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PROTESTOR (through megaphone): âOn May 15th, the citizens of this country â free, conscious and outraged!â
NOAH GIMBEL: Before Adbusters called on activists to Occupy Wall Street, thousands of Spaniards set up camp in Madridâs iconic Puerta del Sol, and in public squares across the country. Now, as the occupy movement around the U.S. sets its sights on the longer term struggle for social and economic justice with movements like Take Back the Land and Occupy Our Homes, the Spanish experience has valuable lessons to offer what is now a globalized popular front.
It started in Spring 2011 as the economic crisis in Spain worsened. A small group of activists sought to unify the countryâs disparate social movements behind a common cause. They launched Democracia Real Ya â Real Democracy Now â and called for a day of action on May 15th for all people to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Miguel Yarza, one of the spokespeople for the group, was a founding member.
MIGUEL YARZA: âEveryone in Spain was saying how bad the situation was, and that something needed to be done, but nobody did anything. So what that demonstration achieved was to join together the complaints of the society at large and bring a huge number of people into the streets. The following days, people camped in the Puerta del Sol, not from any initiative of DRY, but in a manner in which people decided to do so spontaneously. So that's how this whole movement, known as 15-M, was born in Madrid.
We have arrived at an absolutely critical situation, and we start to hear the blame cast on the fact that Spaniards are living beyond their means. But if you ask anyone, they will respond that first, Spaniards haven't been living beyond their means, second, they comply with everything they're asked to do - they've bought houses like they were told by the political class - a political class whose responsibility should be to protect the people they are supposed to represent - a job they have never done. So we have ended up in a very serious crisis, with an unemployment rate almost twice that of the next European country. And this type of protest generates more and more people, discontent with the situation, fully conscious of its seriousness, knowing that things can change.â
GIMBEL: The encampment at the Puerta del Sol lasted until August 2, when the national police evicted protesters and closed the iconic central plaza to the public, turning it into a parking lot for police vans. A number of demonstrators and journalists were seriously injured by often-unprovoked police violence. The eviction brought even more people into the streets demanding that public space be restored to the public, which it was after several days of demonstrations.
While the encampment was not restored, the movement continued its activities in other ways, most notably by joining forces with the Plataforma Afectados por la Hipoteca â a group founded in early 2009 to promote solidarity among people who couldnât pay their mortgages. They began to mobilize to stop evictions in November 2010. By May 15th they had successfully paralyzed some 20 evictions. Since May 15th, that number has reached 116.
The movement got another burst of energy as it spread around the world with the October 15th call to action that came to be known as Occupy Everywhere.
The October 15th protests drew a half a million people into the streets of Madrid and another quarter of a million in Barcelona. This time, though, instead of camping in public squares, protestors took over an abandoned hotel.
YARZA: âThere was a lot of controversy, most notably around the hotel just down the street from here. It was occupied the 15th of October, the police evicted the occupation in early December. The hotel had many floors, and the various floors were dedicated to, for example, the housing office for people who had had their homes foreclosed because they couldn't pay their mortgages, they let them live there in the hotel throughout the occupation.
Evidently, the state doesn't meet its obligations. Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution specifically obliges the state to guarantee dignified housing to all citizens. And there is no dignified housing. People get thrown out of their houses and are forced to sleep in a car. So if the state doesn't provide, we are trying to ourselves. And we are perfectly legitimate in so doing, because what we are doing is trying to realize what is laid out in the constitution.
This is very serious - the basic laws are not followed, and human rights are not respected. And if you read the preface to the Declaration of Human Rights, it says that the citizen has the ultimate right to rebellion. So if human rights are not observed, if the constitution is not observed, naturally, it becomes necessary to rebel against this system that prevents you from living with dignity.â
GIMBEL: The public appropriation of unused and abandoned buildings also has precedent in Spain. Throughout the capital, and around the country, groups and individuals have taken part in a many types of occupations, ranging from state-sanctioned takeovers of public properties lacking funding, to the clandestine occupation of empty apartments in direct confrontation with established notions of private property.
