Saturday, 1 November 2014

Comment On Alienation

In the name of ‘public safety’, under the proposed new Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana it is about to become illegal to “offend” Spain, its monarchy, its government, its autonomous regions’ administrations, its flag, its hymns, and its symbols. When asked in a press conference to clarify what exactly might constitute giving offence, the Minister of the Interior Jorge Fernández Díaz (a member of Opus Dei whose father was in Franco’s military), uttered these less than reassuring words: “Offence… is that which is offensive.”

Now I, like many Barcelona residents, am a fairly tolerant soul, yet there are quite a few things I find offensive. So when I learnt about this new law I began to imagine denouncing as offensive cartons of Don Simon sangria, the selling of sombreros on the Ramblas, the unfeasibly giant prawn on the Passeig de Colom, or the price of a T10 metro ticket.

And then I began to dream bigger: a campaign of civil disobedience in which everyone in Barcelona begins to file complaints and denuncias against the things they find offensive to reputations of Catalunya and Spain. The fact that 300 politicians are accused of corruption but only a handful convicted, say; that thousands of families have been thrown onto the streets while bank properties lie empty; that Spain is now the most unequal society in Europe; or that nearly a third of children in the nation are now living in poverty. Imagine the paperwork!

Of course, “that which is offensive” is completely subjective, and not something I want the Minister of the Interior to be the judge of. Because the more that I find out about his new law, the more it becomes clear that the Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana itself is an offence against Spain. I’d love to file a denuncia against it,if only I could find a lawyer with a big enough sense of irony.


The Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana is a series of repressive measures from the national government that will affect everything from playing football in the street to casual marijuana use, but most of all threatens to outlaw meaningful protest itself. On Twitter they’re calling it the gag law (#leydemordaza); Javier Marías writing in El País called its inspiration “innegablemente franquista”. And perhaps that’s also why I’m resorting to low satire in order to find ways to object to it; because if the law passes, it might be one of the few avenues left open for dissent.

According to this “Public Safety” Act you will also not be able to offend or insult the police; gather for an unsanctioned protest or even just promote it via social media; demonstrate outside institutional buildings like Congress; film or photograph the police; wear a mask; show “lack of respect or due consideration to authority”; move out of designated “safe areas” while protesting; you may be subjected to indiscriminate strip searches while entering these “safe zones”, and with help from the new Penal Code, if you ever find yourself up against a police officer in a court of law it will be up to you to prove what they say is untrue. Fines for many of these activities are in the €30,000 to €600,000 range.

It’s worth illustrating just one potential impact of this law on human and civil rights by looking at recent case from the streets of Barcelona. In October last year in calle Aurora in the Raval, eight Mossos d’Esquadra beat local man Juan Andrés Benítez, kneeing and kicking him around the body and head as he lay on the ground. He died the next day in Hospital Clínic. The police cleared the streets of onlookers who had been calling to them to leave him alone. One banged on the door of a neighbour to ask if she had been taking photos; she had, and she then deleted them off her camera. The Prosecutor has just recommended the Mossos be charged with murder. There is strong evidence of what actually happened because two other neighbours filmed the incident. Under the new Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana, they wouldn’t have been able to film the police so providing this kind of video or photo evidence would be impossible. And not only that, but under the new Penal Code if they were to testify in a court of law, the assumption of truth telling would lie with law enforcement; it would be up to the neighbours to prove the police were lying.

It’s hard enough to prosecute police for rights violations at the best of times; the Public Safety Act is tantamount to giving them near impunity.

Do you feel safer yet?



Mistaking the symptoms for the cause

But this isn’t just a human rights issue. The political logic behind the law is brutal and intentional. What the government has done is take the symptoms of the economic crisis – the demonstrations, the fight against evictions, the strikes – and labeled them a public disorder problem. Deliberately refusing to see a causal relation between the austerity they have imposed from above and the thousands of protests (36,798 in 2012 by their own count) from below, they treat them as two disconnected events.

Their solution is not to deal with the root causes of social unrest but to eliminate the symptoms, and the Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana reads like a hit list. 15M camps out in the squares demanding real democracy? The government outlaws tents in the streets. The Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (la PAH) blockades evictions? The government creates big fines for interfering with the foreclosure process. Anonymous leaks the accounts of the corruption-scandal-ridden Partido Popular on the Internet? The government cracks down on publishing ‘private’ information online. The unions protest the steady downward trajectory of wages? The government undermines the right to strike. The list goes on and on.

