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The Camp Is the World: Connecting the Occupy Movements and the Spanish May 15th Movement

Posted: 11/30/11 11:11 AM ET

A look at the recent history of a movement similar to Occupy -- the Spanish indignados or 15M movement -- can shed some light on the opportunities and urgency of the new phase of the Occupy movements in the USA.

There are three key elements that have made the global movements of 2011 so powerful and different:

  1. The extraordinary capacity to include all types of people;
  2. The impulse to move beyond traditional forms of the protest and contention, so as to create solutions for the problems identified;
  3. The horizontal and directly participatory form they take.

Let's look at the first element. Unlike other movements that have strongly identified with concrete social groups (workers, students, etc.), both the indignados and Occupy are movements that anyone can join, just by choosing to do so. Again and again in Madrid as in New York we have heard the demonstrators chanting solidarity slogans to the police: "they've also lowered your salary" and "you too are the 99 %". In both places the movements have been able to bring out many people who had never been to a demonstration before and made them feel welcome and useful. It is a culture and politics of openness and acceptance of the other.

The second element, the capacity to create solutions, is consistent with this non-confrontational aspect of the Spanish and American movements. Like their predecessors in Egypt and Greece, both movements began with the occupation of a public space. Rather than reproducing the logic of the traditional "sit-in," these occupations quickly turned to the construction of miniature models of the society that the movement wanted to create - prefiguring the world while simultaneously creating it. The territory occupied was geographic, but only so as to open other ways of doing and being together. It is not the specific place that is the issue, but what happens in it. This is what we could call the first phase of the movement.

From the very beginning, two problem-solving institutions were created: the general assemblies and the working-groups. Some of the working groups were designed to directly address problems related to basic human necessities. In Zuccotti, the loading and unloading of shopping-carts full of jars of peanut butter and loaves of bread on the afternoon of Saturday 17th, an initiative launched by the already-functioning food committee, was the first sign of this effort to provide solutions. By the 5th week of the Occupation in New York the food working group was feeding upwards of 3000 people a day.

In these working groups the dynamic of the second phase of the movements was already implicit. This phase is characterized by the gradual shift from a focus on acts of protest (which nonetheless continue to have a crucial role, as we must confront this system that creates crisis) to instituting the type of change that the movements actually want to see happen in society as a whole. The capacity to create solutions grows as the movements expand in all directions, first through the appearance of multiple occupations connected among themselves, and then through the creation of--or collaboration with--groups or networks that are able to solve problems on a local level through cooperation and the sharing of skills and resources. For example, Occupy Harlem is using direct action to prevent heat from being shut off in a building in the neighborhood - this action has been coordinated with OWS and Occupy Brooklyn.

In the case of Spain, this expansion began in June, when the movement decided to focus its energy more on the assemblies and the working groups than on maintaining the encampments themselves. To maintain the miniature models of a society that the movement wished to create did not necessarily contribute to the actual changes that were needed in the populations that needed them the most. Which is why the decision to move away from the encampments was nothing more than another impulse in the constructive aims of the movement: the real encampment that has to be reconstructed is the world.

Of course, it is true that the encampments continue to have a crucial function as places in which the symbolic power of the Occupy movement is concentrated. But the viability of a movement is not only defined by its capacity to withstand pressure from the outside, but also in its ability to reach and work together with people outside the space of the plaza or square. It is this - the going beyond the parameters of the plaza - that the assemblies and the working groups have already started to put into effect.

What this could continue to look like in the US is that there are assemblies on street corners, in neighborhoods, in workplaces and universities, working concretely together with neighbors and workmates, as well as then relating together in assemblies of assemblies or spokes councils in parks, plazas and squares, sharing the experiences from the more local spaces. All the while continuing to occupy space and territory, but seeing the territory as what happens together, with one another, in multiple places, and then coming together to share in another geographic place. This could take place on the level of neighborhood to neighborhood - to the level of city to city, all networked in horizontal assemblies.

In any case, to return to the case of Spain, what is certain is that while the indignado movement no longer has encampments, its presence is felt everywhere. It's a culture now, composed of thousands of micro-institutions that provide solutions through the common efforts of people affected by the same problems. There are cooperatives addressing work, housing, energy, education, finance, and nutrition, and many other things, as well as a web of collaboration that connects these cooperatives. Catalunya and Madrid already have "Integral Cooperatives" whose function is to coordinate the different services offered by various cooperatives within a particular locale, to the point that in some places in Spain it is almost possible to live without having to depend on the resources hoarded by the 1%. The movement has made it possible for these institutions, which used to be dispersed and limited, to grow and grow connected, and it has provided them with a visibility that has led to much more interest, respect, and support for their functions. Also, the movement keeps coming back to the streets every so often in big demonstrations and assemblies that display its force and allow all of those working in the many projects associated with the spirit of May 15th to see each other, network together, and welcome more people.

The creation of alternative institutions and solutions has already begun in the United States. With or without encampments, the constructive phase of the Occupy movement is here, and all indications are that it will not slow down, as it has not slowed down in Spain. Every day on the news and on You Tube, we see the police removing the occupiers from parks and plazas, but the movement continues to grow - and to grow outside of these places. While the tumult of raids and returns jolts occupiers and the public alike, thousands of working groups around the world meet weekly in libraries, community centers, churches, cafes, and offices to share their extraordinary abilities and resources. They are already creating the schools, hospitals, houses, neighborhoods, cities, and dreams of the 99%.

This is the beginning of the occupation of an encampment that will never be dislodged: the world.

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Luis Moreno-Caballud is a participant in the Spanish May 15th movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He collaborated in the formation of the NYC General Assembly, and works with the Empowerment and Education working group. He is an assistant professor of Spanish literature and cultural studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Marina Sitrin is a participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and was a part of the NYC General Assembly that helped organize OWS. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center Committee on Globalization and Social Change, and the author of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.