dispersed minorities are not represented. Another demand is for mechanisms for real democracy, like binding referendums. Many of us feel that the politicians see ordinary people’s role in this democracy as little more than to vote every four years, shut up, and let the financial markets decide our government’s policies.
The movement is also demanding economic policies that do not place the burden of the crisis on the poorest people. These include some control on the movements of capital, a truly progressive tax system, and far stricter regulations to stop the banks from speculating recklessly with our meager wages, while exerting political power from the shadows (onto which our movement has shone a flashlight). The platform also defends public services and the welfare state.
On 28 May we woke to reports that the camp in Barcelona was surrounded by police, and saw images of terrible police brutality. The news spread like wildfire. Those who ordered the ‘cleanup operation’ hoped for a fearful reaction but got quite the opposite. The square was re-occupied, with the support of ever-increasing numbers of people, and solidarity actions and demonstrations in other cities multiplied.
The social networks as communication channels are a key factor in the workings of this process, as was the case in the Arab Spring protests, one of the main reference points for this movement of the ‘outraged’. We can instantly communicate and call to each other for help, and that makes us strong. Through Facebook, Twitter and the humble old phone, we stay in touch, get constantly updated information and learn from each other’s mistakes and good ideas.
Whereas the mainstream media wants names, numbers, data, we use information to network and organise and talk to each other. This major difference is one of the reasons why even the mainstream media reporting that has not been intentionally misleading has mostly been wide of the mark. They don’t get that everyone is a media liaison, that there is no leader to talk to, that we manage the space ourselves, that there is no money involved, and that we don’t react to the statements of politicians and their blunt or subtle threats.
Here in Santiago the elected major has condemned us as a public health hazard, claimed that we are jeopardizing tourism, and suggested that we are squatters that have to be evicted. We have nothing to say to them about that. The politicians are the ones that have to react to our existence, not the other way around.
These last days have been tense. But although the threat of eviction is always in the air, and we get all sorts of contradictory information, the atmosphere is a hopeful one. We feel our own strength, and the solidarity, and we want to keep going. We are making contact with associations and collectives and finding ways to keep working even if we have to leave the square.
The future of this movement is in a growing support base and in decentralisation. The camps are the first step in a march that will probably be long and tough, but also joyful. We now know what our voices can do when we use them together. It has been a long time since something like this happened here. Many people from different backgrounds, professions, ages and ideologies took to the streets and have stayed there.
This movement has also awakened the awareness of many people that want to be citizens, who believe in democracy and want to express their solidarity, and who are sending loud and clear eviction notices to our political class.
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