Blogs > Cliopatria > "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a protest song...

Apr 24, 2009

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a protest song...

... I've suffered for my music, now it's your turn." But seriously folks. No, for once actually seriously. I try and keep my politics out of my blogging—being a medievalist, I don't need to limit my chances of a job any more—but this little crop should elicit the outrage of anyone who believes in freedom of speech and thought, which I take to be core academic beliefs. It's not really new, it's just current and we've hit the point where I have to say something even if it's only to vent.

First, from London. Those not in the UK may not have registered the fact that despite how well the media in the UK love Mr Obama and (so far) all his works, the whole G20 summit was a subject of some controversy. It's hard to be neutral about this for me, but it's only factual to say that some five thousand people joined in a protest that had as aims declared by some of its organisers to shut down the City of London's banking district. In the event the only serious damage to property was at the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been a particular target of ire since its retiring chief executive refused to reduce his £300693,000 a year pension even though it was being mainly funded from a government bailout after he had led the bank to almost complete collapse. Here, anyway, a small group managed to break the front windows in; all other premises in the area had been boarded up.

The media coverage before the protest, encouraged by some of the stupider protestors, gave the impression that there was expected to be large-scale anarchist violence. Certainly the policing was such as to deal with such violence. And when it didn't materialise, they created it. UK media attention has been centered on the figure of Ian Tomlinson, not involved in the protest but whom a police officer hit with a baton and threw to the ground, and who died of internal bleeding later. Unfortunately the officer was caught on video doing it, albeit anonymised by balaclava and missing badges (and he has, to his limited credit, come forward). Alun Salt of Archaeoastronomy covers the story here but since he wrote that, a new post mortem has revealed the actual cause of death and yesterday's Guardian newspaper has a story about new video evidence which the beleaguered justice system has had to suppress for fear it may prejudice juries. It's still a live issue, in other words, which is more than can be said for the poor sod who happened to be walking down the wrong street when a policeman was out looking for heads to crack.

My main reporter on the demonstration was lucky; they were blocked in by the police but managed to get out to Bishopsgate, outside Liverpool Street station, where Climate Camp protestors had organised a huge garden party. My source then got out of there before, a few hours later, the police charged that with riot shields too. Again, there was no violence beforehand, in fact the police were running down people stood with their open hands out calling to the police, 'this is not a riot'. The first link I can give for that could be accused of being partisan, though they also have video evidence, but this blog post from the church charity which the Camp happened outside is a bit more like neutral coverage and says the same.

Tony Blair and son playing guitar with added captions

I personally find this disgusting but sadly predictable. Over the term of the Labour governments that have run Britain since 1997, and the last days of the Conservative government that preceded them which enacted the Criminal Justice Act that effectively makes such protests conducted without permission illegal, and which Labour promised at election to repeal and of course have not, it has become effectively illegal to protest at the government in any direct way. Doing so meets with, if not arrest, curtailment of the right to come and go as you please, and now we see that it can not just get you killed, but get others killed. It is also now illegal to approach within a mile of Parliament with aims of disturbance. Dammit, in my period the peasants didn't even have to get that close before the king came out to hear their demands. Is it really the case that the men and women of the kingdom had better recourse in the fourteenth century than we do now? (I realise that our general welfare is rather better, but there's a point there all the same.) And if one does protest, as the magazine cover above commemorates with respect to the war in Iraq, it doesn't make any difference. Meanwhile electoral turn-out goes down and down and the politicians profess themselves baffled. I'm pretty sure this isn't the system we were told we had by the Whigs.

You may by now be wondering what the academic hook of all this is. Well. That was a protest in the streets, and at the very least constituted an obstruction to the public. We in the towers of academe are safe from such things, right? Well, unless you're a student. Or actually involved in a protest yourself, in Barcelona, where both teachers and pupils have been speaking out and demonstrating against the Bologna process by which Continental European higher qualifications are currently being unified. Then, apparently, you can have the police baton charge your sit-in at five thirty in the morning, and confiscate all phones and camera-like devices so that, unlike the unfortunate British police, they don't get caught on camera chucking students to the ground. (That link in Catalan: there is an almost-but-not-quite-useless translator widget in the right-hand sidebar.) Except that they do, as the following video shows.

