Primer borrador / first draft

Over the past two months thousands of people have gathered in plazas and public spaces across local neighbourhoods in Spain. They have come together to constitute themselves into so-called ‘popular assemblies’. Theirs is a call to tomar la plaza: to take over the plazas and recuperate the barrio (neighbourhood) as a space of self-made political action – a making visible of the circuitry of do-it-yourself associative work that animates neighbourhood life.

In this sense, the assemblies are very much experiments in grassroots democratic self-organisation. Participants are not allowed to speak on behalf of political parties or partisan organisations. People attend on their own capacity, to speak in their own voice. Indeed, the assemblies have developed a democratic sign-language of their own. In the name of ‘respect’, participants are called to index their approbation or disapprobation of proposals by waving and gesturing their hands in an established etiquette. Proposals thus agreed turn into working groups staffed by volunteers. Different barrios are thus incarnating in different groups and projects their neighbourhood capacities. We will come back to the assemblies at the end.

The popular assemblies are a direct offspring of the #spanishrevolution (Twitter hashtag): the street protests that took over the urban landscape across the country in the days prior to the municipal and regional elections on May 22. Although the historiography of the events is of course still very much in the making, a brief chronology of how things turned out is helpful.

On May 15 (15M) the online forum ‘Democracia Real Ya!’ (Real Democracy Now!, DRY) called for street protests at various public squares in Spain. The demonstrations were orchestrated by a coordinated platform of social movements which included the distributed collective Anonymous, Juventud en Acción (Youth in Action) or No Les Votes (Do not vote them, about which more below). The platform’s first public call to action was announced on March 1.[1]

Over the ensuing two months, DRY gathered momentum and snowballed attention with an intensive use of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, and a couple of (rather inspiring) YouTube videos.[2] The 15M demonstration was called in protest for the corruption of the political classes, the rise in unemployment and precarious employment, the state’s trimming of social and welfare benefits, and the general transfer of wealth to the rich. A manifesto produced for the occasion ended with the phrase, ‘We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers!’[3] An additional item of protest was the reference to the ‘Ley Sinde’, the bill against Internet piracy through torrent and webpage downloads, which had been passed earlier in February and had spawned its own social movement, ‘No les votes’, through the coordinated action of otherwise unlikely bedfellows such as hackers, intellectual property lawyers, digital libertarians and a variety of copyleft movements.

In Madrid the 15M crowd gathered at Puerta del Sol, the capital’s central square. The demonstration filled up the plaza and ended in a rough encounter with the police and some detentions. Once the police left a number of people lingered around and toyed with the idea of spending the night at the square. A tweet went out marking the decision: “We have just encamped at Sol in Madrid. We are not leaving until we reach an agreement #acampadasol”. Some 30-40 people thus spent the night in open air.

Next morning the campers got together and called their first assembly, to which some one thousand people attended. Within twenty four hours the Internet domain, spanishrevolution.net, had been acquired. That second night the number of campers went up to some two hundred people and a second domain, tomalaplaza.net, was also purchased. Campers began to get together in different groups, including a ‘communications’ group which drafted the minutes of the first assembly. They even convened and ran a ‘course for spokepersons’ aimed at helping campers address the press. At around 5am the police arrived at Sol and evicted the campers. The campers had in fact anticipated the possibility of the eviction and discussed a number of actions. Puerta del Sol is for example a passageway of a Royal Pastoral Way, used by herders to shift their herds from the Castilian highlands to the lowlands. An ancient custom allows herders to spend up to three nights sleeping in open air at that spot, an argument which campers considered holding up to the police to justify their stay. They also stressed the importance of producing as many video recordings as possible of the eviction itself, and indeed following the police intervention some campers managed to upload video content directly from their smartphones to YouTube. A remarkable point is the campers’ efforts during the eviction at keeping the main tent in place. This was eventually removed by the police, but it signals the symbolic importance attached to the makeshift structure of the camp as an icon of political self-sufficiency. From the very start, then, campers showed an acute consciousness of the various dimensions of their public action. Thus, not surprisingly, early next morning the encampment had been set up again.[4]

The occupation of public spaces was quickly replicated across the country. David Bravo and Javier de la Cueva, two well-known digital and intellectual property lawyers, drafted and made available on the Internet the legal proviso for rightful public demonstrations on May 18 (and thereafter), which campers were encouraged to submit to their respective local government delegations. The document highlighted the demonstrators’ call to exercise ‘a responsible vote’ at the forthcoming municipal elections.

