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3. How Spain’s indignados movement was born

August 1, 2014

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In this third instalment of the freedom technologists series we hear the extraordinary story of the IT specialist Daniel Vázquez, one of the original occupiers of Puerta del Sol square, in Madrid, where Spain’s indignados (or 15M) movement was born in May 2011. On the first night of the occupation, Daniel set up the soon-to-be influential Twitter account @acampadasol. The story below is based on a long interview he gave to a fellow indignado, the documentary filmmaker Stéphane Grueso (@fanetin), who we met in the previous post. The two-part interview (in Spanish with English subtitles) can be viewed on YouTube. Here I have translated and adapted selections from that interview (see Spanish version). In a future post I will share some anthropological reflections on this narrative, with particular emphasis on four themes: free culture, viral reality, non-violence and historical agency.

My name is Daniel Vázquez. I am an IT specialist from Madrid (Spain). I work with new technologies, especially on free software and civil society projects. Over the last 12 to 13 years I have participated in a number of projects, such as a self-managed cyberspace server called sindominio.net, or most recently with a collective called hacktivistas.net. I am also part of 15hack and of a small cultural association named aLabs.

After the death of Franco in 1975, my parents’ generation accepted a new democratic order along with the re-instauration of the monarchy. It all came in the same pack. I didn’t sign it, and I want this to be discussed once again. My parents are now retired, and so are most of their generation. Those of us who came after them know nothing about how this came to happen, so we want to talk it over.

When people become aware that politicians represent market interests and that sovereignty no longer resides in their country but rather with actors they cannot reach, or vote for, or criticise, that’s when the discrediting begins. In Spain we have a two-party political system. This system consists of finding jobs for friends and cronies and to take it in turns to share power. As simple as that.

How I arrived at the scene

For me the 15M (or indignados) movement started with a trip to Lavapiés, a barrio in central Madrid. I was there to help a group of people who wanted to take a small van with a PA system to the 15 May demo. I was doing it on behalf of a local radio station named Onda Precaria. There was a new immigrant movement linked to this station taking shape at the time. It was made up of street vendors in Lavapiés who wanted to join the demonstration as a single bloc.

I arrived in Lavapiés mid-afternoon to drive the van. It was an ancient vehicle. The generator kept breaking down, as did the sound system, and the stickers fell off. It was all shabby, precarious, there was no petrol… We came to a sad realisation: “Shit, with all the good stuff we could be doing, just look at the state of our resources and how desperate our situation is”. So there we were, in the middle of the demo, with a generator that went dead all the time, cutting short the speeches – it was taking us ten minutes to start the engine every time it stopped. This went on for five hours until eventually we reached Puerta del Sol. As I got off the van to get some fresh air, I remember thinking: “This is a disaster!”.

When I reached the square I found the police trying to evict people. They weren’t doing it with a great deal of conviction, though. It was just a large group of anti-riot police closing in on some 200 to 300 people. They were harassing them in the hope that they would leave.

The moment of truth came when, all of a sudden, people started walking towards the police and sat down in front of them. They were saying that they were not afraid, and that they had no reason to leave, as they weren’t doing anything wrong. It was all very different from what was happening outside Puerta del Sol where riots had broken out. Here people were sitting down, covering their heads and going “Look, we’re not moving. We have the right to be here”.

I found this option much more interesting, so I decided to stay.

The first assembly

When the police realised that more and more people were sitting down they decided (probably on government’s orders) not to escalate the problem. They must have thought: “OK, these people will eventually give up and go home. Let’s go”. So they retreated, vanished, and this buoyed us. We thought: “Well, they’ve gone. We’ve kicked them out, we can stay”. This is how ideas like “Why don’t we just stay?” or “Look, this is what they did in Egypt” or “We, too, need a square” started to circulate. Someone grabbed a mike and said: “Listen, some people here are saying that we’re staying. What shall we do?”.

That is how the first assembly came to happen. Someone called out: “Assembly!”, people sat down and the 15M format began to take shape. This was a space where no conclusions could ever be reached, where it was practically imposible to make decisions, but it was also a space that a lot of people felt they needed to express themselves and explain what was going on. A space to make proposals, even when it wasn’t possible for everyone to reach an agreement at that particular time, but at least it was a way of seeking alliances and contaminations.

I asked the Assembly for permission to speak. Well, I didn’t really ask. I simply said to a small group of people: “Hey, why don’t you tell them about communicating this?”. And they told me: “No, you’ve got to tell them yourself”. I was very tired, not really in the mood, but I went ahead and did it. I told them I was witnessing something really powerful, something that was far more interesting than it may seem to us at the time.