This may well backfire. One result of cutting off the options for democratic channels and peaceful protest is that it creates a pressure cooker of social anger – something we can already see in the struggles against corrupt development in Gamonal.

Their vision of democracy is one that is hollowed out, all form and no substance, where public participation in decision-making begins and ends with casting a vote every few years. This law is an attempt to use political fear to enforce compliance to the aggressive economic reforms the PP have no mandate for, what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine”. A government that has lost legitimacy, who can no longer count on the consent of its population, is resorting to ever more draconian forms of control. Ironically, then, the law can be seen as an admission of the government’s own unpopularity and weakness.

The law has passed its first reading and is now under review by various state agencies. It remains to be seen whether it will come into force without amendments, but given that the PP has an absolute majority, there is no reason to imagine it won’t pass. However, this is an important moment to raise objections because there is almost no political support for it outside the government’s own ranks. There is almost unanimous condemnation from notorious anarchists like Amnesty International and Oxfam Intermon, the PSOE, lawyers’ groups, and judges, on the grounds that it violates the rights to free speech, assembly, and protest, and could be unconstitutional. The international press have not been shy to use the word Francoist, whilst Nils Muizniek, Human Rights Commissioner for the European Council in Strasbourg said, “When I see a potential fine of up to €600,000 for holding an unauthorized demonstration in front of a government building, I would like for someone to convince me that that is a proportionate penalty.”

But it would be foolish to rely on NGOs or opposition parties or Strasbourg to defeat this law. It requires action on many fronts. For example, Ada Colau, PAH spokesperson, called for a day of civil disobedience if the law gets passed.

Photo: Jordi Borras


The political uses of jujitsu

It will also require ingenuity rather than activism-by-numbers. Some recent cultural interventions open up interesting avenues and strategies to explore, those based on a kind of political jujitsu where you use the force and momentum of your opponent against them; what Larry Bogad, political clown and Professor of Theatre at the University of California, describes as “creative responses that focus on pressure points in the body politic”. These tactics are often employed when faced with overwhelming odds. One example of this creative jujitsu is how artist Núria Güell used the political censorship of her exhibition about the Catalan police to draw media attention to tactics the Mossos d’Esquadra wished to remain secret.

In early 2013 Güell planned an exhibition at the Museu Joan Abelló in Mollet del Vallés, the town where the Mossos d’Esquadra are trained, that was to explore “the role of police forces in a democratic paradigm, taken as a starting point the indoctrination of the Catalan riot police force (BRIMO or antidisturbios)”. As part of this work she wanted to exhibit the leaked MA thesis of David Piqué, who devises the protocols of action for the antidisturbios, called ‘The Sherwood Syndrome’. This is a five-phase strategy for discrediting and destroying ‘antisistemas’ in Barcelona. The goal is, he says, “the moral and physical defeat of the enemy”, and it has been adopted in other regions too in targeting anarchists.
Güell says, “The Director General of the Mossos d’Esquadra called the mayor of Mollet and said that the exhibition could not take place.” He argued, she says, that “art cannot make parallel judgments to that which is debated in the Catalan Parliament.” With no trace of irony the exhibition about the role of the police in a democracy was censored.

“In the end what they did was convert the censorship itself into the basis for an artistic project, ” Güell explains. She subverted a press conference where she distributed copies of the thesis the police wished to hide, and handed out 2,000 more in social centres and museums. “Sometimes I ask myself what they are afraid of with art,” says Güell. “They must see it as effective in political terms because if not, they wouldn’t be worried enough to censor it.”

The ‘Sherwood Syndrome’ thesis is a refreshingly frank romp through police prejudice and quasi-military strategy, and offers a glimpse into official thinking on how to discredit and destroy political movements. It’s worth looking at in more detail because it reveals some of the logic of the Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana. Notable for its many grandiose references to Julius Caesar, Von Clausewitz, and Sun Tzu, its main message is divide and conquer, to alienate the activists from the rest of the ‘law-abiding’ population.


Piqué recommends using the media to create public aversion to ‘antisistemas’. In order to “annihilate” the enemy, what’s needed, he argues, is a good excuse. The police should provoke “violent acts” to encourage public support for repression, including ramping up the tension through raids in which people are unjustifiably arrested and / or humiliated.