That's not threatening the social order or impeding global finance. That's a sit-in about a syllabus change. This being Catalonia, the fact that that's a syllabus change imposed by the national government from whom the area wants separation, and beyond them from the EU via that government, makes it rather more political. But it's still about a syllabus change, in the end. And for that they can get baton-charged, beaten up and arrested, for complaining about the content of the service for which they are paying or even providing. What also worries me about this is the type of commentary that that's earned the protestors on YouTube. This variant (later, longer, and less pleasant) video of some of the violence, for example, has picked up some even more unfriendly comments than its title, which is, I quote for full value,"Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra Police kicking some whinny Marxist punks in Barcelona, Spain". (The comments also include a Catalan being told he comes from Spain so speaks Spanish, even though he says he doesn't, which is objectionable in a whole extra range of ways.) Fancy this happening in your faculty? I'd quite like a post in Barcelona, so those are my potential students those policemen are kicking in. Angry yet? I am. And it's not like Barcelona's the only place where students are protesting; the sleepy UK relies on adults for its protesting now, and if the USA still has student demos they don't seem to get press coverage over here, but there're plenty of other places: Colombia, Poland, Spain, Japan, Finland, Croatia... It's a long long way to go yet before people can speak and publish what they like, even in the supposedly affluent and enlightened West, and if you think that academia is somehow exempt and you don't need to worry, then I'm afraid it'll cost you any sense that academia is a global community yet.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Pedro Pérez - 4/27/2009

The way that the Catalan official discourse sells the Succession War, the Borbón dynasty, the 1936-39 Civil War, and the Franco dictatorship is victimhood all the way.

The official line is "Spain attacked us". Actually, both wars were civil wars. Spain was split, Catalonia was split. Were not Madrid, Valencia, Málaga, Almería...heavily bombarded by Franco?

The official Catalan discourse about the Franco dictartoship is "we had a very bad time, at school and at university we could not be taught in the Catalan language, only in Spanish".

Well, from the South of Spain I would say, "Lucky you". At least you could attend school. My grandparents could not attend any school, in any language. There were no schools and they had to work full time since childhood. They would have loved to be taught to read and write, and maths, and history, and geography, in any language.

If Catalonia want to complain about Franco's era, please go to the back of the line: my grandparents had no schooling at all, no running water, no electricity, no radio to listen or newspapers to read, no hospitals, no steady incomes, no insurance covers.

So, do not expect any affection when the richest part of the country complains about their "bad time" during Franco's era. That's the problem with the victim-syndrome, you cannot see how other people are coping with life.

Pedro Pérez - 4/27/2009

That's akin to unilateraly breaking a marriage but wanting to keep expenses together.

First, incoherent. If Spain is not good enough for you to remain together, why do you want to be in the Spanish league?

And second, childish. Have they thought about the other partner? It is childish to expect that the snubbed spouse will be happy to share expenses with you.

And that's precisely my broader point. The pro-independent Catalans sell a fictional scenario. All benefits, zero problems.

The pro-independence Catalans want to break away from Spain but they think they can remain in the Spanish league, and in the Spanish economy (their bigger market by large). Ask any Catalan businessman what she thinks of independece and they will tell you that the Spanish market is the only market that matters. So, in theory they would like independence, but as pragmatic businessmen they hope that it will never happen. Obviously they are afraid to say it loudly in Catalonia.

We (the rest of Spain) buy Catalan Cava sparkling wine not because it is better than French Champagne or because it offers better value than Chilean one, but because we have an emotional bond to it, since childhood, because it is Catalan AND Spanish.

Spain may account to 70-80% of the Catalan market. The victim-sydrome of much of the Catalan political parties makes them blind about the costs of breaking away.

And again, I am happy with anyone promoting independece, but it is childish not to expect costs.

Jonathan Jarrett - 4/27/2009

I don't myself regard it as impossible to be both Catalan and Spanish—I mean, all Catalans who currently hold a Spanish passport must admit this at some level even if they don't like it—but I do find it fascinating the way that the political discourse polarises that out of existence. For example, your point about the 1713 speeches is fair, but what is remembered, or at least memorialised, in Barcelona, is not that speech but the following siege of the city and its eventual capture by a Franco-Spanish army. That is, the way it's presented is, `well, we tried joining in with Spain and that just got us beat up from both directions'. This has of course rather been hyped up lately because the city fell on September 11th... And similarly, while you are right to stress that Catalonia has always been rich and better able to stand up for itself than, for example, the similar movements in Galicia, it has also repeatedly been a warground not just for people attacking it but for every conflict between France and Spain and several of Spain's divisions against itself. It's easy for both insiders and outsiders to find ways to see themselves as victims.

Interestingly from the point of view of what one can manage to understand from an outside perspective, the point of view of the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland is precisely that one can be both Northern Irish and British. People viewing the situation from outside often disagree...

J A Hofmann - 4/24/2009

They wouldn't have to leave the Spanish League, unless UEFA, FIFA, and the Spanish FA said so. After all, Monaco plays in the French league.

