Spread out! Police summons in the history of citizenship

“The summons,” stated in 1962 the tactical instructions of the Armed Police (known in Spain as the grays)– consists of warning a mass or crowd that, if the indications aimed at restoring public order are not obeyed, the Force will be forced to use coercive means”. The announcement was mandatory “for humanity and by imposition of the law” and had to be made with a megaphone and a bugle call.

The current law for the protection of citizen security maintains the need for notice. It is therefore surprising that, in the debate on the reform of the so-called Gag Law, it is highlighted as a novelty in some media that the Police must issue a prior verbal and audible warning before charging against a demonstration.

But it is not just that the notices are part of Spanish police history. The notice protocol has been developed since the 18th century in dialogue with the affirmation of citizenship rights.

Several Mossos d’Esquadra (autonomous police of Catalonia) evict a group of people who were protesting against an eviction in Barcelona in September 2020.
Shutterstock / fotokalua

disperse peaceful crowds

For rulers, troops and the Police, using force to disperse a violent mob has always been easy to justify. The situation is complicated when the protesting citizens do so peacefully.

One of the responses to that problem was the invention of weapons and protocols for the non-lethal application of force. Charges with batons, hoses, tear gas and rubber bullets were born to replace bayonets, sabers and shots. These inventions originally arose in contexts of democratization in which it became politically very costly to kill or maim fellow citizens. Another story, the one that concerns us here, is that of the procedures to authorize the use of force against determined but peaceful crowds.

The approach to the problem was born with modern citizenship. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English had the protection of the Bill of rights, common law and trial by jury. The citizens gathered and chanting slogans could brandish their rights and affirm that they were raising a petition. In that post-revolutionary political and legal soup, a militiaman or soldier who fired into a crowd could be tried for murder.

the law of riots Riot Act of 1714 came to tackle this situation. He sought to make citizen rights compatible with preventing the peaceful assembly of a crowd from giving way to a riot. Before using force, the authorities had to read a proclamation in the name of the king that called for dispersal and gave one hour to obey. After that hour, those gathered would be considered criminals and weapons could be used to disperse them without fear of criminal consequences.

The Riot Act it was the first protocol to authorize the use of force against peaceful fellow citizens. The clearly pronounced word of authority transformed the assembled citizens, for the fact of disobeying, into criminals. Debates about the repression of popular conflicts in the British 18th century turned to whether the proclamation had been read audibly, an hour had been waited, or whether it was the crowd that had broken hostilities by stoning the troops. Previous mob violence would excuse the reading of the proclamation.

Variants of this formula entered the enlightened legislation. The Spanish pragmatics on hustle and bustle of 1774, by Carlos III, established that the authorities had to publish a proclamation calling for dispersal. It also declared “inmates and authors of noises” to those who from then on persisted together in groups of ten or more. Against the obstinate the use of force was authorized.

With the French Revolution of 1789 and the fuller affirmation of the rights of citizenship, the dispersal of crowds again raised legal and political problems. The martial law of that year responded to the challenge. The use of force had to be publicized with red flags and, before ordering to shoot, a magistrate had to proclaim to the crowd:

“Martial law is in effect. All the agglomerations are criminal and we are going to open fire; Let the good citizens retire.”

The notice was to be repeated three times. As in Great Britain, the proclamation was not necessary if the mob acted violently.

The 19th century, accompanying constitutionalism, saw a proliferation of protocols. The formula was repeated: a meeting without weapons or violence might not be in accordance with the law, but it was not criminal; it happened to be after disobeying an intimation of the authority. The announcements could be reinforced with the sound of bugles, drums or even rockets to make them conspicuous.

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Fences and police cordon during the call to surround the Congress of the Dipyados of Spain on June 19, 2011.
Shutterstock / Jose Hernandez Abolacio

New law without news

From what is known about the reform of the Spanish Gag Law leaked to the press, the main novelty for Spain regarding the authorization of the use of force, if it is introduced, will be the “express indication of the prior term”. Both the notice rule and the exception to it when violence has broken are in force and are part of our history.

The prediction is of continuity. The debate will continue to be about each specific intervention and we will continue to be perplexed by conflicting interpretations of the same event. We will weigh degrees of protest violence and proportionality of police action. We will discuss whether the violence of a minority justified the forcible dissolution of a peaceful majority or whether the police fueled or instrumentalized violence to create the conditions with which to expeditiously resolve a situation. In short, we will not leave the coordinates that the Riot Act established in 1714.

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