The ten years that separate us from the year of 2011, the rebellious year of city square and street occupations, beginning with the “Arab Spring” and moving through cities in Spain, Greece, the UK, and then onto the United States, and elsewhere, seems ever more distant, consequence of the illusion created by media silence, political co-optation and/or repression and the erasure of history and time in the eternal present of life under Capital.
Originally published by Autonomies.
What is the strength of the weak? … the strength of the weak passes through the activation of bodies and the interweaving of ties, through the autonomous choice about times and spaces, for the value of equality and plurality. It is from here that the weak have always been capable of challenging the strong: to fight for their own and from their own, to animate networks of complicities, to deploy their own temporality and merge with the territories of life, to trust the intelligence of anyone and the multiplicity of initiatives articulated without a directing center.Amador Fernández-Savater, Lobo Suelto!
The amnesia though also haunts those on the “left”, whether it be intentional – the “movements” were ineffective, possessed no overarching ideology with which to confront capitalism, failed to take root in the working classes, lacked purpose, organisation, leadership, in sum, they collapsed into reformism or irrelevance -, or not.
So much of the left – of whatever kind – remains trapped in an illusion of perspective, the illusion of ideological hegemony and totality (read retrospectively into past “revolutions”): that the movement must be all and know who it is and where it is going. And yet, if anything could be learned from the rebellions of 2011 – perhaps already since the long May of 1968, or perhaps, always – is that there were never any such movements, and that it is the very concept of “movement” (as something with a coherent beginning and end) that must be abandoned.
The rebellions and revolts that we remember today are not to be commemorated as failed revolutions to be taken up anew with greater foresight and fortitude, but examples of unpredictable and radical social creativity whose power of contagion and opposition could never be mastered or anticipated, as with all “revolutions”.
The spanish 15M was one such moment, which we stubbornly and insistently remember here.
We share below a text published in the spanish anarchist newspaper, Todo por hacer; a text that both chronicles the events and poses questions which remain pressing.
To the people, what belongs to the people
Todo por hacer (May 2021)
It has been ten years since the irruption on the political and social stage of the Spanish State of a movement that occupied the squares of cities, neighborhoods and towns; a wave of indignation with the economic system and the political regime that is closely linked to the birth of our newspaper a few months earlier and its consolidation. In this text, we want to claim that what belongs to the people should be recognised as belonging to the people. It is our history of this decade, but we also want and must contribute to a critique of the 15M movement and its necessary de-romanticisation.
The scenario upon which 15M irrupts does not start from nowhere, that is, before the movement of the indignados, there had been a vast labour of many deeply undervalued political and social movements. However, the enormous economic crisis of 2008 led to millions of people being unemployed, evicted from their homes, with families and wages collapsing. This general feeling of malaise, anger and above all of being defrauded by financial powers, together with the disparagement of the overvalued Welfare State, were the breeding ground of the 15M movement.
It emerged in a space where grassroots politics was placed at the center of life for many people and, in many places, a cycle of fervent social movement activity was fostered between 2011 and 2014. The most beautiful thing about this outbreak of indignation was that its channeling was clearly assembly-based and that leaders were not sought to guide the people, despite the fact that many tried. It is evident that many of the movement’s claims lacked ideological depth, many were pure slogans (“they don’t represent us”, “that they all go [que se vayan todos]”, “if we have assemblies, what is government for?”); and other demands were reforms that would not affect the underlying problem (calls for a change of the Electoral Law, for example). That is why it is perhaps more convenient to define 15M as an infectious climate than as a movement. But, without a doubt, it was a starting point that made many social movements and the proposals of many long-term struggles grow, of which many of us today are heirs.
It is obvious that romanticising the 15M movement does not seem like the best of ideas, much less allowing a favorable narrative to continue to be created that links it exclusively to the institutional interests of Podemos and the myriad of brands that fall under that partisan umbrella. It also seems to us that to despise it because it did not lead to an assault on the Palacio de la Zarzuela or because it lacked its own particular revolutionary theses remains too empty a discourse.
