For the most part, I’ve found myself pretty happy with the police forces around Madrid. In general, they don’t seem too bothersome, and they let you just go about your day. But I have had a few incidents with the policía that seem to merit mentioning, just because they seem a bit absurd.
A few weeks ago, my parents came to Madrid to visit me. I was super excited for them to visit, because I would finally be able to show them just why I love Europe so much. My parents arrived on a Thursday morning in Madrid, and we had booked a train to Barcelona Friday morning; so we decided that I should just stay in their hotel with them Thursday night so that we could stay together and not have any problems in the morning. We did it all by-the-book, paying for 3 people in the hotel and checking in with my Spanish ID card and all.
So Friday morning, we’re all sleeping comfortably in our hotel room. All of a sudden at 8:30 a.m., there’s this loud, incessant knocking at our door. I open the door to find two Spanish police officers there; I think it’s some problem with the booking. Everything from here on out happens in Spanish.
They say to me, “Are you Amit Kumar?”. I say, yes, I am. They ask me, “¿Tú tienes un aviso para detenerte? // Do you have a warrant out for your arrest?”. I say, of course, no. He says, “This here says you have a warrant out for your arrest.” He shows me literally a piece of normal computer paper with nothing but my first and last names scribbled, handwritten, on it.
They tell me I need to give them my passport, so I give them my passport and my Spanish NIE ID card. They say, “Is there anybody else with the name Amit Kumar in this room?”. I say no, it’s just my parents and me, my parents just arrived yesterday. I had to then give the officers both of my parents’ passports. Mind you, this is my parents’ very first time on this continent, all of this is happening in Spanish, and they’re kinda freaking out (rightfully so).
For the next few minutes, one of the officers talks with another officer at the police station over his walkie-talkie relaying over all my information — my name, NIE number, passport number, birthdate, what I look like. Eventually, they say:
Policía: “OK, you need to come with us.”
Yo: “Really, officers, I haven’t done anything; can you at least tell me what the alleged crime is?”
Policía: “No, simply you have a warrant out for your arrest.”
Yo: “Look I’ll come with you, but I’ve got a train booked with my parents for Barcelona in like 4 hours, I can’t miss it.”
Policía: “Eh, come on.”
Yo: “Well, can my father at least come with me?”
Policía: “No, you can call him.”
Yo: “Man, they just arrived in the country yesterday, they don’t have any phone here.”
Policía: “Alright, come on, that’s enough. You can call through the hotel, now we’ve got to go.”
So they walk me out, put me in the back of their cop car, lock up the car and everything (no handcuffs though), whole time asking me if I’ve ever been arrested in any other country or anything. Like, no, dude, I’m clean! Anyway, we get to the police station (pretty dilapidated building, honestly), and as soon as we get there, they pull up the file of the guy they’re looking for.
And immediately, they know the guy’s not me.
The person-they’re-actually-looking-for has my same first name and surname (both of which are very common names in India, as I’d told the officers at the hotel, and there’s tons of Indians in Madrid) and my same month and date of birth — but this dude’s birth year was 1967! Like, just straight up not mine. The officer who had brought me in immediately starts cursing out the other officer from the station, yelling in Spanish, “Come on *******, I told you the birth year like 5 times! None, literally none, of this other info matches!” And he was right: I heard him relay my full birthday over the walkie-talkie at least 5 times, and they let me look at the guy’s file (they thought it was a funny joke, actually, that nothing matched). He was just another Indian dude, sold drugs or something, but none of the other info matched mine.
The cops took my fingerprints — don’t really know why that was necessary, but hey I wasn’t about to start asking questions — and I asked where the nearest metro was. The two cops who’d brought me in, though, were actually really, sincerely apologetic, and they said they’d actually drive me back to the hotel. That really meant a lot to me, that they felt sincerely bad about their mistake, and it was a small victory for me.
So the officers I dealt with personally were really nice, and I know that sometimes the cops have to bring in the wrong guys in order to catch the really bad guys. But the incident pointed to a larger issue for me: What kind of absurd, nonsensical policy is it, that you can just yank somebody out of their bed, take them to the police station, with literally nothing more than a handwritten first and last name?? No info about the alleged crime. No picture of the person. Nothing typed up, nothing with an official “Policía de Madrid” letterhead. Not even a birthdate, not even the care to listen to the birthdate as it’s being relayed to you by another officer!
So that, to me, was what really made me mad about the police. This type of policy makes no sense. There should be a higher burden of proof required before being able to involuntarily bring somebody in to the police station. I mean, the incident didn’t ruin the rest of our day; but on top of everything, that morning was my mother’s birthday, and I didn’t even have a chance to wish her a happy birthday before the police took me!
And I’ve had a few other less-than-pleasant encounters with the police here. Probably 4 or 5 times the police have just stopped me while walking around in the streets and demanded that I provide my papers/passport/visa. Like, smack in the middle of the day! I remember the first time, I was just walking to the gym around 5 p.m. I saw a cop on a motorcycle, just driving around, who suddenly stops his bike and RUNS over to me. Immediately, he asks me for my papers. I give him a copy of my passport (which luckily I carry around with me at all times, for situations exactly like this, you never know when it’s going to happen). He says, well, why don’t you have your real passport? Uhhh, cause I’m going to the gym and the only thing that could happen is that I could lose the passport? They eventually write down my info and then let me go on my merry way. This has happened at least 4 times now.
These situations always pass quickly, but they definitely still always make me feel like shit. Like, what was it about me, that caused you to JUMP OFF your bike and run over to me and demand my papers? And in the hotel, what was it about my name that made y’all jump to action and come find me? You never know the answers to these questions for sure, but I think racism is a pretty decent bet.
