Friday, May 20, 2011

Nobody Expected The Spanish Revolution

I left the demonstration organised on Sunday afternoon by Democracia Real Ya shortly after it arrived in the Puerta del Sol. I read later that night that some of the demonstrators had decided to camp in the square but I didn't think it would necessarily grow into anything bigger. The next day I had to go to London for a short trip, but what happened subsequently in Madrid is simply amazing.

The police moved in on the protesters in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when there were fewer people in the square, on orders from the national government's representative in Madrid. This police action provoked a response that few expected and on Tuesday night the camp was restored via the presence of thousands of demonstrators. A massive police presence did little to deter people. At this point the Spanish authorities started to realise that they had a problem, and the media which had hardly covered Sunday's march at all started to take notice of what they call "los indignados".

The authorities, having seen their first attempt at clearing the square backfire, opted for a different method. The provincial Junta Electoral, which is supposed to be concerned with ensuring the parties conduct their electoral campaign according to the rules, extended its remit to prohibit any demonstrations by those who were camped in Sol and their supporters. The justification offered by the Junta is almost comical. They believed that the calls made by protestors for people to vote responsibly were an unacceptable interference with the election campaign. When you look at who runs Madrid you can see why they did it.

Once again the tactic backfired badly, Wednesday night saw massive defiance of the ban despite the square having been cordoned off by police who were checking identification of those who tried to gain access to it. By this point the municipal electoral campaign was almost becoming an irrelevant sideshow, as similar protests began in other parts of the country. It was clear that both local and national governments wanted the Puerta del Sol to be cleared, but who was going to issue the order to clear an ever larger protest with massive baton charges?

The main national paries, PSOE and PP, have both been caught completely off guard by the movement and struggled to formulate any kind of response. Although the PP likes to pretend that the protests cause a bigger problem for the government, the reaction of the right-wing media shows their alarm at the prospect of a movement which might threaten some of their privileges. A defamatory campaign against the protestors has been launched by right-wing newspapers and the digital TV channels like Intereconomia. Not to forget Telemadrid. They're anti-system anarchists, or communists, or ETA sympathisers, or whatever. It didn't take long for the loopy conspiracy theorists get to work and to see the hidden hand of interior minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba behind it all.

Esperanza Aguirre, always available when we need someone to play the victim, claimed that it was unfair that the protesters were camped outside the headquarters of the regional government when the government is to blame for everything. She just doesn't get it, the protestors in the Puerta del Sol are there because it's where the demonstration ended on Sunday and it's the heart of the capital. Aguirre is but one of many targets of the demonstrators, but one thing is for sure; these protesters are people who have woken up to the future that awaits them and the cynical myth peddled by the PP that Spain just needs a change of government for things to get better won't work here. The grotesque sight the other night of PP leader Mariano Rajoy singing the praises of Valencia's Francisco Camps reinforced the feelings of many about the need for change.

Another massive crowd was in the Puerta del Sol last night and the movement continues to spread. Yesterday the national Junta Electoral also voted to outlaw any demonstration called for Saturday in the Puerta del Sol. It's perhaps worth pointing out that the Junta Electoral includes some of those judges whose determination to finish the career of Baltasar Garzón leads them to ignore any law or legal principle which might stand in the way of their objective. Events are showing just how fragile freedom can really be when you have to ask the powerful for permission to protest against them. Those in the square are not leaving, and they argue that they haven't actually called any demonstrations for Saturday, which is the day of reflection before voting day on Sunday. Of course, should any citizen wish to take a stroll in the Puerta del Sol then that is their right.

That's exactly what I did today and I came away hugely impressed with the atmosphere, organisation and discipline of the camp in the Puerta del Sol. Everywhere you walk there are little circles of people discussing what's going on, you attach yourself to one and listen or join in. Many people who would appear to be opposed to what is going on have come down to take a look for themselves. It's quite rare to see Spaniards from all sides of the political spectrum talking about the state of their country in this way. I've often found here that people either go quiet when they realise you don't agree with them, or resort to shouting to help you to understand their point. Generally, thats not the case in #acampadasol. You get more genuine political debate from the people talking in the square in 10 minutes than you get from 3 weeks of superficial, tightly controlled electoral campaign.

Not only is there no hidden hand behind this protest, there is no organisation controlling it either. This is today's asamblea, proposals for action and concerning the organisation of the camp are read to all those attending. If you like it you wave your hands in the air, if you don't there are shouts or whistles. Mostly people seemed to like it.

There's that bear again. Some people had a better view than I could get at the back of the crowd, this is not a good day to arrange to meet your friends beside the statue in Sol!

Then there is the organisation, those in the camp have divided themselves into different commissions which take care of an issue. This could be food, communication, rubbish collection, or anything else which needs to be sorted out. From what I could see it seems to work and well. There are also rules, simple but important ones. Peaceful protest is vital, no excuses can be given to those who would love to send in the riot police with their batons. Equally, the atmosphere might be festive at times, but that doesn't mean it's just a big party. No alcohol, no botellón in the square. There is a serious purpose here.

What do they want? That's the question that many ask about a movement with no clear leadership or any kind of official program. Well don't moan about that, just go down there and write down your proposals. Democracy can be quite contagious, once you try it.

Where this movement will go after the elections is a question many are wondering about, but the events of this week have given it a boost which has to leave some trace. We are, after all, only 10 months away from next year's general election. The idea that nobody should bother protesting because you can't change anything is being questioned, as are all the assumptions about the passivity of Spaniards in response to the crisis. Barring attempts at further repression on the eve of voting day it looks like the camp will be there until Sunday. Take a look, if you're around - it's well worth it.


Pueblo girl said...

I love that comment "si hay un sueldo mínimo, ¿porque no hay un sueldo máximo?".

Will read again at leisure - who thought I'd ever miss Madrid?

ejh said...

Great stuff, it is, the most cheering thing I've seen in ages.

I'd even been considering posting a comment on here suggesting that a prize be offered to anybody who could find a meaningful slogan on an election poster.

And then, I spend a few days on Menorca without a telly, and when I pick up a paper at the end of it.... it turns out Madrid's been full of demonstrators for three days, and all the papers are doing cartoons about young demonstrators and their parents recalling 1968.

I don't know how much this will change. But it will change a lot of people's lives.

Anonymous said...

Considering Spain's climate the protests can go on at least til october. I think there are changes approaching in the horizon. We are the first ever generation of spaniards who are not better off than their parents since the end of our civil war and they (our parents) played a central role in fucking up our future, meybe we will be able to fix some of this.

Coco said...

Took a turn around Sol last night, and I have to say I was impressed. Almost gives me hope they might have an impact on the general election.

Can someone explain how recognition of the blank vote would work in practice?

Graeme said...

@Pueblo girl
No acampada in the pueblo then? It's not all so bad in the big city.

According to the Spanish Wikipedia page on the topic, the voto en blanco consists of handing over an empty envelope when you vote and it is counted in the total sum of votes so can theoretically affect the outcome. It's worth pointing out that most of those in Sol are not advocating this. When I was there last night pressure from the crowd forced the removal of a "Yo no voto" banner from one of the buildings by Sol. Personally, I think it's a legitimate option for those who don't feel represented.