(BRUSSELS) — “Tonight [Jan. 18], we are going to demonstrate in front of the headquarters of the ruling Partido Popular [People’s Party] here in Madrid and in several other cities of the country. This is going to be a big demonstration, you know. A huge corruption case has been uncovered: 22 million euros held illegally in Switzerland by the former treasurer of the party. This is public money, used to illegally pay members of the party. We want them to resign!”
Luis Barcenas was the People’s Party treasurer for 28 years until an investigation was started against him for allegedly accepting bribes from businesses vying for lucrative government contracts. The news has hit the headlines in media all over the country, fuelling people’s anger.
Pablo Gallego, a 24-year-old market research analyst, is visibly excited by the prospect of the coming demonstration, but also somewhat stressed: “The Spanish police is getting more and more aggressive, much more than what used to be the case with the former socialist government actually. They will probably ask for our I.D. card and try to put pressure on us to make us leave.”
In recent months, the Spanish government increasingly has been repressive against demonstrating citizens, through the imposition of fines and arrests. In some instances, the riot police used plastic bullets and tear gas. “They are trying to criminalize us. But we won’t be deterred,” Gallego said.
Two hours later, the demonstrations could be followed live on one of Spain’s leading newspapers’ website. People gathered by the hundreds, chanting slogans like “Thieves!” “No, no, they do not represent us” or “Rajoy [Prime Minister] resign, the people does not admit you!”
Yes, for anyone doubting it, the Spanish Indignados are still very much active and pursuing their struggle.
Mobilization of the Indignados
Gallego was among the first to mobilize back in 2011. “I want to change the world,” he said as a way of introduction. In February 2011, he was looking for a job. “Whenever I got an appointment with a company, they would tell me: ‘You have a degree, you speak foreign languages, all right; but there are a lot of people like you, so what makes you different?’ This is when I realized there were a lot of people like me out there that wanted to improve their lives. And so I decided I wanted to change things.”
It all started with a post on his blog — I am fed up with the situation in Spain and I know I am not the only one. He got a massive response from people who could relate to his story. Through the web and social media, he got in touch with more and more people. Together, they would discuss the situation and the best way to remedy it. The idea of a first demonstration slowly gathered momentum. A platform of people wanting change was created — Real Democracia Ya [Real Democracy Now].
On May 15, 2011, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Spain’s major cities. The “15M movement” was born, better known under the generic term of “Indignados,” as they called themselves in reference to the title of a booklet by a French former diplomat, Stéphane Hessel, “Indignez-vous!” [Time for Outrage].
In France, the 32-page booklet sold almost a million copies within the first 10 weeks of its publication in 2010. Although poorly written and too short, it clearly tapped into popular anger.
”We gathered at the Puerta Del Sol, one of Madrid’s main squares and we stayed there for several days. There were more and more people coming to support us,” Gallego said.
He was right. He was not the only one to be outraged; a lot of Spanish people were fed up with the situation. A huge unemployment rate, a housing bubble that had burst leading to hundreds of people being evicted from their homes, an economic crisis — life was getting harder and harder.
“On top of that,” Gallego added, “there was no political alternative and trade unions were not moving.” So citizens, young and old, working and unemployed or studying, decided to take the matters into their own hands.
The Indignados wanted the government to take responsibility for what was happening. They wanted it to stop the financial rescue of the banks, to find a solution to the huge unemployment rate, to stop the banks from evicting people from their homes, to end corruption and to adopt a new elections law.
“You know that in Spain, due to the system, the government does not actually represent the people, it leads by majority. They only got about 30 percent of the votes and they have an absolute majority. There are actually more people that did not vote than that voted for the ruling PP party,” Gallego explained.
In July 2011, with three other people, Pablo wrote a book “Nosotros, los Indignados” [we the Indignados]. What compelled him to do so? “Well, at that time, we had only just started with the actions and the media was quite aggressive with us. They would tell us we were not doing anything, that we were not mature enough, disorganized and things like that. So we wanted to write the book to show the Spanish people we are like them: some of us study, some work, others not. We wanted to explain who we were and what we could do, but also what they could do to change the situation.”
Growth of the movement
The media were wrong. The movement survived and grew. The May demonstration was followed by a second one in June and a third in October, the biggest one ever.
“That one was taking place simultaneously is several parts of Europe and beyond. We also were in touch with the Occupy Wall Street movement,” Gallego said. “This was quite an achievement, because as you may know, the organization of our movement is horizontal — we have no leaders. Small assemblies organize everything.”
Did the movement manage to get any concrete results? “We did manage small things, like for example a change in the electoral law. But I think our major achievement has been the change of mind of the Spanish people. Our democracy is only 35 years old and it came after 40 years of dictatorship. So, for a long time, people were afraid to speak up and to meddle with politics. Now, they are no longer afraid; they speak up. There is a new political consciousness.”
The situation in Spain is not improving though, quite the opposite. Spaniards are suffering a record unemployment rate at 26.6 percent and people are having an increasingly hard time. Cuts in spending on education, welfare, pensions and health care have affected the weakest.
“We all have family or friends confronted with a difficult situation,” Gallego said. “The government says companies are not doing badly, that growth will revive later this year or maybe next. But for smaller companies and self-employed, life is still very difficult, nothing has changed.”
Does he feel disheartened or disappointed by the lack of progress? “No. When we were in the Puerta Del Sol in May 2011, we thought we’d go slowly because we knew the road would be long. And in retrospect, we can say that the 15M movement is really mature now. We needed this long journey to get where we are now. We have changed the consciousness of people,” Gallego said.
Additionally, he goes on: “Two years ago, it would have been unimaginable for our movement to talk with other associations, let alone political parties. And now we are discussing with other movements including small, alternative political parties.”
Does that mean the Indignados are going to go into politics after all? “No,” Gallego said. “The 15M movement is not going to go into politics, at least not as such. But we are working on two other fronts: the first one is educate voters on the current political parties. We want them to be aware of all that is wrong with them. I think we managed quite well with the Socialist party; they did badly during the last elections. Now, we have to do the same with the Partido Popular. This is why tonight’s [Jan. 18] demonstrations are so important. People need to realize how corrupt this party is.
“And then of course, we have to prepare the ground for their successors. We are now busy talking to the smaller political parties to get our voice heard: we share our feelings and our demands and we tell them: ‘If you change this and that, you can count on our support.’ But we are only just starting the negotiations and we are nowhere near the end. We’ll see where that gets us,” Gallego said.