A filthy vacant lot is now sprouting strawberries, tomatoes and carrots. This small community garden in the centre of the southern Spanish city of Málaga was created by the "Indignados" protest movement, which is celebrating its first anniversary Saturday by taking to the streets across the country.
"This urban vegetable garden is a symbol and a space for freedom," Málaga resident Miguel Ángel, who has been involved in the movement since it emerged a year ago in response to the severe economic crisis in Spain, told IPS.
Organised over the online social networks, the movement spread throughout the country on May 15, 2011 (giving it the name 15M). Demonstrators calling themselves the "indignados" – indignant or angry – occupied the central squares of Spain’s major cities to protest an economic model they perceive as socially unjust and political parties they see as subordinate to the economic-powers-that-be.
The movement later expanded to smaller towns across the country, where people began to hold citizens’ assemblies. Then it crossed national borders, spreading to other parts of the world under different names, such as Occupy Wall Street, where protesters first set up camp in Zuccotti Park in New York City's financial district.
"The vegetable garden in the central Málaga neighbourhood of La Trinidad is an example of what ordinary citizens can do when they get organised," said Miguel Ángel, referring to the local effort that began in September 2011 to clean up and farm a vacant lot and share the produce.
Protesters in at least 1,000 cities worldwide are holding demonstrations Saturday May 12 to celebrate the birth of a global movement that sprang up in response to the economic and financial crisis that broke out in the United States in 2008.
The new global day of action will be called 12M-15M, according to the web site of True Democracy Now (DRY), a platform that lit the fuse of the original uprising under the slogan "We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers."
The movement has managed to "put backbone into civil society and reconstruct the torn social fabric by means of neighbourhood assemblies," said Miguel Ángel. It has fostered cooperatives and mutual support networks that have provided alternatives to the system, he said.
"15M has awakened people's critical consciousness," said Fabio Gándara, a lawyer who supports the movement which, he says, "has changed the political agenda" in Spain.
The Platform of Mortgage Victims, created in the northeastern city of Barcelona in 2009 by people who could not meet the monthly payments on their homes, succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of evicted families in Spain, thanks to support and public airing provided by 15M.
The protests also proved influential in parliament, which approved debtor protection measures, like raising the level of wages exempt from seizure to pay mortgage debts, and proposed a legal reform so that surrendering a house to creditors would settle the entire outstanding mortgage debt (in many cases greater than the original loan, because of interest rate rises).
The government of centre-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, in office since Dec. 20, 2011, approved a code of good practice for banks in April, advocating full debt forgiveness for poor families in arrears who return their homes to the banks.
Crisis, criticism and self-analysis
Some voices in the 15M have criticised the movement from within. "We have failed to establish the organisational basis for a long-term, enduring movement," said Gándara.
"Commitment to a purely ‘assembly style’ model has greatly detracted from the effectiveness of the movement, and is preventing the achievement of real changes in the system," he added.
In his view, the movement will not survive unless it "adopts more democratic and effective methods of organisation to complement the citizens’ assemblies."
Spain is one of the European Union countries hit hardest by the crisis, with more than five million people out of work – a record unemployment rate of 24 percent.
Rajoy's deep cutbacks, especially in health and education, stoked the protests which triggered a widely supported general strike Mar. 29, convened by the two largest trade unions.
The government justifies the budget cuts by the imperative need to reduce the fiscal deficit from the 2011 level of 8.5 percent of GDP, to 5.3 percent by the end of this year.
"The policies adopted by the governments of representative democracies like Spain, far from addressing people's real needs, reflect the interests of a privileged minority anxious to maintain their advantages at all costs," said Gándara.
Activist Esther Vivas told IPS that 15M "is profoundly critical of the democratic system."
"It has given us back the capacity to believe in ourselves," but like all social movements, it is cyclical in nature and during its first year of existence it has had peaks and troughs, said Vivas, of the Centre for the Study of Social Movements at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
The challenge now for the "Indignados" movement is to maintain its level of support in society, and to improve and increase coordination on a global scale, said the sociologist, who is co-author with Josep María Antentas of the book "Planeta Indignado: Ocupando el futuro" (Indignant Planet: Occupying the Future).
Antentas, a professor of sociology at the University of Barcelona, told IPS the eruption of 15M marked "the start of a new cycle," allowing social protest to resume its place in society.
Saturday’s demands are the same ones voiced a year ago, because "we continue to bear the burden of economic measures adopted behind the people's back, as well as the lack of direct participation by civil society in government institutions, endemic corruption, and the gradual dismantling of the 'welfare state'," Gándara said.
That is why True Democracy Now has called on people around the world to "take the streets" Saturday, "in favour of decent housing and quality public health and education, and against precarious employment and the bailout of banks with public funds."
The Spanish government warned that it would not permit tents in the squares, which it said were illegal, after 15M proposed camping in the Puerta del Sol, in central Madrid, from Saturday May 12 to Tuesday May 15.
This article was originally published by IPS.