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Isolating the violent protestors

The debate over security at demonstrations needs to go beyond dismissals and restructuring

It is not often that urban guerrilla groups manage to disturb the peace. Of the 25,461 public acts of protest and street demonstrations held last year, the police intervened in just 0.1 percent of cases. The head of the National Police, Ignacio Cosidó, who revealed these figures in Congress, is right to say that the vast majority of demonstrations are peaceful.

What is hard to understand, considering this diagnosis, is the preventive state of alarm that has been created against a presumed excess of street protests, and the toughening of legal measures aimed at increasing the government’s ability to issue sanctions.

A disaster such as the one that took place in Madrid on March 22, when 101 people were injured during a “dignity march,” raises questions about citizen safety strategies. The prime reason, and the most obvious one, for the violence that occurred that day was the presence of a few hundred radicals who were well organized and employed urban guerrilla tactics.

The disaster of March 22 raises questions about citizen safety strategies

But the chief of police also admits to “failures of coordination, communication and execution” during the crowd control operation, which ended with 67 injured police officers. Most of these were isolated and attacked by the radicals after failing to receive assistance from their colleagues despite the size of the deployment: 1,700 officers. This figure may not come close to the 8,000 officers sent out to protect a European Central Bank meeting in Barcelona in 2012, but still constitutes one of the largest security turnouts in recent years.

The events of that day triggered the recent announcement that the riot police unit will be reorganized and a mid-level official – the head of the first Madrid Police Intervention Unit – removed from his post. This measure has been deemed insufficient by the opposition and by several police unions.

Beyond this debate, the incidents of March 22 raise questions regarding prevention measures and early intelligence about radical groups that may be very small in size, yet able to take their acts of violence to previously unseen levels, and of whose existence the Interior Ministry was aware. Controlling and isolating these urban guerrillas is not just in the government’s best interest, but also benefits the citizen groups that have every right to demonstrate peacefully and to reject the kind of violence that puts them in danger, too.

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