Public Protests, Public Defense

Illustre Collegi d'Advocats de Barcelona - SpainProtesters across Spain have begun the work of cleaning the plazas they have occupied for weeks, and of extending the movements and national and international organizing ‘into the neighborhoods’, and into new kinds of forums. On the 16th of June, protesters in Barcelona assembled in the plaza San Jaume, in front of the Parliament of Barcelona, throwing insults and objects at politicians as they entered the building from motorcades, the backs of police vehicles, and in several helicopter flights. Confrontations between police and protesters, beginning early in the day, resulted in many injuries and more than two dozen arrests. The movement M15 has also invited citizens to participate in marches and protests in Barcelona for the 19th of June. In the days that followed, tensions between government officials, police and protesters, as well as accusations launched from all sides, have soared. Listening to the radio, talking to friends and scanning the hundreds of comments that follow online Catalan daily coverage of these events, it is clear that not everyone supports M-15. While many may agree with some of the movement’s claims, public sentiment fans across many lines of alignment and disagreement with the protesters’ actions. And amidst all of the political chaos in Spain and Europe, Democracia Real Ya has repeated its commitment to nonviolence. This is not 1968.

The economic and social context of 2011 differs considerably from the late sixties. A highly educated population cannot be absorbed into the workforce, with youth unemployment in Spain the highest in Europe. The representatives of the Torn d’Ofici i Asistencia al Detingut of the Barcelona Bar Association (Il.lustre Col.legi d’Advocats de Barcelona) with whom I spoke this week, responsible for coordinating public defense in Barcelona, described receiving increasing numbers of petitions from persons unable to pay mortgages and without other places to turn. Minorities, including North African minorities; who may have had less contact with the legal system in the past are now, pushed into contact with the judicial system in new ways. The publicity that North African minorities have received with respect to low levels of achievement in the Catalan education system has fueled the public perception of this group as a problem to be solved.

The public defense system in Catalunya and Spain has a long history, the first incidences and provisions for its use can be found in Las Siete Partidas, a legal code written by lawyers of Alfonso X in the 13th century. The system had an important presence during the Franco regime as well, and is currently piloting new mediation projects to ease the burden on an overloaded official legal system. The waiting room of the offices of the Torn d’Ofici was completely full when I arrived, with probably more than sixty persons waiting to see the legal experts who will assess whether their cases merits legal representation. Based on these decisions, another set of staff at the office works to connect these people with the appropriate legal advisor.

The Ciutat de Justicia, where the Torn d’Ofici is located, is a huge complex of buildings in l’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a municipality at the edge of Barcelona, near the airport. The buildings are massive and the lens I was using could not do them justice. Instead, the photo above is of the Il.lustre Col.legi d’Advocats de Barcelona, the Barcelona Bar Association that has been my primary contact in Barcelona, and to which I am greatly indebted.

Posted by Johanna Lenkner – PhD Candidate in Anthropology at NYU

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