Generation Y: Changing the World Since 2008 (3)


Lisbon, Portugal, March 2011: On March 12, 2011, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets of Lisbon, Porto, and the other main cities of Portugal, in protest against rising unemployment and poor work conditions. It was the biggest popular demonstration in Portugal, since the Democratic Revolution, on April 25, 1974.


It was called by four activists in their mid-20s, Alexandre de Sousa Carvalho, António Frazão, João Labrincha and Paula Gil, through a Facebook page. It was dubbed the demonstration of the “Geração à Rasca” (akin to “Desolate” or “Stranded” Generation). The goals were to position, alert and express the socio-professional dilemmas of Portugal´s Generation Y, namely: unemployment, lack of job security, enforced part-time work and low wages. Portuguese citizens, across all ages, political sensibilities, and social strata, came to the streets and youth emancipation became the hot topic du jour.


Three of the four organizers followed up with the “March 12 Movement”, a civic association aimed to promote active citizenship in Portugal. The movement has since started a citizen audit to the country´s public debt and proposed a law against the precariousness of employment.


In May 2011, the Portuguese protests were followed by a series of similar demonstrations across neighboring Spain. One of the Spanish organizers called Portugal´s March 12 an inspiration: “There was a lot of talking about what was happening in Portugal, and we were ashamed we hadn´t been doing anything. In Portugal they showed one cannot be afraid, one should take the streets.”



Madrid, Spain, May 2011: Starting off on May 15, 2011, a series of protests in Madrid, and the main Spanish cities, demanded a profound shift in the political and economical paradigm. It became known as the 15-M Movement and the demonstrators as “Los Indignados” (the outraged). The causes for these protests were unemployment in Spain (at the time, 21.3% of the active population and 43.5% of the youth), governmental austerity politics, the bias of the Spanish democratic system towards bi-partisanship, and the financial system´s influence over politics. The goals were to defend the rights of all citizens to affordable housing, fair employment and access to health, education and culture, all in deterioration since the 2008 world financial crisis and the subsequent Spanish housing market crash.


Between 6.5 and 8 millions participated, in one way or another, in the 15-M Movement. 75% of Spanish citizens have considered its claims as “more than reasonable”.


The 15-M Movement had its roots in the web platform “Democracia real Ya” (Real Democracy Now), an aggregate of web forums and social networking sites dedicated to social activism, and with the support of hundreds of small associations and non-governmental organizations. Via Twitter and Facebook, “Democracia real Ya” asked “the unemployed, poorly paid, the subcontractors, the precarious, young people…” to take the streets of Spain on May 15, 2011. The protest was inspired by the Arab Spring, Portugal´s March 12, the Greek demonstrations amidst the sovereign debt crisis, the 2009 Icelandic civic mobilization against the political and financial establishment and the historic May 1968. When it called for the protest, “Democracia real Ya” had only a few months of existence and its manifesto had little media impact.


But on May 15, 2011, 80.000 came to the streets of Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, and other major cities in Spain. Their slogans had the May 1968´s imprint all over, “We are not commodities at the hands of politicians and bankers”, “No home, no job, no salaries, no fear”, “The youth came to the street and, suddenly, all political parties grew old.” In Madrid, 100 demonstrators camped at the central square Puerta del Sol, which became the emblematic epicenter of the movement. On the next day, 200 demonstrators followed their example at Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona. The tag #spanishrevolution became the hottest world topic at Twitter.

On May 17, police expelled campers at Puerta Del Sol and made two arrests. 15-M answered back, with a call for new demonstrations at Central Squares across Spain. By this time, the movement had surpassed “Democracia real ya” and protests were being called by cell phones, Twitter and Facebook. Thousands of demonstrators came to Puerta del Sol and the other Spanish Central Squares. At Puerta Del Sol, many demonstrators were carrying Carnations, the symbol of Portugal´s Democratic Revolution. They camped at Puerta del Sol, self-organizing with food banks, hospitals, sleeping and security shifts, library, kindergarten, theater, webcasts, and nominating several spokespersons. And, of course, rallying in popular assemblies, where all demonstrators had the chance to express their views and propose political stands.


