Moments of revolt: looking back at May 2011 in Madrid

  • May 20, 2012

People & Protest

This collection of photos and short stories recounts the historic events that took place in Puerta del Sol at the start of its occupation one year ago.

Original photography by Samuel Cossar-Gilbert

This is a collection of ten stories and photos from the first few weeks of the occupation of Puerta de Sol in May 2011.  During those days, Madrid’s central square became a kind of liberated zone, where creative freedom flourished, where everything was free, where direct democracy was practiced and where we created our dreams together.

One year on, we reflect on those days — not to be nostalgic, but to remind ourselves that another word is possible. This project aims to focus on the little moments that caught our breath and made us smile; when we felt the power of collective action and caught a glimpse of utopia. The report is made up of personal accounts from many different people’s experiences during the occupation of Sol.

Yet all of us who took to the streets and squares around the world to fight for change over the past year will have their own moments. We hope this project can expand and become global. We therefore ask you to send short stories or moments from your own movements and occupations to, if possible adding a photo. Preferably in English, Spanish or French, but any language is fine.

1. I arrived late one night when the camp was still under construction. The square was a hive of activity with tarps, megaphones, chairs and beds arriving out of nowhere to form an anarchic structure in the centre of the city. It was an organised chaos.

2. One night we climbed up some scaffolding to get a view of the crowd. Looking over the square down at the masses of people, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. The light from the street lamps and the moving bodies made it look like the square was glowing. People started chanting “esta noche ha salido al Sol” — ‘tonight the sun has risen’.

3. I remember that the firefighters were on strike, and on the first night of the occupation they came to support us and bought pizzas for all the protesters. Over the next weeks, every time a fire truck passed by the camp, they would sound their sirens to show solidarity. The firefighters helped the occupation with safety planning and would sometimes drive their trucks into the square, to be greeted by cheering crowds.

4. Working with the food commission was one of the best experiences of my life. I have never seen so much generosity from random strangers. Everyone worked as volunteers. We made a call out over the internet for people to bring food down to show support for the movement. Yet after two days, we had to ask people to stop bringing food: there was just too much. We were feeding tens of thousands of people every day. It started with one ‘popular kitchen’, then expanded to three or four. I remember there was one old lady who would come down every morning to give us her homemade cakes.

5. There was almost always an open microphone in the square, where people would gather to discuss, debate and share their opinions. I remember one day an old man stood up and said: “I was involved in the fight against Franco and saw many of my comrades die. I always thought the younger generation didn’t care. Yet now I know you do. I am so proud of what you are doing here. We must continue the struggle. Long live the Revolution, Long live the Republic!”

6. One day, we were at a general assembly sitting in the sun for hours with over 1.000 people trying to reach a consensus about whether on not to march to the parliament. The debate was dragging on and going nowhere, when someone made an announcement that it was time for strawberries. Hundreds of boxes of fresh strawberries began to appear out of nowhere and people passed them around. Then the assembly continued.

7. During those days the police did no policing, people were free to do what they wanted. I remember walking into one of the smaller plazas in central Madrid and someone had brought their DJ and stereo equipment and started a massive dance party. Young and old danced like crazy to a mix of Michael Jackson and trance. In the next plaza along there was an amazing piece of political theatre going on.

8. There was political graffiti everywhere. The main billboard of the square was covered in messages for change. I remember when a group of people climbed up to the top of the building and unravelled a massive banner that read “no nos respresentan” — they don’t represent us. The crowd went crazy and I thought, maybe this will actually be a revolution.

9. At 12 o’clock at night, the day before the election all political protests became illegal. 30,000 people gathered in Sol screaming at the top of their lungs: “La voz del pueblo no es illegal,” — the voice of the people is not illegal. The noise was deafening.

10. Sleeping and waking up at Sol, the main square in Madrid. I remember sitting up in my sleeping bag early one morning and seeing thousands of people lying around me. I was still half asleep and thought: ‘I am dreaming’.

Sam Cossar-Gilbert

Sam Cossar-Gilbert is an environmental activist based in Paris.

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Magazine — Issue 11