The 15-M movement soars to the occasion

Hundreds of thousands of people thronged the central streets of tens of cities and towns across the Spanish State on 19 June in response to a call from the 15-M movement with demands ranging from an end to the cuts to an end to capitalism and its crisis. Here I’m going to concentrate on the demonstration in Barcelona and try to convey some of the feel and flavour of it rather than attempt a fully-fledged political analysis of the movement as a whole.

The immediate background

But to do this, it is first necessary to go back a few days. On Wednesday 15 June the Catalan parliament was due to debate the cuts budget and an omnibus law lumping together a welter of different pieces of regressive legislation in order to railroad them through with little or no discussion.

The seat of the Catalan parliament is in one of Barcelona’s biggest and most central parks, and the movement decided to camp in the park on the night of 14 June with a view to blockading the parliament building the next morning, thereby preventing the MPs from entering and passing the cuts into law.

That night the park gates were closed and most people had to spend the night as best they could in the surrounding areas, though the night was short, for police harassment began early.

The prime minister (who goes by the title of “president”), the interior minister and a few other MPs flew in by helicopter, an interesting implicit comment on their confidence in their police force. Apart from these “lucky few”, some MPs of all parties had to run the gauntlet of the angry pickets’ verbal tirades, though for the most part the blockades were entirely peaceful. Some gave up, withdrew and were eventually ferried in by police riot vans.

However there were some minor “incidents”: a former minister had a cross spray-painted on the back of her coat, a number of MPs were jostled, a few plastic bottles were thrown at the police. These occurrences were immediately blown up out of all proportion by the press, condemned out of hand by all the political parties in parliament, and latched onto by the prime minister and interior minister as a justification for coming down hard on the movement, which they accused of “crossing the red line”.

This background to the 19 June march meant that the stakes were extremely high. Could the movement stave off the attempt to criminalise it? Could it manage to keep public opinion on its side and swing the focus away from the supposed “violence” and back onto the cuts, the privatisations and all the other attacks on living standards and the welfare state?

Huge and full of spirit

The answer, in a word, is a resounding Yes. To achieve these aims, the demonstration had to be big. But it was more than big. It was massive.

The Catalan audiovisual media corporation – whose workers have just been blackmailed into voting for a 5 per cent pay cut under threat of job losses and have been “reminded” not only that they must obey their master’s voice, but that their master has now changed – dutifully quoted the 50,000 attendance figure given by the police (which in any case would have been a fantastic result). But it also had to admit that the whole area from Plaça Catalunya, all the way down Via Laietana to Plau de Palau was jam-packed, which means that most viewers or listeners, even if they didn’t take part themselves or know somebody who did, would realise that this was a deliberate underestimate. For the record, the organisers gave a figure of 260,000.

Columns had converged on Plaça Catalunya having marched from different neighbourhoods and districts in the city and from various towns round about, and were joined by groups and individuals making their own way there. There were people of all ages. Many parents brought their children. Not a few young people “brought” their parents. No party or trade union banners, flags or placards were present, but there were lots of banners from local camps and a large number of home-made placards, often with ingenious slogans on them.

One of the most important features of the demonstration, in addition to its sheer size –which turned one of the slogans on the banner at the head of the demonstration, “The street is ours”, from what might have been an empty boast into a palpable reality- was the defiant attitude and combativity displayed by the participants, which again lent credibility to the other slogan on the lead banner, “We won’t pay for their crisis”. This was no Sunday afternoon stroll, but a powerful outpouring of anger and… indignation.

Indeed, a majority of the slogans shouted and the songs sung non-stop along the entire route reflected a readiness among broad sectors to entertain radical demands and a degree of self-confidence necessary to follow them up. There is still a long way to go, but the mood is changing: more and more people are unwilling to put up with the way things have been going up until now and are prepared to do something about it.

Political content

One of the most popular chants was “Today democracy is in the street, not in parliament”, which goes a step further than an older version, which was also to be heard: “They call it democracy, but it isn’t”.

