A regular reader of Colonel Despard has contributed this story describing massive police mobilization against demonstrators protesting a draconian new law aimed at stifling dissent. According to press reports, seven protesters were arrested after clashes and 23 people injured. The law has not yet been approved by parliament, but passage is certain since the conservative government has an absolute majority. Unauthorized demonstrations near government buildings could incur huge fines, and new offences such as interfering in electoral processes have been created that could carry penalties of up to 600,000 euros. Blogger Don Quijones writes: “The law will also enable the police to establish ‘security zones’ to prevent congregations of people. Although the draft makes no specific reference, the measure is designed to stop escraches — the practice of protesting on the doorstep of politicians or business leaders — as well as spontaneous gatherings to prevent evictions, both of which have become popular forms of political protest and which the country’s supreme court has already deemed legal.” Since the start of the austerity crisis in 2008 there have been weekly protests in Spain, the vast majority entirely peaceful.
The strident whir of police helicopters hijacked the joy of citizens who yesterday went to Madrid’s Plaza del Sol to enjoy an unusually balmy evening in the company of friends and family. As people gathered in the famed square to see and be seen, take pictures of the Christmas lights, and generally have fun, one of the police choppers turned on its floodlights from above, and as if acting upon a signal below, a battalion of police moved to block the corner of Alcalá and Sol, preventing people from leaving.
A friend, a generous poet of the city, and I had been watching the helicopter when we became aware of the cops approaching dressed in full riot gear, including bullet-proof vests. We realized we needed to get out. Police were closing in on a peaceful assembly for apparently no reason. We decided to walk to the Cibeles Fountain to avoid them. My friend remarked, “They cannot close it since it’s an open roundabout and leads to all parts of the city.” He was sadly wrong. As made our way down Alcalá, we passed platoons of between 20-30 cops every three blocks, fully armed, and rows of vans with blue lights turned on. When we got to Cibeles, there were police platoons in each corner, surrounding in effect the beautiful statue of Madrid’s resident goddess. The streets were not closed, but the city was surrounded.
What I and many others witnessed in Madrid last night brought us face to face with one of the nightmarish ghosts of Christmas Past, that of Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain. During his 40-year reign, the militarization of the police served to crush dissent and prevent citizens from petitioning their government for redress—the right for which American patriots North and South have fought and died, and for which the makers of Spain’s Second Republic also gave their lives heroically. With the Ley de Mordaza [translated literally Gag Law] this right is under threat in Spain once again. The law forbids any spontaneous assembly, any protest in front of a government building, or in front of an elected official’s home. While it might be debated that escraches, as the protests outside politician’s homes are known, are an invasion of privacy, the fines for spontaneous, peaceful assembly, and for protesting outside a government building are a violation of the rights of modern citizenship and popular sovereignty that have characterized Western Democracies up until now.
To judge from the police presence last night, an observer would have thought an enormous throng had gathered to assert their rights as citizens of a western democracy. But the massive show of force was against a small number (only 2,000), as El Público reports. There were 1,500 police, almost equaling the number of protestors. My friend, who lived during the Franco years, said this was eerily similar, and perhaps worse: after all, the police during Franco did not resemble storm troopers or Roman gladiators. The excessive display of force shows how determined the current administration in Spain is to silence any opposition to its policies, and that is not shy about summoning the spirit of former terrors to frighten people.
In doing so, the Spanish state is setting itself against its citizenry, and waging it will be cowed into submission. But instead it is adding pressure to the fabric of an already fraying nation: in addition to the persistent economic crisis, reduced prospects for the future, and pain that people are suffering—right down to hunger—it appears more likely than ever that Catalonia will secede. The transfer of wealth to Spain’s 1% continues unchecked because of repressive measures and ideology, but at a certain point, fear ceases to be an effective weapon of governance and ideological justifications no longer correspond to the reality of people’s lives. That disjunction is becoming more pronounced in the average Spaniard’s life, where in a table of five conversants, at least two people will have experience a major cut in their standard of living.
The government can fool some of the people some time, but not all the people all of the time.
Pace Machiavelli and Dick Cheney, terror worked in the Middle Ages, and arguably, even through the Bush years in the United States. Yet as we advance in the second decade of the 21st century, people around the world are discovering that their voices will not be silenced—from the leaders of the Arab Spring and Occupy, to Malala Youssef to Edward Snowden. It it is this courage, the same courage of the protesters near Cibeles last night, that will banish the ghost of Francisco Franco and his ilk. As they fight the Ley de Mordaza, our Spanish brothers and sisters remind us that the only way of protecting our freedoms is by exercising them and defending them against thousands of batons, if necessary.