For the last three months Spain has been rocked by a wave of protests, occupations and direct actions carried out by a new grassroots political movement that is 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 the 15th of May when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets all over Spain. The demonstration was organized by an Internet group called ‘Real Democracy Now’, who published a manifesto calling for an “ethic revolution” and critiquing neo-liberalism. The manifesto is short text that provides the ideological basis for the movement. The opening paragraph reads
We are ordinary people. We are like you: people, who get up every morning to study, work or find a job. People, who work hard every day to provide a better future for those around us.
We are all concerned and angry about the political, economic, and social outlook which we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice. This situation has become normal, a daily suffering, without hope. But if we join forces, we can change it. It’s time to change things, time to build a better society together. Therefore, we strongly argue that: The priorities of any advanced society must be equality, progress, solidarity, freedom of culture, sustainability and development, welfare and people’s happiness. (for full manifesto in English see http://european-citizens-network.eu/civil-en/spip.php?article42)
The generalist nature of the manifesto and the M-15 movement has enabled it to gain widespread support; with a poll on the 26th of June from the El Pais newspaper finding that 79% of people support its demands. The rapid growth of the M-15 movement is, in part related to the economic and political crisis affecting much of Europe. It is a response not only to the harsh austerity programs being implemented, 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%, 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 May 15th demonstrations prompted a small group of 100 protesters to spontaneously start an occupation of la Plaza del Sol, the main square in Madrid. Yet in the early hours of the morning they were violently evicted by police, with several arrests and injuries. 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 reoccupied the square. I arrived late at night when the camp was still under construction, with tarps, megaphones, chairs, beds and everything you can imagine coming out of nowhere to build an anarchic structure in the centre of Madrid.
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 all 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 almost constantly to decide the direction of the movement. The government directed the police not to intervene, due to the backlash from the previous eviction. The protests expanded to nearby plazas, people brought sound systems and central Madrid turned into a massive street party. In other squares there were political theater workshops running or people blockading banks. The occupation movement started in the capital, but spread rapidly across Spain. Within a few days, similar occupations sprung up in the main squares of over 20 cities. The timing of the protests was a key factor. One week before regional elections were due to commence, the movement called for changes to the electoral laws, which would in theory end the dominance of the two major parties. The slogans of the movement became ‘no nos representa’ (‘you don’t represent us’), ‘la lucha esta 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. The Age headline of 22nd of May hit the nail on the head – “Huge Spanish Protests Overshadow Election”.
From the beginning the M-15 movement practiced a politics of direct democracy. ‘Peoples’ Assemblies’ became the main forum for making decisions, organizing actions and formulating demands. These assemblies were crucial to give shape to a movement which started with only a very general manifesto and no formal political organization. Demands were passionately debated and agreed upon in the streets. A whole range of commissions, each with their own assemblies, were formed to deal with the practical and the political. The occupation in Madrid had some 22 commissions which were meeting almost constantly. One night, I stumbled across the Commission for the Economy – some two hundred people had gathered at 3am to debate the best way to nationalize the entire banking system. All of the Commissions would report to the General Assembly, the highest decision making body, and a space for discussing the most important issues of the movement. General Assemblies were held daily and comprised of mass meeting of thousands of people. The assemblies and commissions functioned using a mix of consensus or majority rules vote and had a very horizontal structure, with no leaders and a rotating spokesperson. The M-15 movement is first and foremost an experiment in radical direct democracy.
After 4 days, the occupation in Madrid was declared illegal and ordered to disband. However, a General Assembly of thousands decided unanimously to ignore the ban and continue the occupation. Every day the camp became bigger and more complex. A library and childcare centre were set up, solar panels installed and ‘respect officers’ 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 faced with the practical reality of up to thirty thousand people gathering 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? Everything functioned in a kind of organised chaos, through direct democracy and people volunteering their time, skills and resources. 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’. At one stage, the organisers had to ask people to stop bringing food because there was just too much being donated. The atmosphere was part protest, part music festival and part utopia. Many Spanish commenters have made the comparison between the M-15 movement and May ‘68 in France. Nigel Town goes so far as to argue that “the current Spanish movement may be able to triumph where the French movement failed” in his article ‘The M-15; A new May 1968?’
