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‘Indignant ones’: The Spaniards who launched ‘occupy’

It has been 10 years since a group of Spaniards angered by the economic crisis took their fury onto the streets, occupying public squares in a new form of protest that caught on worldwide.

Under a clear blue sky on May 15, 2011, thousands gathered in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square and set up camp, refusing to budge for weeks in a mass protest over unemployment, corruption and homelessness.

Calling themselves “los Indignados” — or “the indignant ones” — their protest hit the headlines around the world.

And a decade on, images of these tens of thousands of demonstrators camping out in favour of a better world still capture the imagination.

Among them were young people, pensioners, the unemployed but also those with jobs — all gathered in makeshift tents, sleeping on cardboard boxes in a sort of improvised alternative village.

“Without the crisis of 2008, the movement wouldn’t have existed,” says Pablo Gallego, founder of Real Democracy Now!, a collective involved in organising the 15M (May 15) protests.

On that day, with unemployment topping 20%, thousands hit the streets around the country following a wave of outrage on social media, explains Klaudia Alvarez, who co-wrote a book on the movement with Gallego, called: “We, the indignant ones”.

“The explosion of individual complaints on social media showed that what was happening to you was happening to others as well,” she said.

Fuelled by social media, the protests were horizontal in structure, decentralised with no identifiable leader, and took shape without the involvement of unions or political parties.

“The movement had no label … but was very political,” emphasised Pablo Gallego, remembering “with a lot of tenderness” this “romantic” moment for which “these people who had never been militants and were demonstrating”.

Its demands were idealistic in nature, denouncing the excesses of capitalism, the instability of jobs and an electoral system that favoured the big parties.

“The movement was non-partisan and not linked to the unions, but it was very political,” said Gallego, who remembers the early days of the movement “with great fondness”.

“It was very emotional… people were demonstrating who weren’t activists.”

A sea of protesters

“We are the people,” they would chant while blocking the eviction of indebted families, denouncing the austerity imposed by the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank as Spain was gripped by record unemployment affecting half of the under-25s.

And they organised on social media via a campaign launched simultaneously by 80 people on Twitter, “creating a trending topic” which caught the media’s attention, recalls Francisco Jurado, a 38-year-old lawyer and former Indignado activist.

Oscar Rivas, 48, remembers Madrid’s Puerta del Sol being covered by a sea of people who adopted a new way of communicating: hands in the air to symbolise applause, windmilling arms for going in a circle, and arms crossed to express dissent.

Embarrassed by this widely-supported protest, the Socialist government at the time didn’t move to evacuate the squares, allowing the “Spanish revolution” to intensify.

By mid-June, the protesters had packed up their camps but swore they would not be silenced.

And their new form of protest quickly spread beyond Spain, inspiring the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and other similar movements from France to Greece.

In Spain, the movement inspired the creation of Podemos, a far-left, anti-austerity party which burst onto the political scene in January 2014.

Created by a handful of academics, it quickly became the third political force in the country, shattering three decades of bipartisan hegemony by the Socialists and the right-wing Popular Party.

In January 2020, Podemos entered government with its leader Pablo Iglesias, a former Indignados activist, named a deputy prime minister.

“The demands of the 15M movement were very diverse but backed by nearly all the parties in Spain,” said Pablo Simon, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, indicating the protests were the result of “widespread disillusionment with traditional politics”.

“It’s a phenomenon that has politicised a whole generation of Spaniards, especially those born in the 1980s and since.”

And 10 years on, the landscape has changed.

Although Iglesias has just announced his resignation from politics after an electoral setback in Madrid, the Puerta del Sol activists believe it was their action that set the scene for the mass protests against climate change and huge rallies in support of feminism.

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Marie Giffard
Marie Giffard is a journalist based in Madrid, Spain.

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