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How ‘Outraged’ protesters took charge of Spanish capital

Published on June 13, 2015

Behind the walls of a former tobacco factory, about 100 people excitedly discuss their plans for Madrid city hall, which from Saturday will be run by protesters from the "Indignados" (Outraged) movement, in an unprecedented experience for Spain.

The meeting was held on a hot afternoon at the Tabacalera — a self-run cultural centre covered in street art in Lavapies, a scruffy Madrid neighbourhood that is a meeting point for “Indignados” activists.

“We have to work from the bottom up,” said Yara Bermejo, a 36-year-old teacher. “What we are doing is identifying the priorities we will present.”

The gathering came just a few days before 71-year-old retired judge Manuela Carmena is sworn in as mayor of the capital on Saturday.

She was voted in after protest parties gave Spain’s ruling conservatives a battering in last month’s local elections. Another Indignados leading light, Ada Colau, will become Barcelona’s mayor Saturday.

Carmena’s team is made up of representatives of neighbourhood associations, collectives and far-left parties like Podemos, the United Left and the environmentalists of Equo that banded together under a platform called “Ahora Madrid”.

Many come from the “Indignados” protest movement against government spending cuts and corruption that occupied Spanish squares four years ago.

On Saturday, they will replace Spain’s governing conservative Popular Party which has run Madrid city hall for 24 years.

The platform is without a doubt “a unique case in Europe” for a capital city, said Fernando Mendez, a researcher at the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy at the University of Geneva.

Ahora Madrid’s candidate list and its programme were hammered out at gatherings like the one at the Tabacalera before being put to an online vote in which over 15,000 people participated.

The “Outraged” protest movement has already spawned a new party, Podemos, which is close to Greece’s ruling Syriza.

Over the years of street protests, “relationships were built, political connections made”, which led to the platform, said Juantxo Lopez de Uralede, spokesman for Equo.

He said a common complaint was made — that the ruling conservative Popular Party and the main opposition Socialists “were out of touch with social reality”.

“We did not feel listened to,” he said.

People from diverse backgrounds joined forces: teachers like Bermejo, students from the association Youth Without a Future, anti-eviction activists, nurses who staged regular protests against cuts to healthcare spending and young political science professors.

– Anarchist roots –

Ideologically, Ahora Madrid has its roots in anarchist and libertarian movements and is inspired by the Paris Commune, a left-wing revolutionary government that briefly ruled Paris in 1871.

Its bible, “The Municipal Bet”, a pamphlet distributed to its activists, mentions Kabouters, a Dutch anarchist group of the 1970s that occupied buildings, European “green” movements and various resistance movements.

It also reflects the vision of “libertarian municipalism” advocated by the late New York ecologist Murray Bookchin and the struggles by Madrid neighbourhood associations against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

“I started to tell myself that the political party system that is impervious to civil society is exhausted,” said Ines Sabanes, 61, of the Equo party who will be the city councillor for environmental issues.

Nacho Murgui, 43, was also won over by the platform. A former president of the federation of Madrid neighbourhood associations, he will be the city councillor in charge of coordination among districts.

Murgui, who sports a neatly trimmed beard and sneakers and black jeans, said that on the night of the municipal election he recalled “everything that we have already achieved even though we had institutions against us.”

Citing projects he liked, he lists a dumpster that was turned into a park, and screenings of movies in an empty plot of land as examples.

Now we can work “with” institutions, said Murgui.

– Carmena as Catwoman –

According to several members of the platform, anti-austerity party Podemos tried to control Ahora Madrid’s candidate list but in March finally relented.

Podemos will have important posts in the new city hall, such as that of spokeswoman which will be occupied by 26-year-old Rita Maestre.

But Podemos in effect ran Ahora Madrid’s campaign, which combined extensive use of social media with small neighbourhood meetings instead of the large rallies favoured by traditional parties.

The campaign saw artists come together to flood social networks and streets with images that cast Carmena, who was largely unknown, as a symbol of change.

One depicted her as Catwoman, another as Mary Poppins.

Carmena, who was no management experience, will now run a city of three million people.