On the 27th of May the occupation in the Barcelona was violently evicted by riot police. Fifteen people were injured, as protesters used non-violent resistance to defend the occupation. The level of police of brutality can be exemplified by 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, becoming one of the most popular global twitter topics for that day. 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 a small university city called 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 social network sites like facebook and twitter had been crucial organising tools, by the 10th of June the Real Democracy Now facebook group had 400,000 members. Most occupations had their own website, twitter account and facebook group, which were used to provide information, organise new actions and discuss tactics. One interesting project that continues to be worked on is the ‘wikiparliament’. It is an experiment in online democracy, in which people will be able to contribute and vote on the movement’s motions online. The internet provides a means to document, and in turn counteract, repressive police behaviour – protesters are able to rapidly share evidence of such incidents, and organise solidarity actions. After the failed eviction in Barcelona the police have used a much less confrontational approach in dealing with the protests.
The M-15 movement seeks a mix of practical reformism and utopian revolution. It has a list of very pragmatic demands, such as removing corrupt politicians from the electoral list, but at the same time maintains revolutionary aims such as giving ‘All power to the People’. It attempts to be as inclusive as possible and rejects the classic left versus right dichotomy, by positing participatory democracy as the key organising tool and demand. However, many of the more detailed policies, such as a universal right to housing, would typically be considered as progressive, or left-wing, policies. The movement is characterised by diversity in terms of class and gender, but it is primarily being driven and organised by young people. Helene Zuber argues in her article for Der Spiel that we are seeing a “fundamental change taking place as a European generation takes to the streets.” The M-15 movement is mix of many other social movements, using ideas and tactics from each. There is a strong link to the anti-globalisation movement, with a similar critique of neo-liberalism, global economic institutions and the current state of democracy. Anarchism has a long history in Spain and has definitely influenced its leaderless, horizontal and autonomous nature. There are also strong feminist and environmental tendencies. Workers’ rights, internet freedom and confronting racism are all issues that are crucially important to the movement. It is truly a broad, diverse and all-encompassing movement that seeks to radically change the world.
The movement has always had a strong international focus, and from the very beginning attempts were made to extend it beyond Spain’s boarders. One call out for an international day of action on October the 15th, reads, “Only a global revolution can confront global problems. Therefore, we are calling on people everywhere to occupy public spaces and create spaces for debate, assembly and reflection.” It has been greatly inspired by the recent democratic revolutions in the Arab world and there is a strong desire to build solidarity between the two continents. On the 15th of June a video link up was set up between Tahrir square and the occupation in Madrid. The movement has also spread to other European countries, included Greece, France, Italy, Belgium and Portugal, which have all had demonstrations of several thousand people, occupations of main squares and people’s assemblies under the same banner of ‘Real Democracy Now’.
On June 15th, the M-15 movement in Barcelona decided to blockade the regional Parliament, which was set to pass measures that would 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. The police created cordons and tried to escort the legislators safely into the parliament. 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 action was largely peaceful and successful, it was the first time that protesters had been responsible for acts of violence. The Interior Minister, Felip Puig accused the M-15 movement of trying to start an “urban guerrilla war”. This was a gross exaggeration, but it was clear that the atmosphere was much more confrontational than other protests, with people chanting “What do want? Popular revolt!” Up until this point the M-15 movement had been explicitly ‘non-violent’ and the violence at the blockade caused internal debate and division. From the assemblies I went to, it seemed clear that the vast majority of participants rejected violence as a tactic and wanted the movement to continue using non-violent civil disobedience. However, if events in Greece are any indication, it is evident that the question of violence, and its place in such popular movements, will be a recurring one.
Although the large scale occupations of main squares continued throughout Spain for around one month, after about two weeks the initial energy and spirit had waned slightly. It’s difficult to maintain that kind of intense political action and euphoria 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People had to study, go to work and look after their families. 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 40 separate local assemblies have been set up, which each hold 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 itself in the anti-eviction and immigrant support actions that the movement has undertaken. As of the 7th of July the M-15 movement has been working with the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages and has already stopped banks from repossessing 47 houses by creating human chains at evictions. The third tactic is continued mobilisation. On June 19th, the movement 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. In Barcelona alone a massive 100,000 people marched. These rallies were very important because they coincided with the end of many of the large scale occupations and showed that the movement was not diminishing, but rather it was changing. The 19th of June saw one of the biggest protests in the country’s history.
The M-15 movement has had a profound impact on the politic 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, for on the 21st of June the Spanish parliament unanimously passed a motion to undertake a study of the movement’s demands. I do not know whether this movement will be strong enough to achieve the radical changes it seeks. Yet what is certain is that new and powerful social movement has been born here in Spain and it will continue.