Long before the Occupy movement besieged Wall Street a year ago, the 'Indignados‘ set up their tents in the center of Madrid. The tents have gone and the Spanish people’s protest movement has become less visible.
To many foreign observers, the Spanish 15-M movement which first shook Spain and the world on May 15, 2011, has failed. In fact, most Spanish people have lost faith in it.
"They refused to join existing political groups - that's what tore them apart," said Leon Arsenal, author and the commissioner of cultural affairs with the Spanish party Unión Progreso y Democracía (UPyD). Arsenal admitted, however, that the May 15 protests were what triggered the worldwide ‘Occupy' movement. "It was the first time that Spain was a pioneer in anything."
Work behind the scenes
Arsenal‘s party shares the goals of the Indignados ("the indignant ones"). That's the name the various protest groups joined in the 15-M movement gave themselves. Both UPyD and the ‘Indignados' want more participation of citizens in the political decision-making process. They fight for simpler state structures and for more transparency. But while Arsenal's center-right party has grown over the past few months, the 15-M movement seems to be fading from the public eye.
That said, behind the scenes its members are still active. The massive tent camps full of protesters singing on Madrid's Plaza del Sol may be gone, but thousands of volunteers are continuing their protest. It's just less visible and tends to take place in the poorer neighborhoods of big cities.
"15-M has become a movement of voluntary social workers," said their spokeswoman and coordinator Ruth Martinez. The 33-year-old journalist has a master's degree in languages and medieval literature, and despite her qualifications she among the 24 percent of Spanish people who are currently unemployed.
Family as a safety net
The average income for people in Spain between the ages of 20 and 45 is between 1000 and 1500 euros ($1300 to $2000). Until now, families have served as a safety net for many young people who often live with their parents until they get married. But with private debts on the rise, even families are now slowly reaching their limits. "That's where we help out," said Ruth Martínez.
Thousands of lawyers, teachers and doctors who sympathize with the 15-M movement offer their services for free. Many of them have lost their jobs themselves. Others fill out tax declarations for people in need and help out when people are evicted from their houses.
In neighborhoods like Madrid's Lavapies, where many immigrants live, the work of the 15-M movement is particularly important. There, 15-M members protest in banks, in public offices, and they assist people in need.
Occupied houses and public assemblies
15-M regularly organize public assemblies. "We do whatever the government and the media fail to do. Of course we occupy an increasing number of empty houses because we think it's unfair that families are evicted from their homes simply because the banks have talked them into accepting exaggerated mortgages," said Martínez.
15-M's latest success is that a lawsuit against the insolvent bank Bankia has been accepted. That means that some of the people in charge will at last have to explain themselves in court.
"We don't storm buildings to the same extent anymore because the police in Spain intervene massively. And when you organize protest gatherings with more than ten participants you now risk fines. But that doesn't mean that we've vanished from the scene worldwide." 15-M and all its sub-forums will be taking part in the Global Noise event, organized by the Occupy movement worldwide on October 15, 2012.
Nevertheless, 15-M is still a big success, said Ignasí Carreras Fisas, director of the social innovation department at the Barcelona-based business school Esade. Even if it hasn't developed enough political clout to actually pave the way for real change. "Traditionally, protest groups are in a difficult position in Spain. Some regions have a strong desire for independence, which makes it hard for these groups to act on a national level. But 15-M and the Indignados have managed to overcome that to some extent."