A series of unfortunate events
On Saturday afternoon, there was a fight outside the Ciutadella Park in Barcelona that sparked the umpteenth politico-media storm of the past year in Spain. It had all the ingredients of previous incidents in the Catalan Countries: ideological difference, violence and irresponsible politicians. However, this time the violence had allegedly come from an “indepe” and the victim was a unionist. The aggressor was a Catalan man and the victim a Russian woman. It was, on the surface, what unionists had been waiting for.
Unsurprisingly, they were impatient to make the most of this apparent proof of their long-held, but far-fetched narrative: that the pro-indy movement is violent and racist, just not visibly so. Unfortunately for them, things are not always quite as they seem, and Ciudadanos and Partido Popular (PP) politicians embarrassed themselves again with an excessive haste to use the incident to their political advantage. However, neither party seems to care as long as they manage to steal a few headlines.
According to the version of the man involved in the scuffle, he had taken his mother out for some air in her wheelchair and come across a woman with her children who were removing yellow bows tied on railings and throwing them on the ground. He berated them for littering the pavement and threatened to call the local police. She faced him down and carried on. By his own admission, he turned her face towards him to make her look at him while he was talking to her. She kicked him in the testicles and he hit her, presumably in the face. On realising that she was Russian, he had told her to go back to her country, to which she had replied that she was more Spanish than him. They became involved in a scuffle and fell to the ground. They were then separated by the woman’s partner. He says that he then tried to calm down and left with his relative, hurriedly according to witnesses. She followed them, filming them on her phone, at which point police officers, who had been stationed nearby, arrived at the scene.
An appalling incident, certainly, the kind of incident the police have to waste stupid amounts of time on every day, and which normally result in no action being taken due to there being some fault on both sides, or perhaps end with a caution. Very few such incidents end up in court with claim and counter-claim cancelling each other out. Much depends on the damage done and how much blame is ultimately laid at the door of the woman. I would hate to be the assailant now, seeing his shameful racism and violence plastered all over the national news. Inexcusable and embarrassing, but hardly events that justified the level of coverage and some of the reaction. In his interview, he expressed great regret and claimed that his behaviour had been completely out of character. He also claimed to be unwell and suffer from depression.
The man’s version of events was given to a journalist late in the evening, but is generally supported by the police version which was reported hours earlier in La Vanguardia newspaper, at around 6 pm to be precise:
Assault on woman because her children were removing yellow bows wasn’t politically motivated
A man admonished the children for “making the city dirty” and shouted at the woman who was assaulted, who was of Russian nationality, to go back to her country
Of mountains and molehills
The only problem with “the truth” was that the social and news media had already been full of the woman and her partner’s version of events for several hours. As he is a Ciudadanos activist and had reported the incident via Ciudadanos official channels, it had been picked up on by party leaders and they were hard at work making the most of the incident. I imagine a lowly Ciudadanos activist excited at the prospect of the kudos he was going to get for finding the Holy Grail. It looked like manna from heaven: at last an unprovoked assault on one of their number for ideological reasons, the long-awaited confirmation of “independentist violence”, far too good an opportunity to miss by waiting a few hours, or even days, for all the facts to come out. The original tweet from Ciudadanos in Ciutat Vella made the assumption that the assault was motivated by the removal of yellow bows and stated that the woman’s “nasal septum” had been broken.
Sharing the tweet, Ciudadanos leader in Catalonia, Inés Arrimadas, set about dressing it up in the party’s well-worn “victims of separatism” narrative, with a heavy dose of hyperbole. The continued presence of the pinned tweet a day after the full facts were known shows that facts are of no importance to Ciudadanos and being once again caught wilfully twisting events is of little concern, their purpose being to stoke the “violent independentists” myth:
A woman’s nose has been broken in front of her children for removing yellow bows in Barcelona. Mr Sánchez, there’s no “normality” here. Defend the millions of Catalans who are being attacked by separatism and stop covering up for those who would destroy peaceful coexistence in Catalonia
“Millions of Catalans being attacked by separatism” is not just political rhetoric, it is what ordinary people normally call a downright lie. It is Ciudadanos’ stock in trade. The Partido Popular leader in Catalonia, Xavier García Albiol, was quick to jump on the manipulation bandwagon and went with:
I warned of this a few days ago. If @sanchezcastejon doesn’t take action in Catalonia this will end badly. It’s already happened, I’ve just spoken to a man whose wife’s nasal septum has just been broken, with a punch, for removing a yellow bow in Barcelona
The assumption is the same as the one made by the Ciudadanos militant, but instead of the “millions of victims” myth, Albiol decides on the prediction-cum-threat of great social confrontation, another classic of recent months, especially from the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, and Arrimadas herself.
