Spain: revolt of the outraged

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 221 June/July 2011

‘My voice is broken, body exhausted but heart full of hope. After long years of frustration, collective dreams are on the march...How to begin to describe the Syrian man who couldn’t continue on the mic and burst into tears when thousands shouted ‘Long live the struggle of the Syrian people’?...Or the Colombian brothers agitating and embraced by us, the extraordinary moment as thousands raised their arms in a silence full of wrath, the unemployed sobbing and explaining how they can’t afford dental assistance? This is the closest thing to May 1968 I could have ever imagined. You can sense solidarity and anger in the air.’

JUANJO RIVAS was amongst the demonstrators, who, inspired by the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, filled city squares across Spain at the end of May.

He reports from Madrid.

On 22 May municipal and regional elections were held in Spain. The government's response to the crisis – slashing social expenditure, reforming the labour market and pension schemes – has led to widespread disappointment and loss of faith in the social democrats. The result was a low turnout and a loose victory for the right-wing conservative PP. But the landmark of this period has been the mass revolt of an outraged population that has turned streets and squares into a multitude of assemblies and camps in about 60 towns across the country.

For several weeks before the election, people had been organising themselves via internet social networks, setting up a website named ‘Real Democracy!’ that called for demonstrations in every city on 15 May. It contained forums where people agitated, expressed their demands and suggested ways to build the protest. The first draft of popular demands included ‘deepening democracy’ – currently some politicians are receiving two or even three separate public salaries, and several conservative candidates have been charged with corruption. The second focus is social and economic inequality. Unemployment has risen to 4.5 million people, 1.5 million of whom do not receive any benefits, while the main shareholders and executives of the most powerful Spanish corporations seized historical record profits in 2010.

Activists acted locally to spread the feeling that something must be done, but the success of the movement was still uncertain. However, on 15 May tens of thousands poured into the streets and outnumbered all expectations. Dozens of loud and colourful marches peacefully occupied the main squares, bringing central Barcelona and Madrid to a standstill.

Later in the evening, police tried to disperse protesters; there were a few isolated incidents and undercover police made some arrests. In response, the ‘outraged’ decided to camp in the central Puerta del Sol of Madrid, action emulated elsewhere. Local governments nervously witnessed their squares being turned into campsites, where an angry population discussed politics all night long.

On the second night, Madrid’s right-wing council again attempted to repress the movement and remove protesters by force. This mistake provoked an immediate response, as large crowds gathered in Sol and reclaimed their right to stay, understanding that continuing resistance was the way forward. The attacks ripened the movement, as collective tactics of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience were adopted, combined with an amazingly quick ability to organise. Plastic tents and lines of food supplies were set up, volunteers managed first aid and permanent workshops, activists climbed onto scaffolding to hang huge banners while the crowd roared in ecstasy. They were there to stay and their success was due to their rejection of sectarianism and independence from all political parties and trade unions.

In an emergency meeting the Spanish Electoral Commission declared the protests would be illegal from Saturday 21 May – since the day before elections in Spain is a ‘day of reflection’ when political campaigning is forbidden. In massive assemblies people stated they were not seeking to support any party, so nobody could take away their right to make their rage and discontent visible.

On Saturday at midnight hundreds of thousands answered the call and packed the streets in a well-organized action. To highlight the system’s attempt to silence them, the ‘outraged’ stuck tape over their mouths, raised their hands and performed a ‘silent scream’ that chilled people’s souls. Nobody moved that night. They also challenged the authorities on election day itself, making it clear that the polls would not solve the problems of poverty, evictions of unemployed families, rampant political corruption and an unfair voting apparatus that promotes a two-party system.

General assemblies of the 15 May Movement decided the popular campsites should remain for at least one more week. Meanwhile, the surrounding streets and squares filled with people openly discussing topics such as economic reforms, culture and education, democracy, ecology and so on. This unprecedented exercise of democratic strength made the movement grow broader. Sound systems were installed in many towns, where open microphone sessions allowed citizens to share experiences, express their disillusionment with politicians and make proposals for the newborn movement. People gathered in their hundreds to listen to moving speeches by students, retired pensioners, unemployed, exiles, immigrants, anti-fascist ex-combatants...

However, it was obvious the revolutionary camps could not last forever, so the movement realised it was necessary to ensure the main demands were discussed in popular assemblies in every municipality and neighbourhood. Mass gatherings in all squares were held on 28 May. In Madrid alone there were 200 assemblies with 200-700 people at each. Their conclusions will be passed on to general assemblies to draw up a programme representative of the struggle, expressing concerns and solutions. Artistic and symbolic actions are being carried out. One of them encourages people to simultaneously withdraw 150 euros from banks on 30 May, to show that the banks can and must be punished for their role in the economic rip-off of the working class.

The same moral and political drive that empowered the 15 May Movement will continue to seek collective strategies for action, coordinating a network of platforms for the people’s voice to be heard and promoting political participation of the whole community, as a means of building real pressure for change ahead of next year’s general elections. As the demonstrators said, ‘They call it democracy, but it’s not. They don’t represent us’ and ‘Clowns change, the circus carries on’.


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