There is no shortage of photographs of riot police containing protests against austerity measures instituted by various countries in the European Union, from Germany to Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and beyond, including most recently Turkey, which has made application to join the EU. And there is nothing particularly distinctive about the vast majority of these images as they pit generally youthful and bedraggled unemployed protestors against state security forces dressed in black riot gear that might well be the late modern version of medieval armor, prominently wielding riot shields, batons and tear gas grenades. The conflict marked by these photographs is altogether generic and but for the occasional signage in Greek or French or Slovenian they are all interchangeable with one another. They could be anywhere in Europe, a feature that contributes to naturalizing the image as it signifies an “other” world wholly distinct from the US. And at least one implication is, “it can’t happen here.”
The photograph above caught my eye because despite the fact that it is similar in many regards to the numerous other such images of European austerity protests it is distinctive in one important respect that warrants our attention. Shot outside the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona it shows Spanish police forces advancing on Spanish firefighters with their riot batons raised. What makes this image distinct is not so much the aggressive stance taken by the police—as disturbing as the poised baton, ready to strike, is—but the fact that they appear to be attacking other civil servants who are also sworn agents of the State. In short, we are not just witnesses to an instance of civic unrest; rather, we are spectators of a more profound, extreme civic disorder that borders on something like mutiny or perhaps even civil war. Put simply, we are viewing the State fighting against itself in a manner that challenges the very legitimacy of whatever it is that the police officers are “defending.” One can only wonder how long a State can persist under such conditions?
Austerity hounds in the US have faced a number of strong challenges in recent weeks stemming from the fact that the economic scholarship which presumed to ground their case has been proven to be seriously flawed. This has not stopped them from repeating their mantra, that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.” There are good reasons why the fiscal crisis in the US is different than that in the EU and thus the analogy doesn’t apply all that directly. That said, the photograph above suggests one of the potential risks of too austere a response to the recession that we certainly don’t want to see in the US. We probably don’t face a strong likelihood of this happening at the present moment as unemployment and other signs of large scale economic improvement like housing prices seem to be rebounding—albeit at a snail’s pace; but if those pushing for something on the order of the Ryan Budget in the House were to get their way it is not impossible to imagine how a growing number of “have not’s” could be pushed to the outer limits of their ability to sustain themselves. And if that were to happen images very much like the one above might become more than just a bad nightmare, giving a different meaning to the plaint that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.”
Photo Credit: Paco Serenelli/AP