Miquel Iceta, leader of the Partit Socialista de Catalunya (PSC), chose the more circumspect blanket condemnation of all violence regardless of ideology, as did Esquerra Repúblicana de Catalunya’s Pere Aragonès, the Catalan government’s Vice President and Minister of Economy on TV3:
Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, also condemned the assault and “all forms of violence, intolerance and xenophobia”, but at the same time quoted Arrimadas’ tweet and advised less haste and more caution when “interpreting such incidents for party political purposes with the intention of causing confusion and tension”:
Irritated by Colau’s implication that Ciudadanos had manipulated the assault, Arrimadas replied that, when well-known anti-fascist journalist, Jordi Borràs, had had his nose broken by a member of the National Police force to the cry of “Long live Spain!” and “Long live Franco!”, Colau had unreservedly condemned the attack, but now that Ciudadanos were reporting a comparable incident on a “constitutionalist woman”, she had doubts. Ciudadanos’ reputation for manipulation precedes them:
As far as national leaders go, only the Spanish right-wing nationalist leaders, Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos and Pablo Casado of the Partido Popular, tried to take advantage of the assault. Both shared the tweets of their leaders in Catalonia. This process of mirroring that the two almost indistinguishable young men of the Spanish right are currently engaged in is a curious spectacle. Each felt free to add a few embellishments of his own, of course.
A radical separatist has seriously assaulted the partner of a Cs colleague for removing yellow bows. My strongest condemnation, and my support to Lidia. Torra’s supremacist Catalonia has taken a dangerous turn, the State must protect the people now
The independentists’ legal and political confrontation spills over onto the street. The yellow bows provoke despicable assaults. I wouldn’t have let Torra enter the Moncloa with a symbol that insults the Rule of Law and Spanish democracy. The government should do something now.
Rivera and Casado introduce the third and missing part of the well-worn narrative: the Catalan president. According to Rivera, he is the supremacist leader of dangerous bands of pro-independence thugs that roam Catalonia victimising and assaulting respectable unionist activists. Casado, not to be outdone, sticks with the Partido Popular’s radical policy with Catalan governments since coming to power in 2011: don’t talk to them, put them in their place. What a successful policy that has turned out to be for the PP, who now find themselves in opposition with Ciudadanos, the newish version of themselves.
As more details of Saturday’s incident come out, there is still no evidence to support the “violent independentists” narrative, but a huge body of documentary evidence that what is actually happening in Catalonia is quite the opposite. Catalonia is a paradigm of what can happen in our post-truth world. Though staunchly claiming the inverse is true, Rivera and Arrimadas are actually leading a Spanish supremacist party, Ciudadanos, that encourages its militants to roam the country committing offences of varying seriousness in a campaign to silence legitimate protest, destroy acts of solidarity and intimidate “independentists”.
In a certain sector of the press which, unlike La Vanguardia, had not bothered to speak to the police or the man involved in the fight before publishing, a partial version of events was given that allowed the association to be made between the assault and the removal of yellow bows, though the assailant had insisted and La Vanguardia reported that he had taken objection to the littering of the space and not the removal of the bows. Most articles were at pains to point out the racist nature of his words before the assault. None, however, was prepared to go as far as Ciudadanos or the Partido Popular in their deliberately misleading accounts of the events, not even Libertad Digital, surely a sign of how low the two parties have fallen over this past year:
On social media, even greater poetic license was taken. There is a video where the face of the victim is hidden “for fear of reprisals” and she is alleged to have difficulty walking. The broken nose, that may turn out not to have been quite so broken after all, was graphically portrayed on several pages. In the absence of actual photos of the victim’s broken nose, people just pinched old pictures of broken noses and passed them off as hers. This one was plucked from a 2012 local news story from Cleveland, Ohio, about a girls’ night out gone wrong (as if reverse image searches didn’t take milliseconds to perform):
Once dubbed the “Marine Le Pen of the Basque Country”, infamous far-right blogger and well-known fascist, Yolanda Couceiro, performed the same trick with an informative piece on septoplasty surgery from 2013:
To give you an idea of her normal output, here are two of her customarily delirious pieces. In one, she argues that a bridge collapsed in Miami due to the fact that the architectural team were women, ignoring every engineering disaster with a male architect in the past five thousand years, and in the other reports on a German woman whose dog prevented her from being raped by an immigrant – you know, the kind of mysogynistic and racist fallacies the far-right specialises in across the continent:
To say the coverage lacked rigour would be a massive understatement. Certain assumptions were made regarding motivation and identity and liberties were taken with the details. Some elements of the story were just plain made up. The horrifying thing is that there is so little difference in the output of a delusional fascist blogger and leaders of mainstream political party leaders like Inés Arrimadas and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos, and Xavier García Albiol and Pablo Casado of the Partido Popular. I would love to know if any of the four actually believe any of the things they say.
* * *
It’s all about the creation of a narrative and it’s been going on since the pro-independence movement decided on a pacific path. This has always represented a massive problem for unionism. The first problem is legal and the solution has been lies and false imprisonment. The second problem is one of public perception and the solution has been to use news and social media, also to lie. Unionism never admits the lies and fake news, leaves it all posted and all Spaniards who want to believe it’s true will believe it’s true.
