Filed under: International Coverage
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By Peter Gelderloos
On December 12, headlines in Spain trumpeted the death of a 55 year-old man, murdered simply for wearing suspenders with the Spanish flag on them. The culprit was identified as Rodrigo Lanza, a participant in “anti-system” movements who had already served time in prison for leaving a cop paralyzed during a 2006 scuffle. Again and again, the media—from right to left—presented the same allegations, often without even the most basic fidelity to notions of sourcing, balance, presumption of innocence, or the protection of privacy. Throughout the affair, they have demonstrated affinity and complicity with fascists, and a burning desire to cover up police violence and corruption.
Through bold statements in headlines and affirmations that were only occasionally modified with an “allegedly” or “according to police,” the Spanish media have constructed the following story: an old man in a bar was wearing suspenders with the Spanish flag on them. Rodrigo and his friends didn’t like that. An argument started. The man left to avoid a conflict. As he walked away, Rodrigo hit him in the back of the head with an iron bar, and then kicked him in the face as he lay on the ground.
It’s a horrendous story, but there’s a problem. None of these allegations have been independently verified, and the media and the police have already demonstrated a marked bias against the accused, and in favor of the deceased.
Contrary to common practice, the media have identified the accused and family members of his who have spoken up in his defense. Rodrigo’s mother and friends have already received multiple death threats from Spanish fascists, thanks to their doxing by the media. When speaking about Rodrigo, the media have been sure to mention several points: he is Chilean; he was convicted for severely injuring a cop in 2006; and he is a member of “anti-system” movements. Each of these factoids is problematic.
1) His nationality is irrelevant. Spanish media never mention when killers, child molesters, or drug traffickers are whites or Christians. They mention the nationality of accused criminals from the Global South to encourage racism among their public, either intentionally or because they’ve never taken the time to understand how they have been socialized to see people of color as responsible for antisocial activities. Mainstream media coverage of crime has long been a major institutional cause of racism.
2) Rodrigo Lanza could not have been responsible for the attack he went to prison for in 2006. There is incontrovertible evidence, discussed below, showing judicial bias and suggesting a police frame-up. Because police blame him for injuring one of theirs, it is highly dubious that they could be trusted to impartially gather evidence in the present case, but rather than pointing this out, the media are using a partial version of his criminal record to portray Rodrigo as a criminal, which in their moral framework means he is guilty of whatever the police and the press accuse him.
3) “Anti-system” movements do not exist. They are a police fabrication intended to delegitimize, criminalize, and lump together all those social movements that police select for targeted destruction. These include anarchists and other anti-capitalists, radical feminists and trans activists, squatters, and national independence activists. Rather than doing any research to confirm whether they are talking in sensible terms or reporting on chimeras and bugaboos, mainstream journalists have preferred to act as the propaganda wing for the police department. They consistently report on a movement that doesn’t exist. Rodrigo is someone who has dedicated a large part of his life to movements for social change. Reporting that fact accurately, however, is not compatible with lynching him, so the media aid the police in portraying him as an antisocial extremist, whereas they portray fascists in sympathetic, human terms.
Víctor Laínez Was an Active Fascist
The supposed victim of the December 8 brawl was Víctor Laínez, an active member of the Falange, a fascist organization intimately connected to the Franco dictatorship and responsible for thousands of murders, dozens of them during democracy. They are not any minor league skinhead hooligan club, which is already dangerous enough. They are the equivalent of the Nazi stormtroopers, except that they still exist. Rather than being disbanded after having engaged in mass murder, they have been tolerated under democracy, and when they have run-ins with leftists, their members are given the benefit of the doubt. Though the figure is rarely mentioned, there have been 88 murders classified as hate crimes in Spain since 1990, nearly all of them carried out by the extreme Right. And that’s only counting murders for which there was undeniable evidence regarding the motive. Who knows how many immigrants or homeless people police have found dead and not bothered to investigate thoroughly. What’s certain is that extreme Right groups like the Falange encourage and carry out such killings.
