Yesterday, Spain’s Attorney General, María Dolores Segarra, said that she sees no offence in either the placement of yellow ribbons or their removal. Superficially, this might seem reasonable, but it takes no account of any symbols other than yellow ribbons or how these symbols might have been put in place or taken down, which is where the conflict lies and is deliberately created. The Attorney General’s contribution was disingenuous and unhelpful, like a weary parent refusing to get involved in a childish quarrel, except that she is the Attorney General and violence is being used to purge the streets of yellow.

‘The neutrality of public spaces’ is something only ever discussed in terms of gender neutrality in normal places. The idea that public spaces should be free of political, cultural and ideological expression is a curious idea I’ve never really considered. Perhaps we should also include all commercial messages too. I didn’t know the ideological neutrality of public spaces was even a thing. Nowhere I’ve ever been have I thought that I don’t like something because it isn’t neutral and then set about destroying it in order to neutralise the space. It seems demented. The concept has come from Spanish political party Ciudadanos to justify their campaign to eliminate any symbols in support of Catalonia’s political prisoners or in favour of Catalonia’s independence from public thoroughfares.

These symbols are put in place openly by people making no attempt to hide their identity. Yellow ribbons, posters and banners are put up to protest against the imprisonment and exile of Catalan politicians and civil leaders. These symbols call for their release, for freedom and for democracy.

They are normally cut down and destroyed at night, sometimes on private property. Those that remove them use headwear to avoid identification and tools to do so – such as knives, cutters, scissors, long-handled pruners and shears, solvents, and of course ladders. Numerous people have been assaulted and many verbally abused on suprising such groups during organised acts of obvious vandalism, destruction of private property and theft involving the material being removed.

The people involved in these clandestine operations to ‘cleanse’ public spaces range from Ciudadanos representatives and activists to members of the Spanish security forces, via well-known members of far-right groups, many of whom have long criminal records for a wide range of offences. The groups are organised and in some cases bankrolled.

Is it really the same thing to put up such symbols and to take them down? Isn’t the way in which it is done of paramount legal importance? Many very obvious offences have been committed during the removal of these symbols. These offences should be prosecuted.

It should not be forgotten either that their removal has been promoted by Spanish national political party campaigns. Ciudadanos has actively encouraged a form of vigilantism that surely has no place in a modern European society. When Catalan president, Quim Torra, calls for the Catalan police to be more proactive in prosecuting the offences committed, Ciudadanos call this ‘repression’, ironic really considering the numbers of arrests, imprisonments and exiles of pro-independence politicians, civil leaders and their supporters over the past year in Catalonia; they call the Mossos d’Esquadra the ‘political police’ and even encourage their squads of ‘cleansers’ to disobey the police in their so-called ‘operations to neutralise the public space’ and in their declared quest to restore ‘order and security’ to the streets that they themselves have filled with the disorderly and made insecure.

It doesn’t matter if anyone gets hurt. In fact, it’s desirable. The idea is to create fear, inhibit, intimidate and silence those whose beliefs have been criminalised. The abuse is coming not just from Spanish unionists and nationalists on the streets but also from the leaders and representatives of certain unionist parties in the media and political forums. The Spanish authorities are allowing all this to happen because it forms part of a bigger plan. This has little place in modern politics, but politics has actually had little to do with events in Spain in the past year.

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