Sunday, January 19, 2014

Corrupting Purity: Burgos and warnings from the inferno

Fiestas are often the setting for satirical and critical displays and comments: the big heads of Carnival time depict political figures in a satirical fashion; the fiesta "pregon", an oration which kicks off a celebration, can be an occasion for scathing comment; if there is a matter of local controversy, the fiesta can provoke cat-calls, jeers and the banging of saucepans; demons' spectaculars can be accompanied by satirical "versots", directed at politicians.

At Muro's Sant Antoni demons' spectacular on the evening of 16 January, the "versots" delivered by the Grand Demon followed this tradition. Uttered in doom and horror-laden tones, with mysterious and frightening musical accompaniment, the versots are a warning. The dark forces from the inferno are watching. Politicians should be worried. Hell could be unleashed.

In the spectacular a sort of hell is unleashed. The fires, the fire-run, the demonic faces rage, race and stare once the versots have come to their crescendo, the Grand Demon being the father to this earthly inferno; he's the manic street screecher, the twisted fire-starter. But at Muro a hell had been portrayed prior to the versot pronouncements. From behind a screen, silhouetted demons abducted a pious, Bible-reading virgin. She was raped - and the scene was that graphic that it left nothing to the imagination - and was then groped as a demon pulled two babies from between her legs. The first was not devil-like. It was ripped to pieces. The second was a devil. It transformed itself into the Grand Demon who then smashed his way through the screen in order to deliver his words of warning.

The performance caused some upset, but as far as I am aware there haven't been official complaints. Perhaps there is a difference when it comes to sensibilities, as it is hard to imagine a family gathering in Britain being presented with such a performance. But while the rape was distasteful, it was intended to be symbolic. The Grand Demon spoke darkly of the corruption of purity. He named many, mostly all of them politicians both national and local.

Extreme it may have been in its portrayal, but this was a performance of protest, just as other elements of fiesta can be styled as protest. Fiestas can therefore be used as popular expressions of discontent, and at a time when street protests are being clamped down on in Spain, politicians might need reminding that there is such a thing as discontent and that it will find a way of expressing itself, however much they, the politicians, seek to neuter the protest.

The Grand Demon's warning against the rape caused by corruption could just as easily have been a devilish sermon directed at the whole of the political system which, combined with its corruption, is threatening to finally fan the flames of protest. The government's move to limit protests, a further prime element in an increasingly combustible mix, could backfire; Spanish society may often be styled as being apathetic, but when protest is the only form of representation it feels that it has, then it will not lie down and be doormatted.

There have been astonishing things happening in the city of Burgos. Work on a road expansion scheme in what is a working-class neighbourhood, Gamonal, has been halted definitely by the city's Partido Popular mayor. The scheme, to turn a road there into a boulevard at a cost of eight million euros, has been opposed by residents who argue that the money could be used on other things and that the expansion would increase traffic and noise pollution. On the face of it, this might not seem like an issue which would spark off massive and violent protests, but it has. Arrests of protesters were made in Burgos where there were five days of rioting and protest, and the protests spread to Madrid and had threatened to go nationwide in 48 other cities.

The mayor, Javier Lacalle, says that "social circumstances" have forced him to call a halt to the scheme. But what does he mean by these? Does he really understand these circumstances, because there is far more to them than fears about safety to workers developing the road.  

Rioting and violence can be and are caused by events which are themselves violent; one thinks of Mark Duggan. Developing a new road isn't violent, but in Burgos it was symptomatic of expensive waste and of warped priorities. Yes, the troubles there were also symptomatic of lack of privilege, but the social circumstances go further than unemployment and having no money. They concern an almost total loss of faith in the political system, in its corruption, in its inability to empathise with society as a whole and in its desire to remove the one way that the disaffected can make their voice heard - the right of protest.

It is a supreme irony of course that protest has led to the halting of the road. It is a victory for the protesters, and it is one that should not be dismissed as the actions of radical elements bent on causing trouble. It was a warning, just as the Grand Demon issued his warning. People have had enough. Change has to occur. Transparency is needed. Clean political parties with clean financing are needed. People have to be listened to rather than be treated as apathetic imbeciles. And they have to be allowed the right to protest.

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