Güell says that Piqué’s thesis was written for a Masters in Public Safety – those words again – and yet “The whole thesis is based on provocation as a strategy… for political purposes. The intention is to resolve social conflicts with violence.” Having provoked violence, Piqué suggests, “the police interaction [should be] deliberately delayed until the damages become socially unacceptable.” The resulting revulsion of the public will create political space for the “appearance of new legal norms”. The final “annihilation” of the “enemy” can then take place.1) Needless to say much of this police activity is illegal.

The divide and conquer strategy Piqué outlines seeks to alienate the general population from any activist cause. This is exactly what the Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana tries to achieve: to isolate and further criminalise social movements from the law-abiding “silent majority” the PP likes to refer to. But in doing so it overreaches. It’s fatal flaw may be that it simply criminalises too many people.

Indeed, far from the public being alienated, if anything social activism seems to be becoming more normal. These days, you can meet people who voted for the PP in PAH meetings asking for help to resist eviction. The European Social Survey presented in Barcelona recently shows a devastating collapse of trust (marks of 1.9 out of 10) across Spain for politicians and political parties who are perceived as corrupt and disconnected, while over one in four of Spanish respondents said they had joined a demonstration over the last year, a far higher rate than in other European countries. , between 2011 and 2012 the number of protests actually rose by 365 per cent.

Meanwhile, not only is the state failing to create a division between social movements and the general public, but not even the ranks of the police themselves are united behind further repression. When asked in an internal survey in 2012, one third of those in the Catalan riot police said they wanted to be transferred out despite higher pay, citing stress, extra workload, and the criticisms they received for the role they were playing in social conflicts. And in late 2012, one of the largest unions of the National Police Force, the SUP, sent an extraordinary letter to the Ministry of the Interior suggesting the government was looking for “a death, whether of the police or a citizen” to distract attention and justify harsher measures against those protesting against the cuts. They also said that continuing along this path would bring Spain closer to having a Francoist police force than the “democracy which it cost us so much to construct”.


The Ministry of Dreams, Hopes & Fears

In December, political performance artist Larry Bogad, dressed as an important government bureaucrat, set up his Ministry of Dreams, Hopes and Fears on a desk in the middle of the Plaça George Orwell. “The name of the ‘security law’ is in itself Orwellian – as a people’s security is actually undermined when their right to free protest is taken away,” he explains. “The fact that George Orwell fought against authoritarianism, to the point of a near-mortal wounding, in the Spanish Civil War, and that Plaça George Orwell was the first public space in Barcelona where the local government installed security cameras, made that location a good place symbolically to protest this law.”

Armed with a suit, a desk lamp, and various items of viciously deployed stationery, he rotated signs in Catalan, Spanish and English that said “Write your Dreams”, “Write your Hopes”, and “Write your Fears”. Participants formed an obedient queue to fill in their forms, which he then duly ‘processed’. This involved anything from arbitrarily censoring them to grinding them in a mortar and pestle to turning them into a paper aeroplane. To those who objected he assigned ‘protest zones’ the size of a single shoeprint, so in order to protest you had to stand on one leg. You could also sign a Contract with the State in which you agree to exchange your liberty for security.

“The Ministry of Dreams, Hopes and Fears,” Bogad explains, “is a sort of gentle, absurd parody on surveillance, submission, arbitrary restriction, resistance and compliance. My character, a silent and callous bureaucrat, accepts the submissions of personal secrets while he mangles, censors, sets alight and smokes, their dreams, hopes, and fears.”

As with Güell, this is political jujitsu, this time using the satirical weapons of over-compliance and over-identification with the oppressor. As Joseph Brodsky says, “Evil can be made absurd through excess… through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance.” There is also something inherently subversive and freeing about it: it is hard to feel afraid when you are laughing.

It’s not that I am suggesting this law can be defeated by the power of clowning – far from it. But using surrealism and defying expectations is tactically smart: if the state wants to divide up people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protesters, it would be better to refuse those roles. Why not have the encaputxats picking up litter, or the iaioflautas masked up? Why not flood government offices with ridiculous complaints and things we find offensive against the state?

The Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana, in its extremism and absurdity, offers up an open invitation to creative and audacious new forms of civil disobedience. With this new law, the government has tried to cut off all imaginable avenues for protest. The task now is to discover the ones they couldn’t imagine.


Author / Source:  Katharine Ainger at BCNM

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