Sol, July 23.
This morning for the first time we didn’t get up before dawn. We spent the entire day in the Northern Park, resting and preparing signs and banners for the final leg. Eight kilometres through the city down to Puerta del Sol.
Once again at lunch we are treated by the local people to a wide variety of delicious Spanish food. Our march has been an inspiration to all. Our patience, conviction and endurance have proven the strength of this movement. This is what people are grateful for. We have taken away the cynicism of many. We have given them reason to believe that a more human world is really possible.
A couple of municipal police officers look on from a distance. They too have born us respect, and maybe even admiration, both here and on the march. Still, from the southern columns we have heard stories of police officers being ordered to molest the marchers and to deny them entrance to various villages. But just like all the previous police aggression against the movement it has proven to be counterproductive. Violence is a weakness. Peaceful resistance is a sign of strength.
At six we walk, people from the march and from the neighbourhood. More people join us as we take to the six lanes of the Passeo de la Castellana. A tent is being brought along. With people being at risk of eviction this is the ‘house of the future’. Lots and lots of signs are carried, as always, some of them pretty funny, some of them ready to be carved into marble. The flags that are waved are from the regions whence people have marched. Apart from that there are banners of the Spanish Republic.
The republic (1931-1939) represented the modern, autonomous and progressive spirit of Spain against the medieval spirit of the church and the army. And though hardly anyone lives to tell about those days, the republic is still very much alive in many people’s hearts and minds. Sooner or later it will be restored.
Spain has never digested forty years of dictatorship. After the civil war ended with the victory of the fascists, tens of thousands of republicans have been executed. Many more have been made to work as prisoners of war on the faraonic Valley of the Fallen, just North of Madrid, where the fascist ‘heroes’ and Franco himself have found their final resting place. Just like in ancient Egypt, and many times after that, thousands of people died through forced labour.
There has never been instituted a truth commission. Silence was part of the deal during the so-called transition. Franco’s heritage has been picked up by the present day Popular Party, and they have ‘coopted’ the socialists, saying: “Listen. We can share power, so we can enter in Europe. But not a word about the dictatorship. And don’t touch the civil apparatus that was installed by Franco.” The socialists accepted, of course. And that is the reason why the people on the streets are singing ‘They call it a democracy / Even though it’s not.’
The revolution will have to address the recent history of Spain. The truth will have to come out. Crimes committed under the regime will have to be ascertained. People will have to be exposed for what they did and have to be held accountable. Only if Spain can recover its historic memory and clear its conscience can we avoid that the revolution leads to further conflict in the future.
After many kilometres of singing and shouting and waving flags over the Passeo de la Castellana we enter the heart of town, through shopping streets where people are sitting unsuspectingly on terraces sipping their cocktails. ‘If you don’t move now / Then don’t complain tomorrow!’ we sing. Few of the people on the terraces are moving. Some of them are applauding. Most of them are shooting videos.
We’re banging rhythmically on pans and empty boxes and bottles. On the Gran Vía we are sitting down. The excitement rises. Just down the street there’s Puerta del Sol. We’re waiting for the Southern Columns, so that we can all arrive simultaneously. Then off we go, the people from the march ahead of the rest, with flags. The last hundred meters we go running, into the square, where we receive the embrace of Madrid and all the other cities of Spain.
When people come back to their senses, we await the assembly. Looking around for a good spot I notice that no-one has climbed onto the scaffolding yet. “That sounds like a challenge,” says Jim. And next thing we’re up there, looking out over the National Assembly of Popular Marches. Representatives from all the columns share their experiences. We connect live to squares in Athens, Paris, London and Berlin. The sun sets on this historic event, and we have the full view from our royal revolutionary lodge up above…
Madrid. Parque Norte, July 22.
Here we are. After a march of almost thirty kilometres, divided into two acts – ‘before lunch’ and ‘after lunch’ – we have arrived in the northern outskirts of Madrid. Jim and me, and many more people have accompanied the marchers for only the last hundred kilometres or so. The people who did the entire march from the Basque country and the Rioja are the real heroes of this trip. They couldn’t hide their excitement when the skyline of city appeared in the distance.
