The Pain in Spain

By V. Noah Gimbel · 20 Aug 2011

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Picture: Jerome E. Roos
Picture: Jerome E. Roos

As the sun rose on August 2, Spanish authorities destroyed the tent-village that had come to symbolize what some participants have called the Spanish Revolution. The ruling Socialist Party, via the Ministry of the Interior and in conjunction with the right-wing Popular Party that controls the local government, ordered Madrid's Puerta del Sol cleared of all remnants of the 15-M (May 15) movement as its participants, the indignados (the outraged) watched helplessly. Police boots, chainsaws, and fire hoses erased months of makeshift architecture, street art, and community – once inhabited by some 28,000 campers – from the Spanish capital’s central square.

The conglomeration of organizations that make up the 15-M movement vowed to march on the square at 7:30 that evening to protest what they called an illegal eviction. The government responded with nothing short of a call to arms, halting all metro and commuter rail access to the station at Puerta del Sol. Meanwhile, dozens of national police vans turned the square into a parking lot, and helmeted policemen set up barricades at every entrance to the square. Helicopters flew overhead as the combined forces of municipal police in riot gear and national police – hands on pistols – reinforced the barricades and patrolled the surrounding areas on foot.

Nevertheless, a fairly large showing gathered at the barricades that evening, gaining momentum as their non-violent outrage met with no response from the police. “We’ll stay until there are no more people from 15-M,” said one officer. That was around 8:30 when crowds were still rather light.

Around midnight, the much larger crowd decided to march around central Madrid to spread word of what had happened. When they returned to the barricades, their numbers had grown immensely, and they determined to hold an assembly in the nearby Plaza Mayor around 1 am. Three hours later, they had agreed to hold another assembly the next day in a square just off the Puerta del Sol to collectively determine the next move.

Why They Resist

The Spanish uprising was born largely online in the wake of the Arab Spring, when hundreds of small-scale grassroots groups joined together to form Democracia Real YA – Real Democracy Now – to unify their efforts in demanding social change. Taking their slogans from Stéphane Hessel’s internationally famous manifesto Indignez-Vous (translated Time for Outrage in English, Indignaos in Spanish), the group helped to move massive demonstrations on May 15 as public outrage against the Spanish government austerity measures and bank bailouts reached the boiling point.

Some participants, inspired by the images and stories emanating from Cairo’s Tahrir Square months before, set up tents in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol – home of the largest May 15 protest – and in other city squares around the country.

The simplest explanation for the surge of protests in Spain that followed is the economic crisis. At 21percent, the Spanish unemployment rate is the highest in Europe, and the highest in the country’s history. For people under 25 years old, the 46 percent rate is double the European average, as reported by Eurostat. Meanwhile, pensioners have seen their benefits cut, and the wages of even university-educated Spaniards are scarcely enough to make ends meet. The political system has progressively come to favor the two most powerful parties, who have in their turn come to favor the most powerful financial interests in the country.

The indignados have not simply been protesting. Through both physical and online organizing, the supporters of the 15-M movement have saved some 70 households from eviction and home repossession by blocking the entrance of bank agents. It is true that such blockages only delay the seizure of property for about a month without changing the structure that leaves victims of the housing crisis so vulnerable.  Under Spain’s draconian repossession laws, banks are often only obliged to subtract 50 percent of the repossessed home’s market value from the total debt, and wage garnishing leaves those left homeless hungry as well – that is, if they have a job in the first place.

On July 5, a group of indignados in the working-class neighborhood of Lavapiés stopped the police from arresting an immigrant in a raid on the area of the city with the highest concentration of immigrants. Those who came to Spain from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe during the boom years prior to the crisis have been hit the hardest by the country’s financial woes and, without citizenship, are largely devoid of political rights. Between Sol and Plaza Mayor, as demonstrations rage, many homeless immigrants sleep in the streets and alleys while others sell cold beers and sodas to the protestors.

Stopping one raid, like stopping one foreclosure, doesn’t' address the structural powerlessness of migrant laborers, the dangerously violent anti-immigrant sentiment used by populist right-wingers to rally poor Spaniards to their parties, or the police repression unleashed by the nominally socialist government against immigrant communities. Nevertheless, the willingness to turn collective indignation into direct action is a very important starting point if this movement is to lead to any real change in the coming months.

