A new front opened in the European clamp down on popular protests on Friday when Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said he was considering a ban on protests in Rome.
Alfano’s announcement comes after the centre-left/right coalition government led by Matteo Renzi came under heavy criticism recently due to incidents of alleged police brutality against demonstrators in a demonstration earlier this month in the capital. An undercover police officer is facing an investigation after he admitted trampling a young woman during the protest. Another officer was caught on film kicking a young man who was lying on the ground. The violence occurred on April 12 during a protest against a rise in evictions in the capital caused by the impoverishment of tenants hit austerity measures and unemployment, and speculation that has led to lack of affordable housing in the city.
Just last month, after a massive demonstration in Madrid, Popular Party Mayor Ana Botella stated she wanted to ban all protests in the centre of Spain’s capital city. Tens of thousands of people from all over Spain arrived in Colón Square on Saturday to participate in “Dignity Marches,” supporting more than 160 different causes all affected by the country’s sky high unemployment and ongoing EU-imposed austerity measures.
In Greece, at the end of March, police imposed a ban on protests in Athens during a meeting of European Union finance ministers. Demonstrators were banned from rallying or marching in the center of the capital, including around parliament in Syntagma Square, the focus of numerous protests against austerity measures imposed by the Troika that have led to a six year recession, mass impoverishment and record 27% unemployment. The Greek authorities have implemented such bans several times in the past, including when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made high-profile visits to the Greek capital.
Greek unions defied that ban and called on workers, pensioners and the unemployed to rally in central Athens anyway. “We must respond to the government’s effort to convince Europe’s finance ministers that the Greek people consent to the troika’s measures,” private sector union GSEE said.
In Italy, the biggest, CGIL trade union said the Renzi government’s suggestion of a ban was “antidemocratic and wrong”.
The excuse for stopping protests has often been the eruption of violence and damage to property, and unions like the CGIL routinely condemn violence where it has been perpetrated by demonstrators, although since the start of the austerity crisis it is grassroots campaigners not unions nor indeed political parties that have been in the driving seat of many of the protests, in contrast to what would have been the case in the past.
So far in Spain mayor Botella hasn’t yet got her way. She claimed protests constituted a ‘detriment’ to the city. However, the Solicitor General’s Office rejected mayor Botella’s request, stating “that a legal demonstration causes no more damage to the city’s historical and artistic heritage than the usual transit of people and vehicles.”
But Spain is already the home of the most serious attack on the right to protest after legislation was given the green light in December for fines of up to €30,000 (£25,000) for offences such as burning the national flag, insulting the state or causing serious disturbances outside parliament. The measures update a 1992 law and include fines of up to €1,000 for insulting or threatening police officers during demonstrations. Similar fines are planned for disseminating photographs of police officers that endanger them or police operations. The draft legislation for the most part does not define new infractions or offences, but lays down guidelines for fines that judges will be able to impose.Until now, it was up to a judge to decide the level of a fine.
It does, however, include four new offences, which are classified as very serious and could carry fines of up to €600,000. They are: demonstrations that interfere in electoral processes; unauthorised or prohibited protests at strategic installations such as airports or nuclear plants; and aiming blinding lights – such as laser beams – at public transportation. Any person who commits three lesser offences within two years will also be in line for a maximum fine.
The rise in protests across Europe – the vast majority peaceful – is a reaction to the violence inflicted on the general population, the increase in social misery and inequality imposed by Governments and their neo-liberal austerity policies without the consent of the people. The banning of protests and other draconian measures to limit them is not only anathema to any democracy it won’t necessarily stop them, as the Greek unions last month and hundreds of years of popular struggles show.
It is also a bit rich for authorities to justify a clampdown because of violence when peaceful protests have been met with violent state repression in many cases, as an Amnesty International report highlighted.
Ultimately curtailing protest won’t fix the deeply disturbing problems in society that give rise to them. It is these problems, caused by the capitulation to corporate power that should be the priority of any legitimate democratic government.