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Youths Defiant at 'Spanish Revolution' Camp in Madrid

Sarah Rainsford

People take part in a demonstration in Madrid Thursday May 19, 2011. Spanish university students and youth groups are protesting against a youth unemployment rate of 40 percent and austerity measures taken to end Spain's debt crisis. The biggest banner in Spanish reads 'Change'. (AP Photo/Arturo Rodriguez)

Thousands of Spaniards in central Madrid have vowed to defy a ban on their protest camp and continue their open-air sit-in.

Spain's electoral board has ruled that the gathering cannot continue into the weekend.

It argues the protest could unduly influence voters taking part in local and regional elections across the country on Sunday.

The decision was met with jeers in Puerta del Sol, where thousands gather every evening - and hundreds have been camping out for five nights now.

Dubbed the "Spanish revolution", the protest began with a march through Madrid on Sunday, led by young Spaniards angry at mass unemployment, austerity measures and political corruption.

It turned into a spontaneous sit-in on the square in Sol, which organisers say has now been mirrored in 57 other cities.

Independent of any trade union or political party, the protesters' ranks have been swollen through campaigns on social networking sites and Twitter.

"Finally the Spanish people are on the street," says Juan Lopez, 30, a camp spokesman. He lost his job six months ago in a round of staff cuts due to the economic crisis.

"Young people are here because they're worried about the future. We can't tolerate it that 43% of the young have no jobs. That should be the first priority of our society," he argues.

Spain's young generation has been hard-hit by the crisis. Most had temporary contracts, making them cheap and easy to fire.

Many highly-qualified graduates are forced to work as low-paid interns for years and a growing number have moved back home to live with their parents.
'Democracy camp'

Increasingly frustrated, they have finally found their voice.

"On Sunday we realised we were not alone," Juan Lopez explains. "Before [the march] we didn't feel we could make a difference. Now we want the politicians to listen to the people, and help change our country."

The protesters' demands, pasted up all over Puerta del Sol, are impossible to ignore.

A statue of King Carlos III on horseback has been decorated with declarations. The metro entrance is now a vast citizens' noticeboard. "We are not slaves," one sign says; another instructs: "No alcohol: today the priority is revolution!"

The camp has become more organised by the day, with bright blue tarpaulins strung from statues and lamp posts and tents pitched on the cobblestones. There are sofas, mattresses and - since Wednesday - four chemical toilets, provided by the firm for free.

Behind a table piled high with fruit, biscuits and Turkish delight, is a mountain of milk cartons, canned fish and crisps.

"I brought bread, tomatoes, cheese and chickpeas," says Leticia Moya, 28, an unemployed nursery worker who lives close to the camp and is one of many supporters donating supplies.

"I feel we should all collaborate, however we can. I can't stay sleeping here overnight, but at least I can bring food. I don't have much, but I prefer to spend my money on this, than on going out at the weekend," she says.

Usually filled with mime artists, tourists and shoppers, the plaza in Sol has been transformed into a vast democracy camp.

During the day, curious locals - many of them pensioners - tour the site, joining in on one of dozens of animated debates.
Suggestions box

There are committees for food, cleaning, legal affairs and communication and daily assembly meetings that hear proposals and allow joint decisions to be made.

"It's the young who are leading this," says Alfredo Guerra, admiringly, as he listens in on one assembly. A hotel worker, aged 56, he also lost his job in the recession.

"Our life is practically over, but they are acting for their future. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose," he says.

A core group of protesters have been camping out non-stop since Sunday. Others, who have to work or study, sign up for shifts to join them.

A rough attempt by police to dislodge the apparently peaceful demonstration on Sunday night only brought more people out in support.

In one corner, there is a queue to sign a petition that reads: "We want to demonstrate that society is not asleep, and we will fight for what we deserve. We want a society that prioritises people over economic interests."

"We're fed up with politicians governing according to the markets, and not the needs of the citizens," explains Antonio Rodriguez. "They don't represent us - we're asking for change," he says.

Opinion polls show the Socialist government will fare badly in Sunday's elections. But the protesters in Sol are no happier with Spain's right-wing alternative.

There is much talk on the plaza of electoral reform - to prevent power simply switching back and forth between two parties. Many also demand a ban on all candidates implicated in corruption.

Proposals for debate are posted in a suggestions box.

The camp in Sol has been growing every night, even spawning its own internet TV channel - - and dominating the local news coverage. But as it all emerged spontaneously, no-one is quite sure where it will lead.

Later on Friday, the protesters will discuss the electoral board's ban on their action and take a formal decision on their response.

Individually though, they have already vowed to stay put - right in the middle of Madrid.

"For the moment, we're staying here 24 hours a day," says Juan Lopez. "We have to make sure our message is heard."

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