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We're not going slow. We're going Far--dispatch from an American in Spain

by Esteban Gil Tuesday, May. 31, 2011 at 7:58 PM

Report on the events in Spain surrounding large scale demonstrations and assemblies. 14 minutes of video.

May 30th, 2011
We're not going slow, we're going far”1
For two weeks campsites filled with “indignant” people have been sprouting up all over Spain and are now spreading throughout Europe to Greece and France—calling for social and economic justice under the call for Real Democracy, Now.2 Many voices from the media and public at large who don't know much about this have been asking what it is all about. What exactly do they want? What are their goals? My take on the situation: they want to build their own goals, and refuse to let the powerful decide for them.
  1. Using the Head and the Heart
   On Tuesday May 24th, a group of activists from the encampment in Barcelona found themselves in a surprise encounter with the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. His words provide what I think is the handle on the functioning of this movement arising in Spain. Here is my rough translation, please feel free to reinterpret it:
  “Life is still worth living...another world is waiting in the belly of our current one...I recognize it in these spontaneous movements. 'What's next?' I'm asked...well, I don't know, it doesn't matter—what matters is now. What's the finality? I don't know. It's the same with moments where I fall in love. I don't ask what's next. Moments of love are infinite while they last...What the fuck to I care what exactly we're hoping for. The technocrats ask us that. They're ignorant and make immense salaries and after every crisis they end up on top...ruining the world.
This is a backwards world which compensates its spoilers instead of punishing them. Against this backdrop thousands are in jail for things like the use of marijuana or the stealing of chickens...It's a backwards world, a world of shit. But it's not the only one possible. There is another. This world of shit is pregnant with another, and it is the young people who will bring it forward.
Intellectuals bust my balls...when they call me a 'distinguished intellectual' I yell, 'No! I'm not an intellectual!' Intellectuals divorce their heads from their bodies. I don't want to be a head rolling along the road, I am a person. A head, a body , a sex, a belly. Be careful with those who only reason. We must reason and feel. When reason divorces itself from the heart I'd invite you to tremble with fear, because those characters can drive us to the end of human existence on the planet. I believe in that difficult and contradictory fusion—that is difficult but necessary—between what we feel and what we think.” [emphasis added]3
The moniker for those involved in this movement—“los indignados,” the indignant ones—has its origins in a recently published essay by Stéphane Hessel. Hessel, at 93 years old, has the life story of a historical bad-ass. German born but transplanted to France in his early years, during World War II he refused to accept the Vichy government imposed by the Nazi occupiers. He helped to organize the French Resistance movement and was eventually captured, then tortured and sentenced to death. He survived two different concentration camps and eventually escaped and found his way to the advancing Allied front. After the war Hessel participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. His short essay—titled “Indignez-vous!” has sold millions in Europe, and was recently published in its entirety in The Nation.4 Here is an excerpt from the essay in English that was published online:
“Ninety-three years. I’m nearing the last stage. The end cannot be far off. How lucky I am to be able to draw on the foundation of my political life: the Resistance and the National Council of the Resistance’s program from sixty-six years ago....
The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage. We, the veterans of the Resistance movements and fighting forces of Free France, call on the younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas. We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry! Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy....
To you who will create the twenty-first century, we say, from the bottom of our hearts, TO CREATE IS TO RESIST. TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”
This spirit of resistance, this call for outrage against the dictatorship of the market and the false representation of the elites echoes throughout the movement. As one compañero at a General Assembly I attended said, “We have analyzed what outrages not only in the head, but in the heart.”5
      1. Finding New Directions and Building the Future, Together.
After resting from a long weekend observing the birth of the movement, I decided to start examining in more detail the nuts and bolts of what is going on. The key methodology for this movement is centered on the idea of open and participatory democracy. The campsite in Sol is a mini-city. It is run by commissions that were created at a General Assembly which is the final decision making body of the campsite. There are commissions for camp infrastructure, food services, maintaining respect, organizing assemblies, expanding the movement, and others. Within the commissions are working groups which create proposals for actions, short-term and long-term goals for the movement, and ways to improve. It seems as if every subject that could be talked about has its own group to debate and propose solutions. All of these gatherings and decisions are made horizontally using a wide variety of methodologies.
Arganzuela Neighborhood Assembly
On Saturday the General Assembly of Madrid created and organized an extension of this participatory democratic movement to the neighborhoods and towns of the Community of Madrid to debate the movement, its aims, and its organization. Organized primarily through online social networks, these neighborhood assemblies attracted thousands of participants in over 100 neighborhoods and towns throughout the region.6 I was shocked at the level of participation in my own barrio, Arganzuela, which had—by my estimate—somewhere between 800-1200 participants. The methods proposed and taken up by these assemblies came from the General Assembly in La Puerta del Sol. Here is my translation of the suggested guidelines7:
Assembly Methodology
The object will be to promote, in all assemblies of this movement, transparent and horizontal operating functions which permit all persons to participate in equal conditions. For this, one of the central objectives will be to prevent the rise of leaders or bosses who decide for everyone without taking everyone into account, like politicians, as it were. If we do not like them in our institutions, we'll like it less when they take advantage of our movement for their own own interests.
