‘Yes we camp’ activists hit Spanish streets

When Spanish officials banned a protest camp in central Madrid ahead of elections, thousands defied the ruling.

Supporters of a movement that protests against the ongoing financial crisis, politicians and bankers sit on the roof a subway station as they camp at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol May 17, 2011 [Reuters]

The repressive regimes that have ruled countries in the Middle East and North Africa with iron fists for decades are not comparable to those of European countries, but many of the challenges and threats that Egyptians, Tunisians or Libyans are facing are global and affect civil societies as a whole. Amid the biggest economic crisis in decades, Spanish citizens have taken to the streets to protest against corruption, unemployment – and a political structure that favours a two-party system. It has already been named “The Spanish revolution”. References to the Arab Spring have been made both by citizens, bloggers [Spanish] and mainstream media [Spanish] and videos like this from Tuesday’s protests from Spanish independent news site Periodismo Humano have provoked Middle East comparisons.

A few days before municipal elections in the country, the gap between the political class and other citizens could not have been any wider. With the unemployment rate rising above 20 per cent and more than a hundred candidates to the elections being charged with corruption [Spanish], citizens question the ability of the two main parties to meet their needs.

Exceeding everyone’s expectations

Demonstrations were organised in 50 cities by youth group Democracia Real Ya [“Real Democracy Now”] with the slogan: “We’re not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers”, but the massive camp that formed in Madrid’s main square – Puerta del Sol – on May 16 exceeded everyone’s expectations. Locations, dates, and details about the protests spread through social media, flooding users with pictures, videos, and text updates from demonstrators in Madrid and the rest of the country. In the context of increasingly decentralised information, mainstream media have had a hard time keeping up with news and events, while citizen-led media has covered the protests effectively.

Using Twitter, organisers are calling for grassroots demonstrations and sharing news and updates. The hashtags #15m, #15mani and #democraciarealya have been used actively throughout the protests to share thousands of links to photos and videos of the demonstrations across the fifty cities, as well as news on the upcoming elections and citizen demands and insights. User Anon_Leakspin shared this on May 16: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win. Gandhi #acampadasol #spanishrevolution.”

Later on, when demonstrators camped out at Puerta del Sol, #acampadasol turned into the most visible tag, inundating Twitter with thousands of messages and becoming a global trending topic. Since then, #nonosvamos [“we aren’t leaving”] and #spanishrevolution have also become global trending topics, while an English tag, #yeswecamp, shows the increasingly global character of the Spanish movement – with messages such as this from user JalapaRevealed: “We’re not against the system, the system is against us #acampadasol #yeswecamp #nonosvamos #DemocraciaRealYa.”

While mobilisations gain momentum, organisers and activists work on defining specific goals and strategies. Protesters camping out have established citizens’ committees to coordinate demonstrations, communications, food, cleaning, and legal issues. They are not alone. Renowned economists such as Jose Luis Sampedro have shown their support for the protests – and some of the most most highly regarded Spanish lawyers, David Bravo and Javier de la Cueva among them, have been helping with legal advice [Spanish] on the right of association and reunion [Spanish] and the steps that shold be followed to legally secure the camp. Both lawyers are part of a movement that is closely related to the current mobilisations: the campaign against the passing of the 2009 Sustainable Economy Bill [Spanish] (known by the Spanish as “Sinde Law“), which will most likely become effective by the summer and strike a major blow against net neutrality.

 Slideshow of the protests in central Madrid courtesy of Julio Albarran

“Don’t vote for them”

Is there a connection between the online campaign against the “Sinde Law” and the mobilisations taking place now? For more than a year now, Spanish internet users have been fiercely opposing the “Sinde Law”, which allows the Ministry of Culture to decide which sites should be blocked or have their contents removed, once complaints are received on the basis of public order, national defence, protection of minors or “safeguarding intellectual property rights”. Reactions to the law sparked an online campaign called “No les votes” [Spanish] [“Don’t vote for them”] that tried to mobilise citizens against all political parties that had supported the law, including the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the People’s Party (PP) and Catalan nationalists, the Convergence and Union (CiU) party. Spanish blogger Enrique Dans [Spanish] wrote:

“Your decision is important. We don’t ask you to vote for a particular party but to see that there are alternatives that oppose Sinde Law and its ideological scope. We ask you to protect net freedom through your vote, opposing those who deserve our punishment.”

A few months ago, in a piece for Global Voices Advocacy, we wondered if users supporting this campaign were fully aware of what was at stake – and if opposition to the “Sinde Law” could turn into a catalyst of a much-needed questioning of a system that threatens citizens’ basic freedoms. Now, it looks as though it has.

The Madrid Election officials banned organizers of the 15-M movement from camping out on May 18, allegedly because “there are no special or serious reasons” for the urgent call for the mass demonstration. Organisers defied them by converging on Sol for the third day, in spite of the rain – and opposition to the Election Board’s decision swelled across the country and the internet, with further demonstrations called in Malaga, Granada and Tenerife – and users sharing updates and supporting each other through social media, especially Twitter: “#acampadasol We are out in the rain because we care about democracy and fair rights and duties. Keep it up, from #acampadasegovia #nonosvamos.”

By occupying public spaces, both in the streets and online, Spanish citizens are taking inspiration from a global movement and reacting to a political system that is worn out and does not meed their needs and demands.

Leila Nachawati is a Spanish-Syrian activist and social media manager who writes on human rights and new forms of communication for Global Voices Online and Periodismo Humano.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.