Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH). Photo credit: Robert Pluma
In the Spanish municipal elections in May this year, a tide of social justice movements swept populist groups into local government. Cities across the country, including Barcelona and Madrid, saw unprecedented participation of everyday people in politics. On the eve of the elections, a delegation of 20 New York City-based activists and organizers traveled to Spain, to learn firsthand how Spanish communities were using social movements to take command of their living conditions, and to pave the way for an electoral insurgency and a Spanish democratic revolution.
Last Tuesday, July 7, 2015, the delegation gathered at CUNY’s Murphy Institute to report back on their experiences to an audience of about a hundred people. Employing some of the techniques they had picked up on their travels, the organizers split the talking points evenly between themselves, encouraged questions and group discussions and, of course, provided food. The mood was convivial and the discussion was frank.
Organizer Elia Gran outlined the economic situation in Spain, where education has been privatized, social security has been limited, 6 million people are unemployed and 3 million people are officially in poverty. Gran explained that Spanish activists are vigilant in refusing to accept the term ‘economic crisis’ – they call the 2008 crash a ‘scam,’ and point to current housing conditions as an example. Approximately 200 people are evicted everyday in Spain, in many cases because of foreclosure. Spain has a mortgage law unique to Europe: if your house is seized by the bank, your mortgage is not forfeit. Forcibly removed from their homes, many Spaniards are additionally crippled by continuing mortgage debt. The irony here, Gran reminded the audience, is that leading up to 2008 the Spanish government built a record number of new houses and urged citizens to buy the houses as a ‘stable investment.’ When the market crashed the banks were bailed out, but the new homeowners were not.
Faced with homelessness, poverty and stringent austerity measures, Spanish communities have banded together to form social justice groups and new political platforms. Gran described the movement as, “Not a movement about the left or the right, but about asking for real democracy and accountability of governments.”
The New York delegation shared information about a number of the movements that have emerged:
- Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (in English, ‘Platform for People Affected by Mortgages’). The PAH is a grassroots organization which began in Barcelona and has spread throughout Spain. The PAH uses direct action and collective civil disobedience to campaign for housing rights, with protests staged in banks, in council offices and at eviction sites. The PAH also provides supportive community knowledge base, and will rehome recently evicted families in unoccupied buildings, until the government services provide a housing solution. More information about the PAH can be found in the free documentary, ‘Seven Days at PAH Barcelona.’
- The 15M Movement, also known as ‘Indignados’ (in English, ‘outraged’). The 15M Movement is a series of nationwide demonstrations against Spanish government austerity measures. NYC organizer Pablo Benson explained that the 15M message of “democracy as it is right now is broken,” presented a “double crisis” – a harmful neoliberal government, and a lack of representational democracy. He described 15M as “a current that led to the electoral insurgency.”
- Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid. The two parties are citizen-run platforms that were elected into Mayoral office in their respective cities in the May elections, and both emphasize public participation in policy agendas, and social justice.
- Podemos. Podemos is a left-wing, crowd-developed political platform with a decentralized structure. It won 5 seats in 2014 European parliamentary elections and has the largest number of party members after the current government majority, the People’s Party.
- Other community run spaces for sharing. The delegation observed that local hubs and small businesses, and community-run websites play a crucial role in helping people bring their lives and their activism together, and provide safe places for sharing information and organizing. One example is xnet, an online platform where people can share information about political corruption with journalists and legal counsel.
The NYC to Spain delegation outlined a number of crucial ‘takeaways’ they had observed on their trip, which have contributed to what Benson described as “the condition of possibility” for social justice in the Spanish electoral race. Their observations included:
- Feminism – NYC organizer Rachel McCullough described the PAH as “really a women’s movement,” and many women, such as Ada Colau of Barcelona en Comú, and Manuela Carmena of Ahora Madrid, have become the visible faces of their collectives.
- Horizontal participation – Movements advocate shared leadership, and equal opportunity for voices to be heard. Many organizers are unpaid, but see themselves as ‘participantes’ – affected and engaged, rather than ‘volunteers.’
- Non-partisan language – NYC activists noticed that many platforms in the movement avoid polarizing ‘leftist language,’ and present themselves as for causes, rather than taking sides with existing political alignments.
- Transparency – NYC organizer Tamara Shapiro described the goal of an “open democracy” in which public policy is decentralized and financing are transparent. Podemos, for instance, uses a sub-reddit to raise issues to referendum, in an attempt to increase public participation in policy making, while party members who are in government are required to make their daily agenda available to the public.
- Government as only an instrument – The delegation described how these new political platforms emphasize that election in not the ‘end-game,’ and McCullough described how, in her election acceptance speech, Barcelona’s new mayor Ada Colau asked that the PAH continue to hold her accountable.
Jessica Powers, WhyHunger’s Program Director of Nourish Network for the Right to Food, was one of the delegation members who spoke about the importance of social centers in Spain as hubs for the movement. Powers explained that the delegation plans to continue to put their learning into practice. “The idea is to take some of the things we’ve learned, and cultivate things here in three areas: in the movement-building area, including Mayday Space [a community and movement space being set up in Brooklyn, which some of the delegates are involved in]; there’s a group that’s thinking about insurgent electoral politics and how to get candidates locally who come from movements and much more to come.”
Powers thought that the Spanish social justice movement was important for Americans to understand, as an example of a first world country grappling with austerity measures.
The delegation has some money left over from their fundraising, but rather than reimbursing themselves for travel expenses, they have opted to reinvest the money to fund another delegation to travel to Spain for the parliamentary elections in November to keep learning. More information on their trip is available at NYC to Spain.