That was on 15 May, in the evening. I said: “If I have your permission to announce this and we form a small communication group and come up with a strategy, this could make a lot of other people feel the way we are feeling. They may see possibilities in our action and decide to take their own squares”.

I think it was then that I became aware of the potential for replication, but there were others who could see this much more clearly than me. I now watch videos of that moment and some of them look like time travellers from 10 days into the future that had sat down with us to tell us what was about to happen. Perhaps some found it easier to come out and say it like that, whereas others simply said it was a very good idea and put their bodies on the line to support it. But if there was a common feeling it was: “This is an important event”.

The first tweet

After addressing the Assembly, I opened a Twitter account with the handle @acampadasol. I can’t remember it too well, to be frank. A lot of it was based on copying. In the scene I come from, the way we usually communicate is to copy other people’s best practices, mix them, combine them, and then offer them freely so that others can do the same. We are used to seeing something good and thinking: “This will do nicely”. So I registered @acampadasol on Twitter and then, as I held it in my hand, I said to myself: “Now what? What are you going to do with it?”.

I decided that the first task was to communicate what had already happened, even if nobody read it at first. After all, we had no followers yet. The first tweet said something along the lines of: “We’ve camped at Puerta del Sol and are not leaving until we reach an agreement”. With hindsight, this may look as if it referred to an agreement with the town hall or the government but in fact I was aiming lower. The idea was to agree amongst ourselves whether we should stay or go, as people were saying all sorts of things like “Let’s stay till the elections”, “Let’s stay for good”, “Let’s stay until we win”, “Let’s stay a year if we have to”. So it was more a case of saying: “OK, we’re not going to agree on how long we’re staying, but do we agree that we’re staying? Yes? Well that’s what we’re going to say. We’re staying put until we reach an agreement”.

Spreading the word

Once I had the new Twitter account, plus another handle with more followers, I started to tell the story of what was happening in Madrid. I explained there were 40 people spending a cold night outdoors who needed sleeping bags and mats. I asked if people could bring thermos with coffee because they were about to spend a very tough night.

So I started to spread the word. That night, at around 1.30 a.m., someone arrived at the encampment asking after Isaac Hacksimov who is a really interesting character (it’s actually a group of people). One of the Isaacs replied in the affirmative. I think this moment was captured on audio somewhere. “I’m here because you said on Twitter that a lot of you were spending the night here, so here I am. I’ve brought a sleeping bag and a mat, and I’m staying here, too”.

The first people to join came not because of wall posters, in the traditional way, but rather because they had seen the call on Twitter. They had heard there were people spending the night out there, had grabbed their sleeping bags and said: “I’m off to join those people”. More and more people began to arrive throughout the night.

At around 3.30 a.m. my mobile’s battery started to run out. Without a battery everything would become invisible. Yes, there were other people able to communicate from Sol, but I had a great deal of confidence in the networks we’d been weaving all those years. I knew I could count on them to pass on the news. So I told the people gathered there: “Look, I’m going home to recharge my battery, get a back-up and bring a laptop. I’m going to be a while communicating what’s going on, and then I’ll come back and we can carry on from here”. And that’s what I did.

In Madrid as in Egypt?

I went home. That night I wrote emails to community centres and projects. The subject was: “In Madrid as in Egypt?”. At 4.30 a.m. I sent out those emails explaining that a group of people were spending the night at Puerta del Sol. I told them I thought it was very interesting and asked those able to bring blankets or sleeping bags to do so straight away. I encouraged the rest to go in the morning with coffee, tea and something to eat, and to help out a bit because it was going to be very hard.

When I got up in the morning the Twitter account already had around 1,500 followers. It was incredible. I couldn’t go back to the encampment yet. I stayed till around 7 a.m., took a rest, got up again, had a shower and off I went again. On the way there I was checking my Twitter and said to myself: “Wow, this is amazing, the odds that this will work out are even greater than I thought”. The hours went by and it kept growing by the hundreds and hundreds. More and more people arrived of their own accord and you could see the conflict was getting more and more interesting.

As self-managed and horizontal as possible

That morning some of us got together to discuss how to facilitate communication within this newly born movement so that it wouldn’t have censorship problems like we saw in other countries, for instance when Facebook was shut down. Then we went on to discuss questions such as: “What shall we call ourselves? What shall we do? How can we adapt earlier ideas so that @acampadasol can communicate things effectively?”. We thought of having our own machine, a server, a website, mailing lists, some messaging system, teamwork tools…

We got busy. After a few hours we realised that since we were calling on all other squares around the country to rise up, we should set up something that other people could use. Although in theory anybody can open a Blogger account, or get themselves online, there are always people who need help. “Let’s lend them a hand”, we said to ourselves, at least those who want to go down the free software path. Those who still want to use Google, or gmail, or Facebook, are welcome to do so. We’ll note down their URLs and link them to ours so that everyone else can see them, too. But our own tools have to be in line with how we do things: they have to run on free software and be as self-managed and horizontal as possible.

