Spain’s spontaneous street revolution
What soon became known as “The 15M Movement” and its camped-out protesters labeled “The Indignant” caught me, and the rest of Spain, totally by surprise. As one demonstrator’s sign read “Nobody expected the Spanish Revolution” couldn’t have been more true! The surprise came not from the lack of a cause for protest, in a country in which the unemployment rate of 22% is the highest in Europe, but rather the spontaneity of the movement, its resolve to stick it out through weeks of massive outdoor camps in city squares across Spain and its ability to remain a largely peaceful demonstration.
Since the crisis began in Spain, photographer Andrea Comas covered press conferences by Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, ministers announcing several major economic reforms, meetings between the main unions, employers and government, fighting between the ruling Socialists and the opposition Popular Party at Parliament, a trade union demonstration, a relatively weak general strike and, hardest of all, the unemployment lines. The economic numbers and unemployment were particularly devastating. And yet, out in the street nothing was happening. Far less happened than during the mass protests over the war in Iraq. But whoever you talked to, everyone was worried, tightening their belts and angry with the politicians and bankers.
Photographer Susana Vera recalled “On May 15, spring came and the ‘lost generation’ woke up. Like hibernating bears they stirred from their slumber with the first signs of sunshine and when they did, they took thousands along with them, all over Spain and from all walks of life. Mirroring the popular uprisings in the northern African countries these young Spaniards resorted to social networking to voice their worries over their bleak futures and their demands for real democracy. First, they marched together on May 15 in Spain’s main cities to demand a “Real Democracy” and to protest the government’s handling of the economic crisis. That same night, and spontaneously, they started camping out in packed squares in their tents and sleeping bags all across the country and vowed to camp out until the local and regional elections which were to be held on May 22.”
When Andrea went to a “Real Democracy” demonstration on May 15, organized through text messages and emails, she had the feeling it would be a great event – never imagining that it would be as big as it turned out to be. There were many young people alongside older generations. The march ended in the center of town in the Puerta del Sol square. Someone said into the microphone, “No matter what ideology you are, whether of right or left or if you’re apolitical…” Andrea remembers thinking, what nonsense, if that was the movement that it certainly would not get very far! She was wrong. A few remained in the square at the end of the demonstration and started a spontaneous camp out. The ensuing eviction from the square by the police that night and twitter did the rest. The flame had erupted and from that day on the Puerta del Sol square was packed with people.
Since then, “The Indignant” have not ceased to amaze Andrea with their ability to assemble and organize a camp that came to resemble a small village with several kitchens, a library, a nursery, a garden, solar panels, nurses, a legal department, a press department, cleaners and even people handing out water and sunscreen. But especially with something difficult to convey visually, the dialogue during the meetings. Very young people listened to all kinds of opinions thoughts and proposals sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate with the utmost respect. It was, in essence, a movement without leaders. The meetings would last for hours, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning with crowds of people sitting on the ground attentive to everything being said. General assemblies would discuss all the issues and the smaller assemblies or committees would discuss policy in the short and long term, economy, education, health, music and endless problems. The assemblies were not noisy as demonstrators adopted the method of raising their hands in approval or forming a cross with their arms for disapproval. The agreements reached at the meeting, except in the last few days, were of total consensus, a huge collective exercise in collective empathy.
Early on it became clear that the logistics of covering the protests was going to take quite a bit of planning and some very long hours. A hotel room overlooking the square for panoramic views was secured on the second day of the protests when it became apparent that, apart from pictures of the packed square, views from above of the expanding camp were needed. This would also be the only way to remain in the square 24/7 in the event the police decided to forcibly remove the protesters. We teamed up with our colleagues from television who had been in Egypt to cover events in Tahrir Square who pointed out that it was best to start staffing the protest around the clock just in case. Some of the best pictures of the camp and protest were to be made when people were still sleeping and some just awakening during those brief minutes of magical light found just before dawn, aided by the square’s light posts. Getting up early or staying up all night became a necessary routine in order to visually convey the bizarre scene as the mass camp out swelled with more tents, new tarps, and structures erected daily.
Susana explains “As a photojournalist, but also as a Spaniard fed up with political corruption and social injustice, it was exciting to cover the story as it unfolded. I was witness to the birth of a small parallel society in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol where nothing was done without reaching a consensus. It was the closest I have been to a participatory democracy, where everyone was welcomed to take part in the decision making process.”
The biggest challenges Susana faced was the need to bring a fresh eye on the protests day after day as well as dealing with demonstrators giving photographers a hard time for doing their job. “No one complained at the beginning of our coverage, as a matter of fact, many were thankful we were helping them by spreading the word out of Spain. But after the first week the uncomfortable life on the square got the best of them and tension within the group made them grow wary of us, even hostile at times” Susana said. And it wasn’t only the protesters, but even members of the general public who wanted to “protect” the demonstrators from what they called media manipulation. The owner of a newspaper kiosk chastised Susana “What you are doing is wrong, you can’t take photos of people sleeping at 6 a.m!” What irony; a man whose livelihood depended on the print press was trying to prohibit a photographer from documenting the story that filled the pages of the very publications he sells.
“Overall, it has been an incredibly interesting experience, not only photographically, but on a human level. It felt like documenting Spanish history, my history, in the making. Nothing can beat that”, Susana concluded.