Putting a gag on it

Cristina Flesher Fominaya discusses how 15M activists in Spain are facing increasing repression – and using a range of tactics to resist it

June 1, 2014 · 4 min read

As we approach the third anniversary of the 15M movement – whose first encampment in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol spread to plazas across Spain – activists are taking stock of where the movement is today. A new archive initiative compiling news reports of movement successes (Archivo de Logros 15M) serves as a powerful reminder that social movements do produce positive results. Despite these achievements, an unintended consequence has been relentless repression by the state.

The state backlash began in 2011 when the first camp faced legal prohibition, spurring thousands more to protest. On the movement’s first anniversary, permanent structures and tents were banned in the Puerta del Sol, and the police began to film and carry out other surveillance of protesters. With mass organising and the many ‘citizen tides’ (mareas ciudadanas) showing little sign of abating, the government has used every means at its disposal to limit freedom of expression and the right to protest.

One such tactic is the use of disproportionate fines to punish and dissuade protest. These range from €100 to €1,000 for lesser infractions, and up to €600,000 for more serious ones (refusing to dissolve a protest is a ‘serious infraction’).

The Popular Party, which has a majority in parliament, is seeking to amend the Law for the Protection of Citizen Security – popularly referred to as the ‘gag law’ – to make it even more restrictive. This would apply a wide definition of crimes ‘against authority’ or public order. If such offences were to take place at a protest, anyone who had disseminated information about the event could be charged, even if they didn’t attend. Charges could also extend beyond individuals to any organisations they belong to.

Public space, and therefore public order, would be redefined to include private bank premises, criminalising citizen occupations that have called attention to bank fraud and abusive mortgages. Cases against activists could be dealt with outside the courts (where people have been challenging repression and sometimes winning) and fines imposed through administrative routes unless people pay court fees in advance of hearings. Most disturbing is the proposed crackdown on freedom of expression, applying fines to ‘any declaration … that has the intent of insulting or slandering public institutions, authorities, agents of authority or public employees, [or demonstrates] a lack of the necessary respect’.

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Further, the Popular Party’s proposed reform of the penal code specifically targets vulnerable groups, representing a crucial shift towards defining criminality according to who people are. It toughens penalties for economic survival activities such as undocumented street vending (‘on-the-blanket’ selling), while reducing sanctions against economic ‘white-collar’ crimes.

In an ugly but coherent move, the changes also criminalise solidarity actions, making it a crime to offer aid or support to undocumented residents. This fits the logic of the government’s austerity measures, whereby the most vulnerable should be supported via charity and the family rather than social welfare, social justice and solidarity.

Platforms such as No Somos Delito are trying to challenge these new laws in a variety of ways. First, they have made the issue visible within movement networks, reaching out to other groups so the campaign against repression can be incorporated into the slogans and actions of the wider movement. Second, the platform collaborates with lawyers and groups such as Legal Sol, seeking advice, ensuring accurate interpretation of the laws and connecting with international NGOs such as Amnesty International. Third, they raise awareness among the public through stickers, posters, press releases, social media, street theatre and direct action campaigns.

One action, ‘White Blanket’, involved Spanish citizens selling items in the street on white blankets, in solidarity with undocumented migrants who will be criminalised under the new law. Another, ‘They are gagging us’ (#NosAmorzadan), began with the gagging of two lions that guard the doors of parliament and culminated with more than 150 gagged statues across Spain, accompanied by a media campaign.

Amnesty International worries that Spain will reach levels of repression on a par with Turkey, Ukraine and Russia and says the government is increasingly violating international and European human rights conventions to which it is a signatory. Despite numerous reports expressing concern, including from the Council of Europe’s own human rights commissioner, EU institutions have not intervened. If the proposed reforms are allowed to go ahead, comparable laws could extend throughout Europe, as other governments choose to repress rather than listen to their citizens.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya’s new book Social Movements and Globalisation: How Protests, Occupations and Uprisings are Changing the World is published by Palgrave Macmillan

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