29/03/2014 by Don Quijones
After years of predominantly peaceful demonstrations, things are beginning to turn decidedly ugly on the city squares, streets and avenues of austerity-hit Spain. On Saturday 22nd March, hundreds of thousands of protestors from all corners of the country converged on Madrid’s city centre to express their dissatisfaction with the current government.
It was the first nationally coordinated grassroots response to the repressive social and economic policies and widespread corruption of Spain’s ruling political caste. “We are in a state of emergency, facing economic, political, ethical and moral circumstances of exceptional severity. And the people are growing weary, especially when they realize that there is no future under this current system”, said Julio Anguita, one of the organisers of the movement.
However, what began as a peaceful march soon descended into uncontrolled violence. As the sun descended and the shadows grew on Madrid’s city streets, gangs of hooded youth began hurling stones, bricks and rocks at the windows of high street banks and big retail stores. Within no time hundreds of truncheon-wielding, rubber bullet-firing riot police had joined the mix, delivering their usual dose of indiscriminate law-and-order medicine.
Dozens of protestors were arrested and numerous police officers and demonstrators injured. One male protestor allegedly lost sight in one eye thanks to a rubber bullet, another lost a testicle. It is not the first time that the police’s choice of “non-lethal” weaponry has caused irreparable damage to someone’s health. As I reported in “An Eye For a Rubber Bullet: The Dangers of Non-Lethal Weapons”, in 2012 Ester Quintana, a 42-year old Barcelona resident, lost her left eye after being hit full-force in the face by what was almost certainly a rubber projectile shot by an officer of the Catalonian police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra.
In the most serious case to date, 15 African immigrants died last month when Spain’s border police fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at them as they tried to swim across the border into Spain’s Moroccan enclave of Ceuta.
There Will Be Blood
The recent explosion of violence in Spain should hardly come as a surprise given the widespread feelings of disaffection, betrayal and powerlessness in communities across the country – in particular among children, the youth and elderly. After five long years of carefully targeted policies of economic repression (or as governments and economists like to call it, austerity), Spain’s youth now has less than a fifty-fifty chance of finding work; levels of child poverty are higher than anywhere else in Europe except Romania (according to a report just published by Spain’s Catholic NGO Caritas); and many elderly are cracking under the strain of rising bills and dwindling fixed incomes (according to a recent study, more than 7,000 people in Spain perished this winter as a result of “energy poverty”).
According to a contact of mine who works as a social worker in one of Barcelona’s hospitals, the sense of desperation is overwhelming:
We don’t have the resources to meet the patients’ needs. Many of them, especially the elderly, can’t afford to pay for the drugs they are prescribed, so their health gets worse. Meanwhile, those who have been unemployed for more than two years are only treated in cases of emergency.
Just as happened in Argentina at the turn of this century, the government, at the dogged insistence of the IMF (and in Spain’s case, the ECB and European Commission), is administering a prescription of economic measures aimed at fortifying the economic health of a small minority of fabulously rich and powerful individuals and institutions – the same individuals and institutions that bear most responsibility for the financial crisis – to the direct detriment of the vast majority of people.
In Argentina the result was crippling unemployment and poverty, followed by nationwide revolt culminating in the forced evacuation by helicopter of the country’s president, Fernando De La Rúa and the collapse of the IMF’s client government (To learn more about the events in Argentina, I recommend watching this brilliant documentary).
In Spain, as long as the avenues of engagement in the political process continue to be closed off to the roiling masses, violence will continue to rise. In the words of Rodríguez Palop, a professor of law at the Carlos III University and a member of the Bartolomé de Las Casas Institute of Human Rights, “we are witnessing the destruction of individual rights and freedoms, the shrinking of the rule of law… this institutional violence could give rise to more violent reactions on the part of civil society”.
Criminalizing Protest, Bankrupting Protestors
The fact that the country’s police forces tend to apply a “hit first, ask later” approach to public order policing further raises the likelihood of violent urban clashes breaking out in the future. As Raimundo Viejo Viñas, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Gerona, told El Diario, Spain’s police forces have more in common with those of Turkey than those of Sweden.
It is a police force, he said, that is highly “unprofessional” and with strong “Francoist roots;” it “firmly believes in the application of brute force” while rarely “engaging in dialogue with social movements.”
As for the Rajoy government, its reaction has been predictably reactionary. Ana Botella, the mayor of Madrid and wife of the dark lord of right-wing politics in Spain, former premier José María Aznar, has suggested closing off large swathes of the capital’s historic centre to all forms of political protest – a proposal that has a broad level of support among many of Madrid’s more extreme conservatives.
Gettoising political demonstrations to the outskirts of city centres is just one of the ploys the government has up its sleeve to combat popular protest movements. Most surreptitious of all is its blatant attempt to financially intimidate law-abiding civilians into keeping schtum. The courts, for instance, are currently considering whether to fine the organisers of the 22-M march for the damage caused by the rioters. The fine could amount to as much as 600,000 euros each — enough to bankrupt most average net-worth individuals in the country.
With the passing of the Law of Citizen Security (popularly known as the “Gag Law”) protestors can now be fined thousands of euros for participating in demonstrations close to public buildings, for photographing police officers as they go about their business, or expressing comments that are critical of the state or the nation. During a recent student protest in Madrid, a young female student walked the line of riot police officers holding a placard aloft that read “You should be ashamed.” When she left the demonstration she was followed by police officers to a bar, where she was fined 750 euros for voicing her feelings.
Such developments are a bleak reminder of Spain’s not-so-distant past. During Franco’s 36-year dictatorship protests against the state were illegal and were brutally repressed by the Guardia Civil. Political opponents were jailed for years and unions were banned.
Spain’s current government of corrupt, incompetent reactionaries could only dream of having such judicial powers and protections of its own. Instead it must make do with creating a towering new edifice of administrative laws aimed at bankrupting its most vocal opponents.
A Dangerous Game
Like many regimes in the West, the Rajoy administration has lost all sight of its social and moral compass. In exclusively protecting the interests of the few and the powerful, its policies are pushing more and more citizens to the very fringes of society and into the deepest depths of desperation.
By threatening to collectively punish those who peacefully voice their frustration and anger in public, the government seeks to dissuade the more moderate elements from participating in acts of political protest. The result will be to leave the terrain wide open for the more extreme and violent fractions — the so-called “anti-sistemas”.
With public disaffection and anger spreading like wildfire, it’s a dangerous game. And with rumours circulating of the Troika’s plans to apply renewed pressure on Rajoy’s government to tighten the austerity screw, the concurrent waves of popular protest are only likely to grow in the coming months. If history has taught us anything, it’s that when misery and despair are everywhere and the forces of legal authority have lost all moral authority, it only takes the smallest of sparks to ignite the bottled rage.