The first 40 at Sol

Original article at Periodismo Humano

By Juan Luis Sánchez / Translation: Nerea Alonso

  • They don’t want to be center stage “we just did one gesture that broke the collective mental block”
  • “The policeman that let us sleep here on Sunday must be freaking out now!”
  • This is how the first night of camping out went by, opening the door to the “M15 Movement”

First group of people who gathered at Puerta del Sol in Madrid in the early hours of the morning of May 15th to 16th 2011 (@toofasttofall)

Puerta del Sol five days later, on Friday May 20th, with at least 28.000 people. (cc J. Albarrán)

Nobody summoned officially the first 40 people that spent the night at Puerta del Sol. The story of their success is the story of a night of released frustration, strokes of luck and a huge desire of collaboration that converged in one point; the big bang of what we know today as the “15M Movement”. The seed of what even the most renowned sociologists don’t want to rush to understand.

Video: this shows how they decided to camp in Sol the night of May 15th.

“I wasn’t going to go to the demonstration because I’m kind of fed up with demonstrations”, says Julio, fictional name for someone who appears in that video for History. Different platforms had called a protest in several cities of Spain asking for a “real democracy”, and got to gather tens of thousands people all over Spain beating the prospects of the organizers and the press. At night, around 10, the streets of the centre of Madrid were already empty of shouts and banners but Julio had, as usual, that bittersweet aftertaste that protests leave behind as ephemeral and incomplete acts.

On another part of town, Alba (name also fictional; she doesn’t want to lose her job) cooperates with a group of lawyers that are usually on duty in demonstrations just in case there are problems. And there were. 18 people were arrested when the police charged in several places in Madrid. “We went to the centre of the conflicts and met nearby Lavapies square; there wasn’t much to do about the ones who had been arrested, it was very late already”, she explains. “Then my partner receives a message from a girl saying that in Sol square there are people willing to stay all night”.

Indeed, in Sol, Julio and two more friends were already talking to other groups spread around the square, chatting, taken aback after the disturbances. “What if we stay to sleep here? What if we do something permanent?” they wondered. “Everybody laughed at first but a moment later they agreed. With a group already convinced, it was easier to convince the next one, and that’s how more and more people started to join in”

One of the groups that joined them was Roberto’s, who was sitting with his banner in the middle of the square. “There are always a few violent people but they were already gone and we wanted to keep demonstrating”, and this looked like a good idea to them though they didn’t really know who they were joining: “we didn’t know each other”

Two banners hang on a string in Puerta del Sol (Javier Bauluz)

After midnight someone informed them that there was another peaceful sit-down protest in Callao square, very close to Sol. They decided to go there and see what was up, and also to tell them about the initiative of staying the night. Alberto was in Callao, and he had witnessed right there a pretty unpleasant confrontation with the police: after they charged some insisted in staying. “I recall perfectly the image of a red-haired girl shouting ¡Freedom! ¡Freedom! ¡Freedom! at the police, who were trying to clear the street”. She stood up to the police among other people raising their hands. “These are our weapons” they chanted. The police decided to retreat. “It was a really moving moment” recalls Alberto. As things calmed down the Callao group agreed to regroup at Sol.

Meanwhile the pull effect kept doing its job. “I was home already, in Leganés, when I was told that there were people talking about staying there to sleep”, explains Nicolás, who became one of the first ones to spread the information about what was going on via Twitter, which played a decisive role for the M15 movement. “I hesitated a little, but I knew that if I stayed home I would regret it for the rest of my life. I picked up my sleeping bag, I got inside my car and went to Sol. When I arrived I knew I wouldn’t regret it”.

What Nicolás found when he arrived was a group of unknown people discussing how they would organize the night. Alba, the lawyer, had just arrived with two friends; a computer specialist and an actor. The first Puerta del Sol camp assembly was taking place. “There were no political discussions about what we wanted to achieve. We talked about who stayed, what we were going to do and how we would spend the night” says another guy that also wants to remain anonymous to avoid the spotlight, let’s say his name is Blonde. He also was told about the camp by a friend when he was already at home.

The first trash can of the M15 camp (cc Ibai Fernández)

“When the first assembly began I wanted to leave”, says Dark (guess what, also fake name) on Saturday the 21st in the conversation with Blonde in a Puerta del Sol filled to burst. “I thought it was nonsense, we were too different and there were people giving their opinion and not making much sense…There was no unity, no way to reach a conclusion” he admits with half a smile, looking around and thinking about everything he has seen after that on the infrastructures committee. “The first night we decided to go ask for 50 blankets so that there were spare ones, and look at this now!”

The first chores were distributed: some began looking for a trash can to keep the square clean, others brought cardboard to pad the floor and others took planks and iron from a nearby construction site. They decided to place themselves on the streetlight closer to the monument of the “Oso y el Madroño” (the bear and the madrone, symbols of Madrid) in front of the subway exit, to be in a lit place. Alberto realized that there was a security camera on the streetlight pointing at them. “Let’s block it with spray!” someone said. “No, don’t. Let them see us!” they answered.

Before and after: the first police authorization

Without the outrage, the will to work and the horizontal leadership of those first hours, the 15M movement would not exist. But there is a precise moment in which everything could have finished before it had even started: after the first assembly at 2.25 in the morning, two police vans showed up on the square and riot policemen came out of them.

Two girls offered themselves to act as mediators with the police; one of them was Alba, the lawyer. “We both are blonde, seem good, the other girl is very cute… we approached them with a smile” she says between laughs.

“We told them we didn’t want to be any trouble, that we just wanted to stay to sleep, we told them that nobody would drink, nothing would get dirty and that the rules would be respected”. A call that the police made to a superior determined the future of the M15 movement: they could stay. “They only asked us to give back the materials we took from the construction site so nobody could accuse us of theft”. Alba and her mate went back to the group making discreet signs of euphoria behind the policemen’s backs.

