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A serious error in Valencia

Beating students taking part in a street demonstration is a disturbing step backward

Detachments of the National Police sowed chaos in Valencia over recent days by breaking up successive student demonstrations with disproportionate force, involving the arrest of dozens of people and the beating, manhandling and injury of many others — some young, some not so young.

What had begun last week as a protest by some dozens of students in a school in central Valencia against cutbacks in education, has developed into the occupation of the streets of several cities by massive crowds of the indignados movement in reaction to violent police charges. A dangerous escalation, particularly when no considerable property damage can be laid to the account of the supposed anti-system groups.

On the next day the interior minister admitted the possibility of some police “excesses,” only to rectify later and say that the only “excesses” were committed by the “radicals.” It is not clear what Fernández Díaz understands by “radicals.” But the beating of peaceful citizens calls for an immediate clarification of who deserves dismissal for this error.

The government delegate in Valencia, Paula Sánchez de León, who on Monday ventured to term these serious incidents an “anecdote,” is now sidestepping, saying that “there isn’t any phone call that comes from an office telling them to charge,” and that these decisions “are made on the street.” However, and under the same police chief who has held the post for the last four years — the one who on Monday described the students as “the enemy” — far more numerous demonstrations took place in Valencia last year, as part of the May 15 protest movement, without any violent repressive action by the police.

The SUP police union itself, even while terming the interior minister “cowardly” for admitting the possibility of some police excesses in Valencia, criticizes the Valencia police chief for “throwing gasoline on the fire” and “killing flies with cannonballs” in his handling of the Valencian crisis. The union points out that the police chief in question, Antonio Moreno, is an appointee of the previous Socialist government. Which is true, though it is also true that he is one of the few police chiefs who were not summarily dismissed by the new Popular Party government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In any case, the apparent determination to endorse the forces of public order in whatever they do, or to incite them to act with greater harshness, paints a picture that is both disturbing and incompatible with the function of the police in a modern society. The police must not confuse peaceful citizens with terrorists or other criminals, and must always use force in a proportionate manner. The good image of the Spanish police, reflected in many opinion polls, refers to police forces that help people and protect their rights, not to those who use the stick on them indiscriminately. If this is the mentality with which those now in power view a near future in which street demonstrations are likely to be frequent, we can only fear the worst.


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