At night the Madrid's Puerta del Sol square, the center of nationwide protests against mass unemployment, boiled with political passion, gawkers and families on Sunday while Spaniards voted in local elections.
Tens of thousands of protesters have packed plazas in cities throughout Spain all week in the run-up to election day, demonstrating against austerity measures and urging people not to vote for the ruling Socialists or center-right Popular Party.The Puerta del Sol has been a gathering place for Madrilenos for centuries and is all distances in Spain are measured from the 0 km plaque at its heart.At night the crowds there swell to up to 30,000 people. Hundreds of protesters camp out overnight and occupy the plaza during the day. On Sunday morning thousands of protesters were in the square, cleaning up, handing out donated water and sunscreen to passers by, rearranging tarps, and maintaining a "guerrilla garden" where they dug out flowers to plant vegetables.The protests are not expected to change the outcome of Sunday elections, with voters likely to punish the Socialists over the stagnant economy and the highest unemployment rate in the European Union.The buildings that surround the square are plastered with hand-made signs saying "Eat the Rich" and "People of Europe Rise Up." A huge shampoo advertising banner attached to scaffolding at one end of the plaza has been covered up with political slogans.Small groups gather seated on the ground, cross-legged, in circles, listening to speakers on megaphones organizing different aspects of the protests, such as setting up neighborhood committees.The movement, which goes under several names including "Real Democracy Now" or "M-15" for the day it started on May 15, has published a list of demands.They include everything from shutting down all nuclear power plants to changes in foreclosure laws to allow homeowners to turn their property over to the bank and have the entire mortgage canceled.Many Spaniards are paying off mortgages more than their homes are worth after a housing bubble burst in 2008. A man on stilts and a group of Italian women in pink - with bunny ears - who said they were going to a bachelorette party added a circus atmosphere to the scene.But organizers say the situation is serious."We've been cheated. The politicians try to sell us an economic crisis while they get benefits and fly in first class," said Elisabeth Palencia, a 28-year-old social worker, holding a radio she was using to communicate with other organizers.While she spoke, someone paged her on the radio, asking for a lunch break. He was tiring of holding up one side of a tarp.The protesters are making efforts to keep the movement from digressing into a big beer-drinking bash. Signs ask protesters to think about the revolution rather than drink beer.Crowd coordinators wear reflective vests demanding "respect."Supporters have donated brooms and each day volunteers sweep up the square. They also pass out donated hats and umbrellas due to the fierce sun in the afternoons.Over a week the protesters have set up a food bank with donated ham and paella, two infirmaries, a child-care tent and portable toilets. One tent had a table with computers.Many families are coming to visit the protests and join in."People are fighters, they are here defending what they think. Even though they know they won't get anything they maintain their beliefs," said Diego, a pragmatic 12-year-old who was visiting the square with his mother and sister.