How can the police operation to control 'botellones' have been such a failure?
During the second night of Barcelona's Mercè festival, 40.000 young people gathered in Barcelona's Plaça Espanya in a huge illegal party that ended up with 43 injured, 13 of them stabbed with knives or other sharp objects, mostly broken glass. The day before there had already been another illegal party at the same place in which 15,000 took part, but then there were no notable incidents and, therefore, it seems that Barcelona City Council, which is responsible for designing the security operation during the festival - as happens in all cities - was confident it was all under control.
Yet on Friday it became clear that not only was it not under control but that it had entered a "spiral of violence", in the words of deputy mayor Albert Batlle. This forced the city council to mobilize more units and ask for more active help from the Catalan police force, the Mossos d'Esquadra. Fira de Barcelona windows were smashed, motorbikes and other vehicles were burnt and smashed, and some shops in Creu Coberta were looted. This no longer had anything to do with nightlife and it was clear that there was a group of young people – a minority, possibly, but organised or large enough to cause chaos – that was totally uncontrolled. And this was proven again on the third night of the festival, when the police prevented the crowds from gathering again in Plaça Espanya, which instead gathered at Bogatell beach. As on the previous night, fights broke out leaving 39 people injured, motorbikes were burnt and restaurants on the beach were looted.
Many elements – sociological, anthropological, cultural... – are at play here, and it is good that they are being discussed and analysed. But the one that cannot be forgotten is the element of violence and public order, which, as we have seen, is out of control.
The police is aware of the problem and has studied it, but it is clear that for the time being they have not succeeded in tacking it. It is very important not to foster this sense of impunity, that these groups can do whatever they want and that the city is theirs. It is a sensitive issue because the actions take place in the midst of thousands of young people, almost children, who want to party and can be injured, but we cannot allow this to be the excuse for not acting forcefully against violent groups, or those who join in because they now think it is fun to steal and vandalise.
The situation is very delicate and it will be necessary to review not only how these public order operations have been designed – they have clearly failed and someone must take responsibility – but also leisure alternatives that have been given to these young people, who rightly demanded a space to the party after two years locked in. There was a certain permissiveness in allowing the illegal parties to go ahead; perhaps it would have been better to allow bars and clubs to open instead. We'll talk about the possibility of this leading to more contagions another day.