Madrid’s Puerta del Sol is the main square of the Spanish capital. It’s normally full of tourists and shoppers — like every square in every other European city centre, and perhaps worldwide. Think Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall or Melbourne’s Collins Street.
Yet for over a week now, the shoppers have largely been absent — or if they’ve been there, they’ve been keeping a low profile. They’ve been supplanted by a motley bunch of campers, punks, students, retirees, couples with children and gawkers. Tens of thousands of people have come to Puerta del Sol to protest, chant, dance, pick up, sleep the night, build barricades and collect the rubbish.
Puerta del Sol, in other words, has become Europe’s answer to Tahrir Square in Cairo. Inspired by 93-year-old French resistance fighter’s Stéphane Hessel’s demand for Europe’s young people to become indignant and active, tens of thousands of them have decided to occupy the square. Their demand: direct, participatory democracy. They’ve been putting this into practice through daily meetings with consensus decision making involving several thousand people.
As you walk into the square, a sign announces "Welcome to Revolution 2.0". Like the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions before them, Sol was organised through Twitter and Facebook. Its roots date to last December, when a group calling for "Real Democracy Now" was founded. The activists were linked to anarchist groups in Madrid who met in the Patio Marveloso squat downtown.
For months, their demos yielded little. Their decision to sleep out in the Puerta del Sol last Sunday was not reported in the Spanish press, which preferred to concentrate on the coming regional elections and the official campaigns of the two major political parties, the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party.
They were 35 camping out in the Puerta del Sol last weekend. On Monday night, they’d grown to 350, and debated sleeping another night in the square. The first tents were put up.
Most of those who were there a week ago were what’s called "neither-nors" in Spain: they’ve neither a job nor study. Some of them couldn’t even be described as unemployed. Spain limits unemployment benefits to two years — leaving many of the five million unemployed in the country with no options but to sleep in the street, or stay with mum and dad.
And then, on Tuesday, something changed in Madrid. The Spanish police decided to move in and shut down the tiny camp at Sol. Many of the demonstrators had already gone home and only two police trucks arrived. Over the course of the afternoon, the police faced off with the protestors, and thousands of people more started arriving. The Twitter hash tag #spanishrevolution had been trending in Spain on Monday and Tuesday. Prompted by dramatic pleas for help, over 6000 rushed to the square.
That night, an assembly at 3am decided to set up committees looking after different aspects of life at the camp. Two dozen committees were set up, including a food gathering group, another to organise political action and expansion, an internal coordination body, a media and communication liason team, a health and hygiene group — and even a creche.
Many of the decisions made that night are still in force five days later. Alcohol is banned. "Sol is not a booze-up," announce dozens of signs — just as others are at pains to stress that the camp out is not a Woodstock style free love festival, but rather an earnest fight for more democratic rights.
Puerta del Sol is today overrun with people; at least 30,000 according to the police, 50,000 according to the organisers. Thousands of red Post-it notes are stuck to one wall of the square, detailing the many indignities suffered by the unemployed; immigrants and those the Spanish call the miluristas, people who survive on an income of 1000 euros a month.
Elsewhere, people jump up and down, chanting political slogans that match up with football chants. Marching bands trailed by hundreds of people surge into the square in the late afternoon. Elsewhere, in the side alleys, informal education groups discuss political and economic corruption in Spain.
Almost everyone is carrying a placard, or wearing a t-shirt with a homemade slogan written on it. Amongst the most popular: "No hay pan pero tanto chorizo" (loosely translated as "so little bread, so many thieves," targeting politicians who take bribes or retire to comfy jobs on private boards) and "if they don’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep."
Hipsters who’ve lost their ironic distant stares collect garbage, "staying clean for the revolution". Every metro train brings in kids from the provinces with sleeping bags and clothes who flirt and grin on the platforms.
Everyone I’ve spoken to has had enough of politicians, their perceived corruption and their alleged cosy links with the banks. They feel that Spain has been mismanaged; that both the government and the opposition helped along the Spanish housing bubble that burst with the crisis, heavily contributing to the current unemployment problems in the country. Neither of the parties is perceived to have any solutions either; PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s most recent idea was that Spaniards emigrate to Germany.
The Popular Party won overwhelmingly in regional and polls held across Spain on Sunday night. Conservative newspapers in Spain on Sunday came out heavily against the plaza mobilisations. "Real democracy today," trumpeted El Mundo on its front page — rather than the "real democracy" of those in the plazas.
A confrontation between the popular assemblies and the regional and local governments elected on Sunday is now likely. The Socialists won no regions outright, not even the traditionally communist region of Asturias on Sunday night.
The Sol assembly, meanwhile, voted to continue the camp for at least a week, sending delegates out to the city’s suburbs to try to get more people involved in their direct democratic movement.
While the movement’s demands aren’t yet clear — some want a more representative parliament, others a European communist revolution, still others a tax on financial transactions — there’s no doubt that they are taking the idea of democracy very seriously.
Like a faint breeze from Paris in May ’68, or a gust of wind across the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa, the movement which started on 15 May seems somehow from another place or time. It’s as if something that never seemed possible in today’s Europe has come to pass. Whether today’s Spanish tempest will blow on north is uncertain, but, as one placard in the Puerta del Sol today pointed out: nobody expected the Spanish Revolution either.
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