Just as all great cities, Madrid is like a star. The urban matter gets ever more dense when you close in on her center of gravity. Roads and motorways, factories, office buildings and powerlines cover the land. Just outside the city limits there’s the campus of the Autonomous University of Madrid. This is where we stop to eat and rest. On the grass in front of the Facoldad de Letras y Filosofia we meet up with the comrades of the Phantom Column from Cantabria.
Up until today the Phantom Column was pure legend. Nobody knew if it really existed. Not even at the Ministry of Extension in Madrid. Testimonies from people in the Northern Column who said they have marched together with the Phantom Column for various days between Burgos and Aranda del Duero couldn’t be verified. But now, here they are, a dozen people who had started their march in Santander, alive and well under the trees of the Philosophy Department with a Cantabrian flag.
To be honest I’m a bit sad that the march is almost over. I really started to like it, to be with these people, to see all these places, to start thinking about distances not in terms of time or kilometres, but in terms of days. I look at the vague outline of the Sierra de Guadarrama on the horizon. It’s maybe half an hour by car. For us it has been three days walking.
I’m not the only one who got attached to walking. During our lunch break I meet people who are actively organising the next chapter. International marches, from all over Europe, to Brussels. The idea is to get there by mid October, in time for the worldwide protest day on the 15th. Two columns are supposed to leave from Spain, one from Madrid and one from Barcelona. Nothing is certain yet, but it seems the idea is also taking shape in Germany and France.
At the end of the afternoon we walk the last few hours to the Parque Norte. Our final descent on Madrid takes us through fields of gold where the hay has recently been cut. At the city border we’re welcomed by members from a neighbourhood assembly and applause. We take out our banners, we take the streets, and amidst the enormous human storage buildings of the outskirts we walk into the park.
We are welcomed with hugs and kisses as if we were soldiers returning victoriously from the front. And indeed, there is food enough to feed an army. But before we eat, we take the fountain. Overjoyed to be finally here, in Madrid, the people from the Northern Column jump into the water and splash around. The flags are waved until they’re soaked, and when everyone is wet we sit down, in a circle, laughing. The people from the neighbourhood look on in amazament as we spray columns of water around, shouting: “Assembly in the fountain! Assembly in the fountain!”
Colmenar Viejo, July 21.
Today’s march was pretty easy. We took the main road from Manzanares, circling the lake on our way to Colmenar. It was only about 15 kilometres. To my great surprise there wasn’t one single house built on the lakeside during the speculation bubble. Of course there’s a reason for that. The lake is part of Madrid’s drinking water supply. As I heard it’s one of the best functioning public utilities in Spain, the water is of high quality and offered almost freely to the consumers.
Things like this can’t last in a postmodern society. It’s anti-economic. Water can be privatised. People can be fired, quality can be reduced, and prices could go up. Water is business. And Spain’s health care system is next.
Personally, I’m convinced that turning drinking water and health care into a vulgar quest for profit is not only immoral, it’s illegal as well. A government that claims to be democratic cannot deprive the people from its properties without the people’s explicit consent. In Italy, citizens have managed to collect the ridiculous ammount of signatures required to organise a referendum against the privatisation of water. The campaign was almost completely ignored by the prime minister’s media sources, but through grassroots organisation enough people were mobilised to reach the quorum. Over ninety percent of the voters said ‘no’, don’t touch our water.
We are constantly honked by the cars and the vans and the trucks. 15M is cool lately, even under the unforgiving sun. For the first few kilometres out of Manzanares we are escorted by a man from the local 15M movement. At roughly half way he hands us over to a girl from the Popular Assembly of Colmenar. She’s regularly calling the home base to prepare the arrival.
This close to Madrid we need to worry less about logistics. It’s all taken care off. The local Assembly welcomes us on the Plaza del Pueblo in front of the town hall with drinks and suncream and applause. Lunch is duly prepared. The best gazpacho and the best paella you can imagine, and lots more. The only thing that amazes me, a bit, is the complete absence of local or national media. The papers dedicate pages upon pages to the internal convulsions of the big parties, but they don’t seem to know what’s news any more.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Quite the contrary. They are delegitimising themselves in a certain way. Also during the first days of the Acampada in Sol they more or less completely ignored what was going on. Thankfully there was an internet newspaper called periodismo umano that covered it all, and they have seen their visits go up from thousands to millions. We don’t depend on main stream media any more. Thanks to the internet news will surface, and people will find it.
