Demonstrations known in Spanish as escraches, which involve noisy protests on the doorsteps of politicians, look set to become just another instrument of politics in Spain. But they are simply unacceptable. Protests must not be carried into the private ambit. The voters do not elect a politician’s relatives and neighbors, and they should not be implicated in forms of pressure that include jeering, booing and insults intended to humiliate. In a public space one cannot, of course, curb a citizen’s freedom of expression. They have every right to pressure the government to act or vote in a particular way, without violence and according to the law.
The discredit of politicians is reaching alarming levels, but this cannot justify the degradation of social coexistence at the expense of due respect for persons. The Constitution and the law protect freedom of assembly, as they do the right to strike. In this sense, the violent “agent provocateur” has long been an unpredictable feature of protests. Public gatherings cannot now be directed against politicians on the doorsteps of their homes, as they have been in the past on the doorsteps of abortion clinics, and tomorrow, perhaps, against teachers who fail their students. Similarly, a labor conflict takes the form of demonstrations in or near the company premises, but not at the owner’s personal domicile.
It is true that the defense of the victims of evictions is a popular cause that enjoys wide public support. Evictions have expanded hugely in this country, and to throw people out into the street, without any social protection, produces vehement public rejection. But we should not forget the so-called “acts of repudiation” in Cuba, or in Argentina, where the escraches — a word borrowed from the underworld slang of Buenos Aires — began with public pillorying of officers implicated in the dictatorship, and soon spread to politicians and journalists. Spain is not a dictatorship, or a “low-intensity” democracy of fixed elections. It does need far-reaching and important reforms. To generalize collective harassment of persons will not be helpful in this urgent task.
Nor must the government and the PP give way to nervousness, though undesirable situations have arisen. They should not venture to criminalize escraches, as if they were the vandalistic, violent kale borroka disturbances in the Basque Country. The problem cannot be solved by merely unleashing prosecutors and police against the protestors. What is needed is the opening of channels between citizens and their representatives, so that the aspirations of these groups can find legitimate public advocacy in the working places of the politicians. An authoritarian drift is unacceptable: to ask of the deputies that they break with their party’s voting discipline is not a crime; nor can this discipline be equated with the military kind. A deputy’s personal liberty is important, but the citizen’s freedom of expression cannot be truncated for its sake.
The nonchalance with which parliament shrugs off popular initiatives for legislation, with no explanations offered, is another element of stress. The deputy must change his vote not out of fear of escraches at his door, or harassment of his family, but because he has previously listened to what the protestors have to say. It is, indeed, his duty to devote much of his time to listening to them. One of the reasons adduced to justify so many empty seats in the Congress chamber is that their occupants are devoting attention to the citizens they represent. And the citizens, if they are ignored, have every right to protest, peacefully, in front of the workplaces of the politicians. Not in front of their homes or families.