Politics 15/05/2021

15-M: ten years from the anger that wanted to challenge the establishment

It was a laboratory of alternatives without material changes, but it strengthened social movements

6 min
15-M, ten years of the indignation that wanted to checkmate the system
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Barcelona / Madrid"When everything explodes, you see that it could go further, it seemed as if you were making the revolution". The feeling for many was precisely this, the one described in a few words by Miquel Àngel Sànchez, who together with hundreds of people decided to camp in Barcelona's Plaça Catalunya ten years ago, tired of suffering the cuts associated with an economic crisis that 15-M wanted to translate into democracy. Probably few imagined that the demonstration on that Sunday, May 15, 2011, framed in a wave of unrest generated in the networks, would unleash a social movement that would shake the Catalan and Spanish political and social system. Because the spirit of 15-M was this: to organise anger. Ten years later, however, the material achievements are meagre and the most tangible success is a cultural change for thousands of people.

The call spread like wildfire through an emerging platform: Facebook. The proclamation, turned into a platform, was "Real Democracy Now" and the slogan "We are not merchandise in the hands of bankers". A lot of people saw an opportunity to channel their discontent and to bring about change. "It's the first demonstration I went to of my own free will", explains Fernando Santacruz, from Sant Adrià de Besòs, one of the people camped out in Plaça Catalunya. However, it would not have been possible without the previous experience of a consolidated social fabric, says sociologist Carmen Haro, who was involved in the protest at Puerta del Sol in Madrid. V de Vivienda, the opponents of the Sinde law or the No a la guerra are previous struggles that converge in the 15-M.

The malaise was growing because of the management of the economic crisis, which had brought the biggest cuts in public services, and to which cases of corruption had also been added. "The will was to solve problems, but not around an ideology", says Simona Levi, activist and founder of Xnet. "It had a disruptive and unforeseen character", says former CUP MP David Fernàndez. The protest broke out in the middle of the election campaign for the municipal elections of 22 May, but did not end up changing the results. On the contrary, the PP swept to victory in Spain - also in the general elections at the end of the year - and CiU did so in Catalonia. Its impact would begin to be felt over time.

David Fernàndez and Gala Pin in Plaça Catalunya

Assembly dynamics

Plaça Catalunya, like many squares all over Spain - and later with replicas in other parts of the world - was filled with tents, sleeping bags and stoves. A small city to try to lay the foundations for reversing the system; from the bottom up, starting with the ways in which decisions are taken. The commissions and, above all, the mass assemblies became one of the images of the movement, with hands raised as a sign of approval. "It was very difficult, one of the most impressive things I've ever done", recalls Sandra Ezquerra, a sociologist and member of the commission in charge of energising and organising the assemblies. "They were marathonian sessions, but I think they were useful, because they created the habit of assembly as a way of acting", says Anna Martínez, a health worker at the Hospital Clínic involved in health collectives who also took part in the Plaça Catalunya camp. It is true that there were no leaders, agree all the voices consulted. Carmen Haro recalls that on Tuesday 17 May, the day after the police evicted the first campers and managed to reoccupy the Puerta del Sol, she put her voice to the manifesto by the simple chance that she had it transcribed by hand in a notebook.

Image of the indignados at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid

The days of protest opened multiple debates - with talks by personalities such as Arcadi Oliveres or the current minister Manuel Castells -, among which self-determination played a secondary role, according to Ezquerra, although David Fernàndez recalls that it was approved with more than 80% of the support.

The "democratic overflow" that the protest became, says the former MP, is demonstrated by the fact that no case of disobedience was ever opened against the demonstrators camped in Barcelona. There were, however, prison sentences for eight young people who participated in the protest that surrounded the Parliament on June 15 and that left images such as Artur Mas and Núria de Gispert arriving by helicopter to participate in the debate on the budget.

The political representatives, the target of the movement's criticism, experienced it with discomfort. The then Minister of Home Affairs, Felip Puig, ordered the eviction of the square on 27 May, with charges by the Mossos that left more than a hundred injured and judicial sentences against the head of the operation, Jordi Arasa. The indignados managed to maintain the encampment and reinforce it until June 30, when the Mossos and the Guardia Urbana evicted the hundred or so people who were still sleeping there. Most of them had already left before, with the aim of decentralising the network towards neighbourhoods and municipalities.

