MADRID, Spain -- The crowd of three thousand sat patiently on the hard pavement of the plaza as the fourth hour of the popular assembly came and went. The issue was whether Camp Sol, a protest that had persevered for two weeks in Madrid's main square known as Puerta del Sol, would dismantle or stay on. Protesters were exhausted from living on the streets; there had been a few cases of harassment and tensions between groups; the infrastructure of the camp was fragile; electricity was scarce. The camp's legal team had kept police at bay but there were no guarantees that it would remain that way (a similar camp in Barcelona had been attacked by police the day before). And even if those problems were resolved, how much longer did it make sense to occupy this enormous public space? Had the movement consolidated enough to dismantle its most visible and symbolic gathering?
A slight, young woman addressed the crowd. Trembling from nerves but with fire in her voice, she said other camps were springing up like wildflowers all over the country. She had come from the western region of Extremadura, where protesters in different cities were sleeping under the night sky, prevented by authorities from pitching tents. "Our survival depends on Camp Sol," she begged. "If Sol disappears, the police will dissolve our camp and all the others in Spain." As the moderator was about to take another comment his telephone rang: after a few seconds, he told the gathering that thousands of students in Paris who had gathered at the Bastille in solidarity with the Madrid protest were being gassed by police. Many in the crowd vowed to head for the French embassy after the assembly (protesters in Barcelona remained at the French consulate all night blocking the entrance and it was forced to stay closed for most of the following day).
As the towering clock over Puerta del Sol struck midnight and consensus remained elusive, the moderator reminded the crowd that organizers had agreed to wrap up the assembly so neighbors could get some rest. Racing against time, the issue was simplified -- the assembly would only decide on whether to remain for the short term or leave the next morning, postponing a final decision on how long Camp Sol should exist. A few dissenting voices were heard, and then at last, thousands of hands waved towards the night sky as the crowd agreed to keep Camp Sol going --at least for the time being.
Thus ended one of the many assemblies that have become the life force behind Spain's blossoming popular uprising. The decision-making mechanism is far from new: older folks here nod their heads remembering the hours spent in their youth trying to reach consensus. But Spain's young people have managed to transfix society and confound an out-of-touch political élite with their level of organization and ability to rapidly spread to other neighborhoods, cities and even countries. They do not speak the language of politicians and reject vertical models of organization. They reach decisions through consensus. They listen. They are inclusive. And what they seek is a profound transformation, one that transcends political parties and traditional methods of government; they envision a system that brings grassroots democracy rooted in the communities. Their weapons are their words and the social media networks.
Camp Sol, which began spontaneously on May 15th with a few pitched tents to protest against corruption and the lack of opportunities and to ask for democratic changes, is now a small city, a maze of plastic carps held together with chicken wire and makeshift poles, complete with its own radio station, daycare center, dining areas, first aid posts, legal aid clinics, libraries (including one for children) and information centers, which conduct meetings and workshops on issues ranging from the environment to immigration rights. At any one time, a walk through this "micropolis" might yield a live poetry reading, a political debate, a cello concert, a yoga class, a kids' theater performance, or a film screening on a king-sized bed-sheet. Sandwiches and drinks are handed out for free all day; in return, many people visit the camp with armloads of food, building materials and other donated supplies. Protesters keep the camp clean, recycle garbage and have created orderly corridors and a large perimeter for passersby. Tahrir Square is their model.
The camp is in the heart of Madrid's commercial and tourist district, a cross between Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. Known as Kilometer Zero because of its central location, the area receives thousands of visitors and shoppers on a daily basis. On a recent afternoon, a group of French sightseers toured the camp as part of their itinerary. "I knew about Spain's art and food, but I am now discovering the enormous potential that its young people have," remarked Patrick Joseph, a middle-aged writer from Toulouse. And indeed, Camp Sol is also a massive shop window into Spain's social movements, a chance for thousands of social justice groups and activists to converge and to get their message across to a wider audience.
But the camp is also under fierce pressure from the conservative local government, local business leaders and police to disband as quickly as possible. Some businesses complain that the occupation has diminished their sales (others, especially the cafés and grocery stores, are doing healthy business thanks to the protesters). The camp has so far avoided police intervention, despite Spain's main electoral governing body declaring the site illegal on May 21st, the eve of local elections, commonly referred to as the "day of reflection." Over 25.000 people turned out in the plaza to protest the prohibition. The final decision on whether to send in police to break up the camp rests with the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who so far has been reluctant to intervene. But pressure to disband the protesters continues to mount.
