The police in Lavapiés are not here to protect us

On Good Friday morning in Lavapiés, two young black men were filmed by a passerby being violently forced to the ground by police officers. One officer placed a man in a chokehold position while another officer beat his lower back until he was flat on the ground.

In the video, the same officer attempts to floor a second man by striking him in his throat with a baton – a technique prohibited in 2020. The man falls to a crouching position and the officer appears to try and place him in a chokehold. The officer makes numerous attempts to apprehend the unarmed man, who shows no sign of resistance until the final moment where he struggles free of the officer and runs away.

The reason given for the police intervention, according to Europa Press, was that the two men were “undermining authority.” This rule falls under Spain’s ‘Gag Law’, passed in 2015 to increase police powers following mass protests around the country. The legislation states that any form of disrespect towards the authorities could carry a fine or even criminal sentence and has been called “a direct threat to the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in Spain” by Human Rights Watch. 

Despite this, hundreds of thousands of people have been charged under this law in the past nine years. In 2020 alone, there were 14,782 fines under Article 37.04 on (displaying lack of respect to the police) amounting to a total of €2,384,693. Fines for disobeying or resisting authority or failing to identify oneself (Article 36.03) grew 20-fold between 2019 and 2020, from 12,645 to 243,001, according to Media Freedom Rapid Response. Both Articles are also frequently used against journalists, in particular photojournalists.

The ‘Gag Law’ is an extreme and disproportionate response to something entirely subjective and that rarely contains any substantial evidence, and Prime minister Pedro Sánchez has repeatedly promised a reform. However, almost a decade later, little has changed and Spain’s police force has continued being able to act with impunity. As a result, they have grown ever more powerful, arrogant and violent. 

It is no surprise that the video shared last week provoked outrage in Spain. What is surprising, however, given the intimidation around filming the police, is that a video emerged at all, and that it successfully went viral without being restricted. 

The footage has been shared by millions across social media, by every Spanish newsroom and even international papers, making the headlines in the Guardian. On Sunday evening, less than 36 hours after the incident, around 500 people gathered on Plaza Lavapiés in protest against police violence in the neighbourhood. Activists and left-wing political parties have demanded an investigation into the incident, and the government’s Ministry of Interior has agreed to an inquiry. 

But while we can celebrate the widespread recognition of this incident of police violence, we must keep up its momentum because, in Lavapiés, actions like this happen all the time – they’re just not always recorded.

Every day, people in Lavapiés are racially profiled by officers and then held up against a wall, or a car bonnet or a shop shutter and aggressively searched, apprehended, pinned to the ground or even beaten or choke-held. As a result, many people in the neighbourhood have developed an instinctive distrust of the police and one way in which this manifests is resistance to arrest.

In the video, despite one of the men initially behaving calmly, both ultimately resisted police intervention, even though this almost always escalates force used against them. Where trust in the police has been eroded, resistance is linked to survival, especially when the interaction is between a white officer and a racialised member of the public. 

In Lavapiés, many residents are undocumented migrants and their first interaction with Spain’s authorities was EU border control. This is a notoriously violent unit whose actions are routinely connected to the deaths or injuries of people attempting to cross the borders from north Africa to Spain.

For example, on June 23, 2022, at least 37 people were killed attempting to cross from Africa to Europe. It has been dubbed the Melilla Massacre. Most victims were from Sudan, South Sudan and Chad – countries involved in armed conflicts. If the victims had made it to Spain, they would likely have received international protection. Instead, authorities formed a massive human block locking in those who were falling from the wire fences. They were trapped on a slope by the border fence on the Moroccan side and were crushed to death.

The violence was recorded by photojournalists showing Moroccan authorities entering Spain to capture and return people who had successfully crossed over. Officers can also be seen throwing rocks and smoke bombs at the victims, causing stampedes. Videos of perhaps 100 people emerged, lying shoulder-to-shoulder and head-to-toe on the ground – some wounded, some dead. Medics were refused access to treat the wounded, resulting in many more preventable deaths.

Let’s go back further to the death of Mame Mbaye in 2018. Police report that officers found the young Senegalese man lying on the ground outside his home in Lavapiés. They claim they tried to resuscitate him, but various bystanders and friends of Mame claim that officers had chased him down, causing him to suffer a heart attack while repeatedly saying, “I can’t take anymore.”

A riot in Lavapiés ensued and property was damaged by around 100 protestors. Police created a frontline descending through the neighbourhood. One officer was filmed knocking a black man unconscious with a baton – he’d been clinging to a lamppost begging in his native language to not be hit. He was taken to hospital but is reported to have recovered. Two years later, police were prohibited from hitting the head or neck.

During summer last year, the police launched a “campaign of visibility.” Officers pull up in their vehicles and perform raids on squares in Lavapiés, hemming in black and brown migrants as they sweep for drugs and documents. Every day, around 40% of officers on shift in the whole of Madrid are deployed to Lavapiés, and the entire neighbourhood echoes with sirens, and officers stand in formation holding machine guns at their chest. It feels like we’re constantly under critical terror threat, but only during the day. There are almost no officers patrolling at night, which is when most crimes happen. This operation does not equate to safety – only visibility.

And it’s not just undocumented migrants who fear this inconsistent and dramatic police intervention. Watching how individual officers treat racialised members of the public in my neighbourhood makes me fearful that I could also end up randomly being pinned to the ground. This loss of trust is not in my head, it’s not in anyone’s head – it’s a reality. 

Since Spain’s ‘Gag Law’ was passed, Spain’s police force has grown more and more violent, especially in Lavapiés. The police are not here to protect us, they are here to control us, harass us and hate us. We are at a tipping point, and this institutional culture of violence and racism simply cannot continue. 


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