25 September 2012

Surround, sister

Photo by  Yukino Miyazawa 
I wish I was in Madrid tonight.

When I arrived home from my pointless "guiri" job in Barcelona, one I should feel lucky to have, all things considered, I logged on to the RTVE website to have a look at their live feed of the 25S "Rodea El Congreso" protest in Madrid. The first thing I saw were the helmets and plexi-glass shields of the police. The armor protected them from reprisal as they swung their truncheons wildly at unarmed protesters.

An older man stepped in between the tens of thousands in the crowd and the police, his arms stretched out toward the protesters, urging calm and restraint. His palms were were open, pleading to the crowd not to give in to the rage, but he was walking slowly, back toward the police. When he got close enough, they clubbed him as well. I suppose you can't be too careful, especially with ageing, pony-tailed hippies in denim jackets attempting to pacify a potential riot.

Moments later, the camera caught three or four riot police beating a young woman on the ground. She was pale, with dyed, bright red hair. She tried as best she could to protect herself from the flurry of blows. A young man with a shaved head hovered over her, attempting to protect her from further injury. He was clubbed across the skull for his trouble. This act of brutality in particular seemed to stir something in the crowd. Objects soon hurtled toward the thin black line of the riot squad. Individual protesters showed momentary swells of courage as they advanced on the police, whose faces were obscured by black helmets and plastic visors. There was the sense that, at any moment, the situation could turn dark. Ugly.

There was a sense of imminent madness, an aching fear in the gut that things would go horribly awry. That fear didn't come from the protesters. They tossed brightly coloured swathes of fabric in the air while others cheered; they raised their arms up, palms open to the sky as they sat cross legged in front of the shields and the visors and the bean bag rifles held at the ready. It came from the police. Their charges into the crowd came randomly, without warning. Their clubs struck out at young women and old men with little care over who was hit. It seemed not to matter that the weapons made contact at all. The act was automatic. Reflexive.

When the sun set over the Spanish Congress building, where citizens from across the country gathered to demand that a government -- seemingly hell bent on testing the limits of its power over the masses -- step down, one of the estimated 1,300 police officers on hand to keep the gathering of angry, desperate people in line charged too far into the crowd. A few struck out at him, kicking at the heavy Kevlar vest covering his torso, and one gave him a quick boot to the rear end, but he was allowed to scamper off to safety; his survival was never in doubt. A mob hell bent on tearing it all down would have swallowed the trapped cop whole. This one let him go.

Watching the night unfold in Madrid, what becomes crystal clear is that a crowd of hundreds of thousands -- possibly a million -- remains peaceful because they choose to. The police, charged with protecting the members of Congress in Madrid tonight, should bear that in mind. The people's commitment to non-violence  is a greater protection than padded armour and shields ever can be. The police, as they protect the same members of parliament that day by day turn the screws tighter, would do well to realize that one day the crowds won't turn and run at the sight of a truncheon bearing down overhead. Their desperation will consume their fear.