Take the square

So that’s how we started talking about the tomalaplaza domain, or takethesquare in English. The logic was: given that we haven’t invented this, that this is happening across the Mediterranean, and that we want to replicate the bits that are working best, let’s remember that an integral part of their strategy was to internationalise their conflicts. We created takethesquare for a host of reasons. First, to tap into the solidarity and the support of a global network. Second, so that people could connect up with other struggles. Finally, it is much harder to repress and criminalise your conflict if it’s playing out on an international stage. Then we thought: “We’ve got to move quickly and put this out in English so that more people can get in touch”. The idea was to connect this struggle to others taking place in Latin America, for instance, the Chilean student protests, but also in the States, where there had been large mobilisations against anti-trade unionism laws. All these struggles were intertwined. And because free software and free culture are in the cultural DNA of today’s social movements, we thought we should connect all this so that we could grow and stabilise this network. We said to ourselves: “We’ll put it out in English and offer others via takethesquare the possibility of occupying their own squares, or if they’re already doing it, get them to join a global movement”.

We didn’t really have the capacity to launch a macro-project. We had no country delegates, nothing, we were just seven people interested in this topic talking to another 500 or 600 people who were discussing many other topics, all of them worthy of interest in their own right. But we got working as if we could get there. We wanted to do our best, see how far we could go.

By the time they kicked us all out of Sol on 17 May there were other occupied squares across the country. After the second and third squares were taken it all became clear to us: this was a rapidly propagating virus and it would keep spreading because the template was really easy to copy. These were ideal conditions but we had to keep pushing. It all happened so quickly from then on. The first four days were extremely intense. We went from 40 occupiers at night to 500 the next morning, then 140 at night. When they kicked us out our numbers instantly multiplied 200-fold.

A long struggle crystallises

For me 15M was the crystallisation of a long struggle to create new networks and develop more open, integrative ways of doing politics, as well as new forms of aggregation that allowed many different groups to join together. I see 15M as a network of interlinked swarms, of different groups and persons with the capacity to come together and carry out a common action. In the early hours of 16 May a new political actor was born, and not only locally, in Madrid, but also at the national and global levels. This collective actor acquired renewed strength during the global mobilisations of 20 October 2011, also known as 20-O.

I remember saying to my activist friends a few years ago: “What we’re doing is really interesting. These kinds of proposals and movements should grow, there’s an enormous society out there”. Some friends would say: “Right now I want to take on the socialists (PSOE) and the conservatives (PP) to resolve our common problems”. Because outside our social movements there are thousands or millions of people in this country who are leftists. But there are also many more millions who have the same problems as you but they happen to identify with one of those parties – partly, of course, because of the propaganda machinery at their disposal. Until now they had reached the population through media monopolies. When that model broke down people began receiving unfiltered information for the first time. The arrival of the Internet changed everything.

Go to next post: We don’t know how to participate

Go to previous post: Freedom technologists and their practices

Image credit: Madrid.15M.cc

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2014 7:16 am

    John, a very helpful account of how a social movement springs up and uses communication technologies to spread the word and help self-organization. More such oral history documentations of people involved in current movements are needed in order to understand the logic of autonomous action better. What is the role of the media anthropologist/sociologist in a social movement context? 1. To take part in the action as an act of solidarity and to better understand the underlying processes; 2. To use and distribute this knowledge within the movement to create space for self-critical debate; and 3. To share the insights into the dynamics of a social movement with other movements and with arts and academic audiences engaged in similar processes of action, research and artistic expression. I wish you all the best for your «freedom technologists series», Heinz

  2. August 4, 2014 12:49 am

    Many thanks, Heinz, it’s good to hear from you. That’s really helpful feedback. In fact, I’m now translating another of Stephane Grueso’s interviews, this time with the free software specialist Margarita Padilla. His videoed conversations with 15M participants are turning out to be a very rich para-ethnographic – and free culture – resource.

    One of my pending tasks when it comes to making a contribution is to write in Spanish about current events in Spain (it is supposed to be my first language, after all), as not everybody can read English. Of course, as you know all too well, the rewards system in international academia favours English over all other languages, aber immerhin. We probably know far more internationally about Occupy or the Arab Spring than about Spain’s indignados/15M because in the latter case most of the analysis and commentary has been written in Spanish.

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