Spain’s 15M movement responds to a wave of repression

Woman at a 15M movement protest at the French consulate in Valencia, Spain. By Marc Sardon, via Flickr.

The 15M movement in Spain has faced repression from the very beginning: 24 young people were arrested and beaten by police in the demonstrations organized by Democracia Real Ya on May 15 last year, which is a large part of why several dozen people decided to camp that night in Sol square, turning the demonstration into an encampment. That first night, the Legal Committee of Sol was created by lawyers and laypeople; similar groups emerged in other camps around the country in order to give legal support to the movement. This has never been an easy job, but it has only been getting harder.

Since May 15, the Legal Committee of Sol has given support to more than a hundred arrestees. There have been another hundred arrested in Barcelona and many more in the rest of the country. Activists have been charged with undermining authority (facing one to three years in jail), disobedience and resistance (six months to one year), and disorderly conduct (six months to three years). Most of all, though, 15M protesters are being punished though economic means. There are nearly 70 people with fines in Madrid, according to the Legal Committee of Sol, and in Barcelona, there have been more than 200 people fined, together amounting to more than €40,000.

The repression is getting more and more excessive. Last month in Málaga, five people were charged with electoral offenses for carrying banners with the phrase “Banks always win” in an electoral college during the regional election of Andalucía. Just before that, in late February, nine young people were arrested in a protest against the reform of the labor law and were interrogated by hooded police — a common practice in Spain with terrorists and abertzales (members of the Basque independence movement). But Barcelona is the place where the 15M movement has been most under threat. Two weeks after the violent eviction of Catalunya square, the camp of Barcelona protested in the regional parliament, where the regional budget cuts had been debated. Some activists blocked the entrance of the building and threw paint bombs at members of the parliament. Twenty people are now facing three to five years in jail for their actions that day.

In recent months, repression has been focused on actions related to housing rights. “There is an increased emphasis in pursuing squatting,” says a member of the Legal Committee of Sol, who explains that in Madrid, police are striving to make a census of squatters and have already identified 150 activists. Actions by the Platform of People Affected by Mortgage (PAH) have resulted in five arrests in Madrid, including Chema Ruiz, one of the most active members of PAH in the city. Although the protocol of the platform has always been the same — nonviolent resistance by sitting on the floor — Ruiz testified in February while under allegations of attacking eight riot policemen. “But how could someone as skinny as me beat eight riot policemen?” Ruiz asked. Although the court has opened a criminal case against him, not even he knows what crime he is ultimately being charged with.

Beginning in its first weeks, the 15M movement has been taking basic security measures. Before demonstrations and actions, activists write on their arms or legs the telephone number of the committee of legal support for their neighborhoods or city assemblies, and they memorize the name of the lawyers on duty that day. The legal committees have also organized workshops about demonstrators’ rights and prepared leaflets with basic steps activists should take if arrested: to testify before the judge, not police, and to watch their things to prevent police from putting incriminating objects among them. The leaflets explain, also, what to do if one sees a fellow activist being arrested: ensure that the person knows the name of an 15M lawyer, find out where they will be taken by police, and tell the person’s lawyer and affinity group about the detention. Online tools are another weapon on the side of the movement. In Barcelona, Madrid and elsewhere, media groups are teaching activists how to use their cell phones to shoot and upload videos of police abuse. Twitter and other social networks have also been used to alert fellow activists of police attacks; in Barcelona, for instance, people used the Twitter hashtags #alerta29m and #copwatch during the March 29 general strike.

The cornerstone of the security strategy for 15M activists remains the affinity group. Small groups of close comrades know better than anyone else how to take care of one another. In some sectors of the movement, as in an assembly in a squatted building in Madrid, the first thing people always do is a round of introductions with the goal of avoiding infiltrators: everyone present says who they are and the others who know them raise their hands to express confidence that they can be trusted.

Now, following the general strike on March 29, the repression against 15M and other social movements in Spain appears to be getting tougher than ever. The government announced days before the strike that it has prepared an enormous police force “in anticipation of the picket lines organized by the movement,” and it kept its word. There were nearly 200 arrests that day, half of them in Cataluña, where police used tear gas against demonstrators, as well as rubber bullets, which caused two people to lose an eye. The same day, after a football match, rubber bullets killed a young person. Nevertheless, the image of the strike in the mainstream Spanish media was of a few dumpsters and bank offices burning.

The government has also announced new rules that increase the punishment for disorderly conduct to between two and four years in jail, as well as to punish nonviolent resistance as criminally undermining authority. Dark times are coming to Spain, but people in the 15M movement don’t seem to be afraid. As some of them say, “If protesting becomes a crime, then we will be criminals.”

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