The #spanishrevolution and Beyond

From the Series: Occupy, Anthropology, and the 2011 Global Uprisings

Photo by Maple Razsa.

With the collaboration of:Mauricio Perondi (UFRGS, Porto Alegre, Brazil), Jordi Nofre (UNL, Lisboa, Portugal), Ariadna Fernández-Planells (UPF, Barcelona), Mónica Figueras (UPF, Barcelona), Vanesa Toscano (UAM, Madrid), José Sánchez (UAB, Barcelona) and Teresa López (UdL, Lleida)

On May 15, 2011, just before the local elections in Spain, during which the effects of the financial crisis were debated for the first time, diverse platforms such as “Democracia Real Ya” (Real Democracy Now) and “Jóvenes sin futuro” (Young people with no future) organized a demonstration in Madrid that was much larger than expected thanks to the Twitter viral effect. At the end of the march, a group of about a hundred people decided to occupy the Puerta del Sol, the emblematic center of the Spanish capital, where they spent the night in an improvised camp. The violent eviction attempt by the police the following night had the contrary effect to what had been intended: the hundred campers became a few thousand, and popular support skyrocketed. The movement was called the Los Indignados (The Indignants), a reference to the book of the same name by the French human rights activist Stéphane Hessel (2011).

Vanesa and other anthropology students were in the camp from the beginning, actively participating in the creation of this utopian micro-polis. A month later, in June 2011, she showed us around the still occupied square, which she described as “a small city,” with everything rennaissance utopias (like The City of Sun by Tommaso di Campanella [1623]) suggest an ideal city should have: participatory democracy, equality, communal life, spatial planning, the sharing of labor, and the abolition of private property. This is how she remembered her life at Sol during the occupation:

The camp was configured like a small city. From the beginning streets were established where people could walk. Different areas were marked by colored tape, including spaces for walking, sleeping, eating, and leisure. Diverse commissions were created to organize the camp. In the corner of love you could chat about metaphorical matters and meditate; there were places where you could get a massage after a tiring day at the camp; and there was even a children's library with a small nursery. Everyone was living for the movement, for their belief that it would all work out. It has been said many times that we are the Erasmus generation: we had contacts with other cultures, our training enabled us to assume more complex roles and architectures. But we were not just a youth movement—the people from the area and the homeless also helped. They undertook logistical tasks, they made tables and chairs for us, and put up canvases when it rained. It was a very heterogeneous movement, you could find anyone: students, precarious workers, regular workers. There were many people from many places. It was like a small world inside a world, but fantastic. So spontaneous, and yet so well organized (Vanesa, 30 year-old, student, Madrid)


The camp originated on the Net, and from the Net it moved to the square, and from there, it returned to the Net (#acampadasol, #acampadabcn…). The day after the occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid, a group of young people in Barcelona did the same in Plaça de Catalunya, which had emerged as an “unresolved” urban space in the project of Ildefons Cerdá, meant to connect the formerly walled city with the modern area of bourgeois urban expansion and recently adopted as the new city agora, as a celebration point for Footbal Club Barcelona (Barça), New Year's Eve, festival concerts, and as a meeting point for locals, tourists, couples, families... and "the Indignants". The mobilization was connected to memories of local resistance, both more recent and historical (Anarchist Barcelona was known at the beginning of the 20th Century as the Rose of Fire). In the past two decades, the Catalan capital has been host to a vigorous anti-globalization movement, entrenched squatter or “okupa” struggles, as well as anti-Bologna student mobilizations and university-based protests against the European Higher Education Area. We visited Plaça de Catalunya on May 22, election day. The atmosphere was relaxed and festive. Most of the campers cannot be classified as “antisistema” (anti-systemic) or “perroflautas” (flute carrying young dropouts with dogs), adjectives used among certain police sectors and the extreme rightwing press. Rather, they are largely young people from the middle classes allied with actors from other sectors, including retirees. In addition to the anthropology and architecture students (who were perhaps able to put into practice their ideas about minimalist urbanism); as children many of the campers had likely participated in the esplais, leisure education organizations similiar to the boyscouts, where they had learned how to build campsites (such as those that were now being constructed in the city).

