Democracy’s broken windows

lizcastro Catalonia

Spain’s hybrid military/national police raided twenty-two Catalan government buildings Monday morning and arrested twelve mid-ranking officials and a businessman who ran a printing business. The reaction from the Catalan people was immediate, massive and peaceful: thousands have been chanting and singing in front of the Ministry of Economy where the first arrest took place.

It might be hard for people around the world to grasp the significance of these arrests, and the importance of their reaction. I can hear them saying, “I don’t know much about Catalonia and Spain seems like a democratic country. I better stay out of it.” But what happens in Catalonia is crucial to democracy around the world.

I like to use the analogy of broken windows. Community leaders know that one of the ways to reduce crime in a neighborhood is by fixing the small things: keeping broken windows to a minimum. When people look around and see garbage, boarded up buildings, and broken windows, they are less likely to take care of the area, and more likely to both add to the trash and tolerate further degradation. On the other hand, if you immediately fix the broken windows and pick up the trash, it’s less likely that others will come along and break more windows, or drop more garbage on the ground. By fixing the small things, you keep bigger things from breaking.

I think the same thing goes for democracy. It might be easier for some people to dismiss what is going on in Catalonia as a small thing in a far away place. It might be hard to grasp why a small nation of 7.5 million people has seen six rallies with more than one million people peacefully take the streets — in various shapes including a 250 mile long human chain — over the past six years. The strictly peaceful nature of those rallies, the fact that not even a single actual window was broken, might have made some people think that those people were not serious about what they wanted. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Catalans are practicing democracy in its purest form: if you don’t like how your country is being ruled, you organize, articulate your desires, elect representatives who will carry out your wishes, and then stay mobilized to insist that the electoral program be fulfilled. All strictly through peaceful means. Even cheerfully. They call it the revolution of smiles. It is a textbook example of democracy — a neighborhood with no broken windows — that can encourage people in other parts of the world to mobilize peacefully for their political wishes.

Conversely, if we let Spain arrest Catalonia’s democratically elected leaders like they did yesterday, if we stay silent while Spanish political leaders call Catalonia’s civic peaceful process a coup d’état like they did last week, if we stand idly by and say it’s too complicated instead of wondering why Spain refuses to do what Canada and the UK have done by honoring democracy and letting people vote for their preferred choice, then we are throwing a brick through our own democracy’s windows.

And the thing about degradation is that it starts with other people’s houses, but soon, it comes back to your own.

To defend democracy in Catalonia is to defend democracy everywhere.