There are many questions to be asked about why this potential did not take root with a truly transformative movement; if it has done so or if it has had a partial and minor influence on some specific projects, or if it had already started from proposals that fundamentally implied its institutionalisation. In this society, where everything seems to be able to be integrated, digested and even promoted by the system so that everything remains the same and nothing changes, it is worth asking where we could find the gap or crack in the wall, to widen it, from the perspective of autonomy that would foster independent and grassroots social organisation.
Everything has a beginning …
The origins and antecedents of the 15M Movement in Spain must be found in the social movements that occurred after the wave of anti-globalization struggles at the end of the last decade of the previous century. In the years 2000, the term citizen’s revolution had been revalued, a politically uncertain movement and clearly ambiguous in its dynamics, which served to summarise the amalgam of protests habitually channeled through expressions of citizen, citizenship, peaceful organisation and some political codes of regeneration originating in the liberal left. The Icelandic movement to refuse the payment of the debt in the economic crisis, and on the other hand, the Greek Revolt of 2008 as well, will have a notable influence. In the Spanish scenario, specifically, the General Strike of September 2010 against the Labour Reform and the Reform of the public pension system, both proposed under the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, would also be of consequence. In addition, in the autumn of that same year, the essay ¡Indignaos! by the writer and ex-combatant of the French Resistance, Stéphane Hessel, is published: a political manifesto against indifference and for citizens, and especially young people, to become aware of social injustices in the world.
As soon as the year 2011 began, the so-called Arab Spring erupts, or the popular demonstrations organised by the Islamic population in different countries against political regimes, with demands for greater social rights. These are regimes which suffer a high level of Western interference that has led to serious military conflicts over the previous decade. In the first months of 2011, numerous blogs of cyber-activists and Facebook pages such as Democracia Real Ya, articulated joint demands and a unitary demonstration was called for on the date of May 15 in various cities under the slogan: “We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers“. This demonstration of several tens of thousands of people ends in Madrid with the unleashing of police violence and 19 arrests. In protest, an improvised encampment in the Puerta del Sol is set up, just one week before national, municipal elections.
The encampments as a way to achieve a permanent revolt
In the early morning of Monday, May 17, this improvised camp was evicted, and that same afternoon a new concentration in Puerta del Sol was mobilised on social networks, which as a result and despite the enormous police presence, the human tide managed to take the square and set up a campsite again, this time with structures and tarps to give life to a permanent camp. The next morning, on May 18, the encampment space was organised and different work commissions were created. Other cities such as Barcelona, Seville, Granada and Valencia followed the example and other encampments sprung up spontaneously in numerous places, even in some European cities where groups of Spanish migrants were found. The Provincial Electoral Board disavowed the encampment and that same afternoon thousands of people took to the Puerta del Sol in support of the camp. By evening, half a thousand people already occupied the central Madrid square, where daily assemblies were being held at eight in the afternoon. It was decided to disobey the order of the Electoral Board and the occupation was maintained with a massive presence of thousands of people on the so-called “day of reflection” of the municipal elections.
Through social networks and the famous Twitter hashtags such as #AcampadaSol, #NoTenemosMiedo or #SpanishRevolution, the reality and the political debate in the streets also went digital. The objective of the Puerta del Sol Camp after the elections of Sunday, June 22, was to make sure that this movement remained alive and that it spread to neighborhoods and towns. For this reason, preparatory meetings were organised from which emerged large neighborhood assemblies on Sunday May 28 in the neighborhoods of Madrid, giving birth to dozens of popular assemblies. A day earlier, hundreds of images circled the world of the violent police eviction from Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona, when the Mossos d’Esquadra [Catalan police] attacked the protesters in front of dozens of live cameras.