Media portrayals of Laínez as an innocent “motorcycle enthusiast”, their omission or toning down of his membership in a murderous, paramilitary organization, are part of a shameless attempt to convict Rodrigo in public opinion and create political support for the repression of antifascists. If they were honest about who he was, the police story would no longer sound so credible.
Víctor Laínez is suspected of having participated in earlier fascist attacks, and according to witnesses—who are not quoted in most of the mainstream media coverage, or at best referenced only after relating the police version which is portrayed as definitive—he began the conflict at the bar by launching racial slurs at Rodrigo, and then outside the bar attempted to attack Rodrigo with a knife. His comrades in the Falange make it clear that they do not consider him a victim, but a hero, comparing him with another comrade of theirs, the neo-Nazi who stabbed to death young Carlos Palomino in the Madrid metro.
Police claim not to have found any knife on the scene, though no one else is better positioned to make evidence disappear, and they have a stated vendetta against Rodrigo Lanza. When they arrested him and framed him in 2006, they also removed evidence from the scene before it could be properly documented. And when a neo-Nazi stabbed to death a young squatter in Barcelona in 2004, police “lost” the murder weapon. When it, or possibly another knife smaller than the one actually used in the stabbing, finally showed up months later, it had no finger prints on it. Subsequently, the accomplice to the murder was acquitted, since there was no physical evidence connecting him to the weapon and the eyewitnesses didn’t have the right political views to be trusted by the courts, those same courts that originally let the stabber go with a mere “injuries” charge, and finally convicted him for “manslaughter” rather than “murder”, and with a reduced sentence at that.
It’s possible that all these police failings are innocent. Maybe they’re just not good at finding anything. Though the sensationalist yarn spun by the media has Rodrigo hitting Laínez in the back of the head with an iron bar, police have found no such weapon. However, if the cops are so incompetent, why do they receive a privileged status as impartial witnesses and media liaisons?
Gasoline for Spanish Nationalism
The most sensationalist meme to come out of this is the idea that poor Laínez was killed simply for wearing a Spanish flag. Witnesses contradict this hyperbole, pointing out that Laínez himself started the argument by using racial epithets against Rodrigo, and that he was wearing a closed jacket so no one at the time could even see whether or not he was wearing Spanish-flag suspenders. Regardless, as a member of a murderous, racist, fascist paramilitary organization, he was not, by any stretch of the imagination, attacked just for wearing a Spanish flag. Every day of the week, antifascists cross paths with people wearing Spanish flag regalia, especially in a city like Zaragoza, and most of these encounters don’t even lead to the trading of insults.
The importance of the Spanish flag meme lies in its usefulness to a major media campaign, which has been in overdrive all year, to fuel Spanish nationalism. In response to the Catalan independence movement, the mainstream media—especially Right and Center but also center-Left—have been encouraging catalanophobia and making passionate pleas on behalf of Spanish unity, which in practice means the suppression of the aspirations to self-determination of other peoples living under Spanish sovereignty. This wave of nationalism has already resulted in multiple xenophobic attacks and assaults on Catalan supporters of independence. The extreme Right has played a central role in these patriotic mobilizations, which received impetus and positive coverage from the main media.
It’s a tragedy, because the extreme Right had largely collapsed in Spain, despite the continuing economic crisis. Their recent surge has largely been a result of how the media have covered the independence movement. They have used alarmism, cries for law and order, and the demonization of those seeking independence, while covering up the corruption of the Spanish state or minimizing the violence used to suppress the independence referendum. The media successfully cast the struggle against Catalan self-determination as a struggle for self-defense against an irrational, authoritarian, criminal enemy.
Like most oppressors, Spanish nationalists find itself useful to portray themselves as victims. Spain maintains its control over Catalunya and the Basque country with recourse to state violence, but when these peoples talk about independence, Spanish nationalists accuse them of nationalism and start acting like they’re an endangered species. Those who have followed the rise of Trump will notice a pattern.
The line about an old man being attacked simply for wearing the Spanish flag is calculated to mobilize more Spanish patriots to attack their perceived enemies. Chileans, other immigrants, and Leftists who are attacked as a direct result of this will not receive comparable coverage in the media. The Spanish press has already spilled more ink over this one dead fascist than they have on any of the hate crime victims of the past years.
