Pity the stressful life of police ministers in Spain and its autonomous communities (states).
For weeks, the central plazas of big cities and towns across Spain have been the site of the camps of the “outraged” (los indiganados) of the M-15 movement — so-called after the large May 15 national protests that sparked the movement.
The movement, which opposes the savage austerity imposed on ordinary people to pay for the crisis and the undemocratic nature of the political system, is now spreading into the suburbs of the larger cities and out into smaller regional towns.
Some of the immediate stress came off the authorities when the Madrid camp at Puerta del Sol and the Barcelona camp at Plaza Catalonia voted to close down from June 12.
But this will be only a brief reprieve, as June 19 has been set as the date of the next national mobilisation of this powerful and rising movement.
Pressure has been growing for governments to “do something” about the camps.
On June 2, the hotel-owners association called on the interior ministry to seek a “prompt and definitive” solution to “a situation of illegality”. It threatened to bring a damages claim for loss of trade against those responsible.
The right-wing Popular Party (PP) opposition has also been grandstanding in parliamentary question time about the Socialist Party (PSOE) government’s “impotence and inaction” before the camps.
But how were the powers-that-be to get things back to “normal”? And to whom, the camps very existence reminded us, does the public space of Spain’s tens of thousands of town squares actually belong?
The folly of sending in police to break the camps up — revealed so vividly in Barcelona on May 27 when Plaza Catalonia was retaken by 10,000 M-15 supporters — was reconfirmed in Valencia on June 9.
The police in Valencia charged into a peaceful demonstration of the local M-15 movement outside the opening of the Valencian regional parliament. Five protesters were arrested and 18 wounded — setting off another wave of popular sympathy for the “outraged”.
The demonstration had gathered to protest the presence in the Valencian PP government of three MPs charged with corruption (including Premier Francisco Camps), and six others who are under investigation.
As if to remind MPs of who runs Valencia, while the police were bashing away outside parliament, the parliament's new speaker, Opus Dei member Juan Cotino, placed a wooden crucifix on the speaker’s bench of what is supposedly a secular institution.
Spanish interior minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba had restricted himself to the comment that “obviously the camps can’t stay forever”, with the idea of increasing pressure to decamp.
But Rubalcaba showed no sign of following in the footsteps of his Catalan counterpart, Felip Puig, responsible for the inglorious Plaza Catalonia police rout.
The politicians’ main problem has been that the camps and their demands enjoy strong popular support — and they don’t.
A survey by the polling firm GESOP showed that 64.1% of those polled supported the M-15 demands either “a lot” or “considerably”.
Highest support came in the Basque Country (80%), Catalonia (74%) and Valencia (72%). Even 47% of PP voters and 59% of supporters of the ruling Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU) government said they backed the M-15 movement claims.
Fifty-four per cent of those polled opposed any attempt to close down the camps.
Support even ran to Spain’s richest woman, textile industry heiress Rosalia Mera (worth three billion euros, said Forbes magazine).
Mera told La Voz de Galicia: “We should all be outraged — those who are camping and the rest of the country.”
Declaring that Spain should “revise its concept of citizenship and of elections and voting”, she admitted to having been tempted to join the camp in the Galician capital A Coruna.
“It’s the least we can do,” she said, “given the levels of corruption we have — of all sorts, on all sides of politics, in society and in the economy”.
All this clearly had a sobering impact on Puig. On June 8, he told the Catalan parliament that the decision to clean up the Plaza Catalonia camp had been correct, but that the police action had suffered from “technical shortcomings” and “lack of coordination” and “didn’t turn out as we had planned”.
The M-15 camps have spent weeks working out their demands, with initial platforms concentrating on electoral reform and increasing openings for citizen participation.
For example, the Malaga camp, in Andalusia, has already taken a specific proposal to the Andalusian parliament, demanding support from the parties for a referendum that would reduce the number of signatures needed to trigger a referendum from 75,000 to 10,000.
The Malaga M-15 mass assembly said “the response of the parties to this proposal will show whether they really want to give citizens a voice”.
As local meetings take place in working-class neighbourhoods, more social demands have emerged.
On June 8, about 500 “outraged” from the Puerta del Sol camp marched on the national parliament in protest against a labour market “reform” that will further undermine the already weak position of workers and unions.
The proposal for this protest had come from a meeting in the working-class Madrid suburb of Lavapies, at which a local woman had explained how harmful the new law would be for workers.
The central mass meeting then adopted the initiative of a march on parliament.
The same pattern is to be seen in Barcelona, where the Plaza Catalonia camp voted to join ongoing protests by health workers against cuts to the public health system.
Solidarity is also flowing back into the camps from other social sectors: immediately after the May 27 attack on the Plaza Catalonia, some workers from the municipal cleaning service sent a letter to the camp explaining they had only taken part in the “clean-up” under threat of the sack.
On June 1, the powerful Barcelona Federation of Neighbourhood Associations came out against the May 27 police charge.
The feeling has been growing — especially among those who have been in Puerta del Sol since May 15 — that the tactic of the town square camps has reached its use-by date.
Given rising insecurity, especially during the night, and the deterioration of health conditions, the activists centrally involved in the camps have been looking to shift tactics.
The camps were running out of steam, not least because the 100% consensus decision-making model used in some of them (including Madrid) was allowing small minorities to hold up overwhelmingly supported decisions, leading to a noticeable decline in participation.
Some activists, who have been active in the many working commissions, also complained that many of those taking part in the mass meetings were taking no responsibility for the decisions made.
“They come in, vote and then go home,” one said.
An alternative orientation that has been developed focuses on spreading the M-15 movement into suburban and neighbourhood meetings. Decisions are fed back into mass assemblies held in city squares as needed.
In the words of Fabio Cortese, of Youth Without a Future: “[Puerta del Sol] is already something symbolic that exists and to which we can return when we want.”
However, the decision to decamp was resisted for some time because many felt the importance of the Puerta del Sol camp as the symbol of the whole movement. They also worried about a premature close before an alternative strategy has been worked out across the movement.
“We have to stay here as the bastion of the movement,” was the general sentiment.
Others felt decamping would have to coincide with a clear, symbolic win — such as the lifting of charges on those involved in the original clashes with police on May 15.
In Barcelona, the camp voted on June 1 to stay in Plaza Catalonia until an alternative structure, involving coordination of regional and neighbourhood camps, could be put in place.
Resolution of this conflict came on the weekend of June 4-5, when M-15 campers from 53 Spanish cities converged on Madrid to compare notes.
They shared the demands being developed locally, and exchanged ideas about how coordination could be built nationally, but also within the autonomous communities.
There was no immediate consensus on when the present wave of camps should finish. Some centres indicated they had already decamped, while making it clear they could always return if this became useful.
Others reported they were having the same debate as Madrid, including in important regional capitals like San Sebastian in Guipuskoa and Zaragoza in Aragon.
On June 5, with three other cities now involved (56 in all), the Madrid gathering adopted two protest perspectives: for demonstrations outside the parliaments of autonomous communities on June 11 and for a national demonstration on June 19 aimed at getting as many people onto the streets as possible.
This outcome showed in practice that the M-15 movement did not need permanent occupied camps to keep driving and coordinating its campaigns.
On June 8, Puerta del Sol voted to decamp from June 12. On June 10, after a heated four-hour meeting, the M-15 movement in Barcelona decided likewise.
The small minority that has been insisting that camping must continue will now not be representing M-15.
The Madrid meeting also tackled the issue of coordination and information-sharing. These are to take place through the free self-managed social network N-1, available at N-1.cc.
A new phase in this inspiring movement is now beginning.