Lavapies (4) Floor gymnastics with truncheon (or ‘I predict a riot’)

Last Summer there was an eye-catching piece of street graffiti that sprang up in the neighbourhood. A cleverly painted silhouette falling like an exact shadow from one of those iron bollards that line the main streets and can catch you unawares right in the groin if you’re not careful. The shadow was that of a policeman with a semi-erect truncheon. A discreet and amusing reminder of the presence that hovers over us daily.

Recently local government inaugurated a project to send mounted police to patrol Lavapies. During a vacuous news report on a local television station, where the female reporter dashed around under the horses and officer’s feet, mostly asking dumb questions about poo, elderly locals expressed approval at the scheme, the police stated that they could better observe the goings-on from up there, and drivers expressed irritation at being stuck behind the horses on narrow streets. The most enthusiastic seem to be the small children who play with their families in the playground in the plaza – several times I have seen a group of toddlers daring each other to approach the nonchalant horses in small groups, only to return to their mothers squealing with mock fear and delight when one of them shifts a foot or twitches a tail at them. These are not the only modes of transport for today’s copper on the beat, however. There are also police on motorbikes, who can be seen hanging around posing like extras from C.H.I.P.s, smoking fags and gossiping while adjusting their balls. Also there are many patrol cars sliding through the streets like silent sharks on the hunt for prey. Regularly they also pull up in batches of three or four cars, so all the officers can stop and have a chat. And police on foot. In fact, let’s face it, Lavapies is a veritable constables tea-party. What are they all doing here, then? Why so many of them? And what are their relations with my neighbours, the locals?

I, of course, have never had a brush with the Spanish police so have no opinion based on experience. I say ‘of course’ not because I am an upright and law-abiding citizen, but because my profile makes me appear to be one. I am a white, blond woman, and not a particularly young one. Therefore, according to airport security guards, police, doormen etc, I am no threat at all. So I am indifferent to their presence in my neighbourhood- they never ever bother me. On the other hand, if you are African, Arab, Indian, or in any way ‘foreign’ (especially ‘foreign’ and ‘dark’) you are likely to be stopped on sight and asked for your papers. There are many illegal immigrants here who barely leave the house for fear of being stopped and deported. African residents and street hawkers demonstrated twice recently against alleged racism and police raids; it subsequently emerged that police in the capital had been given weekly quotas for arresting illegal immigrants.

And there is a darker side to police relations with the locals, fuelled by mutual antipathy and antagonism. Sometime last year there was actually a full-scale riot just up the hill on the border of the neighbourhood, in Plaza Tirso de Molina. The origin of the riot was the choice of the plaza by a group of far right protesters who had organised a rally here. It was considered as provocation by their anti-fascist counter-parts, as it is the site of Nationalist raids on Republicans during the Civil War, so they retaliated by organising disturbances. The police responded in typical heavy-handed fashion, and chaos erupted. Garbage containers were overturned and burnt, cars smashed up, stones, bricks and other blunt objects thrown at police, who retaliated by firing rubber balls back and smoke canisters. On the retreat, rioters damaged urban furniture, shop-fronts, banks and cashpoints. I knew nothing of the riots until I tried to withdraw money the next day and walking from cashpoint to cashpoint, discovered all of them had smashed-in screens. When I was told about the rioting I thought it was a joke, but this was no joke. It was a real riot.

That explains why this sport is one of the entries for the Lavapies Olympics. I must confess I have never, ever seen police batter anyone with a truncheon in full daylight on the mean streets of Lavapies, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. If I wasn’t white and a blond female, with a passport, blue eyes and big knockers, (thus protecting me from racism of one sort, but exposing me to sexism of another sort) I might feel more intimidated. I am not afraid of the police, as I am sure most of my illegal neighbours are. A policeman is more likely to flirt with me than ask me for my papers. I am not a congenital cop-hater either. However, it would really, really amuse me if Banksy could come over here and paint this mural on one of our walls. Now that would get a reaction and amuse the locals no end.

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