30 June, 2013
Is a protest movement like a relationship? In the June edition of Periódico Madrid15M, Stéphane M. Grueso, a filmmaker, writes about the stages he has gone through since “falling in love” with the 15M movement. While the first year of protests on the street was intoxicating, it was also exhausting. Now that the initial burst of excitement is over (and he must sustain his family and work life) he admits that he’ll spend less time on the street and at the assemblies etc. But does this mean he’s less in love? “Of course not!” “Ahora se trata de pasar del enamoramiento a la fase del a vida en común,” he writes. “Now it is time to move from the falling-in-love stage to the living together stage.”
This is an important aspect to the 15M movement today because on the outside, it may seem that the protest is slackening or that the masses have been browbeaten by continued austerity, as has been reported about the Eurozone in general. But just because people aren’t on the streets as often doesn’t mean that change isn’t on the rise. (This article on CrisisRepublic.com is particularly relevant to that discussion in Spain). As I checked into some of the legal and political efforts going on in the background, I saw first hand that the flame still exists. There are still many people working to change the way democracy operates in the country and believe feverishly in that change.
“It’s getting stronger, but it’s not so visual, like the occupation of Puerta del Sol in the beginning,” said Bob, a British expat in his 70s who is very involved in 15M. “Now it’s the hard work, behind the scenes. And we’ve had some success.”
José, a fourth-year law student who started with 15M protests in Málaga two years ago, drew me a diagram to explain how the 15M movement had evolved over two years. He said that the initial cohesive force of the group had exploded with a “bang!” and splintered into the barrio (neighborhood) groups that function like support groups for those affected by the housing crisis. Within these groups, there are specializations, such as groups set up specifically to deal with immigration or housing etc. Then there are overarching bigger groups, pushing to analyze and work on the legal, judicial, and economic fronts.
I met Bob and a group of five others on a Thursday as they were setting up for a long evening of picking through bank and housing documents at La Morada, an occupied social center. Their group, one of the overarching ones, is called Citizen’s Court of Justice and they’ve been working for the past year and half to compile documents from citizens that indicate that banks were engaged in fraudulent mortgages and embezzlement through predatory loans and over-valuation. José Luis, another participant, showed me documents of people who were given double mortgages to jack up the price, along with fees “al portador,” meaning blank checks that were used to line the pockets of bankers with hefty commissions.
The Citizen’s Court is an example of the sustained and dedicated effort that ordinary people in Spain have taken upon themselves since they perceive the government as unwilling or incompetent to do it. Every week they doggedly stop by different neighborhoods to invite people to come submit documents, then spend hours sorting through them and entering them into a newly developed software program. They have created task force upon task force to address different objectives. With luck, they hope to take their case to court at the end of the year. Their ultimate goal is to conduct a citizen’s trial and then present the case to the courts to put bank lenders in jail and restitute money to those cheated.
I also sat in on a Housing Office meeting. This group demonstrates the more local-based approach to battling the housing crisis. They convene free-form weekly meetings in each neighborhood, (this one was also at La Morada) where anyone can come and express problems or offer advice. I kept trying to find out the ‘titles’ of the people who were offering advice, but they always looked at me a little bit bemused. No one has a specific expertise or label that designates them as an advice-giver, anyone can show up and offer information.
The day I sat in, four women stopped by to ask questions of a group of six. The kinds of questions that were asked gave me a better sense of what many Spaniards are dealing with. One woman had been involved in a stop-eviction protest, but the group had arrived at the wrong moment and the police had taken one of the occupants to jail. What were her options now, she wanted to know. Another woman was occupying an apartment. She planned to tap the electricity of her neighbor, a friend, but wanted to make sure that the neighbor wouldn’t get in trouble as an accomplice. The advice-givers helped them work through options and consequences and everyone seemed reassured, ready to face the next day of housing limbo.
These kinds of groups and projects, like the eviction-protests, funnel 15M’s energy and are giving participants the opportunity to put into practice their ideals about justice and self-government in a meaningful way.
It also might be helping create a new kind of social cohesion. Expat Bob told me that he’d never felt very integrated into Spanish culture even though he’d been married to a Spanish woman and lived in Spain for over 30 years. In the past year and a half, that has changed dramatically. Now he pops up at all the events around town, smiling his toothy grin, patting everyone on the back, ranting in Spanish about the latest issues. Though he was an unlikely person to ever become involved in a political experiment, the tragedies of the housing crisis generated sympathy in Bob and acted as a catalyst for him to become a part of Spanish society and to feel like he was making a difference in it.
Once the housing crisis dies down, and if the 15M movement achieves it’s initial goals, what will be left? Perhaps the effects of these group experiences and sustained efforts will be rooted in a bigger segment of the population and take on a life of it’s own on a larger scale.