The Repression of Protest in Spain after 15-M: The Development of the Gag Law.

AuthorOliver, Pedro

THE CYCLE OF PROTESTS THAT BEGAN IN SPAIN WITH THE 15-M movement (named after the date of its inaugural event on May 15, 2011) inmediately gave rise to academic analyses that have continued to relate this phenomenon of movimentismo to the government's mishandling of the economic crisis of 2008 and the resultant outbreak of a deep political crisis, a true "democratic crisis" in which social movements have played a key role (Fernandez Garcia ocPetithomme 2015). This article sets out from the above points, but it also analyzes a more specific aspect of the protest cycle that, in spite of forming an essential part of that cycle, has not often been addressed by the academic literature: the repression of protest, as well the interaction of this repression with the development of the social movement itself.

The Context of Economic and Political Crisis in Spain in 2008-2011

The close connection between the 15-M movement and other phenomena of social protest on the one hand, and the context of economic crisis and neoliberal policies on the other, was formulated from the outset in pamphlets and essays written by analysts and think tanks affiliated with the movement itself, such as the Observatorio Metropolitano de Madrid (2011).

The global economic crisis, which began in 2008 and made it much more difficult to obtain bank loans, made its appearance in Spain with the bursting of the housing bubble (Diez 2013). Construction firms went bankrupt due to the contraction in demand for houses. As a result, Spanish banks seized the collateral (houses and land) of such enterprises but found that they were unable to recover even half of the economic investment they had made in the days of the real estate boom. The banks, in turn, further restricted credit and thus aggravated the economic crisis.

From the start of the 2000s to the year 2008, Spain's construction industry accounted for half of direct employment and almost 40 percent of the country's GDP (Chastagnaret 2013, 208). Conversely, in the first quarter of 2009, this sector was responsible for increasing unemployment by nearly 800,000. During this period of time, the government implemented a banking bailout and new austerity-based policies, and important cases of political cormption came to light (Chastagnaret 2013, 222; Diez 2013). Reforms to the labor market, especially those implemented by the People's Party (PP) government in 2012 in the context of European Union austerity policies, gave rise to trade union and civic protests. Numerous economic analysts have criticized these reforms, questioning their effectiveness in the fight against the disproportionate rise in unemployment (Funo Blasco et al. 2015).

The economic crisis and the government's incompetence in solving it led Spaniards to rebel, targeting in particular three features of the way political power has been exercised in Spain since the Franco regime, namely, hyperleadership, inbreeding in political parties, and opaque and irresponsible economic management (Burns Maranon 2015). Through the internet, Spaniards had learned about the disgust felt for politicians and subsequent widespread protests in Iceland in 2009 and in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011, which brought about changes in the form of increased democratization and new civic cultures (Castells 2012, 20-22, 34, 54, 113-15). Inspired by these examples, on the night of May 15, 2011, some dozens of demonstrators camped in the Puerta del Sol public square in Madrid with the aim of promoting a real representative democracy. In the following days, there were similar demonstrations in 800 cities around the world.

The PP Government and the Atmosphere of Protest

The 15-M movement marked the beginning of a new protest cycle in Spain, just before local elections were held on May 22, 2011. Later that same year, the conservative PP achieved the biggest landslide victory in national elections in the history of democracy in Spain.

Analysts and activists agree that the foundations of 15-M--that is, the factors behind its emergence and evolution--are to be found in the context of the economic and political crisis of the time and the new structure of information sharing in modern society. The consequences of the crisis and the potential of online information sharing enabled protests to spread from the internet onto the streets. It soon became clear that the traditional political organizations (parties, trade unions, etc.) had not only failed to satisfy the population; they had outraged it. (1) Thus, in the streets and public squares, "there was a change in perception from one of isolation to one of perhaps being in the majority" (Domenech Sampere 2014, 14; Martin Garcia 2013).

