Notes From the Margins…

Policing the Crisis

  • December 17, 2013
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The Spanish parliament is currently debating a draconian ‘Citizen Security Bill’   that will introduce fines of up to 600,000 euros for attendance at unauthorized street protests and demonstrations.     Among other things, demonstrators will face fines for ‘insulting’ or making ‘false accusations’ against public officials and state institutions.

The bill will also ban protests in public thoroughfares or outside parliament; demonstrators will not be allowed to photograph or record the behavior of state security forces, and occupations of public squares will be forbidden.

According to Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, the bill is intended to ‘ guarantee a freer and more peaceful coexistence for all Spaniards … eradicating violence.’    

Permit me to differ.       Permit me to say, at the risk of causing insult,   that this bill is a stunningly reactionary piece of legislation from Spain’s political dark ages, that has brought Franco’s fat little ghost strutting back onto the stage of Spanish politics with the specific objective of shutting down any resistance or opposition to the brutal economic restructuring of Spanish society – not to mention a powerful separatist movement in Catalonia.

Permit me to say also that this bill has been introduced by a remarkably sleazy government that really deserves to be insulted as often as possible – a government whose leading politicians – including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – are alleged to have benefited from a secret slush fund operated by   corrupt Partido Popular treasurer Luis Barcenas, as a payment for handing out business contracts.

So the Spanish have a lot to protest about, and Rajoy and his cronies know it and they clearly want to nip it in the bud.     This desire is hardly unique to Spain.     The Spanish bill is part of a more general drift towards authoritarian governance in Europe and beyond that was already underway as a consequence of the post- 9/11 terrorism emergency, and which has since been accelerated dramatically as a result of the financial crisis and its aftermath.

None of this is entirely surprising.     In Europe, as elsewhere, governments have generally acted as instruments of the economic elites and financial institutions that caused the crisis, and used the smokescreen of austerity to rollback state provision of health, education and social protection, while ‘bailouts’ and economic ‘reform’ packages have impoverished growing swathes of the population.

Beyond the specific circumstances of the 2008 banking crisis, there is a wider nervousness in powerful places about the long-term viability of an economic system that remains brittle, unstable, addicted to short-termist financial gambling,   and chronically prone to collapse, in which inequality has become entrenched to truly obscene levels.

Given this background, it’s inevitable that governments have sought to boost their power to control and repress the resistance that has inevitably accompanied their policies.     As always, this task has fallen primarily to the police, who have been given virtual carte blanche in country after country to bash heads and clear the streets.

We saw these tendencies in this country at the 2009 G20 summit, in the Ian Tomlinson   case.   We saw it within months of the Coalition coming to power, with the extreme brutality shown by the police to students and schoolkids protesting tuition fees, when certain sections of the press (you know which ones) were advocating the use of water cannons and rubber bullets.

We saw it again this month,   with the violent assault on student protesters at Senate House.

We’ve seen it in Greece, at this demonstration in Athens in 2011, and on innumerable other occasions:

We saw it in Spain in November 2012, when the police responded to protests in Madrid like this:

Madrid: Los antidisturbios rodean a un joven caído en el suelo. Foto de la página de Facebook  «AntenapezTV »

We’ve seen it in the increasing militarization of law enforcement, in the ‘boomerang effect’ of the ‘war on terror’ that has seen police increasingly acting more and more like soldiers and paramilitaries, with a tendency to shoot, taser and beat first and ask questions later.

The police don’t start behaving like this just because they feel like clobbering demonstrators.   They act like this because they have been ordered to, or because such behavior is tacitly condoned by powerful people who recognize its usefulness and depend on it to push through their political and social agendas.

And in periods like this, the police must be given complete impunity to do whatever they and their political masters think is necessary   This is why the Spanish state wants to give them the power to arrest protesters who ‘insult’ or even spread ‘false’ stories about them on the Internet.     It’s why the cop who killed Ian Tomlinson was never convicted.   It’s why the officer who punched a student at Senate House will not be disciplined.

It’s why, in Italy this week, the police have had the temerity to charge a female demonstrator with ‘sexual violence and insulting a public official’ because she kissed a visored riot cop on his helmet.

This is really something, coming from one of the most brutal police forces on the continent, a police force that is permeated with fascism, that once battered peaceful demonstrators in Genoa bloody, that for years has routinely behaved like this, without any consequences whatsoever.

All this is par for the course.   Back in the 1980s, the British police essentially acted as ‘Maggie’s bootboys’ and the battering ram for Thatcher’s neoliberal restructuring of the British economy.   One of the first things she did on coming to power was to give the police and the army a pay rise.

She knew what she was doing and what she wanted to do, and so do her ideological descendants who are wreaking social havoc in so many countries.

Because the more governments reduce the enabling components of the state, the more they strengthen its repressive features, and the more likely it is that those who resist these developments will feel the policeman’s truncheon, whenever they stop complaining as individuals and go out into the streets to form a crowd.


  1. Nik

    18th Dec 2013 - 10:07 am

    What a shame that the beloved Caudillo did not live to see such wonderful legislation to be revived.

    Hopefully all the other EU countries follow this glowing example. Afterall if you do not confront sustained massunrest properly, party HQs might be stormed or even worse stuff could happen.

    I was hinting at the student protests of course and the storming of the Tory HQ in 2010. Call me sentimental towards British police but I gotta tell you: I am pretty sure that shots would be fired and people killed in most other EU countries if protesters were to storm the HQ of the ruling party. But maybe the fact that they were students saved their skins. Who knows what would have happened if union/workingclass masses would have tried to do the same thing.

    Anyways, here is a quite inspiring look at the storming of Tory HQ, what happened before, during and after. Very very interesting and at times even funny. Hope you enjoy it!

    • Nik

      18th Dec 2013 - 10:15 am

      And here part 2

    • Matt

      21st Dec 2013 - 4:41 pm

      Thanks Nik. You may well be right about how other police forces might have reacted. But the thuggery of the British police was something that we haven’t really seen in this country since the 1980s, and it was generally in evidence AFTER the storming of Milbank not during it.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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