So yea, in general, I don’t have much of a problem with the police here. But I have had some unpleasant encounters, and I think racism is at least partly at fault. The thing is, though, there really is a lot of racism in Spain.
I get off-hand comments all the time — allll the time — here about how I look like a terrorist, or I look like Osama, or I look like Saddam. A few weeks ago, I was in line to get into a disco, and I give the bouncer my ID. He looks at it, says to me, “¿Sabes que tú tienes el color de terrorista? // Do you know you look like a terrorist?”. Like, yea dude, sure, can I just go in the club now? In what type of place is it ok to just say these types of things to people?? I’ve done nothing wrong to you, and these things are very offensive.
In other instances, I’ve been denied entrance into Kapital, Madrid’s most well-known club, for reasons that I can only narrow down to racism. Once, they said I couldn’t go in because my shoes weren’t nice enough — despite the fact that I had actually worn those very shoes in this very club on previous occasions, and I saw multiple people go in after me wearing Nike sneakers. That night I even went home to change into my very nicest shoes, and I went back to the club and asked the bouncer, “Hey man, I’ve changed my shoes, are these better?”. All he says to me is, “Mentira! // Liar!”. I mean, no, man, clearly I’m not lying, these straight-up are different shoes; clearly, you’re just looking for an excuse to not let me in. The other night, we tried going to Kapital again: All my friends got in, but they told all of us I couldn’t go in “because of what happened last time.” Nothing happened last time! I’ve never been kicked out of a club! All just lies, all just excuses.
So I’ve seen racism here against me, yea, but it’s scary just how accepted racism in general is in this country. Especially for a country that is a worldwide leader in LGBTQ rights, their views on race seem pretty backwards. Maybe it’s just a different way of speaking a language, but to put it simply, Spaniards don’t mince words: They will say things to you that are bluntly racist, and they don’t see anything wrong about it. A few examples:
- All over Spain there’s thousands of little convenience stores that sell the basic supplies: soda, alcohol, snacks, etc. I guess in America we’d call it a convenience store, or a bodega; think of a CVS or a Walgreens. In Spain, these shops are called “chinos” — because they are almost always run by Chinese people, and the word in Spanish for a Chinese person is “chino.” It’s like saying (excuse the language), “Oh, you need to buy some chips? Just go to the chinaman’s store, they’ll definitely have it.” In essence, they have completely defined these shops by the race of the people who own them.
And it’s just completely ok in the culture to call a chino, a chino, even to a Chinese person’s face. For example, in our bilingual schools we are 100% prohibited from speaking Spanish in the English classes. So when the teachers are translating instructions into English to the kids for a project, I’ve heard them multiple times say, “For buying cardboard, just go get it at the Chinese store.” We definitely would not translate “chino” to Chinese store (again, bodega), but here identifying people by race is just normal. It’s absurd, really.
Or, I’ve asked a few of my kids about their favorite books that they’ve read this year in language class. One student mentioned a book about a man from China, but LITERALLY EVERY TIME she said the words, “Chinese man,” she would pull her eyes back to make them narrower. And I have seen countless Spanish adults, even teachers, doing the exact same thing! Then, there’s always this picture.
- The other day, one of my auxiliar friends was telling me this story about how she was having an intercambio, and the Spanish girl just asked if racism exists still in the USA. My friend said, well yes, of course, but it’s nothing like it was 100 years ago, when racism was still legal in the laws. She told the Spanish girl that in America now it’s just like it is in Spain — there’s racism everywhere, it’s just how it is, but it’s illegal. The thing is, the Spanish girl was completely SHOCKED to hear that racism exists here, in her country! She said no, there is not racism here in Spain.
- I’ve written in the past about how, as a brown-skinned American living in Europe, I have ran into many, many people who simply would not believe me when I said I was an American. I’ve written about how deeply scarring it is to be told that there is no possible way that you can possibly belong to the only country to which you swear allegiance, just based on the color of your skin. But that’s the thing about the racism here: Spanish people don’t mince words, they say what they want directly to your face. Whether it’s something offensive related to race, no importa, it doesn’t matter.
Maybe it’s something just related to the Spanish language — the Spanish language, after all, is much more direct than the American English style of using polite words and phrases just as a gesture. And I’m not trying to make any sweeping generalizations about the Spanish people. It’s just jarring to think of the irony in cultural differences.
Coming from America, most of us think of Europe as the liberal stronghold — all hippies, socialized medicine, communist economies, blah blah blah. Obviously that is nowhere near an accurate statement, as Europe is made up of many, very different countries, none of which uses an economic system anywhere close to communism. But we Americans do tend to think of Europeans as much more liberal, as a whole, than Americans — and on the LGBTQ front, that undoubtedly rings true. But with racism, the Spaniards have just as much of it as we do, and they don’t care to hide it — which kinda makes Spanish society seem even less tolerant than American society.
I try not to bring up discussions of racism too much, because it always just makes for an uncomfortable situation. But these are issues that we as communities must discuss, and these are uncomfortable situations that we must encounter. I’d be lying if I didn’t say one of my main reasons I had for leaving the southern U.S. was to escape the rampant racism that I’ve grown up with and that just, simply, exists in all parts of life over there. I was naive to think I’d encounter less racism here, when in fact racism obviously still exists all over the world. Just the fact that the amount of racism that I regularly encounter here — racist discrimination that actually affects my actions, that affects my day, as opposed to just mental prejudices — surprised me, it’s that surprise which has really disheartened me.
Of course, these are all anecdotal observations, and maybe I’m rambling. But you can’t fight what you see every day.
I love Spain, and I love my home back in the South. We have racism there, and we have racism here. Not to climb too high on my soapbox, but some of these things are not ok, and we need to talk about them.