At midnight on Saturday, July 23rd, the bells atop the municipal building on Madrid’s Puerta del Sol sounded the new day. It was a lonesome sound: despite the many thousands gathered below, no one seemed to hear. Their hands were waving in the air and their eyes were directed towards the center of the square; a chant rippled through the crowd. “Que no! Que no! Que no nos representan!” (“No way! No way! They don’t represent us!”).
The late José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and an infamous thorn in the side of mainstreams politicians, described a not altogether unrelated situation one of his final novels, Seeing. On a certain election day in a certain Iberian capital city, the citizenry turn out en masse to deliver blank votes. No party wins, every party loses: it’s a slap in the face of the establishment and a challenge to the notion that representative democracy is an end and not a means.
Saramago died last June. Less than a year later, his odd vision may be materializing in the streets of Madrid. A nascent protest movement that has been slowly gaining steam throughout the summer (the “movement of 15-M,” after the date on which the first major protests broke out, May 15th) appears to be assuming the mantle as the vanguard of the disaffected, prospect-less segment of European youth — a segment that seems to be approaching a majority.
The so-called indignados (the “indignant”) have a long list of specific grievances: record unemployment (around 45% for Spanish youth under 25), a shrinking social safety net (spending by the federal and provincial governments has shrunk nearly 10% in the past year), and tone-deaf politicians (arranged in a rigid two-party system closely resembling that of the United States), to name but a few. Spain, along with Iceland, Ireland, and Greece, was one of the European countries hardest hit by the 2008 crisis and its aftermath. The intimate nature of the Eurozone’s economic structure — which mandates, in theory, that risk be spread out throughout the region — means in practice that stronger countries can dictate the terms of bail-outs and social spending cuts to weaker countries. This is all purportedly in the interest of avoiding another system-wide meltdown; but to people on the ground, who find their pension guarantees and educational subsidies suddenly evaporated, it smells suspiciously like corruption.
This impression is in no way belied by the fact that the CEOs and regulators responsible for the crisis seem by and large to have remained in power — and, inexplicably, to have enriched themselves in the process. Anger at this state of affairs was a common refrain this past weekend as thousands of protestors walked, biked, and bussed from the disparate corners of Spain into Madrid. Marching towards the Puerta del Sol (where the movement had kicked off over two months before), they shouted at spectators on the sidelines: “A ti! A ti! A ti tambien te roban!” (“You too! You too! They’re also robbing you!”)
Six columns had arrived in Madrid from the furthest points of the Iberian peninsula. One of the largest contingents, La Ruta Norte, had gathered demonstrators from the northern Basque country and all the towns between it and Madrid to the south. On Friday, a few hundred diehards — many of who had been walking for nearly a month — arrived at the Parque del Norte in the north of Madrid to prepare for the day ahead.
One pilgrim, Aritza from Bilbao, shrugged shyly as he calculated the kilometers he had traversed.
“I don’t know. Maybe 400? I left last month.”
But even after so much time on the road, he had trouble formulating his reasons for coming to Madrid.
“There’s not just one reason,” he said. There are so many reasons . . .” He laughed, perhaps overwhelmed by the task of cataloguing the outrages. “The system is entirely broken. These people, they’re robbing us — but no one goes to jail.”
Around 6 p.m. on Saturday, the northern march began its final push. Although largely composed of young people of a decidedly alternative bent, the group had more than its fair share of grey hairs and fanny packs. Signs calling for global revolution and an end to injustice were hoisted; a protest leader sporting a clown nose issued instructions regarding drumbeats and pace. Then, with a joyful and anarchic whistling, they were off.
The municipal police had had the foresight to block off a feeder road to the side of the Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid’s major north-south artery. The strategy worked for all of 45 minutes, as the members of La Ruta Norte offered Madrid a series of songs (“Lo llaman democracia, no lo es” [“They call it democracy, but it’s not”]) and the occasional sit-down, in which the mass of people — steadily growing past thousand as city dwellers joined in — crouched and raised their hands, crying “These are our only weapons!” By 7 p.m., however, the pluckiest among the vanguard decided that the main highway served their purposes better, and from there until Sol the Castellana belonged to the demonstrators.
The column, chanting “Esta crisis, no lo pagamos!” (“We’re not paying for this crisis!”), reached Plaza de Castilla, about a third of the way to their destination. Alberto, a septuagenarian from northern La Rioja, seemed remarkably enthused for an old man on his twentieth day of marching. He was helping to carry a large sign that read, somewhat obscurely: “Human Faktor for a New Conscience.”
“Not just political conscience,” he explained. “The conscience of everything . . .” He waved his hand around vaguely in the air.
“There’s not going to be a result today,” he continued. “Demonstrations don’t have results.” His eyes narrowed. “It’s the work after that counts.”
