“Counterproductive”, “disproportionate”, “utterly idiotic”. These are just some of the expletives used in the last couple of days to describe the truly bizarre behaviour of the Spanish police in the lead-up to a self-organised independence referendum in Catalonia, which — while supported by the local government — has no actual legal bearing, as referendums are not sanctioned under the Spanish constitution. Images of black-clad riot police invading polling stations, of women being dragged by their hair, people thrown down stair-cases and bloodied faces of young and old alike, are now in the frontpages of the international media.
It would be too convenient to think that Rajoy, a politician with decades of experience, is acting rashly. To the contrary, experience shows that this mode of policing and cracking down on sources of dissent, is gaining popularity across the western world. We shall not go here into the arguments for or against Catalonian independence. Following the Spanish police’s actions, that would in fact be besides the point, as it abandons the old principle of “policing by consent” instead “policing by domination”. The state’s “monopoly of violence” transforms into the ability to enforce political lines against opposition groups. At its root we find austerity and growing inequality, and the de facto militarisation of the police.
Spain saw the introduction of draconian counter-demonstration laws just a few years ago. Heavy fines of up to £400K for “unlicensed demonstrations”, extensive monitoring of online organising and even heavy sentencing of activists for things they said online, have followed ever since. This was the Spanish state’s response to the Indignados anti-austerity movement that gripped the country in 2011, and from there travelled to — among other places — Greece. In June 2011, the Greek state pulled something similar with the expulsion of the Indignados from Syntagma square. A peaceful sit-down was expelled with the use of almost 3000 tear gas canisters, shot within a few hours in a space no bigger than a football pitch. There was no crime other than non-compliance. But it too was met with extreme violence.
Peaceful as they may be, these movements are essentially attacking a centralised state’s right to impose measures that are not seen to be in the benefit of the people. And in this we find the changing face of policing: no longer able to negotiate and reason with the people on why these policies are enacted, the police become an instrument of imposition, rather than one of citizen protection. A fundamental question needs to be asked: who were the police protecting by cracking down on the Catalan referendum? No violence or property damage was expected. It could have gone forward and then simply ignored, as has happened in the past. But this wasn’t the point: the point was to show the Spanish state will not tolerate even the idea of a vote, and it was willing to back that with violent action.
The timid words of condemnation from most European leaders (especially so of the British government) against the Spanish for the unprovoked attacks on its own citizens, shows exactly that it’s no longer taboo for policing to be used in this manner. Unfortunately, in this time of culture wars, this also serves as cheap demagoguery for threatened politicians to show their strong hand and consolidate their more conservative and reactionary voters — this is especially true in the case of Partido Popular with its Francoist leanings. As questions about the very nature of nation states and politics arise, we’d be well advised to expect more of the police acting as the imposers of political will, rather than keepers of peace.
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