On Saturday, the 15-M movement turned a new page in history. Not only did the social protest crusade see the highest number of supporters so far turn out for a gargantuan rally in Madrid, but the movement gained remarkable worldwide momentum when millions of people across the globe heeded a call to come together in an unprecedented joining of voices to protest government policies, the banking industry and big business.
From Manila to Madrid, Santiago to Stockholm, the 15-M movement, which had its humble beginnings five months ago in the Spanish capital, proved that it was capable of generating rallies in 951 cities in 82 countries.
In Spain, the so-called «outraged ones» are demanding profound changes to the current political system, which they consider is controlled by bankers.
Madrid and Barcelona were the cities with the biggest concentration of Spanish protestors. In Madrid, it was estimated that more than 500,000 people converged in the Puerta del Sol square on Saturday night, while in Barcelona, police say that 60,000 people poured onto the streets of the Catalan capital; organizers claimed the number was more like 400,000. Other demonstrations in Valencia, Seville and Zaragoza attracted between 40,000 and 50,000 in each city.
«The movement has blossomed beautifully,» said Manolo, a 64-year-old early retiree, who serves as a member of the multi-group coalition’s economic committee.
Jon Aguirre Such, spokesman for Real Democracy Now!, one of the key platforms that spawned 15-M, said that October 15 was just as important as that first day in spring when the people’s protest drive took shape. «The people who have come out into the streets across the globe today, October 15, are part of history,» he said.
From the early morning, rallies throughout the downtown area had the makings of mini street festivals, complete with music, performers and lectures. «Hello BBVA, hello Santander… did you pay your mortgage today?» one group sang to music from a popular children’s television program at an initial gathering in Puerta de Toledo. The singular concentrations – more than a dozen in all – would eventually meet in Madrid’s main square for a major rally that evening.
In Barcelona, people were equally animated. «This isn’t a one-day movement. I am tired of people saying that 15-M is a thing of the past,» said Hortensia Romero, a 47-year-old nurse who works at Can Ruit Hospital in Badalona. «We have to keep up the fight. We have to stay united so that people can realize that change is possible.»
While the protests in Spain were held without major incidents on Saturday, sister demonstrations in other cities around the globe were not as peaceful. In Rome, at least 70 people were injured – three seriously – when riots broke out in the Italian capital after about 200 masked protestors torched cars, attacked banks and hurled rocks, marring what was supposedly a pacifist march of about 200,000 in the Italian capital.
In the United States, at least 92 people were arrested in New York on different charges, including two dozen for trespassing at a Citibank branch in Greenwich Village. About 200 more were detained in Chicago after they refused a police order to abandon Grant Park.
A smaller group of about 25,000 demonstrators turned out for Lisbon’s «people’s assembly» in front of parliament just two days after Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho announced that the Portuguese would have to face more drastic cuts in order to save their country’s finances.
In other countries, turnouts were much smaller but demonstrators ensured their voices were heard just as well. In Santiago, Chile, 5,000 people showed up while in Sydney, Australia, the demonstration only attracted about 500.
The idea for a historic worldwide protest was born on June 17 during a small gathering of 15-M protestors in Madrid’s Carmen square. About 40 people had shown up, including a host of foreigners. Only a few days before, demonstrators who had been camped out in Sol decided to form an international liaison group, charged with carrying the protest message to other countries. «They [the foreigners] were surprised that this was a non-violent assembly,» recalls Alicia, a member of the liaison committee.
«They were drawn to the fact that we cleaned up after ourselves following street demonstrations, that we insisted that the noise level should be kept to a minimum, and that we had set up a library and information stand in the middle of Sol.»