The square was organized in commissions and assemblies, and there was even an information service with an orientation map. Participants invented a code of gestures to show agreement (holding hands up and twinkling their fingers) and disagreement (crossing their hands). After a few days, on May 27, the police violently evicted the participants under the pretext of having to clean the plaza before the Champions' League Final (an enormous sign sponsored by Nike with the Barça colors is displayed on a nearby commercial building). The eviction lasted just a couple of hours. A SMS warning about what was going on at the square and images of police violence - published instantly and distributed on the Net from many Facebook and Twitter accounts - brought loads of supporters to the plaza. Passersby, family members, friends, and sympathizers of the 15M Movement joined the cause of “reoccupying” Plaça de Catalunya and repelling the violent police attacks. The police were surrounded, but used rubber bullets (forbidden years ago in countries like France, Germany, and Great Britain, but not in countries that suffered fascist dictatorships in the second half of the 20th Century, such as Spain and Greece) to open a path through the crowd. But this only increased support for the movement. The following Saturday, when Barça won the Champions League, the celebration gathered Barça supporters and Indignants. The latter surrounded the square to prevent the police from taking over the square and to separate themselves from the habitual troublemakers at football celebrations. Toni, a student and camper from Barcelona, explained his story:

The Arab uprisings motivated the people here. We thought, 'let's see if this takes place one day in our country.' And look what happened... On the first day I didn't go to the Plaza Cataluña because I thought there wouldn't be anyone. On the following day, as I left the university, I walked by the square and I saw there were a few people, about 20, so I decided to stay and get informed. I just talked to them. Then the whole thing started to grow. During the first few days I participated in the assemblies and the cacerolas, I wasn't in any commission, but later I joined one. To learn more I attended meetings; I talked to people in the square and via Twitter when I got home. The day of the eviction a friend who works near the square called me at 8 am. I arrived at 9 am. After everything finished I stayed overnight.” (Toni, 21 year-old, student, Barcelona)

The Iberian Squares and Beyond

The 15M Movement once again places Spain on the world revolutionary map. Although the triggers are local (Spain, together with Greece and Portugal, is one of the European countries worst hit by the economic crisis, with youth unemployment rates in January 2012 of 49.9%, 51.1 %, and 35.1% respectively), the antecedents and the effects are global. Thanks to the Net, the 15M globalization is lived in real time. Without the examples of Tahrir or Syntagma, no one would have thought of occupying Puerta del Sol, Plaça de Catalunya, or any of the many other squares that were occupied during the third week of May 2011; and without the relay to Wall Street, the 15M Movement would have faded away. The Puerta del Sol camp does not exist anymore, but the activism has been transferred to the neighbourhoods. It has been decentralized.

Last, but not least, in this peaceful revolution, anthropologists, traditionally at the service of colonial “indirect rule,” have become “organic intellectuals” of the occupations. Many anthropology students in Madrid and Barcelona camped from the first day and participated actively in the commissions and in the design of the camp. Some anthropology professors gave classes at the camp, and many others expressed solidarity and published their reflections about the movement. Together they put into practice their knowledge of interculturality, nomadic cultures, the origins of urbanism, the relation between person and environment, segmentary forms of political power, cybercultures born in the Net, and the forest of symbols. Applied or implicated anthropology?

Postcriptum (July 30, 2012)

The 15M of 2012, for the 1st Anniversary of the ‘Indignados’ Movement, the squares were occupied again, with less people and for few days. In Madrid, the conservative party at the government didn’t allow people to reoccupy Sol Square. In the following months, as it was prefigurated by the ‘Indignados’, several spanish banks were to be rescued, the whole country was under supervision by the european institutions, and the rates of youth disemployement grew up to 53,21%.

Carles Feixa is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Lleida (Spain) and is a co-editor with Pam Nilan of Global Youth? Hybrid identities and plural worlds (Routledge, 2006). The other authors are researchers from various universities and participants in the GENIND project: The Indignant Generation: Space, Power, and Culture in the Youth Movements of 2011: a Transnationl Approach (CSO2012-34415).