Madrid’s iconic central square, La Puerta del Sol, was the site of a strange convergence of the cyber age and the Middle Ages during the first days of what would soon be labeled (in English) “the Spanish revolution.” As the Madrid police prepared to eject the first “indignados“—a hundred or so twentysomethings protesting mass youth unemployment and Spain’s atrophied electoral politics—legally savvy bloggers tweeted: “Puerta del sol is on the Cañada Real grazing paths; we have the right to sleep there.”
The fledgling protest movement was audaciously claiming protection under a thirteenth-century royal decree—still defended passionately by environmental groups—that protects the rights of shepherds to camp out with their flocks for three consecutive nights on the hundreds of ancient grazing routes that crisscross the country, even traversing major cities like Madrid.
It was just one example of the naïve ingenuity of the new movement, born months earlier during the battles against the government’s hated Internet piracy legislation, furiously opposed by Spanish youth, who consider free downloads a cultural right. In February web-based groups like Real Democracy Now and Don’t Vote for Them had campaigned tenaciously against the law and the corporate entertainment lobbies that backed it. Three months later these same networks kicked into action in defense of the indignados. By the evening of May 17, thousands had made their way to the square, some with V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes hacker masks. Protecting the ideal of free space and creative commons on the Internet had metamorphosed into the defense of the right to occupy the Puerta del Sol.
As the May 22 regional and municipal elections approached, ever greater swaths of Spain’s disaffected youth joined the protest. The square filled with makeshift tents and tarpaulins, housing as many as 1,000 indignados. Thirty thousand turned out for mass assemblies whose demands ranged from social housing to electoral reform. A three-story poster of Nazi Heinrich Himmler with Mickey Mouse ears and a euro sign Photoshopped over the swastika hung outside Spain’s big-name department store El Corte Ingles. Generators inserted into the pompous statue of King Carlos III astride his horse provided power for the PA system and an improvised canteen. Messages scrawled on dismembered cardboard boxes read Iceland Is My Goal (in reference to that country’s plucky refusal to bail out foreign-held debt); Democracy Is a 2-Party Dictatorship and, parodying Ikea, Welcome to the Independent Republic of My Square.
A new website, Tomalaplaza.et, invited people to “take the square” wherever they happened to be, and by election day La Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona and the futurist Plaza Encarnación in Seville were also occupied by tens of thousands of young protesters. Police in Barcelona tried unsuccessfully to eject the Catalan indignados. In Madrid, where Puerta del Sol had become a focus of international media coverage, the authorities were reluctant to act. By the beginning of June, an increasingly bedraggled tent city remained, though strategic withdrawal seemed imminent with a new call to action planned for June 19.
Just who are these young indignados? No one really knows. The net-based pro-piracy campaigns were catalysts. A hard core of antiglobalization anarchists, with their placards of Sparta and Durutti, provided crash courses in direct democracy. Radical collectives came up to Puerta del Sol from the legal squats in the old tobacco factory of Lavapies, where Carmen-like cigar-makers once held the first strikes of the twentieth century. But most of the young indignados appeared from nowhere: university-educated, intensely networked 20- to 30-year-olds, many still living with their parents, all acutely aware that post-bubble Spain has little or nothing to offer them as unemployment soars and precarious part-time employment becomes the norm. Even during the boom years, Spanish youth generally worked on short-term contracts with no benefits. The labels mileurista (1,000 euros a month) or ni-ni (neither work nor studies) summarized their humiliation.