These are only proposals for guidelines which each assembly should debate independently. Many groups use these methods—and many more—to function and avoid the rise of individual bosses that will assume control. However, it is obvious that to that to function, this requires the involvement and commitment of all.
* Rotating positions. So that no person or group holds a post indefinitely, because this is a way of making oneself more powerful than the rest, because it controls information, contacts, and many decisions. These positions could be:
o A moderator. This position is in charge of reminding people of the subject of debate so that we don't go off on tangents.It would also call attention and intervene when someone speaks for too long, does it without stoping, or repeats him/herself. The moderator should avoid making interruptions. Another function I s to manage the time of the meeting by proposing, without cutting-off a turn to speak, to change the subject or to close the assembly at the agreed upon hour.
o A Secretary. Take minutes of decisions and agreements. If someone is not in agreement, express their arguments to continue debate. If a consensus cannot be reached, it should be defined in each assembly the method to overcome blockages—Large majorities when there is a sizable minority which doesn't convince the rest.
o Turns to Speak. Another person should take down turns to speak in order of their petition, and help in the respect for order.
o Spokespersons or delegates. In charge of serving as a link between with other commissions, and taking the voice of their assembly to the Popular Assembly in Madrid where the delegates from the rest of the neighborhoods will meet to reach common accords, respecting always the decision of their assembly and not presenting their opinions as if it was of the assembly. It is important that the delegation be multiple people, 2 to 5 persons, who support one another and to help ensure that what is said is that which is agreed upon in their neighborhoods.
o Patience and Respect. Everyone has very interesting things to add, as such, so that everyone can hear each other, we should listen, in this way we will grow more and form clearer opinions. Not everyone expresses themselves in public with the same security and determination, but that that doesn't mean any of our opinions is worth less.
o Dynamic Assemblies. There exist common gestures to show agreement or disagreement without interrupting the assembly—throw your hands in the air to show agreement, show the thumbs down sign or make a cross in the air with your arms to signify disagreement; Also, roll your arms when someone is repeating him/herself or is talking for too long. It is convenient to do polls to know the level of support, or lack thereof, that a proposal generates so that a consensus can be reached. Discordant voices have a harder time expressing themselves in front of a larger majorities so it is fair to ask those who are not in agreement or who want to qualify something to express themselves before asking if everyone is in agreement.
o Assembly times. Assemblies should remember not just their start times but also their determined end times, to prevent the few who stay longest from deciding for those who had to leave. Two or three hours isn't bad.
o Mountain structure or, climbing up and down. The assemblies are the voice of the people who participate in them, so the only valid decisions should be those which are approved by the neighborhood assemblies, including proposals from the General Assembly of Madrid.
Every neighborhood assembly agrees to take to the General Assembly some proposals. There, they will be approved or not and returned to the neighborhood assemblies which ratify the minutes of the General Assembly, which is nothing more than an assembly of spokespersons without decision making power— with exception to technical aspects of little importance, and with permission from its assembly.
The process by which an assertion, action, or demonstration is approved could be::
Neighborhood/Town Assembly Proposals> General Assembly of Madrid (COMMON DECISION)> Neighborhood/Town Assembly RATIFICATION > General Assembly of Madrid FINAL DECISION.
If only a few neighborhood assemblies oppose, approval by a 4/5th majority could be used to reach approval. “A vote is better than a veto”, as only a last resort, we will always try to reach a consensus.
In any case, the assemblies are free to decide their own future and make their own decisions, understanding clearly that they don't make them on behalf of the whole movement without the approval of the rest of the assemblies.
To sum up, this tries to create a federation of transparent neighborhood assemblies of ordinary people in which we can guarantee equal participation.
This structure seems confusing and convoluted at first glance but I have seen it work. In the General Assembly of Madrid there are sign language interpreters to communicate to the hearing impaired. They've even constructed passages on the assembly floor to allow people to come up to the stage. The whole thing is a learning process, with new moderators sometimes struggling to understand their role, and being helped along by those who've had experience. People also keep from taking themselves too seriously, laughter mitigates tension and confusion. Some gripe about not coming up with or reaching ends quick enough, but the response to that by one of the compañeras has been, “The means is an end, what we do here sets an example.”8 It seems to me that there is a sense of needing a new kind of politics, not just in Spain, but everywhere. Something where people can come up with proposals that can speak for everyone. Four short term political goals—or, more accurately, lines of debate—have been agreed upon by the Assembly of Madrid. They are:
      1. Electoral Reform which seeks a more proportional system of representation and citizen participation in governance.
      2. Transparency to prevent corruption
      3. A separation of public powers, particularly between executive functions and the judiciary.
      4. The creation of mechanisms of political accountability (for example, if a candidate is elected who promised to be in favor of abortion, then votes against it, there should be a mechanism to address that discrepancy of action).
