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Responding to the criminalization of protest in Spain

We must not resign ourselves in silence to the violation of our fundamental rights, saysRicardo Sixto Iglesias

For a long time economic experts have been discounting a scenario of social conflict in Spain in response to the evolution of the national and international situation. Today this opinion is shared by the vast majority of the population. According to a recent survey over 90% of the population assumes that there will be mass demonstrations and over 80% think that there may be more or less violent episodes, but most important is that almost the same percentage share the views of the protest organisers, even if these vary widely. So even if the river of protest is already swollen, everybody expects the waters to rise further this fall.

In view of this, the Government has adopted an action plan that has several threads. The protests called by unions, political parties, etc., are given low- level treatment to ensure they have a low media impact, regardless of the numbers of demonstrators they gather. Strikes are excepted from this low-
profile treatment; they receive the same response as certain mobilizations that have either not been communicated formally or if called by poorly defined or loosely structured organisations. In these cases the policy is to terrorize the population in order to reduce participation.

Repeated statements criminalizing protests and strikes, broadcast repeatedly by various leaders of the [governing] Popular Party, runs parallel to a strategy comprising a tough reaction by the riot police and involving the imposition of fines. In parallel a major ‘military intelligence’ operation is underway. This complements, on the one hand, police monitoring and investigations into people participating in meetings and demonstrations and, on the other hand , police infiltration of organisations behind the protests and the protests themselves, which is something now openly admitted by public officials.

How should we deal with this growing criminalization of protest? The action will be different depending on the provocations received. It appears quite clear what the response should be to the imposition of fines for simply participating in a peaceful protest that has not disturbed public order. They are manifestly unjust fines that should be appealed and ultimately be the subject of a public campaign objecting to payment, because they are imposed on the basis of political discretion. Moreover policing that oversteps acceptable limits, should in any case be reported both by the people who were on the receiving end and by witnesses.

In recent days we have seen totally unjustified police action in Madrid, to the extent that there has been talk of internal investigations to identify who is responsible. I confess my extreme skepticism about this. But the most surprising thing is that before the episodes of police brutality the assaulted people said they did not report them because they thought it was absurd and useless: police denouncing violence by fellow police officers!

We should never respond to the violation of our fundamental rights with silent resignation or even simply by denouncing it through the media or internet. The most useful response, even more than public condemnation, is to denounce what happened in court, presenting evidence to identify the offenders with accurate testimony. It is certainly difficult to gather enough nerve when you are being subjected to unwarranted aggression to demand the identification of an officer, or gather witnesses to identify people for any further proceedings, but it is the best way forward for those who are too loose with the truncheon, so they learn that their jobs will be jeopardized if they overstep their duties.

One growing and very powerful method of social rejection of disproportionate policing is filling the internet with videos that clearly illustrate these excesses. Thanks to this, the brutal and unwarranted entry of police onto the platforms of the Atocha station on 25 September, or the actions of hooded police infiltrators in demonstrations has awakened consciences and outraged yet more people.

But more insidious even than the threat of violence, is the idea that the government is trying to spread to the public suffering from the crisis of the system that protest “is useless.” Perhaps this is correct for some strikes that are having less impact today because of the requirements for ensuring minimum services, which is understandable in only truly essential services like medical emergencies or fires. But when anybody tries to suggest that we should stay at home because it is not worth going out to protest as nothing is achieved, we should remind them that large and small changes in history have occurred only through protests and struggle.

Ricardo Sixto Iglesias is a parliamentary deputy for the United Left party and spokesman for Interior (Home) Affairs.

Translation by Revolting Europe

El Mundo Obrero 19 Oct 2012

More on human rights and protest 

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope

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