Sunday, 18 October 2015

An unrelaxing café con leche

In Spain we have something called the Ley Mordaza, or Gag Law. You might have heard of it: or you might have heard about the protests which is is designed to stop, the wave of protests against corruption, evictions and what-have-you that began on a large scale with the movement of 15 May 2011 and which counts among its political consequences the existence of Podemos and the election of Ada Colau.

In response, the Ley Mordaza: a remarkable and clever piece of legislation which prevents protest indirectly, not by bludgeoning protestors off the streets, though the bludgeons are there all right and more than occasionally used, but by emptying their pockets. Some of the fines involved are eyewatering: as listed by The Local, they include, for instance
between €30,000 and €600,000 if the protest takes part near institutions such as the Spanish parliament
and similarly
people trying to stop an eviction from taking place could be fined between €600 and €300,000.
In The Glass Teat, Harlan Ellison, then part of another, older protest movement, writes of his frustration at the surtax charged to Americans in order to pay for the war in Vietnam:
I draw the line. I make my stand here. I deny them the funds to kill. And my CPA shook his head sadly at my naïveté. Boob, he said politely, you won't go to jail: they will empty your bank account. I will empty the bank account, I said, knowing what hassles that would make for myself. Then they'll attach your wages, he responded. Then I'll - I stopped. It was hopeless.

So it is. People might be prepared to go to prison for the right to protest: that way you're achieving something. If all they do is take a chunk of money off you - and a hefty chunk, at that - then what are you achieving? That way the state creates no heroes and no martyrs, unless you're expecting people to march under the slogan Pay Back The The Huesca Three instead of Free The Chicago Seven. They're probably not going to do that. They'd only be fined themselves if they did. And there's a limit to how many fines a movement can pay by crowdfunding.

So we wait until after the election of 20 December to see if our civil rights will be restored to us, my guess being that unlike the Kings they won't be coming our way after Xmas. Meanwhile, since the Law appears in the short term to have achieved its desired effect of preventing protest by deterring it, it's the petty aspects of the legislation that have attracted most attention, the way in which it penalises and persecutes not just the overtly political but the normal and everyday.

Naturally in doing so it makes the everyday political. It intrudes the repressive function of the state into the everyday life of the citizens, the very thing the Transition to democracy, or indeed any liberal democracy in general, is supposed to avoid.

To return to The Local:
Showing a "lack of respect" to those in uniform or failing to assist security forces in the prevention of public disturbances could result in an individual fine of between €600 and €30,000
People will be fined for taking unauthorised photographs of the police
For sure, the first of these is supposed to penalise political louts (like the present writer) with a tendency to speak disrespectfully of people in uniform, while the latter is aimed ostensibly at YouTube videos of police officers, since these videos tend to show them bringing out the bludgeons that I mentioned earlier. But it also makes it impossible for journalists to carry out their normal job. All of a sudden it is potentially punishable to capture and publish images of police officers, the very thing we expect journalists to do, on behalf of the taxpayers who pay for those police and the citizens who the officers are supposed to represent.

More than that, it means that ordinary people, doing ordinary things, suddenly find that they have committed political acts - punishable political acts - and that they face stiff financial penalties for doing so. A man on Tenerife criticises the police on social media: a few hours later he's notified that he'll be fined for it. A woman in Alicante province takes a photo of a car parked in a disabled bay and puts it on Facebook. What could be more normal in 2015 than that? But the car wasn't John Terry's but a police vehicle - and they threaten to fine her eight hundred euros. Suddenly the everyday is illegal.

Then there was the chap in Málaga province who, finding his way blocked by a parked vehicle, and having called the police station and received no reply, went onto Facebook and wrote:
Es la una de la mañana, estoy llamando a la policía y no está operativa, pero sí que toman café en el pueblo de al lado.
Or something like that, since soon afterwards he deleted it. A rough translation:
It's one in the morning, I'm calling the cops and getting no reply. No doubt they're next door having coffee in the village bar.
The reason he deleted the posting was this this was deemed "un falta de respeto", an act of disrespect, and he too has been threatened with a fine.

What's funny about this, funny ha-ha until you realise it can happen to you, is that he was in all probability right. The police are always in the bar drinking coffee. If you go into a bar your chances of seeing a group of police officers are pretty good, so much so that it's a standing joke with the two of us. Either "our friends" are there when we arrive, or they arrive when we're already there: and given that we travel round Spain to make a living, this isn't down to coincidence (I say so because by coincidence, the bar in the village down the road is right next to the Guardia Civil) but down, rather, to the fact that the police in Spain spend a lot of time in bars.

I don't particularly have a problem with this. They drink their coffee, check their smartphones and look at MARCA: I drink my coffee, check my smartphone and look at MARCA. No bother. But it shouldn't cost somebody hundreds of euros if they say so.

In fact, shortly after I came across the story about the bloke in Málaga province - I think I saw it in El País - I was in a hotel bar with half-a-dozen police officers. I was at a table and they were at the bar, as they usually are when we stay at that hotel. By and large it serves commercial travellers, like ourselves, making overnight stops in a convenient place just off the Barcelona-Madrid motorway. So there's traffic police about, and of course they want somewhere to stop, de vez en cuando, and have a rest. Like I say, no problem.

But it amused me that I should see the story, about police officers objecting to the idea that they'd be drinking coffee in the bar, just as I was in a bar, drinking coffee, with a number of police officers. So I reached for my smartphone with the intention of taking a photo or two, just to send to R with some kind of amusing message. Police officers at the bar: who ever would have thought it? Something to that effect.

And then I stopped and said to myself - what on Earth do you think you are doing?

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