The Spanish government’s punitive anti-protest draft laws are, critics say, an attack on democracy. That is precisely what they are.
In a number of recent front lines of popular protest, state capacities have been reconfigured to meet the challenge. In some instances, as in Greece, this has meant periods of emergency government. In Chicago, in Quebec and now in Spain, it has meant the expansion of anti-protest laws.
In 2011, the Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, requested that the city council pass “temporary” anti-protest measures in response to the planned protests around the Nato and G8 summits. The laws included a $1m insurance mandate for public protests, heavy policing and greater obstacles to obtaining a protest permit. By early 2012, the legislation had been made permanent.
Later that same year, as the administration of Jean Charest in Quebec sought to deal with a tumultuous uprising of students against increased tuition fees, it passed a piece of emergency legislation named Bill 78. With the support of the state’s employers, it imposed severe restrictions on the ability to protest, including banning protests within 50 metres of a college and giving the right to change the route of a protest at short notice, with severe fines for those protesters who did not co-operate.
The “public safety” legislation proposed in Spain has an essentially similar basis. Demonstrating near parliament without permission will result in steep fines, while participation in “violent” protests can result in a minimum two-year jail sentence. In each case, the logic is to put a chill on protest. It is not just that it is a protest deterrent; it has a domesticating effect on such protests as do occur.