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February 2012, Week 4

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No Parties, No Banners

The Spanish Experiment with Direct Democracy
Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza
Sergi Bernal (CC)

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2012
www.bostonreview.net

On October 15 last year, 200,000 people marched in Madrid.
They were part of a Spanish movement that has come to be
known as 15-M--after May 15, the date of its first
action--or the indignados. The movement has broad support
from the Spanish public, both right and left, with 73
percent approving in recent polls. Participants and
organizers consistently report that "regular people" and
"first time" protestors, "not just movement activists,"
are deeply involved in the assemblies. As Irache, a public
school teacher participating in the march, told us, "The
crowd that day came from all walks of life in the city."

The six-hour march past the city's financial and tourist
center to the iconic Puerta del Sol was animated by the
now-familiar indignado chants: "if we can't dream, you
won't sleep"; "they don't represent us"; and "these are
our weapons," as protesters lifted their hands in the air,
a sign of agreement at assemblies.

Along the route there were more strollers than police. But
at least for North American eyes, what was most striking
was the absence of banners. True to the principles of
15-M, almost no one came with signs representing parties,
unions, or any other organized groups. The only exceptions
were the green T-shirts of the "Green Tide," an ad hoc
movement of teachers and students to defend public
education against drastic cutbacks. This group, Irache
assured us, was there to support the protest, and not part
of 15-M itself.

The lack of banners is essential to the work of the
indignados. As a movement, 15-M does something novel,
bringing people together as equal citizens, not as
representatives of particular interests or bearers of
particular identities. Claiming broad allegiance--8 million
people say they have participated in at least one 15-M
event--the movement has broken the barrier between
political activists and ordinary citizens. It shares
principles of nonviolence and nonpartisanship with the
Occupy movement and other peaceful demonstrations around
the world. But its central demand--for a direct,
deliberative democracy in which citizens debate issues and
seek solutions in the absence of representatives--is
unique. 15-M represents a striking challenge to
traditional political actors--parties, civic associations,
unions--and to democratic politics itself.
* * *

15-M has evolved to become a new political subject,
distinct from the original Internet-based group--Democracia
Real Ya, or Real Democracy Now (DRY)--that organized the
mobilization of May 15, when about 20,000 people gathered
in Puerta del Sol. Three months earlier, on a Sunday night
in February, ten people met in a Madrid bar to began
planning the event. They had already been exchanging
opinions online about the political and economic situation
in Spain. Their meeting ended with both a slogan--"Real
Democracy Now: we are not goods in the hands of
politicians and bankers"--and plans to hold a demonstration
the week before the municipal elections of May 22.

Although DRY targeted unemployment and mortgage reforms,
the main message was not about the economic crisis but
about the breakdown of political accountability and
representation. Some commentators on the left criticized
this message as insufficiently radical, but more than 500
organizations and movements supported the May 15 event,
even though DRY rejected official collaboration with any
political party, union, or other expression of
institutionalized political ideology.

The gathering was a success. The widespread disaffection
of Spanish citizens took center stage at one of the
nation's most visible sites.

That was supposed to be it.

But not all of the participants left the plaza. Initially
about 50 decided to stay. By midnight, this group had
dwindled to just over twenty. They decided to spend the
night in the square. Most of the holdouts did not belong
to any social movement; they were not seasoned activists
or even members of DRY. They stayed, some of them said,
because they were "tired of demonstrations that finish
happily and then: nothing."

A physics PhD student acted as moderator for the group
discussions, and a 28-year-old journalist spoke on behalf
of the group when the police asked them to leave. They
managed to stay in the square until the next morning and,
in exchange, guaranteed the police that they were not
going to riot or disturb the peace. They organized into
small committees to look for food and makeshift
mattresses. One of the protesters used a smart phone to
spread word of the occupation, with the Twitter hashtag
#acampadasol.

The next morning, Monday, the police chased them out, but
messages on Twitter and Facebook called for another
sleepover that night. This time nearly 200 people
attended. The police forcefully removed the occupiers
before midnight. By Wednesday nearly a thousand people
were camped out. A judicial injunction against the
encampment only emboldened the growing movement. On
Thursday the numbers increased further, and the first
tents appeared. Protesters in Barcelona and Seville
followed suit, setting up camp in public spaces. By
Friday, May 20, more than 10,000 people were camped in the
Puerta del Sol. And many more came on Saturday to express
solidarity. Twenty thousand people spent the day holding
back the police.

continued at
http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.1/gianpaolo_baiocchi_ernesto_ganuza_spain_indignados_democracy.php

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