And while these are still broad, they are far more concrete than anything thought of the week before. I hold a a certain fear that people will become impatient and not want to participate in this process, because it does take a while. But there is a progress to it, and I see one important seed here: Perhaps a reason why people keep coming back, day after day (thousands participate in the General Assembly, either in person—where the assembly space fits about 3000-5000 people—or online, which last night9 recorded over 7000 viewers) is the fact that they are building their own collective goals, and not having those goals imposed from above by some sort of hierarchy.
  1. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”10
Friday morning dawned on Madrid with an ordinary feeling. The campsite was preparing to host the neighborhood delegates that would come on Sunday. The infrastructure, respect, and food commissions were busy preparing for the influx of people that the weekends bring to central Madrid. And then something happened that threw fuel on the fire. Word came from Barcelona that the police wanted the encampment to leave for the day so that cleaning crews could clean up. This was, of course, absurd—since the campers had been maintaining the campsite clean. The objective, according to the police, was to remove any dangerous objects that could be used as weapons if the Barca football team won the Champions League cup on Saturday. They wanted to avoid any rioting, which often happens in Barcelona after football games. The police assured them that they could return, and suggested they wait until the day after the game to come back. The campers decided not to leave, and so the police attacked wearing helmets and wielding billy-clubs and guns shooting rubber bullets. There are pictures of old women and people in wheel chairs being beaten and dragged through the streets of Barcelona. Videos of police pulling people by the hair, and insulting citizens spread like wildfire.11 One Facebook profile of a man purported to be a Catalan police agent has comments and status updates complaining about the “sons of bitches” because he might have to work during the football game, and bragging about the fun he had beating up and removing the campers.12
The response to this act, was astonishing. In Madrid, a rally in support was called at 7:00pm, and instead of bringing rocks to throw at the police, or sticks to beat them with, thousands of people showed up with flowers for them. The Placa de Cataluña in Barcelona was, within hours, filled with thousands of people, and the campsite was rebuilt. Today the people of Barcelona continue to meet, debate, and act nonviolently.
  1.  Moving forward, spreading out
On Sunday evening the General Assembly in Madrid met to decide whether or not the camp was to stay situated in the Puerta del Sol. There are worries that the police will soon act to remove them at the behest of the local business association which claims it has seen a drop off in sales in the area and that the situation has become unsanitary.13 I can't know whether the complaint about sales being down is true or not, although the plaza is packed day after day and the bars in the area seem to be full as ever, particularly after demonstrations and assemblies. Perhaps people are coming to talk and think rather than buy things, but I don't know what is true or not. As for sanitation, the local union representing the sanitation workers of Madrid sent a message to the campsite condemning the police violence in Barcelona, and saying that their members in the area attest to the cleanliness and organization of the camp.14
The debate over whether to stay or not was multifaceted. There is a consensus that the camp and the movement are two different entities, and the the end of the camp will not mean the end of the movement. There are many problems in the running of the camp that need to be addressed if the camp stays. Leaving also means the answering of several questions over how and when to go, particularly since it will take time to clear it out. Another proposal was to relieve the campers with volunteers from the neighborhood assemblies. After four hours a consensus was finally reached. The campsite would stay, but a process of restructuring will be examined by the commissions to make it easier on the neighbors and make sure it runs smoothly. The cathartic moment when consensus was achieved came after a representative from Caceres, Extremadrua (in western Spain) arrived with a message. With tearful eyes and a voice trembling, she explained the difficulties they're having in Caceres. “We reach the middle of the day and we don't have water. They won't let us put up tents. We're sleeping on the floor in the open air. We've only been there two days, and if you leave, we'll have to leave!”15 At this point the chant “No Nos Vamos”--we aren't going--echoed throughout the Plaza. It was then decided to have an examination of what needs to change and what needs to remain the same so that the camp can become a better part of the neighborhood of Sol.
During the assembly, word came from other countries. In Athens, it was said that over 100,000 had rallied in support of Real Democracy and social and economic justice. Also, in Paris demonstrators and assembly participants had been beaten and removed from the Bastille by police using tear-gas. Afterwards, several hundred supporters walked in silence to the French embassy, where they held a vigil for the compañeros y compañeras in Paris, who've promised to retake the Bastille.
It is unsettling, the faith that exists in this movement. Four hours of conversation and the Plaza barely thinned from the thousands who began the assembly last night. And it's not the material aspects (the name, the campsites, etc,) where this faith rests, but in the participatory democracy that directs it. I have no doubt, that if this spirit keeps up and spreads (as it has been) it will infect the souls, hearts, and minds of honest people the world over. This process feels like an immense galaxy of interests revolving around the gravity of the moment, and the need to connect to others as human beings.
1One comrade's remark during the General Assembly of Sol on May 29th, quoting an African Proverb, 3h02m
5General Assembly, May 25th, 51 minutes
8General Assembly 25 May, 1h17m
9General Assembly 29 may 20:00-24:00h
10Mahatma Ghandi
15General Assembly, 29 May, 3h25m
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