The price of violence

The demonstration that aimed to “lay siege” to Congress last Tuesday degenerated at certain moments into violent clashes between the police and protestors. The government accused the latter of “extreme” violence, claiming that the police had collected 260 kilos of stones as proof of violent intent. Parliamentary precincts cannot be attacked and no one in their right mind should lend themselves to the game of undermining representative democracy. Society as a whole must be aware of the serious risks entailed in a group of unrestrained protestors attacking the seat of national sovereignty. But when it comes to ensuring the sanctity of Congress, the efficiency of the security forces must be guaranteed to avoid disproportionate responses.

What comes to mind is the duress suffered by the Catalan parliament on June 15, 2011 when a group of disgruntled demonstrators jostled lawmakers and threw paint over some of them, forcing regional premier Artur Mas to make his exit via helicopter. Nothing of that ilk happened in Madrid on Tuesday, although there were no guarantees beforehand that it would not happen if not for the adequate deployment of security forces.

For that reason, the clashes that took place between the limited number of protesters participating in the demonstration (only 6,000 according to the central government’s delegate in Madrid) and the large deployment of over 1,300 police officers was surprising. Of course, it would be naïve to dismiss the presence of a few groups of protestors who adopted a provocative stance and who had readied themselves for violent clashes. But what is required of the police is discipline and proportionality.

The hardest thing to swallow is anti-riot police bursting into Atocha train station, which is about a kilometer from Congress. The violence they deployed, as witnessed in graphic video footage of the events, is unacceptable. Equally unacceptable is the Unified Police Syndicate’s (SUP) labeling of the fact that officers had hidden their identity badges — which they are obliged to display precisely as a guarantee against abuse — as being merely “anecdotal” in nature.

The director of police, Ignacio Cosidó, insists that the forces under his command “were defending democracy,” while shutting the door out-of-hand to any internal investigation. The government needs to say whether it believes the police action in Atocha was appropriate. It is also time to demarcate who is responsible for security in the area around a seat of government — the speaker of the lower house has a say in such matters in other countries — and what areas should be cut off from protests. Maintaining order has come at a high price: in this case doubly, with dozens of people injured — including police officers — and dozens arrested in scenes that were broadcast across half the globe, leaving a decidedly distorted image of Spain.

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