In recent days, music fans and political activists in Spain have been remembering Gil Scott-Heron, the singer-songwriter who died last Friday. The ongoing sit-ins and protests that started across Spain in the lead-up to May’s local elections have seen inevitable links being drawn between Scott-Heron’s anthem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and the 15-M/Democracia Real Ya movement. But the day after Scott-Heron’s death, when the TV showed images of Catalonia’s mossos d’esquadra local police force brutally charging into a crowd of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators in Barcelona, it seemed more fitting to think of another seventies cultural touchstone: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Perhaps the mossos are such ardent fans of Kubrick’s work that they decided to commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary with a show of senseless brutality of their own. Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange’s ultra-violent anti-hero, would have been proud of the truncheon-wielding zeal of the Catalan police on Saturday. But the only snag is that the mossos’ brutality is not restricted to anniversaries of Kubrick films; it’s become a disturbing habit.
Since their re-founding as a modern regional force in the early 1980s, the mossos have racked up a long record of complaints at their brutality and inappropriate behavior, whether it’s the handling of suspects, controlling demonstrations, or simply being an intimidating presence on Catalonia’s streets.
“Daily police roundups, attacks on minors, repression of participants at peaceful events, xenophobic attitudes and a constant, suffocating presence that, under the pretext of ensuring security, is having a counterproductive effect,” is how a neighbors’ association expressed their concern about the mossos in a statement in 2006.
But more recently, mobile cameras and social networks have made it easier to track the force’s missteps. This was the case following the ongoing protests in Barcelona, when one mosso, identified as Ferran T. F., complained on Facebook that not being able to use his truncheon on a certain occasion had been like “being in a bakery and not being able to eat any cake. So many arseholes and I couldn’t even hit any of them.”
But the fact is, the mossos were allowed to use their truncheons for much of last weekend, and to horrific effect. Catalan Interior Minister Felipe Puig insists that the use of force to clear the Plaça de Catalunya of 15-M protesters ahead of Champions League football celebrations was justified, and that members of the mossos were attacked by demonstrators. But the images show otherwise. Conveniently for the offending officers, their identity tags, which are supposed to be visible on their uniforms, were obscured by their riot gear, making prosecutions virtually impossible.
Perhaps more importantly, this latest act of senseless brutality by Catalonia’s notorious and anachronistic police force has backfired spectacularly, giving the 15-M movement – at least in Barcelona – renewed vigor just when it appeared to be losing steam. A couple of hours after the police’s attempts to clear the square, the Plaça de Catalunya saw its biggest showing of demonstrators in two weeks of protests, with a reported 10,000 people.
The 15-M movement has been open to criticism that its aims are vague and ill-defined. But there’s nothing like a gang of armed meatheads in riot gear to stiffen resolve and create a common enemy. If the authorities want to defuse this unprecedented wave of discontent, they are going to have to start employing their brains rather than their batons.