To add insult to injury, the police and the media have successfully used this tear-jerker about an old man and his flag to charge Rodrigo with a hate crime. In another terrifyingly inane example of democratic pluralism, fascists become the victims of hatred. (In the US, with the repercussions of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement still shaking the country, the Right has proposed and sometimes passed dozens of “Blue Lives Matter” bills that classify attacks on the police as hate crimes).
The 4F Case Reopened
The media did not waste a second in utilizing the accusations against Rodrigo to discredit all the very real criticisms against the police—and the media themselves—for their handling of the 4F case, the 2006 frame-up that resulted in Rodrigo doing seven years in prison.
In summary, the 4F case stemmed from a riot on February 4, 2006. The police were looking to start a provocation at a squat where a huge party was underway. It was a squat where drugs were sold, where suspected police informants lived, and which cops themselves had been protecting from eviction. When a group of South Americans with a squatter aesthetic passed by outside, the cops shouted racial slurs and attacked them. They got more than they bargained for, though, as bystanders joined in the fray. One person inside the squat dropped a flower pot that hit one of the racist, rioting cops on the head, ultimately leaving him tetraplegic. Riot police came in, arresting anyone with a squatter aesthetic, and beating and torturing the principal defendants. The scene was cleaned up before forensics could arrive, and after about a day cops and city authorities changed their story, erasing mention of the flower pot and claiming Rodrigo, one of the squatters whom police had attacked down in the street, had thrown a rock at the cop. Expert medical witnesses testified that the police version was physically impossible, that the cop had been injured not by a rock thrown from street level but by a heavy weight falling from above; nonetheless, all the accused were convicted, and one person eventually committed suicide as a result of her imprisonment.
The case showed how easily police, prosecutors, media, and judges can conspire to fabricate cases. The police had total control over what evidence was gathered and what evidence disappeared, and their narrative was presented by the press, as usual, as the only version of events. Prosecutors decided to use the severest charges against the accused, to turn bystanders into accomplices, and to ignore police crimes. And the judge prevented the defense from corroborating their version of events by declaring any non-police witnesses who came forward would be arrested as accomplices.
In the end, the only evidence in favor of the fable cooked up by the prosecutors were the police themselves. It’s hard to say that their bumbling, contradictory testimony actually helped the government’s case; nonetheless, they were cast as impartial witnesses even though cops are professional liars. Their job is to help prosecutors make convictions, and their preparation of testimony in political cases tends to be apparent.
When Ciutat Morta, a documentary about the 4F case, was released and viewed by huge audiences, the lies, cover-ups, and brutality of the cops, the judges, the prosecutors, the politicians, and the media were on display for everyone to see. It was a huge embarrassment. Rodrigo and his mother both gave key testimony for the documentary. Evidently, powerholders never forgave those who brought their lies to light.
As soon as Rodrigo Lanza was identified as the suspect in the death of Laínez, all the guilty parties in the 4F cover-up began smearing the documentary’s credibility. In an article dripping with sympathy for the fascists and the cops, Luis Benvenuty and Toni Muñoz ironically refer to Rodrigo as a “victim executioner,” writing in La Vanguardia, Barcelona’s major newspaper and a key player in the 4F cover-up. Their paper has not labelled as “executioners” all the many cops who have murdered with impunity; on the contrary, they generally publish flimsy police alibis as objective fact, just as they did in 2006 when police arrested nine people, torturing some of them, for a crime they did not commit.
The old guard of Barcelona’s political elite have called for the prizes awarded to Ciutat Morta to be withdrawn, and they have lambasted Ada Colau, Barcelona’s progressive mayor, for giving support to the documentary.
In their shameless crusade, the media and the politicians have demonstrated their absolute hypocrisy and disregard for the very principles of rationality and due process that they champion. The mere accusation that Rodrigo has committed a crime does not mean he did it—the investigation hasn’t even concluded and no trial has been held—but beyond that, whether or not he killed a violent, xenophobic fascist has no bearing whatsoever on whether he told the truth in a documentary made years before.
