The Catalan Parliament is located in a gated park in the middle of the city of Barcelona, a space that I often cross on my morning walk to work. Last Wednesday, when I got to the entrance I usually use, I was told that I could not go in. So, I began walking around the perimeter of the park.
I can’t say I was ready for what I saw.
In that normally placid public place filled with beautiful buildings and monuments from the 1888 World’s Fair, there was what can only be termed an overwhelming police presence, with guys like the ones pictured to the right visible every 10 to 15 feet just behind the park’s heavy wrought iron fence.
Such displays have one and only one purpose: to remind the citizen of his or her puniness before the state and its current political class, and to insure that he or she think twice before doing or saying what he or she might really want to do or say.
In recent years, we Americans have seen a lot of this. And we have gotten very good at the game of playing the submissive child before our elected “Daddies” and their ever-growing, and ever more intrusive, phalanx of uniformed goons.
To cover up the shame of living as often as we adults now live in this infantile crouch, we have even developed the compensatory cult of the Preternaturally Admirable Uniformed Hero, complete with NYPD baseball caps and “spontaneous”-as in Soviet Politburo spontaneous--airport clap sessions for the poor kids being sent off to imperial wars of aggression.
I’ve got nothing against most cops or soldiers. I realize that most of them are, like you and me, simply trying to make a living. That said, I refuse to believe that putting on a uniform makes you more likely to be good or admirable than the next guy. In fact, given that their jobs are bound up in the exercise of physical power, and that having a monopoly on that same physical power is one of the great goals of the social and political elites that hire and/or fund them, there is every reason to be considerably more suspicious of people in uniform than other citizens.
Owing perhaps to their still fairly recent experience with dictatorship (1939-1975), a regime whose uniformed minions sought to reduce their native language and culture, not to mention the concept of representative democracy, to the realm of the harmlessly folkloric, many Catalans still get this.
Several of the people walking by the park (many of them over 60 years old!) took time out to tell the absurdly armored policeman what they thought of their current pose, and how they should be ashamed of taking public money to intimidate or attack their fellow citizens. One guy sat in front the fence separating him from the police and insisted with the doggedness of a Guantánamo Bay inquisitor that the “public servant¨ in front of him simply obey the law and uncover his badge number. The questioner knew he wasn't going to get an answer. But he also knew that by asking the question insistently and in a loud voice, every passerby would have a much better idea of who was, in fact, violating the law.
I then headed north to the other main entrance to the park. As I did, I heard helicopters flying overhead. Later that day I would learn that it was the sound of legislators being flown into the park to attend to their duties. I also would learn later on that the flight had been undertaken after a number of the elected officials had been loudly heckled and struck by empty plastic bottles while walking to the park. There were also some reports of lawmakers being sprinkled with red paint meant to simulate blood.
After the park doors were slammed shut, the protesters remained, milling about under the watchful eye of a dozen or so armored cars filled with police. The attitude of the assembled group was, as the picture to the left suggests, much more joyous than menacing. In fact, the most frequent of the many chants heard from the protestors outside was “No! to violence”.
True, once the politicians were all inside Parliament voting to approve draconian budget cuts designed to please the leaders of the European Union, and more specifically still, the financial elites that give them their marching orders, a small group activists piled debris in front of the gates, presumably to impede their being opened at the end of the day´s legislative activities.
Was this a breach of civic protocol and democratic fair play? I think it probably was.
But then again, who decided to close the gates in the first place? Who decided that a public park containing the house of the people should be turned into an armed camp? Aren’t these things also breaches of the spirit of respect which must undergird civic processes? Doesn´t organizing a massive show of proto-military force to effectively insulate elected officials from the angry dissatisfaction of the electors strike at the very heart of the idea of democracy? Doesn´t putting the concerns of already prosperous bankers and multinational concerns over those of the local electorate make a mockery of the idea of democratic representation? Finally, if these “leaders” are going to bask, as most of them do several times a day, in the solicitous treatment that fellow citizens generally afford them, should they not also be man or woman enough to sit there and take it when people want to angrily express their dissatisfaction?
The answer to the last question appears to be “no”. Under the rules of the New Authoritarianism, that growing force which has made us all uncritical lovers of men and women in uniform, it appears that the only acceptable form of communication between elector and elected is one where the former exhibits a slavish submission before the latter.
Assaults against the welfare of the general public, attacks that have very serious effects on the everyday lives of families, well, they’re just part of the cost of doing business, an unfortunate blip on the road of social progress. The same, it seems, goes for cops that beat up citizens or lie in court to make themselves and the prosecutors they work with look good.
But when some of the affected citizens get a little carried way with their ire (I say a little because no politician that I know of was hurt as a result of the small uprising at the gate), well, apparently that is an anti-social outrage of enormous proportions.
The next day we witnessed a routine that has become sadly familiar to Americans in recent years.
After the events of Wednesday morning, Artur Mas, the President of the Catalan Generalitat (Autonomous Government) and his Interior Minister Felip Puig (the same guy who had ordered the clubbing of the “Indignados” camped in the city’s major square, the Plaça de Catalunya three weeks before) predictably came out swinging, saying that the protestors at the Parliament had crossed a “red line” that should never be crossed in democratic society. He and most of his counterparts in the opposition then went on to suggest that the events earlier in the day had dealt a fatal blow to the credibility of the May 15th (that is the day it began in Madrid) street protest movement.
What did Barcelona’s very large pundit class (the city has five major dailies, each very richly provisioned with opinion columns) do the next day?
With very, very few exceptions, it fell all over itself to back up the President and the rest of the parliamentary leadership. Not content to leave it there, they pulled out all the tired and condescending clichés they could find about how the protestors were poor lefties stuck in the sixties, people who refuse to grow up and accept the fact that the world has changed. They topped it all off by using the favorite technique of snarky, keep-up-with-the-pack hacks everywhere; they located a person who, from their self-granted status as “pragmatic” people in the know, represented all of the outmoded silliness of the protestor class. They then dutifully took turns ridiculing him.
The poster boy in question was a man named Arcadi Oliveres, the head of an organization called Justice and Peace who for the last 26 years has dedicated his life to (are you ready for this silliness?) fomenting human rights among the various communities of the city and the world. Arcadi’s sin this time around? To suggest that he saw some police acting as agents provocateurs at the gates of the Ciutadella Park on Wednesday morning. I guess Arcadi has not yet internalized the doctrine of the Preternaturally Admirable Uniformed Hero.
By late Thursday, it looked as if the political class, with the invaluable assistance of the power-worshipping majority of the commentariat, was going to get away with using Wednesday’s events to discredit the entire 15 May Movement. Indeed, Mas was openly crowing about how he will order the use of still more force in the future if needed.
But then funny things began to happen. Rather than shrink away in shame under the media blitz, Arcadi Oliveres stood his ground. And over the weekend, video clips strongly suggesting that there were indeed some police agents fomenting violence in the crowd on Wednesday began to circulate
But most important of all, the directors of the Barcelona 15 May Movement called for a massive protest march on Sunday the 19th.
And guess what? 100,000 people of all ages and social classes showed up and marched in an impeccably peaceful and respectful fashion to the gates of the park.
For the last two days, its been quite amusing to watch the pols and their oh-so—sober and responsible friends on the Op-Ed pages of the city’s papers struggle to make sense the movement they thought they had killed off forever during last week’s two feverish days of political and media theatre.
I have been looking for apologies and rectifications from the pundits. Funny, but I have found any yet.