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NYC Organizers Share Lessons from Spanish Anti-Austerity Movements

Janaki Chadha Jul 10, 2015

After Greece, Spain has been one of the European countries hardest hit by the economic crisis that began in 2008. Unemployment stands at almost 25% and for young people it is twice that high. Spanish voters registered their desire for change in municipal elections on May 24 that brought leftist to power in Madrid, Barcelona and a half dozen other cities.

NYC to Spain, a diverse group of 20 mostly New York City-based activists, was on hand to witness and learn from Spain’s democratic uprising. On Tuesday evening, they gathered at the Murphy Institute Tuesday to share their experiences and observations on Spain’s vibrant social movements. A crowd of about 100 people was on hand.

“We all know that the context is really different, but there are still commonalities," said Lucas Shapiro, one of the organizers of the delegation. "Part of the importance of global solidarity is to be able to learn from other movements."

NYC to Spain’s members come from various organizations including Make the Road New York, Retail Action Project, May Day Space, Why Hunger and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung-NYC Office.

The movement against austerity in Spain, which includes anti-eviction efforts and a growing solidarity economy, has provided an alternative to establishment political parties. It has roots in the 2008 economic crisis, which, as in many parts of the world, led to high unemployment and poverty in the country as well as the increased privatization of health care and education. Photojournalist and activist Elia Gran, who was part of the delegation, described the origins of the movement as, "not about left or right [but] people moving to ask for real democracy to feel represented, and are starting to ask for accountability from their government."

Specific groups that the delegation explored included the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), an organization that organizes homeowners to fight for their rights in Spain, and Podemos, a political party dedicated to combating corruption and inequality. Rachel McCullough who was part of the delegation noticed how decentralized organizing efforts within this movement were, with traditional unions and NGOs on the sidelines if not absent entirely.

“We were really able to see how movements can take institutional power," she said, adding that this happened without electoral politics consuming many of these grassroots initiatives. Other group members described Spain’s social movements as being much more integrated with each other and there being much less competition for scarce resources as is often the case with activist groups in the US.

Spain’s social movements have been strengthened by the widespread presence of social centers – rented or abandoned buildings that house various activist groups while also being a hub for where people gather to drink, listen to music and hang out with their friends. Shapiro, who is a part of the Bushwick-based May Day space, emphasized the importance of creating such spaces in New York as well.

"[These public spaces] are a place that you can go and find other people that are involved in social transformation projects, and not just to do typical organizing, but also to really build an accessible culture."

Before audience members split into smaller groups to discuss more concrete strategies of how these messages from Spain can be brought into US organizing circles, several brought up questions for the delegation, mostly focusing on how to link these two settings. One question raised included whether NYC-based social movements can ever truly move away more bureaucratic, staff-driven structures despite existing in very different economic circumstances from Spain, that includes much higher costs of living and a significantly lower unemployment rate.

NYC to Spain organizers announced before the end of the meeting that they hope to send a second delegation to Spain in November when the country holds national elections.

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