Repression and Social Movement Demobilization in Spain

Source: TeleSUR English

After the 2011 emergence of the 15-M “Indignados” movement, the streets of Spain were bursting with people power. In Madrid, for example, where the movement began, hundreds of thousands flooded Puerta del Sol in massive general strikes and color-coordinated mareas (street tides) to demonstrate their indignation against the rightwing government’s austerity cuts. While snaking your way through the city’s streets, you would be greeted by bright green and red stickers from the anti-eviction movement which plastered the glass windows and ATMs of Spain’s major banks with the phrases “Sí se puede” (“Yes we can”) and “Pero no quieren” (“But they [the government, the banks] don’t want to”). Coming from the United States, where such an action could land you in some serious trouble, it was breathtaking.

But when I visited Spain in early 2015, things had certainly changed. Gone were the constant mareas and stickers on bank windows. It was eerie. While anti-eviction groups like PAH or Plataforma Afectados Hipoteca (Platform for Those Affected by Mortgages) or STOP DESHAUCIOS (Stop Evictions) continue to successfully postpone evictions of working-class families across Spain, I was told that the numbers of supporters had dwindled. But this change was not simply because of the cold weather or post-holiday malaise that strikes almost every social movement in the West; it was the product of other troubling circumstances, namely the implementation of the Ley Mordaza (Gag Law) in December 2014 that outright criminalizes public protest and mobilizations that recently made Spain one of the most vibrant centers of social movements in the world.

Repression and Demobilization

Passing through Puerta del Sol on a Sunday afternoon in late-January, I noticed how two policemen approached a group of about seven or eight elderly protestors holding a banner protesting cuts to social services. After what seemed like a bit of a tense moment, one of organizers pulled out a white sheet from his backpack and waved it in the face of the officers, who eventually walked away. For me, this appeared to be a rather strange sight, having attended many unauthorized gatherings and marches beginning in this plaza. But that has all changed since the passing of one of the Gag Law’s most contentious legislations that prohibits protest in public spaces without permission. Depending on the context, one can be fined anywhere between 30,001-600,000 Euros for not having received the proper authorization.

While the U.S., birthplace of the prison-industrial complex, throws demonstrators in jail for the most minor of infractions, this Gag Law aims to criminalize and shut down Spain’s social movements by bankrupting them.

Approved by Congress on December 11, 2014, the Gag Law, formally known as the Ley Orgánica de Seguridad Ciudadana (The Organic Law of Citizen Security), was passed with the support of the right-wing, pro-austerity Partido Popular (Popular Party), Partido Aragonés (Aragonese Party), and the Unión del Pueblo Navarro (Navarrese People’s Union). The 45 total infractions are classified into three categories: very serious infractions (fined between 30,001-60,000 Euros), serious infractions (601 to 30,000 Euros) and minor infractions (100-600 Euros). “Minor infractions” include insulting the police, occupation of and presence in occupied houses (which seeks to destroy the anti-eviction and squatters movement), or meetings or protests in spaces of public transit, while “serious infractions” prohibit mass protests in front of the Senate and Congress (a direct response to the mobilizations like “Rodea el Congreso” from September 25, 2012), any attempts to block evictions (signaling a repressive blow to the courageous direct actions of the Spanish housing movement), or recording and photographing the police (effectively criminalizing any Cop Watch movement in Spain). Defending the law before Congress, the spokesman of the Popular Party, Conrado Escobar, claimed that the protests “will be more free because they will be protected from more violent ones.” Across Spain, many have rightfully argued that this law signals a dangerous return to fascist legislation, especially troubling given the legacy of dictator Francisco Franco who ruled Spain for decades.

In this atmosphere of repression, Spanish police detained eleven anarchists – of Spanish, Uruguayan, Italian, and Austrian nationality – in a so-called “anti-terrorist” initiative called “Operation Pandora” in Barcelona and Madrid on December 16, just a few days after passing the Gag Law. Of these eleven, seven were thrown into jail. The government has accused them of launching attacks against banks and churches, and so-called “proof” of their culpability consists of their having publishing a book called Contra la Democracía (Against Democracy), which the Spanish state has classified as a “terrorist book,” under the name “Grupos Anarquistas Coordinados” (“Coordinated Anarchist Groups”), the fact that they have “RiseUp” email accounts, correspondence with political prisoners, and ownership of propane gas used for camping. In fact, supporters created a video called “Operació Pandora: ‘Jo també tinc camping gas’” (“Operation Pandora: ‘I also have propane gas’”), which features Spanish and Catalan activists displaying their propane gas tanks for camping, showing the repressive absurdity of the operation. Spanish activists are also increasingly concerned that their actions may falsely fall under acts of “radical terrorism” given recent revisions to the Penal Code in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and the “anti-jihadist” initiatives of the Spanish government.

A dark cloud, no doubt, has fallen over Spain in recent months, and the Gag Law is without question a serious threat to social movements across the country. Furthermore, while some have enthusiastically talked about the rise of Podemos, a left-wing Spanish political party formed in aftermath of 15-M, as their potential savior, many activists working on the ground have talked about how Podemos has contributed significantly to a demobilization of genuinely horizontal organizing and popular resistance out in the streets. In Santiago de Compostela, for example, I spoke to a woman named Maria, who is a leader in the anti-eviction movement there, who said that the number of supporters coming out to anti-eviction actions has reduced considerably with the rise of Podemos on the left. “Don’t worry about it,” many have told her, “Podemos will fix the problem.” In this uncertain, challenging time, where on the one hand these repressive laws are scaring people off the streets, and on the other hand, where parties like Podemos are not only attempting to capitalize on the widespread fatigue that several years of constant marches and demonstrations have produced, but also actively promoting the notion that social ills can be cured through the ballot, it is imperative to recognize the many forms that repression and demobilization can take.