Police Omnipresence

Translation of a piece by Isaac Rosa, published 25th October in eldiario.es, on the ‘police omnipresence’ now a feature of everyday life in a country in which the government seeks to strip most of the inhabitants of a dignified future.

Who are they protecting? And from whom?

The image of the crisis doesn’t come from the queues of unemployed, nor the crowded soup kitchens, nor the schools in Jerez closed due to lack of cleanliness. For me the spreading of the crisis is visible in the police presence in our cities. Or rather, police omnipresence.

Not even in the worst times of terrorist threats have I seen so many police on the streets as in the past weeks. Apart from the ominous lockdown of the Congress, it is difficult to walk around Madrid (I imagine it is something similar in other cities) without coming across blue vans. They are out patrolling the streets, guarding institutions, stopped for no apparent reason in squares or on main thoroughfares; apart from those that accompany every protest, those that turn up as soon as more than ten people get together anywhere, those that monitor pickets at points where some strike is in progress (including private firms), and others that seem to wander around the city waiting to be assigned a mission.

In the neighbourhoods, far from the centre where the protests concentrate, they also appear more and more often, normally as a sign of an imminent eviction. You head out early in the morning and you find numerous vans parked up on the footpath and a dozen agents at each end of a street, on alert in case a group of neighbours intent on preventing the eviction should appear.

The police’s omnipresence is accompanied by their hyperactivity. Violent police baton charges, habitual bad manners toward peaceful citizens, intimidatory identifications, unjustified detentions, complaints that end up in heavy fines, preventive surveillance, harassment of assemblies in parks, blows to journalists and photographers, old people dragged along the ground, an excess of zeal in their duties and in general a contemptuous attitude towards those who, with every right, ask them for their identification or reproach them for their excesses.

The question that emerged time and again is obvious: who are they protecting? And from what are they protecting them? What order is this that they say they are maintaining? What law is it whose obedience they enforce?

I know, I know: the officers are simply obeying orders, and it all comes from on high: the police bosses, and above them the political leaders on duty, the Government delegate, the director general, the minister, the president. But the ones who show their face (and mete out the blows) are those police officers, on the receiving end of citizen contempt. However much one of them signs a petition for mortgage holders to be able to hand back the keys to the bank, or their unions criticise their political superiors, they are the ones who are opening up an increasingly deep crack of separation with the citizens.

It is not that the security forces had an affectionate relationship with the citizens previously. But today the rupture is complete. The question, and pardon my insistence, may appear naive but it isn’t really: who do the police protect? Whose service are they in? Yes, you will say: they are there to enforce the law. But daily we see how not all laws hold equally, nor do all offences merit the same forcefulness, nor do all offenders get the same treatment.

In recent years there have been many examples of economic and social delinquency, not simply metaphorically speaking, but encoded in law, but nonetheless their authors are not monitored, persecuted or punished with the same forcefulness as those who cut off a street or stop the eviction of a family.

The other morning, when I encountered several police vans parked up on the kerb beside my daughters’ primary school, foretelling an imminent eviction, I saw those in uniform in a different way. They didn’t seem like public servants to me, but private sentries, security guards, just as you might find them in a shopping centre, in the doorway of an office block, in the subway or in a bank.

Let me explain: when we’re in a shopping centre or in the subway, and we have a security guard close by, perhaps we feel secure, protected against possible danger. It could not be further from the truth: they aren’t there to protect us, but to protect the people who pay them, to protect the merchandise, the facilities, the activity. And to protect it all from us, we who could be the thieves, the assailants, those who damage the facilities or make off without paying. The same with the security cameras in those same places: they aren’t placed there to protect us but to monitor us, to protect the area from us.

That’s how I feel with the police of late, due to this omnipresence and hyperactivity with regard to protest: they are not there to defend me, but to defend business against those who disturb activity, damage the facilities or try to make off without paying. That is, us.


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