As the European Dream continues its slow descent into dystopic nightmare, leaving millions of economically disenfranchised Europeans languishing in the gutter of misery, public anger is growing. Nowhere is this more evident than in austerity-ridden Spain, where political protests have been a constant thorn in the side of the country’s knee-jerk authoritarian government.
Yesterday that government hit back with a declaration that evoked chilling echoes of Spain’s not-so-distant past. In response to a query by a member of parliament, the Ministry of Interior announced that during a public demonstration the police can confiscate any filming device if officers have reason to believe that it could be used to “commit an illegal act.”
That illegal act, one assumes, is the filming of the police as they “execute” their duties. That’s right: Spain could soon become the first supposedly democratic nation to outlaw the filming of police officers. It is one of a raft of new offenses included in the decidedly Orwellian-termed “Citizens’ Security” law, more popularly known as the “Gag Law” (Ley Mordaza). The new law proposes fines of up to €30,000 for using slogans against the country, the King or State, and up to €600,000 for organizing unauthorized street protests.
The original draft of the law covers a vast terrain, including:
• Fines of up to €30,000 for participating in the disruption of citizens’ security while using hoods or “any other article of clothing or object that covers the face” or for “disrupting citizens’ security at gatherings in front of the Congress of Deputies, the Senate, and regional legislative assemblies, even when these are not in session.”
• Fines of up to €1,000 for hampering pedestrian traffic, losing one’s identity document more than three times in five years, and circulating images of members of state security forces that might infringe upon their “right to honor.” Disobedience of the forces of law and order, whether passive or active, is also considered a crime.
The law is justified on the grounds of combating, in the words of Interior Minister Fernández, “radical and violent elements” within the protest movements. However, as Reuters reported in November last year, the crackdown on unauthorized protest belies the peaceful record of the anti-austerity protests of recent years,” which have remained relatively devoid of violence “despite unemployment of 26 percent, rising poverty, and changes in labor laws that make firing easier”.
Indeed, if anyone can be accused of using violence, it is Spain’s riot police – and hence the new law to scare people out of filming their actions. The victims of police violence have included non-violent protestors who have lost an eye to one of its rubber bullets, manhandled pensioners and demonstrators in wheelchairs, and even journalists.
Which Citizens? Whose Security?
Even in this age of Orwellian logic, the Citizens’ Security Law is about as duplicitous a term as could be concocted to describe a law that provides absolutely no security to the vast majority of Spaniards. The only “citizens” it seeks to protect are banks and large corporations and their representatives in government.
If passed, it will prevent pensioners from protesting outside the banks that robbed their savings in the Preferentes scam. It will also prohibit members of the organization Plataforma de Afectados por La Hipoteca, (PAH, or Mortgage Holders Platform) from protecting residents from eviction by agents of the state, which as the Associated Press reports, reached a peak in 2012 of 500 per day.
The PAH is a grassroots movement that has blossomed into one of the largest and most effective self-organizing citizen movements to have emerged in the post-crisis period. In 2013 it was awarded the European Parliament’s European Citizen’s Prize. Its greatest achievement came in July this year when the European Court of Justice ruled that the eviction law passed 14 months ago infringes the fundamental rights of Spanish citizens.
Unlike in most other Western nations, Spanish homeowners borrow under a draconian law whereby the bank, after the eviction, saddles ex-homeowners with the debt for life. To make matters worse, Spanish homeowners, unlike the banks, have no right of appeal against a court decision. What’s more, they cannot stop the eviction process while they fight contentious clauses in their mortgage contracts. As the BBC reports:
If they win a court case, they may seek compensation but will not necessarily recover their homes. Some contracts contain clauses allowing for a sharp increase in interest if a borrower falls behind on payments and Spanish law also gives the lender the right to start accelerated proceedings to evict the borrower if a single payment is missed.
For the moment the Spanish government is merely paying lip-service to the European Court of Justice’s ruling. It knows that any reform aimed at protecting home owners would jeopardize the banks’ already precarious position, since the banks’ flimsy facade of health depends on the exclusion of many foreclosed homes from their non-performing loans.
As the Wall Street Journal warned in July, non-performing assets – a more accurate measure of banks’ health since it captures foreclosed homes as well as repeatedly refinanced loans to property developers or other businesses that are unlikely to be paid – are equivalent to €433 billion, or 40% of the Spanish economy.
As such, the banks’ well-being may be jeopardized by the European Court of Justice’s ruling. However, the Rajoy government clearly knows on which side its bread is buttered, and will do whatever it takes to protect them from the ire of a betrayed citizenry, including threatening to outlaw the PAH as a “terrorist organization.”
The government is also fully aware that it needs to protect itself, as well as most other mainstream politicians, from the public’s blossoming rage. In Spain’s mad rush to develop in the post-Franco years, trillions of pesetas and later euros were poured into the country. As recent scandals have revealed, much of that money was siphoned off by Spain’s political middle men (and women). No one knows exactly how much was lost, but in Catalonia one family alone – the long-ruling Pujol family – is alleged to have amassed as much as €1 billion through political extortion (equivalent to around 2% of the region’s total debt).
Now that the scale of the betrayal is out in the open, Spain’s government is reverting to type. It has only one means of protecting itself and its core constituency from the anger of those it sacrificed on the altar of financial expediency – and that is to crank up political repression. By Don Quijones. An exclusive for Wolf Street.
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