On Thursday, a group of activists who were protesting outside the Planning Authority boardroom were attacked and manhandled by the police. There’s something rhetorical and vacant about ‘condemning violence’. Politicians do it all the time, which says it all really. Besides, in this case, I’m not sure it’s the point at all.
Still, I wonder if the President and her top executives will now march down Republic Street to show their solidarity with the victims of police violence. The head of the police union, Sandro Camilleri, has said that excessive force was used – which is useful, since he usually loves to perorate about the lack of respect shown by members of the public to the police.
Which brings me to the Rapid Intervention Unit (RIU). There is something profoundly disturbing about the deployment of heavily-armed special forces (they carry guns, among other things) to control a small group of harmless and peace-loving civil society activists.
I’m told that things were tolerable on Thursday, for a while. The normal police officers – those who don’t wear black shirts, flex their muscles, or carry guns, that is – were cordial enough with the protesters. Things changed when the RIU, obviously acting on direct orders, moved in. What happened then was filmed and broadcast, and is not open to debate.
The RIU have no business apprehending a 20-year-old student banging on a drum outside the PA boardroom. Their image, training and methods would probably pay off in the event of a terrorist attack, but they are eminently out of place in everyday law and order routines.
There’s another thing. The RIU officers were fully aware that they were being filmed, and still they roughed up the protesters. You have to wonder what happens when the cameras are not rolling, and when the people involved have no rights to speak of. I wouldn’t want to be a black man having coffee with the RIU in a back room at the Marsa police station, for example.
If police violence represents a threat to civil society activism specifically and democracy generally, the bulldozer represents the collapse of value of a different, and possibly more fundamental, kind
Even so, most of this is rather beside the point, which was yet another Olympic-sized petrol station. In that respect, the attack by the police summed up the general situation perfectly. Let’s call it beauty against monstrousness.
I am privileged to know many of the protesters, some of who are former students of the Faculty of Arts at University. (In one case, now a lecturer.) They are beautiful people, and I do not mean their physical attributes.
They are individuals who have interests in life that go beyond the shopping mall and boat party. (Not that there’s anything the matter with either of these – I’m just saying.) Their number includes writers, poets, musicians, and artists. Mario Vella is the frontman of what is probably Malta’s finest band. Lara Calleja is a published author. Andre Callus is an anthropologist. And so on.
I wasn’t surprised that they chose musical instruments as the means to drown out the babble in the boardroom. If anything, they might consider a musical upgrade for their next action. They don’t need me to tell them that they have the talent to do that.
Above all, they are people who understand that there is more music in an inch of grass than there will ever be in acres of petrol station. It is apt that they chose drums and cymbals to reject the pseudo-technical tomfoolery of the so-called planning process.
In this, they represent those of us who can no longer bear to see the place we live in destroyed and made ugly and meaningless by land-grabbing philistines and their political sponsors.
Their opposition on the day was made up of monstrous people. Again, I do not mean the police officers as individuals. Rather, I have in mind what they represent, which in this case is a State that has been taken over by people who think nothing of destroying the landscape, as long as money can be made.
The attack by the RIU mirrors perfectly the monstrousness of the bulldozer. If police violence represents a threat to civil society activism specifically and democracy generally, the bulldozer represents the collapse of value of a different, and possibly more fundamental, kind.
At one point during the action, someone from the Planning Authority tried to convince the protesters that the right way to go about it was to join the people in the boardroom – without the drums, of course. In the same vein, the public broadcaster reported that the activists had “refused to raise their objections in a civil manner”.
The truth is rather the opposite. It is not the protest and the drums that lack civility, but rather the decisions made in that boardroom (Thursday’s outcome was an exception, as everyone who has a pair of eyes knows) and the State agents that enforce them.
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