On Wednesday, the Spanish government announced a draft proposal to introduce anti-protest measures that would make Russia’s handling of activists look magnanimous in comparison. If passed, the bill will penalize many accepted forms of peaceful protest with fines and prison sentences, which isn't a great look for a country with a fascist past.
Aside from the contents of the bill, what’s most worrying is how many of the proposed changes to the law seem to have been thought up as a direct response to specific groups and actions, mainly from the left, and mainly emerging out of Spain’s Occupy movement, 15M.
Reading between the lines, the proposed bill reads uncannily like a timeline of the last four years, with each law dreamed up as a direct response to any action that has upset the government or caught it with its pants down by exposing corrupt behavior. It takes on online activist groups like Anonymous, as well as political pressure groups such as the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), Spain’s anti-foreclosure activists. And, perhaps most controversially, it makes a villain out of those who use social networks for political ends. In short, it’s trying to kill social activism in a country that’s been utterly failed by the state.
Anyone organizing a protest through Facebook that is not officially sanctioned would receive a prison sentence of up to three years, or a fine of $45,000. Spain has been much vaunted as the birthplace of Occupy, and it was the spontaneous protests organized through Facebook and Twitter that led to the formation of the first campsites in the center of Madrid. Without 15,000 people marching under an apolitical banner, it’s unlikely that much of what followed would have followed.
Passive resistance at large gatherings would also get you three years in the slammer. In the context of Spain, where riot cops tend to be more baton happy than they are in the US, this can be read as a legitimization of the kind of brute force the police used to dislodge Barcelona’s Occupy camp back in 2011.
In April 2012, protesters brought Madrid’s entire metro system to a halt for 10 minutes by pulling the emergency cords on nine trains at the same time. The action, by the Toma el Metro group, was in protest of a 40 percent rise in the price of a metro ticket over three years. Now any attempt to disrupt communications or public transport would be labeled "sabotage" and could land you in prison for one to five years. This law also seems to target Anonymous, who in March released the full accounts of the governing Popular Party from the years between 1991 and 2012, when senior members were accused of receiving cash payments from private companies. It would also give the Spanish security forces greater measures to respond to cyber attacks.
There's clearly a pattern: Protesters do something, and the government tailors a piece of legislation specifically to criminalize it.
The draft bill also seeks to penalize protesting in front of public institutions, and the criminalization of the current strategy of "escraches" (spontaneous protests where people target specific bankers or politicians in their place of work or residence to publicly humiliate them). So now you can protest so long as it's nowhere near anybody in a position of power.
So far, the government has insisted that this is only a draft bill and that it will be revised before being put to parliament. But given their absolute majority — and the fact that previous revisions have included taking out legislation that referred to the criminalization of the display of fascist symbols — it’s likely that many of these changes will make it through. Right now, the only positive thing I can think of is that the same inventiveness that Spain’s social activists have showed in the past, will be used again to think up other ways to protest.