Spain's Indignados one year on ― more relevant than ever

Issue 
About 300,000 people marched in Barcelona on May 12 to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the "indignado" movement against au

In the week before the first anniversary of the indignado (“the outraged”) protests and camps that broke out across Spain on May 15 last year, the Spanish media was full of opinionated wishful thinking about the state of what became known as the 15-M movement.

This wasn’t just the usual malice of the right-wing media, which can always be relied upon to play up the inevitable roughness of some indignado actions ― like call-outs where only a handful respond and end up outnumbered by police and TV crews.

The commentators all agreed that 15-M, which mobilised anger at austerity and a corrupt political system, was (or “had been”) important. But along with the often reluctant recognition of its impact went some weird and ignorant caricatures, born of desires to have it self-destruct or morph into a different kind of beast.

Philosopher German Cano picked the tone of the commentators in the May 14 El Pais: “Not social-democratic enough, not revolutionary enough, not liberal enough, the movement always looks like a kid who just can’t to do the right thing.”

Huge turnout

The huge turnout to 15-M’s “Happy First Birthday” demonstrations on May 12 was in part a response to the drivel of the commentariat.

The “15-M is dead, dying or wrong” messages helped spur people onto the streets. One demonstrator told Green Left Weekly: “I really didn’t have time to come, but they make my blood boil.”

The result was another huge turnout ― 150,000 in Madrid, more than 300,000 in Barcelona, tens of thousands in the other regional capitals and thousands in another 60-plus cities and towns where demonstrations took place.

This was 15-M at its broadest. This was the millions who shout “you do not represent us” and “we are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers”.

Those who marched represented the majority furious at a world of huge cuts to public services, bank rescue packages and evictions of families who cannot pay their mortgages. This stinking mess is presided over by political-business corruption networks, an ultra-conservative judiciary and a mega-rich elite immune to the crisis that has, in Spain, put 5.5 million on the dole.

When pollster Metroscopia repeated its survey of opinion about 15-M one year on, it found that 68% of those interviewed felt that the movement was “generally right about the things it protests against”.

This was down from the 81% registered in June last year ― reflecting the desertion of sections of the now-ruling Popular Party (PP) that “supported” 15-M against the former Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government ― it confirmed the depth of sympathy the movement enjoys.

It was predictable, once the PP’s job became that of meeting the needs of Spanish big business, that only 24% of its supporters would “have a feeling of sympathy” for 15-M.

The movement has also had to face red-baiting campaigns from the right-wing media and the most reactionary sections of the PP. Typical was the comment of Cristina Cifuentes, the national government representative in Madrid, after police arrests of demonstrators on May 12: “This movement isn’t as spontaneous as it likes to have people think.”

Cifuentes called 15-M “highly ideologised” and “with a tendency to extreme left positions” but predicted that it was “deflating”.

Making a difference

Such noise is part of the ongoing psychological war over the indignados, but the actions of the national PP government speak louder than the spin of its representatives.

Where possible, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has taken symbolic action to try to diffuse popular anger.

This includes setting limits to bankers’ salaries, creating a voluntary code for banks to follow in case of mortgage default by families without a breadwinner, and even adopting a code of correct behavior and asset disclosure for politicians.

This reflected the popularity of 15-M’s most powerful campaign ― against evictions ― that began last year when the movement threw its weight behind the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH).

PAH spokesperson Ada Colau described the effect in the May 6 El Pais: “With the first evictions we had to hire buses to go around to pick up supporters.”

But with the arrival of 15-M “a river of people joined the cause”.

About 250 blocked evictions later, the campaign is broad enough to be structured at a neighbourhood level. Local groups act to block evictions or resettle evicted families in premises occupied by the group, with the PAH providing legal support.

The campaign has made squatting acceptable. El Pais quoted 15-M housing activist Violeta as saying: “Squatting has been normalised ― people see it as a right.”

Violeta added that when the police arrive at an anti-eviction picket made up of “respectable” older women it’s not so easy to break up as one made up of young dreadlocked activists.

Neighbourhood-based organisation has also been the rule in the campaign against cuts to community health centres and schools.

