Spain’s Gag Law: spectre of an authoritarian past


On Friday 10 April 2015, holographic images of about 2,000 protestors from all over the world were projected onto the facade of the Spanish Parliament by the citizen platform No somos delito (“we are not a crime”).

The action was directed against the draconian Citizen Safety Bill passed by the right-wing government on 26 March 2015, which will go into effect on 1 July 2015.

The so-called Ley Mordaza, or Gag Law, imposes heavy fines for “administrative infractions” and maintains a registry of the citizens who commit those infractions.

Though the expansive legislation threatens a variety of uses of public space and legalises prohibited border control practices such as summary expulsions, it is its aggressive attack on the right of citizens to protest that has attracted the most attention from media and human rights organisations.

The legislation especially targets the types of protest and disobedience favoured by the indignados movement, such as unauthorised protests, blocking evictions or surrounding high institutions of the state.

It also affects trade union protest by essentially prohibiting picketing and any disruption of services. Maria José Saura of the leading CCOO trade union told Equal Times that “the Gag Law turns conflicts over labour into an issue of public order. With no room for unauthorised actions, what we’re left with is protest as a farce.”

The Gag Law also works in tandem with a new reform of Spain’s penal code, which classifies transgressive actions in public space as administrative sanctions, thus leaving them to the discretion of police officers through the application of fines on the spot.

These fines range from €600 (US$678) for sleeping in the street to €600,000 (US$678,000) for surrounding congress without contacting authorities.

As the general secretary of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) in Catalonia, Ermengol Gassiot, points out, this represents a shift from using the judicial system to repress dissent –which overwhelms the courts with cases that are unlikely to lead to jail time– to using the police to bankrupt labour and social movements.


Divided opinions

The gap between the scale of the Spanish government’s attack on basic freedoms and the actual, physical density of the response in the streets has led to frustration amongst many left-wing commentators.

Some argue that the emerging centrality of new political parties and the adoption of potentially radical demands by mainstream parties (Catalan independence, for example) has transposed the attention, time and energy of activists into the spectacular realm of electoral politics and TV debate shows, or the speculative realm of surveys and polls.

Others go a bit further, suggesting that it is the very hope that the new parties will take power and eliminate the legislation that is acting as a barrier to action.

On the other hand, it is also argued that the institutional glass ceiling encountered by the social movements was beginning to either erode support or dissuade people from engaging in the riskier politics of the street.

For many of these commentators, the spectral nature of the holographic protest was something of a last straw.

In a recent column, Natasha Lennard went so far as to call the protest “pathetic” and “dangerous”, seeing the action as a show of acquiescence to the repressive will of an authoritarian government.

Yet such arguments stem from an excessive focus on the surface-level traits of the protest’s form, ignoring both its context and content, thus obscuring its meaning.

In Lennard’s case, this becomes abundantly clear when she suggests that the legislation is a “direct response” to protests like the massive rally held in January 2015 by Podemos, the rising leftist party, which is simply false.

If anything, considering that as much as 82 per cent of the population is against the legislation, the measures probably strengthen their support and undermine it for the governing Popular Party.


State repression

The reality is that the Gag Law is just one more in a series of highly repressive actions by state institutions against Spain’s autonomous social movements.

Recently, eight protesters received three-year prison sentences for participating in a protest that surrounded the Catalan parliament on 11 June 2011.

And for several months, police have been rounding up dozens of anarchists as part of the ominously named Operation Pandora, accusing them of terrorism despite relying on their ideologies, aesthetics and reading lists as evidence.

Both of these actions were the responsibilities of Spain’s National Audience, the institutional successor to the Francoist regime’s Court of Public Order, itself a continuation of the dictator’s Special Court for the Repression of Masonry and Communism.

It hardly feels like a stretch to suggest that the tradition dates back to the Inquisition.

For the last several years, street protests have been the background of daily life in Spain, and it has become difficult for them to stand out.

Those that do manage to become media events are dissected and differentially exploited by an increasingly large, diverse set of political players with specialised narratives.

In such an unfavourable context, what is needed is an anomaly, a moment of truth that, by confronting us with the spectres that haunt our present reality, provokes the novelty and perplexity required to destabilise one hegemonic narrative and introduce an emancipatory one.

It is ultimately an artistic task, and it is as an artistic gesture that the holographic protest should be interpreted.

As such, it was highly successful.

What remains to be seen is what will happen on 1 July 2015, when the legislation goes into effect.

Will there be widespread disobedience? Or, on the contrary, will the country look away as any hope for real democracy is buried alive?