The Catalan Conflict and the White Privilege of the State
Originally published in Catalan for AWC Issue 8, translated to english by the author
- Dec 01 2019
- Àngels Miralda Tenais a Catalan-American writer and curator currently based in Terrassa, Catalonia. She writes on curatorial and institutional ethics and organises exhibitions internationally.
Not enough is said about the white privilege of states. Today’s headlines boil down to two main themes: climate change and conflicts that arise from an essential lack of self-determination and popular representation. From Hong Kong to Kurdistan, and West Papua to Kashmir, there is a global problem with the lack of enforcement of international law and the effectiveness of peaceful protest. By examining the role that white privilege plays on a state and international level in media and state relations, the individual notion of white privilege functions in the same way - as a separation between similar causes that only achieves the preservation of existing power structures against the will of citizens.
On the 1st of October 2017, images of paramilitary forces and police brutality on Catalan citizens spread over the media and shocked Europe. The contrast between peaceful protesters shouting, “we will vote” with weaponized para-military forces resembled more of a conflict in a Latin American dictatorship or perpetrated by a North African despot - or so goes the mono-narrative that depicts Europeans as above this behaviour, whereas elsewhere it is thought of as natural and unavoidable. The human right to self-determination is enshrined in the 1st Article of the United Nations and constitutes a basic principle of democracy - that ‘a people’ should have the right to choose their own form of government.
Europe’s continued silence on this issue is alarming especially in an age of rising state nationalisms and repression against minorities. As the EU and the US’ self-appointed entitlement as ethical police in the world - the tolerance towards a state creating laws and acting in ways that violate rights, I will argue, contribute to the de-stabilisation of world conflict zones and the rise of authoritarianism beyond the EU. White Privilege of the State develops via the patronizing relationship between Europe, USA, and the rest of the world. Western Europe never lost its colonies, rather, they are still in full effect through neoliberal capital and IMF workers in order to export its own forms of governance and economy. The EU has been marketed as a peace project, but if it condemns repressive actions while tolerating them at home, what is being slowly dismantled is any authority of international law and development of a political future.
Spain has a long history of getting away with brutality in European media. In a BBC film made in 1969, the Franco regime is presented as a ‘benevolent dictatorship’ which brings progress and industrialisation (1). Silent clips of union organizers are followed with the narrator’s voice informing that “this man is now in jail,” and politicians claiming in an uncanny manner that these arrests are nothing more than an “internal matter.” The facts that underly the continued media silence on the ongoing civil-rights case against the former Catalan government are the decades of apology and forgiveness for a brutal and genocidal dictatorship that would be portrayed in a different light had our geography been on the southern side of the Mediterranean Sea. But the facts remain, of a history that Spain has continuously tried to sweep under the rug being the country with the most mass graves after Cambodia. Or that it topped Freemuse’s 2018 report for the most artists imprisoned, beating much more populous countries such as China and Iran.
It is important to note that the Catalan protesters also benefit from white privilege along with the state. In 2017, rubber bullets were fired and approximately one thousand people were treated for injuries, but nobody died. However, the deaths that are produced from these actions do exist - in the form of harsher repression of ethnic minorities legitimated by the actions of the Spanish government. In August, Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu explained that the removal of elected Kurdish mayors was justified because Spain imprisoned Catalan politicians even if there had been no violence (2). At moments, while I explained the Catalan situation abroad some people responded with “it can’t be that bad,” as if a country within the EU were de-facto more “politically evolved” than a country in the Middle East or Central Africa. Or as if, terrible repression elsewhere somehow justifies a lesser form of repression at home and not connecting the dots of the connection between one and the other.
As long as the international community tolerate Spain’s various laws that violate international treaties which it has joined or signed - they are complicit in invalidating those laws and guidelines that were written to establish peace. Without any negative consequences for these violations, without the fear of sanctions or trade tariffs (these are reserved for non-white states like Iran), these laws continue to be held in effect. The Spanish government started compiling a repressive state and legal arsenal as the Independence movement grew in order to counter its progress and the will of its citizens by legal means. In 2015 Spain passed a “gag law” called the Ley Mordaza which effectively makes any sort of peaceful protest punishable by law, and violates Articles 11 and 12 on freedom of expression and assembly in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (3). If an EU state is given the right to criminalize protest and imprison leaders involved in independence movements, then there is no moral authority to condemn China’s actions in Hong Kong.
In order to construct a fairer society, we need to check our privilege. State repression is a web made of different and sometimes incomparable parts but that affect and pull at each other. Through actions based on solidarity, demands need to be made for protests to enact meaningful political change, and for violations of international law and human rights to be taken seriously and not just swept away. Not only all people, but all states should be treated equally. The white privilege of the state, like its individual counterpart, only works to cement existing power structures and against the possibility of dissidence everywhere.
1. BBC, “Life in Spain under the leadership of General Francisco Franco”, aired 10 June, 1969 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1WIMfLsi0Q) Accessed 27 August, 2019.
2. The idea that Europe is an anchor of human rights also mirrors colonial relationships and compromises Europe within a responsibility that it does not always manage to uphold. For instance, by sending IMF to control economies or imposing tariffs on other countries for moral reasons, establishing that European morality is above others’ is one issue, the other is when they allow states like Spain to perform immoral politics and in so doing, open the gates of chaos for dictatorships and oligarchies to follow suit at will and justify it.
Borzou Daragahi, “Removal of Kurdish mayors prompts fears of wider crackdown on Turkey’s opposition,” The Independent, 20 August 2019. (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/experts-detention-catalan-separatists-arbitrary-190529202534643.html) Accessed 26 August, 2019.
3. Ashifa Kassam, “Spain puts 'gag' on freedom of expression as senate approves security law,” The Guardian, 12 Marc 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/12/spain-security-law-protesters-freedom-expression) Accessed 26 August, 2019