Camps at other Squares emulated this logistics, and established themselves within a national network, between camps and national and international support groups, linked through blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Voluntary lawyers made available, through Google Docs, legal requirements that demonstrators should fill so as to ask permission to camp at their respective cities.


On the eve of the May 22 Spanish regional elections, the electoral committee of Madrid declared the Puerta del Sol camp as illegal, due to the possibility of influencing the electoral outcome. The demonstrators did not move. By this time, dozens of thousands were camped in Madrid and in the other main Spanish cities.


Until June, there were some stressful moments and even open conflicts with the police. The most serious one happened at Plaça de Catalunya, on May 27, when 450 policemen tried to expel a few hundred campers, due to the upcoming Champions League final match, between Barcelona and Manchester United. The action ended up with 121 injured. The police intervention was severely criticized in the media, even by the police union. In retaliation, calls for new protests across Spain, and 12.000 demonstrators came to the Plaça de Catalunya. During this time, the tag #bcnsinmiedo (“Barcelona without fear”) was the world leading topic at Twitter.


On June 12, demonstrators left Puerta del Sol. The camp at Plaça de Catalunya kept on and, between the June 14 and 15, more violent struggles irrupted. On the day of the debates for the regional Catalan budget, which would result in cuts in health and education, demonstrators blockaded the Catalan Parliament and harassed deputies at the entry. Police fired rubber bullets to disband the protests. Demonstrators answered back with rocks and bottles. “Democracia real ya” disavowed any violent actions taken by demonstrators, but also denounced what they perceived as an illegitimate stigmatization of the movement by the media. Many suggested that the violent actions in Barcelona were caused by undercover policemen among the protesters.


Between June 20 and 25, demonstrations and camps gave place to a grand national march, with eight columns of a few hundred 15-M activists, coming from different regions of Spain, in direction to Madrid. Their goal was to expand the movement beyond the urban centers and university youth, visiting rural communities, listening to their problems, collecting their demands and presenting them the opportunity to experience the popular assemblies. After one month crossing the country, the columns arrived to the place where it all began. Thousands flushed through the main entrances of Madrid and, in an improvised demonstration, were joined by sympathizers from Madrid and all over Spain.


The eight columns assembled at 21h at Puerta del Sol, under a giant banner “Welcome, Dignity”. The demonstration culminated in a general popular assembly, where activists shared the social, political and economical problems and the solutions they collected all over the country. These experiences were registered under “The Book of the People”, which was officially deposited in the Congress of the Deputies. Simultaneously, the movement helped dozens of over-indebted families all over the country, preventing them from being expelled from their homes.


On July 25, the 15-Movement organized the “I 15-M Social Forum”. The Forum had a sympathetic visit by Economics Nobel laureate Professor Joseph Sitglitz. There, he resumed the common problems that were waging South Europe and North America, rising unemployment and the aggravation of social inequalities. He declared to the demonstrators: “This is not working, you have to change it.”


By this time, the 15-M movement had spread through the World, echoing in Belgium, Israel, Chile, Mexico, England and the United States. It had grown into the global protest called “Occupy”.



One year has passed since the March 12 and May 15 protests. And the socio-economic situation in Portugal and Spain only got worse. Both the Portuguese and Spanish governments have since been replaced, under the tremendous pressure of the sovereign debt crisis. Both economies are crippled, with the unemployment and the public debt figures still rising. Portugal was subjected to an international rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and the European Central bank. Apparently, Spain is due to follow suit.


But, if the future does not look bright, 12-M and 15-M have shown that young people in Portugal and Spain are firmly resolute and compromised. It remains to be seen if their actions and proposals are going to trigger the kind of political changes that they are aiming for. One thing is sure. Noticeably, the European center-Left has adopted some of the 12-M and 15-M vocabulary and rhetoric – supporting models and tools of participatory democracy, control and taxation of the financial system and public investment policies towards employment and social cohesion. Maybe it is the sign of better things ahead. Maybe.

NEXT: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy the World.