Can we convert indifference at crisis into peaceful uprising?


OPINION:Across Spain and in EU capitals, a quiet revolt is happening in democracy camps: will Ireland take up the example?

AS THE passing in May of the great Gil Scott-Heron confirmed, the revolution will not be televised. It will, however, be tweeted, blogged and hashtagged every step of the way.

As I write there are several hundred protesters walking from Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and Berlin who will converge on Brussels on October 8th for a week of assemblies before a Europe-wide protest on October 15th.

The marchers are known as los indignados, the indignant. The movement in Spain, where it all began, is known simply as 15-M, and what they are calling for is “real democracy now”.

This very Spanish revolution has swelled to more than six million participants from what began as a small group camping out in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol on May 15th last. And it is spreading. Camps are now in more than 60 cities across Spain as well as Paris, Brussels, Cologne, Tel Aviv and many more.

Their name is taken from the political tract published by Stéphane Hessel in France last year, Indignez-vous!, translated into English as Time for Outrage, which has been adopted by the growing protest movement across Europe. Hessel, a former activist in the French Resistance, cites indifference as the worst of all possible political attitudes and calls for a peaceful uprising.

The notion of uprising in a liberal western democracy might seem anachronistic. However, the central contention of the 15-M movement is that in fact they do not live in a functioning democracy that represents their interests.

Across Spain, the 15-M movement has organised itself into city “camps”, with the repeated emphasis on peaceful protest. Fundamentally this is a citizens’ revolution and one of its signal characteristics is that it refuses to be appropriated by any political parties or trade unions.

This will be the real challenge for Dublin come October 15th. Will the various parties and unions in Ireland have the political maturity to allow a citizens’ protest to pass through without attempting to co-opt it under sectoral or political banners?

The opening to the Real Democracy Now manifesto states: “We are ordinary people. We are like you: people, who get up every morning to study, work or find a job, people who have family and friends. People, who work hard every day to provide a better future for those around us.”

What I have seen at the protest marches in Salamanca confirms this. At one march in June, a man waving a Republican flag was asked to lower it and respect the call for a citizens’ protest with no political affiliation.

Neither is alcohol permitted at the marches or the camps. And the streets have been left cleaner than before the protesters marched through. In fact, there is even a festive atmosphere at these protests. An English colleague commented as we marched this summer: “What is it about Spaniards that creates this atmosphere and not the violence of the London protests?”

Recent events across London notwithstanding, there is much in Spanish society that ensures the protesters keep the peace.

Spain has a disciplined history of protest, an instrument they have learned to deploy to great effect. Since Spain’s transition to democracy, Spaniards have repeatedly taken to the streets. In 2004, almost 12 million Spaniards marched after the Madrid bombings, angered by the then government’s cynical accusations that the Basque separatist group, Eta, was to blame.

The truth of the matter was that the bombings were a direct response to Spain’s involvement in Iraq, a project of the reigning Partido Popular. The protests ensured a landslide victory for the Socialist PSOE in the general election days after the nationwide protests.

The PSOE, incidentally, was routed in the recent regional elections; as is happening across Europe, ruling parties who oversaw the crisis are being voted out of office.

But exchanging one beggar on horseback for another is not enough for the indignados. They are calling for a complete overhaul of the electoral system itself, direct democracy, or Real Democracia Ya!, and an end to the corruption that is endemic in Spanish politics.

Uniquely, this quiet revolution has no leaders. Everything is decided by “assembly”, which takes place in public and is open to all. This is the model of direct democracy that 15-M is calling for. It is slow-moving but gathering momentum. Like the walkers on their way to Brussels at the moment, the 15-M movement is going slowly, but going on.

It will be more than interesting, not least for this Irish exile, to see if Ireland now will take up the example of Spain.

Keith Payne is an Irish writer living and teaching in Salamanca