The cops, again with media support, have tried to go even further. Victor Bayona and Bakari Samyang, two of the cops responsible for the 4F frame-up, eventually got caught when the immigrant they were torturing one particular day happened to be a diplomat’s son. They received a scanty, one year prison sentence. In an astounding leap, police have asserted that Rodrigo’s recent arrest means that the two cops were innocent of an entirely unrelated act of torture. On December 18, La Vanguardia gave the two cops a platform to claim the existence of a far-reaching squatter conspiracy to fabricate a case of torture and get them locked up as vengeance for the brave testimony against the 4F defendants, and with typical journalistic scruples, the newspaper presented all their claims as objective facts.
Media Support for Fascists and Police
The media frenzy around Rodrigo’s arrest not only shows crass opportunism, but also a cozy relationship with police and fascists that directly endangers immigrants, working class people, trans and queer people, and participants in social movements.
Together with the courts, the media systematically uphold the dubitable portrayal of the police as a neutral institution that can be trusted to gather evidence and enforce laws without taking sides in social conflicts. In Spain as elsewhere, police overwhelmingly sympathize with and participate in the extreme Right, and use their power to attack the Left. In the US, Trump’s most unshakeable base have been the border guards and cops, who have shown direct complicity with white supremacists in Charlottesville and at other mobilizations of the extreme Right; in Greece, startling percentages of cops were supporters or members of the fascist party Golden Dawn, which they also helped to arm in order to carry out attacks on immigrants, anarchists, and members of the far Left; and in Germany, as neo-Nazi attacks skyrocket, the police have been carrying out one repressive operation after another against the very people who mobilize to defend themselves against the Right.
An unending slew of racist killings and beatings, as well as increasingly visible signs of police complicity with white supremacists and fascists, have shaken public confidence in police neutrality. But the media have large preserved their aura of neutrality and legitimacy, especially in the US where they have been critical of Trump’s penchant for misinformation and offensive statements. Their role in reproducing oppressive structures, however, is crucial.
In Greece, after the 2008 insurrection, corporate media immediately began to give the fascist party Golden Dawn a major public platform, completely incommensurate with their support. It was the media that made outright xenophobic and racist ideas mainstream. In Germany, the media did little to explain the economic justifications for Merkel’s decision to take in Syrian refugees: that the country lacked skilled workers and appropriating Syria’s middle class—willing to work for low wages after being humiliated by a long and perilous crossing—while leaving the Syrian poor to rot in refugee camps, was actually quite good for German businesses. In the US, the major media, while fact-checking Trump on most of his other claims, didn’t find it convenient to popularize the widely accepted figure that 85% of lost manufacturing jobs have been stolen not by foreigners but by robots, which is to say, by the profit-focused decisions of corporate managers. (To be precise, this fact was reported primarily in media read by a more educated audience, rarely covered on TV news, not given the prime time or front page coverage that the xenophobic rhetoric of politicians received, and as far as I have seen was never phrased in a way that places the blame for job loss on corporations, the way immigrants or foreigners are clearly blamed for the job loss caused by more international trade.)
And in Spain, the media have long turned a blind eye to fascist violence—directed against human beings—while whipping up public condemnation of anarchist or leftist violence, which is directed against the property of the super-wealthy and against ruling institutions. The recent slandering of Rodrigo is just the latest example of how the media are willing to side with fascists and police, despite their proven record of murder, torture, and manipulation, in order to portray those who struggle against the status quo as dangerous criminals.
The need to reveal the mass media’s complicity with racism and police violence is more urgent than ever. Without their mantle of neutrality and legitimacy, they cannot carry out the campaigns that make state repression, white supremacist ideology, and xenophobic movements possible. However, the effective fascist utilization of decentralized media like Facebook and Twitter reveal the dangers of simply bashing big media with populist invective. To solve this dilemma, we need our own forms of communication to reveal the lies that protect powerful institutions, and undermine the manipulations that give us scapegoats instead of solidarity.