It began last summer with an avalanche of fake stories about independentism whilst all the time claiming Russian interference in the referendum. Although the frequency with which the phony stories appear has dropped, Saturday’s tale reflects the serious problem that exists in post-truth Spain, with political parties and the media willingly collaborating in propagandistic versions of events that often bear little relation to reality.
And it’s still all about violence: the non-existence of violence during the 20 September demonstration outside the Catalan government’s Economic department and the very real violence of the Spanish police to stop the 1 October referendum. It’s about the imprisoned and exiled, and remembering those absent leaders. It’s about the violence perpetrated on the streets to destroy all signs of that remembrance while claiming that the secessionists are just the same, that they have been violent too, even if there is no evidence to support it. No matter. If there is no evidence, just make it up. And this farce is played out over and over again.
On publishing, none of the incorrect information contained in the reports have been edited to reflect the actual events. None of the partisan rhetoric and the politicians’ statements on social media have been corrected or removed either, and no apologies have been forthcoming from any unionist politician who manipulated the event in a desperate attempt to prove the “independentist violence” narrative that has rung increasingly hollow over the year. Unionism needs stories that fit a narrative that’s proving so very difficult to sell in Catalonia and the rest of the world. It is difficult to find examples of a non-existent situation. In Spain, however, such stories are lapped up.
No, no apologies. On the contrary; Arrimadas never backs down and Ciudadanos always brazen things out. Not only do the original hysterically inaccurate social media posts remain, but a rally has also been called at the site of the assault for next Wednesday evening “to condemn violence and support the woman and her family”; note the huge but unapologetic shift in emphasis:
Unionism makes mountains out of molehills, blows out smokescreen after smokescreen and keeps everyone busy with nonsense, eyes off the issues, distracted from the politics and what the crisis is really about. News and social media are essential in achieving this. Generally low standards of journalism and low-quality broadcast media have resulted in a large part of the Spanish public being the only people in the world to have no idea what is actually going on in their own country. The truth of yesterday’s unpleasant episode will probably remain unknown to them too.
This is the Spain of reality show culture where five minutes of fame is within reach of all who desire it. Spain is a country where a fascist hooligan on parole for armed robbery and drug trafficking can be paraded on mainstream television networks as a victim of “separatist repression” and hobnob with politicians, and where a neo-nazi couple convicted for threats of harm can be called by the prime minister live on air to make sure that they have come to no harm. In this way, their acts of vandalism, abuse and assault are imbued with heroic qualities to give credibility to the same narrative. Spain is where the reactivation of the Historical Memory Law has brought a flood of Francoists to our daily diet of broadcast media. In short, there are fascist hooligans all over the Spanish media – as much amongst the “journalists” as the guests. Their offensive attitudes and incendiary opinions, their wild utterances and rabid hatred, make for excellent television and radio. And they would all have you believe that they are the victims.
Those that place bows, posters, banners do so in a open manner, and with no desire for five minutes of glory or media attention. In short, they do what they do with dignity, with no desire to offend, as an act of protest against what they feel to be great injustices. Those that seek to destroy these expressions of protest and solidarity do so as supporters of an anti-movement. Unionist politicians and figures not only encourage their unscrupulous footsoldiers to wander the streets trespassing, vandalising property, abusing and assaulting people, but actually take part in the the actions themselves.
The “anti” group destroys and provokes, but never gets the much hoped for violent reaction. The “anti” group paints itself as victim of an imaginary repression. The unionist message is to attack independentism and the result is attacks on independentists or people supporting Catalan political prisoners or exiles. The attacks are carried out with impunity and merely give rise to predictions and threats of confrontation from politicians.
Unionism has successfully turned the media and the Catalan parliament into a circus and encouraged thousands to lie, cheat, insult, abuse and assault for the cause, safe in the knowledge that nothing will happen to them. And the debate stays decidedly downmarket, with inordinate amounts of column space given over to trivial sensationalism. For Ciudadanos, this is the only way to keep themselves in the spotlight, languishing as they are in opposition in both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments. Such manipulation, promotion of vigilantism and general disregard for the law, while running the nazi-sounding “Security and Order” campaign has led to a loss in credibility.
Unionist parties have generally spent too little time disseminating perfectly reasonable unionist arguments and messages and far too much time starting fires, stoking hatred, sowing division and creating conflict. We will see at the next elections the success or failure of the strategy. Whatever its result in terms of political gains or losses, it is a strategy of questionable morality. Ciudadanos have become a stereotypical right-wing populist party of which there are so many on the rise across the continent. Ironically, Casado seems to be modelling the new PP on Ciudadanos. There is no substance, only slogans. There are no policies, just a hunger for power. There are no values, just a cynical exploitation of fear and prejudice.
This is the pathetic state that politics in Spain has been reduced to. To outsiders it seems too surreal to be true. Catalans will tell you that surreal became the new normal some time last autumn and that this autumn the crisis will deepen.