One could be forgiven for being a little confused about what exactly is going on.
Colorful hand-painted signs -- thousands upon thousands of them -- are strung up from every tree, and pasted on every surface in and around the central square: "End the corruption!" they scream. "We want jobs!" "Democracy is our fight!" "Down with the bankers!" "Down with big media!" "World revolution," they cry.
"Go Vegan!" they yell. Wait, "Go Vegan?" What? But there is more: "Homosexuals against the Heterosexual hegemony!" "Equality for women!" "Save Western Sahara!" and of course the perennial favorite, "Free Palestine!"
It's such an exhausting mish mash of agenda items and demands that one has to retreat to the roped-off makeshift lending library to relax. There, donated books on everything from the ills of the patriarchy to the ills of consumerism are being sorted by friendly volunteers, as protestors lounge around on tatty cushions, reading, playing chess, chatting and making out.
A chemical engineer wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with "Spanish Revolution" is writing up his ideas about alternatives to the country's social welfare cuts and harsh austerity measures, to put in one of the suggestion boxes scattered on the rickety tables. A political science student is deep in debate with an illegal Cuban immigrant about the country's staggering unemployment -- 45 percent among those under 25, and 21 percent overall, the highest rate in the European Union. A young couple is reading Franz Kafka's The Trial out loud to one another on the couch.
Welcome to Madrid's historic Puerta del Sol square, where tens of thousands of young protestors are camping out to clamor for political, economic and social reform. Some want an overhaul of the electoral system, some an all-out revolution, others a reform of the financial system and others still--- just to be part of the scene. Together, they have created a pop-up mini tent city here over the past two weeks, complete with a children's crèche, a sanitation team sweeping the grounds and a press center filled with volunteers crouched over laptops and spinning out information with organizational skill that would rival any military field operation.
There is a central stage where musicians come to entertain and firebrands come to rev up the crowds during "general assembly" meetings. There is an arts center where the posters are made, two first aid stations, a small organic garden and a dozen water kiosks and meal counters, where volunteers hand out free ham and cheese sandwiches: breakfast, lunch, dinner and at designated snack times in between.
As the days go on, and the tent city grows, it has spilled out onto the surrounding streets and squares, with breakaway committee groups sitting around on the pavement holding meetings, and voting on everything from environmental degradation to the role of immigrants in society. There are people playing tambourines, there are jugglers, there is a workshop on how to fix your bike and there is, in the mix, also ferocious political debate.
The so called 15-M movement, named so because it started on May 15th, is gathering momentum outside of Madrid as well, and the protests, on a smaller scale, are being replicated in squares around the country, as well as overseas, where Spaniards living abroad have set up mini camps outside the country's embassies in Berlin, Paris, London, Amsterdam and New York.
"This is about protest," says a 28-year-old industrial engineering student-cum-volunteer press spokesman named Miguel Morales Padro, who briefs reporters in between sending out hourly tweets about developments on the ground, updating the movement's Facebook fan group page and uploading videos to YouTube. It is his exam week, he says, but this is more important. And, he shrugs, more fun.
"We are all from different backgrounds, and with different agendas, to some extent," Miguel explains. "But this is about joining together and raising a collective voice. It is about getting our society to reflect on the need for change. And I believe we will be heard, which is why I am here."
No one is in charge here and everyone is welcome. Volunteers walk around with their names on badges pinned to their t-shirts and the name of the "action team" they belong to written on bands wrapped around their arms: Xiomara is on the "legal team" busy going through the suggestions boxes and writing up proposals for the committees to address. Carolina is on the "respect team" breaking up any fights at the camp and keeping the peace. And Nafi, a Moroccan immigrant, is on the "donations team" making and posting lists of materials needed. Who can donate flashlights? Megaphones? More generators? What about Tampex? Shampoo? Toilet paper? Pizzas? Love?
How long will this go on for? "Until 'they' listen to us," is everyone's stock answer.
When it all started, a week before Sunday's local elections, it consisted of a few dozen disgruntled protestors in sleeping bags, who were soon removed by the police. It caught on though, and soon ballooned, with up to 30,000 young people thronging to the square on the weekend and many refusing to leave even after voting day passed, grabbing world headlines and triggering comparisons with the Arab Spring revolutions which brought down governments in Tunisia and Egypt.
The comparison is a stretch.
"They did not bring down the government in Cairo's Tahrir by doing meditation sessions and offering free popcorn," remarks a young policeman named Raúl, leaning on the door of a nearby bank, its façade now plastered with protest graffiti and posters, and watching the scene calmly. "There, they were out risking their lives and standing up to the tanks."
"Part of their problem here," he continues, noting the obvious, "...is that they don't have tanks to confront."
The protestors do not have permission to be in the square and have defied the ban on protests set last Friday by the country's Central Electoral Board who was worried it would disrupt the elections. But while there is a heavy presence of policemen and a few barricades set up on adjoining streets -- there has been no real attempt to vacate the youngsters.
And, despite the posters reading "freedom" and "revolution" in Arabic, the Kafiyas adorning several a non-Arab head here, and the frequent mentioning by the movement spokespeople of the mutual use of social media to get the masses out, most of the protestors will themselves admit they are not really like the Middle East revolutions, or, indeed, even modeled on them.
"We want to tweak the system, not destroy it," explains Beatrice Perez Alonso, an architect who cannot find a job in her profession and so works, unhappily, for a mobile phone agent. There are no palaces to storm and no dictatorships to topple in Spain -- a reality that can, in a way, make for a more complicated task, she explains. The lack of clear "enemy" makes for a lack of focus, she will admit, as she hands out plastic cups to anyone who wants a drink.
Nonetheless, she stresses, gently reminding fellow protestors to recycle, despite this lack a clear ultimate goal, as well as the lack of leadership -- she, like many of those gathered here, sincerely believes something monumental -- albeit inexplicable -- is taking place.
"This is probably the most worthwhile thing I have ever done," says Beatrice without any sense of melodrama. By her own admission, the 35-year-old had never been much interested in politics before now. "But I saw on TV that there were protests and I came over to check it out... and ended up staying the night. I don't even know why I did. I felt I was with like-minded people, upset about our country and trying to articulate that. I feel I was finally part of a bigger movement that was going to do something."
On Sunday, the protestors had their first real opportunity to do that something -- when the country went to local elections. And the results of the vote were shocking -- with the ruling Socialists led by Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero suffering a crushing defeat by the center-right opposition People's Party (PP) in most of the 8,000 municipal and 13 regional elections, even in the Socialists' traditional strongholds like Barcelona and Seville. It was the party's worst local returns in the history of Spanish democracy.
But the verdict is still out as to whether the protestors effected this outcome at all, and, more to the point, what the drubbing of the Socialites in any way benefits their agenda.
For, what the protestors appear to share is an emotional loathing of the powers that be -- from all side of the political spectrum -- and a visceral alienation from the old politics, but no concrete suggestions, yet, of what would work better. If the Madrid protests offered any clear view on the elections, it was that people should not vote at all.
And while Zapatero admitted the results were the penalty for Spain's dismal economy and high unemployment, the elections actually confirmed that there is no radical political alternative in Spain today, as the victorious conservative Popular Party offers the same plans for austerity in other guises.
"At the end of the day this is about insisting that those in power, whoever they are, start listening," concludes Beatrice. "Our leaders, from whichever party, need to know there is a problem. And, with thousands and thousands of us out here, we think they will get the message."
She stops to formulate what she is trying to say. "The music of our democracy is not in tune," she says. "We have a system. We just need to change it... That is what we are here to say.