The now iconic social center known as La Tabacalera belongs in the former category. In the diverse neighborhood of LavapiÃ©s, the former tobacco factory has been converted into a self-sustaining popular space for art, music, gardening, social gathering and political assembly.
Other occupied spaces exist knowingly outside the law. Some seek to house families and individuals who lose their homes to foreclosure, others seek to create radical spaces from which to advance alternatives to dominant social norms. Few of these spaces grant access to journalists.
But all of these forms of resistance to the socio-economic inequality engendered by neoliberal corporatism have something to offer their international counterparts. And that is one of the primary tasks currently being undertaken by Democracia Real Ya and the 15-M movement.
YARZA: âNow we are making great efforts to expand the movement outside of Spain, we have partners working in the US, in Sydney, in New Zealand, in different European countries, we participate in whatever conferences there are, because it's very important to generate a critical spirit in society and culture to eliminate the conformity that prevails, and bring about change.
Even in the U.S. it's mainly the same - very many people, totally desperate, are living well below the poverty line. So I think in that sense it is very important to expand these movements beyond borders. Because the economy is global, speculation is global, the great fortunes invest their money all over the world. Markets - well, 'markets,' 'markets' are a group of investors who, if they go against the Euro, if they go against whatever, it's because they make more money, not because of anything to do with confidence. So what we have is a group of speculators who are attacking the Euro solely for their own benefit.
So here there should be a series of laws that regulate exactly this type of activity to avoid this tie of attacks. But in a fully neoliberal system as the one that exists, this doesn't happen. So what we are doing is to fight against this very society in general.â
GIMBEL: Part of that fight is to affect real change to the political system and achieve real representation in governmentâs dominated by narrow special interests.
YARZA: âIf you vote for a third party, you won't be represented. One of our principle battles is for a more just electoral law under which everyone will be represented.
We've also achieved things politically. For example, the city of LeganÃ©s was discussing the inclusion of people from âPlataforma Afectados por la Hipoteca" (affected by mortgage) and the 15-M movement in the actual political commission. Indirectly, it has been notable in the villages, at the local level, etc., that there have been great repercussions with respect to the movement.
Right now we're in a more pedagogic, educative phase, teaching the people what rights they have, bringing the movement to other countries, but most of all generating a critical spirit that is lacking in our society.â
GIMBEL: Affecting the political system poses massive challenges, especially with the recent ascent of the right-wing Popular Party to full majority power in November promising to impose harsh austerity measures in order to cut government debt.
YARZA: âAnd sadly, the PP is going to help us a lot: by making these cuts, what they are going to achieve is much more protest. People will become conscious that we are all responsible for putting into power irresponsible people, people who lie continually, and these cuts only drive this point. So we are looking to reach a critical mass of people to protest and exercise direct influence.â
GIMBEL: But as the movement moves forward, as much in Spain as in the U.S., it is important to recognize its failures and setbacks and learn from them.
YARZA: âThe foremost principal error is that people come with great hopes right from the start, and after a little while, they burn out and get tired thinking that this won't be a slow process. So what we tell to all of those who participate in our activities is to pace themselves.
The second error lies in the smaller groups that have broken off from the starting point of the movement. And this is an error that has always divided the working class, differentiating ourselves into groups. To focus on our differences accomplishes nothing. The important thing is to look at all the things that unite us - we are an immense majority with a lot of diversity - and then ignite a critical spirit.
We oughtn't go about trying to impose our solutions and our way of thinking, instead we should listen. The art of debating, as we practice in the assemblies, is an art of listening, listening to people and learning that they have different perspectives, which then enriches your own perspective. Thus you can be strong and steadfast in the future rather than have your efforts slowly die offâ¦So to realize that however small you feel, what gives us power are these connections and the ability to work together, and most of all to share the information that we have.â
GIMBEL: For the Real News, Iâm Noah Gimbel in Madrid.
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