Susana Sanz is racing through the streets holding her mobile phone in front of her like a spear. It’s just after dusk and thousands of protesters are pouring into the Plaza de las Cortes, home to Spain’s parliament. She is streaming video on the Web live. And 25,000 people are watching.
Sanz is telling her online viewers that most of those in the crowd are public workers who have seen their salaries and benefits slashed amid austerity cuts.
“They are singing, ‘It’s not a crisis. It’s a fraud,’ ” she tells viewers.
If you’re looking for the origins of the Occupy movement — and perhaps its future — it is here, in Spain.
Five months before American protesters stormed Wall Street in September 2011, Spanish youth staged a similar campout in the Puerta del Sol in the center of Madrid. Known as the indignados (indignant ones) or 15M (because the first protest took place on May 15), the movement continues to evolve in Spain where the economy is struggling with unemployment at 24.6 percent.
The group here still holds street protests but is also helping institute tangible changes such as organizing neighborhood councils to fight corruption and pushing for legislative reforms.
Even as Occupy tents and protests dwindle in the United States, 15M is using cutting-edge social networks to draw attention to the role of bankers and politicians in creating the European financial crisis and the austerity measures that have forced ordinary Spaniards to pay for others’ mistakes.
15M has been in constant communication with Occupy Wall Street and dozens of other protest groups through an online network that is redefining how democracy is conducted.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in New York and beyond over the weekend to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the movement. Dozens were arrested. It took months of negotiation during online meetings with more than 500 participants from 82 countries to coordinate the series of global events that began on Saturday.
These supporters typically gather online each month in a meeting that often draws up to 1,000 participants and lasts four to six hours to debate ideas and coordinate actions. Each country has its own general assembly, and from there participants split off into various groups organized by city and neighborhood.
There’s no agenda and no official leadership; various people rotate in taking charge of certain tasks. There are translation brigades to facilitate communication between countries and teams of lawyers who work in shifts to quickly help protesters who have been arrested or who are in other legal trouble.
Though Facebook and Twitter were central to the global movement in the very beginning, the group is turning to other social communication tools partly because of its sheer size.
Members of the movement use Mumble, an open-source voice chat application, to host regular local, countrywide and international meetings that can draw thousands. Vibe, an anonymous broadcast messaging service, is used to announce dates and times of actions. And Bambuser, a live video technology created by a team based in Stockholm, has been adopted to stream video of people and events that matter to the movement.
Other online services help protesters raise money or broadcast anonymous messages such as the locations of police barricades (and how to evade them).
“They are interested in building a new kind of democratic citizen and questioning our entire economic model,” said Alejandro Cervantes-Carson, who is head of Alternative Academia, a global network of scholars focused in part on the social movements that have taken place in the past decade.
Over the past year, 15M — which has more than 2 million people on its communications lists, according to organizers — has manifested itself in thousands of neighborhood associations in Spain that are fighting corruption at nearby hospitals, schools and other organizations; taking over unoccupied buildings and making them into community centers; and even setting up communal vegetable gardens.
Ines Fernandez, a 26-year-old pharmacist who is active in her local 15M group in Madrid, said her job is to inform everyone about changes in laws or government decrees that could impact their lives. “Now people are more aware about the reality, and the politicians know we are here and we are not stupid and we are going to fight for our rights,” she said.
Lawyer Lourdes Baeza, 57, volunteers her time to help counsel neighbors about legal issues and is working on an effort to privatize the water company. “People wonder what is happening to 15M because we are not camping out anymore. The truth is we are still very active. These are not things that make headlines but these are real actions that are helping the country,” she said.
But 15M still relies on trademark communication tools such as Sanz’s real-time broadcast.
Sanz, a graduate student in her 30s, says the technology is part of the movement’s foundation. “It’s a way to democratize information,” she said. “It is how we will be able to build a space online where we can debate and rebuild the meaning of citizenship around the world.”
The first thing many people recognize about Sanz is her voice. While she never appears on camera herself and most here would be hard-pressed to recognize the slim graduate student with long brown hair, she said she often runs into people who recognize her as the narrator of her edgy video dispatches.
She was the eyes for the movement when Spanish miners came to Madrid to protest and in telling stories about people who have lost their jobs. In her broadcasts, which often last hours, she is at the same time sympathetic and angry. There are recurring characters in the clips, too — a portly old woman whom Sanz calls the movement’s “madrina,” or godmother, because she comes to every protest.
During one protest at Plaza de las Cortes, Sanz points her camera phone in the face of police officers and shouts out the names and numbers of all the lawyers on call for 15M that night so that anyone who runs into trouble with law enforcement can get some help. She asks her viewers to disseminate the information via the movement’s various social networks.
“Our approach is that if we can get information out to everyone, big institutions will no longer be a monster to be afraid of but one we can defeat,” Sanz said. “What we want to do is bring the Internet feeling of aggregation and collaboration to real life.”