On May 18 Madrid’s Municipal Electoral Board dictated, however, the illegal nature of the demonstrators’ occupation of Sol and thus called for its dismantling. The decision caused outrage and served only to expand the crowd’s numbers. Indignados (outraged) became indeed the identity-label that the media would start to ascribe the movement, echoing the title of Stephan Hessel’s reactionary manifesto.[5] The crowd payed little attention to the Board’s decision and the encampment stayed put. Moreover, the campers started to get together in ‘interest groups’ – social, legal, work, economy, environment – which would soon began working as permanent ‘commissions’.

Spanish electoral law establishes a ‘day for reflection’ on the day prior to a polling day. Judging the encampments contrary to the spirit of such a norm, on May 19 the Central Electoral Board ruled the dismantling and eviction of all encampments countrywide. Again the decision only served to mobilise and draw ever more people to the squares and social media. Thus May 20 recorded for instance the largest volume of tweets with subject matters (Twitter #hashtags) related to the general movement. If Twitter traffic from May 15 to May 22 reached 983,744 tweets by 162,397 unique users, the number of tweets on May 20 alone peaked at 200,198.[6] Indeed the crowds gathered at Sol in Madrid or Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona turned into a multitude on May 21, with tens of thousands of people coming together for public manifestations of ‘reflection’.

On the day following the elections the various camps across the country assembled to decide on their own future as social and political installations. The consensus countrywide was to remain encamped. On June 7 Sol’s general assembly finally agreed by consensus to dismantle the camp on Sunday, June 12.


The occupation of the plazas amounted to much more than simple demonstrations. The word ‘acampada’ (encampment) captures well the sophisticated gesture of political innovation that over the past two months has transformed the urban and social fabric of Spanish cities.

The acampada harks back of course to an old tradition of okupaciones (squatter occupations), and indeed in the case of Madrid, for example, Sol is only a walking distance from some of the city’s most famous ‘squatter labs’ and ‘urban hack spaces’, such as el Patio Maravillas and La Tabacalera. The spatial innovation of #acampadasol lied perhaps in the boldness with which it brought out the invisible periphery of squatter action into the centre-stage of the country’s most conspicuous and famed public space. Hence the symbolic importance attached to the tent on the day of the eviction. The structural frailty of the camp brought about a radical inside-out to the notion of democratic organisation: it exposed the entrails of democracy as a circuitry of do-it-yourself actions and a patchwork of craft and handiwork politics. It made the infrastructural stuff of politics radically visible.

Early on in #acampadasol campers referred to the encampment as a ‘city’: the fragility of the tents and cardboard installations notwithstanding, the campers quickly organised to deploy an urban infrastructure in miniature. Within days the camp had a library and a ‘reading room’, a kitchen, a nursery, a reception desk for gifts of food and drinks, a legal desk, a cleaning squad, and a medical emergencies space. The nursery provoked many-a-one candid reactions: local residents often drawing a biting comparison with the lack of public nurseries in the neighbourhood.

The constitution of the encampment as a space of infrastructural politics was sanctioned by the campers themselves when stressing what the encampment was not. Thus in demonstration posters, slogans and online media there was explicit reference to the gathering not being a ‘botellón’, an open air drinking party. On the other hand, much investment went likewise into thinking the encampment itself, that is, into problematising the type of event or movement that brought us here.

