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Lessons from the Spanish Occupy Movement

Taking the Occupy movement in Spain as a case in point, location, organisation and timing seem to be crucial when it comes to putting across a lasting message.

Lasse Thomassen
7 April 2012

Neither the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters nor the North American commentators make many references to the Greek or Spanish protest movements. British press and the Occupy London movement are also relatively silent on these movements, although openDemocracy has both reported on and been inspired by the 15M movement in particular. I would like to make the case that more UK and North American protesters could learn a thing or two from their south European counterparts. It is not that the Greek or Spanish protesters have superior techniques, but that there are some lessons to be learned. Three in particular are important:

1. Choose your square with care 

In Spain, the main occupation took place in the central Madrid square, Puerta del Sol – usually referred to as just 'Sol.' There were other occupations and camps, but the Sol camp was the biggest and attracted the most attention within and outside the movement, mainly because it is a public transport hub and a place that a lot of people pass through on a daily basis. More importantly though, it has terrific symbolic value: the square is the home of the clock shown on Spanish TV at midnight on New Year’s Eve. It sits right in front of the residence of the President of the regional government of Madrid. The square is also the '0 km' (kilómetro cero) from which all distances on Spanish national roads are calculated. Not to mention the fact that it has incredible historic value as the place where the Second Republic was declared in 1931. Consequently, it has become the subject of numerous cultural references, such as Goya’s famous painting The Second of May 1808, depicting an uprising against Napoleon’s army. The mere mention of 'Sol' immediately provokes feelings of national pride and a sense of history in the minds of the Spanish people.

In Greece, the main camp was located in Athens, the mother city of democracy, in Syntagma Square. The choice of location was also chosen carefully to reinforce the symbolic value of the camp in the square, both within the movement and in the public imagination of the broader population. In fact, there was only one thing missing with these locations: Syntagma Spuare and Puerta del Sol have no link to the financial world. That may in fact be the main difference in focus between the Spanish and the UK/North American occupations: for the Spanish protesters the emphasis is on the political elites and the political system, the British and North American movements have been relatively more concerned with financial inequality.

That focus explains why the London protesters first descended on the area around St Paul’s Cathedral, close to the financial district, and why the protesters in New York chose to occupy Zuccotti Park, close to Wall Street. However, there is much less symbolic value in these two places. Sure, St Paul’s Cathedral is a popular tourist spot and certain to attract attention, but the occupation carried none of the symbolic value that an occupation of Parliament Square or the financial district itself would have carried. As for Zuccotti Park: no one had even heard of this place before OWS. As a result, the occupations failed to carry the same weight in their message as they might have had if they had taken place elsewhere.

So, choose your square with care. Choose a place that helps to promote a sense of patriotism and pride among the people. Of course, there is a danger that the movement can become too constricted to any one area, but that is the reason to organize beyond the square.

2. Organize beyond the square 

The focus on a main site of occupation is useful because it brings unity and identity to the movement, but the danger is that the movement disappears with the occupation. In the case of Puerta del Sol in Madrid, there were long and arduous debates about the pros and cons of leaving Sol in June and July of last year. At the same time, however, the movement organised and institutionalised itself beyond Sol, both in social networks and in local neighbourhoods. It was important for the movement to keep a presence online, posting minutes of its meetings, and so on. It is hard to imagine the movement surviving without this virtual presence. But equally important is the organisation of local groups and assemblies in the neighbourhoods of Madrid and beyond. Spreading the movement in this way means that it does not depend on the presence of the camp and the General Assembly in Puerta del Sol. More importantly, establishing local groups helped connect the movement to the everyday lives and concerns of ordinary Madrilenians.

So, organise beyond the square.

3. Elections matter 

One of the strengths of the Occupy movements is their ability to create a narrative around politics as usual and critique the representative political system. Elections are a prime opportunity for this. In Spain, the initial protests had nothing to do with the local elections on 22 May 2011. Yet, because the occupation in Puerta del Sol started one week before the election (hence the name “15M”) the occupation and the protests where able to have a real impact on Spanish politics. The protests attracted interest from the media – and consequently the general population – and this in turn meant that politicians had to respond to the movement. The election itself also became a theme for the protesters – whether to vote, who to vote for, and so on – and so protesters focused some of their demands on reforms of the electoral system. In the same way that the symbolic importance of Puerta del Sol worked as a catalyst for the camp, the local elections functioned as a catalyst for the Spanish movement and helped to shape its direction.

It was predicted then that the protests would get a boost from the Spanish general election on 20 November last year, but little happened. Instead the elections were focused on the economic crisis, unemployment, cuts, and other austerity measures. Public debate has remained dominated by these issues since: the demands for a different kind of politics pushed aside by demands for better wages, pensions, and so forth.

The importance of symbols, organisation and interaction with the existing political system – this will sound abhorrent to some protesters - is crucial to the beginnings of any movement. Occupiers must stage their protests in a cultural, political and physical space defined by what they protest against in order to have some longevity about them. There is always the possibility that movements can grow outside of these confines: re-signifying existing cultural symbols, trying alternative ways of organising, and disrupting the existing political system. But I would argue it is a very limited possibility. It may work; you can give it a try.

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