From the marches of indignation to the International Mobilisation of October 15
At the beginning of June, it was decided to restructure the encampment in Puerta del Sol and in other cities, which will end with the lifting of the camp a day after decentralised gatherings and assemblies held on the day the newly elected municipal authorities took office throughout the country, on the 11th of June. In this context, a call was made to surround the Parliament of Catalonia on June 14, an action that prevented many parliamentarians from being able to access the Ciutadella Park to vote on measures to cut social spending. On June 19, six columns of outraged people converged on the Plaza de Neptuno in Madrid in marches organised from different neighborhoods and towns that brought together some 100,000 people. During that week, thousands of people started a national popular march along eight routes, on foot or by bicycle, starting at different geographical points, passing through various towns and villages on the way to Madrid, to join the 1st Social Forum of 15M. In the wake of these marches, many demands from rural territories were collected, and projects and initiatives were activated in small municipalities. This was followed by the International March to Brussels, which was organised from different countries to end in autumn 2011 in that city, in a coordinated European social mobilisation against the Euro Pact, denouncing the financial system and putting the spreading evictions in the spotlight.
The neighborhood assemblies of Madrid maintained an intense activity in the summer of 2011. In August, the police evacuated the permanent information point in Puerta del Sol, in order to offer up a good image of the city before the arrival of the Pope for the celebration of the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day in Madrid. For three days, the police kept Puerta del Sol completely closed, while numerous calls were made every day to try take back the square again. During the late summer and early fall, all forces focused on the International Mobilisation of October 15, 2011, which was joined by groups from 82 countries under the slogan: ‘For a global change’. Millions of people gathered throughout the world in massive social mobilisations that demanded a radical transformation of the political and economic regime.
15M ceased to gather physically in the central squares of the cities, but it spread through neighborhood assemblies, housing groups, mutual aid networks, neighborhood unions and other groups. Some persist to this day. They abandoned the grandiose claims to change the system in general and, attending to the specific needs of their neighborhoods or towns, stopped evictions, racially driven police raids, resorted to legal challenges, etc.
The mark of 15M is still present in social movements today, as well as in existing repressive legislation. In response to the movement, the State approved the reforms of the Citizen Security Law (Gag Law/Ley Mordaza) and the Penal Code, tightening sanctions and penalties against social activists, reforms that to date have not been revoked by any government.
Struggle is the only way
After the height of the globalisation of the 15M Movement in the fall of 2011, the extensive network that had been woven expanded in many different ways and in many different directions. Internationally, it had an influence on the Occupy Wall Street movement, which emerged in September 2011; but also on later movements, with their own characteristics and contexts, such as YoSoy132 in Mexico, Nuit Debout in France, the protests in Taksim Square in Turkey, or the mobilisations in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities in 2013.
One of the main features of the 15M movement was its intersectionality, and this in many ways, but especially generationally. For the youngest, it was a political school in the street, for some elderly and retired people a way to find anew hope in the struggles they had always lived through, and for middle-aged people disillusioned with struggles at the end of the 90s, a reactivation or new impulse in many cases in popular political movements. This intergenerational dynamic brought us back to other realities and ways of feeling politics; it was necessary and continues to be so as a way to leave the aesthetic-ideological ghetto, but also the generational ghetto. The lessons learned do not have a single meaning or direction, but are multidirectional, and this is demonstrated by the assembly culture of consensus as a new idea, and not the simple summation of individualities.
The tides in defense of basic public services or student movements such as the well-known Valencian Spring, fostered a scenario of political culture and struggle around issues such as evictions or the visibility of the PAH [La Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca], the platforms for the closure of the CIEs [Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros] or the defense of education and health services for all. Anti-fascism, feminism, new forms of labor resistance, social strikes, neighborhood and tenant unions, or anti-speciesism also found expression. These are movements that during the past decade have managed to forge better spaces for debate, expand socially and achieve notable goals of social and political awareness.
“We are going slow because we are going far”, said the marches of indignation in the summer of 2011. Ten years after the 15th of May, everything still needs to be done. However, some seeds have been sown along the way. We at least will continue to write and collaborate in that sense, expressing in print and being an echo of what happens, which will be neither more nor less than what we decide and the history that we write day after day, decade by decade.