Government delegate in Madrid: “Predicting the anti-mask demonstration would have been impossible”

José Manuel Franco tells EL PAÍS that Sunday's protest in Colón square was communicated to the authorities as being about other issues, such as freedom of expression during the coronavirus pandemic

Central government delegate in Madrid José Manuel Franco.
Central government delegate in Madrid José Manuel Franco.Julian Rojas

On Sunday, more than 2,500 people attended a demonstration in Madrid’s Colón square to protest the obligatory use of face masks in Spain, a measure introduced by the authorities in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many people present not only failed to observe social-distancing measures, but also took off their masks, chanting slogans such as: “We want to see the virus,” “We have no fear,” “Freedom, freedom,” and “It is 5G that kills.”

The day after the protest, the police had managed to identify more than 30 people present in order to issue them with fines, and are seeking more of the attendees via videos of the event. EL PAÍS spoke to José Manuel Franco, the central government’s delegate in the capital, about the events of Sunday.

Question. What took place for thousands of people to end up like that in the center of Madrid, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in Spain?

Answer. In the heart of the crowds, right in the center, the idea came about of taking masks off -- those who were wearing them, because there were some who had already taken them off. The police cordoned off the area, creating a perimeter, and stopping them from occupying areas surrounding Colón square, which would have created an added public health risk. What the police couldn’t do, as some would have liked, was to charge against or dissolve the protest. If it had been dissolved, that would have seen them disperse in areas close to Colón, meaning we would have multiplied the risk for public health. It was completely irresponsible, absolutely unacceptable and unforgivable what some people did when they went to that demonstration. Madrileños have been exemplary with their responsibility and common sense during the pandemic, and they don’t deserve people putting in danger not just their own health, but also that of the rest of the Madrileños. That is why we are going to act with the full force of the law.

They said that they would guarantee social distancing, and that there would even be people there to remind others, with information on signs

Q. Why was the demonstration allowed?

A. The delegation does not authorize [protests], it takes note that they will be happening. When they advised us that they wanted to demonstrate, at no point did the organizers cite their rejection of masks. They said they were demonstrating against the use of the armed forces, censorship in the press, in favor of freedom of expression… They never even mentioned masks. What’s more, they said that they would guarantee social distancing, and that there would even be people there to remind others, with information on signs. There was no reason for alarm. It is true that on social media, some were talking about taking off their masks, just like there were others who were saying that they had to wear them with slogans on them. Obviously, the delegation has to be guided by objective criteria, and not what people might be saying online. And there were no circumstances to stop the exercising of a fundamental right.

Crowds at Sunday's anti-mask protest in Madrid's Colón square.
Crowds at Sunday's anti-mask protest in Madrid's Colón square.Javier Ramírez (Europa Press)

Q. Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida said on Monday: “What the delegation cannot do is express its indignation at this time for what happened in Colón square, given that it has the powers to have avoided it.” What do you say to that?

A. Within the political, personal and institutional respect that I have for the mayor, I would say that he should read the text that was sent to us ahead of the celebration of the protest, and I am sure that he, who is an intelligent person, would not have said what he said.

Q. How many people were identified so that they could be fined?

A. More than 30 were identified. Now we are trying to identify more via videos to potentially fine them. When we have all of the information, they will be fined to make an example of them. This cannot happen again in Madrid. We can’t allow for the government delegation to be deceived, saying that they are demonstrating for one reason, without mentioning the masks, only to then stage a coven of anti-maskers. This will not be allowed.

Q. Why weren’t more people identified at the time?

A. That is something that some people have been asking. I’ve always championed the professionality of the police, who acted proportionately, advising and suggesting that people put their masks on. But the idea of revindicating not using masks happened in the center of the demonstration. And if the police had tried to reach that focal point, I believe that the consequences would have been much worse.

Q. How can we avoid something like this from happening again?

A. We will have to take maximum caution when gathering information [about a protest]. The delegation demanded that they maintain social distancing, wore masks… They did not do that. That is why they will now be fined. But predicting that this would happen was completely impossible.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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