A little past 9, the columns began to arrive in Sol. As Southwest, South, Southeast, East, Northeast, and Northwest entered the square, a tremendous explosion of drumming, whistling, and chanting washed over the square. La Ruta Norte was the last to enter, rushing before beneath a sign that read “Welcome, Dignity.” It was the tipping point for the crowd, the moment that turned Sol — heretofore, and largely since May 15th, the consumer nexus that it had always been — once again into a symbol for righteous indignation. Another chant broke out, this one exponentially louder than those before it: “Del norte a sur . . . de este a oeste . . . la lucha sigue . . . cueste lo que cueste!” (“From north to south . . . from east to west . . . the fight goes on . . . whatever the cost!”)
An hour of ecstatic meeting, greeting, and screaming ensued as the columns mixed and melted together. Circles of dancing could be seen, and the press of human flesh became ever tighter. The protest’s anonymous organizers, their voices broadcast through speakers secured to the elevator shaft, slowly calmed the crowd down and enjoined them to sit down. The tourist contingent gradually thinned out; South Asian immigrants peddling beer and soft drinks rushed in, despite the scolding of a few high-minded protestors. As the sunlight receded, quiet fell over the crowd, and a voice welcomed the columns:
“Are all the marches here?”
“Are you sure no one’s been left out?”
A long “narrative session” was the first item on the agenda. Representatives from each contingent approached the microphone and shared tales of their journeys to Madrid. A young man from Barcelona identified the struggle against entropy as his main motivation; another protestor from the northeast preached, “The money is theirs, but reason is ours.” A native of Valencia shared a poem; a rap about solidarity was presented. Throughout, the organizers reminded people to now use glass bottles, to let pedestrians through, to make way for emergency staff. Sol had transformed into a massive sit-in, somewhat resembling a participatory seminar composed of several thousand people; the sounds of the city seemed distant and irrelevant, as demonstrators smoked cigarettes, provided running commentary, cracked jokes.
The protest continued with further tales and quips: “This struggle is not just for our economy, it’s for our culture”; “My generation has been resigned to the way things are . . . we must wake up”; “It’s hard to unlearn what we’ve been taught all our lives. But we are here, educating ourselves and each other.” And, underscoring once again the paradox of a citizenry resisting its own allegedly democratic institutions, a young man added: “It’s an occupied city — let’s tell things how they are — but the people are here to take it back.”
After a few more songs and the much-appreciated testimony of a sympathetic policeman, the night wound up with a “silent shout,” with the remaining thousands silently waving their hands in the air. Many departed towards a nearby neighborhood to camp and rest for the next day; the others, natives or spectators, stumbled home. Sol, usually the meeting-point of drunken tourists at this weekend hour, assumed a quiet and resigned air as the remaining demonstrators settled down to sleep.
Sunday was a day for deliberation. Madrid’s main park, El Buen Retiro, is a sharp contrast to the Plaza del Sol, with its lazy stretches of grass, rose gardens, and neo-classical fountains commemorating goddesses and poets. By eleven o’clock several hundred demonstrators had arrived to talk and to agitate, with a decibel level drastically lower than that of the previous evening. They installed themselves outside the park’s orbnate Crystal Palace, sitting patiently under sycamores as organizers led them through discussions of internal communication, international solidarity, and national coordination. The setting made one think of the Sermon on the Mount or an impromptu gathering of Ghandi’s followers — only here, there was no preacher or leader: only participants taking turns.
The decentralized nature of 15-M is a necessary result of its positions and demands. A movement that decries the effects of the Eurozone’s economic structure and the ineffectiveness of its own national political system cannot logically reduce itself to a figurehead or a flag. But whereas the need to avoid constructing such false idols is evident, the wisdom of maintaining such a loose approach is less so. On Sunday afternoon, another major march — Spanish press put the number of protestors at over 35,000 — retook Sol, and the encampment that had been the symbol of the movement throughout May was reinaugurated. The following day, 15-M’s first “Social Forum,” an expanded and more formalized version of Sunday’s discussion, took place next to the Crystal Palace. The energy was still there, clearly, perhaps even growing: but one had the feeling that the indignados were beginning to repeat themselves. How much more marching and patiently discussing? Would there be a program, a definite list of goals — or would things continue this way until the next major demonstration planned for October?
But the fact that the movement has persisted, and even grown, in the two months since its inception, is telling. The discussions by the Crystal Palace may or may not result in a clear path ahead; certainly, the next step will have to be consist of more than mere diagnosis and catchphrases that have so far characterized their dialogue. The fact still remains, though, that the indignados have shown no sign of renting their anger out to any political entity, and remained steadfastly opposed to any false promise of representation. If the events of this past weekend — the level-headedness of the protest, the hesitant efforts to move from demonstration to deliberation — are any guide, this approach may well become a model for their compatriots in other countries, whose Molotov cocktails and anarchy signs have done little to change the minds of their own parliaments.
Indeed, for the aimless and skeptical of Europe — those whom the British government cleanly classifies as NEETs, “not in education, employment, or training” — there may be no other choice.