The seeds sown by Camp Sol are the assemblies and open mike sessions that have spread to hundreds of neighborhoods, towns and villages across Spain. Although there is a prevalence of young people, the movement is increasingly attracting older folks ranging from families with children to middle-aged professionals and retirees -- all deeply affected by the deep economic crisis and the government's austerity measures. Young "Indignants" in other cities such as Paris, Athens, Buenos Aires, Bogotá and Brussels have supported the movement with protests of their own. Organizers hope these assemblies will take over once the main camp is dismantled. Unemployment, social injustice, lack of true democracy, declining social services, rising costs of education and corruption are just some of the topics they debate.
"I am here to say that if the police takes my son away I will take his place, and so will many other mothers," said Gloria Agulló, a 63 year-old woman at a recent open mike session. "He has graduated from university and obtained a Masters degree but has not been able to find work in two years. Where else should he be, but here in Sol reclaiming his future?"
So what drove Spain's young people to create a parallel society in the heart of the capital? Or perhaps the question should be: what took them so long? After all, almost half of Spaniards under the age of 24 are unemployed, twice the European rate, and of those who have work, more than half are underemployed or earn close to minimum wage (614 Euros or $887 per month). The lack of affordable housing prevents most young people from leaving their parents' home and many young couples cannot afford to have children, resulting in a steep drop in Spain's birth rate. Spain's Socialist government has not been able to address these needs: panicked at the possibility of a Greece-style bailout, it has heeded the International Monetary Fund's instructions to cut social spending, slashing pensions, public payrolls and educational programs. At the same time as schoolteachers are being laid off, the government has bailed out Spanish banks to the tune of 50 billion Euros (about 14 percent of its GNP).
In addition, many point to a bankrupt political system. On May 22, municipal and regional elections gave the conservative party, known as the PP (Partido Popular), an enormous victory over the Socialist Party, which suffered a stinging defeat. Many of those elected have been accused of political corruption and some, such as the reelected President of the Valencia autonomous region, Francisco Camps, are even facing trial for involvement in a widespread corruption scandal known as Gürtel uncovered by judge Baltasar Garzón. Refusing to endorse what they see as a corrupt system, most Camp Sol protesters decided to stay away from the polls. "They do not represent us" is one of the rallying cries in the plaza.
"Just two months ago I had been asking young people why they had not taken to the streets like their peers in France or in Portugal," said Elena García Quevedo, a journalist working on a documentary about Spain's youth. "They told me it was a matter of time; they were sure that it would happen. As soon as the protests began, I called all my contacts and none of them picked up their cell phones. It turns out they were at the heart of the movement."
On a global scale, today's young people were written off in early 2010 by former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Khann, who referred to them as the "lost generation". In Spain, the mainstream media refers to Spanish youth as the "Neither-Nor" or "Ni-Ni" generation: neither studying nor working. Massive youth gatherings, at least those covered by the media, have usually involved the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, a practice known as botellón (one of the largest signs hung by protesters in Sol says "Revolución no es botellón" or "Revolution is not boozing," and the camp rejects the sale or distribution of alcohol on its premises). Spanish society, suffocated by a structural economic crisis that has almost left five million unemployed, has practically given up on its young people. Many university graduates have been leaving Spain for German jobs or for emerging employment markets in Brazil and Mexico.
These young people have re-named their generation: they are now "the Indignant." They are tired of a system that condemns them to unemployment and underemployment. They feel that asking for change is not sufficient; they need to force it. "Spain's democracy does not seem real to them," says García. "They are more prepared than the generation that preceded theirs: they are better educated, speak more languages, are more well-rounded. They have so much to offer, but their country has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, the political parties are mired in corruption and infighting, and unions have negotiated rights away. They are not models for them."
"The movement is still working on a blueprint, but so far we have been able to agree on four main demands," says Iván Martinoz, a young publicist who is one of the movement's spokespeople. "We want to change Spain´s electoral law, which favors a two-party system, so that we can move towards a representative democracy. We want a real separation between government and the judiciary, because in Spain judges are often tied to political parties and act accordingly. We want politicians accused of corruption to be banned from running for office. And we are asking for the creation of control mechanisms on government so that citizens have more access to information. This will allow greater transparency and political accountability."
Where will this movement lead? Some young people who originally occupied Puerta del Sol under the name 15-M have already left the camp and are organizing through social networks; they believe that Camp Sol has served its purpose and that work must continue in neighborhood squares. Others who remain in the square and call themselves "Real Democracy Now" want to make sure that neighborhood assemblies, hundreds of which convened for the first time on May 28, take root before Sol is dismantled. All agree that Sol will continue to be a reference for the movement, and are looking for ways to leave a sign of permanence in the square. As the moderator said on the night when the assembly decided to remain in Sol, "no matter what happens to Camp Sol we now exist as a force to be reckoned with, and if Spanish society does not pay attention, we will be back."