Today many witnesses admit the importance of that moment: “If they had known what was going to happen the police would have kicked us out immediately! That police officer must be freaking out now!” they say. Dark, however, prefers to see it another way: “the credit is not in the police’s actions, it’s in our peaceful and honest attitude”.

With the peace of mind that gave knowing they wouldn’t be kicked out began the humble logistics operation: maps of the bathrooms they could use with the help of the businesses nearby, markers, cards (“and today we have sound equipment, solar panels and electric generators!” exclaims Dark), a visit to the fire department that also had camped that day on another part of the city. And there was a priority: communication.

“I was tweeting even before I got out of my house” says Nicolás, “and when I got here I took the first pictures and uploaded them”. At 7 a.m. “before daylight” the press showed up. It was complicated for them: “there were more journalists than camped people” since lots of people were already gone for work and there weren’t many new people.

The second night, after the first mass assembly of 1.000 people, about 300 stayed to sleep and work during the night (Ibai Fernández)

But at the same time social networks in Spain became almost thematic channels for the movement and generosity beat every prediction: on Monday at midday someone brought rice with prawn. That evening about one thousand people took part in the assembly.

What happened afterwards so that one thousand people on Monday became more than ten thousand on Tuesday, and from there to 28,000 on Friday according to official numbers? Those two popular support “quality jumps” towards M!5 were the reaction to the attempt to dismantle the camp. At 5 a.m. on the night from Monday to Tuesday with more than three hundred people sleeping next to the monument of “el Oso y el Madroño”, the police tried to take down the camp. The pictures and this video, registered that night and published immediately after in humanjournalism define that moment:

“I think I was the first one to tweet it: they have kicked us out; but today at 20h we’ll be back here”, remembers Nicolás. “I went home to sleep and when I woke up I had emails, text messages, calls from my friends all saying they had seen the call. It’s amazing how fast things spread while you sleep”. The Madrid Electoral Commission considered the camp illegal because it could “affect the electoral campaign and the citizens’ right to vote”. That was the second and definitive backing that ended out in the challenge of the “collective day of reflection” on May 21st. In short: the more they put pressure on us, the more people come out on the streets because we’re all screwed up” .

Leadership, abbreviations and paternities

“There were people there with experience in assemblies, people who know how to channel ideas so they don’t go to waste” says Alberto, regarding the first hours of the camp. The guy holding the megaphone on the video that opens this article, Miguel, isn’t new at demonstrations and social mobilizations, but insists on the fact that he doesn’t act on anybody’s name, like most of the people around him. He was the first spokesperson of the camp and we also spoke to him on the morning of 16th on this video.

Miguel doesn’t want the leading role anymore –his turn as spokesperson finished and he joined the legal issues commission —nor does he want to assume any authority over M15, just like the rest of the people we talked to.

The genealogy of M15 is complex and even incompatible with the journalistic anxiety of knowing who’s behind things. “I think there’s been an union of movements” says Julián. “On one hand the indignation prompted by the US embassy cables leaked by Wikileaks lead to actions such as “Anonymous”, a net of cyber activists that coordinated computer attacks on several web pages as a protest for the harassment of the director, Julian Assange. “But they called a demonstration and not even 300 people showed up”.

Anonymous also joined the massive Internet “booing” at the so called “Sinde Law” whose approval prompted the creation of the  #nolesvotes movement(meaning “don’t vote for them”), at first against the political parties that had approved the law but then  redirected as a wider movement against the two-party system that has support from several  Internet opinion leaders. The revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East are another obvious referent “though we thought something like that could never happen here, in Europe” and in fact the attempts to show support to them when they happened weren’t very successful.

Alba explains the other column: “Democracia real ya,(real democracy now) Juventud sin futuro (youth without future) , la Plataforma por una Vivienda digna (platform for a decent home) which in turn is also linked to the movement of students against the Bologna Law, or the occupied social centers had also taken many initiatives to the streets during the last few years, many nets had been woven” and now they all serve the energy of the M15 movement.

One thing is clear: they all agree –it has even been told by the PA system—on the fact that “we are not part of any previous collective and we don’t like to be linked with anything already existing” says Nicolás “because this is infinitely bigger than that”. The main representatives of “Real Democracy Now” who headed the previous demonstration weren’t at the first night of the camp “though it would have been impossible without the previous boost” they say.

When the megaphones disappeared from Puerta del Sol and gave way to high powered loudspeakers, the person in charge of transferring the useful information to the square said: “Think about it for a moment! Think about what we are doing! Today we are tens of thousands people and a few days ago we were just forty. Forty people! One of them could have been you, or you! It just took us one night staying in Sol to sleep to trigger all this!

Hands up at Puerta del Sol. (cc Julio Albarrán)

We tell Julio and Alba about that speech and they are moved. “The only thing we did is a gesture to break the mental blocking we had” says Julio. “All of us were waiting for something like this to happen, and it was as simple as looking into each other’s eyes”. Julio is sure that “people have brilliant ideas all the time, really good, revolutionary, and we’re just not capable of holding on to it long enough to realize that it can be done. We let them go”.

The feeling of paternity is hardly horizontal but absolutely human. “I don’t like having that feeling but I admit that I see all this as a son” confesses Dark, “who grows uncontrollably but I know that it has been raised well”. Roberto, twenty years-old,   watches the crowd walking in front of him “I could die right now” exclaims smiling. “All my life, many times, I’ve considered myself a sociopath. I locked myself at home, not wanting to know anything about anyone. This reconciles me with the world”

1 thought on “The first 40 at Sol

Comments are closed.