Soon after, in addition to strengthening the repression of protests with available legal instruments, the PP proposed to amend the penal code and pass a new public safety act. Initially, the conservative government led by Mariano Rajoy tried to explain that the new public safety law was not due to the climate of unrest and protest but was really a coincidental legal adjustment--a mere consequence of penal code reform. In this proposed reform, so-called faltas (minor offenses like threats, reckless driving resulting in injury, thefts of less than 400 [euro], vandalism, public disorder, etc., all of which were punished lightly) would largely be replaced by infractions, punishable by administrative procedures. Very few people accepted this explanation, however. Therefore, the next justification put forward by the government was the need to adapt legal standards to the new reality--in official terms--of public disorder and riots in the streets.

What new reality is being referred to here? Undoubtedly, there was a new situation at hand, which can be viewed as the intersection of the two dynamics mentioned above: mobilization and the resulting repression, taking place in a context of economic crisis and the partisan political struggle over government measures involving austerity and cutbacks to benefits and services. (2) The vast majority of protests were peaceful, which explains why they generally received public support and why only 0.2 percent of the Spanish population expressed concern about the disruption of public order (Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas 2013).

In the few months between 15-M and the electoral victory of the PP in late 2011, there were episodes of civil disobedience with profound social and political significance. During these months, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) government, with Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as prime minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba as interior minister, and Maria Dolores Carrion Martin as government delegate in Madrid, had demonstrated unusual zeal in the application--by way of administrative fines--of the standing public safety act. This legislation had been in force since 1992, when it was introduced by Interior Minister Jose Luis Corcuera under Felipe Gonzalez's socialist government. It became known as the Corcuera law or the kick-down-the-door law. (3)

In May 2011, after the counterproductive outcome of the forced eviction of the first 15-M camps, the government ceased trying to restrain and repress these demonstrations, choosing instead to leave the protesters alone. Apparently, Interior Minister Rubalcaba had weighed the political costs and benefits of nonenforcement of the law as a response (or rather a nonresponse) to a rapidly developing phenomenon manifesting itself as peaceful protest, without disturbing the public peace or clashing with the forces of law and order. The protesters' determination to remain in public space and disobey eviction orders is reminiscent of what happened during the Arab Spring or even earlier in Iceland (Domenech Sampere 2014, 76; Juliusson & Helgason 2013; Konak &. Ozgiir Donmez 2015, 133-34; Romanos 2013). Those camped in Madrid's Puerta del Sol did not inform the government of their immediate intentions nor did they obey the autorithies' instructions; their occupation was soon replicated in Plaza Cataluna in Barcelona and public squares in several Spanish cities.

Later that same year, the PP knew that it was going to win the general election against what was perceived as a moribund government that had allowed the birth of the Indignados (outraged people) movement. That perception would shape the PP's political strategy following its achievement of an absolute majority. From the perspective of the PP, the image of protesters camped in the streets could not be allowed to recur. The prolonged presence of the Indignados in the streets and squares, exercising the right of assembly without any impediment or control and openly bordering on civil disobedience, abruptly reshaped the dynamics of Spanish politics. The experience in the streets undoubtedly influenced the evolution of the 15-M movement, which redefined its own repertoire and later inspired many other forms of expression of social protest such as las mareas (tides), (4) as well as the main trade unions, which were often harshly dismissed by the new networked social movements, and all political parties, which were surprised by the enormous social support shown for the 15-M activists in public opinion polls alongside a growing, profound disaffection with political methods. It also left a mark on the government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who was already resigned to losing power, and, of course, on Mariano Rajoy's new government.

Deeply Controversial Repression

The 15-M movement inspired some of the most significant mobilizations against the PP in its implementation of austerity policies and the privatization of public resources, including in particular the so-called tides of citizens in Madrid, against whom the national and municipal authorities reacted violently (Sanchez 2013). The confluence of these human tides resulted in the Marea Ciudadana demonstration on February 23, 2013 (23-F), that was severely criticized by government...

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