In the evening, after a nice siesta in front of the town hall, the united Assembly of the march and the local town is held. But not only. In a corner of the square there is also a children’s assembly, moderated by people from the march. It’s a great sight. This is education. ‘Suppose you are with six friends who all want to play at a different game, how would you solve that?’ At the end the answers from the kids are presented to the grown-up’s assembly: ‘If everyone wants to play a different game, you should invent a new game all together’. Applause and waving hands. Sometimes the common sense of a child is all we need.
When the assembly is over, there’s is more food offered by the local population, there’s music, there’s a movie projection, there’s party. People are preparing beds and tents in front of the town hall. If this is really Plaza del Pueblo, then the place is ours.
Manzanares el Real, July 20.
“It’s all downhill from here,” they said, this morning. And on the whole it’s true. But that doesn’t mean that the remainder of the march is going to be easy. Our Basque comrades, who have been walking for almost a month are already used to it, but today Jim and me got introduced to an exceptional opponent. The sun.
The first few hours it’s still a nice walk in the shade through the forests of the foothills. We arrive in the small village of Mataelpino, where a very pleasant surprise awaits us. Members of the local assembly welcome us on the town square with a banquet of sandwiches, juices, gazpacho, sweets and even beer. I love this solidarity. We thank them.
“No,” they say, “thank you.”
We march on. To the left we see the rough and rocky peaks of the Guadarrama. The sun is rising to its highest point. But before we take up the challenge, another surprise awaits us. Our arrival in the Comunidad de Madrid doesn’t go unnoticed. We are invited to visit an organic farm, where we are once again received as heroes. We lay down on the grass under the trees. We talk about things like bio-architecture, about the use of straw and other cheap sustainable materials. It’s the agricultural side of the revolution. I will shed light on that in due time. For now we’re here.
Some people propose to stay in this place. But in the end the assembly votes them down. We march on.
The people from the farm accompany us to the end of today’s leg, Manzanares. It’s straight ahead over a dusty road in the blistering sun. The earth is scorched. Even the wind is hot. Just a few rare trees give you a precious moment of shadow. We long for water. After a few kilometres we start to hallucinate. We see a lake in the distance. And, what’s even better, our support van with juices and water and nuts.
It’s enough to take us to the end of the leg. The lake turns out to be real after all, it’s nurtured by a small stream that runs through Manzanares. We follow the stream. This land may seem dry, but whenever there is just a bit of water, plants and trees sprout up to form a thick and almost impenetrable forest. So from the dusty highlands we suddenly find ourselves to be wrestling our way through the jungle. When we finally reach an open space next to the river, we find the rest of the group, and lunch already prepared. People are eating, some are bathing. It could easily be an eighteenth century romantic painting.
People are joining us. The Northern Column is swelling by the day, like a river flowing to the sea. We have visitors. Emissaries from the Southern columns of Sevilla and Málaga have come to coordinate the actions we want to undertake once we get to Madrid. There’s also a television crew from South America which found its way down to the waterside. The cultural link with Latin America is strong. Sancho, one of our iconic comrades who held up high the sign of 15M through the mountains, is a Mexican.
The goodwill we are harvesting doesn’t end. Since we left Segovia we have been desperately looking for access to the internet, to inform the world about what’s happening on the march. We meet comrade Petra and her family. They offer to take us home to connect us. So there we go, speeding away in a Mercedes towards the onramp of the digital highway. This is an emergency.
When we get back to the square today’s assembly is already over. The afterparty is in full swing. The drums are out and all is groovy. The comrades from Acampada Bilbao are transmitting live on their revolutionary radio station. But the best is still to come. When I get back from a quick caffeine boost I look on in complete amazement as the entire square is filled with food. Pasta, soup, various types of delicious Spanish salami, tortilla, rice, sweets and finally, a huge flying soucer filled with paella. A present from the people of Manzanares…
Cercedilla, July 19.