Our own ethnographic encounter with #acampadasol intersects at this point. For almost two years now we have been working with digital and new media artists, intellectuals, hackers and activists of various provenances at Medialab-Prado (MLP), a digital art and culture centre part of Madrid’s City Council. MLP has become an important hub for discussions on the future of the digital and creative commons in the Spanish context. For over four years, for example, MLP has been convening a Commons’ Laboratory, to which some of the leading voices in the copyleft movement, including intellectual property lawyers (such as Javier de la Cueva) and members of La Tabacalera or Patio Maravillas, have contributed projects at one time or another. Many of these people have taken an active role helping endow #acampadasol with organisational, philosophical and infrastructural equipment. The rise of the encampment as a figure for our contemporary, then, offers an intriguing image with which to the think the intertwining of urban hacktivism, digital commons and relationships, and artistic and academic practices in new forms of political wireframing.

Prototyping political action

On May 24, just over a week into the establishment of #acampadasol, some MLP friends and informants who had been following and participating in the encampment met together for lunch at a restaurant nearby Sol. Colectivo Situaciones, an Argentinean collective of ‘militant researchers’, whose production of grassroots indigenous theory is well-known in the Latin American context, were visiting Madrid as ‘thinkers-in-residence’ at a contemporary art centre. Over lunch we talked about the encampment as a prototype of / for political action.

There was not much consensus on what sort of prototype the encampment might be a figure for. But the image of the prototype did enable nevertheless a focus on certain practices of infrastructural politics: it helped zoom into focus a particular form of political action, one centred on circuits of exchange (food, materials, wires, cardboard, digital objects); on certain do-it-yourself and artisanal qualities of collaboration; and on the provisional, open-ended and ultimately hopeful temporality of engaged action. One could argue that the frail silhouette of the original camping tent stood as a prototype for new forms of residence in the contemporary polis.

On May 28 the encampments essayed a first attempt at decentralisation and went local. On the evening of May 25 Sol’s general assembly had finally reached a consensus minimum on democratic exigencies: claims relating to the necessary reform of the electoral law; standards against corruption and for political transparency; the effective separation of powers; and the creation of citizenry mechanisms for political accountability. The consensus thus set a common minimum denominator that could now be scaled down and translated into grassroots demands at the local level.

Popular assemblies were called at barrios all over Spain. Thousands of people assembled open air and ‘helped made the barrios visible once again’, as Alberto overheard some attendants at his local assembly say. The assemblies have replicated the structural organisation of the encampments, with a variety of commissions being created in accordance with the residents’ needs and capacities. As we write this, the assemblies in Madrid are meeting every 1-2 weeks, and report back to Sol’s General Assembly. It is too early to say what will the 15M movement accomplish or where it will head to. Thus far, collective and associative life within barrios has indeed been reinvigorated. Perhaps it makes some sense after all to speak of the advent of new forms of prototyping political action.

Alberto Corsín Jiménez & Adolfo Estalella, Spanish National Research Council, CSIC, Madrid

[1] «¿Cómo se gestó el movimiento 15-M? – storify.com», s.f., http://storify.com/pablobuentes/que-es-y-como-se-gesto-el-movimiento-15m?awesm=sfy.co_9fa&utm_campaign=pablobuentes&utm_content=storify-share&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&utm_source=facebook.com.

[2] «YouTube – ¡El 15 de mayo la calle es nuestra! Manifiesto común protesta 15/05/2011», s.f., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAq273qwnZw&feature=player_embedded.

[3] «15 de mayo», s.f., http://www.democraciarealya.es/?tag=15-de-mayo.

[4] One cannot help but think of Peter Sloterdijk and Gesa Mueller von der Haegen’s ‘pneumatic parliament’ in this context: a self-built, quickly-to-install piece of democratic equipment. Peter Sloterdijk and Gesa Mueller von der Haegen, «Instant democracy: the pneumatic parliament», in Making things public: atmospheres of democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Boston, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2005), 952-955.

[5] Stephane Hessel, Time for Outrage!, Pmplt. (Quartet Books Ltd, 2011).

[6] «Del 15-M a la acampada de Sol», s.f., http://www.barriblog.com/index.php/2011/05/19/del-15-m-a-la-acampada-de-sol/.

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June 2024