Lessons From Madrid
“Reformas de educación! Quiero trabajo! 9/11: Inside Job!”
These shouts of frustration are only a sample of the diverse viewpoints expressed in the initial months of Spain’s Indignado (Outraged) Movement. With national unemployment hovering above 20% and youth unemployment at 46%, the Spanish people are desperate for change. On May 15th, ¡Democracia Real Ya! (DRY!), a self-described “citizens’ union”, called the people to occupy the iconic Puerta de Sol, the main plaza in Madrid. I joined 50,000 other indignant citizens to take the square. We were outraged at an economic and political system that had failed us. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Spanish youth sought to launch a European Summer.
Yet as the movement gained popularity, its aims became further diluted. I witnessed how DRY’s original platform for increased legislation on the banking industry and new electoral legislature quickly became lost in a sea of campaigns at Sol. Among the many targets of people’s placards were banks, schools and universities, labor unions, local governments, the Spanish government, the American government, the European Union and the United Nations. One section of the square even held rallies to demand economic justice from God. The largest banner in Sol told the story very well: “Lo queremos todo y lo queremos ya!” (“We want everything and we want it now!”).
Realizing that such a wide range of demands was reducing the force of the movement, the chief organizers of DRY! and other protesting factions met at the end of May to discuss different unifying strategies. They decided to ground the protests in decentralized participatory democracy: neighborhood People’s Assemblies. These were small, local gatherings that were held in every city district across the country, resembling the soviets that gave shape to the Soviet Republic in the early 1900s. The neighborhood assemblies met over a period of six weeks to determine what the residents of each individual district wanted from the 15-M Movement. At the end of June, seven columns of the Indignant People’s March started in sixteen different cities to march across the country and discuss and collect the people’s demands. When the columns convened in the Puerta de Sol on July 23rd, elected representatives from each march met to evaluate the different social, political and economic demands. These were redacted into an official manifesto, The Book of the People, and deposited in the Congress of Deputies’ register.
By structuring the protests around a limited set of concrete goals, the 15-M Movement lost a portion of its followers. Neither the neo-Nazis nor the religious extreme continued their rallies at Sol. Yet the majority of the indignados were inspired by the newly defined direction of the Movement. The Book of the People re-energized the protests and further inspired optimism to keep fighting for a more fair society. On October 15th, over 500,000 people showed their allegiance to the ideals of the Book by congregating at Sol as part of a day of global protests. The 15-M Movement staged another enormous protest in early December and plans on convening again on February 24th. The agenda of the Book has provided the Movement with a list of objectives that has unified the protests and encouraged the activists to continue their struggle for structural reform.
The initial chaos of the 15-M Movement is not too dissimilar from the incoherent idealism of Occupy Wall Street. Alexa O’Brien, the founder of U.S. Day of Rage, commented that the establishment of an agenda of unifying aims would be unfeasible since there is such a wide variety of factions within the movement. She argued that, compared to the 15-M Movement in Spain, the Occupy Movement represents a more heterogeneous society and must remain abstract in order to stay true to its activists. I was told by O’Brien that even U.S. Day of Rage’s foundational principle of restricting campaign donations to $1 per voter is misleadingly conceptual. O’Brien asserted that “this principle is not as simple as that. In order for us to be effective politically we cannot build a political agenda with defined objectives. We can’t just have a manifesto, we have to remain flexible enough to respond to a changing political environment.”
Yet history would seem to indicate that any overhaul of the system requires tangible goals. In Egypt, millions danced in the streets on February 11th after deposing Mubarak. The activists have recently returned again to Tahrir Square with the new purpose of ending the military rule. In the Civil Rights Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was deemed successful after 381 days when blacks were finally granted the right to sit anywhere on a public bus. By 1967, the Civil Rights Movement had already achieved many of its objectives, at least nominally: new voting legislation, equal economic rights, improved employment opportunities. As a result, Martin Luther King Jr. spent two months in isolation contemplating the new direction of the movement. He concluded that whites and blacks needed to unite under the common goal of fighting poverty. The title of King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” echoes the dilemma faced by the leading activists in Madrid last May. These examples demonstrate the need for common concrete objectives in a movement’s success.
As Occupy Wall Street enters its fifth month of existence, the Movement seems to be losing momentum. The call to retake Zuccotti Park on January 15th was only answered by a few hundred activists, in comparison to the 15,000 that marched on October 5th. However, there are few who would deny that the economic recession has demonstrated major flaws in the U.S.’ current power structures. It appears clear enough that substantial changes should be implemented. Yet if the Occupy Movement cannot collectively decide what the nature of these changes should be, then how will it ever attain sweeping reforms?
The distinction between the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street is illustrated by Amnesty International’s slogan, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” The Occupy Movement would be more effective if it went beyond solely condemning the economic inequality in America and shone light on potential solutions. The Movement would increase its effectiveness if it took a more pragmatic approach and formulated a unifying set of goals. In the People’s Assemblies of Spain, the ‘outraged’ Spanish citizens reflected on the 15-M Movement and discovered that, despite the ranging factions within the protests, they shared common objectives. The majority of activists had similar demands, including electoral reform, reduced military spending and improved housing rights, allowing the 15-M Movement to construct a coherent and powerful manifesto. Similarly, there appears to be much common ground within the Occupy protests. If the motto “We are the 99%” accurately represents Occupy’s fundamental ambition to reduce economic inequality, then it would seem plausible to unite OWS under a common program with several achievable aims, such as appealing the Citizens United Act, or re-instating the Glass-Steagall Act.
The continued fury in Puerta de Sol reveals that optimism stems from pragmatism. As the Occupy protests display dwindling energy and motivation, the organizers of the Movement would be wise to introduce a pragmatic and coherent agenda. The activists of Zuccotti Park should look to the indignant People’s Assemblies of Spain for a model of how this could be done.