Violence. The language of security during demonstrations

by Laura Santilli

If the right to publicly demonstrate is one of the highest expressions of the degree of freedom and health of a democracy, the violence with which demonstrations are repressed in Europe is now one of the indicators that the democratic process is in a deep crisis. Although this is not unique to Europe, this analysis aims to focus on European police forces and their different policing strategies in order to deconstruct the often governmental narrative of the use of violence by law enforcement as a guarantee of security and thus, protection of citizens.

1. Increase of demonstrations in Europe

Since 2010, after the outbreak of the economic and financial crisis in Greece, Europe has gradually become a protagonist of an increasing number of demonstrations and a consequent and parallel growth of crowd management tools and strategies that increasingly resort to an exponential and indiscriminate use of violence. The motivations that have prompted and ignited these demonstrations have often been internal, linked to constitutional changes in labour law, electoral law or cuts in public spending on welfare, education and culture. The tightening of restrictive measures in terms of security and individual freedoms following the terrorist attacks in Europe has also given new life to the demonstrations.

Since 2015, the response of every European government, especially the French one, has been the increasingly violent repression of these protests. It would be spontaneous, recalling perhaps the images of the demonstrations of the Nuit Debout movements first and the Gilets jaunes in France, or of the referendum for the independence of Catalonia, to reply that police violence is directly proportional to the violence expressed by the demonstrators. "The systematic infiltration of violent extremists into marches has led the police to modify their doctrine of managing demonstrations", writes Gérald Darmanin, the current French Minister of the Interior, in the new document of the National Scheme for the Maintenance of Order, expressing precisely the concept underlying our first response. To the violence of extremists the police must respond with equal violence, what government can afford to be otherwise naïve, or naïve to remain in the French context, and think of responding by containing the violence or, even worse, by using so-called 'white' instruments, which do not involve direct contact with the demonstrator? It cannot be considered plausible for a government to seek dialogue with violent people. But who are these 'violent people' anyway? If they are infiltrators, then why do the police disperse and manage the entire procession using violent means? Why, despite being a minority, are the violent ones able to monopolise the attention within a demonstration?

Crowd management and the maintenance of public order is one of the most complex issues within security techniques and procedures, not least because it is closely linked to personal rights and freedoms of movement and expression and because it is so easily politicised.

2. The different actions of European police forces in demonstrations

In every European country, it is the police force that is in charge of public exercise and the task of ensuring security and public order during demonstrations. In each European country, however, the methods of crowd dispersal and public order management are different, especially in terms of the means used and the resulting violence.

France is the country where, since 2015, there has been an increase of brutality in the police response. According to different reports by the Observatory of Police Practices (OPP), France has in fact, "a very high level of weapons" for police operations and police doctrine on maintaining public order, consists mainly of keeping demonstrators at a distance by means of distancing devices, such as water cannons, gas and tear gas grenades, so-called "deafening" hand grenades, LBDs (lanceur de balle de défense) 40, rubber bullets, are frequently used. In addition, each police officer personally has other weapons, including automatic pistols, AMD rifles, Famas assault rifles and carbines. Italy follows France in terms of weapons used by the police: automatic pistols, grenade launchers, tear gas grenades and the use of water cannons to disperse crowds. The Spanish police are the only ones in Europe to use a crowd dispersal technique typical of the United States: long-range sound devices (LRADs) that emit sounds at very high decibels. Also in Spain, police officers are armed with tear gas guns, flash balls, defensive sticks and, only in Catalonia, with LBDs, rubber projectile launchers.