15M Civic Taskforces

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'On Monday, July 30, 40 Spaniards ranging in age from their mid-20’s to early 70’s congregated in a dilapidated plaza in central Madrid. Those wizened by past experience brought folding chairs; others tore off cardboard slabs from a nearby recycling heap to fashion makeshift cushions. Newcomers stood or crouched.

All had gathered for a three-hour meeting, a weekly affair organized by the Economics Group of the Puerta del Sol, a lively chapter of citizens who’ve been assembling since last spring to puzzle through Spain’s intractable economic crisis.

The group is one of several civic taskforces; others are devoted to the environment, politics, culture and law. Each is affiliated with an individual neighborhood’s popular assembly that coordinates local activism — from efforts to block the execution of foreclosures to rallies at the branches of Spanish banks.

These local groups form the vertebrae of the national protest movement known as “15-M,” named for the date — May 15, 2011 — when tens of thousands of Spaniards started protesting government mismanagement and austerity measures.

These indignados invite everyone from articulate activists to passersby and neighborhood eccentrics to participate in wide-ranging, and often interminable and inconclusive, debates about politics. Though the meetings can be unwieldy, and the protesters’ critics caricature the movement as quixotic rabble, it is an unsung success of participatory democracy. With weeks of corralling and debating behind each proposal, the activists have stayed true to their egalitarian core, whatever the inconvenience.

It is hard to pinpoint just how large this network has become. Turnout varies, and activists are keen on preserving their non-hierarchical structure, making it difficult to distinguish regular initiates from casual attendees. Still, to judge from Facebook and Twitter activity, these assemblies can reach thousands of people in a matter of hours.

At first, the indignados laid easy claim to the public’s attention. Voluble politicians invoked them in their talking points. Newspapers published wispy profiles of demonstrators. And a spate of books carried “15-M”-inspired titles.

Over a year later, as cynicism sets in about the worsening economic crisis, this attention has soured. Skeptics are accusing the protesters of not having a coherent agenda.

The problem, instead, may be that they have too many proposals.

Neighborhood assemblies have posted scores of demands online, the result of arduous votes taken in plazas through the capital. The Economics Group affiliated with Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s central hub, has proposed everything from the elimination of tax havens to increased development aid and the reform of draconian foreclosure laws.

Its members have also organized talks by intellectuals, including Nobel laureates. “The programming has given me an education about how the economy works which I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere,” one activist said.

But with conservatives wed to austerity in power and the socialist opposition largely discredited, no one in establishment circles is listening to self-anointed neighborhood parliamentarians. It’s all too easy to mock their initiatives as irrelevant.

Last month, I attended a “strategy session” on how the Economics Group planned to cast its rhetoric about those responsible for the crisis: How could activists call out the guilty parties (señalar a los culpables) in public?

As is typical, one person volunteered to moderate and another to serve as the administrator of floor remarks, or turnos de palabra, keeping a list of the attendees who wanted to speak. Process is paramount.

During the strategy session, a debate raged for two hours over abstractions tied to terminology. The moderator valiantly, but vainly, tried to keep comments focused.

I left both exasperated and admiring. One activist challenged me to name another grassroots cause as “far-ranging” and “deep-thinking.” Participants are not simply out for a single signal change, she said. They are creating a holistic civic-mindedness, making ordinary citizens conversant in ideas for reform." (http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/15/on-democracy-in-spain/)