Democracy in action is a beautiful thing to see.
For the past few weeks, a colorful, makeshift camp erected by young Spanish protestors demanding government and banking reform have transformed Madrid's Puerta del Sol plaza into the symbol of a new wave of European populist activism.
As the summer progresses, it's possible that similar protests, complete with street theater, vivid and pointed posters, and impromptu speech-making, will erupt across Europe. As the 2012 election cycle revs up in the U.S., will the spectacle of grassroots activism across the Pond spark a similar movement here?
In Spain, the 15 Mayo campaign has mobilized tens of thousands. At its height, an estimated 25,000 people or possibly more showed up at Puerta del Sol, a touristy location that's home to New Year's Eve festivities, and that's the dead center (Km 0) of Spain's radial network of roads.
Floating its messages of populist reform via Facebook, Twitter and a series of city-specific web pages, the campaign gathered such momentum that even the self-satisfied Spanish elite had to pay attention.
The protesters aren't ideologues and most disclaim membership in either political parties or unions, though some of the strategic and organizational backbone of the movement has come from a recently formed political group called ¡Democracia Real YA! (Real Democracy Now!).
Lend an ear to the 20-year-old students or 35-year-old underemployed professionals who've illegally occupied Madrid's historic square, and with words tumbling over one another, they rattle off a uniform litany of complaints. They're fed up with corrupt politicians, and what they call the estufa or fraud perpetrated by international financial institutions. (Spain, too, suffered a real estate bubble and a ruinous surfeit of sub-prime mortgages.) Some talk about gender equality, food availability, and pay levels.
The trigger, however is unemployment. At 21.3%, Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the EU. Painfully, unemployment rates are over 40% for people under 30.
To an American visitor, these complaints sound familiar. And, some of the Spanish protest movement's goals closely echo themes of the American founding fathers: separation of the three branches of government, transparency (described in translation as "non-darkness") in government, and participatory democracy.
It's not for nothing that the protesters call themselves los indignados or "the indignant ones." The name implies self-respect. Underlying the Spanish protesters' world view is a ferociously personal critique of the global consumer culture and the international banking industry. "We are not goods to be bought and sold by bankers and politicians," they say, though their internationally recognizable uniform of denim and t-shirts is itself a testimony to the temptations of globalization.
With a Hollywood-worthy story line, the movement started as an impromptu response to a police crackdown on protestors marching in advance of Spain's May 22 elections. Reacting to the police repression, a handful of protestors defiantly occupied this central square. (Coincidentally, the plaza is called Sol, which means "sun," a useful double entendre for people calling for government transparency. ) The next day thousands joined in, vowing to stay overnight and erecting a tent city.
This is a grassroots protest that's poised for export. Its social-media driven viral message about taking back democracy spurred demonstrations of support in some 50 Spanish cities and towns, and internationally from London to Los Angeles. The movement's name, "15 Mayo," has been globalized into "15-M," deftly accommodating several linguistic variations on the month of May (English), mayo (Spanish), Mai (German), and maio (Italian). The Twitter hash tag, memorable if perhaps a tad grandiose, is #spanishrevolution.
In its infancy, this emergent Spanish protest movement sparkles with idealism. As you walk through the Puerta del Sol's maze of temporary tents made of hung blankets and tarpaulins, inhabited by thousands of protestors, you can almost hear a grassroots "movement" gaining its voice.
As one bearded, somewhat weary young lawyer camped out in a tent with a makeshift sign saying "Legal" said, "We do not have confidence in the banks and politicians. Our democracy is not working." But he added firmly, " We can do better."
Underpinning the optimism of the protestors is a DIY-generation, wisdom-of-crowds confidence. The lawyer added, "We need a new idea of how we can make society, to build another system. We can build it together. We rely on the collective intelligence of the people."
A young social worker who had spent a week camped in the plaza chimed in as with a fresh thought, but one that seasoned grassroots organizers would surely recognize. "Yes. People need to learn to think differently, to think politically, to connect their personal problems with politics."
Spain's newest protest movement exhibits a healthy wariness of the existing power structure. They disdain TV reports of their activities, claiming that TV only wants to cover spectacles, not issues relating to the global economic crisis. Their movement has adopted a rotating leadership. "The establishment wants us to have a leader. We have none. If we were to have one, then that person would be exposed to corruption," according to the lawyer, who like others interviewed, chose not to reveal his identity, or draw attention to his personal circumstances.
To date, the movement has issued only general demands. They want electoral reform in what they call a dysfunctional democracy. They complain that Spain's two dominant parties aren't much different, that unions have engorged themselves, that corruption and self-dealing hampers government, and that poor and middle class people are helpless in the face of a three-year downward economic spiral that has impoverished the common folk and enriched powerful financial interests.
Since its inception, the Puerta del Sol camp was primarily populated by educated twenty and thirty somethings. But it would be a mistake to assume that this social change movement is powered by youth alone. A bearded young man at the busy "communications" tent, where radio and TV interviews are regularly conducted with official (rotating) spokespeople, commented, "It is impossible to say how many we are. Standing behind me is my mother and my father and my little brother and my older brother -- who is employed. A lot of people who are not protesting in the street or camping in the plazas also support the movement."
Unlike anti-American protests of yesteryear, the 15-M protesters are the sophisticated progeny of a post-nationalist European Union. Much of Europe, reason the movement's spokespeople, have been disenfranchised and alienated by democratically-elected officials held hostage by corporate interests, entrenched elites, and powerful financial institutions, from Wall Street to the IMF.
As they see it, the failure of governments to represent the interests of everyday people "is not a problem unique to Spain. It is a global, social and economic political situation." As they decry Spain's crippling rate of unemployment, they issue a rallying call to people in Italy, Greece, Portugal and France. "We do not want support of our effort; we ask you to take your protest to your own streets," they say.
The tent city in Sol will come down soon. To keep the pressure on Spain's new government, the organizers called for a nationwide protest on Saturday, June 11. In the months ahead, the protesters say they will mount an outreach campaign in Spain's smaller towns, and abroad.
Spain's 35-year old democracy is young, dating to Franco's death in the mid-1970s. America's democracy is a mature 235 years old. But to this American observer, Spain's messy, spontaneous 15-M public mobilization is a breath of fresh air, a dynamic insistence that government respond to the mundane needs of the people for jobs, education, housing, and adequate pensions.
It's painfully striking that in the United States today, our own youth have responded to similar problems with, largely, a quietude bordering on lethargy. This year, a populist revolt in Tunisia catalyzed extraordinary uprisings in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations. Now, a new generation of wired Spanish idealists are sick and tired and not taking it anymore.
The 15-M movement has touched a nerve of populist discontent in Spain and Europe. Will the protest go viral, with legs long enough to jump across the Atlantic Ocean? Are we on the verge of a trans-Atlantic youth mobilization? Will we see a tent city of protesters spring up in Times Square or alongside the Washington Monument? Will American youth find their own political voice?
To find out, keep an eye on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.