The current government has embraced change, but not the kind its main constituencies had anticipated. The socialist government has privatized state industries – most famously the airport authority – and centralized them in the hands of a tiny ultra-powerful elite. The party that came to power on an anti-war platform has augmented its participation in Afghanistan and participated in the NATO bombing of Libya. And Wikileaks has revealed Spanish leaders as willing servants of the United States, hindering, at Washington’s command, investigations into the illegal rendition, torture, and even murder of Spanish citizens by the U.S. military-intelligence apparatus. Meanwhile, as the November 20 general elections loom ahead, the opposition simply promises only to ramp up the corporate agenda, and to do so in a more straightforward manner than the socialists.

Always the most vocal organization in the 15-M movement, Democracia Real Ya has issued a somewhat vague set of demands focused on rooting out political corruption and unemployment, fixing the housing crisis, curbing the excesses of financial institutions, restoring civil liberties against censorship, improving public services, and curbing military spending. But the chants and the signs of the crowds suggest that these demands, and their inherent reliance on the government for implementation, fall short of what people in the streets truly desire.

What is preventing the movement’s mouthpieces from voicing the people’s true grievances seems to be a reluctance to radicalize. Democracia Real Ya spokesman Carlos Paredes recently said on behalf of the group, “neither have we tried to establish a dialogue with the government, nor will we. They have our proposals. We are not a political party, nor do we have negotiating capacity.”

Eviction Before Benediction

The government’s sudden eviction notice on August 2 in part revealed the anxiety over the Pope’s visit to Madrid on August 16 for the Catholic World Youth Day, which brought over a million young people to the city. But most people with whom I’ve spoken think the government, rather than ridding the streets of popular resistance, is simply provoking more of it.

This dynamic was on display when thousands of protestors came to the still-erected barricades on August 3 and 4. On multiple occasions, seated assemblies have taken place in high-traffic circles in the center of the city, with particularly dramatic images emanating from the iconic Gran Via, where hundreds of protestors blocked traffic in the middle of Madrid’s Broadway.

Meanwhile, the tactics of the police have gotten increasingly aggressive since the square’s closure. Agents at the barricades have made lists of the names and ID numbers of those gathered in front, and patrolmen have even evacuated nearby establishments patronized by people appearing to belong to 15-M. Photographers have been forced to give press credentials and private cameras have been confiscated and cleared of photos. Police even closed other squares where meetings (and camping) have taken place.

A critical moment came on August 4, after access had scarcely opened to any parts of the Puerta del Sol. As night fell, all access to the square was closed and over 1,000 protestors were forced to move from one part of the city to another. Turned away from Sol, they filled the Plaza de Cibeles outside City Hall where the Pope’s massive stage loomed. After an assembly there – traffic stopped on all sides – several went to protest outside of the Ministry of Interior where the police aggressively dispersed the crowd. The authorities raised the stakes by flying four helicopters over the city. But the crowds showed no signs of fatigue.

And their resilience appears to have defeated the government’s scare tactics. On August 5, Puerta del Sol finally re-opened with a diminished police presence, making way for massive celebratory demonstrations that lasted well into the early-morning hours. Although police were ordered to halt any attempts to set up tents on the square, 15-20 members of 15-M decided to sleep there anyway and were left unmolested. Over the weekend, numerous assemblies were held to discuss various issues from the economy to feminism, culminating in a general assembly on Sunday.

After Three Months, What’s Next?

After the massive presence in Sol on August 5, the police and sanitation workers once again rid Sol of all signs of 15-M and have stifled efforts at re-establishing an information center in the square. For the foreseeable future, it appears this game of cat-and-mouse, with tension on the rise, will continue. The police arrested eight people and subsequently released them. The general assembly on Sunday was fairly well attended, but produced few conclusions. Indeed, the momentum gained by 15-M when it was made homeless seems in danger of fizzling out as those in power continue to ignore its core demands.

When the right and left – symbolized by the Popular Party and the Socialist Party – have proven utterly inept at popular representation, there is a rational tendency amongst the disaffected to disassociate entirely from politics.

According to one organizer with ties to the United Left coalition party, there are a number of talented young deputies working to tie the grievances of 15-M into the party’s agenda. Although this may not translate into electoral success in the upcoming elections on November 20, the movement may yet acquire a voice within the parliament in the near term.

But without an institutional voice, the backers of 15-M continue to project their voices in the streets. Steadfastly committed to nonviolence, their strikes have been tactical and symbolic. Shutting down high-traffic streets, continuing to challenge the police state and creating a visual presence for the global audience that will attend the papal visit will all likely remain part of the indignados’ arsenal.

Some critics of the movement see the demonstrators as shiftless, participating simply in the spirit of street celebration so well practiced in this country. Desperate times, more than anything, call for strategic thinking. And 15-M needs to keep moving forward to prove itself a real driver of social change.

Gimbel, currently writing from Spain, is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

This article originally published by Foreign Policy In Focus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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