All of yesterday we had the Sierra de Guadarrama in front of us, the mountain range that divides the central highland of Castilia into two, and walking was easy. Today was different. This is what the Dutch and Flemish Tour de France adepts would call De Koninginnerit. The Royal Marching Day.
We have crossed the mountains. We took the pass of Fuenfría at an altitude of over 1.800 meters. It was a wonderful experience, even though, at dawn, it looked like it was going to be infernal. Heavy rains were hammering down on the tents and the sports center and an icy wind blew dark grey clouds over the valleys. We all wrapped up and we prepared for the worst.
Fortunately, it wasn’t going to be the worst. The rain duly stopped when we went out and the howling wind gave way to silence as we started our ascend through the meadows. The atmosphere is mythical. Long strokes of fog are floating along the slopes. The peaks are hidden by the clouds.
And yet again, I have this sense of gratefulness to be here. With these people, in this panorama, at this particular moment in history.
As we climb we enter the pine forests. The group spreads out. The difference between the first to arrive and the last is over half an hour. At the higher altitudes, where cows are walking loose in the forest, the local ranger guides us up. He is visibly happy to do so. He insists on being photographed with the Northern Column. “Go this way,” he says, “it’s probably another three hours to the top.”
From the group in the back I try to catch up with the people in front, walking along stupendous valleys of virgin forests, disappearing and reappearing from the fog. Suddenly it occured to me that I have been walking in circles all of my life, like most of us. Now, for the first time, I’m walking to get from one place to another. I’m walking to travel. And it feels good. It makes you appreciate the real human value of distance.
It’s cold and windy on the top, even though it’s July in the heart of Spain. We plant the flags of Castilia and the Rioja and the Basque country, and we eat a quick sandwich. A helicopter comes flying over low. We are used to being followed at a discreet distance by police cars. Later in the valley we find out it was a fire department helicopter who was filming the passing of the Northern Column from the air.
We take the flags and we start our descend over the ancient Roman road that crossed the peninsula. Now that we are on the southern side of the Guadarrama the weather definitely turns in our favour. The sun comes out and the hours of descend are pure fun. Just before we arrive at Cercedilla, the end of today’s leg, we are welcomed in a large meadow by local representatives of the Popular Assemblies in the Sierra.
We have left the region Castilia y León and we have entered the Comunidad de Madrid. The capital is still four days marching away but we are already in the orbit of Puerta del Sol. The villages here have started to organise themselves in the weeks after the 15th of May as part of the extension to the neighbourhoods and villages of the region. And they have prepared a stupendous lunch for us. After that, siësta and internal assembly in the shade of the trees.
At the end of the afternoon we triumphantly march the last few kilometres down to Cercedilla. We enter the village singing that we will hold an assembly at eight, and that everyone is invited. The popular participation in this town is significant. It’s like people have been waiting for us. They applaude us and they don’t hesitate to speak about their local problems, which appear to be much the same as on the other side of the Sierra. Corruption, the sale of natural resources to private companies, speculation, etc.
It’s the way of the world. And until now we accepted it, because we are told that our system is the best of all the ones that have ever been tried. But a lot of good people don’t believe that anymore. They are sick of it. Until not so long ago those people were dispersed and divided. Now they are starting to organise themselves. A married couple of school teachers join us with their baby and a backpack. They are the future, and they will march with us to Sol.
Valsaín, July 18.
Today Jim and I joined the Northern Column. The wake up call is at dawn. The camp is divided between the square under the Aquaduct and the local sports center. We lift the tents, we have a quick breakfast together. At eight o’ clock we’re on the march.
Today’s leg is easy. Fifteen kilometres of flat land up to a small village in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama. All the time we have the massive wall of the mountains straight ahead of us. Madrid is on the other side. Only towards the end the march becomes panoramically interesting. After we pass the village of La Granja de San Ildefonso we enter the pine forest, the long and winding road starts to go up.
One of our Basque comrades tells a funny story about the village of Otxandio, which they passed on their way through Biscay. As always they held an assembly at night on the central square, explaining to the local people how it works. Someone answered: “You don’t say. We have been holding regular popular assemblies for three years now.”
