Spain’s rightward plunge

Is the Spanish ‘regime’ redirecting the blame for austerity-related violence?

Anti-austerity protesters smash the rear window of a police car during clashes in Madrid (Reuters)

Following the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras against President Manuel Zelaya, whose ever-so-slightly left-leaning inclinations were deemed unacceptable by the powers that be, months of overwhelmingly peaceful anti-coup protests took place. These were diligently repressed by Honduran police with tear-gas, water cannons and other harmful items.

The Honduran coupmongers and their backers in the right-wing media engaged in frequent bouts of hysteria over the fact that some of the protesters insisted on covering their faces with bandannas. This, it was argued, was proof of their inherent delinquency. In reality, of course, bandannas were a logical palliative accessory given the indiscriminate firing of tear-gas.

Five years later in a country across the Atlantic – Spain – headgear donned during protests has again become a hot topic. In this case, protesters are not agitating against a coup d’etat but rather another coup of sorts: The austerity measures rammed down Spanish throats at the behest of the European Union in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

The Spanish austerity period has been characterised by massive cuts to education, healthcare, and other services, as well as wanton home evictions; in 2012, banks were presiding over approximately 500 evictions per day.

In recent months folks have acquired yet another reason to protest: An effort by Spain’s ruling Popular Party to criminalise protest itself. As I explained in an op-ed for Al Jazeera America, the draft Citizens’ Security Law – trotted out in November and now winding its way through parliament – is an Orwellian measure proposing fines of up to 30,000 euros ($41,385) for insulting the country or “participating in the disruption of citizens’ security while using hoods, helmets, or any other article of clothing or object that covers the face, rendering identification difficult or impossible”. Fines of up to 600,000 euros ($827,700) are recommended for unauthorised street protests.

Although the tear-gas-happy Honduran cops definitely take the cake in terms of overreacting to popular gatherings, Spain’s finest have also subjected largely peaceful protesters to gas, batons and rubber bullets.

The cash-strapped European nation has additionally invested in a water cannon – an anti-protest apparatus that hasn’t been used in Spain in over 20 years. The price tag: a mere half-a-million euros ($689,750).

Sports and other crimes

In a December column for the Spanish daily El Pais, philosopher and journalist Josep Ramoneda aptly described the draft law as a “frontal attack [by the government] against fundamental rights like freedom of expression and assembly, [and] full of ridiculous proposals more worthy of a satirical newspaper than the Official Bulletin of the State”.

Indeed, the bill’s suggested provisions also include fines of up to 1,000 euros ($1,400) for “playing games or sports in public spaces that are not designed for such activity” and up to 600,000 euros ($827,700) for projecting “luminous devices” (eg lasers) in the vicinity of public transport in a way that “might cause accidents”.

Particularly troubling is a stipulation that will require all patrons of Internet cafes and telephone booth centres to present their identity documents for registration. In addition to smacking of over-surveillance, such measures are unabashedly anti-immigrant in nature and will unfairly complicate communications between undocumented migrants and their families back home.

The law furthermore aims for an amplified role for private security forces in the business of law and order maintenance. As a February article in the English edition of El Pais notes, the bill “focuses heavily on breaking up street protests, and vests private security guards with the power to help the police in this task”.

Although perhaps unsurprising in an age of austerity and obsession with all things privatised, this invitation to para-policing is worrisome in that it paves the way for a partial outsourcing of police duties to persons lacking both proper training and the proper level of public accountability. (Also worrisome, of course, is the abusive treatment of protesters by police ostensibly not lacking in said training and accountability.)

The expansion of private security jurisdiction means that, hypothetically, we could have private guards breaking up games of hopscotch and other exercises taking place in “public spaces that are not designed for such activity” – all in the name of “citizens’ security”.

Lest Spaniards start imagining themselves transported back to the repressive climate of the Franco dictatorship, a Reuters article offers the following quote from Jorge Fernandez Diaz, Spain’s interior minister and curator of the Citizens’ Security Law: “We want to guarantee a freer and more peaceful coexistence for all Spaniards… eradicating violence.” To be sure, the sign of a true politician is the ability to sell the curtailment of civil liberties as a boost for freedom.

A violent system

The draft law prescribes fines of up to 30,000 euros for “failure to cooperate with law enforcement during crime investigations or in the prevention of acts that might put citizens’ security at risk”.

Given that said security is often jeopardised by law enforcement officials themselves, citizens might be confused as to how to proceed.

But the police are merely the physical enforcers of what Ramoneda has termed “brutal austerity policies” – the inherent brutality of which is particularly apparent in the spate of home eviction-induced suicides. It’s impossible to argue that citizens somehow become more “secure” when they are denied access to housing, education, or healthcare – hence the utility, perhaps, of banning insults to the Spanish state.

As in post-coup Honduras, where the state displaced blame for violence onto allegedly thuggish marchers, the Spanish regime has redirected the blame for violence relating to austerity – itself a violent system necessitating violent reinforcement and a crackdown on protest.

Fernandez has advertised a presence of “radical and violent elements” among protesters, while Spanish media have dutifully hyped the influence of “terrorist-inspired” groups. A recent sensational article in Spain’s ABC newspaper warns menacingly of a “network of anti-system organisations” whose members “attend marches in ski masks and scarves”.

As Reuters notes, the anti-protest measures of the Citizens’ Security Law “belie… the peaceful record of the anti-austerity protests of recent years”. But according to Fernandez, such measures are necessary in order to enable the police to more effectively combat “anti-system” groups.

Seeing as the current system is premised on mass suffering and insecurity, being “anti-system” is in fact the only option available for anyone with a conscience. Fernandez & Co should be the ones covering their faces – in shame.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.