Over the course of 2011, people all over the world have grown accustomed to spectacular images of police repression against popular movements. While the initial shock induced by such images serves only to galvanize support for these movements, over time their effects on those who see them begin to dull. Hands in the air versus clubs, shields and helmets, the violence of government-imposed austerity fades into the background of a quixotic narrative of hopeless idealism versus hegemonic inertia. The scale of repression increases and expands behind a silent injunction to believe that nothing is changing, that this is how things are, have been and will be.
The recent mass arrests of occupying demonstrators in the United States were decidedly ridiculous in scale because they were intended to send the message that civil disobedience will not be tolerated, no matter how massive the level of participation is. Up to now, arguments expressing tolerance for these arrests have largely been of a legalistic nature: some people broke the law (OK, a lot of people did), and the police chose to enforce it. Yet civil disobedience is, by definition, never legal. Instead, it varies in terms of its legitimacy which, in democratic societies, is conferred only by the people. In times of civil unrest, individual police officers often find themselves occupying the tense space between legality and legitimacy with a choice to make: do they violently impose the law on demonstrators with legitimate demands or do they facilitate the realization of those demands by refusing to exploit their monopoly on legal force or even disobeying orders? In recent months, they seem to have favoured the former over the latter.
The indignant movements all over the world have made a central point of claiming the moral high ground (which people, and not their kleptocratic institutions, monopolize) and maintaining a spirit of non-violence. While it is important that this spirit is maintained, it is even more important that we include a deep reflection on what constitutes violence. No court in the world would rule in favour of a person who was punched in the face as they attempted to assault or rob someone at gunpoint, unless, of course, the thug in question was a police officer or a politician. It seems that, according to the law, self-defence is a right that vanishes when the offender acts in the name of the political and economic establishment.
This simple reflection on physical violence does not really get to the heart of the matter, however. It is merely intended to single out one highly visible dynamic that we face in this tension between legality and legitimacy. At this point, it is clear that international mainstream news outlets are happy to reproduce manicured images of “riot porn”, frame them in a narrative of civil disorder, and wait out public interest as state forces amplify the scale of repression.
What they are less inclined to show, on the other hand, is the true violence threatening democracies today, best exemplified by the recent measures taken by the Catalan police force, the infamous Mossos d’Esquadra, against 15-M protesters. Acting on a case filed by the fascist labour union Manos Limpias, in which 22 protesters were identified and charged with “crimes against high institutions of the state” for their participation in the 15 June protest to block the passage of budget cuts and an illegitimate omnibus law, the Mossos sought to terrorize 15-M activists by sending undercover police officers to arrest those 22 individuals slowly and gradually over the course of several days, when all they were required to do was give them citations to inform them of their days in court. This process of intimidation was broken, however, when the list of individuals was leaked, and the remaining people on it surprised the court and the Mossos by showing up at the Ciutat de la Justicia (court building) to receive their citations with their lawyers and members of the press.
What happened next was truly shocking. Upon receiving their citations, the 15-M activists, lawyers and reporters went to have a coffee at the cafeteria inside the building. There, undercover Mossos tackled them, knocking over tables and chairs, and arrested all 9 of the activists, in addition to the lawyers and the reporters. The Mossos had contacted the Audiencia Nacional (the Spanish court in charge of the case) to negotiate a sloppy bureaucratic manoeuvre to deny the activists the writ of habeus corpus.
This action has been denounced by the Catalan Supreme Court and various other high-profile legal organizations. In all cases, the bodies cited an extreme “disdain for democracy” exhibited by the Mossos d’Esquadra. And it is overwhelmingly clear that the intention of the Catalan Ministry of the Interior (the body that controls the Catalan police) was to intimidate the 15-M community that has been so critical of the Catalan government. This is the deeper violence against democracy. Police are reduced to enforcing the political objectives of a ruling party, common people involved in non-violent protest are depicted as criminal threats to stability, and the law is merely a bureaucratic maze to be navigated after decisions are made and imposed. Democracy is thus gutted of its meaning, its role reduced to that of a cheap buzzword used by a governments to invoke the ghost of the true source of its power: its legitimacy.
Today, October 15th, we are united in a global struggle for change in our communities. We share in common our memory of the true meaning of democracy: dêmos Kratos. People power. Legality is uttered in the language of institutions. Legitimacy is a gift of solidarity from human beings. We should bear this in mind as we continue our fight beyond this day.