Published on Monday, May 23, 2011 by El País
“Nobody expected the Real Democracy Now grassroots movement that overshadowed an election campaign to capture the imagination of the world”
Last Tuesday, at about 8pm, something magical took place in Puerta del Sol square, in the heart of the nation’s capital. A few dozen protesters remained after Sunday’s mass demonstration in the name of the Real Democracy Now movement despite the drizzling rain, and police efforts to dislodge them in a surprise dawn raid that morning. Over the next few hours, thousands of young people began to gravitate back towards the square, as word spread by Facebook and Twitter, where they set up a vast camp under tarpaulin sheets, determined to maintain the momentum of Sunday, May 15.
Among them was Jon Aguirre Such. The 26-year-old architecture student and spokesman for Real Democracy Now fought back tears, overjoyed and angry at the same time, as he greeted his returning friends and fellow protesters. This was a dream come true: a generation finally standing up for itself, refusing to pick up the tab for the economic crisis, and expressing outrage at a regional election campaign in which neither of the two main political parties seemed able to offer any real answers.
For Jon, the world had changed on Sunday, May 15, as thousands of people marched through Madrid. That day, as he paused to look back on the human tide pressing toward the Puerta del Sol, he had exclaimed:
“I could cry seeing so many people filled with hope. This is possible. We have just made history. There is no turning back.”
In a flowered shirt, smart sports coat, and impeccably shined black boots, Jon is a far cry from the typical “anti-establishment” protester initially painted by the media. Like the overwhelming majority of those in Sol last week, he was simply fed up with what he sees as ‘business as usual’ politics, and decided enough was enough. In doing so, he and the thousands of others who took over the center of Madrid last week captured the attention of the world in a way that popular protest has failed to do since the events of Paris in May 1968. And they did so without the violence of that movement.
Tuesday, May 17 was magical because the whole thing simply unfolded spontaneously, as people sent text messages, Twittered and used Facebook to spread the word.
But the demonstration two days before was the result of the hard work and organization during three months of preparation. Fabio Gándara, one of the movement’s founders and one of its recognizable faces, says: “Back in December there were calls to stage demonstrations. But we knew that this would take time. People were asleep. [So we said] let’s wait three months, let’s start working on it.”
Three months later, people are awake, or a good number of them, with Spain’s youth at the forefront, a generation that wants its voice to be heard now. This is a generation faced with staggering unemployment levels, who cannot pay their rent, who have taken a further hit with the austerity cuts, and who are frustrated at the failure of Spain’s politicians to do anything about any of it.
How has such a sudden and mass awakening come about? Few in the mainstream media seem to understand the exponential nature of social networking, the speed at which millions of people can share ideas and organize themselves. Along with the political parties, they have also failed to understand that not all movements work from the top down, that a leader or hierarchies are not essential, that it is possible for everyone to make a contribution, and for them to feel part of what is happening.
“Our approach to meetings is 24/7,” says Olmo Gálvez, explaining how Real Democracy Now’s online exchange of ideas works. “Information is kept up to date, people add new ideas – it’s chaotic but it works, it brings results. It’s like the social networks have a brain of their own, that they can actually think. Somebody throws an idea out there, we discuss it, reach an agreement on it, and then get to work.”
Olmo, a 30-year-old business studies graduate from Granada, says he had never attended a demonstration before this. “I never got the point of marching for the sake of marching. Demonstrations need to be meeting points, ways to connect with others that can produce outcomes.”
It all began with “18 or 20 deadbeats with a budget of a thousand euros,” says Chema Ruiz, the 47-year-old Madrid spokesman for PAH, a platform set up for people unable to pay their mortgages, which joined forces with Real Democracy Now about two months ago. “This is a meeting-based movement with no leaders, formed by people from all walks of life who want to change things.”
Real Democracy Now was set up by Fabio Gándara, a 26-year-old law graduate, along with two friends: Eric Pérez, and another who prefers to remain anonymous. By early December, they had found another 10 or so like-minded individuals with the same ideas. They took their inspiration from protests in Iceland that resulted in prison sentences for some of those responsible for the country’s bankruptcy as well as new legislation to prevent a future crisis.
“That showed us that people can change things,” says Gándara. Then the wave of protests that swept through the Arab world showed them how loosely formed group were able to organize protests through social media. So Gándara and his colleagues set up a Facebook account and a blog.
In January, they widened their base by joining up with other groups that had sprung up in the wake of the financial crisis. They set up a new group on Facebook, called the Platform to Coordinate Groups for Citizen Mobilization. More organizations, platforms, and civic associations signed up. The list grew and grew.
All the while, the online discussions continued and a number of common ideas emerged: the average citizen was being overlooked in this crisis, democracy was becoming a two-party system, and the world’s markets were imposing anti-social cuts.
“There are two main guilty parties here: the politicians and the people who run the global economy. The politicians, who are supposedly our representatives, take their orders from the markets, and deregulate the economy to allow them to speculate,” says Gándara. This is how the movement’s slogan, which has resonated with so many, came about: Real Democracy Now: We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.”
The name caught on, a website was set up, and the movement grew on a daily basis as new groups joined in the debate. By mid-March, the first face-to-face meetings were being set up. “That was a very inspirational time. It was strange to suddenly meet all these people in person. But it was also how this became something real, tangible,” says Gándara. “We could see that we were all very different, but that we agreed on the main points.”
On the May 2 public holiday, a meeting attended by some 300 representatives was held in Madrid’s Retiro park. An agenda was drawn up, and everybody was allowed to speak. “It was like Speakers’ Corner,” says Merche Negro, who heads the movement’s audiovisual platform, Vudeo.org.
Less than two weeks later, Real Democracy Now made history. It brought 80,000 people together who sought to make their voices heard in protests held in front of city halls throughout the country.