Naturally there were plenty of slogans expressing rejection of the cuts and privatisation, but also singling out those responsible for the crisis in the first place. As the march passed a spot with the headquarters of one of the major banks on one side of the street and the headquarters of the Catalan employers’ association on the other, some people pointed to them shouting “the culprits”, while others joined in with “Here is our government”, denoting a realisation of where many key decisions are actually taken. In similar vein, but reflecting an even deeper understanding of the situation, some people took up the idea with: “This isn’t a crisis; it’s called capitalism”.

Several slogans referred to what are seen as emblematic actions in other countries: “We want bankers in prison, like in Iceland”, “Here, like in Greece, general strike!” A word is in order on the latter. Whereas a general strike in the Spanish State as a whole is out of the question at the moment (though I would love to be proved wrong on this), in Catalonia it is a real possibility and not a matter of hollow posturing by the far left.

The big trade unions (UGT and CCOO), the only ones in a position to call such a strike, are reluctant to do so in any case, but would be particularly averse to such a course of action with the Socialist Party central government on its last legs and a general election in the offing. In Catalonia, however, it is the bourgeois nationalists who are now in power (with the support of the Popular Party) and it is they who have charged in with the most savage anti-working class policies, triggering off widespread discontent that the unions cannot completely ignore.

Another “leitmotiv” was the response to the repression and the Catalan government’s efforts to brand the movement as violent, criminal and undemocratic. Time and again the demonstrators waved their arms in the air crying out “these are our weapons”, signalling a willingness to engage in civil disobedience, which is seen as a legitimate reply to what are regarded as unjust laws.

This was coupled with repeated calls for the resignation of Felip Puig, the cocky interior minister all of whose plans to derail the movement have so far backfired (which is not to say that this will continue for ever).

And yet another indication of the crowd’s mood was the enthusiastic singing of L’Estaca, the archi-famous anti-Franco anthem by Catalan singer-songwriter Lluís Llac, a paean to the power of unity when everyone pulls together, greeted at the end of each rendition by huge applause.

Spontaneity and organisation

As with any mass movement, there is a large spontaneous element to it. Besides, in a very short space of time, it has achieved a remarkable degree of moral authority. Nevertheless, the success of this demonstration was due not only to these factors, but also to the part played by the teams organising and publicising it, which included members of the more combative trade unions and some far-left parties.

Special mention deserves to be made of the Barcelona Federation of Residents’ Associations (FAVB), an organisation that had never been discredited like the traditional political parties and major trade unions, but had recently overcome an internal crisis with the election of a new leadership.

The FAVB had come under heavy attack for its brave support of the blockade of parliament, especially following the “incidents” that had occurred. However, it held its nerve, defended its stance (though taking its distance from the “violence”) and endorsed the call for the 19 June demonstration. As well as this, it also worked behind the scenes to draw in other forces, especially the big unions, although of course no organisation appeared on the march as a bloc with its own symbols.

This demonstration has certainly taken the movement forward and helped to change the relationship of forces, which for so long has been distinctly unfavourable to the working class. Much still remains to be done in this respect, not least linking up with workers in struggle.

One of the challenges facing the movement now in Catalonia is to keep up the momentum and the pressure on the Catalan government while realising that mass mobilisations are not possible every day and taking into account that most of July and all of August are usually missing from the political calendar.

In spite of this, work can already begin on building for a mass day of action on 15 October, which might even have a European dimension, and on preparing the conditions for a general strike in the autumn.

With so many people extremely distrustful of, or often actively hostile to, all of the traditional parties (“They don’t represent us”), the absence of a credible political alternative on the left is one of the most vital shortcomings that need to be addressed. Will the impact of recent events be enough to bring the resolution of this long-standing problem any closer? Of course it’s too soon to say, but at least the prospects are now a little brighter.

Brian Anglo

Barcelona 20 June 2011

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