Three years ago the mayor of the village had decided to grant the right to build an incinerator to a certain a company. The citizens were against it. They presented a feasible ecological alternative, but the mayor persisted with his own plan. So one day the entire village went up to his house and the people simply said: “You are not our mayor any more.” Since then the citizens have instituted their own popular assembly. Every important decision that concerns them needs to be ratified by it.
We march on happily. Some people greet us by honking their horns. But not all of them are happy to see us. And it’s not because we are the 15M movement, but because we are waving Basque flags. This is the conservative hartland of Castilia. There are lots of people here who still love Spain, who love the king. I don’t understand them, just as I don’t understand the Basque nationalists. The era of kings and nation states is over. It just takes time for people to realise it.
Not long after noon we arrive at the small village of Valsaín. There’s room to camp on the grass in front of a little church. And there’s the local sportscenter for people who want a roof over their head. We have lunch on the steps of the church, a rich meal of beans and pasta and potatoes and meat. Real marchers’ food, offered and cooked with lots of love.
The afternoon is dedicated to relaxing on the banks of a small mountain stream, and in the evening, as always at eight, there’s assembly. It’s curious that the participation of the local people is much bigger here in the village than it was yesterday in Segovia. There are elderly and mothers with children who sit down in our circle. They explain us a bit about the village.
All the pine forests and the springs around here used to be personal property of the king. Now they are the state’s. And the state lets all the richness be exploited by multinationals of wood and water. They cut down the trees, they take water from the springs and sell it back to the people in bottles of plastic.
We invite the citizens of Valsaín to form their own assembly. We tell them about the example of Otxandio. This is their valley. They can take back what’s theirs. There’s nothing the people can’t do, as long as they really want it.
Segovia, July 17
For the first time in almost two months I have left Madrid. Together with comrades Jim and Nacho we drove up to the old city of Segovia to witness the arrival of the Northern Column, the one from the Basque country. I took some pictures.
It feels great to be out of Madrid for a while. You can smell the air of the pine trees in the mountains, you can finally see the horizon. And you can also see the devastating impact of the Spanish building fury on the landscape.
We cross the Sierra de Guadarama and descend on Segovia. The city is famous for its Roman aquaduct. I remember a photo from an old Italian schoolbook with a sheperd and his herd walking underneath. It’s absolutely stunning. When I look at it, I don’t understand how it can stay up, let alone for two thousand years, without cement. I have seen Roman buildings and ruins all over Italy and in Rome itself, but I don’t remember ever being as impressed by a feat of engineering as I was here, today. But then again, putting things into perspective, I can imagine that people loathed it back then, just like we would hate to see an elevated highway running through a city.
Another good thing of being out of Madrid is getting in touch with the movement in the province. There’s a small 15M information point right next to the tourist office on the central square. The funny thing is the little differences. The slogans, the logos, the manifestos. They all express the same feelings, but every city, every acampada has developed its own style.
We meet a marcher on reconaissance. He announces that the column is near, only five kilometres from here. We check our batteries and our memory cards, so as to be able to document the event, and we go ahead to meet them. It’s July 17 2011, the Northern Column arrives at Segovia.
We hear them before we can see them. It’s the sound of drums and chanting. An emotional moment. Up to now for me the marches had been coloured lines on a map of Spain. But today, finally, I can feel the vibration of the tambourines. I can see the Basque flags appearing and the people dancing down the road behind a huge yellow banner.
Panoramically, the arrival under the Aquaduct is priceless. I’m happy we came to witness this, I’m happy to see the smiles of the these people, and to feel their strength. This is history on the march.
The marchers put up their camp in the municipal sports center, they take a shower and hold an internal assembly. When it’s finished, people hurry down along the aquaduct to the central square for another assembly, this time in public.
People explain what the 15M means to them. They talk about the marches, about the people they encountered in the villages. “Many of the elderly that we came across were very sympathetic to our cause. The only thing they feared is that this movement will be short lived. Well, I’ll tell you, they don’t have to worry. This movement is slow, but it will go on, and it will go a long way.”
Popular participation in Segovia is minimal. People in this well-to-do little town prefer to walk up and down the street in scenes from the Belle Epoque. But that doesn’t prevent comrade Jim to immortalise the assembly. Not in photo, not in video and neither with words, but with paint…