On 25 September 2012 and the following days, tens of thousands of people surrounded the Congress of the Spanish Government in Madrid, with the MPs inside, in an action called '25S Rodea el Congreso' (Surround the Congress). The objective of 25S was to request the resignation of the government as a first step in the putting in motion of a process to create a real democratic society. The action, announced almost two months in advance, vaguely reminded one of the counter-summits of the anti-globalisation movement a decade ago, and the government didn’t hesitate in putting in place the same type of measures to attack the movement. Congress was surrounded by fences and 1,350 riot police who didn’t hesitate from savagely attacking peaceful demonstrators, using police infiltrators dressed in 'black bloc' to act as provokers.
The large majority of the demonstrators resisted peacefully, including many who, despite being charged at, remained for hours in front of the doors of Congress in a large sit-in. There were others who, when the police began to charge indiscriminately, decided to defend themselves, throwing stones. It was nothing new: the police looked to create fear and violence, and to an extent they found it. The media talked of ‘clashes’, and ‘confrontations’, largely omitting the images of police indiscriminately attacking people who were resisting peacefully, or who were only trying to reach safety.
However, there was a surprise a few days later, when polls showed that 77% of Spanish citizens share the views of the 25S demonstrators, and 50% also support the course of action that they took. Moreover, some 61% of voters for the Popular Party (the conservative party in government) share the arguments of the protest. What has happened here? Why haven’t the government’s strategies of repression and criminalisation against demonstrators worked? On the contrary, despite the fact that the images of the encapuchados ('hooded' - infiltrators or otherwise) attacking police have been shown a thousand times in the news, 57% of respondents consider the police action excessive. Why do police strategies no longer work in Spain?
To find an answer we need to get to know the movement behind the protests a bit better. Since 15 May 2011, a massive protest movement has emerged in Spain demanding a democratic revolution. Organised through the internet and social networks, millions of discontented citizens rallied across the country demanding ‘real democracy’ and camping in the main squares of each city. Between 6.5 and 8 million people participated in the movement which took the name 15M. This movement is configured in a similar way to other movements like those of the Arab Spring, Occupy and other European anti-austerity movements. But the main difference between the movement in Spain and those in other countries is that 15M has what is probably the biggest critical mass of activists using social networks in the world. And by activists on social networks we aren’t referring to ‘clickactivists’ sharing change.org petitions, but to people who use social networks to organise themselves to carry out actions in the streets. Mass demonstrations, actions to stop evictions, occupations against cuts in educational centres, campaigns to denounce and bring to trial those responsible for the economic crisis…every week the Spanish networks seethe with messages that attack the foundations of a political system that causes more and more injustice.
This composition of the movement, in which action on social networks is intertwined with civil disobedience on the streets, allows the creation of new tools to confront police repression and criminalisation. In fact, 15M has managed to use the attacks by the police and the media in its favour. In the first days of the movement, after the mass demonstrations that demanded 'Real Democracy Now', the police evicted a small camp that had been installed in Plaza de Sol in Madrid. Immediately, the web was full of videos of the eviction, in which the protestors are seen resisting by sitting on the ground, and the police remove them one by one. These images are seen by the demonstrators, indignant about the media's the misinformation on the day of demonstrations (15 May) as the best proof that we don’t have a true democracy. The next morning, small groups of people were setting up their own camps in all the main cities of the country. That same evening, tens of thousands of people occupied the Plaza de Sol, and many other plazas, with the police unable to do anything to prevent it. The next day, the camps had already become massive permanent venues, where millions of people from across the country were participating.
Two weeks later, the Government of Cataluña said that the moment had arrived to put a stop to the camps, ordering riot police to violently dismantle the ones in Barcelona and Lleida. At the time, live footage begin to circulate on the web of riot police hitting peaceful resisters, sat on the ground. The images are shocking: a totally deranged police force that charges against thousands of peaceful demonstrators and shoots rubber bullets indiscriminately. During that day, all the ‘trending' topics on Twitter in Spain were related to the eviction of the camp in Barcelona. The images, videos and commentaries 'went viral'. Again, hundreds of thousands of people occupied the city squares, including Barcelona's, from which the police were expelled.
This process has been repeated time after time during the year and a half that the movement has been underway. When the police attack protestors, non-stop images of what happened spread online, bringing together the responses to the repression of indignation, creative organising, and empowerment. In those moments, the web is completely taken over by the movement, and the politicians, media and police have capacity to influence public opinion. This was the case with 25S. Throughout the entire action the activists broadcast all that was happening live: from the civil disobedience sit-ins at the doors of Congress facing police charges non-violently to the encapuchados who first attacked the police and then switched sides and began to arrest protestors.
Technology is allowing movements to create tools to overcome their communication limitations and disrupt the tools that state powers use to discredit them. Since the Arab Spring, a radical change has been happening in the forms of organisation of grassroots activist movements. We are still experimenting, but everything indicates that in the next few years we will see many more examples of synergies between social movements and information technologies. We are getting increasingly nearer to profound social change.
(translated by Edward Neinhardt)