That there are excesses in youth leisure is not something new. But what happened at the Mercè festivities indicates that we are facing a complex phenomenon that we do not know how to deal with: the spontaneous concentration of thousands of young people summoned through social networks in public places that are not designed for large crowds and that attract uncontrolled and violent groups that end up causing acts of vandalism and looting. From the outset there is a change of scale: what not long ago were gatherings of hundreds, can now reach tens of thousands. 40,000 in the large bottle in Plaza de España, 30,000 in Bogatell, 25,000 in the Complutense University of Madrid. And of procedure: now there are mobile phones and social networks that can turn the spontaneous convocation of a non-existent party into a massive concentration, like the one that ended up destroying the campus of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
The police have opted for a policy of risk reduction, but this entails propagating the idea of impunity
This is new and the first thing it raises is a problem of managing public space. Such agglomerations imply an occupation of space that is in itself problematic but that is aggravated by the fact that they attract groups of violent or uncontrolled youths who take advantage of the mass to blow off steam or to commit crimes, which there is of everything. And it has been seen that the security forces do not have a good dimension of this new phenomenon. It is a question of magnitude. Once the crowd has formed, when the vandalism appears it is already too late. Because it is already very difficult to intervene without provoking an action-reaction dynamic that causes more problems than it is trying to avoid.
The police have opted for a policy of appeasement and risk reduction, but this inevitably entails propagating an idea of impunity that has devastating effects on public opinion. The profusely reproduced images of young people breaking shop windows, breaking into shops and restaurants and destroying everything without anyone stopping them, are very disturbing and fuel discourses that tend to criminalize all youth for uncivil and violent behavior of very small groups.
But it is not only a problem of public order. It is a complex problem in which different elements come together. There is first of all an understandable longing for gregarious socialization after a year and a half of lockdown and restrictions due to the pandemic. Young people want and need to be together and share the feeling of freedom regained. To this is added the intensification of an old acquaintance, the phenomenon of the bottle, with a lot of alcohol consumption that is associated with a public health problem. That every weekend more and more young adolescents are admitted to hospitals due to alcohol comas is something to which we should not resign ourselves. The fashion of the bottle reveals the absence of affordable leisure alternatives for the youngest. When it is argued that it is necessary to allow the reopening of nightlife venues to avoid large bottles, it is omitted that before the pandemic they already existed and that the young people who practice it belong to a profile that, in general, either cannot pay the cost of entry and drink, or you are not interested in this type of entertainment.
The fashion of the bottle reveals the absence of affordable leisure alternatives for the youngest
And then there is the phenomenon of vandalism. In the concentrations of the Mercè there were 70 detainees. Half had a history of damage, robbery or confrontations with the police, but the other half was making their debut. There was no relationship between them, which supports the idea of spontaneity and contagion, and they came from different parts of the metropolitan area. There were robberies and looting, but the stab wounds reported earlier were mostly cuts from broken bottle glass littering the floor.
Some sociologists see in vandalism and confrontations with the police the expression of a contained rage that seeks its escape valve. There is discomfort in a part of the youth due to the enormous gap between expectations and reality, but it is usually expressed in other types of manifestations. In any case, the lack of appreciation and respect of many young people for common goods is worrying. And not all anger comes from social unrest. In certain expressions of gratuitous violence and pillage, it is not difficult to observe the search for strong emotions and the nihilism of an individualistic and consumerist culture in which the only thing that matters is to satisfy one’s own desires. All of this converges in this new type of expressiveness that must be addressed because we cannot allow vandalism to become a form of entertainment.