Live From Spain's All-Ages Goodwill Revolution

The last week in Spain was a story no one saw coming. Two Sundays ago, on May 15th, protests led by a little-known group called Real Democracy NOW! were organized in a number of Spanish cities under the slogan, “We’re not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.” Turnout was larger than expected throughout the country—50,000 marched in Madrid—and afterwards a group of around 40 people decided to camp out in the city’s iconic Puerta del Sol plaza. On Monday, police used force to disperse the demonstrators, giving the group just the YouTube videos it needed to gain more momentum. Within days, thousands of people were occupying Sol, and a certain electricity had woven itself into the air. The occupation was dubbed the “15M” movement, for the 15th of May, and the twitter hashtag #spanishrevolution was soon being followed by people all over the world.

On Friday, my wife and I took the bus from Cordoba, in Andalusia, up to Madrid. We reached Sol around 10:30 p.m., an hour and half before the demonstration became officially illegal. Regional elections were scheduled across the country for Sunday, and, in Spain, a national “Day of Reflection” is imposed before election days with a prohibition on public politicking. Midnight marked the beginning of the day of reflection. There was uncertainty about how authorities would behave; even the government itself seemed unsure, with representatives making ambiguous remarks about what actions would be taken. As we walked down one of the radial streets flowing into Sol we saw multiple people with signs that said, “I’m reflecting.”

It was dark now but the sky absorbed light from the city below. We ventured into the dense thick of the crowd just as a guy behind us holding a battery-powered Real Democracy NOW sign turned on the message written in bulbs poked through the cardboard. The applause for this followed us as we began shouldering through the human labyrinth from the south side of Sol to the north to meet up with some friends. Crossing the plaza, which normally would’ve taken thirty seconds, took thirty minutes or more. (The next day El Pais newspaper estimated there were 28,000 people present.) The crush of the crowd on all sides was uncomfortable but exciting—like being at a once-in-a-lifetime but severely oversold concert. By the time we found our friends, it felt as if we’d been in Sol for days.

Despite the extremely cramped conditions, the event seemed defined by the good humor of the crowd. Patience dominated as people bumped into one another, squeezed past, made way. People smiled and patted one another on the shoulders. The sense of goodwill was contagious. Banners read: “This is not a botellón!” (Botellones are outdoor gatherings for drinking.) This sentiment underscored the sense of seriousness and purpose at work in Sol. Even so, this didn’t stop vendors from selling beer here and there, nor did it keep a perfume of hash from sweetening the air (consumption is legally permitted in Spain, though to do so in public is fineable). But I didn’t see one person who was visibly intoxicated.

A garden of signs swayed above our heads: “Enough!” “The Voice of the People Isn’t Illegal!” “They don’t represent us!” Some signs were too full of puns and cultural references for me to understand, so my wife, who is Spanish, explained them to me. One in English which played off the Obama campaign I had to explain to her: “Yes We Camp.” My wife, fiercely political but disheartened by the directionless malaise of her country the last few years, was teary the entire trudge across the plaza. “People are finally doing something,” she said. In the cadence of a schoolyard taunt, people sang: “They call it democracy but it’s not!” Rewording the chorus of “Guantanamera,” people hollered: “Re-flexio-nando…Estamos Reflexionaaando!”

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of 15M was the way it had dissolved many political and generational barriers that divide Spaniards. There is a general sense of alienation from democracy, and disgust with politicians for heeding financial markets first and their constituents second. That, combined with the highest unemployment in the EU (35 percent of people under 30 are unemployed), unpopular austerity measures, and recent revelations of widespread political corruption, have caused a normally apathetic, self-pitying citizenry to take an abrupt leadership role in Europe. Indignation requires no ideological consensus, which is perhaps one reason the 15M movement has been able to draw such numbers, as people could share their discontent with their neighbors and take to the streets together.

The pluralistic nature of 15M was on full display in Sol. The urban young were present in force, but there were also many people between the ages of 40 to 60. Married couples in their 50s stood together, often with glazed expressions, like they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. Under the tarped areas where various stations had been set up for food, medical attention and information about voting, a father and his teenage daughter gave us water. An elderly woman asked my wife where she could sign the petition to support “you all”—”you all” presumably being, well, everyone. The presence of these older generations made me feel confident that the police wouldn’t intervene—they wouldn’t want to risk causing a stampede. And indeed, they didn’t interfere the entire weekend.

Puerta del Sol is Spain’s equivalent of Times Square for New Year Eve celebrations, so the place is no stranger to theatrics at midnight. At 11:59 p.m., a hush descended on the plaza. It’s a strange thing to experience silence in a space filled with thousands and thousands of people. Of course it wasn’t true silence—the whoosh of the city was there in the background, the thrum of so many breathing bodies—but nevertheless the change in atmosphere was dramatic, as if there had been a sudden steep change in air pressure. People raised their arms up, wrists hinging wildly, fingers twiddling the air. In one minute the most potent gathering in the history of Spain’s young democracy would become illegal.

The bells rang twelve times as the silence continued.

Then a female voice sang out: “Feliz mundo nuevo!”

A sports-stadium roar followed. Not happy new year. Happy new world.

It’s Monday now and it’s not a new world. Yesterday the conservative Popular Party swept Spain’s regional elections. This isn’t a defeat for the people still camped in Sol, though, even if it reminds them that a large part of the Spanish populace has no interest in joining their fight. But the elections were never their concern. The 15M movement coalesced in disillusionment with the existing political parties. It is a movement born of fury at the status quo.

On Saturday, my wife and I returned to the plaza in daylight. The incongruous orderliness of the place again struck me. There was a daycare for children; a medical station manned by volunteer nurses and doctors; food donations pouring in; and water, sunhats and sunblock being passed around. A garden had sprung up around the fountain. Members of the Respect Committee circulated at the edges of the crowd to make sure no one got in the way of traffic. At the assemblies, hundreds of people were waiting patiently for their turn to speak. We sat in on the Committee for Long-Term Planning, and it was clear many people felt 15M had only just begun. Neighborhood outreach initiatives were being organized. The merits of derogating the 1978 constitution were debated. Whether the Arab Spring will truly come to Spain or not—almost surely, it will not—Sol still has allowed people to take a brief stroll through another world.

Aaron Shulman is a writer living in Spain. His work has been published in The New Republic and the New Statesman.