A movement had begun.
Juan Cobo, a 26-year-old photographer, says he returned home that Sunday evening with a broad grin on his face. When he saw that news coverage had focused on the few disturbances that had taken place, his smile faded. But then, he says, he realized that this wasn’t just a oneoff protest that had ended in smashed windows and graffiti. This was something new. Something different.
At four in the morning, he headed back to Sol to support those who had stayed on in the square. About 35 people were there, still awake and planning for the next day. That was the moment that Cobo knew he had to become more involved. The idea for a mass camp in the Puerta del Sol was being born, and for Cobo, there was no turning back.
The next day at 4pm, the first tarpaulin was draped, and people gathered under it to discuss their next move. Soon, others joined, while a Popular Party candidate holding a campaign meeting across the street could barely hold the attention of a handful.
At 8pm, around 100 people held a sit-in in the square. Though from different backgrounds, they all had one thing in common – they had had enough of being lied to by politicians.
“They call it democracy, but it isn’t,” they chanted. When they heard that similar camps had been set up in Valencia and Seville, they decided they would hold their ground if the police threatened to break up the camp.
“Who are we? We are people who have come here freely to demand a new approach to politics based on respect. We don’t belong to any party or organization. We are here because we want change. We are here in the name of those who can’t be here.
“Why are we here? We are here because we want a different society, one that represents us, not just the powers that be. We are calling for change. We want to show that we aren’t asleep, and that we will continue to fight for what we deserve by peaceful means,” said a speaker.
Passersby stopped to listen, and one, a veteran protester, asked to speak. “Friends, I want to congratulate you because you are carrying out an important exercise in civic responsibility. The Constitution is behind you.”
By nightfall, there were some 400 people in Puerta del Sol, and they were planning to spend the night. Paco López, a 47-year-old unemployed stone mason, was among them.
“People are sick and tired of the cynicism of our politicians, of the hypocrisy, of being used. There are no principles anymore. Politicians used to serve us, not their own interests,” he says. López is currently surviving on 426 euros a month in unemployment benefits.
“There are five million people without jobs. Those of us over 45 are already out of the game, but people are more important than the profitability of a company.”
As Monday drew to a close, things were about to change: a Twitter account called #Spanishrevolution had been set up calling for support. It was a call that would be heard not around Spain, but around the world.
Not long after, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the police moved in to remove the protesters. Some of the video footage, captured on cell phones, shows officers using clubs, as well as chasing and kicking protestors to the ground. The square was cleared.
At mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the square, ringed by police vans, was empty of protesters. By 6pm, however, more than 100 had made their way back, and as the word went out, more and more people came, making their way through the police lines. By 8pm, they were 6,000 strong and the police were unable to do anything as the protesters mingled with tourists, shoppers, and people returning home from work.
“We’re staying put, we have the power, and the world is watching us,” ran one text. The dream had come true. The #Spanishrevolution was underway.
As the evening wore on, volunteers began laying cardboard on the ground, and a vast tarpaulin roof was extended over the sleeping area. Somebody had even brought a sofa.
A megaphone blared, “This is not a party. Please do not drink beer. We are here to demand our rights.” At 3am a new meeting was called, and this was followed by others throughout the early morning. When shop and office workers emerged from the Sol metro station a few hours later, the square was clearly in the hands of the protesters.
Around the square, posters indicated the activities of the different committees that had been set up to provide food, legal advice and first aid. Some nearby bars and restaurants provided free meals, while housewives turned up with plastic bags full of food. News came in of support protests in other cities throughout Europe and Latin America.
On Wednesday, the Madrid electoral commission decided that the gathering was illegal. Police presence was beefed up and people leaving and entering the square were searched and questioned. But there was little they could do, as the flow of people making their way into the square increased – and not just students or unemployed twenty-year-olds, but pensioners, immigrants, mothers with baby carriages, and middle-aged, middle-class parents. As more than one person pointed out, the upcoming regional elections no longer seemed to make much sense.
As the rain poured down on the network of tarpaulins, debates were held throughout the night. There were calls for a manifesto: just what did the movement want?
Among the proposals was a voting system that would give smaller parties better representation, limits on spending by the main parties, fairer taxes, tariffs on movement of capital, the publication of party candidates before elections, rather than closed lists that led to later postings, an end to the practice of paying deputies for life, the abolishment of immigration legislation, and educational reform.
By 7pm on Thursday, 82 towns and cities throughout Spain were taking part in the protests. The Washington Post featured the protest its front page.
By midday Friday, 166 cities around the world had registered their support, and upwards of 40,000 people were following Real Democracy Now on Twitter.
The government was waiting for the Electoral Commission to decide on whether the camp in Sol contravened the rules requiring all campaigning to end at midnight that evening, allowing voters a “day of reflection” ahead of Sunday’s regional polls. With pressure from the Popular Party and the media, there was a fear that the police would try to disperse the crowds, who by then no longer fit into the square, and were occupying surrounding streets. Although the Electoral Commission ruled against the camp, the government made it clear it would not try to disperse more than 25,000 people.
At midnight, the moment of truth, a minute’s silence was begun, but long before the sixty seconds were up, a huge roar erupted from the crowd. People embraced, many cried. News came in of 10,000 people gathered in Valencia’s main square.
“We have seen how quickly things can fall apart,” says sociologist Miguel Martínez, who teaches at Madrid’s Complutense University. “But the imbalance originates among the political elites, who have been tightening the screws steadily. Our governments have implemented very aggressive policies that have hit many people hard. There had to be a release of pressure. People feel as though their lives have been turned upside down. And now people are angry, they won’t take it any longer, because they know that their very identity is in danger. If you lose your dignity, then you are simply a wage slave.”