Pedro Pérez - 4/24/2009

The key question is if you can be both Catalan and Spanish, which you seem to regard impossible.

The Socialist Party and the Popular Party got 60% of the vote at the last General Elections (2008). And they do not want independence.

CiU (pro-independence but pragmatic about it) and ERC (clearly pro-independence) got 30% of the vote.

Now, if you consider that the only "Catalan" parties are CiU and ERC then yes, "Catalans" want independence. But what about the 60% of the Catalans who voted for the Socialists and the Popular Party? Are they not Catalans?

The relationship between Spain and Catalonia has never been that of Northern Ireland, where you are either Irish or British.

For centuries, Catalans have felt Catalans and Spanish. For example, Rafael Casanova (heroe of the independence sector) when addressing his troops fighting Felipe V in 1713, said "we fight for the Spanish nation". He considered himself Catalan and Spanish, altough he wanted a different king for Spain.

I am writing from the south of Spain and I am little fed up with some Catalans portraying themselves as victims of the rest of Spain. They are one the richest part of Spain, and definitely they had a better time than my grandparents. Protectionism meant that for centuries the rest of Spain could only buy basic goods (garments and food) from Catalonia. They enriched themselves with their own hard work, sure, but with a little help from the economic policy of the Bourbon dynaysty and of Franco. Now they want to re-write history and portray themselves as victims?

And I believe that history is an accident. If 500 years ago, kings and queens had gotten into different marriages or had sons instead of daughters, then maybe Catalonia could have been independent, or maybe Portugal and Spain could have been together, or maybe we could have 6 nations in the Iberian Peninsula. Who knows? There is no destiny in history.

Anyway, this is the view from the south of Spain. If I were named Pere instead of Pedro, and Catalan-speaking, my views would be probably different.

And finally, I do not mind if Catalonia wants to be independent. But they need a clear majority (60-70%, not 51%) and obviuosly of the whole population.

...And (jokingly but not that much)they would need to get out of the Spanish Football League! No more Real Madrid-Barcelona, or Atlético, or Valencia or Sevilla. If you want to be independent, go the full way and play your own league.

Amazing but true, explaining that Barcelona is leaving the Spanish League is probably the most difficult hurdle to overcome by the pro-independent advocates.

Jonathan Jarrett - 4/24/2009

Esprit d'escalier, I'm sorry. I should have said, in that post which readers here aren't looking at, "jailed for singing it in public". Of course given who the detainee was in that case I imagine there were other reasons for detaining him, but do you think they were adequate? and where do you yourself fit into this particular political imbroglio, if so?

Jonathan Jarrett - 4/24/2009

The question of who is a Catalan, by the way, is a very interesting one, as the law of the Generalitat defines it by language, as perhaps you know. This would make it very hard for a substantial part of the population of the area to be considered Catalan by the Catalan government itself. I'm not saying that's commendable either.

Jonathan Jarrett - 4/24/2009

I was in Catalonia at the time of the last Spanish general election. None of the Catalan political parties whose posters I saw failed to include a statement about how quickly or slowly they would press for independence. The status quo was obviously not electable. Of course, these were Catalan parties not Spanish ones so that would be a part of their appeal. But the pro-Spanish statements were not being made. It may be that the administration is more progressive on this front than is the population!

As for the bits about Franco, I'd be grateful if just to minimise everyone's confusion including mine you commented on what I wrote elsewhere there and what I've written here here, but I'll reconsider that bit of the linked post. I don't see however that apart from the possible urban myth I said anything to which your third paragraph is an answer.

Jonathan Jarrett - 4/24/2009

Whereupon 2,500+ people took to the streets in protest against the police violence, as described in that very article! What did they know that you don't? And are you saying that the police reaction was appropriate?

Pedro Pérez - 4/24/2009

How can you say that Catalonia wants separation from Spain? Some Catalans want separation from Spain. According to polls, maybe 30%. What about the remaining 70%? Are they not Catalans?

By the way, Franco was a dictator, no doubt about that, but no one went to jail for speaking Catalan on the streets. That's a myth, an urban legend.

And he was supported by as many Catalans as he was opposed to. Do you know how Pascual Maragall's father referred to the conquer of Barcelona by Franco's troops on his memoirs: "the liberation". That's the way that middle and upper classes saw him. A liberator from anarchists and communists who were killing suspected burgeois. Read George Orwell for clarification.

Pedro Pérez - 4/24/2009

A syllabus protest in Barcelona? Well, a few radical students had been blocking University premises for 3 months! 50 radical students were disrupting academic life for thousands of students. After 3 months of squatting, police took them out of university premises.

Here is the link to El País, a left-leaning newspaper.