A turbulent summer in debt-squeezed Europe saw Greeks lay siege to parliament and teenagers loot London shops. But when Spaniards came to register their discontent last spring, they came armed only with sleeping bags. It all began on 15 May when an obscure Facebook group called a protest ahead of local elections, to challenge a depressing two-party monopoly.
The public response was overwhelming. Battered by soaring youth unemployment and deep welfare cuts, tens of thousands of Spaniards poured into plazas across the country. They were calling for ‘Democracia Real Ya!’ (Real Democracy Now!) and chanted slogans like ‘no house, no pension, no job – no fear!’ Their demands read like a comprehensive wish-list for a fairer society, with a manifesto that attacked political corruption, unjust market-led solutions to the crisis and economic inequality.
While the turnout was impressive, no-one could have guessed it would spark a peaceful movement of Tahrir-inspired sleep-ins and popular assemblies. Improvised camps shot up and sandwich-assembly lines were set in motion. The local elections that had sparked the protest came and went. But the protesters – young and old, leftwing or non-aligned – resisted pressure from the courts, politicians and police, and stayed on. The camp in Madrid’s Plaza de Sol lasted 78 days, while the last stragglers hung on in Malaga until mid-August. The protesters came to be known as the ‘indignants’ or ‘outraged’.
The movement was christened the ‘15M’ after its birthday. A wave of small-scale popular rebellions spread across the country in the months that followed. Actions to stop evictions mushroomed, with daily picket lines in front of homes facing repossession. In Madrid’s multicultural Lavapiés district, residents ejected police for harassing migrants. Barcelona locals occupied hospitals threatened with closure.
The 15M movement is akin to a rolling, general strike. Over the usually quiet summer, cities saw large demonstrations, and protests relocated to mountains and beaches. There was little need for centralized co-ordination. Instead, ideas spread from neighbourhood assemblies on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, where the term ‘#spanish revolution’ was born.
The new technology would suggest a younger generation of activists, but they rub shoulders with those who still remember the broken promises of Spain’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s after the Franco dictatorship. Unity and momentum are boosted by support from over two-thirds of the population and an increasingly violent state response.
The 15M-ers use the slogan ‘Step aside 1968, we want real change’. They chose 15 October, their five-month anniversary, for a bid to take Spanish indignation global. Since they announced a march on Brussels to oppose rule-by-markets in Europe, their actions have inspired thousands; at the last count, Saturday’s mobilization will see financial districts occupied in around 650 cities worldwide.Gemma Galdon with editing by Hazel Healy