Image of the encampment in Plaça Catalunya

"The people who had been involved in different struggles for a long time got to know each other. It helped us to get even more people organised", explains Aurea Martín, who is still involved in groups like Tanquem els CIE. "To make a network", adds Anna Martínez. However, not everyone continued activism after 15-M. Miquel Àngel Sànchez, a resident of Sant Joan Despí, became involved in the assembly of his municipality after 15-M. He admits, however, that he was "disappointed with the results". After a while, he left. Fernando Santacruz, in addition to the PAH, also joined the comuns for a while, but ended up leaving too. In any case, both agree in highlighting "the learning" of 15-M. "It helped people to think about things that were not even taken into account. Much of how I see the world comes from that moment", says Sànchez. "It was an awakening. We broadened our gaze and stepped out of our comfort zone", says Javi Gómez, who took part in the Sant Joan Despí camp. In fact, it was 15-M, he says, that made him decide to work in education. Former Barcelona City Councillor and activist Gala Pin sees 15-M as a "revulsive" for classic movements like the neighbourhood movement and also as planting the seed for others like housing, feminism and anti-racism. The clearest proof is the PAH, with Ada Colau at the forefront, which came out reinforced.

The institutional leap

The movement did not only remain in the squares. The growth of the CUP in the municipalities and its entry into Parliament is one of the consequences, however, above all it was seen with the birth of Podemos in 2014. "Podemos does not represent 15-M, it is simply a political expression of discontent", says the Lilac member of Parliament Lucía Muñoz, who took part in the Palma encampment. The emergence of the party, which took on many of the demands that had been heard in Sol or in Catalunya, is seen as the leap to the institutions of the indignation that resounded in the squares. However, not everyone sees it that way. "Podemos steals a symbolic capital that it even opposed", says Levi, who believes that Party X was the true heir.

"Without 15-M the phase that opened in 2014 and 2015 is not understood", defends Ezquerra. However, she specifies that the movement was "much more than what Podemos has become". "The 15-M was more ungovernable, radical and rupturist. Podemos is an evolution of 15-M in a possibilist key", she says.

The democratic crisis is perpetuated

The "they don't represent us" was one of the loudest proclamations that rang out ten years ago. And the call could be heard again now. "The crisis of representation has not been solved", says political scientist Pablo Simón. "It's a classic problem", says sociologist Marina Subirats, who reminds us that taking the step from the street to the institutions means entering "into the logic of parties" and, therefore, adapting to the system you were contesting. And this can lead to perpetuating political disaffection. "One of the negative consequences of entering the institutions is that the streets have been emptied", laments Anna Martínez. "There are certain social and citizen problems that have not found a channel for resolution in the institutions", admits the president of Unidas Podemos in Parliament, Jaume Asens. This is corroborated by Gala Pin, who gives the example of migrants, who in many cases do not have the right to vote.

In a context of health and economic crisis, and without the democratic crisis having been resolved, is another 15-M possible? "Hopefully", agree many of the testimonies. "Surely there will be, but it is unpredictable to know when and what characteristics it will take on", defends Subirats. "15-M turned fear into indignation", recalls Asens, who warns of the danger of the extreme right capitalising on the unrest. "It is a social outburst at a time of crisis in which the unrest ends up being framed within left-wing parameters, and now the social unrest, the crisis, is being won by the extreme right", warns Gala Pin in the same way.

The 1-O, the post-sentence mobilizations of the Catalan independence bid or the protests due to Pablo Hasél have been social outbursts in the key of challenging the system. "The 15-M and also the PAH put the need to disobey at the centre. And this makes it easier for there to be a 1-O", says Asens. But they do not enjoy the transversality that Carmen Haro sees in ecologism or feminism, two movements which she trusts will re-activate the street. It is the hope of the activists who drink from 15-M because, although the cycle has surely closed, most of the shortcomings of the system that they denounced ten years ago are still more valid than ever.