One case involves the working-class outer Barcelona suburb of Bellvitge. A plan to close a local community health centre has been stymied for half a year because the centre has been taken over by local residents with indignado support.

15-M activism has also boosted union campaigns against Rajoy’s brutally pro-boss “labour reform”, education cuts, and university and high school student struggles.

It has also helped build the movement against water privatisation.

The movement has spurred the development of action collectives around local issues. This includes monitoring police and ministry of the interior harassment of “illegal” immigrants and the struggle to block the huge “Eurovegas” gambling complex being planned for Barcelona or Madrid.

Reviving local activism

The emergence of a new generation of neighbourhood activists under the 15-M banner has led to a revival of the neighborhood associations, created in the 1960s and 1970s struggle against the Franco dictatorship. With this has come generational cross-fertilisation.

The initial impetus for 15-M arose from the frustration of young people (“without work, without home, without pension, without fear” in the slogan of Youth Without a Future). But the new movement rapidly provided a space for activism by all generations.

The most loved collective within the 15-M archipelago are the yayoflautas (“grandad flutes”), a “hit squad” of pensioners in yellow jackets who make themselves available to support pickets, squats and protests.

Mainly composed of retired unionists, the group ironically gave itself its name in sympathy with the young people of 15-M who are sneered at by the right wing and the police as “dog flutes”.

(For the conservative establishment, the cliched 15-M member is a hippy squatting on a street corner, playing a flute and accompanied by a mangy dog.)

Local 15-M groups are also the primary agents for campaigns adopted by the sovereign body of the movement ― the mass assemblies that take place in the main squares of Spanish cities.

These initiatives include a petition campaign to force the national parliament to hold a referendum to allow outstanding mortgage debt to be dropped on the surrender of property keys to the lender and a reform of Spain’s discriminatory electoral law.

The movement has also generated a series of neighbourhood-level initiatives in cooperative economy and self-support, often brought to life by the plight of the local unemployed. Madrid now boasts exchange cooperatives in many suburbs, often helped by 15-M Madrid’s strong economics commission.

In Barcelona, 15-M supporters in trouble with their bank creditors decided to present a united face to their tormentors by setting up the Network of Social Self-Financing Cooperatives.

In Madrid, the Casual Office group aims to help exploited casual and contract workers and get them involved in the cooperative movement.

TomalaPlaza.net lists 1037 collectives operating in 51 towns and cities.

Through all this activity, 15-M has brought a huge dose of hope and energy into a society that barely over a year ago seemed drowning in apathy, depression and fear.

Well-known Barcelona activist Esther Vivas, co-author with Josep Maria Antentas of the recently published book Planeta Indignado, marked the leap in politicisation and morale in a recent piece on the Publico website: “The deepening crisis and the emergence of the movement has allowed people to ‘think big’ and ‘act big’.

“Today, there are not only calls demanding reform of the banking system but promoting the expropriation and nationalisation of banks and for 'non-payment' of unjust, illegitimate and illegal debts…”

Challenges

The main points of debate in the movement concern the often tortuous processes involved in reaching decisions; the difficulty in prioritising demands; distance from parts of society that should be allies (such as small business, decimated by the economic crisis); and relations with the mainstream media (flummoxed by the 15-M refusal to have spokespeople).

One big area of contention remains relations with the union movement, seen by a large majority as “part of the system”. This lead to the decision to form a 15-M “critical bloc” in the March 29 general strike protests.

Another is 15-M’s relationship with institutional politics and existing left and progressive political groups.

Frustration with such problems led to a bid in early April to constitute Real Democracy Now!, the convening organisation of the original 15-M protest, as a legal association. The bid was rapidly disowned by 25 of the organisation’s 27 collectives.

The Real Democracy Now! split confirmed that there are no easy organisational answers to 15-M’s challenges. These arise from the broad, pluralist nature of the movement ― which acts as a cultural medium of activism, a network of practical initiatives and a mass educator about the capitalist crisis.

The answers to the political challenges being debated within the movement can emerge only as 15-M strengthens its work in all three areas.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. Read more articles by Dick Nichols.]